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Stories of Men and Women by M.K. Narváez (Nonfiction Winner)

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M.K. Narváez is a writer and translator originally from Caracas, Venezuela. She holds a BFA in Film and Television Production from the School of Visual Arts and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The New School. She currently lives in New York City.

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When I was seven years old the maid told me about a man who kidnapped a young girl. He took her to his apartment on the upper floor of a skyscraper. The girl wriggled herself free from his clutches and locked herself in the bathroom. The man kicked and kicked the door until it almost gave. Trapped, she jumped out the window to her death. 

“Why would she do that! Was she crazy?” I gasped.

“Oh, no.” The maid’s blue eyes glinted. 

“Was he going to eat her?”

“Even worse. He was a sádico,” she answered. “And she was a very pretty girl.” 

“What does that have to do with anything! Tell me. What was he going to do with her?” 

From the talk of women around me, all men are a hair’s breadth away from being full-blown sádicos. You have to have malicia, the women say, not be so innocent, and be on guard. 

It’s the reason Abuela only allows us to play in our gated front yard when an adult is around. “No vaya a ser que las secuestre un sádico. What if a sádico kidnaps you?” 

But everyone refuses to tell me exactly what makes him so bad.

I can’t ask Mamá because she’s in New York, studying English. She left my five-year-old sister and me behind in Caracas with her parents. The three of us have lived with our abuelos and cousin Kareem ever since she divorced Papá. Except for him, Abuelo and tío Arlán, we live in a world of women.

Even boys are off-limits.

Abuela usually keeps us away from them because we’ll end up oliendo a mono and little girls shouldn’t smell like monkeys. The few times she lets us play with our boy cousins, she’ll pop into the room, unannounced. She narrows her eyes at the boys, and then leaves as abruptly as she entered, leaving us kids puzzled and the boys looking a little shaken. 

Secretly, I don’t think all men are as bad as women say. I’ve been observing them from afar. I like how they turn a chair around to sit with their legs wide open and how they rub their hands together when they’re looking forward to watching the ballgame. I like how they smell of cologne and tobacco, and I like how deep their voices are. Why do the women act as if having one around is like keeping a pet tiger?

I may be seven but men are a mystery I am determined to crack.

.  .  .

We live in la quinta Sinfonía in the sleepy residential section of El Rosal. In Venezuela, houses and buildings have names, and uncle Arlán named ours, which is a pun on Beethoven’s fifth symphony because quinta means “house” but also “fifth.” 

In the mornings we dunk buttered toast in café con leche. After breakfast, Abuela drives my sister and me to school. During these rides she tells me the family lore. 

I listen intently and visualize every little detail in my head. In this way, her memories become my memories, and the past becomes as alive and real as the present.

In the old days, when my mother was a little girl, they were rich. They lived in a big house with marble floors and a staircase, in the plummy neighborhood of Altamira, right at the foot of the mountains that flank Caracas. They had a cook and a maid who wore a black uniform with a frilly white apron and one of those little white hats on top of her head. Abuela hosted big fancy parties with a real live band that played boleros and mambos while white-gloved waiters served tasty pasapalos and champagne on little silver platters. There’s even a picture of one of those parties with my abuelos dancing, and you can tell it was a mambo bien sabroso, real tasty, because grandpa’s eyes are half-closed, his head is thrown back and his mouth is open as if he were saying, “Aaaaah!” My grandmother’s looking up at him, smiling, which means even she’s having a good time, so that’s unusual. 

“It’s not like now, you know,” she sighs. In those days, my grandfather was a perfume distributor, but he lost it all after Pérez Jiménez was overthrown. So they moved with their three kids, Virginia, Arlán and Mamá, to Madrid. Abuelo’s other kids with other women stayed behind. 

My grandmother doesn’t mind the other kids. “Es que tu abuelo es muy tremendo.” She makes it sound as if he were just a naughty little boy. “Children shouldn’t have to pay for their parents’ mistakes.”

“But anyway, when we came back we had nothing. Nothing. And nobody wanted anything to do with us! The only job he could get was one Pedreáñez found him in La Guaira, carrying boxes at the piers. But it was honest work and we were grateful. Yes, if only Virginia hadn’t burned down the warehouse in one of her fits, we’d still—”

“But I thought you said you lost it all because Pérez Jiménez—”

“—Nené, please! The point is things are different now.” 

So now we make do. Instead of retiring, Abuelo sells insurance and drives a green Plymouth that he shares with Abuela. My sister and I go to an all-girls school for free because my grandmother met the mother superior on the boat back from Spain and they hit it off. We still have a live-in maid, though, and there’s always money for books because Abuela used to be a teacher before she got married and education is important. 

.  .  .

When we get home from school at noon, the house gleams and smells like lavender. Abuelo arrives a little after us and we all have lunch together.

Twice a week Uncle Arlán and his wife Almendrita join us, bringing along one of his students from la Universidad Central where he teaches economics. As soon as we hear his Fiat pull up, my sister and I run to hug him and ask him for la bendición. Swooping us up into his arms, he says, “Dios te bendiga—may God bless you,” which is how adult family members greet kids. 

Then he asks me, “¿Con que quieres que te fría, mi pescado? What would you like me to fry you in, my little fish?” I’m supposed to answer, “¡Con aceite El Dorado! With El Dorado cooking oil!” He asks my little sister, “¿A este cochinito gordo…? And this fat little pig…?” And she says, “¡Con Branca me lo compongo! I’ll fix him up with Branca shortening!”

We eat a proper lunch of soup, white rice, fried sweet plantains, salad, and meat. The men talk politics, which bores me witless and which seems to consist of judging whether different politicians have “their feet firmly planted on the ground,” which doesn’t strike me as such a good standard anyway, because, really, where else are they going to plant their feet? 

After lunch, the guests leave and my sister and I follow our grandparents into their bedroom. Abuelo hangs his shirt and suit jacket on the wooden valet and lies down next to my grandmother who’s barefoot but still dressed. My sister and I sit on the cool stone floor in front of the television to watch the afternoon telenovela. Our grandparents do crossword puzzles and comment. 

“Aha, you see,” Abuela says, pointing at the screen. “He’s back trying to win her over, just like I predicted. ¡Sinvergüenza! He’s shameless, that one!” 

Sí, chica,” Abuelo chuckles. 

Abuelo is always amused. I often catch him laughing at some secret joke, hand to his chin, shoulders and potbelly quivering. Abuela says that when they were young, caraqueños still wore costumes during carnaval. One carnaval, Abuelo ended up kissing a guy disguised as a woman. When his friends found out, they tried to convince Abuelo to beat him up, but he refused. He cracks up when Abuela gets to this part of the story and shrugs, “Someone who kisses like that doesn’t deserve a beating.” 

When the telenovela ends, Abuelo puts on his shirt and tie, clips the gold chain of his pocket-watch to the top of his trousers and tucks it in his pocket, chain arcing down his leg. He tilts his dove-grey fedora at an angle, saying, “Bueno, me voy. I’m going.” We catch a whiff of his cologne as he leans down to kiss us. Then he drives back to work. 

I still haven’t figured out what he does exactly. I visited his office once. A bunch of men in suits and ties sat in front of phones, punching numbers into calculators, or pecking at typewriters. What kind of work is that? Real work entails making things out of nothing, like baking a cake, or building a bridge. What men do at the office is mysterious, whereas women’s work has a visible and concrete result: cooking, cleaning, making order out of things, stuff that is real and tangible. 

.  .  .

My sister and I see our father on the weekends and holidays. I only know a few things about him. I know he is one of ten kids, but I don’t know where he fits in the line-up. He is originally from the country. He was in the military, but only for a little while. Mamá says they met at the beach and they got married when she got pregnant with me. 

I have a handful of memories from when we were a family. One is of the three of us sitting on the couch, my father’s head on my mother’s lap as she strokes his head. The other is of me, lying in my crib, listening to Mamá sob as Papá beats her on the other side of the door. When he went too far, she tore up his pictures and all his clothes and left, taking my sister and me. Only one photograph remains of the four of us together. 

Aside from the beatings, Abuela doesn’t like him because he is dark. Mamá tells me that when she was pregnant with me, Abuela teased her that her baby would be black like the one that appeared in a public service announcement for breastfeeding. But instead of inheriting his coloring or Mamá’s olive skin and jet-black hair, we turned out pale and blue-eyed. I don’t care what my father looks like or what he does or doesn’t do for a living or what he did or didn’t do to Mamá. I love him no matter what.

.  .  .

We call the maid la muchacha, regardless of her age. The maids don’t stay with us for very long, so there’s a string of them. No one ever tells me why they’re gone. “It just didn’t work out.” Or: “No seas impertinente. Don’t ask so many questions.” 

Sometimes after lunch, my sister and I hang out with her. She does the ironing while watching the same telenovela as our grandparents. 

“She should tell him already that the baby is his.” She tilts her chin to point at the actress on-screen.  

“She’s going to have a baby? When did they get married?” 

“You don’t have to be married to have a baby,” she says. She grins to reveal the gap between her two front teeth. I’ve seen this look in her eyes before, as if she were trying to tell me something. 

“Why are you smiling at me like that?”

“I’m not smiling,” she says, flicking her tongue and grinning wider.

Confused, I turn to the sobbing woman on-screen.

“Why won’t she tell him she is going to have a baby?” 

“Because she’s poor and his mother wants him to marry la catira, that blonde one who’s rich like him. Except he doesn’t love her.”

I may be seven, but I know just how idiotic it is to marry someone you don’t love when you love someone else. Men don’t make any sense. 

.  .  .

I can feel an invisible current that draws a man and a woman to one another. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and turn on the TV, catching scenes in which a man and a woman kiss passionately while a saxophone blares. The screen fades to black and the camera follows the discarded clothes on the ground, holding on the bra. So sex involves the removal of clothing, but I’m fuzzy on the mechanics. I imagine that once a man and a woman are naked together, they throw jugs of milk at each other. 

“You should get married,” I announce to two of the students my uncle brings regularly for lunch. The boy is blond, blue-eyed, and skinny. She’s plump with glossy black hair and big brown eyes. 

She snorts, “No way, ¡qué va!

“But you like each other!” 

“Oh, she’s crazy about me!” He winks at me. 

“What!” She punches him on the arm, and he turns and pinches hers. 

“Ouch! ¡Bruto!

“Oh, did that hurt? I’m so sorry. Here, let me make it better.” He rubs her arm and then plants little kisses up and down it.

“You see!” I say. 

“You,” she says, turning to me, “are a very little girl and you don’t know anything about these things!”

Adults have the deeply frustrating habit of denying things that are perfectly obvious. Why this is I don’t know, but the day that I lose my confidence in my ability to read what’s unsaid is still far off. 

.  .  .

On one of our weekend outings, Papá takes us to the country where we ride horses. My sister and I take turns riding in the saddle with him, and I fall when it’s my turn to climb on. 

The next day my shoulder hurts and Papá takes me to the doctor. He says I’ve dislocated my shoulder and puts my arm in a sling. When Papá drops us off, Abuela greets him icily. For the rest of the time I wear the sling she asks, “What was he thinking putting you on a horse?”

“But I wanted to! And I liked it!”

“You liked it? What if you had broken your neck?”

“But I didn’t break my neck!”

She looks away and narrows her eyes and sets her jaw as if she were about to shoot something in the distance.

.  .  .

One day Abuela tells my little sister and me that instead of going to our father’s, we’re to go away with the maid on her weekends off. She lives in the countryside, in a pin-neat house with her fifteen-year-old son, Rafael.

Rafael has ash-blond hair, blue eyes, wide shoulders, and a flat stomach. I like looking at him. He listens to me and laughs at the things I say. He and his friends walk with a bounce in their step. They climb trees, dive into lakes headfirst, run at breakneck pace over hills, and put me on the handlebars of their bikes while they ride. They’re not afraid of falling, of breaking bones, or picking up bugs with their bare hands. They catch cicadas and tie a string around their protruding eyes, then walk them like a dog with a leash. They wash out milk cartons and keep crickets inside. They are free in their bodies in a way I’m not, what with Abuela’s warnings to sit still, ankles crossed, like a good little lady.

Rafael can make toys out of random stuff, like kites out of popsicle sticks and colored tissue paper. Instead of glue, he dabs peeled grapes on the sticks. In the backyard he keeps parts he’s dismantled from cars, motorcycles, and bikes. When I’m bored, he strips a bicycle rim for me and gives it to me as a hoop. 

Most of all I like that he pays attention to me. 

But one morning I wake up to find his mother has been replaced by a new maid. I won’t see Rafael ever again. 

.  .  .

Abuela has given away everything Papá ever gave us. Toys, clothing—all gone.  

“Just think, some poor little girl will finally have pretty dresses to wear. Isn’t that nice?”

“No!” I bellow. “You had no right!”

She tells me I can’t leave my room until dinnertime. As soon as she leaves, I smash things against the wall.

Papá stops coming. He never calls. I ask her if she can unlock the rotary phone so I can call him, but Abuela waves away my requests, until finally I just stop asking. 

Now whenever I go to my friends’ houses, I study their fathers from afar. As they watch the ballgame, I search their faces for clues. What makes men leave? What makes them stay? I can’t tell and I’m afraid to ask. 

.  .  .

Shortly after I turn nine, Abuela wakes us up one Sunday morning with tears in her eyes. 

¿Qué pasó? Why are you crying?”

She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand and says Mamá is marrying a gringo and has sent for my sister and me. We’re moving to America!

“Yay!” We bounce out of bed, clapping with joy. 

America is like a Technicolor movie. Americans are always grinning, baring big, white teeth. They smell like the spearmint gum they’re forever chewing and drive apple-red convertibles across endless highways. In America everyone knows how to tap dance. In fact, people spontaneously break into song and dance even when they should be sad. I can’t wait.

We land in New York on a rainy autumn day. The colors here are muted, washed out in greys. We drive by identical little houses laid out row by row. 

Here in Queens no one likes us. The kids at P.S. 46 tease my sister and me about wearing high waters, and taunt us because we can’t kick, bat, or run. The kids in our courtyard laugh because we don’t know how to play baseball or ring-o-levio or kick-the-can. Girls I’ve never met announce that they’re going to kick my ass, and when one of the Puerto Rican girls translates, I feel my heart stop. 

“But why?” I gasp. 

Porque eres una weirdo,” she explains. “You know, different, strange. Not normal.” How is that even a good reason for hitting someone?

These American kids look at us like we’re not even there, their blue eyes as cold as icicles. 

So I stay indoors reading the Spanish books that Abuela brought back in her luggage. This bothers my stepfather and I overhear him tell my mother, “How could she possibly want to stay inside reading all day? That’s just not normal!”

Normal. I’m beginning to hate that word. 

More than anything, I ache to go back to Caracas, where the mountains are lush, the sun sets at a reasonable hour, and where it’s okay to be strange. 

Here, my sister and I are always doing something that sends our stepfather into rages. 

“You’re lying!” 

“No, no, really—”

Protesting only makes him angrier. He moves in closer until we’re cornered against the wall.

That’s when your mind goes blank. The veins in his neck pop out as he hovers over you, and calls you a bitch, an asshole, a lying piece of shit. When your seven-year-old sister screams at him to get off you, he turns around, and grabs her shirt. Her body goes limp before he slams her against the wall. 

When I tell Abuela, she explains that we have a new father now.

Lo importante es que te conformes. You have to make the best of it. I was a stepmother to your abuelo’s other kids, so I understand. Being a stepparent is a thankless job.”

Everyone says, “He’s your father, he’s your father.” 

Finally after one of his outbursts, I shout at Mamá, “He’s not my father! How could you let him treat us like that?” 

She slaps me.

Looking into her eyes, I finally understand. There are things so taboo you should never voice them, shouldn’t even think them. 

Maybe everyone’s right. Maybe it’s true that I’m not normal, that I’m too mouthy, that I think too much. Maybe I’m crazy, like Aunt Virginia. This terrifies me. I don’t want to end up sleeping on the streets, smelling like rotten fish and caked-in sweat. I don’t know how I got to be so bad, but I’m going to try, really try to understand. Like Mamá says when she wants me to smile at him, “¿Qué te cuesta? Is it really that hard?” 

Except it is hard. Little by little, I fold inward, like a wilting plant. I practice being invisible. Then I can be safe. 

Invisibility is proving to be a challenge though. Although I’m only nine, I’m already developing breasts. In the school hallway, one boy even reaches out and squeezes one of my budding breasts, and the other boys squeal in delight. I freeze, not knowing what to do, so I pretend nothing happened. 

At night, I pray that my breasts disappear and imagine waking up to find the two little mounds resting beside me, my chest flat again. Praying is useless, though. I’m going through early puberty no matter what. 

By ten, I’m wearing heavy sweaters even in ninety-degree weather. I forget my body until Cathy Miller dares me to put on my red shift dress and try on Mamá’s high heels. I put them on and stagger across the apartment. 

“You look like Barbie!” 

She grabs my wrist and pushes me in front of the full-length mirror. 

The dress tucks in at a newly discovered waist, and clings to my bosom. I don’t recognize the miniature woman staring back at me.

“You should wear this outside!”

The thought mortifies me, but Cathy is my only friend. I can’t tell her no.

So I grab the rail as I make my way down the stairs and outside.

Everyone stares as I toddle around the courtyard. The high school boys on Springfield Boulevard elbow each other in the ribs and whistle and blow kisses. They’re talking to me but the blood pumps so loud in my ears I can’t hear what they’re saying. The hunger in their eyes scares me. 

I can see that to them I’m no longer a person, just a body. I feel myself recede; hijacked by curves I’ve sprouted against my will. 

I escape into fantasy. I read all the time, not just books, but also cereal boxes, medicine labels, gum wrappers. I write stories on my stepfather’s electric typewriter. When I walk to school, I invent movies with complicated plots that open to glowing reviews, like the ones in Time magazine.

Other times I picture a different escape. I imagine racing toward the windows, crashing through the glass, and shattering into little pieces on the ground below. 

.  .  .

The following year, Mamá decides to send my sister and me back to Caracas to spend the entire summer with our abuelos.

The summer I turn twelve, I write a poem in Spanish about my father’s absence. Even as I write it I feel like a fake. “Why did you leave? Why must I tell everyone you’re dead?” It’s so overwrought. I’m really not hurt about his abrupt disappearance. I haven’t even thought about it. Really, I’m fine with it. 

Abuela passes it around for everyone to read, embarrassing me. My awkwardness is compounded when a grown-up tells me how much he loved the poem.

“You know, my father left me too. You expressed exactly how I feel about him leaving. Thank you.” 

Now I can’t even come clean about making it all up. 

Behind my back, my grandmother sends the poem off to get it published. There’s even a picture of me, as if I were famous. I’m mortified. Then I notice the byline: She had it printed with my stepfather’s last name. 

“I sent a copy of it to him,” she gloats. By “him” she means Papá. “Hah!”

“But he’ll be hurt I’m not using his name!”

She shrugs, “He’ll probably reach out when you’re a famous writer, and you’ll tell him, ‘I don’t know who you are, señor, but you are not my father. My father is the man who raised me.’ Hah! That’s what you’ll tell him!” 

That seems unnecessarily harsh to me. But by now I’ve learned to bite my tongue. 

.  .  .

There’s a new maid the summer I turn thirteen. Her name is Nancy. 

Nancy is from a small town in the countryside. She tells me a secret: She is no longer señorita because at sixteen she fell in love with a man and left her family to live with him. 

And then one night she tells me a different kind of secret.

“Your abuelo came into my room last night with his paloma in his hand.”

I blink. I’m having a hard time with the concept of my grandfather even having a paloma. Nancy mistakes my lack of response for interest and continues:

“And it was hard! So I said, ‘You are seventy-three, for God’s sake, and I’m eighteen and I’m pretty. Don’t you see you are old? You are old.’”

I don’t know what to say, so I just listen, but even listening feels like a betrayal.

In two years Abuelo will die of a stroke. Abuela will tell me: “He was in bed, you know, with another woman. She was the one who called. She told me, ‘Come pick up your dead man, señora.’ Just like that. Just like that.”

Nancy will still work for Abuela. But now she has a two-year-old boy who sends my usually callous grandmother into fits of frenzied affection. This will puzzle me until the day I am suddenly struck by his familiar features. 

“Never trust a man,” Abuela will say. “They’re all selfish. Each and every one of them.”

She will not sound angry. It is a fact of life, after all, so I’d better get used to it.

At the core of her matter-of-factness is a lie, a trap really. That this is the way men are and that there’s nothing to be done about it, a reality of life as inexorable as the place of the sun in the heavens, or the law of gravity. Call it the Law of Men and Women, a set of notions that I inherited from all the women in my life. Men control everything and we merely go along for the ride. There’s no pushing back, not even to protect those less innocent than you. 

.  .  .

Thirty years went by before I spoke to Papá again. After hearing about my disastrous marriage and harrowing love affairs, a therapist asked me about his abandonment. 

“I really don’t feel anything about it. I know I’m supposed to, but there’s no deep sorrow. Just indifference really.”

That night I dreamt of a little girl with big green eyes like mine who hunted down men and shot them. As soon as I woke up I emailed a cousin for my father’s number. 

As his cell rang, I asked myself what I should call him. Papá sounded false, so I settled on just giving my name.

Hola, mi amor!” His warmth was jarring, as if no time at all had gone by. 

We chatted for a while. Finally I asked why he dropped out of our lives so abruptly. 

“I lost my job and found a new one in a city two hours away. Every week I’d arrange to pick you up with your grandmother, but then I’d show up and you guys wouldn’t be there.” 

“Why do you think she did that?” I expected him to mention his skin color, or his background, or his violence toward my mother.

“Well, since you and your sister were so pretty, she didn’t want me around you.” 

I knew exactly what he meant by that. 

All those times Abuela had reminded me of my father’s abandonment and it turned out she’d orchestrated it. 

How could she have lied to a little girl? She rewrote my story, permanently destroying and erasing my relationship with him. I stopped speaking to her, afraid that I’d lash out and kill her with my words. 

Years went by before I finally called Abuela and asked her to forgive me for abandoning her. “I forgive you,” she said, eagerly. She died two days later at ninety-four.  

.  .  .

Until recently, I was angry at my mother for her unwillingness to take action about anything, get a job, or leave my abusive stepfather, or take up painting once again. 

Except that I am now old enough to be my own Galileo and challenge the family cosmology about male and female. And I can only go easy on those women who warped my sense of what it meant to be a woman. For years I too struggled to break free from that familiar, feminine passivity.

I didn’t walk out when I was confronted again and again with evidence of a boyfriend’s infidelity. My husband had to force me out of the house so that I would finally take a step toward ending a miserable marriage. For years, when confronted with a painful truth, I willingly fell asleep like Dorothy in her field of poppies.  

Now I think I understand why Abuela did what she did. She groomed me to become a writer so that I wouldn’t have to depend on a man. In her own painfully destructive way, she wanted to empower me. It took me years to learn the hard-won truth. The only real power stems from voluntarily opening the door to the sádico, face him head on, and see for myself if the gleam in his eye is truly predatory, or if his erotic need merely reflects my own fears, my own desires, my fear of my desires. To see for myself what the real danger is, and who it’s really stemming from: him or a deeply ingrained force that compels me to become a willing hostage instead of taking charge of my story.  •