FOR THEIR FIRST ANNIVERSARY, MARCELO and Tatum ventured to Rome. The trip was an attempt at a tabula rasa—an erasure of their disastrous honeymoon to Croatia.
On a whim early one evening, they ambled into a toy store with hardwood floors and rustic furniture near the Trevi Fountain.
Half buried in a wheelbarrow display of stuffed animals, Tatum selected a soft brown monkey with a childlike smile sewn across its face.
“It’s so adorable,” Tatum said, flaunting the toy at Marcelo.
Its arms were gangly, its belly protruded, and a curved tail—almost an inverse question mark—hung between its preposterously long legs.
“Buy it,” Marcelo replied as they hovered over the pile of plush creatures.
It seemed to Marcelo that each passing day his wife awoke with new desires and laws of operation. It was not uncommon for her, in the course of an afternoon, to vacillate between a kindergarten affection and explosive rage.
“Okay,” Tatum said, shrugging. “After this, we should get a granita.”
Marcelo watched as she weaved through other customers, a near skip in her gait.
A year before, in Croatia, after consuming a bottle of champagne and most of the minibar, something uncouth had occurred in their marital bed. Although he didn’t dare admit it, Marcelo knew his regrettable actions had been colored by the unshakeable belief that Tatum had married him out of sheer boredom, or even worse, out of obligation.
His recent hope was that, one morning, Tatum would awaken with a newfound admiration for parts of his personality to which she’d grown blind, and they’d reconnect over a long scenic drive through the mountains. Instead, she was genuinely thrilled about a stuffed animal—ten ounces of inanimate fabric.
Tatum led the way to Sant’Eustachio, a cramped espresso bar near the Pantheon. Marcelo waited outside the clamorous shop while his wife joined the long, meandering line. Braided into Tatum’s hair was a white ribbon, making it easy for Marcelo to spot her inside. Surrounding her, a hodgepodge of tourists handling guidebooks and sleek digital cameras rambled on in German, Spanish, English, and Japanese.
As the line inched forward, Tatum turned and blew Marcelo a kiss. He knew she expected him to catch the kiss midair, so he did.
The night before they had been too jetlagged for anything beyond quick showers and sleep, but tonight Marcelo was certain they’d have sex.
Elbowing her way out of the coffeehouse, Tatum greeted Marcelo with a coffee granita. A white dash of whipped cream streaked her left cheek.
“You have no idea what you’re missing,” she said, a brief moan escaping her throat. “This is,” she added, lolling her head around, “to die for. Want a bite?” she offered, pushing the plastic cup toward him.
Tatum’s appetite, Marcelo thought, encompassed everything but him. The only kisses exchanged between them in Italy were those he initiated, but he doubted she even noticed this glaring fact.
Marcelo leaned in as if to grab the granita from her, but instead he licked the whipped cream off her face.
Her eyebrows arched, and she swatted the air between them.
“I don’t like surprises,” Tatum insisted, shielding her face. “You have to warn me before you—”
“Before I kiss you?”
Tatum studied a group of American tourists loitering behind the Pantheon. The frumpy ladies squawked “How precious!” in a southern drawl while inspecting pirated Vatican rosary boxes, plastic magnets, and cloth flags.
“No,” Tatum said.
Marcelo wondered if she even remembered what it was he had asked her, or if she was lost in a daydream again.
Until Zagreb, Tatum had instigated sex almost daily. Now she couldn’t stand him anywhere near her face. Marcelo’s eyes shifted up toward the granite Corinthian columns of the Pantheon’s portico. Thanks to Tatum’s extensive research before the trip, he knew to look for Hadrian’s inscription attributing the monument to Marcus Agrippa. On the flight, Tatum had spoken with admiration of Hadrian, but now they were hastily zipping by his accomplishment.
“If you want me to warn you first,” Marcelo said, “then maybe I shouldn’t touch you at all.”
“Never mind,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Tatum began to trace the way back to their hotel when a redheaded Irish couple approached Marcelo, asking if he could photograph them in front of an imposing horse statue. The woman’s teeth were the color of tartar sauce, and as she gazed with admiration at her partner, a scrawny man wearing a fanny pack, Marcelo began to feel his cheeks warming with jealousy. Aiming the camera at the two of them, he realized what he wanted for Tatum and himself: for their love to be equal.
“Let me know if you’d like one more,” Marcelo said, handing back the camera and noticing that Tatum was already halfway across the piazza. His head spun with dizziness as he fought the urge to run after her. The view he hated most was of his wife nonchalantly walking away from him.
At the hotel, while Tatum showered, Marcelo found a soccer channel and began watching a match between the Netherlands and France. The score was 0-0, but the Dutch Eleven controlled the ball and were inching closer to a goal.
Marcelo had been hoping they would take advantage of the spacious bathtub together—but Tatum had rejected the idea, saying she preferred to read alone in the tub.
She was cycling through one of her literature phases again, so the only thing that aroused her was written texts: humorous essays by obscure women writers or Latin American literature. Periodically during the first year of their marriage, Marcelo had come home from work and found Tatum alone, reading short-story anthologies in Spanish with her hand tucked into her pants.
On the other side of the bathroom door, he suspected that his wife was willingly being seduced by Roberto Bolaño’s gritty imagination. Or worse, by a contemporary writer who did nothing but smoke cigarettes and write irate essays about government corruption in Bogotá.
Resigned and frustrated in his sweaty boxers, Marcelo contemplated quickly pleasing himself on the hotel bed but voted against it. Instead his eyes skimmed the room before settling on the yellow plastic shopping bag with the stuffed monkey from the toy store.
While the game droned on the television, he crept off the bed and inspected the monkey by the light of the desk lamp. To the touch, it was remarkably soft, plusher than a velour pillow, and its permanent expression was uncanny. The monkey’s silly, carefree smile denoted a feeling of innocence and optimism.
“What’s so special about you?” he murmured.
Speaking aloud to the monkey conjured another consciousness into the room, and Marcelo no longer felt alone. The monkey’s name was clear now, too.
Marcelo knocked on the bathroom door like a gardener ashamed of bothering the woman of the house.
“Yes?” Tatum’s voice floated from the tub.
“The monkey is named Mucci. The one we bought today at the toy store.”
“Chido,” she replied.
Judging by her tone, she had no objections.
Originally their plan had been to tour as many landmarks as possible: the Pantheon, the Coliseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Spanish Steps, the Roman Forum, and the Trevi Fountain. In New York, they’d created the itinerary together, but by the end of their third day in Rome, Tatum became singularly preoccupied with consuming granitas and searching for new novels in English by Margaret Mazzantini and Niccolò Ammaniti, her favorite Italian writers. To spite her, Marcelo decided they should visit the Coliseum every day for the remainder of their trip.
Reluctantly, Tatum accompanied Marcelo to the historical amphitheater, often wandering several feet behind as he snapped photographs with his phone. While Marcelo stood in awe of the underground tunnels, his wife, leaning against a wall, read a novel, occasionally chuckling out loud or folding the corner of a page.
“How are you not in utter awe?” Marcelo asked once all of the other tourists were out of earshot.
Tatum glanced up from her book, moving her head panoramically from left to right.
“Wow. Spectacular. Done,” she announced.
“What are you doing with all that fiction, those books?” he asked.
“Storing images and phrases for later. For my bath,” she replied, tapping her temple. Her mischievous expression confirmed his hypothesis.
At least she remained faithful, Marcelo figured. She wasn’t looking for a hot-blooded third party to satisfy her needs. Still, he suspected himself responsible for her exile into this alternate realm.
In Croatia the year before, their first problem had been a sleep medication that incapacitated Marcelo for an entire twenty-four hours. While he slept away the first day of their honeymoon, Tatum roamed Zagreb alone, eating ice cream in public parks and people-watching.
When Marcelo finally awoke, they chose to celebrate with cocktails and champagne. What started off as a toast to a lifetime together quickly devolved into a drunken fight about the next day’s itinerary. The fighting intensified their drinking and their drinking intensified their fighting. Sarcastic barbs quickly morphed into snarled insults.
The alcohol flushed them, so they slugged back their last drinks naked in their hotel room, perspiration moistening their hair into wet curls.
A hunch Marcelo had during their courtship seemed now to be confirmed: His love for Tatum far surpassed what she could ever feel for him. He’d always chosen to downplay the difference and focus on her agreement to marry him, but after dozens of bitter back-and-forth retorts, Marcelo had had enough. He pinned Tatum to the bed by her wrists and bit the thin flesh covering her ribcage before moving down to her inner thigh.
Fighting to free herself, Tatum kneed him in the chest.
“Get the fuck off me,” she slurred, her cheeks ruddy with panic.
While continuing to gnaw her, Marcelo forcefully bucked his torso into hers. He released one of her wrists and guided himself inside her. He expected physical euphoria, but instead dread overtook him. An interior voice urged him to stop, but he ignored it.
Tatum’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“Stop it,” she protested. “I don’t want to.”
When he was done, Marcelo capsized onto the mattress.
Tatum ran to the bathroom to vomit. The faucet ran for ten minutes as she scrubbed herself clean, sobs interspersed with hysterical laughter, followed by shivering sobs.
The next morning, Tatum had come to and found her raw body wrapped in a white terry robe. Marcelo flickered awake, wearing one taupe dress sock. Cocktail peanuts dusted his hairy chest.
For the remainder of their honeymoon in Croatia, he bathed her in his tears and warm soapy water. He offered to ring the hotel doctor, but Tatum refused.
They had countless heart-to-heart talks in Zagreb, then the apologies branched back to New York. Marcelo wrote her a six-page letter begging for forgiveness, expounding on the depth of his love for her. He didn’t deserve her, he claimed, but he would do anything, anything, anything, anything for her.
In the basement of his consciousness, he knew he’d acted out his mounting insecurities on her. His love had fused with his desire to punish her—until the two were indistinguishable.
On the flight from Rome back to New York, Tatum rarely looked up from her books, except to check on Mucci. She cradled the brown monkey in the yoke of her scarf, planting an occasional kiss on his forehead.
The only souvenir Marcelo purchased for himself—a gigantic red candle in the shape of the Coliseum—was crushed in the suitcase by a pair of his leather oxfords. It was a pair he never had the opportunity to break in, because they’d canceled nearly all their restaurant reservations in favor of silent evenings at the hotel.
On his walk home from work each night, Marcelo found himself distracted by every passing woman. All were technically his neighbors or worked in close proximity to his apartment.
The brunette strolling parallel to him in a khaki trench coat was plugged into a pair of earbuds. Three strides in front of him was a statuesque blonde he assumed to be French, though it was possible she was simply happy to be out of work.
He could casually strike up a conversation with one of these women, learn about her job, her cat—whatever tidbit she decided to share. This strategy was far more dignified than scanning misspelled internet dating profiles or the back sections of seedy newspapers. When Marcelo was twelve, his father had cheated on his mother, so the thought of being history’s puppet stiffened his jaw. He was neither his father nor the type to betray his wedding vows.
He couldn’t rewind time, only live more gently in the present. The problem was that Marcelo loathed the present.
The entrance into their apartment was at the end of a long hallway with muted acoustics. Recently he’d begun removing his shoes before stepping into their living room. Initially his stealth had made him feel like a predator, but now he yearned to be close to his wife, however possible. Even if it meant taking her by surprise.
“Why are you the cutest monkey ever,” Tatum asked, rubbing the stuffed animal’s thick padded feet.
Her back was to Marcelo as she hunched over the couch stroking Mucci. She’d changed from her office clothes into faded black jeans and a Faith No More T-shirt with tour dates trailing her spine. Tatum’s black ponytail swung in a high arc.
“Honey,” he announced, entering the living room. “I’m home.”
Honey? He’d never used that word before in their four years together. Who was he kidding? They’d both morphed into crude caricatures of themselves.
While waiting in the coal darkness of their bedroom for sleep to overcome them, Marcelo turned to Tatum. Hearing the slight squishing sound of his wife massaging lotion into her cuticles made him realize that he now knew only trivial information about her. Before their honeymoon, she’d shared stories with him about her bizarre childhood fears and her favorite college professors. Now he was left cataloging her shadows and sounds.
His own unhappiness was a diseased mammal with many limbs. His marriage was shot to shit. His research job at the lab hadn’t yielded any results in months. He hated everyone in the city of New York. Most of his friends, scattered around the country, only surfaced via texts to discuss major football upsets, and all were ages away from marriage.
On the rare occasion when they had sex now, Marcelo was certain that Tatum was fantasizing about other men. She was never on top anymore, and her eyes remained sealed shut for the duration. It was clear she was using him solely to fulfill a biological need.
The last time Marcelo fully appreciated her company was on their second day in Rome. They’d been enjoying a few glasses of Moscato at an outdoor café near the Coliseum when, out of nowhere, Tatum announced that she was going to start buying wigs. She claimed she’d always wanted to don them in high school and college but could never justify the expense of such an outlandish purchase. “Do you like the idea?” she asked. They could roleplay, she suggested, hesitating for a moment before looking away.
The red-blue light of an ambulance streaked their bedroom wall.
“Mucci told me every day you love me a little less,” he said.
Tatum’s hands halted.
“Mucci didn’t say that… and it’s not true. I love you very much.”
Marcelo sighed. He was tempted to leap up and scream Make me feel the love, but he’d swallowed a sleep aid half an hour before, and physical movement felt impossible.
“You’re still insatiable with the books, aren’t you?”
“Uh-huh,” she said, entranced with whatever private phrases still lingered inside her, a secluded continent he could never touch.
A twitching sensation fingered Marcelo’s brain—the sleep medicine—before he tumbled helplessly into the abyss.
The next morning, before he left for work, he studied his wife while she slept. A lavender sleep mask covered her eyes. Snug in the crook of her arm was the little brown monkey, smiling spitefully at him. Marcelo leaned closer to her and felt a wave of chill air radiate off Mucci. He wasn’t sure how that was scientifically possible, but he had the goose bumps to prove it.
Tatum never bought a wig, and he knew she never would.
Riding the 6 train to work, Marcelo couldn’t shake the feeling that Mucci had usurped all of Tatum’s love. At night, she rarely called her girlfriends anymore to chat. When she wasn’t reading, she was surfing the web for preemie clothes for the monkey. Eventually packages started arriving addressed to Mucci and later to Dr. Mucci.
Marcelo considered confiding in his father about their problems, but his father was a coward unable to confront his own predicaments. He and Tatum protected their secret: a ticking bomb that continuously detonated only to reconfigure itself and threaten them anew.
As the subway car swayed from side to side, Marcelo’s anger surged. It required every grain of willpower not to punch the Wall Street Journal out of the hands of the banker type sitting next to him. Marcelo noticed that the man’s cheekbones and lips blurred into each other. It was a bland face completely devoid of tension. He envied men who could relax, concentrate, or extract happiness from the quotidian.
Marcelo wiped sweat from his temples and cleared his throat. A trail of unspoken grievances coated his tongue. He visualized them as tiny salt hills, an interior Braille, easily coughed into a tissue.
Sitting at his desk in the laboratory, mindlessly swallowing mouthfuls of lukewarm coffee from a stained mug, Marcelo closed his eyes, praying to the only god that he could fathom: an amorphous force of clouds and subatomic particles. Most days Marcelo considered himself agnostic, but with rivers of black coffee washing through him, he felt like he believed in something. Likely, it was just his central nervous system making itself known.
He swallowed more coffee before dialing his wife.
Tatum answered her mobile on the second ring.
“You never call me at work,” she said.
“How about we eat dinner out tonight?” Marcelo suggested.
Her breathing sounded stressed through the earpiece. He imagined her wrinkling her lips into a frustrated frown.
Copy machines droned in the background and a multi-line phone rang with urgency.
“Uh, maybe” she said. “I have a deadline. I’ll be getting out later than usual. I’ll call or text you.”
At six o’clock, as he walked to the train, Marcelo received a text from Tatum: 9pm deadline. Will eat @ office. Buy yourself food <3.
His steps slowed to a standstill. Men swinging weathered briefcases brushed past him. A teacup poodle on a rhinestone leash hopped over his loafer and dawdled on.
On the train, he found himself mindlessly reading an advertisement for a divorce lawyer. It was next to a mini-storage ad, and it occurred to him that he might need both soon.
At home he found Mucci sitting up on the bed, one of his lanky brown legs laced over the other. His two fuzzy hands were crossed at the wrists in a psychiatrist’s pose. For a heartbeat, Marcelo pitied this monkey for being privy to their marital dysfunction.
Marcelo yanked Mucci off the bed and shoved him into his work satchel. He hurried out of their apartment and toward the nearest train stop, sweat dampening his shirt collar.
The train arrived as he reached the platform and he leapt aboard as if being pursued. To calm himself, Marcelo began silently reciting the elements of the periodic table. By the time he reached Radon, the 6 train deposited him at Astor Place, two short blocks from Tatum’s office. His plan was to leave the monkey ablaze in her trashcan.
It was nearing 8 p.m., but the summer sun cast pastel shadows against storefront windows on Lafayette Street. Marcelo was disappointed to find this anger tempered by a Pink Floyd song blasting from a bar.
He turned into the lobby of Tatum’s office building, waving to the receptionist on his way to the elevator. Peeking into his satchel, he glimpsed one of the monkey’s corduroy ears. Marcelo fingered the plastic lighter in his trousers.
The elevator door pinged open on the fifth floor. Before him sprawled rows of mostly vacant cubicles. Her office was to the left, one in a series of glass rooms with walls partially frosted for privacy. From behind the carpeted cubicle walls, he heard a candy bar being unwrapped and a muffled sneeze.
Tatum wasn’t in. Her chair was angled toward the door as if she had recently sprung from it. Scattered across her desk were papers marked with languid handwriting, glyphs of his wife’s personality embedded in looping letters.
On the corner of her desk was a framed photograph. He was certain it was one of their wedding pictures, but when he turned the frame around, he found a teenage Tatum embracing her grandmother at a carnival, a brightly lit Ferris wheel behind them.
Quiet, unexpected tears streamed into his disheveled beard.
Marcelo retrieved the monkey from his satchel and traced an index finger over its threaded smile. Their end was inevitable. Once Tatum returned home from work that night, he had only to tip the first domino. No protest would ensue.
With the monkey still clutched in his hands, Marcelo slunk out of the office, leaving his wife’s door ajar.
Fearing the elevator would take a lifetime, he exited through the staircase and began the long shuffle down to the lobby.
URSULA VILLARREAL-MOURA was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Catapult, Hobart, Nashville Review, Prairie Schooner, Tin House Online, and Washington Square. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions 2018, and longlisted for Best American Short Stories.