Before the Monsoon

Katie Cortese

While Nathan empties drawers of his undershirts, I take a cigarette out to our concrete slab of a porch. In the mildewed canvas chair, I tap gray snow into the wild air and watch the grapefruit tree shiver a welcome to the monsoon descending on Phoenix like a fruit bat diving for prey, its spread of dark wings turning everything to wind and shadow. No rain yet, but every drag brings a telltale taste of creosote and dust.
            His cat mews in her pink Pet Taxi. When they are both gone, I will tour our decimated museum fingering gaps on bookshelves, the empty places like missing teeth in a lunatic’s smile. In the yard, the grapefruit tree flips its skirts and sheds its rotten yellow globes into grass that should not grow in this desert city, and which after he leaves I’ll never water or mow.
            He’s in the kitchen now, claiming woks and saucepots like a clumsy thief, and an empty travel mug, the pièce de résistance because he has half a country to cross to reclaim the former fiancé whose voice leaked under his office door during so many late-night, secret Skypes.
            We’re the broker and the broken, I’d joked when my paintings weren’t selling and all I wanted was a drink. Even as we laughed I knew the best jokes were the half-true ones.
            Soon, he’ll be Atlanta-bound and all at once I am tired of the grapefruit tree’s raunchy burlesque. When I slip in through the slider and raise the cherry of my cigarette to his beautiful eye, it’s not to hurt him, really, just to mark him as mine, the way I would any finished still-life.
            “Cut the crap, Melanie,” he says, and closes his hand around my wrist, which is how we struggle and how my loose fist shoots into the bridge of his nose so his head snaps back like a Pez dispenser, nostrils thinly streaming blood. While he stands and drips, I listen to the wind shake the windows in their metal frames. Some of his blood has smeared in a sickle shape on my palm and will flake off in my sheets as I sleep.
            He pinches the bridge of his nose and says, “I think we’re out of paper towels,” thoughtlessly spending our last “we.”
            It’s true, there’s nothing to wipe up the drops of blood that have joined the paint-spattered tiles. Instead, he lets me take his wrists and drag his red-stained hands over my bare arms, my clavicle purpled with cold, my wet cheeks, which melt at his touch like any Dalí clock.
            “Self-portrait in red,” I say.
            “You’re sick, you know that?” he says, but gently, pushing my bangs away from my face.
            The cat yawls and then the only sounds are dry thunder and a steady wind that teases shingles from the roof, reminding me that in this colonized desert we are all intruders. Neither of us, none of this, belongs.
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The morning after I told Hills I was pregnant, we went to Game of Scones just like it was a normal Saturday. It was a normal Saturday. Baristas shouted over the chuffing of their steaming wands. I had decaf because the only research I’d done before my appointment on Monday was to print a list of “no-no” foods. Caffeine was on it. Bagels were on it. Sushi was on it. A glass of wine was probably fine. I ordered a cranberry scone instead of my usual everything toasted.
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We hadn’t given up, exactly. We’d said “If it happens, it happens,” and it took seventeen years. Of wedded near bliss, we told the doctor. As close as humans could hope to get. I sat in a paper dress and Hills held my hand, choosing to stand, while Dr. Thermon read numbers off his computer screen, keeping his place with a finger. Big, fat percentages based on other people’s misfortunes. We accepted the risks. Hills and I had both been late babies. Only children. Odd children. We started a college fund. We painted the guest room. We chose two possible names.
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I thought I knew all about love. I had felt myself full of it before. I’d ached with it. Cried for it. Given it grudgingly. I’d skipped lightly over its surface. Now I was poisoned by love, heavy with our daughter, beaten and weak, drowning, insensible to everyone else, Hills most of all, whose only role was to stand on shore and wave while I struggled with the oars. The truth of love is the teeth it sinks deep into flesh that yields and yields and will infinitely yield, flesh that tears forever without breaking. Miranda came on a Tuesday, whole, screaming, hungry.
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Soon, my milk was not enough. She tore out hanks of my hair with her dimpled fists and swallowed them. Picture books grew soggy between her gums, then slid into her gullet. Hills lost his glasses, his lashes, and one morning, his eyes themselves, brown and surprised. She claimed his nose, which she loved to pull, then the rest of him. The cat, then the collie. She ate the front porch, then the neighbors’ split-level ranch. She swallows bathrobes off my back as soon as I can buy them. The spit bubbles on her primrose lips, open now in a smile, tell me the second my milk stops she will thrust her tiny hand into the cage of my chest and lay claim to my beating heart. I will open my robe for her. It is hers. It is all hers. My heart, and all that goes with it.

KATIE CORTESE holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Carve Magazine, Word Riot, Monkeybicyle, and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Visit her at