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Issue #4 |

The Niece

Cruso has a key to her apartment—for emergencies—and he begins to use it. He waits until after nine in the morning, when he is sure that she and the kids are gone for the day, and then he walks down the long tiled hallway and turns the key, listening for the quiet retraction of the tongue from the lock.

Her apartment is on the fifth floor and the layout is similar to his own on the ground level. He likes that it is familiar in this way. It is always dark, quiet, warm. He leaves his old work boots by the door and takes his time padding down the hall to the living room in his socks. The living room holds furniture from a store in the Heights that offers layaway: an elephantine sofa set in gold brocade accompanied by a preposterous little coffee table carved from a dark, shiny mahogany. She and the boys have been living here a year, but the decorations are still sparse: no framed photographs, a lamp with clear gemstones dripping from its lampshade. She has bad taste, his niece, but he can look past that.

Sometimes Cruso sits on the living room couch for an hour or so, channel surfing on her television. He sinks deep into the couch and runs his hands across the nubby, golden fabric. He pretends that he is the man of the house and that he is watching TV after dinner with his new family: his wife and stepsons.

The adjoining kitchen, with the exception of the plates from breakfast, is always spotless; he imagines her with the boys, eating eggs and plantains and then dumping the plates in the sink before rushing off to work and school. He often considers—for a brief moment—washing the dishes for her, allowing himself this small, worshipping labor of love. He resists. He needs to keep coming back.

In the bedroom, he smooths his hand over her comforter. He presses his face into her pillow and tries to locate the specific musk of her scent, to single it out from her shampoo and lotions. He avoids the wad of cash she keeps in her nightstand. He likes to look at her underwear instead, to admire the bewildering assortment of lace things whose assembly, straps, and configuration he can’t quite figure out. Sometimes he masturbates in the bathroom.

Sometimes he wanders into the boys’ room. It has that vague acrid smell that boys always seem to have and it brings back the memory of his own sons, and how violent, erratic, and virile they had been at that age, how hard to manage. How difficult it must be for her to grapple with two boys all alone in a new country.

The brothers have been in New York a year and already speak better English than their mother. Thirteen-year-old Enrique has taken the transition in stride. He is supposed to be in the seventh grade, but consoles himself by flirting with the girls in his sixth-grade class. The supermarket is near the public school, and Cruso has seen him talking to girls outside the entrance. Antonio, who is ten and clearly the more academic of the two, is said to be thriving in the fifth grade. A stack of books and notebooks sits on his desk.

When he runs into either of the brothers on the street or around the building, Cruso slips them each a couple of dollars for snacks. He tries making conversation with them but he knows how hopelessly uninteresting he must seem: a seventy-eight-year-old great uncle prattling on about the importance of school while they nod, eyes vacant, and wait for him to be finished. What could he possibly know about life?

Now that Cruso is officially retired from the construction company he created, his days seem bottomless. He spends hours wandering around her apartment, opening and closing drawers, searching. What a pity that she doesn’t keep a journal.

When he looks at himself in her mirror, with its gilded frame, he wills himself to see something besides what is revealed there: a defeated-looking man with wrinkles and age spots and sagging shoulders. Not very tall, with a pouch of a belly and a wilting jawline. Thinning hair, even if it is parted and neatly combed. Dressed in modest work clothes: a faded old button-down tucked into old Levis, freshly washed but stained in some places with paint.

Used up.

When he leaves, he lets himself out as quietly as he entered, feeling as if he has a word on the tip of his tongue that he can’t quite capture.

 

His therapist, Lucy, is a Puerto Rican woman with offices on 116th. She wears curve-hugging pencil skirts with matching beaded necklaces in Caribbean colors: sometimes aquamarine, sometimes sunflower yellow. She wears little glasses that almost disappear on her face. Pretty in a warm, comforting sort of way. He has seen her for three weekly sessions now, and already they have a routine.

Cruso takes the subway down to her office once a week, to unload his fears of losing control, of unleashing a torrent of emotion on an unattainable woman in his life. Lucy sits with a yellow notepad resting on one knee, an elbow on the armrest. Grateful for the polished desk between them, Cruso sits up straight, both feet planted on the ground, and rests his calloused hands firmly on his thighs. He trains his eyes on a framed drawing of a heart that hangs behind her desk, done in predictable pinks and golds.

He has not looked closely at the certificates hanging in her office, but he doubts she is actually licensed. Lucy caters to an unquestioning clientele: lonely Spanish-speaking immigrant men without female confidantes. Far from home, without sisters and cousins and wives and mothers to talk to. Men who shuffle into Lucy’s office with their eyes trained on their own shoes, on the gray carpet, on the sign-in form, on the magazines, on the doorknobs.

Cruso always begins by telling Lucy again about his emotions for the unidentified woman. Cruso has spent three weeks creating a false diorama for Lucy: Here is Cruso, Upstanding Older Man, perhaps nobly widowed. So sad. He meets Unattainable Mystery Woman, perhaps a few years younger, perhaps married to an acquaintance. Handwringing ensues. As Lucy listens, she takes notes with an expensive-looking pen, as she always does. It makes whispering scratches as it moves across the paper. Cruso figures this assiduousness has as much to do with avoiding eye contact as it does with keeping record. Lucy and Cruso are playing a game. They are playing American therapy.

Why is he doing this? This office always feels five degrees too hot.

“What’s the worst that can happen if you tell this woman how you feel?” Lucy asks this time, suddenly looking up. Sure, she is a younger woman, Lucy reasons but it is unhealthy, certainly, for him to suppress these feelings indefinitely.

The room becomes small. Cruso has to stop himself from raising his palms to keep the walls from closing in. Instead, he trains his eyes on the carpet. He is unable to find an answer there. “She’s my niece,” he says finally, looking at her and then looking away. “My wife’s niece, actually.”

“I see,” Lucy says evenly. She lifts the pen a few inches from her notepad, as if to show him that she can be trusted. “How old is she?”

“Twenty-seven.” Cruso doesn’t look at her again.

She expels a breath. “And what is it about her that is appealing to you?”

“She looks like my wife when my wife was young,” he says, feeling a surge of shame in his chest. He must sound to her like a drowning man, a man who does not realize he is done for.

“I think it’s interesting that you haven’t mentioned your wife before.” She lets the statement hang in the air between them and Cruso feels a wave of shame wash over him.

“Well, she doesn’t live here year-round,” Cruso says.

“Why not?”

“We have a house in Santo Domingo,” Cruso says with proud sadness. “I built it for her.” He tells her about the soaring pillars and marble stairs, all behind the high wrought-iron gates in the richest part of Piantini. The uniformed maids, the deliveries of fresh-cut flowers.

“Sounds beautiful. Do you visit her often?”

“Whenever I can,” he says, “I try to go every few months.” He doesn’t tell her that Emely puts him in a guest bedroom, or that she told him not to worry about visiting on her birthday that year because she was planning to go to Punta Cana with her parents. He doesn’t tell her that he feels like a nuisance whenever he calls her, that she always sounds rushed and breathless, like she’s eager to get back to something interesting.

Que lindo! Why not join her?” Lucy is prattling on, thrilled that she’s made a breakthrough. “You’ve worked so hard your whole life,” she continues. “And now you’ve sold the construction company. You can go see the world with her or go relax on the beach.”

“I want to stay here for a while longer,” he says, avoiding her eyes. “I have business to resolve here.”

The rest of the session goes quickly: Lucy brightly retracts her suggestion that he confront his feelings. This fascination is a symptom of a different problem, she assures him. She suggests that he find ways to recapture his enthusiasm for life, to remind himself that he is still a healthy, active man with the free time and means to begin a new phase in life. She tells him that this sort of thing happens often to men his age who feel frustrated and pigeonholed, who feel as if the world doesn’t notice them anymore.

Focus on recapturing those youthful feelings, she smiles as he rises and plunges his hands sheepishly into his jean pockets, and you might find in a few months that you’ve forgotten all about this niece.

 

When Cruso drove from the capital to Higüey to represent his family at a cousin’s funeral in 1948, he was a playboy, a rich, fair-haired, well-connected bachelor. He complained about having to attend the funeral in the first place, but his father had insisted. He had only a few responsibilities and representing the family was one of them.

Grudgingly, he drove his flashy Cadillac the two hours to extend the heartfelt condolences of the Cruso family. He would witness the burial, he would spend an hour at the family’s house afterward, he would hold the grieving mother’s hand in both his own and bow his head, and he would return to the capital in time for drinks with his friends.

That all changed when he drove past the local middle school and spotted Emely: lithe, doe-eyed, and petite in a burgundy school uniform. Thirteen.

He was struck by a form of madness. In the weeks that followed, he abandoned his apartment in the capital and decamped in a wild haze to Higüey to pursue her.

He realized that her family was poor and he courted her aggressively, flaunting his family’s wealth and Trujillo connections. His father could change an entire family’s fortunes, he said, for better or for worse. He knew that his promise hung heavy in the air between him and Emely’s parents.

Seated in their humble living room, under a candle-lit altar to the Virgencita, he demanded that they bring him a Bible. Her father brought it from the bedroom, holding it before Cruso in hands that trembled almost imperceptibly. Cruso placed his palm firmly on the Bible and swore that when her parents gave her to him in marriage, he would give Emely the life of a princess in New York.

Within months, he married Emely, who quivered quietly at his side in white lace shawl.  Within months, they moved to Manhattan.

Emely had visited Santo Domingo, but New York was the first large city in which she had ever lived. She spoke no English and had never been this far from her family in Higüey.

He loved her and he tried to make her believe it. He said it every day. He showered her with gifts. They did not consummate the marriage until she was willing, though admittedly it had not taken long; she was aware of her wifely duties and he was handsome, obsequious, and the only person she knew for those first snowy winter months in New York.

But no matter how often he told himself that they had been in love, he sensed that he had seized something from her that he could never give back.

And yet, pettishly enough, he felt that it was she who had withheld something of herself—that she had not granted him full access. That she had not opened herself to him the way he had opened himself to her.

No one can deny that she was a dutiful wife all those years. She bore him two sons. She kept, for all those years, a sparkling house. Can Cruso blame her for the fact that their sons have moved far and away, to Chicago, to New Orleans? Can Cruso blame her for the fact that they have families of their own and only at Christmas do they visit with their rowdy, sticky-pawed broods who tear apart the furniture and fill the house with voices and laughter?

Who can he be angry with?

After more than fifty years at his side, she lives in a house built to her exact specifications in Santo Domingo. She has earned that house. If her parents could see her now, Cruso thinks.

She rarely returns to New York and when he visits her in Santo Domingo, she hugs him and kisses him—and then she puts him in a guest bedroom. Says she’s been snoring lately and that he’ll sleep more soundly there. She is elusive, even on their rare conversations on the phone, and he can feel the distance growing between them.

He knows, but cannot say, that he deserves this.

 

By the time the Niece moved to New York, Emely was already spending most of the year in Santo Domingo, so it fell to Cruso to collect her at JFK.

The way Emely’s family told it was this: the Niece ran away with a man in his thirties after her parents refused to bless the marriage. She was sixteen. She gave birth to two boys in rapid succession. No one seems to know the rest of the story, but Cruso thinks the husband must have been violent. What else could drive a woman to flee to New York with nothing but three tourist visas and basic English?

Cruso, who only vaguely remembered her from family reunions, had spoken to her briefly on the phone and helped her rent a vacant apartment in the building where he lived, but when she turned the corner at the arrivals gate at La Guardia, Cruso felt a vise tighten around his heart. It was Emely again, dressed like she was going to Sunday mass, clutching the hands of two wriggling boys.

Cruso was in a daze the entire drive back to Washington Heights, afraid to look at the Niece as she chattered about the flight and how everyone was doing back in Higuey and Santo Domingo.

Even as he steered, he felt a visceral awareness of her breathing, the way she tapped on the windows with her long fingernails to point things out to the boys. Her voice was unabashedly loud and joyful as she talked about finding work and getting settled in the city. The boys sat in the backseat, jostling and squabbling, and Cruso felt as if he had his old family again.

Now The Niece has been in New York for over a year and Cruso thinks of her day and night. He tries to exorcise her from his mind. Nothing works.

If he leans out his kitchen window, he can see the entrance to the building, so he peers out constantly to see when she is coming home.

The Niece is petite, shorter than Cruso—even in heels. As soon as she saved up enough money, she flew back to the DR, got her body done, and returned with a wasp waist, large, buoyant breasts, and a wondrous butt that challenges gravity.

She colors her hair pitch black and it cascades down to her waist in long, lustrous waves. She now has access to all the American brands and she totters around the building in clinking stilettos and jeans as clingy and thin as saran wrap. In the crook of her arm, she carries a gold Michael Kors bag.

But it is her face that Cruso loves, the piercing familiarity of it. The almond-shaped eyes, the creamy skin, the peach fuzz of her cheeks, the straight, natural whiteness of her small teeth and the freckles on her straight, pointed nose. It isn’t that she is beautiful—it isn’t only that. It is that the lines of her face feel like future and past to him. When he looks at her, he is young again, falling in love for the first time.

He imagines that she must have been a docile, naturally beautiful girl. He pictures her as a young girl at thirteen, dressed in white, skipping rope on some dusty country path, her eyes bright with possibility and newness. He is himself, young and handsome again. He wants to take her hand.

 

When the Niece begins dating, Cruso’s obsession worsens. It begins to eat away at his waking hours. He listens for her laugh in the hallways, finds pretexts to loiter in the lobby and see who she brings home. He wanders through her apartment, a ghost of a jilted lover. His ability to be invisible—to leave no trace—worries him.

Hola, tío,” she croons, kissing him on the cheek by the mailboxes. “This is Miguel,” and later that week, “This is Jorge,” and later that month, “This is Carlos.”

Cruso wonders how she can be so unabashed about these boyfriends. He knows they are the ones buying school clothes and sneakers and cellphones for her kids. She is working for minimum wage at a cheap women’s clothing store on 181st but her boys wear shiny new Jordans and carry iPhones.

Most of her boyfriends are drug dealers, he knows that, too. All the signs are there: crisp new clothes, sneakers blinding in their whiteness, pungent cologne, thick gold chains that hang like ropes down their chests. Some are handsome, some are not.

Cruso writes her a check for a thousand dollars, but she won’t accept it, even when he tries slipping it under her door in the night. The last time Cruso tries to give her the money, he does it in person while she’s checking her mail.

“I don’t know how to say this,” he says, carefully unfolding and refolding the check in his calloused hands. “I want you to feel independent. You have family here.”

Even in the fluorescent lighting of the hallway, she is luminous.

She is standing an arm’s reach away, wearing red gummy jeans and high heeled lace-up boots. Her low-cut top reveals an inviting expanse of creamy cleavage. Cruso sways slightly. Why does he feel as if he is drowning?

“I don’t know what you mean, tío,” she says. She is pulling the mail out of her mailbox and a coupon mailer is stuck. “Hold this,” she says, handing him the thick stack of bills. She reaches into the metal box to free a creased cardboard ad for a mattress retailer. She looks at it and examines her long, red nails for damage.

“The men who come to see you,” he begins, willing himself to play the stern uncle role.

She looks up at him. The distracted smile evaporates.

“The men who come to see me,” she repeats.

“The men who come to see you,” says Cruso dumbly.

“What about them?”

Cruso unfolds the check, looks at it, and folds it in half again.

“Are you calling me a prostitute?” Her voice is low venom.

Cruso steps back. “No, no, no!” he says in a frantic whisper. “It’s just that it could be danger—”

“I’m happy to have family support here, tío,” she says, pressing her lips together. “But the men who come to see me are none of your business.” She turns, walks to the elevator, and presses the button with a red thumb, and, with her back to him, begins opening her mail. Cruso can’t think of what to say. He stands there watching her until she slams the elevator door behind her.

After that, she starts to sneak the boyfriends in. She starts going straight to the elevator after work and sending one of the boys to check the mail.

Cruso moves a dining room chair next to his front door and sits there for hours, listening for the sound of her heels in the lobby. Invisible, keeping time.

 

The summer of the Niece all the hit songs are bachatas.

Cruso was known once for his dance moves, and sometimes, he draws the blinds in his living room, turns up the stereo, and dances by himself. He plays the old music. He likes Los Toros; he lets the melancholy, bitter twang carry him across the floor. Dominican blues.

He imagines dancing with the Niece at a big party, right here in his apartment. Forward, center, back he drops his weight back on his heel before starting up again. He rests his hand on the Niece’s lower back, bringing her closer. He remembers how to lead.

It’s a big party; he can almost smell the pernil cooking in the oven. The Barceló poured into plastic cups filled with ice. The frosted bottles of Presidente. The sound of children stampeding down the hallway. They always play some complicated game that ends with the young ones crying and the older ones sulking in the living room until they can sneak out and take control of the game again.

In a room warmed by body heat, their parents twirl and shout at each other over the music, which floats out the open window and into a clear New York night. They’re relaxed and happy here, Cruso can sense it. He knows he and Emely throw the best parties.

And where’s Emely? She’s in the kitchen, probably, getting someone a drink or ministering to a scraped knee.

The Niece is gone and Cruso’s dancing alone. When Cruso looks around, he sees that all the guests are old friends from the 50s, from the time before his sons were born. Many of those old friends—clapping, cheering, laughing eyes, and tapping feet—are dead.

 

Cruso takes Lucy’s advice and sets out, gamely enough, to recapture his youth—or the Niece’s eye. He finds a Dominican salesman at the Herald Square Macy’s who points him toward him a rack of glitzy designer jeans in the men’s department. The guy is in his late twenties and looks like a reggeaton star, a Dominican dandy with a trim beard and high cheekbones. He wears tapered jeans slung low on the hips and shirt that looks like was sewn onto his lean frame. Cruso trails him around the store and wonders for a long desperate moment if he, too, should get both his ears pierced.

The dandy dresses him in a pair of stonewashed jeans and a plaid shirt with a skull on the breast pocket. He helps Cruso pick out a new wardrobe comprising fitted shirts in disorienting prints and sleek new Dior sunglasses. The jeans all have contrast stitching and dirty-looking washes that remind him of his own work jeans, except that he can barely move in these. He even buys a leather necklace, something the handsome villain in a telenovela might wear.

You’re wealthy, Lucy said, spend out. Buy a couple of things that make you happy.

He isn’t sure he can pull them off, literally or figuratively, but Cruso wears the new clothes right out of the store, marching stiffly back down the stairs to the subway with his crinkling shopping bags. The dandy said the jeans would loosen over time, but Cruso can barely bend his knees to sit down on the uptown 3 train.

These are true rich men’s clothes. Not only did they cost $200, he thinks grimly, but if he drops anything on the ground, he’ll have to leave it there.

Cruso doesn’t fully believe the fairy tales in the commercials—but he gets a facelift anyway. The clinic isn’t far from his house and the procedure is really a mini-facelift, an outpatient procedure that promises to make him look ten years younger.

He spends his recovery week sleeping and dialing all the digits of Emely’s Dominican cellphone except the last. He realizes with a pang that they haven’t really spoken in months and he yearns for her voice. He wants to laugh with her at the ridiculous thing he has just done, to regale her with the story of it. He yearns to tell her about the cosmetic surgery clinic on 96th Street, and the botched-looking women in the waiting room. He wants to tell her he told the receptionist that his next-of-kin was waiting for him downstairs only to pour himself into a taxi, barely able to see through his swollen eyes.

Within a week and a half, the swelling has gone down and the stitches are a red fading dashes along his hairline and near his ears.

The incision marks haven’t fully healed yet, though, so when he runs into the Niece at the front entrance to their building, Cruso stands stiffly as she kisses his cheek. Will she notice?

She tips her head to one side and looks at him, taking in his new and improved face and the clothes he only wears when he has a chance of running into her.

“You look good, tío,” she says. “What did you change? Did you get a little haircut?”

“I needed new clothes,” Cruso says. He stands up straight and pushes his chest forward. “You always look so nice. We’re going to have to install iron bars on all your windows to keep all those suitors away.”

The Niece raises a thin, penciled eyebrow and winks. “Flaunt it while you got it, right?”

As he tries to think of a witty answer, a new black Range Rover pulls up in front of the entrance. The driver, a man in his thirties, honks twice.

“That’s my ride! How do I look?” She turns to Cruso and pulls the hem of her top down to better display her cleavage.

“Good enough for me,” Cruso says before he can think better of it.

The Niece laughs, a loud belly laugh. “You are such an old flirt, tío,” she says, poking him in the shoulder with a long, cherry-red fingernail. “The next I talk to tía, we’re talking about iron bars for your windows!”

She kisses him on the cheek and runs out to the car.

Cruso stands at the entrance for a long time after she’s gone, with his stiff, young clothes and his flaccid, wounded face and his old, desperate heart.

 

A jarring thud and wheels careening on the tarmac and the smiling Dominicans clap their hands, grateful. Cruso has learned from his American sons that this is how simpletons behave, that clapping is for rubes. But Cruso is surrounded—for the first time in many months—by his people and they are dressed in their best clothes. He knows that the bloated carry-ons in the stuffed overheard compartments are filled to bursting with gifts earned in long bleary homesick hours in factories, in construction sites, in restaurant kitchens. These trips home are miraculous. He claps.

It takes nearly a half-hour for his fellow passengers to disembark, all hauling bags with strained zippers. They all seem so young to Cruso. They smell of cologne and lipstick. They smell like fresh plastic: urgently new—rushing to be swallowed up in the mobs of relatives awaiting them at the arrivals gate.

No one is waiting for Cruso. He retrieves his small carry-on and finds a taxi. He is relieved that the driver is a talker and that he has been to New York twice. Cruso half listens to a recounting of his Manhattan adventures as the Las Américas highway unfolds before them. The windows are rolled down and the coastal air comes in fast, warm gusts. Cruso sees palm trees and can smell the sea before they hit Route 3 and catch sight of it for the first time. The short trip to Piantini hugs the coastline close; the familiar sight of the endless sparkling waters soothes Cruso.

The driver is saying something to Cruso about a nightclub in Washington Heights when they pull up at his house, with its tall, wrought iron gate and facade the color of new milk.

He stands on the deserted street, unsure of what to do. He looks at the other small mansions, imagines the elaborate security systems inside. Being this rich in Santo Domingo meant constantly looking over one’s shoulder. Cruso’s own childhood home had been modest compared to these houses.

A car stereo plays merengue somewhere in the distance, but this neighborhood has the sterile, rich quiet of an American suburb. Cruso looks at his house again, remembers drafting the floor plans with Emely: a bathroom for every bedroom, a terrace for outdoor parties, a pool in the shape of a kidney bean in the backyard. Cruso wonders where she is. He can picture her drinking an espresso and reading Vanidades in the sitting room, or taking a nap in the master suite. What if she isn’t home at all, but out shopping? Or worse, what if she has one of her girlfriends over? What if Cruso has to make conversation with them until the friend leaves?

Cruso begins to sweat in his close-fitting jeans and button-down shirt. He finds a linen handkerchief in his bag and wipes his brow as he walks to the gate.

When he rings the doorbell, a pretty girl in a black and white maid’s uniform opens the heavy wooden door. She looks like a deer in headlights when she recognizes him. He remembers her— Lourdes, maybe? Paying her way through college, a good girl. He tries to smile reassuringly, but when he stops her from carrying his luggage up to the master bedroom, her eyes widen and her mouth forms into a small “o.”

Lourdes seats him in the sitting room and practically runs from the room, her long dark braid trailing behind her. Another maid, a gray-haired woman Cruso doesn’t recognize, brings him a frosted glass of fresh grapefruit juice and offers to make him lunch. Cruso declines and basks in the air-conditioned quiet instead. The interior designer replicated a photograph Emely found in a copy of Architectural Digest, dutifully hunting down copies of sleek silver lamps and an exorbitantly-priced dove gray sofa. Cruso runs his fingers across the fabric and remembers Emely’s girlish joy as she sorted through giant binders of fabric swatches, caressing them with manicured fingers as if they were tiny birds.

He jumps up, remembering that his designer jeans seem to leave traces of indigo everywhere. He is bending at the waist to inspect the couch cushions when Emely charges into the room, a waft of floral perfume.

“Is the couch dirty?” She wears a crisp button-down shirt, a pair of black linen slacks, and low heels. At 65 she’s neither slim nor plump, but elegantly in-between. Her shoulder-length hair is the color of espresso, blow-dried to a gloss and neatly tucked behind her ears. She’s smiling and she makes a show of bending to look at the couch, too. Cruso straightens his back, startled at the sudden closeness.

Mi amor,” Cruso says.

She rises to hug him and kiss him loudly on the cheek. “Hola, hola. This is a wonderful surprise!”

Cruso doesn’t need a mirror to know that she’s left her lips printed on his cheek. He knows that this is how Emely greets everyone, but he brings an unsteady hand up to his face anyway, grazing his own kissed skin with his fingertips.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? I would have sent the driver for you.” She smiles and the lines around her eyes and forehead show.

“I wanted — I needed to see you. Right away.”

Something strange flashes in Emely’s eyes but her smile stays in place. He knows what she is thinking: if it was something to do with the boys or their families, he would have called. “Sit,” she says. She studies him. “You look different. What’s different about you?”

Cruso feels a queasiness akin to motion sickness as Emely sits a few feet away, her eyes roving back and forth, between his face and his new clothing. He clears his throat. “I want to talk to you.”

“Okay,” Her posture as erect as a ballerina’s, her legs together and tucked to the side. “Talk to me. What is this about?”

On the glass coffee table, the half-empty glass of grapefruit juice perspires on a thick marble coaster. He can see the floor through the table, a rich maple wood imported from the States.

“Cruso? You’re worrying me. What is it?” Emely leans towards him and her eyebrows crease together.

How did he forget how beautiful she is? Cruso yearns to touch her face, but he continues to wrestle his hands together instead.

For what feels like hours Emely stares at Cruso and says nothing. Finally, she slowly lifts her forearm and searches her white sleeve for loose threads, her face blank. Cruso looks away, takes a shallow, insufficient breath and releases it in a shaky exhale. He finds that he cannot speak. His heart pounds in his temples. Before he realizes what he’s doing, he stands and walks to her. He kneels at her feet and lowers his forehead to her knees.

With cool, curious fingers, Emely gently traces the suture scars hidden at his hairline. Her voice is quiet, tinged with an innocent wonder. “What did you do, Cruso?”

A sob breaks free from Cruso’s chest as Emely wraps her arms around his shoulders.

“Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me,” he says.

 

Photo courtesy of Javier Castañón; view more of his work on Flickr.

Yohanca Delgado is an MFA candidate at American University, where she teaches undergraduate writing. She is the nonfiction editor at FOLIO and an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse. She was a 2018 Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review Writers Conference. “The Niece” is her first publication.

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