I swallowed a tablespoon of gunk. “I’m sorry,” I said through my tears. “I’ve made such a mess.”
“I forgive you. Can you forgive me?”
“I love you. You are my only, my one and only. And if I have to turn my life upside down, or go to hell to be with you, so be it.”
“That’s not to be undertaken lightly.”
“It never was. Never,” I said.
His eyes scanned mine as if deciphering the full meaning of the message: that I’d always understood what being with him meant and had grabbed it with both hands from the beginning. I never shared his doubts, and I think, for once, that comforted rather than troubled him.
“If I ask you this, I want you to answer it after you think about it. Don’t rush.”
He breathed lightly, almost a sigh, then brushed his fingers over my cheek. “Will you be my wife?”
“I told you not to rush.”
“I’ll tell you again tomorrow. Same thing. Yes, yes, yes.”
We crashed together, mouths open, lips entangled, arms tightening around each other for the first moments of commitment, nothing between us but love.
The bartender wiped around our glasses, whistling. Antonio held my face fast to him then kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear, “I just heard your name on the news. They aren’t sure we’re dead.”
“We failed, then?”
“We were only buying time. We need to go.”
“No time for a good-bye-to-Tijuana screw?”
“Plenty of time for that later,” he said.
I smiled, imagining “later.” His body was mine, and I watched it move as he put a few bills on the bar and pulled me toward the door, every finger a lightning rod for my desire. I took a glance at the TV and jerked him to a stop. He followed my gaze up there.
Jonathan’s name was in the little tape below a reporter who stood outside Sequoia hospital.
“What is she saying?” I thought I was speaking in a normal voice, but I barely breathed it. I scoured my mind. Had Jonathan been at the wedding and I didn’t know it? Had he been hurt by something I’d done?
“Something went wrong. The heart, like you said,” Antonio said, knotting his brow as he deciphered a language he only partly understood. He pressed his lips together the way he did when he was reluctant to say something. “It’s bad.” Antonio shook his head. “I don’t know all the medical words, but they say he will die.”
The TV flipped to a futbol game, and the bar patrons cheered. The room suddenly smelled sweatier, wetter, and more florid than it had.
“I like your brother,” Antonio said.
I didn’t answer. I didn’t have words. I had only a dead weight in my chest where a light heart should have been. I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t feel my fingertips. Where had my elation gone, and my need for Antonio and only Antonio? Was it that easily swept away?
“We’ll keep the news on in the car,” I said. “Maybe they’ll say something else.”
I walked out into the heavy heat of the street. It was December, and I was sweating. The concrete flower boxes and indecipherable color-soaked graffiti that had charmed me on the way in seemed to mock me now, and the bent street with its dented cars no longer spoke of a charming over use but instead invoked an angry entropy, a sick god of destruction. The plaster cracks over every inch of the city twisted themselves into a net that wanted to catch me and drag me away from Antonio.
“I want to go somewhere with winters,” I said when he caught up to me. “Can we do that? Can we live somewhere with snow?”
“You need to go back.”
“No!” I shouted it to block out the knowledge that I needed to go, more than anything. I’d underestimated the pull of my family. I’d left them as if they’d always be the same, for the something different that Antonio embodied, and they changed as soon as I turned my back.
A man in a straw hat, one of many passing us, turned to watch as he walked.
“I can’t do anything about it,” I said, slashing with my arms. “I can’t donate my heart. I’m using it.”
He took me by the wrists stilling them. “Contessa, my love. He’s your brother.”
“I can’t. I made a choice. I chose you.”
“And I chose you. I am yours. You are mine. I’m going to make you my wife and steal your name from under you. But if you turn your back on your family, you won’t forgive yourself if he dies—”
“Don’t say that!”
“It’s a reality,” he said.
“I’ll forgive myself fine. I can turn my back on my brother because I can’t help him. He doesn’t need me. My presence is meaningless.”
He paused, looking across the street at the putt-putting half-functioning cars and the stacked stucco buildings. Then he looked back at me. “I won’t let you take the rap for Paulie.”
“Are you serious?” I said. “You think I’m letting you take the blame for that?”
“My prints are on the gun. You will not go to jail for Paulie, as God is my witness.”
“You brought me here to keep me from taking that rap, and now you—”
“No," he said. "I brought you because I love you. Because I need you. Because heaven gave me a reason to have you.”
“And what about Irene? And Donna Maria?”
“I didn’t promise you this would be easy. It’s ten times worse now.”
He shook his head as if he wanted to say things and didn’t, as if words wanted to tumble out, and he held back the tide. I balled my fists and steeled myself for a fight. Jonathan had six more sisters and two living parents to care for him. A prodigal sister wasn’t necessary. If I went to see him, it would be for me, not him, and despite what Antonio might think, I wasn’t feeling selfish.
“If this happened in twenty years,” I said, “when it was supposed to, we could slip back without a problem, and I could see him. If we go back today, we destroy everything.”
He held his hands out. “Isn’t that what we do?”
I wanted to cry with frustration. I shook my head, looking into the traffic, the noise, the bedlam we had more than embraced. We’d gotten on the cliff of normalcy and jumped into the chaos face first. Of course, that was what we did. I couldn’t deny it anymore.
“I don’t want to,” I said.