Nacho sighs and then emits a whistle of exasperation through his teeth. He can’t bring himself to look at his wife, Maricris, because he suspects that he will start to weep, and Nacho knows that he is an ugly cry. So Nacho forces his eyes to focus on the balustrade that runs along the perimeter of their porch. And this makes him wonder about the men—for surely only men did that type of work in 1927, the year their house was built—who shaped and sanded and painted the balusters and handrail. Had the women or men in their lives taken their hearts, too—in the same way Maricris had taken his—and had they fought with all of their essence to retrieve for themselves that most crucial of human organs? Nacho’s thoughts wander further afield and he considers the state of their balustrade: it is sturdy and well crafted, but it could use a good sanding and a fresh coat of paint. But then Nacho’s initial thought returns. He sighs, finally surrenders, and turns his eyes to his beautiful wife.
“Maricris,” he whispers. “Por favor, give me back my heart. You have had it for 10 years.”
Maricris sits back in the porch swing that Nacho installed for his wife’s 35th birthday five years earlier. Maricris cradles her mug of hot Nescafé—thick with half-and-half and three tablespoons of brown sugar—as if it were a baby chick or hamster or live grenade. And then she spits out an emphatic “No!” with her red lips forming such a perfect O that Nacho falls in love all over again. And then Maricris lets out a hearty “Ha!” because she sees that her husband has fallen for her once more. She then sips the hot coffee and savors both the rich flavor of her favorite beverage and her undeniable power over this man.
This story appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Nacho realizes that his wife is more beautiful at that moment than at any other moment including their wedding day. And the inevitable moistness starts to well up in Nacho’s big, brown eyes—eyes he inherited from his mother and that resemble so many of the big, brown eyes of the Mexicans from Jalisco—and he blinks but the tears have turned Maricris into an expressionist painting and Nacho surrenders and allows the tears to drop freely from his big, brown, Jalisco eyes.
And then Maricris says it again, but this time in her own whisper: “No.”
Nacho knows that he has no one to blame but himself. The day before they married, Maricris had asked him for his heart. Nacho could have said no, stood on principle—asserted his independence as an adult—and that would have been that.
But no. Nacho could not deny this woman anything.
So, as they lay in bed that long, luxurious day before their wedding, Nacho opened up his chest as Maricris greedily looked on, her mouth almost watering. He gingerly lifted his beating heart from its home and plopped it into Maricris’s open palms. Nacho remembers Maricris’s grunt of delight while she beheld his heart as it undulated and wriggled in Maricris’s beautiful, brown hands. She then scurried out of bed, in her naked splendor, and plopped Nacho’s heart into a small, hand-carved, wooden box that sat on her dresser, a box Nacho had never noticed before. From his vantage point, Nacho could not see the box’s top, which was adorned with a replica of a José Guadalupe Posada woodcut of nine rollicking skeletons riding old-time bicycles over a lone—and now doubly dead—skeleton wearing armor. But over the years, Nacho would become quite familiar with the Posada calacas, memorizing each particular horrific grin of the vainglorious skeletons, and he would feel deep remorse for that lone skeleton whose life had been extinguished yet again even in death.
Nacho remembers in exquisite detail how Maricris then closed the box with a loud snap and scurried back into bed. She meticulously wiped Nacho’s thick, warm blood from her hands onto her immaculate, white sheets, then snuggled into her man and gently examined with her fingertips the fleshy edges of the gaping hole on Nacho’s chest that slowly closed until only a violently pink line ran like a deserted road from Nacho’s throat down to his navel. Nacho could have said no, and Maricris would not have his heart today. But Nacho had little control when it came to Maricris’s desires. And, of course, Nacho could see that Maricris knew this about her man, which only made Nacho love her more.
For 22 days after they married, Maricris kept Nacho’s heart in that small, hand-carved, wooden box that sat on her dresser. Then one afternoon at 3:03 p.m., Maricris wandered into what was once her bedroom but was now theirs and happened upon Nacho standing before the dresser, arms akimbo, motionless, staring at the closed wooden box that held his beating heart. Maricris crept behind her husband and looked over his shoulder and down toward the box. Finally, after 12 long seconds, Maricris shouted: “Boo!”
Nacho did not start. Indeed, he did not react in any manner whatsoever. But his heart jumped so hard that it jostled loose the little brass latch on the box’s lid and almost leapt from its splintery home.
The next day, Maricris drove to the hardware store and returned 23 minutes later. Nacho watched from the dining room table as Maricris cleared the floor of their guest closet and set up a new, 12-pound Stalwart Digital Safe that had been called a “best value” by a woman who hosted the Security Nerd blog and who proclaimed: “For its price point, this is one of the best home safe options on the market. It has safety features such as an automatic lock after 3 incorrect entries on the keypad during any one-hour period and the LED keypad gives an added layer of security. Plus, you can even make customizable codes for guests. There is also an override key if you forget your code or if the battery runs out.”
After Maricris opened the safe and set the security lock, she marched to the bedroom and returned with the wooden box. Nacho could hear his heart beating woefully as Maricris set the box inside the safe, closed and locked it.
“There,” said Maricris. “No more temptation.”
Nacho sometimes imagined that their life together was like a stage play with their dialogue written by an anonymous playwright and rehearsed over the course of six weeks until they were ready to act out their roles for an unseen audience. One occurrence felt particularly like a scene from a theatrical work in progress:
(Scene: Present day. maricris and nacho sit at their breakfast table lingering over a lazy Sunday brunch. They are very old-school so they each read a section of the Los Angeles Times, both lost in the printed words. After two beats, nacho breaks the silence.)
Nacho: (newspaper up to his face, reading) Mi amor…
(maricris grunts, absorbed in reading her section of the newspaper)
Nacho: (lowers newspaper, looks at maricris) Mi amor…
Maricris: (not moving newspaper from her face) Sí, mi vida, sí…I am listening…
Nacho: (skeptically, but pushing on) It says here, mi amor…
Maricris: (not moving newspaper from her face) Sí, mi vida, sí…
Nacho: It says here that a new study shows that married men live longer than unmarried men.
Maricris: It only feels longer, mi vida.
Nacho: (lifts newspaper back to his face, ignores maricris’s joke, and continues reading to his beloved wife) And a 2009 study reported that men who married more educated women also enjoyed a lower death rate than men who married less educated women.
Maricris: (putting newspaper down to look at nacho) Gracias a Dios that I got that master’s degree.
Nacho: (putting down newspaper) Sí, mi amor. (beat) ¿Mi amor?
Maricris: (lifting newspaper up in a vain attempt to end the conversation and continue reading in peace) Sí, mi vida…
Nacho: (beat) May I have my heart back?
Maricris: (not moving newspaper from her face, calmly, with little emotion) No.
Nacho: (imagining the perfect o that his wife’s mouth just formed) But why not?
Maricris: (putting newspaper down) Why should I? You gave it to me.
Nacho: I miss it.
Maricris: You do?
Nacho: Sí. Very much.
Maricris: But you knew what you were getting into when you fell in love with me.
Nacho: I did?
Maricris: No hay rosa sin espinas.
Nacho: (considers his beloved wife’s observation for a beat) Ni modo. I ask again: May I have my heart back?
Maricris: (beat) OK.
Nacho: (surprised, elated) OK? You will give me back my heart?
Maricris: I didn’t say that. Listen to my words.
Nacho: (crestfallen, confused) What?
Maricris: I will let you visit your heart, once a week.
Nacho: (seeing an opportunity) Oh?
Maricris: (suspicious of her beloved) But they will be supervised visits.
Nacho: Supervised? By whom?
Maricris: By me, of course. By me.
(maricris stares at nacho with these last words. After three beats, nacho grows uncomfortable, clears his throat, lifts the newspaper to his face to block maricris’s gaze)
Nacho: (resigned) Sí, mi amor. That will be fine.
Maricris: (lifting newspaper up to her face) And I will look into a PhD program. Maybe I can add a few more years to your life.
(End of scene, curtain)
The supervised visitations with his heart proved to be more difficult for Nacho than he had expected. At first, he derived great comfort—and maybe a little relief—from their new weekly ritual. Maricris and Nacho would finish their Friday night traditional dinner of chilaquiles that Nacho took great pride in cooking, using his late father’s recipe. And then after one or two cups of Nescafé and perhaps flan, tamales dulces, or tres leches cake, Nacho would clear the table while Maricris went to the guest closet, unlocked the safe (the keypad’s beeping sound would inevitably make Nacho’s scalp tingle in anticipation), and brought the wooden box to the now-cleared dining room table. And inevitably, Nacho would reach over to the latch, but Maricris would gently pat her husband’s hand away with a soft ah, ah, ah (as she would to her child if she had one), and proceed to open the box herself. And Nacho would sit back, sigh, and take in the view of his beating, veined, ruddy heart. After three minutes of visitation in which the sounds of the married couple’s breathing fell into a call-and-response rhythm with the lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub of Nacho’s heart, Maricris would close the box, fasten its latch, and take it back to the safe. With four beeps of the keypad as Maricris locked away Nacho’s heart, the ritual would end.
After six weeks of these supervised visits with his heart, Nacho grew restless. The comfort and relief he had once felt were replaced by trepidation and extreme dread. He needed to develop a plan to rescue his heart once and for all. Unbeknownst to Maricris, Nacho had tried several potential combinations on the safe’s keypad, but to no avail. He went through the usual numbers: their birthdays, wedding anniversary, the date of their first date, but they all resulted in an unpleasant buzz emitted by the keypad that mocked Nacho and sounded like it yelped Loser! each time he tried and failed.
But then Nacho’s luck changes.
In the middle of one summer night, Nacho extricates himself from his beautiful wife—who snores softly and soundly—puts on a robe, and pads downstairs to try his hand again at the safe’s keypad. He opens the guest closet and aims his Rayovac flashlight at the safe. And what he sees makes him jump. What? This can’t be. The safe’s door is ajar! Maricris must have failed to push it closed after the last supervised visitation two days before. Nacho squats and slowly opens the safe. And there it sits: the wooden box! Inside it, the gentle lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub of Nacho’s heart begins to quicken. Nacho lifts the box from the safe and slowly opens it. Oh, joy! His heart beats faster and louder and then Nacho lets out a little Ha! but then realizes that he needs to be stealthy, so he closes the box, shuts the safe, and stands. Nacho steps warily from the closet, closes it with a soft click, and hugs the box to his chest.
In the garage, Nacho keeps an ancient pair of Levi’s, a Lila Downs T-shirt, and battered Chuck Taylors that he wears for yard work. He listens to the soft snoring of his beautiful Maricris upstairs, hesitates, but then creeps through the kitchen to the back door, which leads to their garage. Nacho enters the garage but leaves the light off since the moon is riotously bright and fills the garage with a translucent, undulating glow through the row of rectangular windows that line the top of the garage door. He tenderly sets the box down on the workbench and opens a plastic bin that holds his clothes and shoes. Nacho strips off his perspiration-drenched pajamas and robe, and he stands for a moment, nude, in the moonlight. He reaches up with his right hand to the long scar that runs from his throat to his navel, and he gently fingers the ridged road of flesh. And Nacho smiles. After a few moments, he dresses, lifts the box from the workbench, and opens the side door of the garage, which leads to the side yard.
It is a warm Los Angeles night—almost 80 degrees—and the moon is even more dazzling than Nacho expects. He closes his eyes, breathes deeply, steels himself. You can do this, he says to himself. You can do this.
Nacho walks through the side yard and makes it to the sidewalk in front of their house. He looks to his left, then to his right, and then to his left again. He makes a decision to go left because it seems like the appropriate direction. Nacho first takes one step, then another, and finally he finds himself trotting, and then after a few moments, he is running, faster and faster and faster, clutching the beating box to his chest. And with each step, his heart beats harder and louder. As Nacho runs along the deserted sidewalk, the moon glows brighter and brighter and his heart beats louder and louder until Nacho can no longer distinguish his heart from his breathing from the magnificent glow of the moon. And as he runs, Nacho feels moisture on his face. Is it raining? No, the sky is clear, not a cloud to be seen. No, it is not rain that covers his face, but tears that are pouring from Nacho’s eyes, tears so big they could be dollops of honey or hand balm or hot blood from a gaping wound. Tears so big that Nacho can no longer see anything but a blur. And as he runs down the sidewalk clutching the beating box tightly to his chest, Nacho no longer knows what he feels and no longer knows what he is doing and no longer understands anything at all.
After 28 minutes of running through neighborhoods he no longer recognizes, Nacho finally lets out a loud “Oh!” and then stops running, staggers to a standstill, out of breath, his heart beating hard within the wooden box. And Nacho again lets out a loud “Oh!” He looks up at the moon that now appears larger than it has ever been, and he feels as though the moon will swallow him up in all its lurid magnificence. It is, indeed, the most stunning, frightening moon he has ever witnessed. And in the silence of the night—a silence punctuated only by his beating heart and heavy breathing—Nacho sighs, shivers, and finally whispers: “Oh.”•