In the dream, it's the middle of the night and Daddy's making salsa verde in her mother's molcajete. Ninfa edges into the doorway of her bedroom. Everything is dark except the kitchen and the shiny reflection off her mother's china cabinet in the living room. Daddy's at the counter, shirtless, but still in his boots. He's just gotten home. The radio's on, but not that loud, and he sings along under his breath to "Long, Cool Woman." Smoke rises from the fat green Serrano peppers on the comal and he flicks them with the side of his thumb, so the blackened parts split open. Then he drops them into the mortar. Ninfa smells their juice and seeds burning.
Half-dressed, he is lean and boyish, only his forearms and neck are hard and dark. His hair is long enough to reach the tips of his ears and it flutters as he grinds the pestle into mortar. Beneath the kitchen light it shines, black and glossy as crows' feathers. There's a shadowy indentation at the back, where he's been wearing a bandana or a cowboy hat.
He snaps his head toward her, so quick her tummy clenches up. His eyes glitter, little wet pebbles inside a wary scowl. Then he sees her. His face smoothes into a grin and he says, "Vente, Baby."
Middle of the night memory-father. The one who will quarrel with her during Christmas and leave a bracelet of fingertip bruises on her bicep, has short, iron-gray hair. When she doesn't cry out, he will shove her, rub the pink heart-surgery scar that bisects his chest, falter and refrain from rage.
In her memory that has become a dream, Daddy holds out a spoonful of salsa. She leaps out of the doorway, freed, never mind the time or her mother, whose mute hostility she senses in the open darkness of her parents' bedroom. Daddy's the boss of everything. He always gives her the first taste. Not Benny and not her mother, just Ninfa.
The spoon tip smokes and she knows the hot metal will burn more than the mashed up peppers, but she looks him in the eye and opens her mouth. She doesn't let her lips flinch away. She tears up, but swallows and holds her mouth steady.
"Too hot?" He's smiling, but he's watching her too.
Her eyes are burning, but she can't blink, because she'll cry. She shakes her head.
He studies her a beat longer, until she almost can't hold out, then he tousles her hair, his hand warm and rough against her forehead. "Cabrona. Traeme las tortillas."
Ninfa shuts her eyes against his palm once to squeeze the wetness into her lashes. She pulls away to get the package of corn tortillas out of the refrigerator. Daddy opens a can of refried beans and dumps them in a pan.
"Don't tell your mother I let you stay up," he says, and winks.
Her lips throb and the slow, stinging burn of peppers flowers at the back of her throat, but she smiles. This is why she gets to eat bean and chile tacos with Daddy at three in the morning. This is why she's Daddy's favorite.
The blender whirred in choppy intervals. Ninfa opened her eyes, registered the immobile, ashen sky outside her bedroom window and realized she was in Michigan, not Texas. The acrid tang of chiles filled the room, heavy as smoke. Beneath the grating she heard something else—Femi's baritone. She sat up and looked down the hall. He was in the kitchen, hunkered over the tiny stovetop. A narrow uneasiness twitched inside her like a tender muscle.
Everything about Femi was broad and sturdy. The index finger jammed against the blender button, the curved belly pushing down the clasp of his jeans, his blunt, feline face. He was half-humming something in Yoruba, little snatches of verse drifting in and out of the melody.
"Hey," she said. Her voice cracked with sleep, but she felt alert, coiled.
"Good morning." Femi's nose wrinkled when he smiled. His face was fresh and open, as though he'd been awake a long time. "Come eat."
When she came into the kitchen, he tucked her against his side. There was a bag of dried red peppers on the kitchenette counter and rice boiling in a pot. Ninfa rubbed her head against his chest. The front of his shirt was warm with steam. He pressed his arm along the length of her body, fingers brushing the top of her thigh.
"Somebody didn't pay her development fee." He chuckled, the sound a low vibration against her face.
"Shut up." This morning she didn't want to feel dwarfed.
Femi nuzzled her hair, smelling her, deep, heavy breaths, as if he were trying to fill his body with her scent. His mouth, tender and fleshy as fruit, left plump kisses across the line of her jaw.
"Omo mi," he murmured. The hand on her thigh slid deeper. One finger pressed her cleft. He told her he loved her. Beneath her hand his back shuddered, once, hard. He stroked her until she softened and leaned into him, until she lay against his shoulder like a trembling, wet flower.
When Ninfa is nine and her brother Benito four, her family drives to Saltillo for the national charrerría championship tournament. They take the public highway instead of the autopista; her parents argue over it. Her mother hates going to Mexico anyway because she says Daddy's a worse sinvergüenza than at home.
Daddy has a brown Ford Super-Cab with a propane tank in the bed. There are two little fold-out seats in the back of the cab where Ninfa and Benny ride. Ninfa tries not to let the hot floorboard burn her feet and listens to her parents bicker. Her mother clings to the passenger door the whole trip. Daddy keeps saying cut it out, damnit. Nothing's gonna happen.
"It's not the same," Daddy says. "This is just the next state over, not like going to the capital."
The year before, on their way to Mexico City, soldiers had pulled them over and searched their station wagon. It was the first time Ninfa had seen someone with a harelip or someone holding a machine gun. She and her brother stood on the shoulder of the highway next to the rear of the wagon. They kept her parents near the front. The soldier with the harelip opened their suitcases, even Benny's G.I. Joe backpack, and spilled their clothes on the street.
"Lookit his face," Benito whispered.
"Hush, Benny." She tried not to stare at the man's ruined mouth.
The soldier ignored them, prodded her mother's slips with the muzzle of gun. Ninfa wanted to tell him not to touch, but she could not remember the Spanish word for slip and was embarrassed to say underwear.
Benny clutched her front jean pocket. "My pack-pack."
She put her arms around Benny and looked at the soldier. Except for the harelip, he was not ugly. He was short and had shiny red-brown skin.
"Please," she said in Spanish, "can I get his bag?"
The soldier shifted the rifle a bit, in their direction but not at them. The hem of a slip caught on the muzzle of the gun. The lace fluttered lightly against the barrel so that he looked foolish and frightening at the same time.
"Please," she repeated, and pointed at the knapsack, "that little bag."
Benny hid his face in her side. The soldier shifted his weight and Ninfa thought he was going to kick the backpack into the road. Then someone yelled ya vamonos and he yanked her mother's slip off his gun and dropped it on the ground.
When the soldiers were gone Daddy jerked her off the ground. He squeezed her hard, not like he wanted to hug her. "Are you crazy!"
Benito started crying; big, gulping baby-wailing, the kind he'd almost outgrown. Her mother picked him up, said, "Look at this! Can't you ever behave?"
The sky was dim and full of snow. Ninfa crossed a wet intersection, holding her right arm tight against her body. Knuckles broken, hand curled up in a cold, brittle pincer inside the cuff of Femi's coat. She dodged the sad drifts of black slush collected along the gutter. No one knew her or knew where she was. The familiar pocket of anonymity, the moment of most freedom, steadied her.
That was, in fact, the best thing about Michigan—the solitude inside a long, remote winter. The cold and the filtered gray light made everything shut away and private. People were everywhere, but alone. Pedestrians folded inward, layered and invisible, set themselves against the wind, and moved with purpose. Others passed more swiftly armored inside the hard, reflective shine of frosted car windows. Ninfa passed through the white stillness separate from them, layered as they were layered, as if she were the only thing in existence.
The row of wood-frame houses, silent and unlit, looked different, their snow-covered gables defined by the half-light in a tidy, exact way. Not the vague black shapes she had passed the night before, when she had hurtled out of her building with the feral desperation. The foggy silhouette of her apartment complex rose beyond the next intersection, smoky pink in the sunrise. A spiky panic, shiny and hard, scrabbled at the surface of her composure. She kept moving. If anyone saw her, they did not really see her; they only saw someone hurrying along a street.
On the road to Saltillo she sees the tops of the clouds beneath her as they drive along the side of the mountain. The truck tilts so sharply she can almost lie against the side window. Mama, look, look! says Ninfa. It is the most beautiful sight she's ever seen; the clouds rising and shifting like pink smoke below them. She and her brother crowd the tiny cab window and her mother says get back, get back, you'll fall out, even though it is too small for either of them to fit through.
Around one curve they find huge coils of copper cable lying across the road. Daddy has to get out and roll two of them out of the way before they can go on. Further up there's a semi mashed against the mountainside. Giant coils spill out of its trailer like bright candy whorls. Daddy says, shit, shit, shit, creeps the truck through the wreckage. He edges the truck around the semi and Ninfa can see all the way down. Below the clouds, a horse trailer glints at the bottom like a crushed beer can. Her mother sobs, her rosary clutched in her fist, all the rest of the way.
The hotel lobby is bright yellow. Scarlet macaws flutter around the room from perch to perch. Past the check-in counter two sets of French doors open on a courtyard cantina. Spanish rock blares into the lobby from the cantina. Daddy's friend Pepe stops them on their way to the elevator. He says the team from Monclova lost eight horses and a driver. Some of the teams are lending their mounts to the Monclova charros so they can still compete. Daddy says, seguro que sí, and volunteers his horse. None of them say anything about seeing the accident.
In the room, Ninfa's mother lunges at Daddy, punching and slapping, shrieks I told you, and you almost killed my babies, you almost killed my babies! Ninfa grabs Benny and pulls him down with her between the wall and the bed. He is trembling and soft as a baby bird.
"Get under the bed," she says, and he scuttles under, no problem, although he is afraid of the dark.
Daddy shoves her mother to the floor. She folds herself around his leg and bites him—hard, furious bites, like a cat. Ninfa sees her hair shaking against his knee. It hurts him, Ninfa can tell by the way his face clenches up, teeth bared like he's grinning, but he doesn't make a sound. He pounds the side of her mother's head with the heel of his hand until he knocks her off his leg. He stomps on her body, on her legs, and she curls up and pukes.
He only stops when Ninfa throws herself on top of her mother. She catches a boot on the back of her thigh and a deep, weeping bolt sizzles up to her hip. Then her whole leg numbs over.
"You stop it right now, Daddy." Ninfa twists around to look at him, but she can't get up. Beneath Ninfa her mother sucks in air like a winded mare. "Just stop it."
For a moment her daddy is like a house all lit up, suspended, but radiating a throbbing red fury. She can feel how hard he's trying not to kick her. Something flickers and dims enough for him back away from Ninfa and her mother. He slams the door as he leaves, doesn't come back until after the tournament is over.
Femi was careless; misplaced gloves and car keys, took three suits with him on their trip to Toronto, but forgot his dress shoes. Left his wife's emails open on Ninfa's computer.
Dear Husband, the first one said. All her emails began that way: Dear Husband, Dear Sa. They were signed Iya Babalola, Babalola's mother, no initials, the writer identified only by her status as wife and mother. Ninfa let out a short, barky laugh. Decided then and there she would never tell her mother. She stood out on her balcony in a t-shirt and jeans and watched snow swirl into the parking lot until she was so cold she couldn't think about anything else.
Ninfa visited a high school friend in Chicago for the weekend. When she returned she erased her messages without listening to them. He called thirty minutes after she got home.
"Mail back my key and fuck off." She hung up. She paced, trying to stave off jittery, hot rage. Stood on the balcony again. Would not cry.
Femi stopped calling, but he did not return her key. Every night the next week, he parked beneath her window. Ninfa lay on her bed listening to his idling engine chug gently in the dark. Friday she stayed at a bar until closing time. Saturday, a little before ten o'clock, he drove up and got out of the car.
Ninfa watched Femi glance up at her balcony, tug the front of his coat and step around to the sidewalk. His footfalls on the staircase were heavy and measured. Ninfa heard him come in, hesitate, and drop his coat on the sofa. He turned on the hall light. She did not turn around, even when she heard him open the pantry.
He stood in the doorway, eating. "Are you sleeping?"
"What's your wife's name?"
Silence. She faced him. He was holding a wax cylinder of cookies in front of him like a candle. She waited. Still, he said nothing. Just stood there chewing and not looking at her.
More than anything, she wanted him to stop eating. "Spit that out."
He shook his head and swallowed. He still didn't look at her.
"What were you thinking? Why would you do this?" Her voice arced thin and sharp, trembling on the edge of shrewish.
Femi set the cookies on her dresser. His posture shifted, regained some of its usual ease. He sank to his knees, arms half-raised, head bent. It was all one liquid motion, as if he had practiced it over and over before performing it in her bedroom. When he spoke it was with the alarming abandon of a supplicant.
"E ma binu. E ma binu. Forgive me." He put his hands out.
Femi's groveling made her afraid and then angrier. Even now, especially now, he was full of pliant sweetness. She bolted past him, shoved her palms at his face. "No, no! Just get out!"
The room is empty without Daddy. Everybody stays crouched, waiting to be reanimated if the door opens. But nothing happens.
Ninfa sits up. Her leg twitches like she's about to get a charley horse. Her mother crosses her forearms over her face, starts crying; a loud, ugly noise. Ninfa doesn't want to touch her, not even look at her.
There's vomit all over Ninfa's left hand and her t-shirt. It's sour and warm. "Oh, nasty!"
Benny whispers, "Can I come out now?"
"Yeah." She stands up. She can feel her mother staring at her, but she doesn't look down, just walks into the bathroom and turns the hot water tap all the way. The white scummy barf slips off her hand and sticks to the basin.
Her mother lurches to the bathroom doorway, hunched like a crone. There's a greenish lump rising on the side of her forehead. Flecks of vomit freckle her chin and throat. Ninfa isn't one bit sorry for her. Not even a little. She closes her mouth over it, but it's there, fluttering on the edge of real: I hate you. You made me treat my daddy like a bad dog.
Her mother's smile is full of wet, angry teeth. "You think you're such hot shit. Ya verás."
"Nobody's gonna do that to me."
"The boastful fall more quickly than the lame," her mother says, spiteful as a bad fairy.
Femi put his hand on the bedspread, rose awkwardly. Stood there, feet apart, like a confused bear. Indignation barreled out in broad, hard tones. "How can you say this? I have knelt before you!"
"I don't give a shit! You're a goddamn liar!"
"Stop talking like that."
"Fuck, fuck, fuck you!"
Femi stared at her in a flat-eyed, cunning way. He smiled and it was a curvy, black sliver, a flexing that showed no teeth. "Ridiculous woman."
Behind her eyes was an electric buzzing. Her body was shaky and hot. Fleetingly, she thought she was going to cry and her mother flickered into her mind; her broken, gimlet face. And Ninfa knew she wasn't going to cry at all.
He was still talking, but she didn't hear him, only that electric buzzing filling her body, so that she was shaking, shaking and then she lunged. Her hands were open and out, her head down. She slammed him just below the chest, and he stumbled, but not enough to go down. Another tackle and he fell across the bed. She beat her fists against his shoulders. A hectic, reedy laughter bubbled out of him, muffled against the mattress. His whole body shook with it. One hand groped at the floor, then caught the bed rail. He was pulling himself out from underneath her. He twisted again, clamped a hand on her bicep. She felt the iron animal inside him, the wild, quick fury, awake and ready to tear the room apart.
Her fist, curled into a flesh hammer, caught the side of his head. Once. Again. She knocked his head against the window next to her bed. The muffled snap of splintering glass. The solid sound, low and deep, of bone meeting bone. Femi's head was harder than her hand. He let go of her, clapped his hand against his face. Ninfa threw herself off the bed.
Ninfa bolted out of the room, almost fell, but didn't look back. She grabbed the coat by the door and scrambled outside, fist swelling and throbbing. She rushed past her car, breath jagged and harsh, forced out in ghostly plumes. Frozen snow broke against her shoes as she sprinted across the courtyard. She passed houses and lots and parks and dark streets, didn't slow down until she saw the bright, orangey lights of the downtown bars. Tears fell in a silent rush, their hot little trails swept away by the wind.
Zacatecas wins the championship. Daddy finally comes to get them, has new boots for Benny and a set of yellow and white china poblana blouses for Ninfa and her mother. Ninfa's mother says we're going home by the autopista. He doesn't answer her, but every few miles he pumps three dollars into the toll booth and doesn't complain. Nobody says much of anything all the way home. The autopista is broad and new, with concrete railing along the sides and six open lanes. All the stops at the toll booths make it longer and there are no soldiers or bright copper cable coils or pink cloud mountain peaks.
"I didn't even know where to look for you, Ninfa." Femi was sitting in the middle of her couch. His eyes were small and puffy. Except for the egg-sized lump on his head, he did not look like an adulterer.
Femi had not called her Ninfa in a long time. When he said it she knew they were done. She took his coat off, grimaced pulling her hand through the sleeve. "It stinks like cigarettes. Sorry."
Femi followed her into the kitchen. She ran the hot water over her knuckles, tried to rub the dried blood off her skin. He stood beside her. She could feel him wanting to touch her, but he didn't. She turned off the water and began to dry her hand gingerly with a paper towel.
"I don't want you to hate me." He flinched as though she might turn and slap him.
Ninfa didn't look at him. After a few minutes Femi walked back into the living room. A few minutes after that she heard the door shut behind him.