Of course I loved her—isn’t that how all these stories are supposed to begin?
She was from Amsterdam, a black Dominican mother, a white Dutch father, a luminous gale of a girl. I called her my chabine because that’s what she looked like, only her lips and her hair keeping her from passing completely, from pulling a Jean Toomer. And the ass she had—my fucking God—it was supersonic—which is to say she couldn’t walk past a group of straight men without pulling out the shingles or shattering the panes of their conversation.
She was about the most exotic Dominican woman I’d ever met (that’s the kind of shit that matters to you when you’re in your twenties), and the classiest. She spoke Spanish and could dance bachata, but she’d grown up in the farthest spiral reaches of the Diaspora, in Delft, Vermeer’s old stomping ground. Was smart too; could speak four other languages, had traveled all over the world, and could tell a story like you and I can tell a lie. She was in the City to finish her thesis on Dominican women’s identity, but what she really wanted to do was write children’s stories. She wanted to be the next Roald Dahl. Every now and then, especially when she was excited, she would forget articles and misconjugate her verbs. She’d pick up her camera and say, I want to make picture. I found it incredibly endearing.
It wasn’t hard to love her. She was funny and she was sexy (she moved like something only recently evicted from the ocean—an undine or a Nereid), and best of all, she loved me. Loved me so much she’d broken off a three year engagement after the first time we kissed. (Could have been the second time, you know how these things are.) She said she’d never met anybody as alive as me or as smart. And every time we fucked I was shaken, absolutely shaken, and because I was a fatalist at my core, I had dreams, nearly every week, where I would lose her.
The shit should have been perfect, perfect, except for the fact that I was basically nuts. In technical terms, I was depressed, experienced alarming mood swings and suffered from what a psychologist called baseline irritability (which means that I could go from zero to violent in 2.2 seconds.) And to top it all off I wasn’t writing—and wouldn’t for nearly six years. Took that shit out on everybody around me. Especially her.
She wasn’t perfect either. She was a fiend for male attention, would have flirted at the Pope’s funeral, and she could throw a plate with the best of them. But in the final analysis, the banana-ness was mostly mine.
Some relationships snap like bones, otherwise go into long slow Byzantine declines. Ours was the latter. I was always doing something good followed by something real stupid. I would surprise her at her job in Holland, show up with my suitcase and expensive gifts, and then at her graduation, in front of her whole family, I would attack some poor homeless guy who made a swipe at the flowers I’d bought her. Nearly broke her father’s leg in the process. (And he in turn called me a fucking idiot.) Somebody would cut us in line at a restaurant and I would take their dinner and break it across their face, noodles flying everywhere. (And the waiter yelling, You no come back!) And yet no matter how crazy I acted, I had this unshakeable adamantine conviction that things could work out, and something of my feverish delusions passed on to her. The crap she tolerated from me—I can’t think about it without wanting to laugh. I mean, I’d treated plenty of chicks a lot worse but the thing was, I actually cared about Elicia, in my own way, and had I been saner and less self-destructive, we probably could have worked.
Or is that just the nostalgia talking?
Anyway: something about where we each were in our lives, something about the wildness of our relationship, something about our own weaknesses, but we were kind of trapped in each other. God knows how long we long we could have lingered in our half-lives if not for the shit I’m about to tell you about. I have friends who were in miserable relationships for eight, nine years. I honestly believe we could have been one of them, trapped in ‘love’ like bugs in amber.
So check it: I’d blown it again, another stupid something, and I was in Amsterdam, trying to make amends. We’d been arguing and fussing and of course fucking like crazy and in the end she decided that we should have a Special Day. She wanted to take me to her favorite park, to her favorite lake, sit on her favorite bench and hopefully, there, find some kind of absolution. I was all for a Special Day. Sounds like a fucking plan, I said.
A nice enough day, everybody out on their bicycles and the trains were packed. We had to ride about an hour out of Central Station into the country and then hike quite a bit to reach her Special Place. What I remember is how optimistic she was and how long and thin her torso was, how I had this irresistible urge to bite her.
Took us an hour and twenty minutes to get to where we were supposed to be, which was pretty enough. Forsythias everywhere. At any point in the journey we could have stopped to tie a shoe or to buy a soda and we would have missed the debacle. But like they say in all the fantasy books, you can’t avoid your Destiny.
We sat down at the bench, looking out over a rather plain lake, the only people in the park, it seemed, and before we could even say “start the reconciliation,” this outdoorsy whitedude bounded out of nowhere and right in front of our bench started throwing a stick into the water for his two dogs. The bigger dog, a Spaniel, would jump into the water and bring the stick back before the poor smaller dog could even get five feet out from the shore. This happened a couple of times; the smaller dog would start paddling back and then the stick would fly over its head, so of course it would dutifully start swimming back towards the stick only to be beaten to the punch by the Spaniel. After about five of these throws, the whiteguy was satisfied, and he and his big dog started to walk away, leaving the little dog still struggling in the water. I was the only one who noticed the poor fuck go under. Your dog, I told the guy. And fate would have it that he was the lone motherfucker in Holland who didn’t speak English. What is it? my girlfriend asked me. His dog is drowning! I screamed, and that’s when she cried to him in Dutch and the dude, giving out an anguished cry, jumped right into the lake. Brought his dog out in no time at all. My girl was saying, Dios mio. The little guy, some kind of beagle mix, couldn’t have been under for more than ten seconds max, but he was dead as fuck. Eyes glassy and everything, the color of old smoke, water pouring out his nose holes. Whiteboy tried to blow air into the little guy’s lungs, tried squeezing his ribs and holding him upside down, but, the perrito was dead. Whiteboy said something to us, miserable, and the girlfriend translated. It’s not even his dog. It was his girlfriend’s. He was just taking it out for a walk.
Right there my girl burst into tears.
Well, that was it for our Special Day. That was actually it for my reconciliation trip. And in the end, for our relationship. I mean, honestly, what are the fucking chances that something like that happens at the very moment that you sit down with your girlfriend to try to hash things out? It really did feel like the gods had it out for us. Like the poor little mutt had given up his life to send us a message.
How do you recover from something like that?
In a word: you don’t. Not when you were in the kind of shape we were.
For the next couple of years, as I slipped deeper into depression and she met other guys and started appearing on Dutch TV, I would occasionally blame that fucking dog.
Of course I did.
About the Author:
Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Drown; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and This Is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. He is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award. A graduate of Rutgers College, Díaz is currently the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT.