Juliet and Maria

by Gabriel Ertsgaard Issue: Fall 2018 Special Issue on Justice


I think I have a piece of my grandmother hidden in my mind. On dreary dark nights like this one, if I just pluck the old, Scottish melody, I hear her sing: "Black is the color of my true love's hair"; and I feel warm, like a child rocked to sleep.


October 2009. My lungs breathe roasting coffee while my fingers scorch strings, but I can't stop staring at the girl with braided hair—the Latin girl with long, black hair. She smiles, asks for music lessons, offers Spanish in return. Her smile, though, asks and offers more.


"No Juliet, like this—rrr."

I can't roll my Rs like Maria. She reaches out and softly touches my throat.

Contact. Pressure. Breath.

I'm liquid.


We haven't made much progress on the guitar. Maria presses back against me and insists that I put her hands on the chords. Then she arches her back.

"Focus, Maria."

"Oh, I'm focused."


Maria wraps a dark lock round my wrist. "You're my prisoner." She giggles. Then she leans across me, takes a photo from my nightstand. "You have your Grandma's hands."

A memory flits forward. "More flannel than a logging camp."


"Grandma on my wardrobe. 'That's just our Juliet's style,' she'd say, 'more flannel than a logging camp.'" My chest tightens. "She wanted me to tell her, but I froze."

Maria massages my collarbone. "We always fight that mouse in our stomach, Jewel. Sometimes we win. Sometimes the mouse wins."


Afternoon gigs in empty cafes have their compensation—this zone where music hums like a lucid dream.

"Play your Grandma's lullaby."

I jump. She laughs. That table was just empty. I might be dating a ninja.


Fluorescent lights flicker in the ER. Maria's expression is darker than a February storm. Her gaze settles on a sandy-haired giant. "El diablo!" she hisses. He must be Cameron.

"Shut up, Miss Illegal! You shouldn't even be here."

"You broke my sister's jaw!" Maria screams, "Was that legal?"

"Anna fell. She's clumsy," Cameron mutters. An orderly intervenes.


"So, the mouse won, huh?"


"You never told me what you are."

Maria winces. She gasps for air. First Big Fight. Both angry. Both defensive. Everything comes out wrong. I scream, "I care because you didn't trust me!"—then I storm off. There's nothing left to say.


Lavender flowers on her doorstep. A phone beeps. The text says, "I'm sorry."

She looks over the landing.

"I'm sorry, too."


I had no idea such churches existed. There's a rainbow above the altar—another one in the pews. Women in pants, men in dresses (and vice versa). Several varieties of mixed-race couples. Grey-haired grandparents sit with gay men in their twenties. Women with other women raising children. Sign up for: Relay for Life, Habitat for Humanity, Churches United for the Homeless. What is microlending? Solar panels on the roof. The Sunday school sponsors a water project in Haiti.

During the coffee hour, I chat with an Irish chaplain. "So you're Maria's girlfriend? Well, we're glad you're here. Must be serious. Don't think she's brought a girl to church before."


I slowly lift and lower my hand. Finally, Maria blinks.

"My parents got deported three years ago, today. Driving without a license—it's so stupid. I always told my Dad, 'Just take the bus. It's not worth the risk.'

'I'm a safe driver,' he'd say. He was. But a tail light went out. A tail light. I wasn't in the car, and Anna's a citizen, so I took her birth certificate down to the center.

'Where's yours?' the guy asked.

'Not on me,' I told him. 'Am I under arrest?'

'We don't have grounds,' he said. Then they brought me my sister."


Finally breaking from the devil. Cameron doesn't say anything while we carry out Anna's boxes—just glares with muffled rage—but there’s an unnerving calculus in those bitter eyes.



My brain tries to decipher the vague but dramatic text. She's cold, or making margaritas, or auto-correct is misbehaving. But my stomach, the quicker organ, lurches.


I - immigration (and)

C - customs

E - enforcement


The acronym slides across my suddenly frozen skin.

no ... no ... no ...



I see her once in that immigrants' prison, then she signs the papers. Her voice trembles over the phone. "I should have just taken you to Mexico City. We could have gotten married there."

"Maria, it's not too late. I'll come to you."

Gabriel Ertsgaard

Gabriel Ertsgaard teaches writing and literature at Kean University in New Jersey. He earned his D.Litt at Drew University, where he wrote a dissertation on environmental themes in literature. His poetry has previously appeared in Soul-Lit, Contemporary Haibun Online, Haibun Today, and Abyss & Apex.