An Uninvited Guest From Beyond the Grave
November 1, 2012
The Big Day
They were married on the Day of the Dead, el Día de los Muertos, which no one gave much thought to in all the months of planning, until the bride’s deceased father-in-law showed up in the car following the ceremony. He manifested behind the wheel, then stretched his arm over the back of the passenger’s seat as he turned to face Martin and Isabel.
“Beautiful ceremony, mijo,” he said.
The couple’s smiles froze. It seemed to take an eternity for either of them to speak, and when they did, they had little more than mumbles.
Her whole life, Isabel had heard stories about spirits who spent this one day of the year with family. As a child she had built altars for her great-grandparents, vibrant tributes made out of open shoe boxes adorned with paper flowers and pictures of religious figures that looked a lot like the dioramas she created in grade school. In her teens, her family congregated around her great-aunt’s grave to clean it; one year, her mother even brought a battery-operated vacuum for the stone. “Today we remember our dead,” her mother always said.“We honor them.”
Martin’s father looked more frazzled than dead, as if he was running late because he had been caught in traffic. Isabel looked to her new husband for guidance and was shocked to realize he seemed annoyed. Not afraid, because honestly her father-in-law looked harmless, just like in the few pictures she had seen of him. No, Martin looked like he had simply bitten into a pepper that was hotter than anticipated.
“Did you know this would happen?” she said.
“No, but it’s typical of him. Typical. Only someone so shameless would show up to a wedding uninvited.”
“Martin, please!” She hadn’t expected him to be so rude. She hadn’t expected any of this at all, but her instincts to remain polite and respect her elders were deeply engrained—even more than her assumptions about life and death, apparently—and so her efforts to understand the situation were quickly overridden by her desire to make everybody feel comfortable.
It was the first time she had met her father-in-law. She smoothed her white dress, which was bulging into every inch of the seat, and straightened her veil over her shoulders. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
The old man sat quietly, waiting.
“I’m not talking to him,” Martin said.
“Martin, you can’t be serious.”
At this, her father-in-law smiled and leaned toward her, through the small space that separated the front and back of the white Rolls-Royce they had rented. “He is, I promise you. That kind of stubbornness runs deep in our blood. Isabel, I’m Omar. Though I hope they at least told you my name?”
“Of course. Encantada,” she said.
In ordinary circumstances, she would have leaned in to kiss him, hug him even, but these were not ordinary circumstances. She didn’t know what laws governed the dead. Could they touch? Feel? Hold? Omar seemed as if he might shift the car out of park any moment now. Instead he placed his hand over hers, and she felt not a solid touch but a vibrant warmth, like gentle electricity. Her eyes lit up, but Martin scoffed and turned away.
“Omar,” she said, letting his name empty her lungs. “Will you be joining us for the reception?” What a foolish thing to say.
“You’re very kind to ask, Isabel. Thank you.” He stepped out of the still-open door of the car and began walking toward the church gardens. Neither Isabel nor Martin attempted to follow.
She didn’t know how, but she knew she wouldn’t see him as she and Martin shared their first dance or cut their wedding cake. The whole evening, she didn’t have to glance over her shoulder to see if her father-in-law had arrived. And because the last thing she wanted to do was upset her new husband, she acted like it’d never happened.
She couldn’t fall asleep on their wedding night. The newlyweds made love distractedly, as if the act were nothing new, and of course for them it wasn’t. They were not, by the Church’s standards, good Catholics. Before today neither had been to mass in years, and they had slept together on their third-and-a-half date and had used condoms and contraceptives and spermicide, sometimes all at once.
If not new, though, she had imagined their wedding sex would feel different. Husband and wife, joining their bodies, and for the first time it wouldn’t matter if someone heard them or walked in on them or if the condom broke in eight places. They were married now. They were together for life.
Martin struggled with the perfectly round buttons that climbed, one impossibly close to the next, all the way up her spine. Isabel hadn’t realized until her dress was undone how the corset had constricted her all evening. She had to take a moment to catch her breath, and the indentations that the boning left on her skin, now exposed, itched.
She had wanted to make love to him in new ways, she really had, but more than that Isabel wanted to lie next to him, close her eyes, and open them to find Martin still there the next day, and the next, and the next after that.
When it was over, and they untangled their bodies, the newlyweds stared at the ceiling. She sighed. “That was wonderful,”she had meant to say, but the words that came out instead were, “What’s wrong?”
Martin brought his hand to his forehead. “I didn’t know he was dead.”
Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester came to the US at age four and grew up in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. She earned her BA in creative writing from the University of Miami, is a faculty member of the low-residency MFA program at Regis University, and works as a freelance writer in Austin. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Catapult, Electric Literature, Latina magazine, and the Austin American-Statesman. Natalia’s first novel, Chasing the Sun, was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad. Her latest novel,Everyone Knows You Go Home, has been named a Best Book of 2018 by Real Simple magazine and is a finalist for the International Latino Book Awards.