Cuello: A Short Story
She noticed his neck first. His Adam’s apple. It bulged like a tumor under his chin.
He was waiting for her at the Barnes and Nobles in Union Square, exactly where they had agreed to meet, which was on the second floor, next to the shelf of discounted British classics. He was skinnier than he had looked in his picture on Match.com, and he seemed younger than thirty-five. He had thick black hair and a narrow face. He had shaved. His jacket was unzipped, and he wore a V-neck T-shirt that made the tumor-apple under his chin look worse than it would have otherwise. He had picked up a hefty book and was slowly turning through the pages.
She stopped a few feet away. She had been dating women for the last ten years. Trans men, too. The last time she had been with a man-man, she had been twenty-five. How had she forgotten their cuellos? The tumor-apples?
She moved toward him, and when he saw her, she queried, Robert?, because it was always better to be safe. He said hello, and his voice was soft and kind. She thought of the koala bear she’d had as a child. She pointed to the novel in his hands. “Did you find something?” She asked. He cleared his throat, and she wondered if the tumor-apple pained him.
He held up the novel (Tess of the d’Urbervilles) and said, This should be classified as a federal crime. At the Strand, this would cost fifty cents.
She laughed and shifted the messenger bag from her right shoulder to her left one. I think it’d be at least a dollar, she said.
This is why New York City has lost all its independent bookstores.
I’m sorry. Should we have met someplace else?
No, not at all.
We should get seats. The reading’s going to get packed.
Already done, my lady. I put ten reference books on the chairs with Post-It notes saying reserved.
The tumor-apple in his neck bobbed up and down. She had the urge to touch it. She thought about testicles, how they felt like two golf balls stuck in a sock, rolling back and forth under the fabric of skin.
It had been a long time since she had seen a man’s balls. How strange men were. They bulged between their legs and from their necks. They were walking protrusions. This was why she wanted to date them again. She missed being offended.
Her favorite place was the fire escape outside her bedroom window in Washington Heights. The Sunday after she met Robert, she followed her routine, carting a thick cushion, a black mug of Earl Grey tea, and the newspaper out to the fire escape before dawn. It was early September and she wrapped herself in an extra-thick fleece blanket and waited for the sun to rise.
She lived on the seventh floor, and on the streets below the parked cars slept, and the sidewalks had only one or two people walking toward Broadway. At six-thirty, the bodega owner unlocked the store, the rolling gate lifting like a gray eyelid. Around seven, a woman across the street with thick arms hung two peach-colored towels out her window to dry. By nine, her neighbors would be playing merengue, bachate, and Beyoncé.
On the fire escape, she unfolded the paper and scanned headlines. In the Metro section, a story about a quadriplegic stopped her. She read it twice because the spinal cord fascinated her, how it hung at a person’s back like a tape measure determining how many inches a hand could be lifted, a wrist turned, fingers extended.
She had not gone home with Robert after the reading. If he had been a woman she would have. Instead, he walked her to the corner of Fourteenth and Eighth Avenue and stared at her under the glare of the street lamp and the subway’s green orb, the testicle under his chin silent and still. Finally, she said, I had a good time, and he looked relieved, like he had passed an exam.
The tape measure, the spinal cord. The neck has seven sentinels, seven huesos, seven bones for protection. In Jersey, when she was sixteen and stopped eating after a break up, her mother braided seven pieces of bright ribbons, each a different color for a specific orisha, and told her to wear it around her waist loosely.
The braided ribbons had pressed their satin fingers to her belly, lower back and navel. That day, she had walked to chemistry class and then down the hall to history and finally up the stairs to algebra, the chord swaying around her waist under her uniform blouse like an umbilical cord. By the time she boarded the school bus at the end of the day she had felt restored.
When Robert texted at ten that morning, she was still on the fire escape, engrossed in the Business section. He had found the title of the book he had mentioned the night before: Raceless Racists. He had an extra copy. He could bring it next time.
She texted a thank you, paused, then asked if he wanted to join her in the afternoon. She was canvassing for Barack Obama out on Long Island. He called her. In a mocking tone, he said, It is my prediction that McCain will drop dead three days before the election, but as a preventative measure, we should canvass.
She grinned and said it would be the reasonable thing to do. They agreed to meet outside the Dunkin’ Donuts in Penn Station.
The breath may start in the lungs, but it can end in the cuello. Breaking the first bone in the neck can stop breathing. This is also true if the second and third vertebrae are smashed and the spinal cord damaged. One, two, three, and breathing disappears.
At the tenth house that afternoon, she stopped breathing. Robert was standing next to her. He was wearing a long-sleeve cotton shirt emblazoned with the sepia photograph of Native American men from another century above the phrase Fighting Terrorism Since 1492. He was holding a stack of flyers with Obama’s face and a list of voting locations. She wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan Latinos for Obama. She also carried the clipboard of addresses and several black pens.
A man opened the door. He was dressed in khakis and a violet polo shirt someone had ironed for him. He was an independent. He was fifty-five. He had come from Colombia with nothing, and now he had three bodegas of his own and two girls at Barnard. I’m not voting for a socialist, he spat.
She was still breathing. My father’s from Colombia, she told him.
I’m from Medellín. Y tu mamá?
She hesitated, then told him. Cuba.
Talk to your mother. She knows all about socialists.
The man turned to Robert and asked, What about you? You Puerto Rican?
The man had a fat neck. It had swallowed his testicle. He leaned toward them and said, You mark my words. This country will never vote a nigger for president.
She stopped breathing. Robert cleared his throat and without raising his voice, as if he were giving someone a phone number, he said, I’ll be sure to remember that a spic said a nigger couldn’t be president.
The man’s neck swiveled in Robert’s direction and he stammered, What did you say? What did you call me?
She stepped in between them, grabbing a flyer from the stack Robert was holding and hurriedly telling the man: Here are all your voting locations, sir. Remember to get to the polls early.
The man began yelling about socialists, but she grabbed Robert’s hand and marched them quickly to the sidewalk. Robert didn’t resist.
They walked the rest of the block in silence. She started breathing again. She remembered why she had not wanted to date men. She remembered the way her father used to get drunk and toss her brother against the wood frame of their bunk beds, and how when her brother had turned sixteen, he had shoved Papi back against the dresser one day and grabbed him by the neck and tried to throttle him. Their father had thrashed on the floor, and she had clawed her baby brother’s arms until he let go, because Mami was getting her nails done at a friend’s house, so it was up to her to keep her father alive and her brother, too. And to keep them intact. She knew from her college anatomy classes that if either of them bruised their fifth cervical nerve, they could lose their wrists. Bruises to the sixth nerve could take their hands. The seventh, their elbows. She thought of the nerves in their cuellos (C5, C6, C7) like thieves who could walk away with parts of the men she loved.
She and Robert paused at the corner. They could see four other canvassers further down the street, their blue and white T-shirts bobbing up driveways to two-story, one-family houses. She thought about the Colombian man and how easy it was for him to measure the worth of his life: no bodegas, no boom boxes, no peach towels hanging from the windows.
Are you okay? Robert asked. She said she was. He said they could take a break. She said they should keep going.
She was a fact-checker for The New York Times Magazine. She loved her job. She spent days making sure no one had lied. After three years, she had a reputation for being ruthless. Reporters requested her. They wanted to be saved from themselves. They needed someone to check their Latin.
In Latin, the word for neck is cervix. A woman’s cervix is literally the neck of the womb.
She knew this when she interviewed the highest-ranked junior crossword champion by phone. The champion, who had turned eleven the week before in Jersey City, confirmed the content of his quote: “The way I remember cervix in Latin is head-neck-torso, uterus-neck-vagina.”
She finished the interview quickly, marked the document in the queue, and stood up in her cubicle. Her boss was walking by chatting into a cell phone and signaled hello with her manicured pinky. Normally, she would have described her boss as a middle-aged white woman with a short neck and pointy shoulders, but now she thought: uterus, neck, vagina.
The human body was not cohesive; it was simply another story, like the ones she fact-checked. They appeared complete on the screen, but when she printed out the article, she broke it into pieces: names, dates, locations, quotes. Skull, neck, collar bone.
She thought about having Robert inside of her and his sperm not being able to reach her cervix but instead slamming against the translucent wall of the condom. This roused in her some pity. And pleasure, too.
She didn’t let Robert kiss her until their fourth date. It was easier that way. Kisses were bodegas. You went in for a can of cherry tomatoes but came home with Doritos and a can of Pepsi and leche with all the fat, because in a bodega all the food items looked smaller than they did under the fluorescent lights at the A&P or the Pathmark. Smaller and cheaper and more manageable to carry until you were convinced that they were worth taking home.
They met up on a Friday at the Strand after work. She strode into the store in her work uniform: high-heeled gray boots, black turtleneck, dark slacks, each curl of her hair tucked into a ponytail at the base of her neck. He showed up in a blue tie with black crisscross stitches that made her think of the crucifixion. The tie’s knot jabbed the testicle in his neck. He took it off, slowly rolled the tie up and stuck it in his back pocket. In her heels, she was tall enough to look him in the eye.
They made their way around the tall shelves, picking out books at random until they came across a coffee table book on the Kayan tribe in Burma. Robert didn’t know about them. She flipped through the pages with their color-saturated photographs of women wearing metal coils around their necks, their collar bones pushed down so the necks became as long as fifteen inches. He stood next to her, closer than usual, and asked what metal was used to make the neck rings.
Gold, brass, and silver, she said, and even though he hadn’t asked, she added: We had an article on it last month. These assholes were prostituting the women in a refugee settlement. It was a pay-to-see-the-freaks show.
How did you fact-check that? he asked, and he put a hand on her left shoulder, as if this was what they did every Friday.
A professor in Ohio. She monitored the camps for an NGO.
She paused with one photograph in the book. The woman sat in profile, her face painted with rouge, her lips a bright cherry red, her neck a brass tower, a body part she and Robert did not have or had forgotten about. The memory of an ex-girlfriend flitted past, the way her ex would grab her curls off the nape of her neck and ask to have the clasp on her necklace shut. Women’s necks were thighs, curved stops on the way to better destinations. Robert’s face was inches from hers. She turned her head toward him. He kissed her. It was clumsy and sweet.
Afterward, they bought water bottles at a bodega up the street and a chocolate bar that came with chunks of sea salt, and they made out on a bench in Union Square that someone had spray-painted with Obama’s face. She learned that Robert’s mouth was softer than it looked and that when she rubbed the testicle in his throat with her index finger, the cartilage neither grew in size nor collapsed. It resisted. And the hair on the nape of his neck felt like two hundred eyelashes.
The testicle in Robert’s neck was cartilage, a sheath covering the voice box, a pointy coat of armor protecting his words. According to a book published in 1625, however, what Robert carried in his neck was a chunk of manzana, the fruit stuck in the throat of every male as evidence of Adam’s first defiance of god.
She read the fruit-neck theory on her cell phone while waiting for the train back home that night, alone, without him, and then she read another claim that Adam’s apple was a case of lost words. In Hebrew, the word for human was āḏām, and apple sounded close to another word for knob. The testicle in the throat then should have been translated as a person’s knob, but someone had written Adam’s apple instead.
She preferred the fruit theory over science. She wasn’t Catholic anymore, but she knew enough about men to believe that they should be marked with their shame. The story about the man’s knob she dismissed. It implied the absence of fact-checkers, or worse, their failures.
Robert reminded her of a cat. He sat on the edge of the blue suede sofa in her living room, as if he was ready to run and hide under the bookshelves or her desk in the corner. He held the beer bottle with both hands. She turned on a second lamp in the corner of the room. The light jumped into his eyes.
She was barefoot, and the light peach rug that spread out from under the narrow coffee table felt like a fleece blanket under her toes. She walked around the coffee table slowly and sat next to him. He placed the beer on a coaster and leaned against her. He nuzzled her neck with his lips and forehead and cheeks, like a cat trying to convince her to love it. She did love him. She loved his skinny cuello, his fingers thin as pencils, even the testicle in his neck. She loved the way his face flushed when he talked about health care being privatized. If she could have picked him up by the scruff of his neck, she would have. She would have carried him to her bedroom too, his body dangling from her white teeth.
They undressed in the living room. It was after nine in the evening, and the next door neighbors were playing Juanes, the upstairs neighbors, Tupac. The two men crooned to each other through the plaster and the bookshelves and the one long crack in the ceiling. She kissed the testicle in Robert’s throat. She licked it and tried to nudge it with her tongue. It refused to move. Juanes and Tupac serenaded each other. She showed him how to fasten the leather collar on her neck, how to hold her in place on the blue suede sofa while he took her from behind. He followed directions well. He didn’t ask questions. He bit her right shoulder and grunted, then cried. Afterward, they lay in each other’s arms, listening to the two men trapped in the walls singing about lunas and California and boys kissed by the sun.
Robert worked for a community-based organization in the South Bronx. He counseled two types of families, those whose children had spent months or years in foster care and those who were at risk of losing their children to the system. He carried out home visits and testified in family court and carried a plastic bin in the trunk of his old Honda filled with sand and three Ziploc bags of action figures and Barbie dolls.
She saw him at work once, after their first kiss, before they had made love. He was in an office the CBO had let him turn into a playroom. He had pushed the metal desk into a corner and placed the sand tray on the floor in the middle of the room. His client was a six-year-old black boy with light eyes. The boy piled a dozen toy soldiers in the middle of the sand tray and then crowned them with a black Barbie, her neon pink gown a silk river cascading over a small mound of twisted arms, stiff torsos, and bulky army boots.
She watched the boy and Robert from the door, which had a narrow rectangle-shaped window above the doorknob. Robert was sitting on the floor, opposite the boy, who was very animated in explaining his creation. Robert nodded. Sometimes, he paused with his head inclined toward the boy, and she thought of the ligament at the back of his head, how it was a rubber band that kept his skull from falling forward or to the side. He was listening not with his ears but with the rubber band in his neck, stretching toward the boy’s vision of the world.
Later, over dinner down on Indian row in the city, she and Robert argued about the sand tray. She insisted that the creation represented the boy’s longing for his mother. After being separated from her for three months, he longed to be taken back into her, into the pink gown, the place before this place.
Robert broke off a piece of her garlic naan and said that might be true, but he was sticking with his interpretation. The gown had engulfed the soldiers’ fingers and toes and elbows and suffocated the boy’s rage.
To Speak, to Die
After they first made love, after Robert had gone home in the morning, her living room disappeared.
She was at the front door, locking the door behind him, and when she turned around, the air around her was no longer invisible oxygen and nitrogen molecules. Instead, the air had turned into a translucent rubber curtain between her and the living room. She could see the blue suede sofa, but it looked much farther away and blurred around the edges, like a lake shrouded by thick fog. The rubber curtain muffled the voices coming from the neighbor’s stereo upstairs, and it had already swallowed the long crack in the ceiling. In fact, the ceiling had vanished. It was nothing but a giant white cloud seven feet above her head.
She reached out through the rubber curtain to grab the sofa’s armrest, and her body came undone. Her head separated from her neck. It floated to the left of her shoulders. Her arms detached and quivered somewhere to the right of her torso. Her legs had to be under her, but they were not, and it seemed to her that they had never existed, that she had always been a woman sin piernas.
She did not collapse. She stretched out where she was on the floor, next to the sofa, on the rug her mother had made her buy at Target, and which, before the rubber curtain, had been the color of peaches. Now, she lay on the rug under the rubber curtain and realized the peaches had disappeared. The walls, too, had lost their cream color. And if the bookcases had been painted to look like mahogany, she couldn’t tell now. They wavered at the edge of her vision, like two mammoths creeping away to the horizon.
She closed her eyes. She was not her body. Her body was gone. The only part she could feel was her neck. The carotid arteries throbbed, the blood rushing like a strange river toward an ocean that no longer existed. The river slowed, then trickled, then stopped. Her neck, the last piece of her, disappeared.
She was not having a stroke. This was not a medical problem. This had never happened to her before. This was temporary. Her intuition remained intact, and it told her that all she had to do was keep her eyes closed. Keep them closed and eventually her body would come back. Still, she was terrified. She thought: This is death. No body but still here, still conscious.
Her cell phone rang. It was on the coffee table. She wondered if she could speak, but she didn’t try. The call went to voicemail. She thought about speech and lenguas. She had fact-checked this once. The modern neck came into being because the tongue moved. More than 100,000 years ago, the human mouth had begun to shrink. The tongue shifted back further into the throat and took with it the voice box (the Adam’s apple, the testicle, the tumor-apple), and the neck stretched to accommodate the new tenants. The length of the human neck then was the measure of the desire to speak. Because the change placed the larynx so close to the esophagus, the longing for speech also brought the risk of choking to death.
She was not dying on the peach rug. Every few minutes, she could actually feel the fleece-like fabric of the rug against her cheek, and then it would disappear. The next time the phone rang, she found her neck and rose high enough to answer the call. Her best friend, Pilar, listened and said, Lucia, you’re disassociating. I’m coming over.
She read once that the nape of the neck is the loneliest region of the body. A person can roll from one side of the bed to the other, and every part of the body will make contact with the down comforter (your stomach, la cabeza, the front of your thighs), but not the back of the neck.
She spent election night with him at a party for young Democrats in a Washington Heights apartment near hers. Her friends were there. They liked Robert, and one of them tried to feed him a second plate of arroz con pollo, but he kept saying, No, thank you, and trying to get her to eat it instead, because she was hardly eating any more.
The party spilled into the hallway. She and Robert sat on the staircase, and he put his arms around her, and her head began to float away. She willed her head to come back to her neck. She did what Pilar had told her. She counted what she saw. Nine steps down. One handrail. Eight spindles. Five fingers on her arm belonging to Robert. Three friends. Two Presidente beer bottles. One can of Diet Coke. She stared at a brown mancha on the wall where someone had killed a roach. The smear was two inches long. It looked like a miniature Pollock painting, a zigzag of brown stains, a single broken antenna cleaved to the wall.
Someone yelled, He won! He won!, and people began screaming and hooting and running down the staircase toward the streets. She wriggled out of Robert’s arms. She had to see it for herself.
In the living room, men and women and kids crowded around the television set, hugging and kissing and high-fiving and crying. The headline flashed on the screen: Barack Obama Elected 44th President of the United States of America.
It was true, then. Verified. A woman screamed. It was her. She turned around. Robert was there, waiting for her. She kissed him on the mouth. She grabbed his hand, and they flew down the stairs into the streets and the wide river of cars honking and young men running by with giant American flags, all of them chanting Obama’s name and flowing toward 125th.
She continued to see him. She continued to lose parts of her body. Pilar advised her to tell him and to see a therapist and to join a support group and to read a book called Courage to Heal. She did none of that.
Instead, she rolled from one end of her queen-size bed to the other with Robert. They giggled. They were two skinny kids rocking back and forth. He liked her Wonder Woman bedspread. She lay on her back and closed her eyes, and the space between the nape of her neck and Wonder Woman’s gold head band was an oval the size of a boiled egg. She watched him crane his neck forward and back, trying to fill up the egg space behind his own neck.
They were sitting on her fire escape. It was early December, an impossible time for fire escapes. They were dressed in down jackets and thermal underwear and heavy sweats, and they sipped Cuban coffee from her thermos and watched the roofs of the other apartment buildings mutate colors as the sun came up behind them. Robert said, It’s like the buildings are getting red halos.
It was Sunday morning. She hadn’t been able to sleep again. When she did sleep, she dreamt about men whose faces she couldn’t see, and her limbs left the bedroom, and it was only her neck and Robert in bed, and he had to wake her up because she was punching him in the stomach, because all the years she had dated women she had not had these dreams, and now here they were. Because of him.
He leaned over the fire escape. Your neighbors have an orchid on their fire escape. It’s growing out of a beer can.
But look, it’s blooming.
It’s always blooming.
So it’s a fake?
No, it’s real.
She hated orchids. They had sinister faces and petals that looked like overgrown ears.
They were stupid flowers with their female parts and their male parts combined, making everything impossible.
She told Robert she didn’t like his neck.
He glanced at her. What?
Your neck. It freaks me out. It’s like you’re walking around with a tumor in your neck. Haven’t you noticed it? Look in the mirror. It’s horrible.
He cocked his head toward the street. The bodega was still closed. I’m going to make breakfast, he said, crouching down to step back into the apartment.
She broke up with him. She slept better. She slept for fourteen hours. She didn’t have a single dream. Her body stayed whole. She went to work and took a special assignment researching state executions with a reporter. Between calls and database searches and team meetings, she played hangman online.
The software took three seconds to draw the gallows, two stick lines for the base, a single stick for the pole and another for the horizontal beam. Every time she guessed the wrong letter, she bit her fingernail. The noose unfurled from the beam. Then, the man’s head, which the computer decided was perfectly round, and the neck, which was nothing more than a centimeter of a vertical line on the screen. She found herself missing the letters on purpose, wanting to see the man’s body come back to him.
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