Winner of the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Program Prize in Nonfiction
Ninth Letter is proud to feature “Paloma Negra,” by Xochitl Gonzalez. In this honest and beautifully written essay, the author invites readers to attend with her a limpia exorcism. In doing so, Gonzalez teaches us about the complexities of being haunted, as she extends deep empathy toward someone whose pain has caused her such pain. There’s much hard-earned wisdom here, which makes the ending of this essay even more powerful.
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Paloma negra, eres la Puerta Black bird, you are the door
de un penal. of my prison.
Quiero ser libre I want to be free
vivir mi vida con quien yo quiera. to live my life with who I want.
—“Paloma Negra,” Tómas Méndez
The day that I sat in the waiting room full of other cursed women, I did not know exactly who had cursed me, but was doubtless I’d been blighted. My heart had effectively stopped functioning, you see. Everything it touched turned to terrible shit, and also, inexplicably, I had a pain in my hip bone anytime I tried to dance to Reggaetón, which in those days was quite often.
I suppose no one ever truly knows who curses them. It’s all speculation. Gentleman’s witchcraft—the kind with robes and wands and boarding schools, where the person looks you in the eye, points their wand and curses you to your face—that didn’t happen much where I’m from. Magic had been driven underground, generation after generation, so that now when you heard about it, it was almost always whispered in the negative. Usually related to, as in my case, a harmful curse. Always anonymous. Of course, I had my suspicions as to who had hexed me, namely my soon-to-be-ex sister-in-law who had certain ties to Haitian voodoo, which, though loose, weren’t loose enough for my tastes. I concluded that Haitian witch craft was best countered with a strain derived from another part of that same island and found a Santera from the Dominican Republic who saw patients in The Bronx.
I don’t want to say that there are more broken-hearted women in The Bronx or anything. I mean, who am I to say? But, I will say that in El Bronx, the good Santeras have such volume business that they run their shit like an HMO and you need a referral to even get an appointment. At Sylvia’s, Mondays and Wednesdays were diagnostic readings. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, standard treatments. Fridays? Fridays were for miracles.
My first visit, on a Monday, had been relatively expedient. I left my house at 8AM for the hour-plus train ride uptown. I arrived around 9:15; ¡Despierta America ! was on and before it was over, I was back on the train with a shopping list and a time for my follow up appointment. The diagnosis happened in the kitchen around a floral-pattered Formica table. At one end sat a statue of St. Barbara, a rosary draped over her like a pageant sash. Sylvia, in housedress and slippers with anklet socks, smiled as she shuffled into the room. Sitting across from me, she blessed herself, touched Barbara’s rosary, took my hands and whispered a prayer in Spanish. She looked me in the eyes, asked, “Ready?” in thickly accented English, and she shuffled her cards. As she laid them across the table, a quizzical expression took over her face.
“Your heart,” she said “was broken because of your mother.”
“This is true!” I said, far too enthusiastic for her grim observation. “When I was very little she left me with her parents and never came back.”
Sylvia shrugged with indifference. “Be kind to her, she does her best.”
She laid out more cards.
“Ai!” She sucked her teeth in horror. “Someone wants to stop you from dancing with joy. Do you have a pain in your hip?”
“Yes!” I replied, amazed at her insight.
She said something to her daughter in Spanish so rapid I could barely keep up. Another card was laid down.
“Listen,” she paused and gazed at me with compassion. “there is a love that you’ve lost and he still yearns for you. It is likely a curse, but it’s possibly a haunting. It causes you many, many troubles y por lo tanto you must be careful who you let inside your house. On top of that, this thing in your hip, it’s Haitian magic, from someone very jealous of you. This, I can fix, pero la otra, I cannot guarantee.”
Her daughter, who doubled as a receptionist, scheduled me to come back on Thursday at noon with a dozen roses, a red candle, a change of clothes and two coconuts. Para una limpia.
The Thursday visit was less time efficient. I sat with my candle, clothes, coconuts, deli roses and exactly $57.72 in an envelope on the plastic covered floral sofa in the impossibly large living room with a dozen other women, all in various states of distress. I knew this because almost all of them were talking on the phone, loudly, about what had led them there that day: jealous co-workers, romantic rivals, shortness of funds and general streaks of bad fortune. A handful of children, toddlers mostly, played in a corner, watched over by the Bruja’s other daughter. The apartment was kept at an island-like 75 degrees, and so, despite it being late-October, we patients had stripped to levels of undress an outsider might have judged as inappropriate. Today the TV played old episodes of El Clon. At some point, when I had been waiting for a couple of hours, plates of food were distributed. This, I thought, does not happen at the doctor’s office.
“It’s crowded today,” a middle-aged woman next to me volunteered. “Sylvia leaves soon for Florida, everyone wants their limpia before she goes.”
A snowbird, I thought. Witching was good business.
Periodically, women would be called in, and between 45 minutes and an hour later they would emerge wet headed and radiant, buoyant bundles of energy that, taken collectively, began to lighten the anxious mood of the large living room as the afternoon wore on. These women- freshly cleaned- moved about as if in the early stages of love, when it all felt good and harmless. I wanted desperately to feel that way again. I tapped my thigh in anticipation with one hand while shoving food into my mouth with the other.
Because I loved Malo so deeply, at the time of the first limpia, it had not occurred to me that perhaps he had been the one who had cursed me. Like all harm Malo caused, it was likely not on purpose. Of course, his name is not Malo. Who would name their kid Malo? The sound of his real name means so much on my lips, such a purring and comforting sound, that I searched everywhere for a substitute that didn’t make me feel cheated, cheated of the pleasure and the pain of the sound of his name in my mouth.
We met in 1996, in a building that was nearly 200 years old and wrapped, appropriately, in ivy. The attic, once used for god-knows-what, had been repurposed as a computer lab, though its’ true utility was a social hub for the computer-less to gather in a time before they dominated our lives. A friend introduced us, but truth be told, on such a small campus we non-white students knew each other’s biographical details by rote. He was from upstate New York. He was on the football team. He fucked a very hot girl. He looked like Scottie Pippen. He worked at the school-run video store. This we all knew. Yet we’d never met.
He was surprising, or I was narrow minded. I’m not sure which. He was smaller than what I imagined a football player to be. Smarter too. The Pippen resemblance was there, but his voice, smooth and gravelly at the same time, was unexpected and elevated him to attractiveness. His brown skin was impossibly shiny, as if he’d marinated in Palmer’s CocoaButter. He looked you directly in the eye. He was affable and humorous and so starved was I for a lack of seriousness, I surely laughed too much at his jokes. Most surprisingly, he was wearing a bird taxonomy sweatshirt. A cream-colored crew neck with four rows of four birds illustrated across his chest, their Latin and common names beneath each of them; sixteen birds that we should know about.
At some point we were left alone, and his gaze on me caused a rush of heat to start in my lower abdomen. I could not escape, and so I studied the birds. It was only seconds, but felt like hours and, desperate for his staring to stop, I asked “Are you wearing that sweatshirt ironically?”
He looked down to see what he was wearing. “Ah, this. My Pops gave me this.”
“Wait, what? For what? Your tenth birthday?”
He belly laughed. “You’ve got JOKES!” His laugh, smooth and easy. “Actually,” he looked around the room, back into my eyes, and with a conspiratorial lean, whispered “I like wearing shit like this. It makes me seem “safe”, you know?” He did a little shuffle step and I laughed so loudly I broke the quiet murmur of the study room. People stared. He put his finger to my lips.
“Shhhhh! They are watching.”
It occurred to me that though I’d been having sex, I’d never met someone actually sexy. I was terrified.
I was born into circumstances that were, I was continually reminded, defined by lack: not enough money, not enough parents, not enough, not enough, not enough. This message was driven home not to discourage ambition, but to avoid risks. To remind me that my chances at success in life were resting on the edge of a dime. For this reason, I was accustomed to sniffing out danger. I knew he was bad.
For the rest of the school year I hid from him. He managed to find me. In a stack of books in the library, in a coffee shop, coming out of my job. One evening, I was in my room studying, and there was a knock on my door. It was Malo. Startled, I sat up in bed.
“Oh, hey! This is your room?” He feigned surprise.
He was drunk. I did not invite him in. He didn’t attempt to get past the doorway. Vampires also won’t enter if they aren’t invited. They are all very polite.
For an hour or more we talked that way. Me, under my covers in the far corner of the cinder blocked dorm room. He, eventually slouched on the ground, resting his back on the doorframe, 10 feet away, our conversation illuminated by dimmed halogen lamp. He, too, was an urban phoenix. Reared by a single dad, football had gotten him to our fancy college, which made people assume he was dumb when in actuality his mind had been built book by book. Four a week, in fact. Poetry too. For this reason, he knew his rap music and we debated it fiercely. We observed like anthropologists the behavior of our white, wealthy classmates.
“But why,” I asked “do they dress so bummy if they have the money to dress well?”
“Maybe it’s a form of cultural rebellion? Maybe they come from a land of Buffys and Biffs who wear tennis sweaters and tailored trousers and this is their way of busting out?”
“You’re positing that Baja hoodies and Tevas are the uniform of upper-class revolution?”
Malo laughed and shook his head. “So-Chill, we are unlikely candidates for this crazy place. We’re lucky to have found each other.”
The beautiful girl he had been fucking suddenly appeared.
“Malo, what are you doing down here?” she asked.
She lived above me, it turned out. One floor higher, same room. He hadn’t been feigning surprise.
Here is the thing—love stories are actually quite tedious unless they are happening to you. Especially love stories of the very young. So, know this: I became friends with the beautiful girl. I wondered later if this was strategy. Keep your friends close and all. No matter. She and I became friends and I continued hiding from him and he continued finding me. When she and Malo broke up just before summer, during finals, I was again studying and again there was a knock on the door. I said come in, expecting it to be him, but instead it was her. She did not stay in the doorway. She came to the foot of my bed. She sidled up beside me. She took my hand in hers. She had been crying.
“Malo is all alone in this world,” she said. “He doesn’t have a mother; did you know that?”
I nodded yes.
“I worry about him,” she continued, “You’ll both be here this summer. Please take care of him.”
I said yes.
Maybe this, this moment, is when I was cursed?
No two limpias are exactly alike, but some elements are consistent. At some point you will get completely naked. Sometimes, the Bruja washes you. Other times, you bathe yourself. Always, they pray over you. Always, there are offerings. Always, at the end, you walk out with a trash bag filled with your bad energy, which you will need to carefully dispose of. By now, I consider myself somewhat of a limpia connoisseur, and I say with confidence: Sylvia’s were the gold standard. Only at Sylvia’s did there seem to be a process, where layer by layer you felt the curse washing off of you, spinning down the drain.
First, Sylvia strips you naked, cuts up the clothes that you were wearing and puts them in a bag. You stand in her shower stall and she hands you a bucket filled with steaming hot Agua de Florida, bay leaves and eucalyptus. You pour it on yourself. Sylvia directs you out of the shower, gathers the leaves that have collected in the drain and places them, too, in the bag. Then, she impatiently directs you back into the shower where she slathers you in a mixture that, later, when sitting alone covered in it, you realize is just Mazzola oil and sugar, but as she applies it, feels like spiritual sandpaper against your skin. She leaves nothing uncovered, methodically coating your hair, your eyelids, your earlobes, your breasts, your buttocks, your inner thighs, your legs and the webbing between each and every toe. She tells you to hold on to her for balance while you raise one leg and then the other, so that she can scrub the sole of each foot. You don’t know her at all, aside from the ten minutes you spent with her when she read your cards, but you feel safe with her. You believe she wants the best for you. Once you are fully coated, your eyes closed from the weight of the scrub, Sylvia places you in a folding chair just in front of the shower.
Now it is time for prayers and meditation. Her daughter, the receptionist, not the babysitter, comes in and joins her. They pray over me in Spanish. They light my candle. On this particular day they pray to Chango, the god of music and laughter, to get me dancing again. They prey to Yemalla to help heal my relationship with my mother. They pray to Oshun to fix my heart. They ask if I want my meditation in English or in Spanish, and though I know I should say English, the question insults me and I reply in my poor Spanish, “Espanol, por supuesto.” They laugh at me, say whatever I prefer then press play on the English recorded meditation. God wants you to be happy, it says. God wants for you the best things that you want for yourself.
They then leave me alone, covered in sugar and oil, with my thoughts.
There was one really beautiful summer; like in that movie The Notebook, only it involved debating who killed Biggie Smalls and cooking dinners in my shitty rental in the Portuguese part of town. We’d read aloud to one another interesting things we’d encountered that day. We fought over and for the existence of God. We avoided having sex, which was almost as fun as having sex itself. His breath on the back of my neck was better than a dozen hands. We learned the intricacies of how the other person was constructed. For an art project, I made a mold of his body and cast it in wax, a blood red ribbon spilling out from where his heart would have been.
In the fall, I went to Italy to continue my studies. I’d never flown across an ocean before and I remember being frightened. The morning of my trip Malo called me from a rest stop on I-95. He was on a bus to Port Authority, he wanted to see me one last time. Inexplicably, we planned to meet at Macy’s in Herald Square. Like no other store in the world. We made out in women’s sportswear, men’s suiting and, predictably, in bedding. Before we parted, we had someone take our photo. We’re on the corner of 34th Street in front of a newsstand. We didn’t look at the camera. He’s wearing a terrible baseball cap. I have on too much gold jewelry; my hair is too short. We are looking at each other, laughing. This is my favorite photo.
If love stories are boring, then stories of love gone awry are even more banal. It’s all so tedious. In the spirit of efficacy, contemplate this: remember in Sex and The City, how Carrie, a terrible person, falls madly in love with Big, also a terrible person? Remember how although she knows that he knows that there is simply no one else either of them could possibly connect with to the same depth, he simply won’t get on board? How instead he runs away and she desperately tries to get him back, again and again. Remember how, sometimes she would give up and make half-hearted attempts to forget him by substituting other men, other relationships, other goals? Remember how they did this, over and over, episode after episode, for the better part of a decade? That’s what it was like with me and Malo, except when my Mr. Big wandered off the screen he went to free-base cocaine, or snort heroin or smoke crystal meth or do whatever drug he could get his hands on to take himself to the other side of the dime.
In my childhood, I invented a place—Aliciaworld. Named for my more common middle name, in Aliciaworld things were purposefully uncomplicated. Nothing is hard to pronounce. Mothers don’t leave their daughters. Fathers are around. Grandparents are people who sneak you $5 bills when you visit on holidays. You can walk fearless of being robbed or chased. In Aliciaworld, homes are spacious with grassy yards; bedrooms have doors and each inhabitant has their own bedroom. In Aliciaworld—fantasy firmly rooted in a Seventeen magazine spread featuring a young Cameron Diaz—we frolicked in fields wearing cardigan sweaters and plaid skirts. In Aliciaworld, people discussed literature at dinner and sailed on weekends and did all the other things I’d heard rumored about white wealth and success.
One summer, after I’d done surprisingly well on some standardized test or another, my aunt offered to take me to see some colleges. It was then that I discovered that Aliciaworld was not, in fact, a fantasy, but an actual place, high on a hill in a small city called Providence. I just had to get there.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 80s and 90s, drugs were everywhere. I don’t just mean at parties, or at night clubs, I mean everywhere. From the crack head who lived by the train station to my own cousins. My grandmother, a school lunch lady, knowingly supported a co-worker’s heroin habit by purchasing stolen jewelry from him (“It’s a disease,” she would say “have compassion.”) Of course, they were also at my school, being used by my friends. Weed, shrooms, acid, ecstasy, whip-its, PcP, Xanax, and of course, cocaine.
This is why it surprised people, most especially Malo, that I’d been so oblivious to the growing extent of his usage. He deemed it willful ignorance. I attribute it to my near mythic belief that these were problems that didn’t exist in this new world. I genuinely believed that around this intellectual, picturesque mecca existed an invisible fence that made things like addiction, hunger, rape, harassment or discrimination impossible within its’ Ivy League boundaries. It wasn’t ignorance, just impossible stupidity.
Also, in my defense, in the beginning, Malo sucked in a pretty standard-issue college boyfriend kind of way. His misdeeds included such banalities as begging forgiveness for standing me up for study dates, losing textbooks I’d loaned him and, more problematically, continuing to fuck the Hot Girl. I would break it off again and again and, in increasingly dramatic fashion, he would beg and win me back. If Malo was particularly loquacious or clever in his implorations, I never opined that this was fueled by anything less than his irresistible charm and feeling for me. Indeed, I was convinced that the only issue between us was my desperate desire for commitment from him, and his reluctance to give it. I was living, you see, in Aliciaworld. Problems are simpler there.
Eventually I hear the click of the stop button on the boom box and the incantation ends. Sylvia escorts me back into the shower stall, runs the water, hands me a bar of soap and a bottle of Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo.
“Rinse.” she says.
It takes considerable work to get the mixture out of my hair, rinsed from my pubis. The shower stall tiles are pink, some missing. The water runs more hot than cold. It is the best shower of my life. At the end, Sylvia stands there, again with the bucket.
“You rinse”, she commands. “Use all of it. Put it everywhere. Then, get dressed.”
She walks out and as I raise the steaming bucket up to my head I realize that it’s rosewater, the most pungent rosewater I’ve ever encountered. I inhale deeply before I pour it over my hair, onto my face, into my ears, down my back, across the soles of my feet and I feel truly content.
Though it was early evening when I get back to Brooklyn, I immediately fall into a deep, lasting sleep, comforted by the scent of my skin which, inexplicably, would go on to smell like roses for the next week, despite numerous showers.
After graduation Malo and I landed in different cities, but the visits, calls and emails continued. Beyond the shelter of our idyllic campus, with Hot Girl having moved on to whatever her adult life would involve, it became harder to ignore that the real thing standing between us was not another woman or a lack of feeling. It was his deeper love for a proximity to death that only drugs could provide him.
Some months after the Twin Towers dropped, Malo called me. He wasted no words. Things were bad, he said. He was scared. He’d been up for days, possibly a week. He was nervous he would lose his job. He needed help, just staying clean. Rehab was for the affluent. At the time, I was in Miami Beach for work and suggested he come meet me. Miami might seem a counterintuitive locale to detox off of a coke bender, but after a few days, when night sweats and chills were replaced by nightmares from which he would awake screaming, being in a 24-hour beach front city seemed a capital idea. We’d throw on clothes and walk down Ocean Drive or sit in the bar of my fancy hotel. One night we went dancing in our pajamas. I was more in love than ever.
This precipitated a golden period, but his sobriety did not last. Soon enough, there were missed visits, erratic calls, another girl with whom he’d get high. Then more sobriety. Then more inebriation. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Malo announced that he was moving to Japan. His job was going nowhere, this Japanese firm was recruiting and he could really be sober there. Before he left he wanted us to have one last weekend together in Providence, an idea I pretended to hate, but secretly loved.
“Will we visit all the corners on which you made me cry?” I asked.
“If you want to,” he replied.
Ultimately, we did. He apologized on each and every one. He booked us a room at the fanciest hotel in the city, the one where our Senior Formal was held, where the parents of our rich classmates always stayed. It was somehow dumpier than we had remembered or imagined. Old, but not in a nice way. The bedspread was gold satin and stained, the walls matched and, repulsed by all of it, we shut off all of the lights and talked in the dark all night. In the morning, he left on a trip that would last five years.
During this time, again and again, I made efforts at normal relationships, always finding my way back to Malo for comfort, even with half a world between us. His gravelly laugh melting the time and distance. One day, after another of my attempts at love with another collapsed, I called Malo. This time he had an announcement. He’d been writing while in Japan. It had given him purpose. He wanted to come home. He wanted to make something of himself.
It seemed ridiculous for him to rent his own apartment when I had a huge place all to myself. Moving in made sense. Us, living together. Malo had one last trip he wanted to take: touring some Shinto temples on a remote mountain in Japan. He would make his pilgrimage and come, centered and focused, to me by Halloween. I was delighted with our plan.
“So, what you are telling me,” a friend queried, “is that you are inviting a known drug addict with no job to come and live in your house?”
“YES!” I said.
Halloween came and went and no Malo. No emails. No logins to Skype. No answer on his cell number; by Thanksgiving it was out of service. Worry turned to concern which by the new year turned to panic. I remembered the Hot Girl saying Malo was alone in the world and realized that she was wrong. Even rootless Malo had a place he could retreat to if he needed one; his father’s door was always open.
I tracked down the old man’s number. He’d retired to Arizona. Over the years, we’d spoken from time to time. I hoped he was well, and was sorry to bother him, but Malo was supposed to show up at my house and he’d seemingly disappeared. His father sighed.
“Hold on”, he said.
At the temples, Malo met a fellow traveler, an Australian heading to Hong Kong and then Thailand. Did he want to tag along? Thinking he might never get to Asia again, Malo said yes.
Then he just kept saying yes. To weed, to coke, to ecstasy. He lost the Aussie. He found new friends. Someone suggested a trip to Cambodia, then Laos. Then more coke, more weed, then some heroin. Then some more. Then coke again. He lost track of time. He lost track of people. The people didn’t really matter. He spent all his money. He lost all his clothes. He awoke one day on the floor of an unfamiliar apartment in a pool of his own vomit, chunks of whatever his last meal was all around him. He didn’t remember knowing the other people lying around him. He had nothing, just his passport in his back pocket. Having never booked a return ticket, having lost his cell phone, his backpack, all of it, he called the only number he knew by heart—his dad’s.
We referred to those lost weeks as The Asia Bender, and naively, I assumed that this was his “Rock Bottom.” Instead, it began a cycle of sobriety, spiritual exploration, restlessness, and eventual dissipation. He discovered a group offering free silent residential retreats, which he treated like a spiritual rehab, checking in and out whenever he’d lose control. He’d re-emerge, his full and brilliant self, recounting to me his vivid revelations. “When does a slump become a life?” I asked once, conversationally. The next day he called back. Vexed, the question drove him to his first AA meeting. There, he discovered, the bottom was further than he’d ventured.
“Until I fuck for product,” he said, “the bottom is a long way off.”
He laughed and I didn’t. We didn’t speak again for almost a year, when his father died.
People often, wrongly, conflate witches and psychics and mediums. What they share is a fundamental belief that time and space are loose concepts which our unevolved minds must conceive linear in order to make sense of the world. This is something that those of the occult share in common with Quantum Physicists. Yet, somehow when you tell someone you heard an interesting theory about transgressing time and space in a TEDx talk, you get a different reaction than when you say that you’ve been to see a psychic medium. Go figure.
I have, in fact, been to a psychic medium. Mediums aren’t precognitive, they merely see the past, vis a vis an ability to communicate with the dead. When I saw my medium, it was a couple of years after the visit to Sylvia. It was fairly straightforward; the dead people who had cared for me while alive continued to care for me in their death, occasionally leaving me physical evidence that I’d chalked up to oddities of my flat. For instance, I frequently found my apartment inexplicably littered with quarters: by the toilet, under the kitchen sink, at the foot of my bed. Sometimes, as much as three dollars just sprinkled around on a given morning. This, she told me, was my grandfather’s way of letting me know he was thinking about me. This was comforting and unsurprising. More interesting was what she told a friend who’d come with me.
No sooner had they sat down then the medium brought up her grandmother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time. Taken aback, my friend assured the medium that the woman was still quite alive.
“She is,” the medium said, “and yet, she isn’t. She’s both here in this world, and not here.”
When people who’ve been sick for some timed die, doctors have found two common phenomena. First, there is “a burst”: a time where regardless how ill or comatose the person has been, they suddenly sit up, converse, make jokes. They are shockingly alert. Another common occurrence before dying is seeing the already dead. They might say hello to a long-lost friend, or tell you about a conversation they had with a dead uncle who’d come to visit while you were getting coffee in the hospital cafeteria. Some dismiss these as medically induced delusions, but many believe these are signs of the transition. They are here, physically, in the hospital room with us, but they are also, spiritually, in the next plane, actually visiting with their dead friends and relatives. Just as the medium said. I’ve seen this play out, quickly, with friends and family as they have crossed over, but lately, when I think about Malo, I wonder how long one can live in that in-between space? Not quite dead, but not quite alive either.
My life, firmly rooted in the living, improved immeasurably after my first visit with Sylvia. Some might say that my commitment to therapy allowed me to forgive my mother, but that does not explain the pain in my hip suddenly going away. It doesn’t. Yet, nothing fixed the fact that everything my heart touched turned to shit. Sylvia told me that it could be a curse, but it could also be a haunting. It was this theory that led me to the medium in the first place. Alas, in this regard, she had no answers.
I reached out to Sylvia again only to find that she’d moved full time to Florida, where the plentitude of hexed hearts enabled her to avoid the New York weather completely. Through my whisper network, I found another Bruja, a Cubana named Maria, also in the Bronx. Maria read cards but mainly divined from coconut shells. At one particular meeting about my love life, when she broke the coconut open, it was black inside. Rotted. Mold ridden. My stomach lurched. She sucked her teeth and crossed herself. She rushed to put the black coconut shells into a bag, tied it closed with a knot and threw it outside the apartment. She led us both down on our knees and prayed over me, smoked a cigar, poured a tumbler of rum and placed them both in front of her statue of Santa Barbara, as an offering. She then said that Chango had spoken and claimed me as one of his own.
It was a Saturday, when Malo was six or maybe seven, that his mother asked his father for space to “get this house in order.” So, father and son ventured out together. They went to McDonald’s. He got a Happy Meal, played in the ball pit. He returned home eager to show his mother the toy he had gotten. Calling her name, he searched the house, room to room, eventually heading upstairs where the bedrooms were. He found her, dead, on her bedroom floor. She had shot herself in the head. There was a tan carpet and on it were brains and blood and his mother’s body. He screamed and his father came. Then the police and firemen. Eventually they found a note, verified by a doctor’s report. She had cancer and it was progressing and she did not want this long and drawn out death to hang over them. This seemed better. Only to her, of course.
Trees with damaged roots can still live, even if they never thrive. I’ve wondered often if this moment, this Happy Meal gone wrong, is what made Malo constantly thirst for his own destruction? Or perhaps destruction wasn’t it at all, but proximity to this last moment with his mother?
We saw each other one last time when Malo came to New York to bury his father. We met at a dive bar near my house, hours after the service. Memories followed loving jokes and then, at once, he got suddenly serious.
“So-Chill, this is the moment where I decide if this was a slump, or if this is my life. It’s either going to get much better or much worse.”
Of course, I believed that it could get better, and I told him so. As we walked through my neighborhood, he hatched a plan that didn’t involve me. It involved California, far from Phoenix, New York, Providence, Boston or any of these other places where sobriety eluded him. I did not resent this.
Eventually, we were in my apartment kissing, undressed, fully entwined when suddenly, violently, I felt it was all a lie. His words, my agreements. There was not be enough heat behind his skin or enough weight to his arms and hands. The person underneath me on my sofa felt not like man or physical being, but a phasm; there, but not there. Neither quite alive nor quite dead. Not of this physical world or the next spiritual one. Something Sylvia said rang in my ears—Be careful who you let into your home. In this moment of Malo’s most profound need, I needed profoundly to be rid of him, and so I threw him out. He left quietly and politely.
Here, one would think, this story ends. The curse is lifted, the demon cast from my home, my life and my heart forever. This isn’t what happens. Instead, guilt over my actions burrow into my heart like worms, until I am sick with desperation for Malo’s forgiveness. When I manage to track him down, he offers absolution with no resistance.
“You should have thrown me out years ago.”
“Are you sober?” I asked.
“No.” he said. There was silence for a moment. “I have to go.”
The number that I dialed ceased to work shortly after.
I date many nice guys who leave me feeling empty because they could not make me feel the way that Malo did—hot and curious and engorged with laughter. I date many terrible guys, who leave me feeling angry because I allowed lesser guys than Malo to hurt me. Malo’s actual absence—the lack of phone calls, the silence on social media, the non-responses to emails—turn him into a phantom limb; a thing that I feel but do not have.
I don’t know if Malo is dead or alive, but he has been haunting me. I suspect he is somewhere in California, existing in the in-between. I suspect that my psychic medium would be able to sense him in the room, even if 3,000 miles away he is physically alive, breathing in and out, in a room full of others.
There is no witch that will free me of his ghost. There is no spirit that can will him to go away. I am the only exorcist capable of driving him out of my heart. I’m told that Chango, the most powerful of the Orishas, the ruler of fire and passion, had claimed me for his child. If it is true, then I believe that I’m capable. Chango, known for his double-bladed axe, which can both create and destroy. I bathed myself in steaming rose water, lit a candle, asked to borrow it and sat down to write this, hoping to be rid of Malo once and for all.
Xochitl Gonzalez is a native Brooklynite, where she currently resides. By day she has worked as, amongst other things, a wedding planner, tarot reader, marketing consultant, and etiquette columnist. By night she writes fiction and nonfiction. She is on the board of directors for Sad Girls Club, a nonprofit mental wellness community for young women of color. She received her BA from Brown University and will be starting her MFA at Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the fall of 2019.