By the time Paul and Ariela reached the Caravaggio exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, they decided to stop avoiding the urge to hold hands, and finally interlaced fingers. The tingling sensation first came to him when he handed her the red LACMA sticker, she needed to wear in order to be allowed in all the special exhibits. Paul squeezed her hand as if it would fall out of his if he didn’t. She blushed. He smiled, showing more teeth than he’d intended. Paul was born in Mexico, but was adopted as an infant by white evangelical Christian missionaries who decided to bring him home to Rialto, California along with all the goat’s milk candy they could fit in their luggage. Although his parents had tried to instill as much Hispanic culture in him as their minor in Castellano would allow them, Paul ultimately spoke very little Spanish, just enough to order Mexican food and understand the cashier’s muttered slights to the cooks, making fun of the way he pronounced carnitas.
“You know,” Paul said as Ariela stared intently at one of Caravaggio’s paintings, her sweaty hand still tethered to his, “his name wasn’t even Caravaggio.”
“Oh, really?” she replied, their fingers slowly unbraiding the closer she leaned toward the canvas. “What was it?” Because English wasn’t her first language, Paul could never tell whether the sarcastic tone, which seemed to coat most of the things Ariela said, was deliberate or coincidental. Most of the time, he gave her the benefit of the doubt, and when her responses did irritate him, he’d simply tell himself, even if she meant it the way you thought she meant it, I’m sure that bringing it up to her will only make you look weak.
“It was Michelangelo Merisi.” Ariela rubbed her nose and continued to stare. If she didn’t care about his intellect, as he had hoped, then why was she giving him more physical affection in public? Before that day, the most intimacy they’d shared was when they sat next to each other— knee to knee— watching American movies dubbed in Spanish while her roommate was in class. He knew that he was falling for her due to how wounded he felt when she didn’t react the way he’d hoped she would at this obscure fact, which neither enhanced nor diminished her interest in the painting. “Actually, Caravaggio was the place he was from. Kind of like Vinci for Leonardo.”
Ariela yawned. She squinted and peered her head so close to the canvas that her breath began to fog up the painting’s sheen. It set off a disapproving nod from the tall, stout security guard who up to that point had been nothing but a breathing statue. Paul squeezed her hand tightly as to alarm her of the impending danger of being kicked out. She leaned in an inch further.
“Miss,” the security guard’s voice echoed on the naked walls and high ceilings. “Please step away from the art.”
Ariela didn’t move. Neither did Paul.
Sir, Paul imagined clearing his throat and halting the guard with the sound of his voice, please don’t take what she’s doing the wrong way. She’s not from around here.
He felt responsible for her, as though it were his duty to look after her, even though she’d never once asked him to do so. Her lips said nothing and the limited, yet perfectly curated words she did use— because she hated mispronouncing and misusing them— said even less. Paul knew that there was something Ariela wanted, something she thought was so stupid and embarrassing that she just couldn’t bring herself to ask for. Part of him wished he could speak Spanish as perfect as he spoke English so that he could tell her to knock it off, and just tell him whatever the hell she needed, even if he would be the one getting hurt by it. But another part of him liked the fact that she needed him if only to translate stuff for her from English to Spanish, and whenever she needed to order something at a café or restaurant, from Spanish to English and back to Spanish again. He realized how ridiculously unnecessary the whole thing was a week into their friendship when he overheard Ariela argue with her roommate about the water bill. He didn’t think about questioning how much English she really knew. He didn’t want to know.
Maybe someone as independent as her just needs someone to be vulnerable with, he thought. Someone to do nice things for her. It was a role he was more than happy to play, that of a friend in love to one who might someday love him back, but most likely not. He wasn’t doing it because Ariela had lived in Mexico until she completed one semester of college, or because her English was as broken as the system that treated culture as balmy deli meat at a salad bar that needed a sneeze guard. He did it because he knew that Ariela didn’t mind it.
The more he got to know her, the more he realized that she was willing to use whatever was given to her to further whatever it was she wanted. Her boyfriend— whom she never mentioned until Paul felt the urge to lean in and kiss her while sitting on her couch— sold his motorcycle to pay for her first month of rent, and her mother took a second job to pay for her out-of-state tuition. Today, she was taking advantage of her lack of mastery of the English language. A few days ago— when she told Paul that he could spend the night at her apartment if he wanted— it was the “no sex” rule she established when he tried to slide his hand up her blouse after she had allowed him to watch her change into her pajamas and spoon her. Again, Paul blamed Ariela’s poor syntax for the misunderstanding, not her.
“Motherfu— miss,” the security guard said and began to walk toward them. “Miss? I’m only going to warn you once more.”
“Sorry,” Ariela finally said. “I couldn’t hear you.” Paul didn’t know if he was pulling his hand from hers out of guilt, or if it was sliding out due to the sweat. Either way, she took his hand and placed it around her waist. “Paul, tell this man about Caravaggio.”
“What?” the guard said.
“It’s okay. Paul, c’mon, tell him something. Can’t you see he’s waiting?”
“Well…he was actually…he was a murderer,” Paul said, holding his breath as to somehow stop the sweat from gushing out of his skin.
“Hmmm…” she said backing away as if she hadn’t almost desecrated a masterpiece. The guard shook his head, turned around and walked back to his post where he resumed his semi-alert status.
“I think they’re stupid,” Ariela said.
“Who? Security guards?” Paul said.
“No,” they continued to walk and stopped at the next painting, “artists.”
Paul laughed. She didn’t. As he stuffed his wet hands— and his laughter—into his pant pockets, the thought that Ariela had paid attention to the facts he had read about the night before in anticipation of their date, which wasn’t officially a date, made him smile.
“Do you know what Caravaggio means? Literally?” she asked.
“Well, cara can mean beautiful or expensive and— ”
She approached his face with the same level of unbridled irreverence she had Caravaggio’s work and lightly brushed her lips against his.
“Uh, now that I think about it, I guess I don’t,” he said, staring at the painting of a decapitated man as if his gushing blood held the translation of its author’s nom de plume hidden in its red pearls. “What does it mean?”
“I don’t know,” she said, walking to the next painting hanging on the wall, pulling him along. “Just thought you might know. Seems like you like him a lot, that’s all.”
Paul wished he could tell her, It’s you I like, but he said nothing out of fear that she wouldn’t understand. Or worse, that she wouldn’t care.
Ariela had made it a habit of sleeping over at Paul’s apartment. At first, she only did so when they watched a movie whose runtime went past 10:00 p.m. Then, every weekend because he lived near a park that had a nice farmers market on Saturdays. Even though she was now sleeping in his bed every night of the week, movie or no movie, the “no sex” rule still applied. However, in her mind, “no sex” didn’t mean “no touching or kissing.” Her breasts were small, swimming in his large T-shirts she wore as pajamas, but he knew exactly where to find them, right where he’d left them the night before. They had created their own vocabulary. Their own language: part verbal, part body.
Her short-leash relationship with the man whose name she would never reveal to Paul— in her mind if he was nameless, he didn’t have to worry about him— was close enough for sexting and dirty show-and-tell via Skype, but far enough for her to seek supplementary companionship. In other words, Paul was the body, and her boyfriend was the mind, heart, and soul.
While they lay in each other’s arms after having assisted each other in getting off, she would tell him that when she was living in Mexico, her boyfriend refused to have vaginal sex with her. Paul asked why. She didn’t know.
“Maybe he’s gay,” Paul said, hearing the spiteful words echoing in her silence, hoping they were true while at the same time regretting he’d ever said them.
“No, he’s not,” she said as if Paul was the one who needed assurance. He liked doing it in every way— fill all her holes— except for the one that mattered most to her, the one boring deep between her heart’s arteries. “He’s just super Christian, and he wants us to wait.”
Having been raised in that sexually stunting, hormonally frustrating climate— with balls as blue as the Virgin’s cloak— Paul understood her boyfriend’s apprehension and guilt.
“What do you want, though?” Paul said. Ariela sighed.
“How do you say, mmm?” she said. She huffed. “Never mind. I just want— ”
“What’s wrong?” he said. She nodded away Paul’s question with a soft hum. He placed his free hand on her thighs, and she looked down on it. He felt a single tear— hot as wax— trickle on his knuckles.
“C’mon. What’s wrong?” Paul asked again. Ariela let out a flustered sigh and wiped the tears draining out of her nose.
“It’s nothing,” she answered. “Well… it’s hard to explain.” It could’ve been because her English wasn’t that good, just good enough, or because no words existed in the English or Spanish languages combined to describe what she wanted to say or hide in her labored breathing. It was something she wanted to rip out of her chest— a dead heart that quit beating long ago. Paul dragged his body closer to her knees and outstretched his hand to meet hers.
“You know you can tell me anything.”
“Yeah, I know,” she sniffled. After she kissed her teeth a few times, she slapped her hands on her thighs.
“Just say it in Spanish,” Paul said. As far as he was concerned, he wouldn’t have been able to understand what was going on even if she had said it in plain English. But it wasn’t a matter of saying what was wrong or even admitting that something was wrong. It was that in spite of knowing that something in her wasn’t right, there was no real way for him to know exactly what was wrong because she herself wouldn’t go there. “Maybe he’s scared of getting you pregnant.”
By the way she bit her lips, he knew that she was starved for love, as an animal who resorted to auto cannibalism, seeking nourishment from what was left of its own bodies. It didn’t matter how much he wanted to help; the best he could do for her at that moment was to just stay there and wait for her to use him in whatever way she needed.
They lay quietly on the bed, Paul on his side, propping his head up with one arm and placing the other on his upper thigh. She was sitting on her calves— inside the curvature made by his legs and torso— looking down at him. The lights were off and the only glimmer was emanating from an old Bed Bath & Beyond pine-scented candle she’d stolen from her roommate’s bedroom. The candle’s dimmed brilliance flickered in the tears welling up in her eyes. She looked away, trying not to blink.
At first, she began to speak soft— slowly— gibberish that he knew meant something important to her. Then her speech became louder and faster— violent— looking at Paul as if she hated him, flailing her arms, clicking her wrists, gripping her palms. The look in her eyes— those dark, soulful eyes— yelled for something he could never give her even as he was giving her every part of himself. How Paul wished he could speak enough Spanish to say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” But he didn’t want to know what she was saying; he wished he knew what she was thinking, and not give her a chance to hide in her silence. They were both impostors: he was born in Mexico, but there was nothing Mexican in him; she was in love with him, but no part of her heart was his to fill.
He propped himself up into a seated position and buried her in his arms— close and tight— trying to suffocate any doubt in her mind. Her body was shaking; she felt warm and cold, stiff and frail. She continued to speak in a language that would’ve confused any Spanish speaker. However, he understood everything her heart palpitations were yelling. Every single word.
If Paul could, he would take her to a secluded place, a place beyond shame, beyond judgment, beyond anything even he could give her: a place beyond love. What they felt wasn’t love or lust: it was pity. They started to kiss each other as if they didn’t know what the gesture meant. He placed her hand on his thigh, and she slid it towards his crotch. Part of him felt that she was jerking him around, using him as a surrogate lover; it made her touch cold, almost robotic, as though they both wanted the same things, but each for very different reasons. He wanted to turn sex into love, and she wanted to turn their sex into something that would take feeling away.
Paul placed her chin in his hands and kissed her eyelids. He felt her grip grow tighter and the rhythm of it getting faster and warmer, as two reptiles seeking warmth where there was none. Deep in their four-walled Eden, they finally understood what this was about. She treated his body as if she herself was a man as if his penis was her own and she was going to be the one who would climax through it. In her clasp, those nerve endings had a purpose: bringing back feeling— not for him, but for her— to a starved beast clawing its way out of the love she would probably never have for him.
Ariela collapsed on her side after Paul came, but he didn’t feel good. He nestled next to her; she didn’t move. He wanted to tap on her shoulder, but he didn’t just in case she had fallen asleep, which he knew she had not. Insomnia pulsated in his head, with the question that he’d been wanting to ask her as soon as she held his hand at the museum, one that he knew she’d never answer even if he asked it in perfect Castilian Spanish: Why him and why not me?
The sea of tousled black hair told him more than her words— in English or Spanish, human or demonic tongue— ever could. Goosebumps consumed the entirety of her skin as whatever it was that made her and him into them, the fake lovers that other museum-goers looked towards and smiled at. Their strange faces reflecting the love that wasn’t quite there yet, regardless of how many selfies Ariela and Paul took, or how tightly they gripped each other’s hands.
Paul woke up after what felt like minutes, but Ariela’s petite body continued to heave gently, emitting sighs and coos. As he watched her, even her snores came off disingenuous.
The room was dark and cold and the pine-scented candle had died, and so had they.
Jose Oseguera is an LA-based writer of poetry, short fiction, and literary nonfiction. Having grown up in a primarily immigrant, urban environment, Jose has always been interested in the people and places around him, and the stories that each of these has to share. His writing has been featured in The Esthetic Apostle, McNeese Review, and The Main Street Rag. His work has also been nominated for the ‘Best of the Net’ award (2018 and 2019) and the ‘Pushcart Prize.’ He is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection ‘The Milk of Your Blood.’ This is Jose’s first piece on Fictional Cafe.