Pit Bulls

Grazie Sophia Christie
November 14, 2023

The women in my family had a habit of never recovering from love. That was just one of the reasons our expulsion was being considered. Whether the love was real or not hardly mattered. In fact, our imaginary loves often proved more resilient in the end, had extra teeth, took hold of our arms or thighs and bore down like pit bulls, with those deadbolt jaws and that dank smell which grew on us, turning beloved. Because a love you made up in your own mind was like a dog you took into your own home. Which you raised, coached into pantomimes of obedience, hoping all the while that whatever feral unpredictability it retained was enough for it to spring up one day and betray you—mauling, biting, permitting the glorious feeling later of showing off a scar. Real love was always so private, restricted to two. Imaginary love, taken to its extreme, made a spectacle in the end, some public, if unpleasant and combustive, proof of life. We were voluptuous women always speaking badly about each other, or well of ghosts, rather separate from the world except the one we made between ourselves, and desperate to penetrate, at any cost, an external community which made us feel unwelcome.  

My Tía Audra had a pit bull. She also had several other dogs, small, suffocating, flat-faced Frenchies choking on their own flatulence, and a chihuahua tucked perpetually in the crook of her arm. The flesh of her arm was taut and sculpturally defined, almost to indecency, but calmly yellow, like a hospital room wall, and though her mouth retained an absurd sensuality her face had grown rather Martian over the years, or at least how I imagined Martians to look like, without any eyelashes or eyebrows and an intriguing spaciness between the temples. She had lost them the day she was tased, in metaphorical, if not literal, shock. Our family worked in duos, each functional member assigned a dysfunctional one, so that between Tía Audra and me, or any of us really, we never managed anything but a kind of mean disaster. This day was one of hers and mine. Tía Audra had a mania for walking that pit bull and a child’s trust in it. Her custom was to wrap its leash inextricably around her wrist and once the dog dragged her so furiously across the pavement she said her skin sparked like flint.

So I had taken to walking with her. I was meant to remind her to hold the leash loosely, but not too loosely, in her hand.  

We all lived on a little island off Miami, with a gorgeous spine of a causeway bridge linking us to the mainland. Grey, huge, like a dinosaur’s vertebrae, with a footpath that flattened out to a beachy trail, and where you could admire the skyline, the schizophrenic bay, buy drugs, if the police weren’t patrolling. The police were always patrolling.  I don’t know if Tía Audra bought drugs, but standing there on the shoulder of the road, she’d watch the birds, and the fins of dolphins ripple from the water, she said, like the keys inside a piano when you play it, bobbing up and down, mirroring the motion with her head. Myself, I would empathize with the old, diminutive drawbridge, abandoned under the causeway that made it redundant, rusted and permanently open, like my legs felt that summer. I was seventeen. I had a real love, although I suppose that’s what we all think, going poorly, and it must have been love I was thinking of in that moment of distraction. But if I missed the arrival of the police officer, the pit bull did not. A snarl, I turn my head, the dog pounces, the officer draws his taser, and with the kind of synchronicity that permits flowers to bloom or cars to careen against each other, Audra cloaks the dog with her body, and the spray of probes and wires meanwhile cloaks her back.


What happened was terrible for Tía Audra, but in some ways it was a relief for the rest of us. It kept us all aligned against a common foe. The probes had left scars on her neck, like vampiric puncture wounds, and she’d make them up to look like hickeys, with purple eyeshadow, drifting around the island in her golf cart or on foot, looking disturbed and amorous. I suppose that’s what I looked like too at the time, given that I was in real love, though things were going poorly like I said. I loved a boy who lived with his father in a rocking houseboat in Coconut Grove, and between his emotional vacillations, our physical exertions, and the water that would never hold still I gave in to a perpetual nausea, always slim and vomiting. I can’t tell you the times my mother thought I was pregnant, dragged me by the ear to church. But he wasn’t so bad, he could stand my family and I could stand his, which counted for something, and the dark little hole of his cabin, which stank like a shell, swallowed light like a shell, the dark little hole in which waited a gray striped cushion and his long body, well, it was church itself to me. I still cannot taste the salt of someone’s skin without thinking of that wavy sex.

From time to time his gruff father would leave him on land, taking the boat on long mysterious trips, with extensive provisions, and I’d sneak Michael into the garage, or let him sleep in my grandpa’s vintage sports cars, still since long before he died, because God had paralyzed my grandfather, my mother said, to purify him, starting with his legs. I woke him up one morning in such a car. Michael was hunched over the wheel of a 1930’s Ford, snoring.  

“Let’s see if what Audra says is true,” I told him, smacking him on the face. “Let’s investigate.”  


Audra’s lawsuit against the city kept us entertained the whole summer, gave us something to do and talk about. It supplied a serious, ancient, Cuban practice called eating shit, which is an irreverent way of describing a religion, which eating shit was to us at the time. We sat in the kitchen and ate shit. We walked the beach and ate shit. To eat shit one must hang about, commit oneself to nothing, that is, really commit, take the nothing that is life with both hands and make a burlesque of it, slap it lovingly on the ass. You sit in the kitchen and you eat cream cheese and guava, licking your fingers, snubbing germs, and laugh at yourself as well as everyone you know and all the terrible things that have happened. It’s great. But eating shit is not something you should suggest to people in New England, trust me.  

I once heard the women in our family described as “strange birds,” and given our cacophony, our habit of descending on 7-Eleven or gas stations for Big Gulp sodas and our big, thick hair, someone always screeching about something, the time the pit bull attacked the chihuahua at the Yacht Club and Audra began to keen terribly, a whole crowd trying to tear the monster away and then my lawyer father giving the chihuahua CPR, reviving it actually, perhaps that was apt. I never got accustomed to the cliff-edge that was before and after one of us opened our mouths, a vertiginous, alienating humiliation like a long fall and the hard landing on loyalty. We’d visit a boutique, and the clerk would smile at us, and then one of us would begin to make conversation in our stilted, lost, fashion, like twins who make up their own language when they are neglected and stuffed in a closet, and I’d watch the light of the clerk’s eyes shift from uncertainty to discomfort, and then to hostility, even fear. Yet men couldn’t resist us, if a song played in a plaza we would stop and dance vigorously, and some of us were very intelligent, with a genius for cutting lines and earning doctorates while pushing out children, with no fuss, there were always the husbands, and a new baby in some corner, like a kitten from a cat you hadn’t known was expecting.  


Starting after the taser, Audra began to unburden herself to us like she never had, on Sunday mornings, when we gathered at a cousin’s place, as usual, to talk. We were a family of daughters who reminisced about other women’s sons. We loved our fathers but understood that before our fathers existed our pre-fathers, specters who made our mothers romantic and sad, whose warm breath formed the purple cloud in which they raised us. Except Tía Audra. She had never shared much. All our houses were done in a tasteless marble, with artwork selected at random from Marshalls and hung in very expensive frames, and we spoke there around the walnut table with the dogs sniffling underneath and below an incongruous portrait of bonneted, 17th century spinsters. Audra had never married or had children, but like all nutty middle-aged women, she had once been, no matter how remarkable it seemed, desirable, and apparently the affair she had started while young had gone on and on, without our noticing.  

“You’re lying,” Chichi said, another aunt of mine, slamming her rings on the tablecloth, speckled with crumbs. “Shit eater. You’re absolutely not sleeping with the Mayor. And what do you mean he’s a Communist spy, for Cuba?”  

“Yes,” Audra said, nodding vacantly. “He has a little briefcase he opens, and an antenna with a red, circling light, and he types, clak, clak, clak, little messages from Cuba.” She made the motions with her fingers. “I’ve loved him for years.”  

My grandmother began to shout. “So you mean he’s a shit-eating communist? A married man? A spy, for the government who screwed us? You’re strange in your brain, girl. You keep that craziness to yourself.”  

We changed the subject. We spoke for a while about what happened to the gardener, Wenceslao, and Audra’s lawsuit. We weren’t in the lawsuit for the money, there was for complicated reasons more than enough money to go around, but for the honor.  

Then Audra tried again. “The Mayor takes me on long, romantic drives...” My mother touched her hand, to indicate she should be quiet. The bonneted women in the portrait stared down.  

When we all stood up to leave, my grandmother delivered a few explicit jokes, complained about her protruding stomach, invited us to happy hour, turned to Audra, said, “If your father were here, he’d wash your mouth out.” She held up one finger and then touched the scars at Audra’s neck. “And he’d shoot your dog.” Then she grimaced, made a barking sound that made us jump, then smiled brilliantly. “You look fantastic, also. I have the most beautiful daughters.” She stroked each of them on the cheek with tenderness. Then she complimented, sincerely, the maid’s cooking, which was terrible. My grandmother met my troubled eyes, patted me through the doorway, singing, as she always did, “You’re going to remember me...” She was a wonderful dancer.  


A lot of things happened to our family in cars. After the tasing Tía Audra began to frequent a medium in Little Havana, specializing in the other side. She explained that because we had crossed so many borders and eras, and there were so many of us, with an excess of past lives, none of us could ever manage to learn anything. So we never ascended, our reincarnation cycles went on interminably. In other words, we possessed an immune response to wisdom, and our energetic chaos could at last be accounted for, if you perceived us as a melange of places, people, times. “Except for me,” Audra would say, running her fingers along her naked brow. “I’ve never been here before.” I lied to Michael, a nihilist, by saying I didn’t believe in past lives, but even he allowed that Audra was right, she was a real alien.  

Michael’s father had taken another puzzling leave, and in between sneaking Michael around various properties and vehicles I had begun to suspect that perhaps his interest in me and his self-interest had overlapped somewhere, and for the first time I began to betray the confidences of my aunts, cousins, sisters, and tell him their stories, which I hoped might reflect compellingly on me. Things were bad at home, the gardener Wenceslao had electrocuted himself on a power line and drowned in the pool, and someone was always getting scammed, or fired, or arrested, and I’d go into the water with Michael and hold on to his slick body like a buoy, frightened that without him I’d drift away, and worse, like it.

Years before a whole summer had gone by without my grandfather leaving the house, and what special times we shared, sitting on his armchair together, peering down at the beach through his binoculars, studying the bikinied women and their chests, ankles, bottoms, abs, assessing them, in wonder, like paintings. Nothing in that memory was tainted when I learned, much later, he had been on house arrest. I wondered what past life chaos accounted for that.  

“My grandmother was a teacher, the prettiest in her district, just sixteen,” I whispered in Michael’s ear, with the birds swooping down. “And the district chairman, some communist official, ordered all new teachers to report one by one to an abandoned school in the campo. To rape them. Everyone knew.” I dropped my voice. “My grandmother got her orders. Her turn. So that night, her father snuck through the chairman’s window. And slit his throat.”  

I pushed off him, did a somersault in the water, emerged, coughing. “She left a boy behind,” I said, sputtering. “She never got over him. He didn’t even like her that much. They fled to Mexico. Her father was a Free Mason, weirdly.”  

“Is that true?” Michael asked, frowning.

I shrugged.  

Later, down the highway with my mother. “You be careful with Michael, that he doesn’t derail your life.” We passed an orange billboard, advertising hot dogs, with the slogan, WIENER BASH. “Like that,” she said, shifting her eyes from it to me. I spit out my soda, laughing. My mother could never tell she was funny. Nor could she tell, like I could, that there had never been any rails.  


Audra grew gradually loose-lipped over her love, and she purchased an electric scooter, to zoom by the Mayor’s dark rectangular house and linger intrusively in front of its window walls. Through them, she’d watch the Mayor dine at a marble table, with his sandy-haired wife and son, plus an empty place laid for his daughter, Dolores, who’d died a year earlier. Dolores had been my classmate and, as far as things went, a close friend of mine. So a few times the Mayor called me, sighing, saying, “I didn’t call the police, for Dolores’ sake, but you have to do something about her.” I always thanked him. But once I began to suspect him, I took a curious pleasure in forcing him to clarify who he meant, so I might hear her name in his mouth and make her real between us.  

“Who? Sorry?” I’d ask.

“Your aunt.”

“Which aunt?”

“Audra,” he’d say, through what sounded like gritted teeth. “Audra.”  

The attitude of the town was one of hostility toward us, especially since my grandfather had passed. Lovesick birds, we were, and no wonder they’d grown tired. My mother walked about in a state of permanent, aggressive melancholy, over some romantic mishap which occurred some twenty years prior. My cousin Adriana graffitied, angrily, the names of the boys who scorned her all over the community center’s walls. My cousin Marta was a nymphomaniac, and once began undressing, mechanically, in church until we tackled her. My sister took a job in the Blockbuster and wept each time she rang someone up. We invoked these pre-fathers’ names like legends, pagan gods. She’s sad about León, we’d explain, naming a man we’d never met and who’d died a generation ago. Michael and I were unseemly, skinny, dirty, wearing black nail polish, sleeping in the park. We were always confronting someone, a man who’d moved on, insulted our mothers, grown important, forgotten them. The town was funny, for it was full of Latin Americans who never hesitated to discuss visions of the Virgin, or the Illuminati, but trembled before sex and love. The Mayor began to schedule meetings, town halls, to discuss what they should do with us.  


Michael and I sat in the green Mercedes convertible from the seventies, with my legs across his lap. He was painting my toenails. The garage smelled of gasoline, delicious.  

“Dolores’ death was a little my fault.”

“It wasn’t—”

“Don’t,” I stuck out my hand, interrupting him, “take that away from me.”

Dolores was a schoolmate and friend from a busy, happy time in my life, when I believed I had penetrated beyond my family, found a reason to live more solid than unrequited love, or the unseemly laughter between relatives. That is, a friend. Our school, the former bayfront villa of a steel magnate, painted the color of a guava slice, drying in the sun, spawned an unusual number of movie stars and singers, the usual number of anorexics, and most importantly, Dolores herself. We had a great deal in common, like the seven gold bracelets worn by Cubans, good instincts, bad ideas, and hysteria over our periods thanks to all our thankless loves. One fire drill at school, lined up outside, we mistook incoming driftwood for a raft of Cubans and leapt helpfully, after each other, into the bay’s shallows, breaking our bones, betraying a confused geography, flapping on the rocks like fish. That is how we learned Cuba was in the other direction. We made funny mistakes like that. We believed in hell but misbehaved anyways; knew nothing and everything about our bodies at once, especially Dolores, who mastered death by accident. One free period, to evade the detection of drugs in her car by the suspicious Headmistress back on campus, Dolores wrapped her Porsche around a gumbo-limbo. At my instruction. I judged this a sound, if sad, idea, even after I learned she had not survived it. I would have preferred Dolores alive, even hospitalized, but Audra said that a murderer and her victim always find each other in the next life and that’s the life I was counting on, anyways. After Dolores’ death, I put this life on the shelf.  

After her death things more unreal than the usual occurred, as if someone had drawn a finger through the drying paint of my life. The feathers of the peacocks on campus closed permanently, like broken fans. I left that school like an afterthought. And I had nothing to do but kiss Michael, or watch Tía Audra drift with her dogs and scars, or dream of the Mayor’s briefcase, the clak, clak, clak, and the coded transmissions to a government which my family was quite invested in thinking evil.  


“Is the tape recording?”

“It’s recording.”  

“Michael and I are here, in our offices” — the Mercedes in the garage—“with Tía Audra. Audra, please state your name.”  


“Thanks. Can you repeat, on record, your accusations against the Mayor?”

“Accusation isn’t the right word, honey. I love him. I just wanted to tell someone so that it can exist, outside my mind.”

I winked at Michael. “Can you repeat, please on record, everything that exists within your mind, pertaining to the Mayor?”

She nodded. “He takes me on long drives, holding my hand on the stick, to deliver messages to  the other agents. They meet under the bridges, where they sell flowers. He buys twelve roses, for me, and the agent reads his note, and then dissolves it, into the water of the flowers. And then I bring the flowers home, covered with his words.”  

“How long has this been going on?”  

“Fifteen years,” Audra said, biting her lip, running her nail across the dashboard. She sat perched like a bird, between us, with Michael and I sprawling on either side. Audra had given up the lawsuit. The officer who’d left those marks on her neck was a cousin of someone in the commissioner’s office. The Mayor had persuaded her. Dolores or no Dolores I would never forgive him for that.  

“Fifteen years,” I repeated. “And what else.”  

“When his wife is away, I go over,” Audra said, slowly, “and he takes out that briefcase I told you about, with the little radio, and the typewriter, and a voice in Spanish says numbers, dos, uno, ocho, cuatro, and he types, and decodes, scribbling a message, while I undress, and undo his tie, and run my hands along the front of his body I love—”  

“Gross,” I said. And then something occurred to me. “Do you ever see Dolores’ old room? Do you remember what it looked like?”  

“Yellow walls like a hospital,” she said, unblinking. I met Michael’s eyes. “And a photograph of you both, together, at prom.”  


Our stakeouts became very sensual and inspiring. We would take the green Mercedes and the long way to the Mayor’s office, where the Mayor gave his bald-headed speeches, and then to the flower sellers under the bridge, where he left his car running and purchased all species of flowers, but not roses, like Audra claimed. Once Michael and I shepherded my family to the town hall which addressed but excluded us, and we waited outside it, sinister, like a coven, when our neighbors emerged, our ex-lovers, training their eyes on the ground. The whole town was allergic to Communism, the Mayor mentioned it four or five times in every speech, like an idée fixe, and it made me laugh to think of tearing off his mask and revealing, far worse than his infidelity, his hypocrisy, fifteen years deep. I had loved his daughter, so my hatred for the Mayor might have struck an outsider as inexplicable. But I felt responsible for my poor electrocuted Tía Audra, and such hatred was easy for me, because I’d been raised in a long tradition of women scorned.  

The Mercedes drove low to the ground, and Michael and I shared the habit of sinking low in the seats anyways. The Mayor drove a shiny Tesla and one Saturday morning we watched it curve and curve evasively around the island, before finding its way to my Tía Audra’s house.  

“Don’t get too close,” I said, putting a hand on Michael’s knee. He was driving. We stayed a house or two back. Audra came gliding from the house, almost beautiful, almost running, almost heartbreaking, with that floppy, silly hat and a smile which threatened to split her.

“Oh no,” I said.  

“Oh yes,” Michael said. He took a cruel pleasure in everything.  

We took the causeway. What happened under the bridge—the nondescript man, the red roses, the scrap of paper dropped into the vase—went exactly as Audra said it would. In fact, even more conspicuously. Indisputable. I went to a town hall, in disguise, hearing nasty things about us, dreaming of the Mayor’s house, breaking in.  


Michael had beautiful hands. They were his only beautiful things, except for those qualities, generated by my mind, with which I had invested him: loyalty, mystery, a smell I believed his but which would emanate from the bodies of other men one day, revealing once and for all its origin in me. Poor Michael was very lucky to be made by me, for I held him in such high esteem.

When Michael’s dirty, seasick hands succeeded in picking the lock of the Mayor’s door I almost asked him to marry me, except we were limited to complete silence. Neither of us could talk.  

The house smelled of wood polish, and a kind of mayoral seriousness, and the friend I would never have back. The lemon scent of her hair, highlighted in patches like the peeling, dappled bark of the crape myrtle  lining our old walks to the library. I imagined Audra here, in the dark, foreboding house, with her helpless straw hat, disturbed but not intimidating. And as I went up the stairs behind Michael I thought of the man who ruined my mother, and the boy whose knife never left my grandmother’s heart. And how I might remember Michael one day. How in the boat I mistook the motion of his body for the tide, and how even after he left me I would rise how he taught me to rise, and fall how he taught me to fall. And I would have a daughter at some point whose father might be superior but could never eclipse him, a daughter born of my body, born into a purple, Michael-stained cloud. And at the top of the stairs we took a right turn, and ginger steps into the library.  

The briefcase waited right where Audra told us it would. There was a radio, and a slow, winding red light, and a typewriter. We called the police and considered that the end of it.  

I had heard the stories but never listened to them well enough. If I had, it would not have surprised me, what came next. Tía Audra took the blame for all of it. The spying, the break-in, even Dolores, somehow. They released the Mayor but arrested Audra, in the town plaza, with her hairless face and stupid hat, screaming, tripping over her dogs, and I could never ask if she was tased because I feared the answer might never leave me.  

The Mayor stayed long enough to kick us off the island, calling a final vote of the town. At this point we capitulated, decided to move north, packed our bags, went with our wide hips and our irresistible bodies and our faces which loved lying, begged to be lied to, loved whoever moved most quickly to stab us in the back. And then he skipped town, actually, he went back to Cuba, on Michael’s father’s boat, that’s where it had been going, you see, so well-provisioned. Michael joined them, and though I never forgot Michael, or the Mayor, I promise you they forgot all about me.  

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