Like Happiness


The following is from Ursula Villarreal-Moura’s debut novel Like Happiness. Villarreal-Moura was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. She is also the author of Math for the Self-Crippling, a flash fiction collection.

The scene was this: I was seated on the 6 train, checking my mascara in a compact, when a trio of teenage boys deposited a large boom box near my suede boots. One leaned down to click play, and within seconds they began break-dancing to “Billie Jean,” launching themselves from metal poles and twirling on the floor of the sticky subway car. The oldest boy pointed to me whenever the song mentioned Billie Jean, clarifying to fellow commuters that I was not his lover. The repeated intrusion of a finger near my chest prevented me from stowing my compact or feigning aloofness.

Anyone other than you might incredulously wonder how I could recall this night so vividly. You, however, never doubted my photographic memory, perhaps because you realized how present I was with you at all times.

As “Billie Jean” faded, the teens collected donations and their stereo, then jangled off to an adjoining train car. While watching their backs recede, I noticed several passengers reading the January 2012 issue of New York magazine with your face on the cover. In a bold white font, the return of a legend overlaid your black wool turtleneck. The photo was flattering, but your aging, angular face exuded a zen serenity I knew to be counterfeit.

By this point, I’d become accustomed to seeing your face and name everywhere I turned—in newspapers, on trains, in bookstores, on TV, and forget the internet. Your web hits ranked in the 8.5 million range.

Days before, you’d emailed me that you were reading at NYU and asked if I was interested in a reserved seat. You suggested a date afterward at a martini bar. To mark the occasion, beneath my black down coat I was dressed in an ox-blood wrap dress, houndstooth hosiery, and black boots. Five of my pulse points were dabbed with ylang-ylang perfume, and physically I’d never felt more radiant. When my reflection jagged across a smudged train window, I was agog over the newfound energy in my eyes, the emotional possibilities of my mouth. It seemed that finally my dream would be deferred no longer, that we were on the brink of happening. The tectonic plates of our relationship were shifting that night, but I had miscalculated the direction.

At the 33rd Street station, a sequined mariachi quartet bustled onto the train. They positioned themselves far from where I sat and began strumming “De Colores,” a song my grandmother and I had sung at night when we shared a bedroom. I wasn’t accustomed to hearing Mexican folk songs in this pocket of the city, and the lyrics evoked the dried-rose scent of my grandmother’s dusting powder.

After the last chord dissipated, my focus wandered back to your magazine cover. Your face, I figured, would end up between my legs by the end of the evening. The thrill dampened my underwear, forcing me to adjust my posture.

For the past several months, my imagination had successfully obscured my role in the fantasies I concocted of us. But the probability that we would be intimate that night was high. For the thirty hours leading up to that train ride, I’d been unable to focus on much else. It had been a while since I’d locked lips with anyone, so I reminded myself that I’d have to tilt my head and keep my tongue engaged.

As the train dropped down the grid from 23rd Street to 14th Street–Union Square, I inspected myself one final time in the circular compact, admiring the lava hue of my lipstick. I lifted my arms away from my torso to allow my perspiration to dry while searching through my phone for your last email.

The halogen platform lights vanished, and the train thundered down the track toward Astor Place.

 

CHILE: 2015

It was a hushed Sunday afternoon in Santiago. Fog rolled in outside my southward window. Bossa nova filled the living room, and my Siamese cat napped on the rug. I lay on the couch, and between lulling lyrics, my eyelids kissed closed. I had nowhere to be, so I intended to let myself drift.

As the vinyl record serenely spun on the credenza, a sharp trilling interrupted the song. I assumed at first that I was dreaming of a disturbance. The menacing noise continued until I realized it originated in another room. Soon I was upright and padding toward the kitchen island.

My head swayed with heaviness as I placed the phone to my ear. “Buenas tardes,” I mumbled.

On the other end, someone exhaled asthmatically but hesitated. “Uh, he-hello?” a man’s voice finally stammered.

My neck tensed. Who was calling from the United States?

“Is this Tatum Vega? My name is Jamal O’Dalingo. I’m an investigative journalist for The New York Times.”

Despite embracing the expat life, I still subscribed to the Times and read it nearly every morning. I couldn’t imagine why the US paper of record was contacting me, but I was now less inclined to hang up. This stranger also had a Mississippi or Alabama drawl, a charm I’d forgotten about while living below the equator.

“Go on,” I said. The sternness of my voice in English startled me.

“I’m contacting you because I’m looking into allegations against the writer M. Domínguez, a friend of yours—”

“You must be confused,” I interjected. “He and I aren’t even in touch, much less friends.”

“Maybe not anymore, but there’s plenty of photographic evidence online showing that you two were in contact for years.”

My gaze tumbled down the length of my gray lounge pants. My socked feet curled against the wood floor, and again I considered hanging up.

“What’s this about? Why are you contacting me?” I asked. “A young woman has come forward with sexual abuse claims against M. Since she isn’t requesting anonymity, I

can share with you that her name is María Luz Guerrero.” “Oh,” I breathed, rattled by this information.

“I’m curious if you’d be willing to answer some questions.” “I don’t think I even know this woman. I mean, surely I don’t,” I replied, still drowsy and ruffled to be having such a serious conversation in a language I had almost completely

retired in South America.

My eyes wandered into my living room. My Siamese,

the most noble of my three cats, now stood like a soldier facing me. The vinyl record abruptly reached its end. The needle lifted.

“I promise I won’t take much of your time. Just a few questions. What do you say, Ms. Vega?”

In that moment, the only thought I had wasn’t an answer at all. It was that I had a history of not liking myself in English. I had made so many mistakes in the language. What if I lapsed back into that version of myself?

*

You’re likely wondering what all this is about—my aim in contacting you. It’s been three years since rain flicked our glasses as we stood inches apart and

I stared at your quivering upper lip, which always reminded me of the tilde: ~.

Last week, a journalist contacted me. Since I appeared in a number of online photos with you, it wasn’t long before the media identified me. I learned that a young woman in Upstate New York named María Luz has leveled serious accusations against you. She claims you two met years ago at a library reading you gave in Albany. Obviously, I don’t know María Luz like you do, but I believe her. You weren’t that person with me, not exactly, but the fingerprints of our stories are strikingly similar.

Answering the journalist’s questions brought you back into my lens. For years, it’s perturbed me how things ended between us—rashly but with the finality of a guillotine. Even as we stood on that street corner, my heartbeat deafening the roar of city traffic, I knew I had so much to tell you, but the words remained unformed, timid syllables under my tongue. It’s taken me all this time to come to terms with what happened between us. We spent so many years of our lives traveling together and sharing secrets, yet we were purposely oblivious to certain aspects of each other. I’m writing to you because so much of my life was spent fixated on you. And while I told myself for years that you viewed me with the same intensity, it’s doubtful you ever really saw all of me. I finally see all of you, the parts I admired and the parts I denied existed. And now I need you to do the same. So, Mateo, here is an account from me to you.

Despite the fact that you were my best friend for a decade, there’s a lot you never knew about me. It’s important that you understand who I was before you. Your first book shaped my life, but my fascination with fiction and authors preceded you.

When I was a child, reading was a struggle because my brain refused to learn phonics. In second grade, I started memorizing words out of necessity and piecing them together in chains. After much repetition, comprehension kicked in and sentences began to excite me. Then one day when I was nine, I fell in love with Judy Blume’s Just as Long as We’re Together. My mother claims that she and my father were sound asleep in the middle of the night when I shuffled into their

bedroom in my pajamas.

“What’s wrong, mija?” she asked.

I was nearly crying. I held my hand over my mouth as if to prevent a sob from escaping.

“What? Tell me!” she pleaded.

“I’m worried Rachel’s going to be left out,” I said. “What if Stephanie and Alison ignore her?” I hovered over my mother’s prostrate body and continued sharing my anxieties. My mother had never heard me speak of girls named Rachel, Stephanie, or Alison, so her mind scrambled to place them. “Nena,” she whispered, “where’d you meet these girls?

Do I know their moms?”

“No,” I said, annoyed that I had to explain what I felt was so obvious. “Only I know these girls. They’re in Just as Long as We’re Together.”

“What?”

“The book’s gonna end the wrong way,” I said. “Don’t you understand? Do something!”

Looking back at my childhood, I can see that my subconscious had solved an important riddle—how to counter the loneliness and boredom of being an only child.

Inside books I found quietude, a marvelous oasis. I could read stories with such ease that I was reduced to a pulsating mind. Nothing mattered but the stories, my understanding of them, how the stories affected me, and the dreams the stories ignited.

__________________________________

From Like Happiness by Ursula Villarreal-Moura. Copyright© 2024 by the author and reprinted with permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.



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