Introduction by Anna North
An underrated quality in contemporary fiction is wisdom. We talk about intelligence, style, and heart, but rarely do we discuss whether a particular novel or short story—or writer—is wise. When I tell you that Vauhini Vara’s writing has this quality, what I mean is that it will leave you with a greater understanding of the mess and nuance of life, and, at the same time, with the knowledge that you will never fully understand it. Vara’s work combines a minute attention to detail with an ever-present sense of the ineffable, the transcendent. This is its magic.
In “The Hormone Hypothesis,” we meet a woman in her forties, an anthropologist and a mother. New to a university town, she is reckoning with the changes in her mind and heart brought on by middle age and the onset of perimenopause. In popular culture, we most often see this era of a woman’s life approached either with hackneyed humor or with generically uplifting platitudes. Vara offers neither. Instead, this is a story about the secrets women share with one another, the difficulty of communicating pain, and the spaces we are given—or not given—as human beings, to say what we feel. It’s also about death and life, childbearing, and making friends, and (spoiler?) there are stingrays.
All of this might make “The Hormone Hypothesis,” part of Vara’s new collection, This Is Salvaged, sound heavy with portent and Big Themes. In fact, it is light, beautiful to read, and sneaky in its approach to life’s most serious topics. Much of the story takes place within a conversation between the narrator and Fernanda, a new acquaintance, and indeed “The Hormone Hypothesis” itself feels like a conversation with a good friend, someone who is smart but also makes you feel smart, who doesn’t sugarcoat or avoid painful subjects like grief or divorce but still, somehow, leaves you more joyful, energized, and alive to the sublime in the everyday. I most recently re-read this story on an afternoon at the very end of summer; it woke up my heat-addled brain and made me feel more curious about my own inner life, my friendships, and my work (it also made me want to re-read Vara’s sweeping, masterful novel, The Immortal King Rao). Now you get to read it. I’m excited for you.
– Anna North
Author of Outlawed
A Swim Across the Open Waters of Mid-Life
The Hormone Hypothesis by Vauhini Vara
I feel badly for my husband—for men in general—because they’re left out of so much of human life. It’s more common to talk about the ways in which they have it better—and God knows those abound, I’m not dismissing them—but recently I’ve been thinking about the ways in which they don’t. We all understand, more or less, how a man’s body and mind function. But I believe a man can live an entire life in this world and know nothing about the warm, vaginal smell of a women’s restroom stall after someone else has used it—how it’s repulsive yet also inspires a weird fellow feeling, a sense of intimacy. They know we tweeze our eyebrows, but they don’t realize that many of us have nipple hairs that we also tweeze out—they can grow long, it’s impressive, half a thumb’s length or more. My best friend and I used to compare our longest ones and marvel. I’ve seen clips online of these machines they’ve made that men can strap on to feel what it’s like to have terrible period cramps, but that seems crude to me, unless they make a machine that can also approximate the emotional malaise.
Years ago, when I was pregnant and living in California, some older female friends—professors at the university where I got my doctorate—explained that, after childbirth, my vagina would bleed for days. I would have to wear pads in my underwear and, when I peed, use a bottle to squirt water onto my crotch to sanitize it. Given the fragility of the postpartum crotch, I would also be given a stool softener, to make my poop come out more gently, and maybe a laxative, too. This worried me.
I was also worried—I told them—that I wouldn’t love my child. On internet forums, I’d read a lot of women’s posts about loving their child while they were still in the womb, and I felt nothing like that, I felt only a lump expanding and hardening inside me. One of the professors, Whei, my former adviser, said she didn’t love her daughter while pregnant, either, and didn’t even love her much when she first came out. She seemed like a total stranger, an alien. Whei’s love developed only as her daughter grew older—in fact, developed in proportion to her daughter’s age, such that her love for her daughter, now eleven, was greater than it had ever been.
After Anand arrived, I remembered Whei’s comments. He lost weight after being born. I was taking too long to begin lactating, and Anand didn’t seem to like the taste of the formula we tried feeding him instead. He would bawl at the sight of the bottle. On the third evening, I was sitting in a rocking chair trying, and failing again, to nurse him. I really had to use the bathroom—the stool softener, the laxative—but I didn’t want to put the baby down, and I hadn’t yet figured out I could just bring him with me to the toilet. So I stayed put and eventually realized I was pooping my pants. I called for my husband in a panic, handed him our bawling infant, and ran, bowlegged, to the toilet. That night, my husband began tearing up—“I’m scared that something’s wrong—I just love him so much!” he said. I was scared, too, but of Anand, almost as if he were someone else’s child who had been forced upon me. Feeling this way worried me, but knowing that Whei had felt a version of it, too, made me feel better.
It’s menopause that has me thinking about all of this—or rather, perimenopause. Until recently, I didn’t even know the term. I learned of it only when a couple of my friends—in Eugene, Oregon, where we’d been living—started experiencing it. None of them understood what it was at first. All three thought they were going through a midlife crisis, a breakdown of form and spirit. When they tried to go to bed at night, they’d squirm in the sheets, unable to find comfort, or else they’d fall asleep fine only to awaken feverish and filmed in sweat. It felt connected to a spiritual unsettling. One of them, Darienne, a high school teacher, confided that she was contemplating quitting and starting over as a pastor. The second, Wathana, wanted to get divorced and move to London, where she’d studied abroad in college and met her first love. The third, Clarisse, still loved her career—she was a wildlife biologist—and had no interest in physically uprooting herself. She seemed happiest of the three. But for the first time in her life, at the age of forty-six, she was experiencing baby fever. She and her wife had chosen not to have children. They had met relatively late, when most of their friends’ children were already school- age, and the prospect of starting from scratch, having to find a sperm donor or adopt, exhausted them. Now she found herself swooning into every stroller that she passed in the park, radiating want. But she knew it was probably too late.
Darienne was the one who figured out what was going on with all of them, through her gynecologist, and she told the others. They went to their own doctors, who stopped short of positive diagnoses but generally supported the shared hypothesis. The problem with perimenopause is that there’s no test to determine its onset—it’s identifiable only later on, when your periods start coming several months apart. Later, on our text thread, Clarisse sent a link to an academic article she’d come across, noting that women in their forties commit suicide more than those in any other age group, and an underappreciated culprit might be perimenopause itself. Darienne sent an exploding- head emoji, Wathana a skull. I sent four sparkle emojis; I was being sarcastic, and I also felt like it would be false of me, not being perimenopausal yet, to have as intense a reaction as the others.
But that was several years ago. Now I’m in it myself—skull emoji—or, at least, I believe I might be. It started when we moved to Iowa City. My husband had gotten a teaching position here. We both earned doctorates in cultural anthropology, but while he went into teaching, I consult on films, mostly documentaries. I had high cholesterol for the first time in my life—an established sign—and I’d been weighed down lately by an unnameable regret I’d never experienced before. Iowa City’s summers are hot, and climate change has recently made them worse. One afternoon, the three of us tried to go strolling downtown, but the heat was insufferable. Anand was about to start kindergarten. He grabbed my dress in his fist, trying to get my attention—something he does all the time, I don’t mind—and I suddenly felt as if my personal space had been completely annihilated. “Stop touching me!” I snapped.
Passersby gaped. I felt awful for being irritable. I apologized to him, but I couldn’t move on, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It felt linked to the regret I’d been experiencing, though I couldn’t understand quite what one had to do with the other.
Perimenopause, I thought. My husband was skeptical. He thought the high cholesterol was from the habit I’d recently developed, of cooking Indian breakfast: dosa, pesarattu, upma. Previously I’d eaten fruit and yogurt. He thought I had been irritable with Anand because of the heat and because, since moving, we had been spending all our time with our son, with no preschool and no friends to call for playdates. He also pointed out that I’ve felt a similar spiritual foreclosing each time we’ve made a big change in life, I felt it when we married and again when we became parents. I said—with some irritation—that this was different. I told him about Darienne, Wathana, and Clarisse. He said their experiences had nothing to do with mine.
But I thought they did. I hate to suggest that a characteristic is the exclusive domain of one particular sex, but I believe women experience life more communally than men do. We arrive at the answers to life’s questions together. Maybe it’s because we have higher levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone. When one woman asks another, before heading out for a walk together, “Should I wear sneakers or sandals?” the second recognizes it as a legitimate question, one meant to integrate both women’s consciousnesses in figuring out an answer. But when I ask my husband a question like this, he’ll respond, “I mean, wear sneakers if you think sneakers make more sense, and wear sandals if you want to wear sandals.” If I press him—asking, for example, “Well, what kind of shoes are you wearing?”—he’ll answer but will add that his own decision should have no bearing on mine.
I didn’t mention all of this to my husband. I’d told him about the hypothesis before. Now I said only that I missed our friends. He said he missed them, too. He hoped we would befriend some of the colleagues he’d met while interviewing—another anthropologist and her economist husband, a sociologist, a couple in the African American Studies department. He also suggested that I meet people online in those Facebook groups for newcomers or parents. Normally I would resist that—it irritated me, the thought of ordering up a friend online—but I did join, and one morning, in the parents’ group, I noticed a post from someone named Fernanda. She looked close to my age—in her forties. By then, kindergarten had begun, and I was at home alone all day, on Zoom meetings, while my husband went to campus. Fernanda had written about having recently moved with her family to Iowa City, to be closer to her sister. She hoped to find a friend with whom to check out the Colombian café that had opened near campus.
We met the next morning at the café. Fernanda wore a ribbed tank top—what we used to call a wife-beater—and had a detailed tattoo of a cross on her bicep. But she wasn’t as tough-looking as that makes her seem; she had a soft- featured face and immediately launched into chatting, her face close to mine, as if we were already friends. She said, “I’m glad we came, it’s really pretty, with the decorations, isn’t it?” Plastic greenery and flowers hung from the ceiling and sprouted from centerpieces on the tables, but it wasn’t kitschy, it was well arranged and festive.
“I didn’t know about this place,” I said.
They had just arrived from Nashville, she said—that past weekend.
“We also arrived not long ago—a month ago,” I said. “It’s different here, it’s not like the Northwest, where I’m from. There’s lots of vegetation in the Northwest.”
“Colombia, where I’m from, is like that,” she said. “It’s super-green there.”
“But the river’s good,” I said. “I’m glad there’s a river. Someone told me that if you go north, almost to Minneapolis, you can go rafting.”
“I want to try rafting!”
“Me, too!” I said—and the promise hung in the air, that maybe, if we became friends, we could go rafting together.
We ordered coffees and churros.
I asked where she was living. She wrinkled her nose, shook her head. “It’s terrible,” she said. “It’s one of those buildings that looks like this”—with her hands, she made the shape of a box. “It’s all brick. There’s a courtyard, but the grass is yellowed and flat, it doesn’t feel inviting, even Isabella—our daughter—doesn’t want to play on the playground there, she said it frightens her, though when I asked her what about it was frightening, she couldn’t explain.”
I said we were living in an apartment complex, too, and that I hated ours as well. Everyone kept their blinds down, and it gave the impression no one else lived there. “There’s a pool, though—you should bring Isabella, she can swim with Anand, they’ll have fun,” I said.
“I wish we had a pool,” she said. The problem was that her sister—who had chosen the apartment for them—had been too selective for too long. She had gone to see some apartments before this one and rejected them for various reasons—too dark, too small of a kitchen, too noisy. She selected this one, in the end, despite its flat character and sad courtyard, because they had to settle on something before school began. “We have an expression in Colombia,” she said, “that the longer you take to choose, the worse it turns out.”
She and her husband—Alejo was his name—had recently gone through a traumatic experience. Afterward, Nashville felt claustrophobic to them. They decided to each make a list of the top ten places in the world they wanted to live, and then choose the one they were both excited about. But when they showed each other their lists, none of their cities matched. In the end, they settled on Iowa City, where her sister lived, because it was a place they could both live with. They thought it would be good for Isabella to be near her cousins, who are close to her age, and Alejo could get work at the company where her sister works—they make farm equipment, and Alejo has relevant experience, having worked with cars. Fernanda doesn’t work; she worked a lot when she was younger, but now she’s a stay-at-home mom. “Americans are obsessed with being productive and earning, they believe you’re not ‘contributing’ if you’re not working, but I just want to exist. I don’t mind existing.”
I told her I needed to learn from her. I explained that I feel anxious if I’m not working—I work a lot. She asked what I do, and I told her about the documentaries—about how I might travel for a week at a time to, say, the Galápalagos or the Maldives, to help filmmakers shoot their documentaries in an accurate and sensitive way.
She laughed. “We’re not talking about the same thing, then,” she said. “I’m talking about regular work—work—like fixing cars, building farm machines, harvesting fruit, taking care of babies or old people. Work.” She said that’s what she got tired of. She wants to be happy—that’s all she’s trying to do in life, to manage to be happy—and she’s found that she feels most happy when she’s caring for her daughter, her husband, their small life together. They’re poorer because of it, but she and her husband feel it’s worth it. “That must sound so simple, I must sound so dumb,” she said.
I said it didn’t; she didn’t.
Our coffees and churros arrived. I asked if she and her sister were close. They didn’t get along during their twenties, she said, but now they’re close. I asked what happened to bring them closer. She said that, in general, they’re super-different. She has a temper—Fernanda’s sister. She’s also a lesbian and a hardcore feminist. On the spectrum of feminism, Fernanda herself is half-feminist, but her sister is really hardcore. She believes that the patriarchy forces us to shave our legs, while Fernanda believes that she shaves her legs because she feels like it. Alejo told Fernanda, when they were still dating, that he wanted a wife who would stay home with their children, and she said—because for her it was true—that she wanted the same. But when her sister sees her washing the clothes, cooking, putting Isa to bed every night, she criticizes her for not sticking up for herself. She—Fernanda—looked at me and said we don’t know each other well, she doesn’t know how I feel. I wondered, privately, whether I was a half- feminist or a hardcore one. I’d like to consider myself to be on the most feminist end of the feminism spectrum. I work—I work a lot. My husband and I spend equal time with Anand. But then, I shave my legs and don’t feel conflicted about it.
I shrugged; “I shave my legs,” I said.
“Okay, my sister would say the patriarchy made you do it,” she said. “She reads a lot, she thinks a lot—she tells me I don’t think enough. For me, I don’t want to think too much. If you think too much, you can’t exist—the world is difficult; you can’t think about that all the time, or you can’t exist.”
Fernanda and her sister grew closer—Fernanda said—when the situation happened. She said it like that—the situation happened. I said her sister must have been supportive then. She said it wasn’t quite that. Her sister experienced a loss, too, it was something they went through together, and that’s what made them close. Afterward, her sister realized that she might lose Fernanda as well. She insisted to Fernanda that she must hold on, she must live.
I thought she was waiting for me to ask what happened—she had brought it up twice by that point. But I hesitated, and Fernanda continued. She said her sister is married to a woman she’s been with for decades.
They met in Colombia at the age of nineteen. Fernanda’s sister-in-law-to-be was backpacking there and went into a bar where Fernanda’s sister was working at the time as a bartender. “Do you see all this?” Fernanda said, gesturing at her tattoos. “This is what my sister looks like—but she’s got more than me, she’s really butch. I used to admire her so much when I was a teenager—she’s one year older than me—so when she started getting tattoos, when she cut her hair short, I copied her. I didn’t understand that she was doing it because she was a lesbian.”
The eighties and nineties were a turbulent time in Colombia, she said, so, growing up there, she and her sister never met foreigners. The only one they knew was a Frenchwoman married to a Colombian man, who was a client of Fernanda’s mother, a seamstress. Fernanda’s mother had grown up in a family descended from great wealth, but they themselves weren’t rich. The maternal line had lost its wealth when Fernanda’s grandmother had fallen for someone her parents didn’t approve of. “He was a doctor, but he was Black,” she said. “I mean, I shouldn’t say ‘but,’ I don’t mean it like that, I mean that, for that time, it wasn’t common. She was white, and he was Black.” When they started having children, Fernanda’s grandfather decided that only the first child belonged to him, the rest belonged to the church—that is, he wouldn’t support any of the children after the first one. That left five of them in all, including Fernanda’s mother, who he ignored. Though her husband was a doctor, Fernanda’s grandmother had to work as well to support them, and she ended up becoming a seamstress, which was how Fernanda’s mother learned the trade.
Fernanda’s mother—the youngest of the children—wanted to go to college, but then she met Fernanda’s father. They decided she would work as a seamstress to help put him through college. He was studying environmental engineering, he wanted to work with trees. But then he became abusive. He also decided he didn’t want to work in the forest after all, he wanted—Fernanda smiled darkly—to dig for gold. He left them and moved to the forest to try to find gold, and there he met and fell in love with a seventeen-year-old girl.
When she learned of his affair, Fernanda’s mother filed for divorce, a big deal at that time. She was ostracized by the other mothers at Fernanda’s school—she was not only divorced but was Black, a double fault. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with Colombia, but it’s really racist there,” she said. “There’s racism in the US, but it’s different—in Colombia, it’s worse. Or maybe not worse, but different.”
I told her that I’d been to Colombia once—to Medellín.
“Medellín—that’s where I’m from!” she said. “What did you think of it?”
I told her the truth—that it was much more beautiful than I’d expected. I’d heard only of drugs and guns and jungles. But Medellín sits in a valley surrounded by big rolling hills covered with tropical trees and flowers. I explained that I was an anthropologist and had been in Medellín advising on a TV show about poor and working-class people around the world, in occupations that have been newly created by globalization.
“My God, an anthropologist,” she said. “You must be really intelligent—and here I am talking and talking and talking like an idiot.”
She didn’t seem like an idiot. She came across as intelligent, attuned to the subtle workings of the world, an essential but ineffable quality in my field. I wondered whether she actually believed she wasn’t intelligent.
I told her about my time in Medellín. I had been helping with a television series about off-the-beaten-path tourism, scouting for people to interview in a neighborhood called Comuna 13—a place that used to be violent but has since turned into a destination of sorts, with graffiti tours and shops selling Comuna 13 magnets. For the episode, we featured a tour guide who had been raped at gunpoint at the age of twelve. Her parents opposed abortion, so she had the child, and that child—the fact that she loved her and needed to keep her alive—saved her. She believed her daughter had been a miracle sent from God. “Next to Him, we are like mindless little frogs,” she said. From my training, I knew not to question out loud the implication that her rape had been an act of God. “It’s impossible to understand the life He has given us,” she said. “He hears us praying, and it sounds to Him like, croac, croac, croac.”
I love talking to people who believe in God. I love their perspective, it sounds like a poem to me, their religious language. I admire their willing submission to that which is most mysterious in life. I told Fernanda this.
While Fernanda’s mother struggled to pay the bills and look after her two daughters, her father lived near the gold mine with his new wife and children. He would forget Fernanda and her sister’s birthdays all the time; at Christmas, he would call and tell them, “I’ll be there soon!” and then wouldn’t show up. Fernanda spent her whole childhood waiting for him, and then, at the age of sixteen, stopped waiting. “But what were we talking about before that?” she said.
I said she’d been telling me about meeting foreigners.
“Right,” she said. The second foreigner was Helen—her sister’s wife. Helen’s visit was in the nineties, after the government decided they needed to make Colombia more inviting to foreigners—tourists, like Helen, but also businesses. Soon Americans started being sent by their companies to open up Colombian branches. Fernanda met one of the first to arrive—not long after her sister met Helen—and fell in love. He was forty-three; she was eighteen. She thought her father had been a pervert for marrying a teenager—but her sister had recently fallen in love with Helen, and Fernanda had been feeling lonesome and envious.
I asked if he spoke Spanish.
“A little, not much, but he had a translator,” she said. “We communicated through her.”
“You fell in love by communicating through a translator!” I said, interested in understanding how such a thing could happen—the logistics of it, the practicalities.
She fixed me with a worldly look—it reminded me of a look my older sister might have given me, in middle school, when explaining how romance actually functions. “I fell in love because I thought he was handsome,” she said. “This will sound racist, but he was so white—and his eyes were blue, and his hair was light blond; no one’s hair looks like that in Colombia.” He treated her super- well, too, buying her all kinds of expensive gifts; she’d never experienced anything like it. “Imagine if an alien landed on earth, and he was so special and unusual, and he chose you,” she said. “It was like that—I had my own alien.”
When he had to leave Colombia and return to the US, he proposed marriage, so that she could go with him. She asked if I’d read a certain children’s book about the mouse and the stone.
I said I hadn’t heard of it.
She seemed surprised. “Oh, you have to read it, it’s by a famous author—but now Anand is too old for those books,” she said.
In the book, she said, a mouse who lives on an island finds a big, unusual stone. He brings it to the other mice, and they decide—because he found such a special stone—to name him king of the mice. One day, the mice are going for a walk on the island, and they round a corner, and they find a beach full of stones that look exactly like the one that the first mouse found. Then the first mouse’s stone—and the first mouse himself—become ordinary again.
“You were the mouse,” I said.
“I was the mouse!” she said. “I moved to the US and looked around, and I realized my American wasn’t special—he wasn’t bad-looking, but he was average; a lot of people were pale, blue-eyed, and blond, and many of them were handsomer than him. He was a normal stone.” At first she still loved him. But over time—not only because he wasn’t special, but also because he got stressed at work and started to drink too much, first one margarita each night, then two, then three—she started to have doubts. On top of that, before they’d married, he’d said he didn’t want children, and she agreed—but now, after marriage, having reached her mid-twenties, she realized that she did want children after all, she wanted three or four. He said he would do it under duress, but they would have to give up their carefree lifestyle, and he would resent her for the rest of their married lives. That was when she decided to divorce him. A couple of years later, she met Alejo and, poof, suddenly had a whole new life.
She abruptly flung out a hand as she said this—she gestured a lot in general—and knocked her coffee over; it spilled onto the table. We cleaned it up with napkins from the dispenser. The incident broke our conversational spell. I looked at my phone—a couple of hours had passed. Fernanda asked for the check and took it; “you can pay next time,” she said, and I thanked her and agreed.
But after paying, she lingered, as if she wanted to talk more.
I asked, then, if Isabella was an only child.
She said yes, but she blanched a little as she said it, and I recognized the expression, I’d seen my mom make it when someone asked if I was her only child and she was deciding whether to explain that she’d had another daughter, who had died.
Before Isabella—Fernanda said—she and Alejo had another daughter, but she had died at only three months old, of sudden infant death syndrome. Fernanda had been the one to find her, in the morning.
Afterward, she wanted to die; she made herself stay alive only for the sake of her mother and her sister and, of course, Alejo.
“I’m Catholic,” she said, a bit self- consciously. “I know there are a lot of problems with the Catholic Church—but I grew up Catholic, and I still believe in it.”
“That must have helped you a lot when that happened—the situation,” I said.
She said it was complicated. She still believed, she said, because she had to believe. If she didn’t believe, it would be intolerable—she would have to accept that she wouldn’t see her daughter in Heaven—therefore she had to believe. I said I could understand that. I thought—but didn’t tell her—about how, because I don’t believe, I have to accept that my sister is not in Heaven, that I won’t see her again.
I told her that I understood loss, that my sister died when we were young. I said this for several reasons. First, she had been so candid, and I felt I should be as well. Second, as I mentioned, I had been reminded of my mom when she paused before telling me about her other daughter. And third, having grown up with a sister who was my guide in this life, and then having lost her, made me feel acutely the loneliness of being an only child. My entire life since, I’d been traversing the world searching for sister-shaped people to fill the space she had left. Here I was, before this relative stranger, doing it again. I didn’t say all this out loud, I only mentioned my sister’s death, but I could quickly tell, from her expression, that she didn’t feel that it was at all comparable to her loss. She was right. I added that I didn’t mean to suggest it was similar, that it was a completely different experience.
And, to return to the topic at hand, I asked if Isa knows about her sister. She said yes—there are photos of her in the house, and they celebrate her birthday and visit the place where she’s buried. It’s better to talk about all this, she said, not to keep it repressed. But it’s possible to remember too much—that, too, is true. They left Nashville because they couldn’t bear all the reminders. “I don’t know if you’re like this,” she said, “but, for me, when I had her, I imagined the life she would have, I pictured her growing up and going to the aquarium, playing at the playground—”
“—and when you saw other children—”
“—no, that still happens—when I see an eight-year-old girl, I think, That’s the age she would have been. I mean that we couldn’t stay there and keep seeing those places. That’s why we came here. But I’m not sure that it’s helping. Not yet.”
“And have you thought about maybe—”
“Oh God, no, no, I can’t, I’ve thought about it—but I’m forty-five, and I’m reaching perimenopause—”
I nodded. “Me, too, and it feels like—”
“Time ran out?”
We sat in silence for a moment. Then she stood, and I did the same, and we went together out of the café and toward our cars.
“Men, in their forties, are in their prime,” I said as we walked. “It’s not fair.”
“Oh, but it’s hard for them, too,” she replied forcefully. “It’s worse for them.” I laughed. “No, really, it is,” she said. “I feel badly for them—for men.”
When their first daughter died, their female friends consoled Fernanda by allowing her to talk about her daughter—and her grief—all the time. But when Alejo went out with their male friends, they only joked and discussed sports and other superficialities, and when Alejo brought up their daughter, the others changed the subject.
She said that men experience the same feelings—woe, misery, terror—but are not allowed to share them, whereas women gain strength from sharing ourselves; it’s what allows us to keep living despite all that we suffer—knowing that we’re living it together.
“I’ll give you an example,” she said. She said her mom had little in common with Alejo’s mom—Alejo’s mother was rich and conservative, and Fernanda’s poor and open-minded—but they both were ahead of their time in adventurousness. Once, on a joint family vacation, they had all rented a boat and taken it to a secluded area near lots of small islands. Everyone had been squabbling, but the water was cool and clear, and Fernanda’s mother suggested they swim to one of the islands. The island wasn’t that close, it would be a significant swim. Fernanda’s mother-in-law agreed immediately. All the younger people—Fernanda and her husband, her sister and her wife, her sister-in-law and her husband—jumped in along with the matriarchs.
Quite quickly, Fernanda’s mother-in-law took the lead. She was really fit, despite her age and having had three bouts with cancer. In her elder years, she had become a fitness buff. She swam far ahead of the rest of them, toward the island—a small, inviting island, with palm trees—but then, suddenly, she stopped in the water and started waving her arms to get their attention. Fernanda thought she was drowning. Her mother-in-law had put her palms together and was pantomiming something. She was shouting, too, but they couldn’t hear her. Then they realized what she was saying: “Rayas, rayas, cuidado”—stingrays, stingrays, careful. They shouted back, “Okay,” gave her the thumbs-up, and continued, but before long, they understand what she had been talking about—there weren’t just a few stingrays, there was a blanket of them below, so thick you couldn’t even see past them to the sea below. “We should return, all of us,” Alejo said, and Fernanda agreed. They tried to call Fernanda’s mother-in-law back, but she said she was fine, she was going to continue on to the island, they could pick her up there in the boat.
Then, to their surprise, Fernanda’s mother said she would continue on as well. Fernanda begged her not to. It was incredibly dangerous, she said, and Alejo’s mother was more fit. But her mother turned to her with a challenging air, one of intense confidence: “I might not go to the gym, but my body has been working for my whole life—I’m as strong as anyone,” she said. Fernanda was shocked—she couldn’t respond. Her mother took off and caught up with her mother-in-law, while the rest of them turned around and went back to the boat.
“And then what happened?” I said. “Did they get stung?”
“They made it to the island, we picked them up, they were fine!” she said.
We had been standing in the parking lot for a while by then, neither of us making the first move to leave. I wondered aloud what her mother had been thinking at that moment that they’d all turned and gone back to the boat—watching her children and their spouses in retreat. Her mother-in-law, too—what had she been thinking? Fernanda said she wondered about that as well, and that later that night, when they were all sitting together in the hot tub outside the hotel, she asked them. Fernanda’s own guess was that, after years of caring for others—their useless husbands, their squabbling children—it felt nice for them to escape for a minute, that facing the stingrays, dangerous as they could be, was better than having to return to all that drama in the boat.
But her mother-in-law said she hadn’t thought much of anything at all. “Only—I’d gone this far already, and maybe it was dangerous, but it was also really beautiful. I didn’t want you all to get hurt, so I was glad you turned around. But I wasn’t afraid for myself. I’ve had many, many chances to die before—all that cancer—and I’ll have many, many chances to die again. I didn’t know when I’d get to travel here again, maybe never, and it’d be a shame to stop when I had gone this far.”
“That’s it, then?” I said.
“That’s it, that’s all she said about it.”
“What about your mother?”
“She said that once she saw my mother-in-law going ahead, she was inspired and thought she could do it, too—and how unexpected and beautiful an experience it had been, how blessed, how lucky it felt to be in God’s light.”