Xiaojing gags as Tenorio sets the faded Los Angeles Zoo coffee mug on his placemat near hers. She quickly covers her mouth, stands and runs to the powder room by the hallway closet. As she wretches, bathroom door wide open, Tenorio stifles a laugh as he remembers when they had their first long conversation after a panel at a writers’ conference and she said her name meant “morning luxuriance.” Not so much these days. A full month of morning sickness with no end in sight. Tenorio’s late wife, Renata, suffered maybe a total of seven or eight days of nausea for her pregnancy with the twins, something Tenorio made the mistake of mentioning to Xiaojing two weeks ago. Her response: She was perfect, right? For a poet, Xiaojing could be blunt.
The gagging stops. Water runs. Xiaojing gargles with mouthwash and spits, returns to the breakfast table.
Can I get you anything, sweetheart? Tenorio asks softly, oozing husbandly tenderness, concern.
You can drink your coffee someplace else, she says. You know I can’t stand the smell right now.
Tenorio tries to smile but it looks like he’s just bitten the inside of his cheek. He puts the newspaper down, picks up his iPhone with one hand, the coffee mug with the other, softly kisses the top of Xiaojing’s head, and shuffles in his slippers to the living room. Once there, he puts his cup down on the Dead Sea Scrolls coffee table book and settles onto the couch.
Use a coaster! Xiaojing yells from the other room. I did, he yells back and waits, doesn’t move. After four long seconds: No you didn’t, she responds in a loud, exhausted whisper. Yes I did, he coos. Silence. Tenorio sighs, reaches for a Beatles coaster—the one with a miniature copy of the Revolver cover—and places it on the Dead Sea Scrolls book near his coffee mug, and ever so slowly, silently moves his mug onto the coaster. Thank you, Xiaojing yells. I appreciate it. Tenorio sighs.
Just over two years ago, Tenorio moderated a panel at the AWP conference titled Cultural Edifices: Writers of Color in Today’s Literary Marketplace. It was a solid panel, one that he’d planned for almost a year, but three weeks before the conference, his old friend and novelist, Henry Leong, came down with pneumonia, a nasty case, and had to drop out. Henry recommended Xiaojing as a replacement. Tenorio wasn’t certain if she’d be a good fit. He already had one Cuban poet and one African-American poet. Henry, along with the fourth panelist, a Native American memoirist, created a more or less balanced panel: two poets, two prose writers. But Tenorio had little choice. He called Xiaojing, explained the situation, mentioned Henry, and she accepted without hesitation. Said she’d be honored. Xiaojing turned out to be the hit of the panel, a beautiful, young poet who could be lyrical one moment, hilariously blunt the next. That night, after a reception that served too much free booze and too little food, Tenorio and Xiaojing disappeared to her hotel room. They missed the next day’s panel presentations put on by their friends and colleagues, lounging in bed, enjoying each other’s bodies. She didn’t mind that he was almost fifty, with all the scars and discolorations that come with age. Indeed, the fact that he had lived twenty years longer than she, twenty years of experience that included a late wife and twins at Stanford, pleased her deeply, at least that’s what she told him at the end of the conference when they had to separate and fly out of Chicago to their respective California cities. They promised to keep in touch. Xiaojing even hinted that she was growing weary of San Diego and wanted to move to Los Angeles where the poetry scene (not to mention teaching opportunities) was vibrant, especially for a Chinese-American writer. Before Tenorio knew it, they were married, living in his Sherman Oaks ranch-style house, the one he had bought with Renata on the money she made as a partner at a large downtown law firm. The house that made a perfect place to raise the twins. The house Renata died in, eventually succumbing to ovarian cancer. The house he had promised Renata to keep and to share with a future, new wife. A promise he never intended to keep, but would eventually fulfill, despite feeling like a traitor to his first marriage. But Tenorio said to Renata that he would never have another child with the new wife. Never. This made Renata smile. She died one month later, in their bed, made comfortable with a cocktail of painkillers, no need to fear addiction.
Tenorio takes a sip of coffee, puts the mug back on the coaster, turns on the iPhone, and goes to his Twitter page. What to share? Hmmmm… Oh, yes:
Tenorio Moreno @chicanowriter
Reading review copy of Michael Nava’s new novel “The City of Palaces.” Gr8!
There, he thinks. My 768 followers will know that Nava has a new book coming out soon. Tenorio stares at his Tweet, waiting for someone to retweet it, or at least Favorite it. Nothing. Well, how about this, something a bit more confrontational:
Tenorio Moreno @chicanowriter
Thought provoking piece in The American Scholar (@TheAmScho):
Leaving Race Behind by @AmitaiEtzioni
Tenorio sends the Tweet, waits, stares at his iPhone. One minute. Two. Nothing. He snorts, places the iPhone on the Dead Sea Scrolls, gulps down the rest of his coffee, yells over to Xiaojing: I think I’ll go to the gym before I start writing.
She answers: Sounds like a plan.
Kind of stuck on that short story, he adds. Need to get the juices flowing.
She answers: I said it sounds like a plan.
It’s a plan, he says to himself. A real, solid, well-constructed, fucking plan.
Tenorio tries to read the advance copy of the Nava novel as he pedals on the recumbent stationary bike. Some of his best story ideas came to him while at the gym reading other people’s fiction. Maybe something will come to Tenorio now. But no. A man about Tenorio’s age is on the bike to his left, yakking on his cell phone despite the strict gym prohibition. It’s in writing, right up there on the wall, for Christ’s sake! Motherfucker. And he has to talk loud enough so that anyone within a three-yard radius will know that he’s a surgeon offering advice to a friend about who would be the best doctor to see for a hip replacement. Not an emergency. No need to have that call right then. Motherfucker. Wait! That’s it! thinks Tenorio. I’ll have my main character go to the gym, get annoyed by a doctor who’s yakking into a cell phone. Describe the doctor in exquisite detail. Good set piece, nice bridge to the next scene where he’ll have an epiphany about his life while driving home. Yes! That could work nicely. God bless you, Dr. Motherfucker! God bless you and your fucking cell phone!
Tenorio enters his house through the attached garage. I’m home, sweetie! he yells. He doesn’t see Xiaojing in the kitchen or living room or dining room. No answer, but he can hear the shower running upstairs. He almost skips up the stairs, anxious to take his own shower and then get down to writing. Tenorio enters their bedroom, knocks on the bathroom door. Sweetie, I’m home, he says. No answer. Sweetie? he says again. You okay?
After a few moments, before Tenorio panics and opens the door, Xiaojing yells from the shower: Is that you, honey?
Tenorio relaxes. Yes, sweetie. Can I come in?
Tenorio opens the door and looks at Xiaojing through the steamed glass shower door. He wants to say something but, instead, he takes in the view of his pregnant second wife.
Good workout? Xiaojing finally asks as she works lather into her hair.
Yes, sweetie, says Tenorio. Yes, I had a great workout.
Your knees feel okay?
Tenorio laughs softly. Oh, yes, he says. Never felt better.
Xiaojing rinses her hair, shuts off the water. Tenorio turns, walks out of the bathroom before Xiaojing can step out of the shower, slowly closing the door behind him.
Xiaojing yells: You okay?
Yes, answers Tenorio as he walks to the study, giving up on taking a shower for now. Like a million bucks, he yells over his shoulder. Like a million bucks.
Tenorio, after a few minutes of writing sentences that make sense, that sing, that move his short story forward, hits that black wall of his. Nothing. For the last twenty minutes, he has stared at the blinking cursor, waiting for the flood to begin again.
Tenorio shakes his head. A sound, loud, almost human. What is that? Who is that? Xiaojing? Her screams splinter Tenorio’s concentration. He jumps from his chair, trips, almost falls to the carpet. Xiaojing? What’s wrong?
Tenorio opens the bathroom door. His wife sits in the corner, on the cold tile, bath towel open, legs spread, a pool of red bubbling out of her. She screams again.
As Tenorio moves to her, arms outstretched, a loving husband trying to help his wife, he tries to capture this image of his beautiful woman’s face contorted in fear and pain, capture it in his still-agile memory, keep this image and every detail for safekeeping to draw upon it at the appropriate time to write a heartrending section of his short story, a piece of fiction that will finally make him an A-lister, a writer’s writer, a man to be reckoned with.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of seven books, including the award-winning novel, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press, 2011), and Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews (San Diego State University Press, 2014). He is also the editor of the landmark anthology, Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008), which brings together 60 years of Los Angeles fiction by Latino/a writers. His writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Fourth & Sycamore, PANK, Prairie Schooner (Briefly Noted), Fairy Tale Review, Exquisite Corpse, New Madrid, Superstition Review,Pembroke, and many other literary journals. He has also written for The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, Jewish Journal, El Paso Times, High Country News, Los Angeles Review of Books, and La Bloga. He earned his degree in English literature from Stanford University, and law degree from UCLA.