MANOS / HANDS
She washes her underwear by hand.
You don’t find this out until after you start living together, though. Until, one day, you come home during your lunch break and find her in the bathroom, hunched over the tub filled halfway with soapy water, a neon yellow thong dripping wet in her hands. You watch her wring it out, stand up, and hang it on the curtain rod with the rest of her delicates: sports bras she removed the padding from, period-stained panties, Spanx. She turns around and wipes her hands on her thighs. A drop of water makes its way to her knee, the skin of which is now pockmarked by the bathmat. She smiles at you like you just walked in on a ritual she has no intention of explaining. You recall the time you washed the dishes after dinner and then, moments later, she washed them again her way. You wonder if she thinks you’re dirty. You suck your teeth to check for tartar.
I thought I’d come home for lunch today, you tell her.
I didn’t make anything, she says.
That’s okay. Do we have stuff for grilled cheeses?
Yeah, but no chips.
How about saltines?
You’re really gonna put saltines in a grilled cheese?
You turn around and head for the kitchen, which smells distinctly of Fabuloso and, beneath that, the hemp cigarettes she started smoking two weeks ago in an attempt to quit the real kind. Her abuela died of lung cancer. You didn’t find this out until after you proposed to her, though.
She’s sitting on the couch now, laughing at something on her phone. You tell yourself that this is what she used to do whenever she’d receive a text from you back when you first started dating: a giddy smile spread across her lips, her thumbnail pinched between her teeth. Back when all you two knew was discovery, excavation. And what did you look like on the other end of the phone?
What’s funny? you ask her.
Just some meme, she says.
Who sent it to you?
The Twitter algorithm, I guess. Does it matter?
It was just a question.
But you’ve realized that your questions are never just questions anymore, at least not when she’s the one you’re asking. She doesn’t volunteer information the way you do; she is guarded in a way that you can’t be. And maybe there is jealousy here, or anger, you think. Maybe you want so badly to know her that you believe you’re owed her stories, her histories, her reasons for doing things. There is something embarrassing about it, this constant coaxing. This need you feel to shepherd her into vulnerability. It’s why you offered to pay for her therapy, why you secretly take credit for every breakthrough, for her decision to start the medication that’s helped stop her depressive episodes. You didn’t know about those, either, until after the engagement party.
She doesn’t know you feel this way, though, and you have no intention of telling her, which is hypocritical at best and unforgivable at worst. You know that she is not your project or experiment, that you can’t mold her into something she isn’t, that she has already given you so much. That she loves you enough to compromise where you can’t.
As you butter the bread for your first grilled cheese, you also absolve yourself. You think of all the times you’ve made compromises, too, even if they were small ones, like getting margaritas with her when you really wanted beer, or ordering sushi instead of Popeyes. These things add up, you think, as you press the first slice of bread onto the pan and feel the heat threaten to burn your hand. You add three slices of cheese—two cheddar and one Swiss—and the other slice of bread, then use the handheld plancha her sister gave you as a housewarming gift to speed up the process.
She joins you in the kitchen now, and you can’t explain your annoyance at this, only that you feel wronged somehow. She opens a cabinet and takes out the last sleeve of saltines, then walks to the fridge and pulls out pasta de guayaba and queso blanco. You watch over your shoulder as she slices the guava and cheese into thin, near-perfect squares and arranges them on the crackers.
Still want saltines for your grilled cheese? she asks just as you flip it over.
I’m good, you say.
But you aren’t, you can’t be, not when you’re like this, insatiable for some part of herself that she keeps on the highest shelf, just out of your reach. So you turn around and look at her, really look at her, and she puts a hand over her mouth as she chews, and even this is a way she hides from you.
Why do you wash your underwear by hand? you ask.
She laughs. That’s a random question, she says.
You shrug. I’m just curious, you say.
She leans against the counter and looks you up and down, then at the grilled cheese in the pan behind you being crushed by the plancha, and you know it is already burning because of the smell. But your attention is here, on her, and you are transfixed. In this moment, you want, more than anything, to be a grain of salt on one of the crackers she’s eating just so she lets you inside.
It’s just how my abuela used to do it, she says finally, and you remember your own abuela’s hands, each raised vein like a crease in wrinkled sheets, each joint ballooning with arthritis.
At what age do our hands stop looking like our hands? you wonder. You wonder what yours will look like a decade from now. What hers will look like. You remember that one of the first things you loved about her was how much she used her hands when she talked to you about something she loved, how sometimes her rings would fly off her fingers from all the excitement.
You soften now, turn around to shut off the stove. You throw the blackened grilled cheese away and she takes the pan from you, begins to scrub it with a Brillo pad so you can start over. You’re tempted to hug her from behind, or touch her ass, or ask for a quickie. But instead, you walk over to the living room and sit where she sat, her phone still on the couch cushion. You think to check her notifications but decide you don’t need to, at least not right now.
Gabriella Navas is a Puerto Rican writer hailing from Jersey City, NJ. Her work has previously appeared in Little Patuxent Review, [PANK], and AERIE. Gabriella is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at The Ohio State University. She is easily distracted, frequently smitten, and always willing to talk about the healing powers of Chavela Vargas’s discography.