They are a husband and a wife and three children two of whom are disappointments even though they are not yet twelve. They live in Estero, Florida in a planned, gated community adjacent to a luxury-shopping complex. They love living in a gated community. It makes them feel like they matter. The husband is Cuban and his name is Esteban. He always speaks slowly, carefully, trying to keep the roundness of his accent under control. The wife, Lisa, is from the Everglades. When they met, she said, “My kin are gator people,” and Esteban didn’t really understand what that meant until his friend Arturo told him it was Florida for “white trash.” Esteban didn’t mind. Lisa was tall and tan and blonde and she spoke in lazy, incomplete sentences, which he found especially charming.
Esteban and Lisa got married real young, just out of high school. The first year they lived in Miami with Esteban’s family but all the pressure to procreate and the pervasive presence of crucifixes was more than Lisa could handle. The situation was also complicated by the rich, spicy food Esteban’s mother prepared night after night—boliche, picadillo, tamales, montuno. Some times the heartburn got so bad Lisa spent entire nights coughing until her chest ached as acid bubbled in the back of her throat. She begged Esteban to move them somewhere up North away from the food ruining her body and when he did, their first child, Beatriz, was born. Esteban decided the move had been a blessing after all, even if he did miss his mother’s cooking and the way she did his laundry, washing his clothes with Suavitel so they smelled so fresh and so clean clean. Three years after Beatriz, the twins were born, Alessandra and Andrés, a boy and a girl at which point Lisa told Esteban that she was finito with having babies. Even though he wanted more children, Esteban agreed. He loved Lisa and she loved him and that felt like enough.
Every Sunday Esteban, Lisa and their three children attend the eleven a.m. mass at St. Theresa’s. It is a crowded mass filled mostly with reluctant Catholics who still fear hell enough to drag themselves to mass for the sitting standing kneeling and praying but not enough to attend an earlier mass. Esteban takes church seriously. His mother instilled within him a healthy concern for the immortal disposition of his soul. He closes his eyes and rocks back and forth when the choir sings. He nods enthusiastically during the sermons and whispers, “Yes” or “Amen” under his breath where appropriate. He smacks the kids on the back of their heads and gives them stern looks if they shift too much in their seats or fight with one another or fall asleep. Sometimes he looks at his wife and his chest threatens to come apart. When he’s sitting next to her, feeling the warmth of her thigh against his and her fingers gently massaging the back of his neck, he believes he is in the holiest place on earth.
Lisa was raised with no religion. Her daddy ran boat tours through the Glades and her mother ran out on them before Lisa knew to care about a mother’s love. She asked her aunt Thelma once why they never went to church. Her aunt lit a fresh cigarette, eyed Lisa carefully, and laughed. She took a sip of the gator juice she was drinking from a canning jar, then waved her hand wildly. She said, “God got no love for this family so this family ain’t got no love for God.” Then she offered Lisa a cigarette of her own. Lisa was nine. When Lisa sits next to her husband in church, looking at him and their three children who look too much like him, she thinks about her Aunt Thelma who started her drinking real early in the day to get a head start on happy, the taste of Benson and Hedges cigarettes and the sound of her daddy’s air boat. It was an old thing that required, as he called it, “a whole lotta love to get going in the morning, just like a good woman.” Sometimes her father would take Lisa along on tours. She felt breathless and thrilled as the boat bounced over the shallow, warm waters at impossible speeds. She didn’t know much about God but sitting next to her father, breathing the thick Florida air, feeling the sun burning her skin, she felt as close to holy as she was ever going to get. Her daddy’s air boat always made a terrible, high-pitched sound, a sound she heard so often as a girl it wove itself into her head. It was a sound that wouldn’t ever go away. She always wondered if that was how her husband felt when he thought about God.
Roxane Gay’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Cream City Review, Annalemma, McSweeney’s (online), and others. She is the co-editor of PANK, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, and can be found at http://www.roxanegay.com. Her first collection, Ayiti, will be released in 2011.