If you ask a lucky person to tell you what happened on the worst day of his life, he can do so without hesitation. If you ask the same question to a homeless mother of three whose earthly possessions all fit in a stolen grocery cart, she won’t have a clue. I know this is true, because I am one of the lucky ones, but my father was not.
Even by Mexican standards, we were poor. Our tiny three‐room house constructed from bamboo and mud was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and leaky when it rained. On a good day, we had two meals of frijoles and corn tortillas. My father never finished second grade. He couldn’t read, and when I needed his signature on a form so I could get financial aid for college, he signed his name with an X. His job literally killed him, and his death killed my mom.
But when Papá rose at dawn he was singing, and at night after dinner he would take Mamá in his arms and dance with her on their rotted porch to the sound of Tejano music coming from the transistor radio by the stove. I saw him frown only once, and never heard him raise his voice. He was the most positive, upbeat person I have ever known. Twenty years after he died I figured out why.
The lucky or the rich can name their worst day because it is special. For people like my papá, daily challenge is mundane. The bad becomes invisible, and they can see only the good. Optimism is not a personality trait; it is a strategy for coping with your lot.
Mamá taught me English and Papá sent me to college. They made sure I was a lucky one. That is why I can tell you my worst day. It was the day someone murdered my wife.
I’m different from my father in a second way too. He was a good and decent man. I am not. It took me a while to admit that to myself. I doubt it will take you as long. What kind of man has sex a couple of times a month but never with his own wife?
I’ll answer that question. I’ve had plenty of time to think. What kind of man am I? I am a shameful human being. You can call me the harshest name you like, and I will not disagree. I am all of those things and probably more, but there is one thing I am not.
I am not a murderer.
My wife’s name was Tieresse. Eleven years ago an ex‐con beat her to death with an antique silver‐and‐crystal candlestick we kept on a rolltop desk in the parlor adjacent to our bedroom where she did her work. I was not there, but my imagination was. An endless video loop of the scene plays in my head, and I wouldn’t stop it even if I could. Some of it I know to be true. His back is to me. He’s short and stocky, with greasy shoulder‐length hair. He’s wearing a denim jacket with no sleeves. A tattoo of a swastika dripping blood covers his upper arm. My wife lies on the floor, faceup, hands raised, her nose broken, a deep raw gash running down her left cheek from the corner of her eye to the cleft of her chin.
After we got married, I moved most of my things to Tieresse’s house, but I kept the studio apartment on top of my restaurant. I stayed there when she was away for business, or when I was too tired or drunk after closing time to drive across town. That’s where I was the night she died, in my apartment, having sex with one of my waitresses who was heading off to culinary school the following week.
Tieresse had seen the waitress several times. She knew her casually, knew her name, enough to say hello and exchange pleasantries, but she didn’t know her well. She didn’t care whether I slept with her. I promise she did not. At least I think she didn’t care. Or I believed she didn’t. I suppose the completely honest thing to say is I’d convinced myself she didn’t. Selfish, insensitive people can delude themselves. It doesn’t make them murderers.
At the trial my lawyer used the word arrangement. I felt an electric shock as the word hung in the air. The jurors had to have noticed, but I would not meet their eyes. My lawyer did not ask permission to offer that characterization. If he had, I would have said no. Arrangement is a grotesque and malevolent word. If Tieresse had been alive, hearing our relationship described that way would have wounded her. The fact she was dead didn’t make it okay. I imagined her violently shaking her head, saying to the lawyer, to the jury, to everyone, No, no, you do not understand at all.
Tieresse was my love and my soul mate. I could not have cared less about her money. Roll your eyes if you want to. I don’t care. I adored her. We’d sit next to one another on our sofa for hours, our shoulders touching, and read or watch TV. She liked to watch YouTube videos of unknown lounge singers she’d seen in New Orleans or clips of old black‐and‐white television shows that were older than I was. We held hands in the movies like teenagers. She’d slip off her shoes and put her feet on top of mine under the table at the restaurants where she loved to eat and drink. She knew as much about contemporary art as a university scholar, and she could talk intelligently about anything—well, anything other than sports. Half the stories in the four newspapers she read every morning made her cry. She was my best friend and the kindest and most generous person I have ever known. She simply didn’t like to have sex. It caused her enormous physical pain. There are people like that. I didn’t use to know it either, but there are.
The waitress’s name was Britanny. By the time my trial finally started, more than a year after the murder, Britanny was married to an investment banker she had met her first week in New York, but she testified for me anyway. She had cut her hair very short and lost weight since I’d seen her. She cried softly as she spoke and had no reason to lie. I cried too. She alternated looking at the judge, the jurors, and me. It was obvious she was telling the truth. I don’t know why the jury didn’t believe her.
Tieresse was fifty‐two when she died. I was thirty‐eight. She inherited a small fortune from her dad, whose family had come over on the Mayflower and promptly begun acquiring timber land. Tieresse told me he fancied himself a baron and spoke with an exaggerated Brahmin accent. I’d never heard of such a thing. She tightened her mouth and said through a clenched jaw, Dickens was far overrated as an author, dahling. He can’t hold a candle to Jane Austen, and she laughed and laughed. She said, Mother sounded like the Upper West Side, but not on purpose. Father cultivated sounding different. He rehearsed in front of the bathroom mirror. She did not exactly dislike him, but I wouldn’t say she loved him either. He left her more than a hundred million dollars. She took that fortune and made it huge. She bought real estate and developed subdivisions all across the Midwest and western US. Her intuition about which cities were set to boom was so flawless a cottage industry of home builders, mortgage brokers, and real estate agents got rich just by following her moves.
Her dad had not been on the Forbes list of richest Americans, but she was. On the day she died, Tieresse was number ninety‐nine. Along with Reinhardt, her twenty‐five‐year‐old son from a first marriage that lasted less than a year, I was her only beneficiary, at least until they took it away.
Reinhardt used to hate me. When the police and prosecutors convince a young man his mom was beaten to death by her much younger husband who cheated on her serially and was with her only to take her money, it makes perfect sense for the son to hate the man. I would have hated me too. For seven years he spat my name if he used it at all. He detested every single thing about me. But not anymore. Now he hates the people who lied to him and railroaded me. That’s another thing we have in common.
Until she and I got married at city hall in front of a justice of the peace and a witness we met on the way, Tieresse lived alone, dividing her time between New York, Houston, Paris, and Rome. The four best cities in the world for whiling away the hours in a sidewalk café, she used to say.
Houston? I had asked her. It’s like dining in a sauna. She’d laughed and said, Yes, you’re right. In July and August, Tex-Mex, barbeque, and briny Gulf coast oysters do taste better in an air-conditioned room. But during the wintertime and spring, there’s no place I’d rather be.Tieresse lived alone, dividing her time between New York, Houston, Paris, and Rome. The four best cities in the world for whiling away the hours in a sidewalk café, she used to say.
That’s how I met her: at one of those cafés she so very much loved. Actually, it wasn’t truly a café. It was La Ventana, a small restaurant and bar I owned near the soccer stadium where real estate had once been cheap. When I bought the building with ten percent down and a small business loan, the ground floor had graffiti‐covered sheets of plywood in place of windows, and the story above had moldy carpet covering wide oak‐plank floors. I spent fourteen months restoring it myself. Every morning, seven days a week, I would drive my truck to a spot on Westpark where the day laborers waited for work, and at nightfall I would drive them back or offer to let them crash in sleeping bags on my floor. The day before Halloween, when the final lightbulb and framed black‐and‐white photographs were all in place, I bought a keg of beer and two hundred dollars’ worth of pizza from Frank’s and fed my crew and their friends. We had converted the second floor into a high‐ceilinged loft where I’d live, and in the space below we’d installed a slate bar, ten tables, four booths, and a gleaming kitchen with a wall of glass. From late fall through early spring, when dining al fresco in Houston really can be grand, we added six more tables on a deck out front.
I’d been open less than six months when, on one of those days, a cool, crisp evening in early March, the tables were full. My general manager, Benita, ran into the kitchen and told me a guest wanted to see me right away. I peered out through the glass from my station behind the stove, and I saw a gorgeous woman with straight black hair, enormous lucent eyes, and cheekbones that cast shadows. My first thought was to wonder what such a person was doing dining alone.
Tieresse had ordered a red snapper sandwich on a house-made potato roll with fresh‐fried garlic‐laced potato chips on the side. She’d cut the sandwich in half, and I could see from where I stood that only a single bite was missing. Oil glistened on the tip of her index finger and a fleck of fleur de sel sat at the corner of her mouth where her upper and lower lips met.
I knew the fish was fresh. I’d bought it myself at the market that morning and had eaten a raw slice before I cut the filets for the early dinner crowd. I wondered whether I had missed a small bone.
Benita told me the guest’s name, and I recognized it instantly. Everyone in Houston knew who she was. Her name was on museums, buildings at Rice University, food pantries, and shelters for battered women. I was prepared for this dazzling, imperious, obscenely rich philanthropist to tell me in great detail exactly what I had done wrong.
Her tongue flicked the salt crystal into her mouth, and she asked, Are you the owner?
I felt my knees start to buckle. I told her I was, and it took me some time to process her reply.
She said, I wanted to say this directly to you, not your waitstaff: I’ve never actually felt inclined to compliment a chef for a sandwich, but I must make an exception for this one. Everything about it is extraordinary. How do you manage to get a hint of lemon inside the filet?
I was paralyzed. I could not form the words to answer her. Benita came to my rescue. She said, He poaches it briefly in a Meyer lemon beurre blanc before moving it to the grill.
I stammered, Yes, that’s what I do.
Tieresse said, Well, I might never be able to eat red snapper again.
She smiled. Her teeth sparkled. Her eyes were two shades of green. I wanted to say more but could only manage, Thank you.
She held out her hand, and I shook it. She told me her name. I said, I know who you are, and I told her mine. She said, Well, Rafael Zhettah, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.
I do not believe it is only in hindsight I am able to say I felt the magic right then, at that very first touch of her skin on mine, in the wake of words that surprised me yet that I immediately forgot.
I said, If you come back again it will be exactly the same. And she said, Oh believe me. I intend to.
A month later, she was sipping a dirty martini on the La Ventana deck at half past five. I walked outside to check on her. She said she wanted to invest in me, and she asked whether I would like to open a bigger place.
I told her no. I liked my life. A bigger place would complicate it. The next day and the day after that, she asked again, and each time I said no. On that third day she said she understood, that she would not ask me anymore. The next day she came in again.
She said, I have a different question for you today.
I waited, surprised to realize I was nervous. She said, I apologize for prying. I asked Benita about your situation.
I felt my stomach lurch. My neck felt hot and damp. She asked whether I wanted to have a drink that evening after I closed. It was not the question I was expecting. I stood there mute.
She said, It’s okay. Never mind. I shouldn’t have asked.
I said, Yes I do. Very much. But we don’t close tonight until midnight.
She said, Perfect. I’ll see you then.
Tieresse had just turned fifty. She was nearly fifteen years older than I was. I had never been married. I had no children. I liked cooking, camping, reading, and canoeing. I lived like a graduate student. I had never known anyone like her. More money had slipped between the overstuffed sofa cushions in her den than I made in a year.
In other words, it was no surprise at all when, two years later, I was the first person police suspected when Tieresse was bludgeoned and killed. From the outside, I might have suspected me too. Being convicted, though, well, that was a different matter.
On our first date, Tieresse got to the restaurant a half hour before we closed and helped the busboys clear the final tables. I came out of the kitchen and saw what she was doing.
I said, Let me pour you a drink while we finish here.
She said, If I help out, you’ll finish here sooner.
She smiled and dropped a handful of utensils and two water glasses into a square plastic container.
Later that night we sat outside and shared a bottle of prosecco with a slab of local cheese and a loaf of warm sourdough. She told me about her son, Reinhardt, twenty‐two at the time, doing graduate work in computer science at MIT.
She said, We talk nearly every night. He tells me what he is working on, and I don’t understand a word he says. I go to sleep smiling.
She asked whether I had children, and when I told her no, she asked whether I wanted them.