Fiction by Roxane Gay

Marise thought she knew things about tears. When she was a little girl in Port-au-Prince, her father would listen to Mozart’s Requiem while their neighbours danced to konpa and American rock and roll. Their small two-room home would fill with the melancholy of earnest choral voices and string instruments. Whenever the Lacrimosa sequence began, her father would close his eyes and hold a hand high in the air. Everyone would still. The music was so beautiful, Marise understood she was feeling everything that could ever be felt. Then the government was overthrown again and again and again and mouths grew hungry and an even thicker maze of wires began stretching from house to house, each family stealing power from here and there. Walking down alleys, you could no longer see the sky and then it was time for the generators with their loud angry hum making everything thick with the smell of diesel. Her father put the turntable away. There was nothing left to feel.

When the UN soldier first came to her door with his brown skin and baby blue bulletproof vest, he said his name was Carlos Rocha from Vila Velha, Brazil. He held his helmet in the crook of his arm, his long rifle slung over his shoulder. Fat beads of sweat rolled down his face. He had money, a slow, lazy grin, and curly black hair. He smiled at her only child. Carlos Rocha gently squeezed the boy’s cheek between the calluses of his soldier hands. He asked if she cooked, what she charged for her spare room. His grin widened, revealing dimples. She smiled back, nervous, named her price. Everything in Port-au-Prince had a price.

The soldier moved in. Every night, he returned to Marise’s well-kept home, complained about the heat, the heavy air, the trash everywhere, the dark shiny people throwing rocks and bottles and angry words. He ate her food. He shared her bed, touched her body with his soldier hands; he filled her and frightened her and she felt something she didn’t understand. She learned about lachrymatory agents, how chemical compounds were designed for the express purpose of stimulating the corneal nerves to draw tears and inflict pain. He told her how his unit was once locked in a bunker filled with tear gas. The soldiers tried not to breath or cry, the jowls of their cheeks quivering uncontrollably until their chests threatened to explode, and finally they sobbed, not because of the burning in their eyes, nose, throat, but because of the frailty of feeling everything at once. Marise sang songs to comfort the soldier after his long days patrolling dark, dangerous places. She learned his words. He learned hers. She worried.

It did not take long for Marise to forget that Carlos Rocha was a man on a mission. He was far from his home. He would not stay. The warmth of her body, the way she welcomed him inside her, the taste of her skin were all things he would walk away from. He kept a well-oiled gun beneath her bed, carried it every day, and once in a while he shot he fired he hurt he killed. She forgot all this until one day, her boy sat in front of their small concrete house, tears streaming down his face as he stacked spent tear gas canisters as high as his little arms could reach. When the boy felt his mother’s shadow over him, he looked up with his bright shining eyes, holding a canister in each chubby fist. He said, “Look Mama, I made!” She remembered what was and what would not be. She pulled her child into her arms. She felt nothing but the bitterness of her son’s tears on her tongue.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2010

Roxane Gay’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Blip Magazine (formerly the Mississippi Review online), Cream City Review, Annalemma, McSweeney’s (online), and other journals. She is the co-editor of PANK, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, and can be found at Her first collection of short fiction, Ayiti, will be published in 2011.