Without saying a word, Horacio puts a hundred-dollar bill in his wife Lorenza’s hand. Then, looking into her scornful eyes, their lips faintly touch as he pushes her onto the bed.
A real kiss would be worth a whole lot more, he thinks.
This is the only thing he wants from her, but he must go through the routine of pulling down her underwear and sticking himself inside. Naked, he throws himself on her, glancing over at his oversized pants and neatly-folded suspenders hanging on the chair. His trembling, cold white hands search for warmth under her clothes. Even in the heat of passion, his hands are ice-cold.
Once on top of her, he triggers his hips as he looks down at his stomach; a gourd-like protuberance hovering over her tiny, slender body—so delicate except for her butt, which has always reminded him of a honeybee.
For several months, Horacio has been hiding his growing deformity. His doughy-shaped middle bumps out in a labyrinth of bluish intricacies. Getting lost in his thoughts, he recalls what his uncle Lodovico said to him in a recent conversation. His uncle, a first-generation Italian tailor, made every suit Horacio has ever worn.
“Horacio, what does your wife make you eat? Why don’t you return to the normal food you had before marriage? Let’s see… the only way to hold up your pants,” he said, poking Horacio’s belly, “is with a pair of suspenders.” Holding the measuring tape, his uncle noticed some tearing at the waist. “Oh, man, seriously, soon we will need to sew an extra piece of cloth here for all your shirts.” He looked Horacio in the eye and stepped back, holding the measuring tape in his hands and lifted his arms over his head, twisting his upper body back and forth into his hips. “Abdominals, kid… one hundred every day. Otherwise you’re going to look like this,” he said, puffing out his cheeks and laughing.
Horacio stops thrusting as his frustration grows. Despite the hurtful words of his uncle, it doesn’t change his desire for Lorenza’s body. Seeking a moment of tenderness, he puckers his lips, but instead, she turns away, taking the hundred-dollar bill in her hand and places it on the nightstand. He gives her a kiss, but her lips stay shut, until suddenly, she laughs.
It hurts. But Horacio pulls himself together and presses on, placing his tongue below her front teeth. He tastes her saliva and flicks his tongue around her gums. She laughs even louder. It’s been like this during the course of their two-year marriage.
In the middle of the night, Horacio wakes up in bed and feels the sticky remains of his orgasm below his belly button. He looks over at his wife and hears her mumbling, saying her former husband’s name. “Camilo…” then adding, “my crocodile.”
Horacio stares at Lorenza’s frowning face as she sleeps—a seemingly permanent expression that is embedded in his mind. Years ago, a woman, now his mother-in-law, had shown him a worn out Polaroid of a Colombian girl with intense black hair, dark skin, red lipstick, and an unforgiving scowl.
He had been sitting in the lobby of the Madison Avenue Hotel, shining his shoes with a rag after a long day of work, when a woman came barreling out of nowhere, flashing Lorenza’s picture in his face.
“I want to bring her to New York, sir,” she said.
Horacio had just started working at the hotel as a housekeeper and was getting used to people coming up to him unannounced. But this particular conversation aroused his curiosity. “I am a guest. I live uptown in Washington Heights, but I won two nights here in this fancy hotel.”
He remembered how his mother-in-law’s eyes swept over his tie, how she studied his striped suit and patent leather shoes. Even though he worked as a housekeeper, he felt empowered, important enough in the chain of command to listen to her. At the time, Horacio was a handsome nineteen year-old; tall, slender, with broad shoulders and clear, soft skin that could make any woman jealous.
She went on, explaining that Lorenza’s husband had mysteriously disappeared while the both of them were vacationing at a lake near the family cabin in Titiribi. “Two years have passed and her heart still weeps. How I would love to see her marry again.”
Horacio held the picture for a few minutes. He touched the young woman’s lips and recalled a conversation he had with his grandmother: “I sent out my picture to a signore here in New York and months later got a marriage proposal with a note changeable for cash in Genova. I met your grandfather Giacomo on our wedding day and we never separated in more than fifty years. God’s Blessings. You don’t need to meet any girl, Horacio. God will provide you with one for the rest of your life.”
Right there in the lobby of the hotel, without even knowing her name, Horacio said, “I will marry her and give her citizenship.”
Horacio’s mother, a Chicana named Esperanza Davino, was not worried when she found out her son was marrying a widow. Esperanza’s husband, Francesco Davino, died in Vietnam when Horacio was very young. Her only wish was that her son arrive at his marriage a virgin.
“Como Dios manda.” Doña Esperanza said as she gestured to the sky.
Horacio paid a visit to his local church and talked to the priest. He explained the true nature behind his decision for an arranged marriage.
“I worry about you, Horacio. You want to marry a girl you saw… in a picture?”
“Yes, I do. I need a companion. I can’t keep living alone, burning myself out every night. Pardon, Father,” Horacio added, “But I will marry that woman.” After a long moment of silence, the priest nodded, giving Horacio his blessings and agreed to perform the ceremony.
Horacio watched how sluggishly Lorenza walked into the church and toward the altar, holding a bouquet of red poppies in her left hand. She looked just as she did in her picture, but that tight yellow wedding dress she was wearing accentuated her fire-red lips and luscious curves, complementing her mandolin-like derriere.
After they both said “I do” at the end of the service, Horacio was feeling a bit anxious as the priest intoned, “You may now kiss the bride.” As soon as he leaned toward her, she moved away and his kiss landed on the corner of her mouth. There were gasping sounds and nervous shuffling throughout the room.
During the reception party, Doña Esperanza confronted Lorenza, grabbing her arm and drawing her away from Horacio. “Why didn’t you kiss my son?” she asked, as she tightened her grip. Lorenza responded with an icy stare, locking eyes with her new mother-in-law and stating calmly, “I am germophobic.”
Doña Esperanza looked at her son and then back at Lorenza. “You obviously don’t know my Horacio. There is a reason why he is a housekeeper for a five-star hotel.”
While others watched their soccer games at home, his enjoyment came from brightening up pots and pans with his collection of cleaning supplies. Horacio also took great pride in his personal hygiene, constantly trimming and scraping the gunk out from under his nails. Not only would he take showers in the morning and at night, but after cleaning the hotel rooms as well.
As a wedding present, the hotel management let Horacio stay in one of the best suites at the hotel overlooking Central Park. He cleaned the room himself and wanted to surprise his bride with a lovely bouquet of flowers on their wedding night.
After the reception, Horacio walked back alone to their suite. When he opened the door, he found Lorenza lying on the bed, filing her long black fingernails. He rushed to her and took her by the shoulders. Looking down, she scowled as he embraced her. Horacio could sense her displeasure and quickly pulled away.
“Take out your wallet,” she ordered. Rather dumfounded, he opened his wallet, exposing a few paper bills.
“I am only here for a deal, not for love. My love is still for Camilo, my ex-husband.” Lorenza extended her arm out to Horacio and pointed at her ring finger. “Touch it,” she said.
And he did, as his sweat dripped down on her skin. He proceeded to slowly slide his hand up her arm.
“I will decide the privileges of the contract,” she giggled.
“But for this…” she smirked, pointing at her lips and giggling. “You want them?” she asked.
He got so excited he couldn’t help drooling. He tried to embrace her, but she pushed him away.
“Only when you are ready, but for now... this will do,” she said, grabbing at the bills he pulled from his wallet. “That one. The hundred-dollar bill… put it under the lamp. Then you may.”
He was shaking as he lifted the lamp and placed the bill under it. The lamp wobbled like a candle flickering in the wind. For a second, the room turned from darkness to light. In that momentary flash, he found her body lying on the bed.
As he stood between her open legs, she said, “You can kiss me now.”
Half a year into the marriage, Horacio tried to tell his mother about the monthly payments he was making to Lorenza, but she was too busy knitting together a scarf for the winter. Horacio stood, looking down at his mother, muttering to herself as she weaved. “Punto, cadeneta… punto, cadeneta…punto…” After some time, she stopped. “What’s up, mijo,” she asked, glancing at her son, as if appraising his figure— still slender but starting to grow a belly.
“Mom, it is about Lorenza.”
“Punto, cadeneta…punto,” she mumbled, continuing to ignore him as she jabbed the needle into the fabric.
“Mom, each time… Mom. When we are alone in bed, she demands–”
“I don’t like that woman,” Doña Esperanza grunted, resting the weave on her lap. “But you have duties as a husband,” she said impatiently.
“But Mom—I have to pay!”
Doña Esperanza didn’t respond, but began telling him about a dream she had the previous night:
I was looking out through the window and saw Lorenza floating in the air, wearing a dress made of red poppy flowers. The glass muffled her voice so I put my ear up against the pane. I heard her say: “Your son is indebted to me... a debt because I am making something of him… something more than a husband… much more….” Lorenza was holding a framed portrait of your grandpa Giacomo, like the one hanging in the hallway. When she kissed the portrait, I tried to look closer but was driven back by Lorenza’s giant hand, scratching the glass with her long black nails. I woke up in the morning and looked at the portrait of your grandpa. I saw a red smudge—the outline of a kiss—resting on his forehead, the same color as Lorenza’s lipstick.
After she finished telling her dream, Doña Esperanza stood up, kissed her son’s bulging eyes, and tossed her unfinished scarf on the chair. “People might tell you that your eyes are too big, but eyes like these belonged to your grandfather,” she said, caressing his slight belly. “At least she feeds you well…You are husband and wife, and it seems that God wants to make a real man of you, like your grandpa.”
His once-a-month unloading was always like a geyser; turbulent and unpredictable, followed by heavy breathing and a release of pressure that steamed all over Lorenza’s body. After that, Lorenza performed a strange routine of licking his entire body. She started by licking his drooping chin and worked her way down to the rising veins of his pop belly. Horacio nearly lost it when she made her way down to his legs, which seemed more bowlegged than before. Then, she finished by pulling him close, flicking his eyelashes and eyelids with her tongue. She sucked his eye sockets with such fierceness that Horacio feared she might eat one of them. He felt that her gestures, as calculating as they seemed, were perhaps acts of greed and gluttony. Not of love.
As the months wore on, Horacio didn’t notice the changes in his physical appearance until his coworkers began teasing him at work. Don Pedro elbowed him in the lounge one day. “Hey man, that chick of yours keeps you up,” he boasted. “Look at your eyes, they’re bulging—looks like my breakfast—eggs, sunny-side up.” Horacio ignored the incessant teasing.
One day after work, Don Pedro and Horacio went to a nearby bar to unwind with a few beers and shoot some pool. As Horacio angled his cue stick, Don Pedro broke the silence. “I swear, that fucking eye is going to roll out and hit the balls.” Horacio was certain his eyes would not fall out, but lately, he noticed them dangling when he cleaned the bathroom floors of the hotel. “Buddy, there’s such a thing as too much pussy.”
Though sex was not happening that often, his bulging eyes proved to be a problem at work. Horacio was working in the lobby one summer day when a woman with a toddler came up to him. “Excuse me, sir, you are scaring my baby.” From that day on, he decided to wear dark glasses at work.
Horacio overheard a bathroom conversation and found out his coworkers had given him the nickname: El Tuna Fish. He lost all his hair, including his eyebrows and eyelashes. In hopeless desperation, Horacio tried to prevent further hair loss by adding a wide assortment of beauty and home remedy products to his scalp. Nothing worked.
Lorenza enjoyed finding new places to explore on Horacio’s body. In the three years they have been married, she hasn’t grown tired of the sight of his physique. It didn’t bother her that the grooves and ridges of his stomach oddly resembled the shape of a human brain. In fact, he was certain she took great pleasure in sucking on his protruding stomach veins.
Every night, he stood naked in front of the mirror, staring at his bluish reflection— now grotesque and unrecognizable. “What is happening to me? What am I turning into?”
When Horacio went in for his annual check-up, the doctors couldn’t find anything. No cancer, viruses—not even a vitamin C deficiency. Everywhere Horacio went, people stared at the blueness of his face.
One day, when he was riding on the subway, an older female passenger thought Horacio was on the verge of fainting and yelled, “Quick—this man needs oxygen!” He calmly talked to the passenger, reassuring her that he was okay.
Horacio stopped taking showers at the hotel. He was afraid someone would see the profusion of warts and zebra-like stretch marks that have infested his back. Recently, when Horacio was standing by the entrance of the employee locker room, he heard one of his coworkers joking around. “When he goes to a Halloween party, he won’t even have to dress up. He will win the prize for best costume.”
Don Pedro shook his head. “He was not always this ugly, was he? El sexo, too much. It is not for every day, muchachos,” he said, pointing his finger in the air. “Listen to me, I know.”
To celebrate their four-year wedding anniversary, Lorenza asks Horacio to bring her to her family’s cabin in Titiribi, near the lake where her former husband had disappeared. Even though the lake area has been vacant due to a menacing crocodile attacking some tourists the previous year, Lorenza seems eager to go. She even talks about her ex-husband Camilo; his strength, the roughness of his skin, his wide mouth.
Horacio has been reluctant to come—not out of fear of crocodiles, but for his increasing hatred of tropical weather. He used to love hot, humid summers, but after four years of marriage, even on the sunniest days, all he feels is the swarm of ‘mozzies’ following him everywhere.
After an exhausting five-hour flight, followed by a three-hour morning bus trip, they arrive at the lake. As they walk along, spanning the grassy horizon, Lorenza kicks up sand as she drags her feet. Horacio darts along the lakeside, searching for a warm rock to nap on.
Panting and almost out of breath, Horacio points to the ground and Lorenza spreads out a green sheet. He makes sure no one is around as he takes his t-shirt off and tosses himself at the water’s edge. Lorenza plops down beside him, her feet splash in the water next to his.
Relaxing in the sun, Lorenza opens up about her former husband, sharing memories of her first marriage. Horacio is caught off guard. The last thing he wants to hear is his wife reminiscing about a former flame on their anniversary weekend.
“Camilo loves this lake.” Then, she calls out his name—acoustics echoing across the lake. “Camilo… ”
Horacio wonders why she speaks of her former husband in the present tense, but doesn’t say a word. Under his sleepy gaze, the sun moves in circles. He blinks, showing the nearly forgotten existence of his bulging eyelids.
Suddenly, he is jolted awake by Lorenza’s scream.
He looks up and sees a crocodile beside his feet—its mouth gaping, full of hungry-looking teeth, staring directly at his wife.
Lorenza is paralyzed.
Standing up, Horacio rushes between his wife and the crocodile. Instinctively, he assumes a rigid, commanding posture, causing his chin to swell up like a balloon. The reptile inches back into the water, keeping its watchful eyes and long snout on the surface.
Horacio hears Lorenza’s laughter. She is on the ground, her eyes completely closed, sealed shut by the muscles in her laughing face.
He rushes to her and bends down, holding her against his chest. She laughs uncontrollably and then turns to him. There is silence, except for the twanging in his mouth—the sound of urgency in his gasping breath. Horacio pouts his lips and, to his surprise, whips his tongue out, like an elongated birthday kazoo stretched to the limit. It grabs a mosquito right in front of Lorenza’s face then retracts.
Horacio searches his pocket for a hundred-dollar bill, but Lorenza grabs his hand and stops him. Instead, she tenderly slides her finger over his nose. “Did you fear he was going to bite me? Silly! He is only jealous of you. He is my crocodile, and you… my prince,” she says, holding his bulging cheek with her other hand. “My sweet, blue prince.” Horacio feels that she no longer cares for the bill, but for the passion of love.
And now, for the first time, she opens her mouth and kisses him. She lets his tongue get inside, the texture sticky against her gums. Lorenza doesn’t laugh this time.
As they embrace each other, their bodies rock back and forth, creating a bouncing sensation and… plop!
Horacio is permanently locked into a squatting position. She caresses his long, frog-like lips that stretch out to his ears. Then, she gently removes the mosquito glued to his tongue. “Now you are like Camilo.”
Without hesitating, he springs up and jumps into the lake. With his hind legs propelling against the fresh water, he lands safely on a rock. He looks down at the size of his gigantic webbed toes; nearly twelve-inches long, practically swallowing up the rock with his bumpy skin. As the sun radiates down, he feels vibrant, cleaner than before. In the light, his bluish tone gives way to a greener, more prominent complexion. For a moment, he wonders what Lorenza must be thinking as she watches his body shrink down in size and disappear into the brush.
At night, the meadow comes alive. For the Frog Prince, the sounds of croaking, the splashing of water, and the taste of delicious cicada bugs have turned into silent dreams. Other familiar sounds, now distant memories, seem to echo all night long: E-S-P-E-R-A-N-Z-A… G-I-A-C-O-M-O… L-O-D-O-V-I-C-O… L-O-R-E-N-Z-A. So slippery is his skin, glittering peacefully in the moonlight. Infested with warts, he is a creature secreting poisonous scents. Sometimes, on rare occasions, he will hear a woman yelling, calling out to the lake. He does not know why, but he jumps to the shore, looking for her anyway, as if he were forever indebted to her.
Jhon Sanchez is a Colombian-born writer. His prose has been featured in Midway Journal (2016), Letting Go, an Anthology of Attempts (2016), Breakwater Review (2015), Startling Sci-Fi (2015), among others. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize (2015). He holds an MFA in creative writing from Long Island University, JD and LLM from Indiana University. Awarded the Edward Albee Foundation and the New York Mills Art Cultural Center residences. Mr. Sanchez expresses his gratitude to Sam Ferry, Nan Frydland, Yani Perez, Martha Hughes, Orlando Ferrand, and Tina Gibson for their editorial comments, as well as the editors of The Sand Hill Review.