Gustavo and Emiline

A perfect romance or a claustrophobic prison sentence? Elizabeth Stix brings the inarticulate paralysis and stifling compromise of a suffocating relationship to lurid life in her reality-warping short tale "Gustavo and Emiline."

Gustavo came to Emiline from above. He was round as a hot air balloon but heavy as a walrus, with little flipper feet and pudgy hands flapping out from his sides. He descended upon her from the sky, darkening out the daylight above her, waving his stubby arms and feet as his balloon-body glided earthward, until he alit, square on top of her, and let out a satisfied sigh of relief.

“Oh,” Emiline cried. He sat on her back, squashing her face into the sidewalk. The pavement scratched at her and a pebble dug into her cheek. “Get up, Gustavo!” she wailed. “You’re crushing me! I can’t breathe!”

Gustavo rolled around on top of her, reveling in the softness of his landing. Emiline dragged her fingernails along the pavement and kicked her feet in the air, but if he knew that he had landed on her, Gustavo did not care.

Emiline married Gustavo because she loved him like a brother, the brother she had always longed for when she was a girl. She had grown up by herself, an only child to parents who worked at the university laboratory and came home and buried themselves under the papers on their desks, piled as high as haystacks. Emiline would knock on their study door. She could hear the papers rustle.  

“Come in!” her mother would cry. Emiline would peer around the heavy oaken door.  She’d see a hand clutching eyeglasses sticking out amid the heap of manuscripts and data tables, or perhaps she would find her father’s shoe, kicked off and thrown across the room.  

“Do I disturb you?” Emiline would ask.  

“Of course not, dear,” her mother would answer. “Did you finish your dinner?”  

“Yes,” Emiline would lie. She hadn’t finished her dinner. She’d fed it to her imaginary brother and saved the cold bits for herself.

“Hand me my cup of tea, would you, darling?”

Emiline would push the teacup and saucer closer to the large pile, while her mother’s delicate hand waved blindly.

“Thank you, dear,” said her mother, curling a long finger around the teacup’s ear-shaped grasp.  

Emiline withdrew to bed.

When Emiline met Gustavo, he was the first person who had ever listened to her. He used to tell her, “I want to know everything about you. Are you hot, are you cold? I want to know. Are you frightened? What did you have for breakfast?”

“I had oatmeal, with almonds and sunflower seeds,” Emiline would tell him.

“Sunflower seeds!” Gustavo would proclaim. “My sunflower. You shine with a brilliance few women will ever know.”

There was more. He liked to brush Emiline’s hair, plucking out the burrs and stickums that had landed there during the day, working out the knots with warm oil. His hands were strong, and sometimes he would stroke his thumbs along the nape of her neck until she felt herself surrender.

He had a big walnut bed with a patchwork quilt and flannel sheets, and Emiline liked to burrow herself there, watching the dust motes dance in a strip of morning light that cut through the room and landed in a shiny pool on Emiline’s jacket, which she sometimes dropped on the floor.

They had a small wedding in the back room of the courthouse. Gustavo’s large family, whom Emiline had never met before and hadn’t seen since, spilled out into the aisles and jostled each other for the best view of the bride and groom, taking photographs and murmuring with approval to each other as Gustavo and Emiline exchanged vows.

For fourteen months, Emiline was content. Gustavo brought her flowers on Friday afternoons, usually posies and snapdragons but sometimes yellow daisies. Emiline made shepherd’s pie and goulash and casseroles that filled both of them up and usually put Gustavo to sleep, head on the table.

Shortly after their first anniversary, though, things began to change. First of all, Gustavo began to grow. Each breath he took sucked up more air. His hands became wider until his wedding ring would not come off, but gripped his finger like a tiny gold vise. When they went out to eat, Gustavo took up almost all of Emiline’s field of vision as she sat opposite him at the table.  

Maybe it was the casseroles, or maybe it was some kind of an illusion, because he only seemed to grow large on certain days of the week. If Emiline looked at him suddenly, turned her head too quickly, he appeared bloated, puffy, his feet even floating a bit above the ground. If she turned her head slowly, and crept a glance at him quietly, there was Gustavo, back to his normal size, polishing the silverware and whistling a small tune.  

Not long thereafter, Emiline began to feel as if she was being followed. Shadows in the alleyways reached out to her on the street, but she never found anyone there.

One day, instead of looking over her shoulder, Emiline looked up. And there he was. A dirigible in the sky. She squinted at him, covering her eyes from the bright sun, but she was certain of it. Gustavo floated high above her, coasting along in the summer breeze.

Day after day, it went on like this. In the grocery store, she’d feel his presence, and catch a glimpse of him hovering outside when she passed the window by the mangoes and kumquats. Gustavo trailed her on her errands, blotting out the sun, and when she stopped and had tea at a café, he shaded her newspaper and cooled the afternoon heat with his overbearing girth.

Some days, he would swoop down and land on her without warning, his shadow blossoming in size as he tumbled. She would try to run but he came too quickly and he would crush her, pinning her to the sidewalk, scraping her cheeks and giving her bruises on her arms and legs. The mangoes and kumquats would roll into the gutter.

No one seemed to notice, though a little dog tied to a post once barked wildly.  

When she came home at night, he would be there, back to his normal size, whistling as he chopped the onions and poured the evening wine. She peered at him sideways, still tingling from the scratches and sidewalk burns.

He’d hand her a goblet of wine with a smile and a wink.  Emiline looked at his hands, smooth and graceful, no longer bloated like water balloons. She drank her wine.

She vowed that she would talk to him about it. But every time the moment seemed right, she would open her mouth, timidly, fish-like, and before she could speak, Gustavo would take up all the air. “You’re my idol, baby,” he would say. “Have I ever told you that? Every man on the street is jealous because I’m walking next to such a fine young thing. I dig that, Emiline. I dig you, and I dig that.”  

Gustavo stabbed radicchio and arugula drenched in olive oil and stuffed it in his mouth, salad dressing running down his chin in a rivulet that forked into a Y and then dripped onto the tablecloth.

Emiline’s fish mouth closed. Opened. Closed.

Nighttimes were the worst. She would dream of her parents, now long dead, and her imaginary brother, long dead, too. How terribly she missed them. Emiline didn’t want Gustavo’s posies, or his snapdragons. She wanted to go home.

Emiline lay in bed, looking at the ceiling, and listened to Gustavo’s heavy, labored breathing, remnants of the evening’s goulash rattling around in his throat. She knew that in the morning the slice of light would cascade through the split in the curtains, decorating a shimmering wall between the window and the bed. She closed her eyes and looked forward to that.

Gustavo stirred. He clattered his throat and sniffled. He smacked his heavy lips. Emiline kept her eyes closed and imagined the golden wall of light, dancing for her in the morning.

The bed creaked and moaned and shifted, and Gustavo rolled his walrus body on top of her. Emiline opened her eyes and turned her head to the window, searching for a sign.

But Gustavo raised himself above her, and the moonlight disappeared.

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Elizabeth Stix

Elizabeth Stix

Elizabeth Stix’s stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Tin House, Eleven Eleven, The Southampton Review and the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. Her short story, “Alice,” won the Bay Guardian Fiction Contest and was optioned by Sneaky Little Sister Films. She is finishing a novel-in-stories called “Things I Want Back from You.”

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