Winner, New Ohio Review Fiction Contest
selected by Mary Gaitskill
By Analía Villagra
He was gone for eleven years, and Jackie is still getting used to the idea that Victor is out. Exonerated. His release had warranted a few sentences on the local NPR station, so Jackie knows that he has been at his mother’s place, three blocks away, for a week. She has not yet run into him on the street. Each time she leaves her apartment she scans the sidewalks, and when he does not materialize she feels equal parts relief and disappointment. Thursday afternoon she goes out of her way to walk past his building, willing him to be on the front steps or looking out the window. She slows down. Would he even recognize her now? Her hair is short, with a few stray glints of gray, no longer halfway to her waist and shimmering black. Her eyes have shadows beneath them. Her hips have spread. She’s thirty years old, in good shape she thinks, unless you’ve spent a decade fantasizing about a nineteen-year-old body. Jackie blushes. This is the first time she’s admitted to herself that she wondered—hoped? assumed?—that Victor thought about her while he was away. Eleven years. Maybe he’ll recognize her, maybe he won’t. She can’t decide which is worse, so she stares down at the sidewalk and hurries past the building.
She goes to the Y to pick her daughter up from camp. Graciela is running around the outdoor play area with a group of other kids, their hair wild, their clothes and faces filthy.
“Mama!” Grace shrieks when she sees her.
Jackie waves. She locates the teenagers wearing staff T-shirts, and they hand her the sign-out sheet without pausing their conversation. Jackie half-listens to the latest counselor drama while Grace gathers her things.
At home, Jackie sends her daughter straight to the bath. She leans over the edge of the tub to wash Graciela’s hair, picking bits of grass out of the lather, while Grace holds a conversation between a plastic shark and a horse with a waterlogged mane about how they (she and the shark) are just kind of over her (the horse) and she should move on. Jackie shakes her head. The counselors, so absorbed in their own world, have no idea how closely their campers watch them. Jackie mentioned kids to Victor once. They’d been walking past an elementary school playground, still and quiet under an unbroken crust of snow, when she said she didn’t think she’d be any good at being a mom. He laughed and nudged her shoulder with his.
“Oh come on, such a know-it-all and you don’t think you could figure it out?” She rolled her eyes at him and let him pull her close.
“Don’t worry,” he said softly in her ear. “We’ll do fine.”
It was the most either of them ever said about the future, and three weeks later Victor was gone.
Jackie was on her own for most of her daughter’s infancy, and while Grace wailed late into the night and Jackie cried and rocked her, she would whisper in the baby’s ear, “We’ll do fine, we’ll do fine,” Victor’s gift, her desperate mantra, until the baby finally fell asleep. Graciela is six, not Victor’s child, but Jackie wants him to meet her—this brilliant girl with smooth pale skin and dark licorice eyes, who’s precocious and gregarious, unlike Jackie, who Victor used to tease for never smiling.
“Why am I getting dressed fancy?” Grace asks as Jackie pulls a yellow cotton shift over her clean, damp hair.
“Not fancy,” she says. “Just a dress.”
Graciela seems satisfied with this answer, but now Jackie is self-conscious about the sundress she set out for herself. She settles for swapping the shirt covered in shampoo bubbles and bathwater for a dry one, and they walk to Victor’s building. Jackie remembers coming here with Victor. She’d wanted his mother to like her, but they only met once and Jackie had never been good at first impressions. She presses the button. 3C Pedraza. After the second press, she hears static. Someone is listening over the intercom.
“Señora Pedraza,” she says, “I’m here to see Victor. It’s Jackie. Jackie Salinas.”
The static clicks off, and they wait. Graciela starts to shuffle and sway, limbs loose and bored. After a full minute the front door buzzes with a violence that makes the glass panes rattle. Jackie leads them through the tiled vestibule and up dark wooden stairs to the third floor. She knocks. The door opens just wide enough to reveal a stocky body in a shapeless paisley housedress. Victor’s mother looks frumpy and old. As soon as Jackie thinks this she wants to take it back. She acts like she’s too good for everyone else; that’s why Victor’s mother hadn’t liked her in the first place. She’d overheard Señora Pedraza say as much eleven years ago. Victor had brought Jackie to a birthday party his mother was hosting for her goddaughter. It was immediately clear to Jackie that both the goddaughter and Señora Pedraza had expected Victor to come alone. Jackie had stood stiffly against a wall while Victor’s mother and aunts studied her from across the apartment, and the goddaughter ran her pearly pink nails through Victor’s hair in a way that no one could interpret as innocent. After they left, he insisted his family had liked her. Jackie accepted his lie without comment.
In front of the open apartment door Jackie hesitates, and Señora Pedraza speaks first.
“That girl is too young to be my granddaughter,” she says. “No, that’s not . . . I didn’t mean . . .”
“Victor moved to his cousin’s,” Señora Pedraza says and closes the door.
Grace brings the plastic shark to the table at breakfast and chatters to it through mouthfuls of cereal in an excellent approximation of a gossiping teenager. Breakfast concludes, teeth are brushed, and Jackie grabs her daughter’s suitcase so she can take her to her dad’s before work. With the exception of the very first drop off, when she and Graciela both cried, the unofficial shared custody arrangement has been painless. This time, Grace will stay with Elías until next Saturday, nine days, because he’s deploying again and won’t see her for a while.
Jackie had been seven months pregnant when Elías first deployed. He was gone for more than a year, and within months of returning home he packed his two duffel bags and moved back to his parents’ basement. Jackie was stunned. He assured her it wasn’t her, it was him. It was the lingering effects of seeing and doing whatever he’d seen and done and couldn’t talk about. He made a point of seeing Grace whenever he could until they decided that she was old enough to spend regular weekends with him. Jackie is grateful for his consistent commitment to their daughter.
Elías is waiting on his front steps when they pull up.
“Papi!” Grace leaps out of the car. Jackie follows with the suitcase.
“How’s my wild stallion?” asks Elías. He scoops her into the air for a hug, and Grace squeals.
“I’m a shark now,” she says.
He raises an eyebrow, and Jackie shrugs and rolls the bag to him. Elías is younger than her, too young for her she thinks now, but she still gets little pinpricks of nostalgia when she sees him.
“Come here, baby,” she says to Grace, arms open. “Mama has to go now.”
Grace gives Jackie a hug and extends something toward her. “She’ll keep you company.”
Jackie accepts the shark. She finds it odd that her daughter refers to it as a she. It seems so masculine with its mouth full of teeth and its beady eyes, but then she thinks female sharks do exist, and they must look just like males. She kisses the top of Graciela’s head and watches her daughter and Elías walk to the house. She gives them a parting wave, but neither of them turns around to see it.
When he was arrested, Victor had been living with his cousin Robert, who Jackie has seen at an auto shop on Prospect, not far from the historic house where she works. Summer Fridays are busy at the house, but she manages to duck out on a lunch break, mumbling to her boss about car trouble. She considers going home to change out of her prim work outfit, pencil skirt and cotton sweater, but if Robert remembers her at all he will remember her as Victor’s stuck-up girlfriend. The one who was in college. The one who didn’t hang out with his friends. The one who had to study, or Victor would have been with her instead of alone on a Thursday night, without an alibi.
Jackie has replayed their last conversation a thousand times. Victor wrapped his arms around her waist and asked to stay over. Yes, she begged silently. Yes, stay. But she didn’t want to be one of those girls, the girls she had grown up with, who made their boyfriends the center of their universe and felt sorry for single girls like they had nothing to live for. Jackie was smart and ambitious, and she had a midterm the next day. She placed a hand on his chest, kissed his cheek, and told him she’d see him later.
“My God,” said her roommate when they heard the news. “You turn that creep away one night and he goes and rapes some girl?”
Jackie wanted to defend Victor but didn’t know what to say. She hadn’t been with him. She didn’t know what happened; she didn’t even know how he spent his time when they weren’t together. They had grown up ten blocks away from one another, graduated in the same high school class, but they hadn’t met until he got a job at the Stop & Shop where she worked. Her college was in their neighborhood, but Jackie lived in a dorm on campus and kept things separate. Classes, history club, summer internship plans on one side; early morning shifts at the grocery store, Victor, on the other. It was only afterwards that she wished she’d introduced him to her friends, or met some of his. She wanted someone to talk to, to share the disbelief, but there was no one.
They had been dating for six months when he was arrested. Her friends condemned him with the same vehemence as the local papers, but Jackie had been unable to imagine him violent. So she stayed quiet. She thought it would pass—there would be evidence or new details of the case to prove Victor’s innocence. He would go free, and she would be vindicated in her refusal to speak against him. Nothing ever materialized, and after a while her silence seemed like a tacit accusation.
She gets to the mechanic, and the man behind the counter is not Robert. Her vague plan frays at the edges.
“Hi. I’m looking for Robert?” She does not know his last name.
The man says nothing to her but opens the door to the garage and yells, “Robert!”
Robert appears, wiping his hands on his coveralls.
“Hi,” says Jackie. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m looking for Victor, your cousin Victor.”
“The college girl,” he says. “The girlfriend.” She nods while he sizes her up.
“He liked you.”
When they were together, she had known Victor lived with a cousin, but she didn’t actually meet Robert until the third or fourth time she stayed over at their place. She’d woken up thirsty in the middle of the night and gone to the kitchen where she ran into Robert, standing over the stove, and an obviously pregnant woman sitting on the kitchen counter in boxer shorts and a bra.
“Angela,” said the woman, stretching out her hand. “I just had to have eggs.” Jackie blushed and shook Angela’s hand, aware that the reach of her arm exposed the curve of her bare ass under Victor’s shirt. Robert saluted with his spatula and gave her a quick once over, like he is doing now.
She waits for the accusation—he liked you and you abandoned him, he liked you and you walked away. Robert doesn’t say anything. He grabs an oil-stained scrap of paper from behind the counter and writes an address.
“He’s staying with our cousin Marcos on Sisson.”
He hands her the paper and goes back into the garage before Jackie can thank him.
Jackie talks things over with the shark when she gets home from work. She has an address, but she doesn’t have a word for what she wants from Victor. The shark grimaces at her. Red paint from its gum line drips over a few of its pointy teeth, making it look like it’s just ripped into a hunk of meat. She imagines it licking its lips at her then realizes she doesn’t know if sharks have tongues.
Her phone rings. It’s Elías.
“What happened?” Her voice has a little shrill of panic.
“Nothing,” he says. “Nothing, Jackie, settle. I just need to talk. Coffee tomorrow?”
“She’s fine. She’s going with Mom and Abby for manicures in the morning.” Elías’s girlfriend is a vivacious fourth-grade teacher with strawberry blonde hair and big breasts, and Graciela loves her. Jackie wishes these facts did not bother her, but they do. She agrees to meet.
The next day, Elías tells her he plans to propose to Abby. They are having a big family barbecue that afternoon, his family and hers, and he’s going to ask then. He wanted to tell Jackie himself, doesn’t want her to hear about it second- hand from their daughter.
When Jackie told him she was pregnant, weeks after his eighteenth birthday, he left her apartment, saying he needed to think. He came back after an hour, still looking like a lost child, but he suggested he move in officially so he could help. She thought he was going to say they should get married, and she was relieved, and a little sad, that he hadn’t.
“Congratulations, Elías,” she says over her latte. “That’s wonderful.”
Once Elías leaves, Jackie slips the dirty piece of paper from her pocket. The coffee shop is only a few blocks from the address Robert gave her. Soon she is standing in front of a large apartment complex. A man comes out, the brim of his hat over his eyes. Jackie knows it isn’t Victor, but she still jumps a little when he looks up at her. She isn’t ready. She finds an outdoor seat at the bar across the street and watches the apartment building.
After two and a half beers her bladder can’t take it. She’ll risk missing him, but she has to go to the bathroom. In the stall she tears up a little, overwhelmed by a mix of relief and regret. She has no idea what she’s doing. She returns to her post and finishes her beer. She orders a fourth. She’s halfway through when she sees him leave. After eleven years, the movement of Victor’s body is still completely familiar to her. He’s bulkier now, broad in the shoulders in a way that suggests hours in a prison gym, and his hair is buzzed short, the coarse curls gone. His arms and legs have more ink than she remembers, but his walk is the same. He leans into the front of his foot, heel barely touching the sidewalk, like he’s tiptoeing. She watches him greet an older man outside the convenience store next to his building. He goes in and comes out with a bag of chips and a soda. He waits at the corner.
Jackie chugs the rest of her beer and has a quick shot of vodka inside while the bartender closes her tab. She hides in the entrance of the bar until Victor boards a bus, then she crosses the street to ring the bell of the apartment. She’s buzzed in immediately. Climbing the four flights of stairs, Jackie realizes she’s drunk, and even though she knows that Victor isn’t home, she starts to think that this is not a good plan. It isn’t even a plan, just a forward motion that she can’t control. A man she doesn’t recognize opens the door. She sways a little and holds onto the doorframe.
“Marcos?” she asks. “Who are you?”
Jackie holds out the paper Robert gave her like it’s a hall pass and tries to explain herself.
“Victor’s out,” says Marcos.
“I know . . . I mean, that’s too bad. Do you have a pen?”
Marcos disappears into the apartment and returns with a purple marker. Jackie has no paper except for the scrap with the address. She turns it over and writes her name and number.
“Jackie,” she says. “Tell him Jackie came by.”
She tries to look sure of herself as she walks away, but she has to run her hand along the wall of the stairwell to stay steady, and she can feel Marcos watching her descend. It’s only three in the afternoon. Too early to be this bleary. She walks the mile home, drags herself up the stairs to her apartment, and stumbles into the living room.
It’s dark when she wakes up on her couch. The dizziness is gone, replaced by a groggy sense of urgency. She feels around for her phone. What if he’s called? What if he hasn’t? It’s after ten, and all she has is a text from Elías: She said yes! Told G she could call you in the AM. Jackie takes a cold shower without turning on any lights and throws herself onto her bed still wrapped in her towel.
Graciela calls on Monday morning to tell Jackie about her dad’s engagement. She also asks Jackie if she’s a loner.
“It’s okay if you are,” Grace says. “Sharks are loners.” She asks Jackie to keep the plastic shark next to her bed. “Sharks don’t sleep. So she can help if you are a loner at night.”
The idea of the shark watching her sleep sounds creepy, but she also thinks it’s sweet of Graciela to worry. Jackie puts the shark on her bedside table and makes a mental note to have Elías remind his mother not to talk about her in front of their daughter.
The first half of the week passes, each day bleeding into the next. Victor does not call. He blames her. Of course he does; she blames herself. She should have defended him, insisted he could never do such a thing. Instead, when the cops questioned her, she just said over and over again, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” She had never been inside a police station before, and they treated her like an accomplice. She spent over an hour in a stark gray interview room with two male cops who asked her a lot of questions about sex. Had Victor ever forced her, was he ever rough? What were his kinks? Did he ever scare her? The room seemed to fill with stale air from the fat cop’s open-mouth wheeze and his partner’s gravelly exhales. She couldn’t do more than whisper yes or no or shake her head, her gaze fixed down at the peeling laminate of the table in front of her. They read sections of the medical report to her that made her cry quietly in her chair—vaginal lacerations, bruising, rectal abrasions. They showed her a picture of the girl, her nose crusted in blood, a scrape like road rash on her cheek from the friction of her face against the asphalt.
“How well did you really know him?” asked the fat cop.
The unanswered question rolled like fog over the room, and she stayed silent. But it wasn’t Jackie’s statement that put him away. It was the girl, the victim. “Yes, that’s him,” the girl had said in the courtroom.
According to the newspaper article that smeared Jackie’s fingers with gray as she read and reread it, the girl had shaken slightly in the witness stand but pointed at Victor without hesitation. “That’s the man who raped me.”
Eleven years later DNA proved her error, but she had stood up and faced the man she believed to be her attacker. She was wrong, but she was brave. Jackie was a coward.
By Saturday, Jackie stops hoping her phone will ring. She tries to focus on work, the steady stream of visitors to the historic house—earnest young parents corralling restless children, elderly couples looking rheumy and out of focus beneath wispy halos of white hair. When the crowds quiet down, she ducks away from the front desk and goes to the bathroom to splash water on her face. She stares at her reflection, partially hidden by the spray of dark spots on the mirror. No new evidence could absolve her for abandoning the boy she loved. She had loved Victor. She finally admits this to herself, and the admission makes her years of silence unforgivable.
When she gets off work she has a missed call and a message, and her fingers tremble over her cell. It’s Elías. He’ll be at her place in a half-hour to drop Graciela off. She gets home and sits on the edge of her bed. She turns the shark so its toothy grin faces her.
“We’ll do fine, right?” she asks it. “Us loners?”
There’s a polite tap at the front door, and Jackie goes into the living room as Elías lets himself into the apartment. Grace clings to her father’s leg, her face already red and blotchy. He kneels on the floor, holding her close.
“Love you a million, my little hammerhead,” he says. Elías gets to his feet. “Take care of yourself,” he says to Jackie.
“You too,” she answers.
He has to go. Abby is waiting in the car. The door clicks closed behind him and they listen to him descend the stairs. Jackie touches her daughter’s tear-smeared cheek. She suggests they take a walk to the park before dinner. Grace goes to Jackie’s bedroom for the shark, but once she has it she changes her mind and sets it on the coffee table.
“We’ve grown apart,” she says. “But we still respect each other.”
Jackie has to smile. Grace even gets Elías’s expression right, one eyebrow diving down into the bridge of her nose and one arched up.
She is still smiling when they leave their building and see a man standing on the front steps, looking out at the street. Victor turns when he hears them.
“I wasn’t sure you were home,” he says, eyes fixed on a point over her shoulder.
Jackie feels Grace’s impatient tug on her arm and with a pat on the shoulder lets her skip ahead.
“I asked around,” he says. “The neighbors, they said this was your building, they told me you and . . .” he tips his chin at Graciela and trails off.
They stand in silence.
“I came by,” Jackie says. He nods.
“We’re going to the park,” she says, finally moving after her daughter.
He falls into step with her. They do not touch, but they are close enough that as they walk the swing of his arm creates a rhythmic breeze that Jackie can feel swishing back and forth over her skin. His eyes stay down at his feet. She watches his lips, slightly parted as if he is out of breath or on the verge of saying something.
At the park, Grace produces a green army man from her pocket and talks to him in an unbroken stream about bravery and duty and coming home soon.
“She’s beautiful,” says Victor. “Thank you,” says Jackie.
They watch her slide and climb and swing. A few people jog or walk dogs on the path behind them, but they have the playscape to themselves.
“Victor?” says Jackie.
He looks straight at her at last, and it’s as if no time has passed. They are nineteen again, sincere and uncertain. Jackie doesn’t know where to begin. Words have been echoing through her head for years, things she’d always meant to say, but didn’t, because it was new and they were young and they had all the time in the world.
Analía Villagra’s work has been selected by Mary Gaitskill as the winner of the New Ohio Review fiction contest and by Rebecca Makkai as the runner-up in the Iowa Review Awards. She is a Writing by Writers fellowship recipient and a fiction reader for One Story and Split Lip Magazine.