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Excerpt

More Than You’ll Ever Know

Katie Gutierrez

June 6, 2022 
The following is excerpted from Katie Gutierrez's debut novel, More Than You'll Ever Know. Gutierrez has an MFA from Texas State University, and her writing has appeared in Harper's Bazaar, The Washington Post, Longreads, Texas Monthly, and more. She was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and now lives in San Antonio, with her husband and their two children.

I spent the next three hours combing through my murder alerts and writing the day’s blog posts. Man sets wife on fire after believing she’d been poisoning his pot roast. Kid fresh out of high school plots his octogenarian godmother’s murder in hopes of inheriting her house. Man dismembers young girlfriend who wants no part of his group sex lifestyle. Below each post, a fuchsia link like a lipstick stain, tempting readers with You May Also Like. What a strange word to use in this context—like. I imagined readers flitting from post to post as if gorging on a box of chocolates, liking them right up until they felt sick.

I wanted out. Or no: I just wanted different. I might be a dirty little cog in the true crime industrial complex, but I still loved the genre. When it’s done right, true crime tells us who we are, who we should fear, who we are always in danger of becoming. Under a careful investigative eye, someone opaque briefly becomes transparent. Even if what’s revealed is ugly, it’s true. And nothing is more beautiful than the truth.

After a sad bagged-salad lunch, I reread the Dolores Rivera story. Though the article was ostensibly written for the thirty-year anniversary of Fabian’s sentencing (a lazy claim on relevance), there was so much about the murder the reporter didn’t even address. How had Fabian found out about Dolores’s double life, and how long had he known before killing Andres? How had he known where Andres was staying? Why take his rage out on the other man, instead of the woman who’d duped them both? I wondered why Andres’s body wasn’t found until the next morning—at a hotel, somebody should have heard the gunshot. And why had Fabian accepted such a harsh plea deal instead of taking his chances in court? This was the definition of a crime of passion. Any half-decent attorney should have been able to plead down the charges.

And finally, Dolores. Had she seen Andres that day? Had she known Fabian killed him before he was arrested? Was she haunted by her role in both men’s downfall, or—a cynical thought—was any part of her relieved to be free of them?

I made a spreadsheet with every name referenced in the piece, along with any contact information I could find. The Laredo Police Department didn’t have an online FOIA request form, so I left a voicemail with the records division. Then I started a rudimentary timeline: the year Dolores and Fabian married, the approximate year their sons were born, the date and place Dolores met Andres, the date they’d been married, and finally the murder and Fabian’s arrest. There were only ten days between the last two.

I worked in a state of heightened focus, like the few times I’d taken Adderall in college to write four papers back-to-back. If I was right about the potential for a story from Dolores’s perspective, I had to be fast.

Relationship fraud is typically a man’s crime, with the FBI identifying most common targets as women over forty who are divorced, widowed, and/or disabled. Money is usually the end game. In 2016, more than fifteen thousand relationship scams were reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, with losses over two hundred million dollars. The real numbers were probably much higher.

The stories were easy to find. Whirlwind romances, women who couldn’t believe their luck: He was a doctor, a soldier, an entrepreneur. He was handsome, charming. He took her out on his motorcycle, on his speedboat, in his convertible. He proposed after only a couple of months. Arms snaked around each other’s waists at courthouses and chapels, eyes shining. But the travel. The money he needed to borrow until the real estate deal came through. The errant piece of mail with a different name. The disappearing act. Heartbroken and humiliated, the women were forced to move in with aging parents or continue working the jobs from which they’d been set to retire. What was taken from them would never be recovered.

I’d read, once, that hypnotism only works on the suggestible— those who are willing and ready to suspend disbelief, to focus at length and with wholehearted intensity on an alternate version of reality. Perhaps the men who preyed on these women were like any other criminals—hunters, adept at spotting those with the capacity to believe.

In the course of my double-life research, I came across only one other American woman known to have been secretly married to two men at once, and it had nothing to do with money.

The writer Anaïs Nin was forty-four, married to an investment banker named Hugo, when she met Rupert Pole in 1947. He was twenty-eight and film-star handsome, though his acting fell short of his looks. They met in a Manhattan elevator on their way to the same party, and when he got the impression Nin was divorced, she didn’t correct him.

Eight years after they met, Nin finally agreed to marry Pole. She lived in six-week stretches, swinging from New York to California, where Pole was now a forest ranger. She maintained her double life for the next eleven years, the truth recorded only in her diaries and what she called “the lie box.”

By 1966, Nin was achieving some fame, and both husbands were claiming royalties on their tax returns. Mostly, though, Nin sounded tired of the lies, so she chose to reveal the truth to the man she believed would stay: Pole. And he did. He even agreed to annul their marriage for the sake of her royalties. And years later, when cancer was ravaging Nin’s body, he shuttled her to doctor appointments, administered her injections, and dialed Hugo’s number to help her maintain the ruse of their marriage. When she died, Pole rented a small plane and released her ashes above a small cove near Santa Monica. Her diaries, all thirty-five thousand pages, were left to Pole, and he honored Nin’s wishes by publishing less censored versions of them over the years. When Hugo died, Pole scattered his ashes, too, above the cove. Then Pole returned to the home he’d built for himself and the woman he’d loved, in spite of it all.

Nin was guilty of the same crimes as the men I’d read about— manipulation of trust, exploitation of love, theft of dignity—but told in her own words, her story took on a kind of mythology, even tragedy. Nin herself was like the lie box she kept, the dutiful sole record keeper of what must have been an extraordinarily lonely inner life, pressed like a dried flower between the two she’d lived. Ultimately, Nin had wanted to tell her story, even if it was after her death. I hoped Dolores Rivera wouldn’t want to wait that long.

Online White Pages spit out nine Dolores Riveras, each with a helpful list of family members. It was easy to find the Dolores related to Gabriel and Mateo Rivera, but I’d need a premium membership to unlock her phone number and address. Instead, I tried a property records search.

One result.

I plugged the address into Google Maps and switched to Street View: the house was one story, clean white brick with a dark shingled roof and extravagant flowering hedges encircling the exterior. A silver Volvo was parked in the semicircular driveway; the license plate was blurred, with no discernible bumper stickers to indicate the driver’s age or interests. Still, unless Dolores rented or owned a house under a different name, it seemed promising. Besides, hadn’t there been some Facebook comment about her “always watering her jungle”? Maybe I was reaching, but those hedges might fit the bill.

I navigated up and down the street, splashed with shadows from mature trees, brick mailboxes, and the occasional garbage can that hadn’t been brought inside yet, or perhaps these were the first to be taken out for the next day’s pickup. I circled the house from all angles. It almost seemed possible to force open the front door with the heat of my gaze, the pressure of my finger.

I felt I was closing in.

 

It was hard to breathe through the early July humidity as I headed out to the food park. The cleaning crew was back at the cobalt mid-century modern duplex next door, an Airbnb property rented for $150 most nights and $500 during ACL or South By—stupid, un-imaginable money. The duplex had gone up quickly last year after the original house, a falling-apart 1950s bungalow like ours, had been razed.

I’d fallen in love with Austin immediately after dragging my two suitcases to my fifth-floor dorm in the Castilian for my freshman year at UT. Through the small windows, the smells of weed and patchouli and Madam Mam’s Thai floated from the Drag below. Austin could almost still be called weird back then. There had been Leslie, riding his bicycle downtown dressed only in a leopard thong and stiletto sandals. Racing turtles at Little Woodrow’s or playing chickenshit bingo at the Little Longhorn Saloon, not because some Austin listicle told you to, but because you’d heard about it from a longtime local, already a dying breed.

The East Side, where Duke and I lived, used to be a mostly Black and Latino neighborhood, with families who’d been here for generations. Even thirteen years ago, though, you could see the cranes. The skeletons of high-rises and hotels, the way modest streets would eventually be thrust into shadow by behemoth mixed-use condo developments. Our neighbors now were architects and coders, bar owners and tech start-up CEOs, transplants from San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, New York. Duke and I were part of the gentrification, I knew—two white thirtysomethings paying ridiculous rent for a house some other white person, far richer than us, had bought from its original residents, likely pushed out by rising property taxes. But we’d been in Austin for nearly half our lives, and I liked to think we were among those clinging to something original, trying to keep it from being destroyed.

At the food park, diners were red-faced and cheerful as they drank Shiners or rosé from plastic cups, hairlines damp despite the whirring efforts of four black fans. There were only three trucks, including Duke’s BBQ, a repurposed Airstream painted with abstract cows and pigs floating in a neon sky. I had sprayed and lacquered the picnic tables candy-apple red, imagining how they’d look in Duke’s Instagram photos. I realized afterward that I’d inadvertently re-created the scene of our first date.

Duke had been in culinary school when a mutual friend had set us up five years ago. He offered to make me dinner at his apartment. Did I have any dietary restrictions? How did I feel about pork belly? But two-thirds of murdered women are killed by men they know— why make it easier? Instead, I suggested the South Austin Trailer Park and Eatery.

Over Torchy’s Tacos at a long red picnic table, Duke told me he wanted to open a restaurant one day. “With a name like Duke, I was destined for barbecue,” he joked. He told me that making brisket was both a science and an art. There was a language to it: the point and the flat, the grade and the wrap. A whole culture around how to trim the meat, whether to wrap it with foil or peach butcher paper, how to vmanage the stall, what to use as the base wood. “Making brisket is an act of love,” he said. “When it’s good, when it’s real, there’s nothing better.” I couldn’t believe there was a man alive who would say the word love on a first date, even if he was talking about meat.

I had fallen for Duke quickly. Or no—not fallen. Falling sounds too careless and violent, scraped knees and jarred bones. I came to love him quickly. He was easy to love, because he was easy to trust. He answered every question I asked him, from how many women he’d slept with to where he wanted to be in five years. If he liked something, he said it. If he didn’t like something, he said that, too. If he had a secret self hidden within, it was so well concealed that even he didn’t know about it.

I was behind a group of men in line, able to watch Duke for a few moments before he noticed me. He was attentive, with spring-coiled energy and a ready laugh, an ability to forge easy connections with people that I envied but also wasn’t sure I wanted for myself. It was safer to keep a distance.

When the men cleared away with their beers and I stepped forward, Duke’s grin softened, became more personal than all-purpose. He leaned through the window to kiss me. “You know you could just come around back. VIP access.”

“I know.” I waved at Sal, a fifty-something guitarist with an unironic black mustache, standing behind him. “But I like to get the whole Duke’s experience.”

Duke pulled two Shiners from the fridge, and we sat at one of the tables, where our carved initials were now lost among hundreds. “Guess what?” I said.

Duke twisted the tops off our beers, passed mine across. He smiled. “What?”

“Remember that story I told you about—the woman with the double marriage?” One of my legs bounced beneath the table, fine powdery dirt sneaking into my sandal. “I’ve been doing some research. I left a message for police records but I’m too impatient, so I found one of the old detectives and—”

“Hang on.” Duke frowned. “Is this for the blog? I thought you didn’t have to do extra reporting.”

I made a face, took a cold gulp of beer. “Not for the blog. I want to write a real story about this.”

“But—” Duke slapped at a fat mosquito on his tawny forearm. “The guy’s in prison, right?”

“Five more years.”

“So then? It’s over. Why are you reaching out to the detective?”

A curdle, deep in my belly. He didn’t get it.

“Crime is rarely over for the people involved,” I said. “The impact lingers. Anyway, the story’s really not about the murder. I have to know about it, but I’m much more interested in her. Dolores.”

“Why, though?” Duke glanced back at the Airstream, making sure Sal had the line covered. Sal gave him a thumbs-up.

Every crime story begins with the writer’s obsession. And for the last twenty years, you could say my obsession had been double lives.

My parents had loved traditions. Every Christmas my father made us Swiss Miss hot chocolate, the kind that came in packets with mini marshmallows, before we drove around to admire all the houses draped in white lights like wedding gowns. Every summer we went digging at the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, our rasping shovels searching for the selenite crystals with hourglass-shaped inclusions found nowhere else in the world except for this salt-encrusted land that was once covered by an inland sea. My parents, in those years, had seemed so predictable and familiar, as if nothing they could do would surprise me.

One time I walked into the kitchen and found them kissing. My mother’s back arched against the counter, her legs slightly spread, one of my father’s in between. He ran a hand up her white T-shirt, palming her breast while she crumpled a fistful of his blue shirt. Their mouths moved over each other, sensual and almost savage. I watched for a few moments, cheeks burning, before scurrying back to my room. I thought about that kiss often, after. How it looked like love, but also looked like pain.

My father had been scheduled to work on my ninth birthday. He was an aircraft mechanic at Vance Air Force Base. I used to stare at his hands, each groove stenciled black with oil. The night before my birthday, he squinted over the Better Homes and Gardens recipe for strawberry shortcake. “Does room-temperature butter mean butter left out until it reaches room temperature?” he asked. “Or warmed up until it reaches room temperature?” My mother laughed at his typical precision with language. “Maybe you can write a Letter to the Editor,” she teased.

Had there been tension between them that night? A sharpness on his breath? That’s the thing when you discover another side to a person you thought you knew. No memory is safe from cynical revisiting. You search for clues with the benefit of hindsight, desperate to believe your intuition hadn’t failed you so catastrophically. But in my memory my mother nudged him with her hip when she needed to see the floury magazine page. My father’s glasses steamed when he opened the oven. And my own soft, broken-in happiness: completely unremarkable.

The next day, after my friends’ mothers had bundled them up in marshmallow parkas and hustled them out into the frosty December evening, I followed my own mother with a trash bag stretched open like a cat’s cradle—the living room a graveyard of wilted streamers, frosting-smeared paper plates, and half-drunk Kool-Aid cups. Jim Croce, my mother’s favorite, played on the radio: “Bad, bad, Leroy Brown, baddest man in the whole damn town.” We sang damn more loudly with each chorus and I was wild with laughter, hardly believing my mother was letting me swear in front of her.

That was when my father walked through the front door, his hands dwarfing that morning’s coffee thermos.

“John! You’re home early!” My mother’s palm flashed white as a star as she beckoned him to come join us.

Then a thud and something rolling at my feet—the golden urn that held my granddaddy, ashes spilling in sickening clumps, breaking into talcum-fine powder. What’s left of a man.

For a moment, silence. Then my father, red-eyed and mouth slack and one of those baseball-mitt hands, a strike so fast it couldn’t have been the first. The blow caught my mother in the chest with a dull, bony thwack, and she gasped, an absence of sound more than a sound itself, something that seemed to pull the air from my own lungs. My bladder pinched, warmth between my legs. The three of us staring at each other like strangers at a car wreck, shocked at the devastation. Then suddenly my father gagged and lurched down the hallway to the bathroom.

“Mommy.” The word squeaked out, the first time I’d called her that in years.

She fell to her knees. Gently, she pried the trash bag from my fingers and let it drop. A cup rolled out, Kool-Aid leaking on the gray carpet. She pulled me against her, my ear to the waterfall rush of her heart. “It was an accident,” she whispered. “Nothing happened. Okay?”

I nodded, desperate for her story to overtake mine.

“Cassie, you can’t tell anyone about this.” My mother’s sharp cheekbones flushed as she gripped my shoulders. “No one. Do you understand?”

Of course I didn’t understand. But I nodded again.

“Come on,” she said, looking at the front of my purple Levi’s. “I’ll turn on the shower for you.”

That was the beginning.

After that, I still earned good grades, laughed on the monkey bars, talked about boys and played the Ouija board at slumber parties. I blew out candles pretending every birthday didn’t remind me of the one when I’d lost everything that mattered. But I also gave in to the obsession that started with Dateline. I read crime books and saw myself not only as the potential victim but as the killer’s closest family, forever scarred for not recognizing the signs. I saw myself in the detectives, driven to understand those who shed their human skins to act on their darkest desires. I wanted to carve open the perpetrators’ skulls, hold their brains in my hands and sift through the folds to find where the rot began, how it had spread.

But, of course, I also saw myself in them. In those people who split themselves in two.

Maybe I recognized a piece of myself in Dolores Rivera.

I couldn’t say that to Duke, though. I’d told him only that my father and I didn’t get along. That my mother had bound us together and after her death we’d drifted apart. It happens. Duke had looked sympathetic. He couldn’t imagine a family like that, and he’d brought me into his own with no hesitation. Now it was too late. I couldn’t tell him about the years of bruises and silence without also revealing that I was no better than my parents. Maybe worse.

“I don’t know,” I answered Duke. “I guess I’m interested in how women, in particular, can reconcile these seemingly incompatible parts of themselves and then . . . go on living their lives. She’s an extreme example of that.”

Duke nodded, though he appeared unsettled. “What makes you think she’ll talk to you?”

I flinched.

“No,” he said, reaching for my hand. “I just mean if she didn’t want to talk to the first guy.”

“Not that I’m a nobody who writes for a trashy crime blog?” I tried to joke, but my tone was sharp. “I don’t know, Duke. I guess I’m hoping she’ll see that I really do want to hear her side.”

“Well,” he said with a grin, “if anyone can convince her, it’s you, Cass. When are you planning to get in touch with her?”

“That’s the thing.” I grinned back. “That detective? He tracked down Fabian’s case file for me. I’m going to Laredo tomorrow.”

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Excerpted from More Than You’ll Ever Know by Katie Gutierrez. Published by William Morrow & Company. Copyright © 2022 by Katie Gutierrez. All rights reserved.




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