Ana María Carbonell


The Grapevine


Ana María Carbonell’s work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, MELUS, and The SF Library Poem-a-Day Archive. Her short story was a finalist for the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Competition.  Ana María studied under Angela Davis and novelist Louis Owens. She’s also participated in workshops with Julie Bruck, Paul Corman-Roberts, Kerry Muir, Lyzeette Wanzer, Kathleen McClung, and Elaine Beale.  A professor of English, Ana María teaches literature and creative writting at Diablo Valley College and serves as Co-Chair of the literature/creative writing committee.  Ana María is multilingual with Spanish as her first language. She loves to hike in the hills behind her house and dance to live music wherever she can.

She heard it not through the grapevine but on it, on that six-mile stretch of highway after Tejón Pass just north of L.A., that section of I-5 with its 6 percent grade everyone calls the Grapevine. That’s where she got the scoop. All of it. From him, no less.

They had known each other for almost a decade. Now, in their late twenties, heading back from a road trip from Baja to San Francisco where she lived, the two of them, in her red Ford Probe, were crawling up the hill toward the pass. She had plenty of time to look at him as he spoke because her old Probe, with no air-conditioning and little horsepower, barely hit fifty even as she floored the gas.

She had first spotted him almost a decade ago during the fall of their sophomore year of college back east, standing on the quad with a group of other students, bright-yellow poplars and orange sugar maples glowing behind him. As she walked toward him, the cool autumn air with its earthy smell of dried leaves promised her new beginnings even though she knew it really announced the end of things. He talked while everyone else listened and laughed along with him. Occasionally someone in the group would add something, and he’d reflect it back, taking it to the next level so it felt it had been his idea all along.

He was nothing special, really: tall and thin with sandy-brown hair that matched his eyes, which were neither too dark nor too deep. But he knew how to stand upright with his chest out. And the way he’d squint and laugh inward, that laugh of intellectual, emotional disbelief—wonder, really—is what got her. He was awed by so many things, from the epic-ness of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” to the injustices of the Bush Administration’s War on Terror to the way their friend Danny could eat an entire cheesesteak sub in three bites. “One, two, three. Just like that. Right in front of me,” he told his audience, his eyes widening and voice heightening with each word, followed by three chomps from the make-believe sub in his hands. Whether it was Danny downing a cheesesteak or Mick Jagger and his back-up singers screaming “gimme shelter,” he could describe—to her at least—what he felt and understood so completely, with such gusto, the world he talked about would enter her mind, seep into her chest, her stomach, her groin.

He reminded her of her cosmopolitan parents, who also found wonder in the world and, like him, could memorialize it with stories ranging from the everyday to politics to high art. Her parents would tell the story of La Loca Mary, for example, from down the street, who one year stole objects from the neighbors’ yards and, at Christmastime, left those very same objects on people’s front steps carefully wrapped in glittery snowflakes or shiny Santas. When confronted, she said, “I just knew you’d all be so excited to get exactly what you’d been searching for, for Christmas!” One of her parents would usually end with, “¡Ay, qué divina! No se da cuenta,” (“How sweet. She doesn’t understand”), the two of them laughing as they clasped each other’s hands.

She admired the way her mother and father would discuss more serious matters too, such as the economic and racial inequities of Reagan’s trickle-down policies and War on Drugs. They also talked about great literature, from Sor Juana’s anti-misogynist poetry to Sancho Panza’s famous quips to José Martí’s and Pablo Neruda’s anti-imperialist works and love poems, words that reflected her parents’ love for their Latin America, their love for important causes, their love for each other.

Her parents could recall other forms of great art as well, like the time they watched Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier perform in A Streetcar Named Desire—her mom’s voice rising with reverence as she’d say, “Ah, Olivier,” then lowering with conviction as she’d add, “But it was La Vivien Leigh who stole the show.” Her dad knew it, felt it too. They had witnessed and understood that unforgettable act by each other’s side. The world was a stage the two could experience, explain, extend. Together.

She wanted that too. This sandy-haired man from college carried his own magical stories. So she fell for him. For almost a decade.

He could describe the 1966 version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and bring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to life the way her parents resurrected Leigh and Olivier. He, too, could paraphrase the lofty ideals of great writers, such as those of Melville, Faulkner, Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify,” he’d tell everyone, and people would say, “Yeah, yeah! Cool,” as if they had never heard that before. She loved Thoreau too, and she understood the power of rhetorical repetition, but she couldn’t help but smile at the irony. If the point was to keep things simple, wouldn’t one “simplify” do? She pointed this out to him once and waited for his laugh. “Yeah, I get it,” he said and smiled. Maybe he had even chuckled.

She barely noticed he never talked about Neruda, Martí, Cervantes, or Sor Juana. She also barely noticed he never asked her to say things in her native Spanish although he’d constantly drop French phrases, such as pas de tout or je ne sais quoi, claiming everything sounded better in French. And he held up Camus and Sartre as purveyors of philosophical truths but changed the subject when she brought up writers/philosophers such as Unamuno or Borges. She was still interested when he talked, though, because she, too, knew French and had read the existentialists. And though she never cared for Moby Dick, the way he described Ahab’s obsession made her feel it was important.

She didn’t end up getting this man. At least not right away. Instead she got someone else more handsome, with full black hair and sea-blue eyes and just as smart, if not smarter. A man who looked into her dark eyes and stroked her olive skin, ran his fingers through her brown hair she saw as too limp and kissed her belly she felt was too round. A man intrigued by her family’s loud dinners because his own never spoke until everyone was seated and then talked slowly, one at a time, about one or two things, over and over again, such as how well the mother’s meatloaf had turned out. This dark-haired man even took the time to learn some Spanish. They moved in together in San Francisco. But he didn’t own that ability to catch life and reflect it back to her, like the afternoon sun on a crisp fall day as it rested on her face. So even when she was with this kind, beautiful boyfriend, she had thought of that other man, not always but sometimes. Sometimes, often.

She had convinced herself she was in a Gabriel García Márquez story, the one in which two lovers are separated for a lifetime but in the end return to one another, old and close to dying but still beautiful and full of passion. She imagined a part of her would long for that other man. Forever. Or almost forever, until that day they would see each other again. In the meantime, there was desire. And what is life without that?

Every now and then that other man with the sandy-brown hair would visit her and the old college group that had moved west to San Francisco. And she would go east to visit the group there. Their paths often crossed and one winter night back east, after a small gathering outside of Manhattan, they crossed in an upstairs bedroom atop crumpled sheets amidst the lingering smell of beer and smoked joints. She barely remembered the sex, but that wasn’t what mattered, at least not yet. She wanted his mind to show her the world. The sex would follow. She was sure of it.

When he left the next morning on one of those snowless yet icy March days full of frozen slush and dirty snowbanks, he told her he’d call. There was talk of the Guggenheim or the Met (they both loved art, like her parents). He never did.


Years later she left her boyfriend, the one with the thick, black hair and sea-blue eyes. She hadn’t forgotten this other lover, though, if that’s what you could call him. She phoned him to come west—they could drive down to Baja, take a road trip. And he did. They threw her camping gear into her red Probe and headed south.

On their first day they ate the best fish tacos of her life, the sauce with its hint of chipotle oozing over the delicately fried fish caught in the sea that very morning. They breathed in the spicy heat mixed in with the smell of fried batter and took their first bite. They moaned “mmmm” together, each bite so tangy and crispy, her entire body, from her nose and mouth to her toes and groin, moved. Almost as epic as listening to the Stones, she thought. Maybe this will be it.

That first night they made love in the tent. But they fumbled and when they finished, she wasn’t sure what had happened with him. Yet it was clear nothing had happened with her, and it was also clear he hadn’t tried to do anything about it. It will get better, she told herself. But their second night, as she rolled her body toward his, he turned away, wrapped the sleeping bag around himself and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this right now.”

You’d think she’d be devastated, her eternal longing cut short, never fully consummated, her Márquez novel ruined.

They stayed a few more days, each rolled up in their own sleeping bag at night. During the day he left to take long walks on the empty beach while she sat in the warm sand, writing postcards, reading poetry, listening to music.

She can’t remember when exactly he told her about what he had—what she would later find out he had given her—you know, down there. Maybe that’s why he turned away from her that second night. The only STD she had ever gotten, and it was from this man, a friend she had known for almost ten years.

But that wasn’t what did it. It happened on the ride home. On the Grapevine.

They stuffed the tent, sleeping bags, backpacks, and duffel bags into the trunk; placed the cooler in the back seat within hand’s reach as they got ready for the long trip ahead of them. They crossed the border at Tijuana and hit I-5 North.

A few hours in, after chatting about various things—past college professors, books they were reading, the Baja fish tacos—he turned to her and said, “You know, I did a lot of thinking on those long walks on the beach as I was looking out at the Sea of Cortez.”

Her jaw tightened and she gripped the steering wheel. “You mean the Gulf of Mexico, right?”


“The Gulf of Mexico, not the Sea of Cortez. That’s what we should call it, you know.” She searched for a reference he could understand and remembered Neil Young’s song. Even though she knew it romanticized the Aztecs, it made its point about Cortez. “Remember Neil Young’s ‘Cortez, the Killer’?”

“Oh. Yeah, right,” he said, nodding while waving his hand in front of him as if swatting away a pesky mosquito that had interrupted the flow of his thought.

“But listen.” He placed his hand on her right knee and leaned toward her. “I want you to know I still want you. My new job and last relationship were messing with my head. But now I know—you are the one.”

Her cheeks immediately got warm and her stomach quivered; she couldn’t help but feel a bit flattered. But before she could say anything, he proceeded to talk quickly about all the fun they’d have in San Francisco once they got to her flat in the Mission. How they’d go to Golden Gate Park, walk through the redwood forest that hugs Fulton Street all the way to Ocean Beach. They could visit the Legion of Honor to see the Monets, the Degas, the Rodins. And Tom Petty was playing at the Fillmore. Because of the way he talked about these things, she couldn’t help but get excited.

Yet her mind kept wandering to those last few days in Baja, his thin outline barely visible at the far end of the long beach. She saw herself sitting alone, the warm, salty breeze blowing her flat hair behind her. She had her books and her music. Even the people she loved were accessible to her through the words she could fit in the three-by-five postcards by her side. She saw the sun glittering on the Gulf of Mexico and felt its warm rays on her eyelids and cheeks, wrapping itself around her chest, arms, and legs like a soft alpaca blanket in the middle of winter.

By the time they were making the slow ascent toward Tejón Pass, her old Probe trying to reach fifty, they had stopped planning and returned to their usual conversations about past rock concerts, the latest politics, old friends. But after they reached the lip of the pass and started that sharp descent down the Grapevine, the conversation changed. It was then he confided in her. Like a girlfriend. With that same smile of disbelief, with that same inward laugh he got when awed by something—this time by his own condition—he turned to her and said, “You know, I’m one of those guys who knows a little about a lot of different things.”

As the Probe picked up speed, she couldn't look into his face, but she did catch a glance, which was all she needed. “But it’s funny,” he continued. “I don’t know much about any one thing.” He laughed again, shaking his head in wonder, proud of his own revelation. 

She turned her eyes back to the road. But his words had already landed in the pit of her stomach and immediately resounded throughout her entire body, like the deep sound of a gong announcing a new moment—or rather the end of one.

Of course, she thought. What was I thinking? She knew exactly what he meant. He was always able to make her see things. A dilettante. A bon vivant, even.

And right then and there, those long years of yearning fell steadily. They fluttered away one by one, like leaves blown by a swift gust at the end of a particularly long autumn.

There were a few moments of silence. She heard him say something about the gas gauge, about making a pitstop, maybe picking up some coffees. But she wasn’t listening. Instead, she couldn’t help but let out a quick laugh.

“What is it?” he asked, his hand still resting on her knee.

“Oh, nothing,” she said as she lifted his fingers to place them back onto his leg. But she couldn’t stop chuckling because, at that same instant she had lost all attraction for this man sitting beside her, she had also realized she had not been wrong about him all these years: he was the one. The one who could show her the world. The one who, in that one moment on the Grapevine, had told her everything she needed to know.

She laughed again. She was sure of it now. She’d have to think of a new ending for her Márquez novel of course, one without him. But there was plenty of time for that. For now she was gliding down those six miles of highway—the cool wind puffing up her limp hair, the setting sun warming the left side of her face as she steered her red Probe through soft curves surrounded by rounded hills, now green after a long, hard rain.



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