Cameron Bocanegra

Flowers for Houdini

On a cool Wednesday night, the youngest girl says she wants to do magic tricks like Houdini. The next morning, after their parents leave for work and before the babysitter with the lazy eye arrives, her older sisters sneak into the sleeping girl’s bedroom. Giggling and shushing each other, they gently tie her wrists and ankles together with the worn bungee cords they slid off the bed of their father’s grey pickup truck.

None of these girls are ideal children. They have no concept of manners and usually choose destructively if a breeze nudges them in that direction. They tear infected stitches, yank out loose teeth during softball games, steal loose change, and do not listen well. When the pool is shocked with chemicals and their mother says the water will not be swimmable for a few days, they bet quarters on who can drink the most teacups of it. The girls savor the gnawing feeling of beckoning danger. It causes them to routinely peek over their secretively hunched shoulders for a shadow in the shape of an exasperated mother.

The eldest sister cradles the girl’s warm limp body above the brink of the pool. Her accomplice’s sneeze startles her, and the sleeping child disappears in a splash. The two children kneel over the pool’s edge and wonder what the babysitter would think of a dead body. They pay close attention, more than they ever have in school, to the girl sinking as her yellow-flowered nightgown billows lazily. The moment is a misplaced summer scene that causes the two to exchange no glances, shove their chins into their necks, and chew their lips nervously.

Decades later, the two sisters will analyze this experience in therapy separately. They will feel relieved after each costly hour as if the pool water that splashed them that morning is finally drying, although their guilt does not settle well. They eventually reason together in secret that idolizing Houdini was quirky of their young sister and that a quirk is annoying in a vaguely interesting way.

As she wakes and the girls edge closer to the surface, her entire future stretches before her, pouring into her mind like boiling water. She has not experienced enough life for a past to flash before her eyes. Instead, she witnesses every next day until the last one. She sees that later today, she will eat a bean and cheese taco. It will burn her tongue, and she will whine briefly before ripping off another bite. She knows she will not feel pain the second time. This evening she will lie in the grass, following airplanes as they pass behind clouds, and then she will notice the sound of thunder. Tomorrow, she will accidentally slice her thumb while cutting a plum and decide to never eat plums again. It is a promise she keeps. She will lick the wound and her palms clean. She will taste her blood but not the plum. Her sisters will shrug when the girl stretches across the counter to show them her injury, and the eldest will say, The plum bled first anyway. Her father will enter from the living room to recite the William Carlos Williams poem about plums. Before he begins, the girl will shake her head at him and say that neither of them has eaten the plum. He will stare at the ice maker, unperturbed by his daughter, wanting to say, This is just to say. But he will say nothing, and she will feel the first clear echo of déjà vu.

The water glitters above her as the ripples fade. She sees that when she is old enough to think for herself, she will begin making poor decisions. She witnesses her husband’s inevitable impact on her life. She feels a heaviness more grounding than the water in her lungs; it is the burden of being born. Choices will be made. There are lines to remember. There is the ache of time, lonesome and fleeting.

 In the fourth grade, she will decide there are kind people, cruel people, and people who watch. She knows what kind she and her husband will be. She writes of the marital love she is too young to understand in a diary. By the end of the fifth grade, she will attempt to share this with a teacher, blubbering about the future, a required sequence of events. Shortly after arriving home from school that day, she will cut off her ponytail with her mother’s dull fabric scissors.

She and her husband will host a cheap wedding in Downsville out in the country with Mount Pleasant glowing on the horizon. She trembles, forcing a smile as he shoves his dead grandmother’s ring onto her finger. He pushes her waist down the aisle, tearing the lace of the dress with the tug of a jagged fingernail. She loved her wedding dress years before buying it, but when she gingerly slipped into it that morning with a blushing face, she thought, My funeral dress would look better in a shade of white like this.

During the outdoor reception, she cringes deeply at the orchids in the flower arrangements, a reminder of several moments in her life beside him. She carefully watches her husband coo over a guest’s newborn as the sky sinks into a bright violent shade of orange. The clouds flee with the sunset, and she twists her wedding ring impatiently.

Five years later, her husband runs down the neighbor’s large poodle with his car, reverses, and wonders if it looks suspicious to roll over the dog a third time. He takes the animal home to bury but keeps it in the garage freezer for a month. His thoughts fester until he is in the shed under a dusty lamp, becoming frustrated as he attempts to shape the animal into an unnatural form. He’s spooked when the jaw pops open, so he sews it shut and then decides to staple down the ears and chop that stiff tail.

A few months later, she opens the garage freezer to grab a handle of gin and notices that plastic-wrapped figures shift about as often as she drinks. After the first sip, she imagines coarse fur sliding over her tongue. She moves her liquor to the kitchen fridge; nevertheless, she feels prickling fur with every gulp for the rest of the evening.

As her body grows colder and floats upward idly, she sees their final home full of darkly curving hallways.

His coffee is thick and swirling with loose grounds; he cooks spaghetti with half a bottle of wine mixed in and too much garlic; he kills and mutilates animals, and yet the sorest topic for them is landscaping. She wants a gazebo because she didn’t see it in their future. She pleads with fate, visits a gardening store, plans with a landscaper, even plants little neon flags on the graves to find an untainted area to build, but there is no space big enough where something unspeakable isn’t sewed together six feet below. She cries between eight red flags. It is not coincidental.

There are also softer aspects to him, like when he insists on a home a hundred miles away from any body of water. He surprises her with plane tickets hidden in egg cartons and once planted peach trees while she slept the night before the first day of spring. On rare days, their eyes are painted with love: they giggle, hold each other’s faces, and squeal through a kiss in the rain. During vicious thunderstorms, she shakes the house with music, he flips the breakers off, and they play hide and seek. They lurk until they find each other, and whoever screams first loses. He brings coffee to her bedside every morning although he is sometimes wearing nylon gloves, leaving blood on the lip of the mug as he places it on the nightstand, saying, Don’t worry, it’s not mine. while she repeats steadily, I know. I know.

Their relationship isn’t clean.

I returned those new cleavers. You don’t need so many.

Do it again and see if you wake up tomorrow.

I told you to buy bleach in bulk. This is your mess.

Their last evening together is in late October. She leaves their home for the local bookstore, aware of her husband’s intentions in her absence. He prepares for dinner, stirring pancake mix, vanilla, egg, nutmeg, cinnamon, and arsenic in a bowl. He flips the pancakes on her traditional comal, plates them, stabs a butter knife in the middle of her pile with a twist, and fills the wound with syrup.

She lays back in her parked car, having not gone to the bookstore, and instead sits in the local florist’s parking lot with a newly bought orchid, remembering how the evening will unfold.

He floats a finger through the emptiness before him, outlining her slouch and where her split-ends hit her shoulders. Dust floats where her eyes usually ignore his stare. Where her crooked smile often corrects itself is a thin ray of light that a fat housefly drifts through. The light reflects off its wings, shimmering as it hovers and lands on the center of her pancake stack. The fly struggles through the syrup, burying itself. With the blunt end of a fork, he shoves the fly deeper into the pancake’s caldera until it disappears.

She exhales, remembering the fly, and counts the years together. 

She walks to the back of the house. When he spots her car in the street from the dining room window, he begins dead bolting doors. On the patio, she watches him slide from the front door to the garage entrance. She leaves the back door open, tracks mud over the tile, peels off her jacket, and places the orchid on the kitchen island. The crinkle of the plant’s wrapping draws him to the kitchen. He closes and locks the patio door.

“You like to remember orchids are my favorite,” he says, running his fingers over the flower’s petals. “A gift?”

“Well, this is a special occasion,” she says. “Today you made special pancakes.”

His back does not stiffen. He is not taken aback by her suspicion, the way she slinks around him, or how she snaps the blinds behind the dining table suddenly before pointing at the sky as if she spotted something wondrous.

She asks, “Can you hear it?” He shakes his head, frowning although he hears the thunder approaching. She examines a fresh pile of dug-up dirt in the backyard beside a thin gravesite. She squints, pretending it is just a mound, and the land before her is not freckled with unearthed dirt. She considers their yard’s only piece of decor, a statue near the window. They acquired the small sculpture from the yard sale of a bankrupt memorial monument store. He insisted on buying it and joked they lived in a graveyard until they did.

“I saw a vulture on my way home and it reminded me of you,” she tells him.

He moves the orchid to the center of the kitchen table. “Sure.”

“I did,” she insists. “I hit it with my car and the beak got stuck in my headlight.” She rises and pulls from the pocket of her hung coat, a black beak coated in dry blood. She holds it between her fingers and raises it to the natural light for him to admire. It is the color of obsidian.

“It came out of nowhere, cawing, and flapping straight toward me,” she explains steadily while scratching at the broad end of the beak where it tore from the flesh. “I figured my life is worth more than a bird, so I sped up.” She attempts a smile, but it falters when she meets his eye. She hands him the beak. “Add it to your collection,” she says. “Glue it to a horse’s skull.”

The beak is not a peace offering. It is an example. An endless argument.

“You should try the pancakes,” he says. “They’re delicious.” He places the beak by the kitchen sink for later cleaning before saying, “I’m feeling nostalgic today.”

She is taken back to their first date, fearfully intentional and without consideration of the other’s politics or how the relationship may one day violently end. It began with her distracted admiration of the blurry reflection atop Ladybird Lake. He noticed the opportunity to kindly push her over the kayak’s edge and watched her choke on lake water deemed unswimmable by the city. He lost the outline of the rounded chin he adored in the murkiness and felt rewarded with the satisfaction of stopping a heartbeat. He bit his tongue to divert a grin and fell from a boil to a simmer for the first time.

His future wife assumed the skill of swimming would come with age, but a passerby had to jump from a paddleboard and float her flailing body to the shore since her date had forsaken her. The young man became sullen in the canoe, mourning his date’s survival. He wondered how he might propose to her one day and which suit he would wear to her funeral. He rocked in the boat, readily crafting the image of caressing her rubbery embalmed cheek before the casket shut. From the shore, she recognized his expression. He was falling in love.

“This is our last dinner,” he blurts. The second time he tried to kill her was with carbon monoxide poisoning; the third was a small shove near a cliff while hiking; the fourth, a hunting accident.

She glares at the pancakes. “I almost feel safe knowing that the one person who wants me dead cooks for me each day.” She sighs. “We’ve been going through the motions, and now we can finally end the charade.”

He asks, “You have a secret, don’t you?” He runs his hands through his thinning hair and scratches his pale cheek. In the future, she does not see him turning grey next to her. There are no children with his big nose and thin smile along with her wide mouth and widow’s peak. She sees their plain cheap caskets and no funeral.

“There are few left between us,” she says. He waves his hand at her impatiently. “Tonight is our last,” she admits. He reaches across the kitchen table to cradle her face, but it is a move she has anticipated for decades. She is already turning toward the window, unafraid.

“There’s this feeling I have when I look at you,” he says. His face looks as if it is rotting, sinking into itself. “It’s like loving the living dead.” She shakes her head as he continues, “You’re decomposing in front of me every day. Your absence would be more interesting than your life.”

No chills race her spine. She does not grimace at his words. She opens her mouth and pauses as if holding a glowing doorknob and watching the door splinter.

“You don’t forgive and forget things like a crawlspace stuffed with slaughtered strays,” she says with a clenched jaw. Being a martyr is about attention, and she is no martyr. Her sacrifice will not be recognized. She is a distraction, the monitor of a loose end of humanity, a grossly failed version of the Bechdel test.

“I love the way you talk like someone is listening and writing everything down,” he says.

“I’m tired of these conversations,” she sighs, bringing one hand to massage her forehead briefly. “I’m not something to rip apart and put back together.” She leans over the pancakes, shoves her index finger in the middle, and digs out the fly she has waited for all her life. He catches his gasp then melts into a carefully guarded laugh while she continues, “When you fried my pet fish, I felt defeated.” She flattens the fly between her fingers and flicks it onto the blinds. “When we married, I couldn’t wait to get this life with you over.”
“You chose this life,” he says spitefully. “You could have done something meaningful, but you’ve been stagnant and frankly a poor wife.”

She frowns. She was never supposed to be a good wife.

She pauses thoughtfully. There is more for her to say. There is a script to finish. There is the rest of the conversation and what happens next, the end. She closes her eyes and recalls the water wrinkling above her and the terrible knowledge it stained her with.

The cold rushes back as warmth. The chlorine snakes up her nose.

The clouded sky is bright beneath the water, and she remembers the polluted Galveston beach her family visited every summer before the pool was built, before Ladybird Lake, before her undecorated grave. She is pulled up to the warmer, familiar coldness of a late Texas winter.

Next Thursday, her art teacher will call her mother and say the girl’s drawings are concerning. She will not touch a body of water for the next six years. Her sisters will keep their distance. She will not experience nostalgia. She will be patient until she finds him in a museum near a painting of orchids. He will be admiring a sculpture titled The Only Gorilla.

Weak knees will lead her to his side. She will breathe in faint honey and oranges, his familiar smell. She will ask if he sees the sculpture for what it symbolizes. Before he can reply, she will explain that it is the last and first of its kind; it is a paradox.

She will ask, “Does it matter enough to survive?”

When she finally looks at him, his eyes will be neither kind nor harsh.

As the blanket of water slips off, her gasp becomes a scream.

Cameron Bocanegra is a queer Latina English teacher who lives in Austin, Texas. She studied English education and journalism at Baylor University and graduated in 2020. She draws inspiration from nature, children, her culture, and experiences as a former Catholic and current atheist. She is inspired by the work of Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, and Sandra Cisneros. Her poetry has been published in Rigorous Magazine.