Luis – Hannah Liberman
January 6, 2024
There was a period after university when I would drive an hour to and from a large house seemingly made entirely of river stone stuck on rim over valley. The inside of the house felt like the outside, whether the sky was light or dark.
When monsoon season swept through summer’s end, lightning fell in the middle of the living room, separated from the sage brush and juniper outside only by thin glass sheets, usually opened so that the windows’ screens would wash with rain. And in autumn dry sun rolled to each of the house’s corners, the tiled floors slicked pink from the clouds’ reflections. Water for cleaning the porcelain dishes, of which there were too many, was brought from a well outside by a man called Luis, hired by the wealthy owners to tend to the house when they were away, which was close to always. During those months the owners were gone, the house was known for its parties, smudged nights printed with the shadows of bodies in motion inside and out, with no one living near enough to complain of the yelling and moaning music cutting the night. This changed when Luis and I met, the house becoming a quiet thing, loneliness between walls.
I would like to tell you that Luis, like my mother’s family, was from Northern Mexico, but I would probably be wrong. Once he had mentioned a grandmother in Ciudad Juarez, but that can’t account for much. He never told me when exactly his family came to New Mexico, and I didn’t ask. What I can say now is that Luis was nearing forty at the time, not young but neither old, rather he was both simultaneously, though over a decade my senior—thin-waisted and easily mistakable for a young woman when his shoulders were turned. It was an unconscious choice, but he wore hair that fell below his collarbone and held the scent of an onion’s skin, and soil, always soil, even after an hour sitting in the lukewarm yellow of the bathtub. And I adored him for that, among other things, of course, but always that: the smell of the earth—rain, mud, roots—seeming to come from somewhere nearly internal, a part of him. Summer in high desert blazes colorless, the sun unsparing. Luis filled the hours watching the sun and clouds shift the depth of the ridged mountains in the distance, elbows resting on his knees as he sat on a rock outside and etched the mountains’ likeness into a small notepad. After completing the lines, Luis washed the scrapes of the pen over in color. He saw what wasn’t there, and I considered it a privilege to perceive the world through his mind for that time. Apart from him—bent over a pile of logs, muscles expanding and contracting with the beating of an axe, reading in a corner chair, writing or drawing—no one came to the house for a long while after we began seeing each other, just a cat named Daniel kept our company.
When I first met the cat and asked the reason for his name in fragmented Spanish, Luis was sitting atop the kitchen counter, a bag of tobacco resting on his knees, and he plopped from his perch on the tile, then looked away at the wall of night beyond the valley out the window. A poster written in English was fixed above the kitchen sink with blue painter’s tape, though he wasn’t the type to hang posters, especially in a home not his own, and, more importantly, as far as I knew, knew Italian, Portuguese, and French, but refused to engage with English. He alluded to the decision not to speak or write it as a kind of protest, political position, but I understood that when he communicated with the home’s owners, they used solely English, no other languages readily available. Only in hindsight do I fully understand why he insisted on communicating in the language my parents had lost. “We do not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it,” the poster read, with a small “Alcoholics Anonymous” signature imprinted in the bottom corner. Luis and I were both in recovery, though I can’t recall a time that I’d seen him sober. Never mind the alcohol, the scratches on his legs from the speed or the nose bleeds, blood leaking from his nose in the middle of a restaurant at 1 p.m., the stains blooming on starched white linen napkins. No, what remains fixed in memory is the heroin spliff tucked between the pockets of his middle and ring finger, hovering in front of his torn lips like he was trying to determine the right thing to say, but couldn’t, while scraping the strings of an old Martin, the little paper torpedo resting in the tuning pegs as if ready to explode, blow us both to ash, while his jaw ground back and forth, back and forth, like a mother rocking her child, the trill of his teeth scraping against one another.
Inexplicably, we both looked to the poster just then, which showed an image of a woman walking away from an open door, her body just a silhouette of light cut against black, and I wondered again if the poster was his, if he indeed hoped to live by the words on the wall (I couldn’t say the same for myself at that time) or if he just liked the image, whatever it represented—the idea that walking toward is always walking away from and the inverse, of course, though motion, I’ve always thought, is motion, the direction itself frivolous, beyond the point. He disagreed. I would come to know this, but didn’t then. When he looked back at me, his eyes were wide and damp saucers, and he said in a voice unusually stern that Daniel was his father’s middle name. He didn’t elaborate, and I changed the direction of the conversation quickly, knowing without any hint of doubt that the poster was his own.
The owners of the stone house were specters only, and no one else came to the place those early times, just Luis and Daniel. There were unspoken things we knew about each other, Luis and I, because looking at him was like looking in a distorted mirror. My friends at the time often said that I loved him as one loves the theory of an object and not the object itself, which one only realizes when the object is sitting in one’s hands, flesh and blood, threatening to stay. But they didn’t know what they were talking about.
I was just beginning to work then, writing short essays for a self-help blog in Los Angeles and for an economics journal on the East Coast. My managing editor in the East demanded two essays a day, due at 9 a.m. local time. The one in L.A. didn’t care what I wrote, as long as it washed with enough positivity to pass as accessible. She couldn’t be bothered about when the pieces arrived, because there was time to spare, always time time time to spare. When Luis told me he could help with the writing late one evening, I’d looked at the dirt beneath his fingernails, each of which I loved more than I could allow words, and said something trivial in English about U.S. economics or the instinct to pathologize on the West Coast, drawing out the last sounds of the z, each syllable of “American.” I knew close to nothing about economics, less about helping oneself. He could run circles around me during any discussion of economics or psychology, and both of us knew it. But in response he’d only pulled a bag of white powder from the top drawer of the bedside table and said, “the former,” though now I can’t remember the sequence of the choices. After that, Luis and I slept little, pulling the twin mattress the homes’ owners had left on the floor of the smallest room outside, where the night was nowhere, kept bright by the squeals of owls and cougars and the slipping moon which, no matter its thinning, caught the mountains beyond the valley.
One morning, Luis’s thumb up and down the ridge of my back, I lifted my torso, stuck my feet to the dirt below the mattress, and began to head to my car to drive home and work. Tax policy was the first topic of the day: the argument for raising taxes for the top decile of Americans, not solely the ugliest of the country’s wealth. Immigration, the second: the local economic downfalls of tighter border control. Love, the third. Luis didn’t ask what I was writing that morning, though I remember thinking it wasn’t because he didn’t care, and if it was because he didn’t care, then that I could care even less. When he asked me to stay, I turned my face to the side as if I hadn’t heard him.
Luis looked at me for a long time, his head tilted off his shoulders at an unnatural angle, and asked if he could give me a piece of advice. Crumpled into the twin bed against the dirt and the valley, he looked like a boy, one turned in on himself with no ability to turn out, as if doing so would let the whole of the sky and the rock faces fall into his chest, pummeling the insides. If I had possessed more courage than I did then, I would’ve lain beside him, taken him against my chest, and tried to understand the pain that lived inside him clear as my own. But I was young, selfish as young people.
There was nothing in that moment I wanted less than whatever advice he had thought to offer, but I nodded my head. “Sure.”
“If you have a difficult choice to make that will have very little consequence for you, but has the potential to make a world of difference for another person, make your choice with the other person in mind.” He said “other person” in English. I had the urge to laugh aloud or maybe cry out, but held my breath until the feeling went from my face to my lungs to my stomach.
“Thank you,” I said as I drew a door in the air with my mind, hearing the nothing of its invisible hinges scrape closed as my palms hung still.
When I went back to the house the next week, Luis and Daniel were gone.