Under Covers

“This is the story Lulu told me when I was little, since before my mom died. There’s a man. He’s very sick. ... When girls

LuisCarlos Díaz (Flickr/periodismodepaz)
LuisCarlos Díaz (Flickr/periodismodepaz)

My mom must have held me more than once when I was a baby, but I only know of the one time. The photos fit in the first three pages of the baby album, blotches of brown stretching across them like lichen. In one, my mom is in the hospital bed, her mouth a flat line. I am lying on her chest, swollen and red, my face as wrinkled as an old witch. In another, my mother faces away, all curly brown hair, and my dad poses for the camera, two peace signs up. He wears a mask and a ridiculous hair net, and all I can see of his face are his eyes magnified by thick glasses.

Lulu is in all the other photos, wearing variations of the same dress.

Lulu holds me in her arms, sitting on the chair in the nursery. The light from the window hits her from behind, and if our skin were the same color, and if she were not wearing her green maid’s dress, she could be my mother the way she looks at me, the way my tiny head fits in the nook of her elbow.

Lulu pushes my stroller, dressed in pink now, through Parque del Este, smiling at the camera. My dad took this one—he takes all the photos. My mom is in the frame, distracted, staring up at macaws perched on a chaguaramo palm.

In another, my cousins and I are at a birthday party. I don’t know if it’s my birthday or maybe my cousin Camila’s because we are both wearing paper princess crowns. We did everything together then, hating and adoring each other, jealousy and love all impossibly knotted up. We look up at a clown twisting a balloon. Behind us, leaning against a wall, stand five maids like a row of pastel colors. Lulu in the middle wearing baby blue, the prettiest of all of them, the youngest by half a decade at least. She was also a child when she took care of me.

There are a few other photos, but not many. The final one is pasted onto an otherwise empty page. Lulu and I are in the kitchen, she’s teaching me how to make arepas, my chubby hands squeeze the dough. In this one, my mom is already dead. Lulu looks down at me, and there I see it, the bump under Lulu’s dress. It’s small, but it’s there.

This is the story Lulu told me when I was little, since before my mom died. There’s a man. He’s very sick. He has long thin arms and long thin legs and long thin fingers. He carries a sack. The sack is big enough to fit a child. When girls misbehave, when they don’t do as they’re told, that man comes and takes them. “Does he eat them?” I ask her, terrified. “No,” she says, and not knowing what he does to them scares me even more.

After my mother dies, Lulu comes in the room and gets in bed with me most nights, pulls the cover over us both. Sometimes I’m angry, and sometimes I’m sad. Lulu’s always the big spoon. She hums a song. She smells of coconut and grease. “Tranquila, mi vida. Tranquila.” Then I sleep.

Sometimes I hear my dad walk to the door. I peek through eyelids, and I see his thin shadow leaning on the door frame. And Lulu gets out of bed and kisses me. And her shadow joins my father’s and they walk together into the soft light of the hallway and they are gone.

Whenever I don’t eat my food, whenever I don’t want to do my homework, whenever I don’t pick up the mess in my room, Lulu reminds me of the man with the sack. Those fingers of his prod me to action.

It works until it doesn’t.

What happens to a threat when you stop believing it? But I still see the man whenever I do something wrong. His face, which I’ve sculpted in my imagination: the heavy brow; the aquiline nose with hair sprouting from the nostrils; the jaw, slightly unhinged; a mole close to his right ear, which is swollen like a cauliflower.

I think about the man the first time my cousin Camila and I kiss. We are both eight and are playing house at my tía’s place. “I’m the wife, and you’re the husband,” Camila says. So we go through our day of married bliss. She cooks an imaginary dinner of imaginary carne mechada, arroz blanco, and plátanos.

“I burned the plantains,” Camila says. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I say.

“No. That’s not how you play,” my cousin says, annoyed. “Here, you’re the wife now, and I’ll be the husband.” She hands me the imaginary plate. I can feel the smooth porcelain, can see the gold stripe on its rim.

“I work all day,” Camila says. “I work all day, and all I ask is that I have warm food.”

“I’m sorry,” I say and look down at my feet. My hands still hold the plate, the glistening shredded beef, the perfect pilaf of white rice, small pieces of red ají dulce poking through the grain. The plantains are black, curled on themselves, making everything else on the plate ugly.

“Sorry is not enough!” Camila stands up from our mahogany table. She slaps at my outstretched hands, and I can see the plate shattering on the wood floor, food spilling everywhere. “Look at what you made me do,” my husband says to me. “Look at this mess.” And I kneel on the floor and pick up the make-believe shards, until one cuts my thumb.

“Okay. That’s good.” She’s my cousin again, with her long, straight, brown hair and her red cheeks. “I like being the husband better. Now let’s pretend we’re in our room, okay?

She pulls my hand and takes me to her bed. I jump up on the pink comforter and lie down. On the ceiling there are fluorescent stars, but now, in the light of the afternoon, they don’t shine; they look like pieces of snot.

“It’s been a long day,” Camila says. She takes off her imaginary coat. “I built two houses today. It was hard work.”

I don’t want to say something wrong, so I don’t say anything.

Camila lies next to me in bed. We both look up at the ceiling. I can feel the soft hairs on the back of my arm stand, electric—I reach for her hand and it feels warm and clammy, like my own.

She turns over on her side. Looks at me.

“I’m going to kiss you now, okay?” I’m not sure who she is at this moment. Camila my cousin? Camila my husband?


We play marriage in her house and in mine. “Yours is better because you have no mom,” Camila tells me. And it’s true. Only Lulu is at my house in the afternoons, and she lets us play, never interrupts. Not like my tía Silvia or Camila’s maid, Rosario, whom we need to listen for, especially after I cook Camila make-believe dinner.

I’m never the husband again, always the wife. Camila likes to practice the kisses she sees on TV, in the novelas Lulu watches after lunch. I wait patiently for that moment after the fight. When Camila holds my hand and takes me to bed. It’s okay that I see the man with the sack after Camila gets up from the bed and wipes her face with her sleeve, both our mouths raw. It’s okay he’s in the corner, half in shadows, looking into his bag. It’s worth it.

Five months later, we are too big to play house. That’s what Camila tells me. “Do you want to watch a movie instead?”

I say yes, but everything inside me burns. I want to cry, I want to hit her, but I also feel my limbs relax, like they belong to me for the first time since that first kiss. Like I’ve gotten away with something.

We sit in my aunt’s living room, sink into the black leather couch, and watch The Lion King. I reach out for Camila’s hand, and she moves it away, doesn’t take her eyes off the screen. When Simba almost gets trampled by the wildebeests, she hides her face in her arms. I go to the bathroom and puke.

I haven’t cried since the months after my mom died, but later that night, at home, Lulu hears me sob and comes to bed. Our tent under the sheets smells like Lulu. “Tranquila, mi vida. Tranquila.”

After Camila, I stop seeing the man with the sack. I don’t see him when I smoke my first cigarette with Federico in the alley behind school. I don’t see him when, three weeks later, on my 12th birthday, I let Federico put his hand up my shirt and squeeze my breast. I don’t see him when I tell my dad that Alma has invited me to her house for a sleepover but I really go to Federico’s house. His parents are away. He lights candles and plays reggae music and slides inside me. He thrashes for two minutes and then offers me a cigarette, which I smoke in bed. No man with the sack, but I do see Camila’s face as I take a long drag of the Belmont Light. I avoid Federico in school. He’s three years older than me, so it’s not hard. We never sleep together again.

I don’t see the man with the sack when I start skipping school and going to Playa Pantaleta with Alex and Catire. Alex’s girlfriend, Adriana, is gorgeous. She likes to drink Malibu rum with blue curaçao and pineapple juice. It’s sweet, and I can barely taste the alcohol, but by sunset, as we’re driving back into the city, we need to pull over so that I can puke by the side of the road. Adriana has my head in her lap the rest of the ride home, and as she strokes my hair, I feel like I’m on a roller coaster ride. I don’t see the man with the sack when I hold her hand, or when I bring it to my mouth and kiss her fingertips. She doesn’t move her hand away. Alex and Catire are talking baseball while I kiss Adriana’s index finger, and then her middle finger, and then her ring finger, and then her pinky.

“You’re 14 years old!” my dad yells at the kitchen table while Lulu cleans dishes. “You’re not going to Margarita Island for Carnaval.”

I scream at my dad almost every night. I slam the door of my bedroom so hard, the door handle snaps off. Lulu comes in that night, and I’m still red hot.

“I don’t want to talk.” I hug my knees to my chest, my back against the wall, the Bob Marley poster above my head.

“You don’t have to,” Lulu says. She sits next to me and puts her hand on my hand. It’s rough. Calloused. She suddenly seems older. Not as pretty as she’s always been. I can see some of her curls are starting to gray, not much, but starting. She has bags under her eyes. She’s tired. What is she, 30? I put my head on her shoulder.

“Why don’t you have your own family, Lulu?” I ask.

“You are my family, mi vida,” she says.

“Yeah, but have you ever been married?”


“Do you have a boyfriend?”

She thinks about it. “No, not really.”

“Oh c’mon, Lulu! Do you like someone?”

She takes a pillow and and pushes it into my face. “Why are you asking all these questions? You’re so nosy!” And laughs.

“I don’t know, I think I like someone.”

“Bea! What’s his name? Tell me all about him!”

I think about telling her that it’s not a him. I feel the words hot in my stomach wanting to come out. But I tell her about Catire. About how good a surfer he is. I tell her that he always opens the door for me when I get into his car.

After she leaves, I dream of Adriana’s hand in my mouth. I wake up throbbing and dry-mouthed. I go get some water. Light is coming from Lulu’s bedroom, past the laundry room. I go to it. I freeze by the washing machine. There’s a rhythmic squeak. I take another step and see my father’s socked feet on top of Lulu’s.

My father remarries when I’m 16. Karla is a 33-year-old “lawyer.” She went to law school but doesn’t practice. She rides her father’s horses at Izcaragua Country Club and says, “I told you” to my dad when I come home one day with a stud in my nose. She’s beautiful and ugly at the same time, and the perfect excuse to spend less and less time at home. Lulu calls me over to her bedroom, behind the laundry room, and we lie on her bed and watch a movie that’s playing on TV. I laugh at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice, dubbed into Spanish by a voice actor who probably weighs the same as one of Arnold’s legs. It’s the movie where he pretends to be a kindergarten teacher. Lulu is laughing so hard at the scene with the ferret, and I reach for her hand. She squeezes it but doesn’t stop looking at the screen, snorting in air as she laughs.

Ay niña,” she says, catching her breath after the scene ends. “I can’t, it’s too much!”

I snuggle into her. I look at the troll doll collection Lulu keeps all around her small TV set. Blue hair and red hair and orange hair, green and white and purple.

Tomorrow I’ll be taking off to Higuerote beach with a group of friends. My dad seems relieved that I’ll get out of Karla’s hair for a few days. Lulu is the only one who cares when I call three days into my beach trip and extend it to a week.

My first year of college, my cousin Camila invites me to La Sabana, to the beach house of one of her friends. The house sits on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. Its beams are exposed tree trunks, each one uniquely curved and branched. The carpentry on the swinging doors and venetian blinds is exquisite. The floors are layered with beach rock forming intricate patterns. There’s modernist furniture everywhere, with chairs and lounges and benches that melt and twist and are, frankly, ugly. But it doesn’t matter. When all the doors are open, the house seems to have no walls. It welcomes the ocean breeze in, and there’s no place to stand that does not have a view of the calm blue of the sea.

It’s me, Camila, her boyfriend Luca, and Tony, whose parents own the house. Another couple’s coming later.

“I hope you don’t mind us rooming together,” Tony says. “There’s only one bedroom with separate beds, and I’m giving the other two rooms to the couples.”

“That’s okay,” I say as I put my backpack on the twin-size bed. Tony sits on the other bed, just a few feet from mine.

“Just let me know if you need some privacy. We’ll barely be in here anyway.”

Tony is good-looking in the way Camila’s friends all are. He’s preppy, always wearing some golf shirt. His hair swoops to the right, and every few minutes his hand runs through it, rides that blond wave.

“Do you mind if I get a few minutes to change?” I say.

When I’m ready, I step outside. My bare feet feel good on the pebbled mosaic floor, warm and bumpy, a massage in every step.

A car pulls in, Tony’s other friends. The guy and Tony embrace in that way Caracas boys do, like they are posturing at being men. Their voices become an octave deeper for just those first hellos.

And then Adriana is there, the first time I’ve seen her since that time at the beach, puking out my insides on the way home from Playa Pantaleta. She walks out of the car in a yellow summer dress and something fat lodges in my throat and I have to swallow it down before I say hi to her.

“We know each other, right?” I say. Remembering perfectly well how my head felt in her lap. “Adriana?”

“Yes! You’re Alex’s friend, right? It’s been forever!” She hugs me, kisses me on the cheek. It feels like a punch. “I didn’t know you were friends with Tony!” She smells like peaches.

“We just met. I’m Camila’s cousin,” I say.

Camila runs up behind me and yelps when she sees Adriana. They embrace and hop as they do. Two excited puppies sniffing each other’s butts.

“Wait, you two know each other?” Camila points at me.

We both say “yeah” at the same time.

“We met—” Again we speak over each other, and she laughs. I’d forgotten about her teeth. She has big canines. They kind of stick out a bit, but I love them. It’s the sort of imperfection that makes someone more beautiful.

“You go,” she says.

“We met a few years ago, at the beach,” I say.

“When I dated Alex,” Adriana says.

“Oh that guy was the worst!” my cousin says. “The wannabe surfer?”

“He was a sweetheart!” Adriana says, and I hate that this is what we’re talking about now. Boys. How quickly it always comes to this and how boring it is. But I have to nod and grin and pretend as Camila and Adriana revisit memories that I’m not a part of.

That afternoon, Tony drives us to a nearby village. “I’m going to take you somewhere so cool, just you wait,” he says as we all load up in his SUV. “You want to come up front with me?” he asks, and I go, but I envy Camila, who must sit half on Luca’s lap, half on Adriana’s as everyone squeezes together in the back seat. It’s a dirt road and Tony plays Soda Stereo so loud and we are all singing along to “Persiana Americana” as we bump through the tropical forest: moriche palms, banana plants, tall ceibas choked by vines and peppered by orchids and bromeliads. Tony parks the car by a river, just past a couple of small houses with mud walls and frond roofs.

“Up here,” he says, and we follow him upriver. Luca and Adriana’s boyfriend both carry a small cooler. Camila and Adriana chat behind them as they try their best not to slip on the river rocks. I bring up the rear. The river water is cold, but in the tropical heat, it is a balm for my feet and calves. We hike for 10 minutes past a river bend, and then we start hearing it, the sound of falling water. One more bend, and then we see it. The waterfall is wide and at least 30 feet high; the jungle encroaches on all sides, framing it in deep green. The water lands in a swimming hole wide enough to swallow a house. There’s a communal gasp as we enter this miraculous space; columns of light descend through the canopy, and it takes me a minute to hear the choir of toads and insects behind the sound of the water splashing.

Luca and the boyfriend drop the cooler on the nearest flat rock. Tony takes pleasure in looking at our dumb faces. “Welcome to Pozo del Cura,” he says, opening his arms. As if this place was his. As if it could belong to anyone. Then he jumps in and wades to the middle of the hole.

Adriana and I share a rock under a patch of sunlight. We share a sandwich, too. Camila and the boys are playing in the hole, Luca is teasing her about something, and the others laugh. Adriana’s curls are heavy and wet, and she chews so softly, so carefully. She takes the tiniest bites I’ve seen anyone take. She catches me staring at her. Blushes.


“Nothing. You’re cute,” I say. I’m afraid the second it comes out, like I’ve been caught doing something wrong. She looks down, her cheeks getting even redder.

“I’m fat,” she says.

I’m at the edge of a cliff. I jump: “You’re perfect.”

She looks at me, frozen. And then a small smile.

“Shut up,” she whispers and moves a curl from her eyes. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then she places the rest of her sandwich on the rock and runs to the water. She stops before reaching it and looks back at me. I’m a living heartbeat. “You coming?” she says.

“Yes. In a minute.”

I see her run and jump on her boyfriend’s back. He turns and tosses her high, her legs bicycling in the air before the splash.

That night, after the boys grill and we all eat choripanes, I invite Adriana to go for a walk. The guys and Camila play dominoes, and I go to my bag and grab my joint, and Adriana and I walk down the path that goes from the house to the beach. The night is a little cloudy, but there are patches here and there where the stars shine through. We hear reggaeton coming from La Sabana, the next beach over. We walk together toward the sound. Like it calls us.

I light the joint, take a drag, and offer.

“I’ve never had weed before,” she says.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“What does it feel like?”

“I don’t know. Lighter? Like everything becomes easier, I guess.”

“That sounds nice,” she says. But she doesn’t reach for it. “I don’t know.”

“It’s okay,” I say. And take another hit, small.

She stops and looks out to the ocean.

“Did you mean it? When you said I was beautiful?” she asks.

“I didn’t say that,” I say. She turns sad, which makes my insides jump. “I said you were perfect.”

She looks at me again, and we are so close. She grabs my hand. I think she’s going to kiss me, but she speaks.

“Remember this?” she asks.

She takes my hand and brings it up to her mouth. She kisses my index finger. And then my middle finger. And then she moves my hand out of the way, and I pull her close.

It’s the first time I’ve really kissed someone since the last time Camila and I played house. All those boys in between are just bad air.

The next day, it’s as if nothing happened. We get our things together, stuff our damp bathing suits in plastic bags, carry our backpacks to the back of Tony’s car. Adriana and her boyfriend kiss by their SUV, and I feel like the green spot in the middle of a bruise.

They say goodbye, she kisses my cheek, and I feel like I need to hold on to that second of closeness, need to squeeze every fraction of it, live inside that goodbye for as long as I can. And then they are gone.

I get home. I’ve got that sticky feeling of a weekend at the beach, the satisfying sizzle on my skin. I leave sand tracks on the floor. Mostly I’m thinking of Adriana. Yeah, she’s got a boyfriend. But she kissed me. I know what that meant. I know that it can’t be the last time that I see her or feel her. Or feel this. This thing in my stomach and in my head that makes me as happy as I’ve ever been, and also as afraid.

There’s no one in the house. It’s Sunday, Lulu’s only day off, so she’s gone home. As if a place you only spend one night a week can be considered home. As if this isn’t her home. My dad is with Karla at El Country. He plays golf in the afternoon, and then they stay at the club with their friends.

I go to Lulu’s room, like I do when she’s gone. I get in her bed and bury my head in her pillow, breathe in the smell of the coconut lotion she works into her hair after every shower. Then I sit up against the headboard. Her collection of dolls is gone. The stack of gossip magazines she always has on her side table, too. I go to her tiny bathroom and open the mirror cabinet—nothing there. I run to the sliding door of her closet. Also empty.

I rummage through my bag and find my cellphone, but of course it’s dead. It’s been buried in there since we left for La Sabana three days ago. I don’t know Lulu’s number by heart. Why would I? She was always here.

I take Karla’s car and drive to the club. It’s only a few minutes away. I park in front of the clubhouse, blocking a black Mercedes. When the valet greets me, I just hand him the key and keep moving. No one stops me when I storm through the lobby and the bar. The hostess at the restaurant is about to say something, maybe about my shorts or my flip-flops, but she doesn’t have the time. I blow right past her. I’m a missile.

My dad is laughing, holding Karla’s hand. His business partner, Gustavo, holds a whiskey in his hand. His wife plays with her grilled salmon. Gustavo notices me.

“Beatriz is here!” It’s a joyous announcement, rolling from deep in his ample belly. But he must see my demeanor, because his face changes and before I can reach them, he says, “Is everything okay?”

I ignore him. I ignore everyone who’s not my father.

“Where is she?” I ask. I feel my nails dig into my palms.

“Honey, not here,” my dad says and moves the cloth napkin from his lap to the table.

“Where is Lulu!” I hit the table with my open hand.

Everyone in the club is looking at us. My father’s face goes pale. Karla makes herself smaller, sinks into her chair as if trying to camouflage.

“Bea,” he says. “Come, let’s talk about it.” He stands up and puts a hand on my shoulder, moving me to the exit.

“Don’t touch me!” I slap his hand away.

He grabs my wrist, no longer playing nice, and pulls me out of the restaurant, through the lobby, and out of the clubhouse.

“Flaco!” he yells, and the valet runs to get his car.

“Why did she leave?” I ask. I’m crying now.

The car pulls up, and my dad pushes me in. My limbs feel soft now, all the anger replaced by a weakness, a sadness, that disgusts me. My dad pulls away from the club and starts driving us home.

“How could you do it? How could you let her leave?”

“It was no longer working out, Bea,” he says. “You know Karla didn’t like her, and then they got into a fight this week—”

“But how could you! She’s Lulu!”

“She’s a maid, Bea. She worked for us. She wasn’t—”

“What? Family? She wasn’t my mom? Is that what you’re trying to say?” I feel the anger returning, working itself from my feet up. My dad looks ahead into the street. I feel nothing from him. He’s as flat as a board. “How could you fire her?”

“I didn’t. We didn’t fire her. She left.”

It hurts. It hurts more than when Adriana kissed her boyfriend right in front of me. More than when my mom died.

“That’s not true. Karla fought with her, you said.”

“Yeah, they fought and then she said she was going and took her stuff.”

“No! Karla fired her! You made her go!”

“I didn’t, Bea. I didn’t.”

“You fucked her,” I say.

“Careful,” my dad says. He looks at me now, and I see rage. But I feel the same rage in me too.

“You used her. She was a kid when she started working for us. Younger than me!”

“Don’t say anything else, Bea. Don’t.”

“You got her pregnant.”

He slaps me with the back of his right hand, his left still on the steering wheel. The car is so steady.

I push him hard, with both my arms. The car swerves, is about to hit a lamppost, but he regains control. He screams at me to be careful, and then I see my hand around the wheel and it’s like someone else is living inside me and pulling, hard.

The world is all screech and crash. It is all pavement and metal and glass. It is all bruise and blood and teeth.

The night flashes red and blue and white. A woman puts a blanket over my shoulders and is saying something, but the sirens, they mess with my head. I can’t concentrate. I look out, past the cops and firefighters, past the bent metal and patches of shards, and I see a man sitting down by an ambulance. He’s wearing my father’s clothes, but I don’t recognize his face. His nose, broken, belongs to a bird, his ear is swollen like a cauliflower. The headlights of a police car hit the man’s back, and his shadow is long: a long neck, long arms, long fingers bent at crooked angles. An EMT brings him something, a plastic bag, is showing him the contents. “Yes,” he mouths. “Thank you.” I stand up, and when the woman tries to stop me, I scream at her. The sound is so horrible, so animal, that she lets go. I run to the man and push him with all my strength.

“You’re not real!” I scream. “You’re not real!”

I feel them pulling me away from him. All goes dark. Darker than when I buried my face in Lulu’s body as a kid, under the covers, and she told me that she loved me and that she would always be with me.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Alejandro Puyanais a Venezuelan writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2020, New England Review, American Short Fiction, Tin House, The Idaho Review, and other publications. He is at work on a novel.


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