It was a lazy lovemaking rain, warm and sticky, and good for mangos, but mangos didn’t grow here. Salome dozed in bed and alternated between two dreams—one where a man used watercolors to paint flowers on her bare skin, and another where a young version of herself waited with a machete outside her door.
She wanted to distance herself from that young version of herself. That girl, nicknamed Sal, was never asked on a date, never asked to dance. Sal had a large backside and an ugly face. She didn’t know who her father was because her mother had been so open with her love. Sal’s mother visited bars and looked for American men. She wore high heels and animal prints, even when they revealed her cellulite.
She was no longer Sal. She used her full name since entering the United States. She adopted a lazy gaze so no one would confuse her for a doe-eyed savage from a primitive country. If you could act unimpressed, it was almost as good as being rich. Her mother had taught her that. It was a lesson she had learned when she was a bit too old.
Salome was from a small town, a nothing town. Cruise ships would dock there. That was all that happened, and probably why the town was called Carnival. Salome had married out. She married a man who was certain that she would grow to love him, especially after he had saved her.
“I know we’re just doing this as a business arrangement,” Don lied with hopeful brown eyes. What a beautiful world it would be, if only he could get her pregnant and keep her forever. When women got pregnant, they developed a permanent attachment to the baby, to the man. It was natural and hormonal. Love could sprout out of her. He was convinced that under Salome’s hard shell was a caramel center, a center that wanted nothing more than to cook for him and play with his hair.
Maybe some kind of nurturing instinct was inside Salome, but it was not blossoming for Don and never would. The minute she entered the United States, she started taking birth control pills.
“I thought you didn’t believe in that,” Don whined.
“My mom doesn’t. I do.”
“If your mom believed in those, then you wouldn’t have been born.”
Salome both loved and hated her mother. She was determined not to repeat her mistakes, determined to live up to the lost potential, and also resentful that she had been saddled with it. Salome’s mom gave away her sex too readily, she trusted men’s words, she had large doe eyes. As a girl, Salome rolled her eyes at her mother’s suitors when they got down on one knee and told her she was pretty. “I know,” she would say. Her mother would hit her with a sandal and say, “When someone compliments you, you say thank you!” But Salome never did change her answer, not even during that awkward phase as a teenager when her face had broken out, when she had dyed her hair bright red and gained weight in the wrong places.
She outgrew that phase and her fat moved into the appropriate places. Unlike her mother, Salome knew that her beauty was rare.
Salome used to hula hoop on the top of a hill near the beach. Men on the cruise ships could see her, and they sought her out. Other girls in Carnival worked in the restaurant near the shore. They put plates of rice and beans in front of the men and laughed at their jokes. It was the kind of thing her mother would have done, so she refused to do it. The owner of the restaurant kept trying to lasso her in with promises of large tips. “I’m learning to hula so I can perform on the cruise ship,” Salome would say with an air of confidence and arrogance. The owner would wave her away. The other girls looked at her with jealousy as they developed varicose veins from walking in and out of the kitchen.
Don had seen her hula and had sought her out like many men before him. Salome liked him because he was not excessively wealthy. Excessively wealthy men needed to be flattered a lot more, and they used their money as a crutch to make up for their awful personalities. The superrich American men believed that American women were all bitches who did not understand how utterly amazing and special they were. They believed, for some reason, that women in “poor” countries had a childlike simplicity and could comprehend the genius inner workings of their soul more completely than the American bitches.
They have to know, on some level, that these young, beautiful women just want a green card, Salome thought as one man or the other talked about the businesses he was in, the time he met Madonna, how he could get her into movies, etc . . .
Maybe not, though. Maybe they think we are so backwards, so dumb, so easily impressed.
Don had needed a moderate amount of ego-petting. He was not superrich, and was not born rich, and he had a more realistic view of Salome and the way she lived. They had gotten along immediately. She tried to show him how to hula hoop and he was very bad. He’s probably bad at sex, too she thought. His insecurity with his body comforted her. He wouldn’t want to take her out dancing, and probably wouldn’t want to make love a whole lot.
Don, in his broken Spanish, tried to explain his sad childhood to Salome. He had two brothers and one sister. The sister was mentally ill, the brothers were autistic. Don was the only “normal” one, and so the pressure to succeed was great. Don had to succeed where his siblings had failed. He had to do something philanthropic, something genius, something that would save the world and allow him to travel and put him in high society and allow him to mingle with the common man—all at the same time.
Salome nodded and kept her feelings to herself as he spoke. Salome was always expected to be a nothing, to wait tables until her eventual pregnancy, and then to be a fat wife and die. Why would Don complain about his family expecting him to do something with his life?
He proposed before he had to board his cruise ship. They had only known each other for a few hours.
“It will just be so you can get your green card. I know that,” he had said. “You have so much potential. I want to help you.”
Salome said she would think about it and collected his email address. She used the Internet cafe to send him an email once a week. After nine months of back and forth, she accepted the proposal. She knew all kinds of things about Don now, and he was clearly in love with her. She printed the emails out to show her delighted mother, who approved of the marriage. And like that, Salome had her ticket out of Carnival.
On the day she left for good, she left her hula hoop outside the town restaurant.
At first, life with Don was all right. Their wedding ceremony was simple, and the email exchanges “proving” their courtship made securing her green card easy. She moved into his apartment and started to save for her own place.
Don lived in San Francisco writing code for various tech startups. He liked working for small companies, companies with roof decks and beer fridges, companies that threw lavish, themed parties until they folded. “Why don’t they cut down on those other expenses so they can stay in business?” Salome had asked once. Don only looked at her and snorted. She never said anything about his work after that.
He became mean only once—the month he was unemployed. Salome didn’t have a full time job, but she made her own money as a waitress. With her beauty and lazy eyes, she made a salary comparable to his. Salome checked her bank account one day and found hundreds of dollars worth of withdrawals.
“I thought we agreed that was my bank account,” Salome had said.
“Well, my name is on it, too.”
“Just because of the government paperwork . . . you’ve never put money in there.”
“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t be in the country if it weren’t for me. I should get something.”
She dropped the issue and opened another account, one with only her name on it. Don found another job with another failing startup (this one had a philanthropic angel investor, this one had a mission beyond money, this one would revolutionize everything).
They had sex only twice. He had grunted and flopped and she never told him if anything was good or bad. She thought of their sex the same way she thought about donating blood—something medical, mechanical, unpleasant, but for the greater good.
Don wondered constantly why Salome did not love him. She wired money back to her mother. She saved. She would move out soon, and then he would lose his goddess. He wouldn’t be able to take her to work parties and show her off to all the single men on his team. He had to get her pregnant. Deep inside her, she wanted to love him. This exterior, this shell, this was just because that’s how she thought American women should be. He deserved her love. He deserved it.
Salome listened to the rain. When she closed her eyes, she could imagine that she was back home. It was that kind of rain—warm, calm, constant. She heard Don’s key in the door and instinctively rolled over to bury her face in a pillow. She had taken to pretending to sleep to avoid his sexual advances.
She wasn’t afraid of Don, not at all. She was afraid of Sal.