Aura died on July 25, 2007. I went back to Mexico for the first anniversary because I wanted to be where it had happened, at that beach on the Pacific coast. Now, for the second time in a year, I'd come home again to Brooklyn without her.
Three months before she died, April 24, Aura had turned thirty. We'd been married twenty-six days shy of two years. Aura's mother and uncle accused me of being responsible for her death. It's not as if I consider myself not guilty. If I were Juanita, I know I would have wanted to put me in prison, too. Though not for the reasons she and her brother gave.
From now on, if you have anything to say to me, put it in writing --- that's what Leopoldo, Aura's uncle, said on the telephone when he told me that he was acting as Aura's mother's attorney in the case against me. We haven't spoken since.
Aura and me
Aura and her mother
Her mother and me
A love-hate triangle, or, I don't know
Mi amor, is this really happening?
Où sont les axolotls?
Whenever Aura took leave of her mother, whether at the Mexico City airport or if she was just leaving her mother's apartment at night, or even when they were parting after a meal in a restaurant, her mother would lift her hand to make the sign of the cross over her and whisper a little prayer asking the Virgin of Guadalupe to protect her daughter.
Axolotls are a species of salamander that never metamorphose out of the larval state, something like pollywogs that never become frogs. They used to be abundant in the lakes around the ancient city of Mexico, and were a favorite food of the Aztecs. Until recently, axolotls were said to be still living in the brackish canals of Xochimilco; in reality they're practically extinct even there. They survive in aquariums, laboratories, and zoos.
Aura loved the Julio Cortázar short story about a man who becomes so mesmerized by the axolotls in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris that he turns into an axolotl. Every day, sometimes even three times a day, the nameless man in that story visits the Jardin des Plantes to stare at the strange little animals in their cramped aquarium, at their translucent milky bodies and delicate lizard's tails, their pink flat triangular Aztec faces and tiny feet with nearly humanlike fingers, the odd reddish sprigs that sprout from their gills, the golden glow of their eyes, the way they hardly ever move, only now and then twitching their gills, or abruptly swimming with a single undulation of their bodies. They seem so alien that he becomes convinced they're not just animals, that they bear some mysterious relation to him, are mutely enslaved inside their bodies yet somehow, with their pulsing golden eyes, are begging him to save them. One day the man is staring at the axolotls as usual, his face close to the outside of the tank, but in the middle of that same sentence, the "I" is now on the inside of the tank, staring through the glass at the man, the transition happens just like that. The story ends with the axolotl hoping that he's succeeded in communicating something to the man, in bridging their silent solitudes, and that the reason the man no longer visits the aquarium is because he's off somewhere writing a story about what it is to be an axolotl.
The first time Aura and I went to Paris together, about five months after she'd moved in with me, she wanted to go to the Jardin des Plantes to see Cortázar's axolotls more than she wanted to do anything else. She'd been to Paris before, but had only recently discovered Cortázar's story. You would have thought that the only reason we'd flown to Paris was to see the axolotls, though actually Aura had an interview at the Sorbonne, because she was considering transferring from Columbia. Our very first afternoon, we went to the Jardin des Plantes, and paid to enter its small nineteenth century zoo. In front of the entrance to the amphibian house, or vivarium, there was a mounted poster with information in French about amphibians and endangered species, illustrated with an image of a red-gilled axolotl in profile, its happy extraterrestrial's face and albino monkey arms and hands. Inside, the tanks ran in a row around the room, smallish illuminated rectangles set into the wall, each framing a somewhat different humid habitat: moss, ferns, rocks, tree branches, pools of water. We went from tank to tank, reading the placards: various species of salamanders, newts, frogs, but no axolotls. We circled the room again, in case we'd somehow missed them. Finally Aura went up to the guard, a middle-aged man in uniform, and asked where the axolotls were. He didn't know anything about the axolotls, but something in Aura's expression seemed to give him pause, and he asked her to wait; he left the room and a moment later came back with a woman, somewhat younger than him, wearing a blue lab coat. She and Aura spoke quietly, in French, so I couldn't understand what they were saying, but the woman's expression was lively and kind. When we went outside, Aura stood there for a moment with a quietly stunned expression. Then she told me that the woman remembered the axolotls; she'd even said that she missed them. But they'd been taken away a few years before and were now in some university laboratory. Aura was in her charcoal gray woolen coat, a whitish wool scarf wrapped around her neck, strands of her straight black hair mussed around her soft round cheeks, which were flushed as if burning with cold, though it wasn't particularly cold. Tears, just a few, not a flood, warm salty tears overflowed from Aura's brimming eyes and slid down her cheeks.
Who cries over something like that? I remember thinking. I kissed the tears, breathing in that briny Aura warmth. Whatever it was that so got to Aura about the axolotls not being there seemed part of the same mystery that the axolotl at the end of Cortázar's story hopes the man will reveal by writing a story. I always wished that I could know what it was like to be Aura.
Où sont les axolotls? she wrote in her notebook. Where are they?
Aura moved in with me in Brooklyn about six weeks after she'd arrived in New York from Mexico City with her multiple scholarships, including a Fulbright and another from the Mexican government, to begin studying for a PhD in Spanish-language literature at Columbia. We lived together almost four years. At Columbia she shared her university housing with another foreign student, a Korean girl, a botanist of some highly specialized kind. I saw that apartment only two or three times before I moved Aura's things to my place. It was a railroad flat, with a long narrow hallway, two bedrooms, a living room at the front. A student apartment, filled with student things: her Ikea bookcase, a set of charcoal-hued nonstick pots and pans and utensils, a red beanbag chair, a stereo unit, a small toolbox, from Ikea too, still sealed in its clear plastic wrapper. Her mattress on the floor, clothing heaped all over it. That apartment made me feel nostalgic as hell --- for college days, youth. I was dying to make love to her then and there, in the sumptuous mess of that bed, but she was nervous about her roommate coming in, so we didn't.
I took her away from that apartment, leaving her roommate, whom Aura got along with fine, on her own. But a month or so later, once she felt sure that she was going to stay with me, Aura found another student to take her share, a Russian girl who seemed like someone the Korean girl would like.
Up there, on Amsterdam Avenue and 119th Street, Aura lived at the edge of campus. In Brooklyn, she had to ride the subway at least one hour each way to get to Columbia, usually during rush hour, and she went almost every day. She could take the F train, transfer at Fourteenth Street and make her way through a maze of stairways and long tunnels, grim and freezing in winter, to the 2 and 3 express trains, and switch to the local at Ninety-sixth Street. Or she could walk twenty-five minutes from our apartment to Borough Hall and catch the 2 or 3 there. Eventually she decided she preferred the second option, and that was what she did almost every day. In winter the trek could be brutally cold, especially in the thin wool coats she wore, until finally I convinced her to let me buy her one of those hooded North Face down coats, swaddling her from the top of the head to below the knees in goose down–puffed blue nylon. No, mi amor, it doesn't make you look fat, not you in particular, everybody looks like a walking sleeping bag in one of those, and who cares anyway? Isn't it better to be snug and warm? When she wore the coat with the hood up, collar closed under her chin, with her gleaming black eyes, she looked like a little Iroquois girl walking around inside her own papoose, and she hardly ever went out into the cold without it.
Another complication of the long commute was that she regularly got lost. She'd absentmindedly miss her stop or else take the train in the wrong direction and, engrossed in her book, her thoughts, her iPod, wouldn't notice until she was deep into Brooklyn. Then she'd call from a pay phone in some subway station I'd never heard of, Hola, mi amor, well, here I am in the Beverly Road Station, I went the wrong way again --- her voice determinedly matterof- fact, no big deal, just another overscheduled New Yorker coping with a routine dilemma of city life, but sounding a touch defeated anyhow. She didn't like being teased about going the wrong way on the subway, or getting lost even when she was walking in our own neighborhood, but sometimes I couldn't help it.
From Aura's first day in our Brooklyn apartment to nearly her last, I walked her to the subway stop every morning --- except on those mornings when she rode her bicycle to Borough Hall and left it locked there, though that routine didn't last long because the homeless drunks and junkies of downtown Brooklyn kept stealing her bike seat, or when it was raining or when she was just running so behind that she took a taxi to Borough Hall, or on the rare occasion when she flew out the door like a furious little tornado because it was getting late and I was still stuck on the can yelling for her to wait, and the two or three times when she was just so pissed off at me about something or other that she absolutely didn't want me to walk with her.
Usually though, I walked her to the F train stop on Bergen, or I walked her to Borough Hall, though eventually we agreed that when she was headed to Borough Hall I would go only as far as the French guy's deli on Verandah Place --- I had work to do and couldn't just lose nearly an hour every day going to the station and back --- though she would try to coax me farther, to Atlantic Avenue, or to Borough Hall after all, or even up to Columbia. Then I'd spend the day in Butler Library --- a few semesters previous I'd taught a writing workshop at Columbia and I still had my ID card --- reading or writing or trying to write in a notebook, or I'd sit at one of the library computers checking e-mail or killing time with online newspapers, routinely starting with the Boston Globe sports section (I grew up in Boston). Usually we'd have lunch at Ollie's, then go and blow money on DVDs and CDs at Kim's, or browse in Labyrinth Books, coming out carrying heavy bags of books neither of us had the extra time to read. On days when she hadn't convinced me to accompany her to Columbia in the morning, she'd sometimes phone and ask me to come all the way up there just to have lunch with her, and as often as not, I'd go. Aura would say,
Francisco, I didn't get married to eat lunch by myself. I didn't get married to spend time by myself.
On those morning walks to the subway, Aura always did most or even all of the talking, about her classes, professors, other students, about some new idea for a short story or novel, or about her mother. Even when she was being especially neuras, going on about her regular anxieties, I'd try to come up with new encouragements or else rephrase or repeat prior ones. But I especially loved it when she was in the mood to stop every few steps and kiss and nip at my lips like a baby tiger, and her mimed silent laughter after my ouch, and the way she'd complain, ¿Ya no me quieres, verdad? if I wasn't holding her hand or didn't have my arm around her the instant she wanted me to. I loved our ritual except when I didn't really love it, when I'd worry, How am I ever going to get another damned book written with this woman who makes me walk her to the subway every morning and cajoles me into coming up to Columbia to have lunch with her?
I still regularly imagine that Aura is beside me on the sidewalk. Sometimes I imagine I'm holding her hand, and walk with my arm held out by my side a little. Nobody is surprised to see people talking to themselves in the street anymore, assuming that they must be speaking into some Bluetooth device. But people do stare when they notice that your eyes are red and wet, your lips twisted into a sobbing grimace. I wonder what they think they are seeing and what they imagine has caused the weeping. On the surface, a window has briefly, alarmingly, opened.
Excerpted from SAY HER NAME © Copyright 2012 by Francisco Goldman. Reprinted with permission by Grove Press. All rights reserved.
Say Her Name
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Grove Press
- ISBN-10: 0802145809
- ISBN-13: 9780802145802