Marianna Marlowe

The Flawed Fairy Tale


Marianna Marlowe lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. After devoting many years to academic writing, her focus now is creative nonfiction that explores issues of gender identity, feminism, cultural hybridity, and more. Her short memoir has been published in Hippocampus, Motherwell, Raising Mothers, Mutha Magazine, FORTH Magazine, and the Same, and she is currently at work on a memoir in vignettes titled Portrait of a Feminist.  


We sit in my grandmother's house in Miraflores, one of Lima's residential neighborhoods. It's that in-between time of the day when you're a child on vacation, visiting relatives, with no structure to your hours, no school or homework or chores. Lunch has been had, dinner is still around the corner, the afternoon stretches before us. My little brother and sister and I sprawl on the couch or in armchairs with two of our young cousins—at fourteen, I am the oldest of the group. Some of us read a book or peruse a magazine, while others watch TV, all of us idle. My grandmother, mother, and aunt chat, as they always do, ceaselessly, engaging in a running stream of endless gossip

This house, the one my grandmother owns, is used both as an office for her son-in-law and grandsons and as a meeting place, with family and friends and employees passing through during the day. Although the house is located in one of the "better" neighborhoods, it is still protected from intruders by an iron fence that forms a kind of cage around the entrance. To access the house, you must have a key for the metal gate in addition to a key for the front door. On this particular day, one I remember as hot and lazy and long, the bell at the gate interrupts our lounging with its loud harsh buzz. We, the children, bored and ready for distraction, jump up en masse to look out of the window, to see who is there; one of us, probably a cousin more familiar with the house and its protocol, opens the door and peeks out. 

There stands a young woman. To me, an ungainly teen, complete with buck teeth and braces, frizzy hair and pimples, she seems impossibly sophisticated, wearing a tiny bikini top with a denim mini-skirt, her blonde hair bleached blonder by the sun, her fair skin bronzed from days lingering on the beach. "¡Hola!" she calls out from sidewalk, behind the black bars, "Soy Leticia. Vengo para Carlos--¿esta adentro?" "Carlos! Carlos! She wants Carlos!" we say to each other in excited whispers. Carlos, one of my older cousins, walks into the room, taking in the scene with a sweeping glance. Annoyed, he tells us to quit staring, to get away from the window, to stop making such a big deal; he frowns with irritation as he strides past us toward the door toward the pretty young woman.  

Part of our excitement at the sight of Leticia, as well as, I know now, most of his annoyance at our attention to his visitor, comes from the fact that Carlos is married to someone else. His wife Kelly is also blonde, although her skin is more fair, less tanned. She is petite and elegant and educated. Because her parents are expats from the United States, she speaks both English and Spanish perfectly. I had always thought of her as mature and classy—slightly older than Carlos, she married him under duress when she became pregnant, accidentally, with their first child. That day I struggle to make sense of what has just transpired. What have I just seen? I intuit, somehow, that there is something illicit about my cousin, my married cousin, leaving abruptly with someone not his wife, another blonde, another pretty petite woman. His irritation with us--the witnesses, I understand now, to his guilt--adds to my perception of a clandestine quality to her appearance and his departure, to my sense of something furtive about the quickness with which he exited the house, without looking back.

All the knowledge I am able to gather comes from my observations and the snatches of conversation I glean from my mother and aunt and grandmother. Yes, Carlos is seeing someone. In the euphemistic language of a patriarchal culture where women are dispensable and men are prized, in the softened tones of a loving aunt, mother, and grandmother, words like "cheating," "infidelity," and "adultery," are not spoken aloud, in English or in Spanish. Instead there are phrases like "pobrecita la Kelly," and "que esta pensando Carlos, la Kelly es tan fina," and "esto no va a durar, el solo esta jugando con la otra." Any sense of outrage seems concentrated on the differences between Kelly and Leticia: Kelly is "fina"—with a degree from UC Santa Barbara, she holds herself with a distinct air of refinement. She is a wife and a mother who expects a certain gravitas from her husband and the father of her child. Leticia is, as my aunt later dubs her, "wash and wear." More casual and less proper, she promises fun and spontaneity. Slowly, gradually, over the years, the narrative will shift from "poor Kelly" and "what is he thinking" to "well what do you expect, she is older than him" and "that's what you get for trapping a man." There is no mercy, even from the sisterhood, for another woman betrayed by a beloved son, nephew, grandson. Perhaps, deep down, there never was. 

This moment in time, this scene from my childhood, hazy and vague in outline but keen and palpable in emotion, embodies much of what, growing up, I struggled to understand, to make sense of, to align with my youthful innocence, my fairytale morality. How to make agree a narrative of "till death do us part" in front of a priest, in a Catholic Church, dressed in yards of white lace and silk, a narrative that includes parents and an aunt and uncle who are together, who do not engage in adulterous love stories, with the narrative unfolding before me, in real time, one that speaks of faithlessness and deception, lying and cheating? How to match the narrative of respect and admiration for Kelly, the wife of my cousin, the classy addition to our extended family, the princess to my cousin's Prince Charming, with that of alienation from and suspicion of Leticia, this newcomer, this interloper, this author, ultimately, of tragedy for the legal partner, the legitimate love, the wife? 

I grew up worshipping my cousins—their glamorous lifestyle, the long days at the beach, their familiarity with the sun and the waves, the ease with which they inhabited their place in life, the imperturbable self-assurance, the confidence, the cool. I came from a place of painful self-consciousness, of acute awareness of my flaws and limitations—too tall, too skinny, too dark, too awkward, too serious, too earnest. I came from a place of black and white values—you either lied or you told the truth. You either stepped up or you shirked responsibility. You either were faithful or you were unfaithful, constant or inconstant, true or false, monogamous or adulterous. 

After their hurried wedding one summer a year prior, Carlos and Kelly briefly stayed with my family in Northern California as part of a honeymoon road trip up and down the coast. She was still not showing, still petite, with a poise that evoked care rather than fastidiousness, quiet self-possession rather than showy sophistication. He was the cool Peruvian cousin, looking like a young Richard Gere or the lead in a telenovela, with skin tanned from the sun, chest lean and arms muscled from surfing. I remember sitting and staring, trying to absorb their glamour, their allure, their attraction. I wanted that for myself, but felt irrevocably removed, as if by the heft and height of an impassable barrier, a wall unyieldingly rooted, fast and firm. I could see through it but not reach across it—it was impossible to share in their charm, to claim even a portion of their charisma as my own. They seemed to exist on another plane than me, an inaccessible planet where life was a mixture of beauty and romance, ease and luxury. Who was I in comparison? We lived then in a small cottage in a California known more for freezing shark-infested waters than warm bikini-covered beaches. While we rarely went to restaurants, my cousins routinely ate out in Lima, often at ritzy clubs, country or beach, where it was customary to lie by a pool and order drinks from uniformed staff. I had chores--daily dishes, weekly vacuuming, monthly cupboard airing. My cousins grew up with servants—cooks and maids and gardeners—who prepared meals of arroz con pollo, who served ice-cold glasses of limeade when it was hot outside, who mowed the lawn and watered the ferns, who made the beds and tidied the rooms while their owners breakfasted on bread rolls with jam or butter, sliced ham, and sweet milky Nescafé.    

That one day, the day Leticia showed up at the door, the day we sat bored and idle and ready for distraction, the day Kelly was nowhere to be seen, I didn't know exactly where she was; I knew only that she wasn't with us at my grandmother's house--the makeshift office also used as the general meeting place for the extended family. Most probably she was at her own house, the one she shared with Carlos. What is certain is that Kelly was off-stage and absent that afternoon, and in her place was Leticia: Leticia, also pretty and blonde and petite--Leticia the stranger, mysterious and unknown--Leticia moving onto center-stage. What could I make of this new protagonist in the ongoing saga of my Peruvian relatives' lives? How could I make sense of this new narrative? How could I make the new and the old, the strange and the familiar, the unspoken and the official, conform? At the time, I was only vaguely aware of the implications, intuiting--hazily, fuzzily, imprecisely--the hurt and anger and humiliation Kelly must have felt and instead sharing the lens of my mother, aunt, and grandmother, adopting the perspective of my cousin Carlos who, as the young good-looking husband—entitled, fun-loving, charming--could hardly be expected to stay faithful to one woman. 

I did learn what happened in the end; I learned the temporary resolution to this particular drama, the conclusion to one of the chapters in the story of my cousin and his wife. I found out what happened, once again, from listening, quiet and still, in back seats of cars, at ends of dining tables, from my perch adjacent to couches where women sat conversing, discussing, analyzing. Carlos bought a heavy gold Rolex, a potent symbol of wealth and status in 1980s Lima, and, seemingly contrite, presented it to Kelly as a gift, an apology, a bribe. It may have worked that one time, but, in the end, in the real end, en el fin, she divorced him, leaving Carlos, exiting our family, rejecting the flawed fairytale, to make her own life far away in snowy Michigan. Although in some ways I betray my family by thinking disloyally, by refusing the euphemisms, by backing, in retrospect, my young and still unformed intuition, I feel a sense of satisfaction with this conclusion, a sense that this was the fitting finale, the fair resolution, the appropriate denouement. In the end, she could not be bought.

The Acentos Review 2019