Blissville: A memoir” (Installment 7, 12/29)

25.esquina

Photos by Rebecca Cooney

Esquina

(corner)

“It’s a concepto among Latin peoples,” Tito tells me. He is trying to explain the mutterings between the guys who huddle together nightly a few doors down. Our little block once was quiet at night. Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, they appeared with their boasts, guffaws, groans, and rattling beer bottles. It doesn’t help that our bedroom window overlooks the street. The peace of my night is ruined, and I fear it will never return. Their raucous chatter has become my nightly vexation. By most bedtimes I am pacing, counting the minutes until eleven when I feel at liberty to slip on a shift and go down and ask them to take their banter elsewhere.

“Relájate, mujer.” Relax, woman.  More > >

Blissville: A memoir” (Installment 6, 12/27)

22.mitad.mitad

Photos by Rebecca Cooney

Mitad y Mitad

(half and half)

Tú vas a practicar tu inglés y yo mi español.”  This was how I asked Tito out for our first date.  “Media media.”

Mitad y mitad,” he said, correcting me.

Mitad y mitad.” I repeated, hoping I’d remember the phrase.  Half and half was my intention, but already, I noticed, we were conversing mostly in Spanish.  Maybe he was oblivious to the inequity, and maybe he wanted it that way.  Off we went to Brighton Beach where neither English nor Spanish was spoken.  Somehow, being surrounded by Russians added to our privacy and the romance of it all.

I hadn’t spoken much Spanish since the previous summer, when I’d gone to Spain to study.  It was just one month, and I brought a suitcase full of hopes.  But after I unpacked in that tiny dormitory room, from which I glimpsed only a corner of the Cantabrian Sea, I was homesick.  My classmates were ten and twenty years younger than me.  They came from all over the world.  Spanish would be our only medium.  How was I to find intimacy in basic Spanish?

My Spanish improved, and in time I learned how to ask for whatever I wanted, whether in a restaurant or on the street.  I understood the content of lectures.  I could make out, though not completely, the plot of movies.  And while I never mastered eavesdropping, I did understand the conversations I sat in on between Spaniards.  My homesickness faded, and I made friends from Spain, France, Italy, and Algeria.

Then I returned.  “Fast learning is fast forgetting,” a teacher once told me.  His counsel rattled in my mind as I started to forget words and phrases.

But I didn’t give in.  Back in my apartment I reached for “Cien Años de Soledad.”  I’d never read One Hundred Years of Solitude in English.  Why not now, in Spanish?  This was a book read and revered by people of all classes throughout Latin America.  I wanted to be moved by it as they’d been moved.  So I mapped out the chapters and set goals for myself.  If I met them I could finish in two months.

It was filled with words I didn’t know, and still I persevered.  I made lists of unfamiliar words,  like catalejo, azote, and azogue—spyglass, whip, and quicksilver, and a hundred others I would never use in dialogue.  Night by night, page by page, I persevered.  I was determined to hold onto Spanish however I could.

In the morning I caught the traffic reports in Spanish and added demorras and choques, slowdowns and collisions, to my vocabulary.  But the jokes eluded me, and the accents confused me.  I could feel it; the Spanish I’d gained in Spain had slipped.

Out on the boardwalk with Tito, I stumbled in his language.  I heard all my mistakes, how I mixed tenses, misused prepositions, and modified simple masculine nouns with feminine adjectives.  I was powerless to correct them.  I had no choice but to plod on. We walked from Brighton Beach to Coney Island and back again, all in Spanish.  When we stopped in a café on the boardwalk, it was time for Tito’s mitad.  He shook his head.  “No quiero,” he said.  I don’t want to.

I didn’t understand.  I’d loved my half in Spanish.

Otro día,” he said.  Some other day.  Your Spanish is better than my English, he said.

While I didn’t agree, I was flattered.  And so I acceded, and we continued in Spanish.

De la cuna o de la cama,” is how the phrase goes for learning a language.  From the crib or from the bed.  I chose the bed.  And now it’s our language of love.

But mitad y mitad has become todo en español, everything in Spanish.  I have no doubt who has benefited from this.  When I go out with old friends from Spanish class I hear their pauses and errors.  It makes me giddy to see how I’ve progressed.

But todo en español has left Tito still struggling in English.  Of the two languages, I had the easier one.  Never mind that English is full of letters that are never pronounced.  Negatives have complications that I never noticed before.  And what about all the different tenses that can be paired with desires?  ‘I wish I were there.’  ‘I wish I could have gone.’  ‘I wish you would go.’

Tito tells me he learns by mimicking.  He knows ‘thank you’, spacibo, in Russian, ‘everything’s good’, todo bem, in Portuguese, and ‘how are you?’ comment ça va, in French, from the drivers of Ukraine, Brazil, and Senegal.  And he’s proud of the English he’s learned.  “What do you mean you don’t have the money?”  “Put the car there, huevón.”  “Move, move, move out of the way.”  At the garage, English has become a language of orders.

I take the same shortcuts in Spanish.  It’s easier to use the imperative than find the polite way to phrase a need.  But in my pride of mastering another verb form, I don’t hear how it sounds when I tell him to put the knives in the drawer.  Tito turns away from me in those moments.  Most of the time we recover and go on, and sometimes we don’t.  I follow him around the apartment.  “Qué pasó?” I ask.  What happened?  I don’t understand his sudden coldness.

But when he sits down to explain, my nervousness causes my Spanish to get up and walk away.  And that’s when I have to ask him to tell me in English.  English has turned into our language of discord.  But sometimes all language fails Tito, and he shakes his head and walks out the door, wordless.  Maybe he takes a walk, visits friends, or just watches television in the garage.  Only later I’ll learn where he went.  And only much later will I learn about the imperative’s sting.  “I was married for many years to a woman with whom I could never do anything right.  She had a correction for everything.  I learned to hold my silence.”

But now Tito is with me, not with Carmen.  He is subdued when I return from Maine.  I probe with as much gentleness as I can manage, but he only shakes his head.  Their marriage, alive or dead, is not my business.  And perhaps his loss is beyond the reach of language.  We go back to how we were before, rising early, a kiss at the door, and then together again for supper.  The only difference is that we are quieter.  I wait for Saturday and the evening, our beacon at the week’s end.

When it arrives, I throw on a dress and shawl.  Tito puts on a t-shirt I brought back from Maine, the one with a bear in its center, and over it, a jacket.  The nights are a little longer now, a little cooler.  We walk to the car, awkward in our finery.  When Tito opens the door for me, I slide in without a murmur.  It’s his turn to drive tonight.

He turns the ignition.  Te regalo una rosa, the voice on the radio sings. I give you a rose. Tito has yet to give me a rose, but I don’t care.  It is enough to have him next to me, tucked in my car.  Never mind the torn seats, the orange peels, and the half-read books strewn across the back seat, the maps of New York and Maine, the crumpled paper bags and empty coffee cups that litter my aging car.  Never mind the worries about the things I have to do and the things I probably have to redo.  Never mind all those questions I have about our future together.  We don’t need to talk about anything tonight.

He runs his fingers along the inside of my arm and sweet shivers run up my back.  Tito first kissed me in this car, and maybe we were listening to the same song on the radio.  La encontré en el camino. I found it in the street.  I put my hand on his cheek.  I ask him if he remembers that hesitant kiss.  He smiles.  I trace my thumb down his cheek and across his lips.  He leans back and closes his eyes.

This song that plays on the radio is a bachata.  Long before I met Tito I wondered what bachata meant.  It was a hand-written word I saw tacked up as an afterthought, tucked in between the merengue and son sections in the music stores of Queens and East Harlem.  I knew so little in those days.

Bachata comes from the Dominican Republic.  It grew from the poorest communities of Santo Domingo, where people made music on guitars and little else.  Today pop bachata retains the simple instrumentation and rhythms of its roots.  Its themes are love and loss. Eres la rosa que me da calor.  You are the rose that warms me. Tito never told me what bachata was.  He showed me.  It was a bachata that played on the radio the day we met, but I didn’t know it.

We sit wordless in the darkness all around, rapt in the silky voice that seems to sing only for us.  Te regalo mis manos.  I give you my hands. Tito opens his eyes and bends over to kiss me.  I savor the softness of his lips.  I drink in his sweet cologne.  I have traveled miles already, and the car hasn’t even moved.

In those early days I dreamed we’d go out dancing in any of the flashy nightclubs on Roosevelt Avenue, in the heart of Latin American Queens.  They were clubs with golden doors, tuxedoed bouncers, and perfumed crowds that just begged to be let in.  The lipstick, the hair, the jewels, the heels!  I once wanted to be a part of that glamour too.  But sitting here in the dark with Tito tonight in Blissville, with all of its rough edges—I need nothing more.  El beso más profundo que se ahoga en un gemido.  The deepest kiss that drowns in a moan.

For now our future is blank, and after all the drama of the past months, I am happy to leave it that way.  He takes my hand and kisses it, and with his other hand he taps out the song’s rhythm on my shoulder.  I can hold a tune, but not the beat.  I don’t know how to dance.  But tonight, with Tito’s help on the rhythms, I believe I could.  I can feel the music flowing through me, down my arms, through my hips, over my knees, and down into my feet where it surges back and through my spine, shoulders, and once again into my arms.  Un rayo de ilusiones, un corazón al desnudo.  A ray of illusions, a heart stripped bare.

Tito doesn’t know many dances either.  Back in his youth, Chile tended to look to Europe, not to the tropics, for its culture.  Only in the last few years have merengue, son, bolero, and bachata made their way south.  Still, he can feel and move with the beat of salsa in a way that I can’t.  Tito learned the bachata at the garage, and now he’s taught it to me.  Two steps to the side and hold, two steps back and hold, the simplest of dances.  Ay, ayayayay, amor. It’s the only dance we know.

When we get home tonight from wherever we go, he will put on a CD of Juan Luis Guerra, the man singing this bachata on the radio.  Tito will walk out to the center of the room and beckon to me to follow.  Looking at him I will float far away, to a dark and smokey club off a cobble-stoned street in Valparaíso, where the women wear fishnet stockings and flared skirts, and sway to the rhythms.

We will stand together in the center of my little living room, with its books and mementos, and he will wrap his arm around my waist, and put his eyes on mine.  I will watch him nod to the rhythm.  When he thinks I feel its beat, he’ll take my hand in his and place it next to his heart.  We will move together, as one.  When the refrain comes, we will separate, my hands still in his.  His gaze will never leave mine.  He will turn me around under his outstretched arm and bring me back again.  We are dancing.  Ay, ayayayay, amor.


Duende

(imp)

Everyone at the garage remembers Simón the body man’s words.  Because Simón, from his perch in the body shop above everyone else in the garage, had watched Tito, the new Chilean, on his first day of work.  He had watched him sweep, and learn how to change oil and repair tires.  And he had seen his confidence around the impatient Nicolás.  So when they punched out their timecards at the end of Tito’s first week, he told them.  “Just wait—in six months that guy’ll be the manager.”

Danilo was the manager then, and Danilo had worked there ten years.  If Danilo left, Nicolás had plenty of candidates for his job.  Any of the experienced mechanics who had worked for him would qualify, whereas Tito was new to the garage and new to repairing cars.  So how did Simón know?  Maybe he saw what I did when I first met Tito, someone confident, even bold.

Was this all?  When I ask Tito he nods.  But then he shakes his head.  “I have magic.  I know you don’t believe in that, but I do.  Back in the Port of San Antonio, Chile, I just missed being in the epicenter of an earthquake.  I don’t know what it was.  I got in my car and drove away.  If I had stayed where I was working, I would have died.  How do I explain that?”

Tito has lots of proof of his luck, so powerful he doesn’t tell many about it.  “My first winter here, I had no money, not even three quarters for a coffee.  I was working then out in Jamaica, Queens, getting up at 5:00 and commuting two hours just to get to work.  That job was hard, physical labor, and I would get hungry.  When I ran out of money one week I didn’t know how I would make it.  I didn’t even have enough for food.  The next day, when I was walking to the factory, I found a twenty dollar bill at my feet.”

And then there’s the story of how he got his credit card.  “My friends were always telling me that the best place to open a bank account was in Plainview, out on Long Island where there are a lot of Chileans.  So one day in September, I take the train out there.  I arrive just as the bank is opening.  I sit down, explain what I want, and begin to fill out the papers.  She takes them and looks them over.  Everything seems fine.  Then she asks for my social security number.  I don’t have one, so I give her a false number and pray.  She types the numbers in her computer then frowns.  The number isn’t working.  I write it down for her, the same number, and hold my breath.  She types it in and nothing happens.  Her computer freezes.  She tries again, but it’s still frozen.  I act as if I’m in a hurry.  She apologizes for this problem.  She’s going to put through my application anyway.  When I get out of the bank I learn what happened.  That day was September 11th.  The World Trade towers had fallen.”

But even with his tales, I don’t believe in magic.  Can it extend to keeping him safe?  If Tito were truly magical, then he would be able to sway Nicolás to sponsor him for his Green Card.  And he would be able to induce Carmen to file for their divorce, or rather, annulment, since divorce still isn’t permitted in Chile.  His country is one of the few left in the world that does not allow divorce.  Tito blames Pinochet, but I’m not so sure.  Pinochet has been gone almost 20 years.  But what is the difference?  An annulment requires of a couple a petition, a hearing, and a judge’s signature, the same as a divorce.

So I don’t count on luck.  I think of it as something other people have.  It’s why, when we go into Manhattan on a Saturday night, I drive around blocks in search of a parking space.  But if Tito’s behind the wheel, he finds a space steps away from our destination.  He says I fail because I am too negative.  I think I just don’t have luck.

My success has come from dedication, commitment, and perhaps a pinch of luck.  At mid-life I went to photography school, and became a professional photographer able to make a sustainable living.  Most young people can’t even do that.  I may have worked harder than most, but was that all?  Years later, at the institute where I was learning Spanish, I was awarded a full scholarship to study in(?) Spain for a month.  I never even applied.  They selected me out of hundreds of students.  I was an A student, but there were other dedicated A students.  So why me?  And how do I account for the summer I won an artist’s residency, by invitation only?

Tito thinks some of this luck is because I am with him.  “Good things happen to the people who are with me,” he says.

“But these things happened before I met you.”

No importa.  You were going to meet me.”

As skeptical as I am, Tito seems to have a spell following him that can cast its powers either way.  “Bad things happen to people who wish me harm.”  He cites a man who had threatened him in the port.  The next day the man fell into the ship’s hold and broke his spine.  “I didn’t wish this on him.  I don’t want to hurt anyone.  It’s just how things are.  But this magic, it protects me and everyone I love.”

“Would it protect me if we broke up?”

He nods.  “Carmen will always be safe, because I loved her once.”

I hold up my hand.  I don’t want to listen to any more of these tales.  But inside I have begun to think of him as a duende, an imp with dark and magical powers.

But Tito can’t explain how he became the manager.  “The day that Danilo left, I wasn’t even in the garage.  I’d gone out to the Bronx, to do an errand for Nicolás.  When I came back, I was the manager.”

He learned from the mechanics that Nicolás accused Danilo of shorting him on a bill.  In all the abuse from Nicolás over the years, Danilo had never been accused of stealing.  He called Danilo ladrón, thief, which must be an insult like no other, an utter affront to a man’s honor.

“Who are you calling ladrón?  If I’m the robber, then how come I’m not a millionaire like you?  You’re the ladrón here, paying your workers so little.”

This was an accusation Nicolás couldn’t tolerate.  “You’re fired,” he screamed.

“And I quit.”  Danilo slammed the keys to the garage down on the desk and walked out on the only job he’d had since he’d arrived from Colombia years ago.  He hadn’t escaped his country’s violence and made the voyage to New York to be called a thief.  He had his self-respect to protect.

When Tito came back, Nicolás offered him Danilo’s job.  Tito could hardly believe it.  To match the added responsibilities Tito would have, Nicolás gave him a raise of fifty dollars a week.  He promised another hundred in six months if the job worked out.

“Don’t you see?  You earned it.  Nicolás promoted you because you are enterprising in everything you do.”  To celebrate I take him to a festive Cuban restaurant in a section of Queens called Corona.  In Spanish corona means “crown”, but this neighborhood is the poorest of the Latin American neighborhoods.  It is the first stop for newcomers.  It’s a hodge-podge of crooked, one-way streets with stores disguised as homes and homes masking as stores.  Nothing appears as it is.  It’s where I always get lost when I’m by myself.

On the way back from supper we hold hands, content and sated.  We pass a house with loudspeakers perched above the doorframe.  Only a voice tells us it’s a church.  “Deja las preocupaciones atrás,” we hear.  Put down your belongings and worship God.

I smile.  It reminds me of when I used to listen to evangelical radio in Spanish because of its simple language and slow rhythms.  “El reino de Diós está cerca.  Ellos que crean, verán.”  The Kingdom of God is within your reach.  Those who believe will see.

I feel Tito looking at me.  “Ves?”  See?

The voice promises that God will pay our car loans.  He will pay our rent.  He will even pay for our retirement.

We move on.  When we reach the car, Tito turns to me.  “You have to have la Actitud Positiva.”  He enunciates like the preacher, but his eyes are serious.  “With la actitud positiva, you can fulfill your dreams.  You can accomplish what you want.  I was a poor immigrant from a Third World country.  And now I have a job, I have a home, I have security.”

I know he is trying to tell me that magic doesn’t entirely account for his good fortune, that his belief in himself and his willingness and optimism have also contributed to his success.  I can see that he is telling me that those things could be mine too, with the right attitude, the right belief.  All those things that I’ve deeply desired such as steady work and a cottage of my own, all of them are within my reach if I am willing to approach life in this way.  He holds this out to me as if it were a potion.

And if it were, I would have sipped from it.  After all, he’s accomplished much with his own actitud positiva.

“But finding love, Rebecca, when I had given up on it?  When I never thought it possible?  Eso era otra cosa.

That wasn’t luck.  That was from God.”

Condorito

(little condor)

We have reached that comfortable stage with each other, where evenings find us reading propped against the pillows in bed, Tito with whatever is at hand and I with my Moby Dick.

But it’s been four months into my tome, and still I toil, night after night. I breezed through the first two hundred pages, where Ishmael decided to go to sea and signed aboard the Pequod, but once the ship pushed off, the narrative slowed.  I am becalmed under the equatorial sun, in the unending heat, with the unspeakable monotony of the horizon wherever I look, without even a mere speck of land for relief.

I picked it up because a friend had finished it and recommended it.  I confessed to her that I’d never read it, or ever wanted to.  Then I heard a program on the radio about it, and grew interested.  And I was ready, in the mood to read an epic.  I went out and bought a copy.  The chapters looked short.  And it had woodcuts by Rockwell Kent.

But I only manage a page or two each night before my eyes drop down and close.  I’ve limped through the biology of whales, the history of mastheads, and philosophical ramblings on all things white.  I plod on, page by page, and still most of the book remains ahead.

Meanwhile, Tito is buried in the most recent issue of Condorito, a comic book from Chile featuring a skinny bug-eyed condor, who, for some reason, Tito adores.  That Tito flips through page after page, shaking the bed in laughter each night, only makes my concentration harder.

The lumpy bird bears no resemblance to the elegant lines of my whale, still awaiting me.  This is not an edgy comic from the Lower East Side.  The drawings are hokey in a commercial way.  But the condor, Tito reminds me, is to Chileans what the American bald eagle is to us.

Each month Tito carries in a new booty of tattered copies that have been handed down by his friends.  I can always tell when he’s gotten a fresh stash by the pile on his side of the bed.  One by one, night by night, another comic falls to the floor.  When he’s finished them all, he’ll pass them on to the next friend.  This is how the Condoritos make their rounds.

On my side of the room, books lie in stacks on every surface.  Around the apartment bookshelves reach up to the ceiling, filled with books two levels deep.  They line the apartment walls.  Books are my weakness.  And still I haunt bookstores.  It doesn’t matter that I haven’t read a good half of the ones I already own.  Deep inside, I know I will.  This is what I tell myself each time I stand at the cash register with my arms filled with the week’s indulgence.

Pobrecito, Tito.  He struggles with this compulsion of mine that threatens to upset the order he tries to maintain throughout the apartment.  But he never criticizes me for buying more books.  He isn’t a constant reader, but I have found him absorbed in books.  He’s read all of Paulo Coelho.  He was transported by my Relato de un náufrago by García Márquez, the story of a shipwreck.  Once in a bookstore I tried to buy him a novel by Vargas Llosa about Trujillo, because I knew he liked history.  He took it from me and put it back on the bookshelf.  He’d already read it.

But he doesn’t share my craving to absorb everything that lies between a book’s pages.  I swear, whether it’s about the rings of Saturn, the notion of infinity throughout cultures and history, the life of a 19th century explorer of butterflies, the novels of Nigerian writers, or the short stories of Hemingway—I want to know it.  At least this is what I tell myself as I put away my latest purchase, to rest on my shelves for the day when I will reach for it instead of another mystery.

Tonight Tito is chuckling his way through his whole comic book.  He is oblivious to my little humphs, the nearest I can come to telling him to be quiet.  He is clueless to(?) the challenges I face in Moby Dick.  I monitor his progress from the corner of my eye.  Finally he puts it down with a grunt of contentment and rolls over to my side.  I sigh and start again at the top of the page.  I am trying to focus on famous sperm whales in history, with names like Morquan and Timor Jack.  There are others, but they blur before me.  My eyes have drifted off the page, and I have to shake my head and try again.  I reach the bottom of the page without the slightest sense of what I’ve read.  I straighten up against the headboard.  Tito’s Condorito lies on the cover next to him.  I look down at its cover.  The bony condor is bent over a broken fence while a bejeweled, buxom woman sits behind the wheel of a car whose front is damaged.  “¡Me convenciste maneja tú, condorito! ¡Ay,” she says to the beleaguered condor.  I translate it as you convinced me to drive, Condorito.  Once again I don’t get the joke.  The humor must be unique to Chileans, I conclude.

Moby Dick slides off my lap, and I close it.  I pick up the Condorito again and leaf through more pages until I come to a story that looks simple and short.  It’s titled la Prueba, the test.  In this story the condor is older with a beard and long gray hair, and he stands on a cloud outside a large gate.  In front of him stands a caricature resembling Albert Einstein.  Naturally the condor asks for proof of his identity.  So Einstein rattles off his formula for relativity.  “Pasa,” says the Condorito.  Pass.

In the next drawing, a man in a black beret stands before him and tells the condor that he is Picasso.  He looks more like Gauguin to me, but I won’t quibble.  Once again the condor asks for proof.  “Fácil,” says Picasso. He hands the condor a drawing, and the condor admits him.

Then a mustached man with brilliant white teeth raps on the door.  From within, the condor asks who is there.  “Me, Pepe Cortisona, the most important businessman in my country, the man who owns a huge company and is written up in all the newspapers.”   Silence.  “Let me in, you silly bird,” the businessman says.

The condor peeks from behind the crack in the door.  “You have to prove yourself, just like Einstein and Picasso did.”

“Who are Einstein and Picasso?”

Condorito holds the door wide for the businessman. “Pasa, Pepe,” he says.

I let out a laugh despite myself.  I look over at Tito, snoring gently by my side.  He doesn’t stir.  I close his comic and lay it on top of my Moby Dick.  Then I turn off the light and curl my body into his.

The next installment will be posted Thursday, Dec 30.

The Daily Photo + Links

Photo by Ben Lozovsky

An Artist and His Friends Take on Bin Laden  [NYT]

Brooklyn band Grizzly Bear scores big on ‘Blue Valentine’ soundtrack  [DailyNews]

Beyond Popping Corks, the Sounds of the New Year  [NYT]

Anella: Art House of a Restaurant in Greenpoint  [NYT]

Brooklyn Frauds Are Playing Out in Polish, Police Say [NYT]

Blissville: A memoir” (Installment 5, 12/23)

18.Solucionar


Solucionar

(to solve)

The more problems, the better.  That’s what Tito says.  He claims he loves problems.  That was what he did best at his old job in the port, where he had to decide where to dock a given ship, when to unload its cargo, and how to get it all done within the shortest time possible, in time for the next ship and its precious perishables.  Even after the port was privatized and he took another job managing a company’s shipping, he enjoyed crises.  Only five hours to unload ten tons of paper with a storm on the horizon?  His kind of conundrum.

In the garage, he’s uncovered and fixed problems no one was aware of.  Tito, the sweeper, computerized the office with a system for tracking when a car was due for servicing.  To speed the payout by insurance companies for accidents, Tito brought in his digital camera.  He emailed the pictures instead of sending the Polaroids through the mail.  He has ideas galore for the garage.  But the mechanics don’t understand his spirit of helpfulness.  “Why do you tell Nicolás these things?  He won’t pay you more for them.  He pays you only to clean the garage,” says Simón, his countryman.  And sure enough, Nicolás doesn’t seem to notice.  But Fernanda has, and she is grateful for all Tito has done in the office.  He’s made her job simpler.

Hay que solucionar.”.  You have to find a solution, he tells me as he taps away on my computer to reconfigure it to my printer.  “Hay que tener la actitud positiva.”  You have to have a positive attitude, he says as I curse my equipment.  I study him while he works.  He has boundless optimism for everything except for the puzzle he’s created for himself in loving two women.  All his skills in solucionando can’t solve that dilemma.

Carmen and he lived together through la época del dictador, in the time of Pinochet, a time of curfews, violence and repression.  She was at his side when he traveled the length of the country playing his trumpet with his band at festivals.  She is the mother of his children.  She is his wife.

When I get like this, I think about the story Tito told me, about the woman who came to the garage one day.  She was only a profile in the summer light.  For a long minute the mechanics in the garage thought she was Simón the bodyman’s lost Peruvian girlfriend, the one he had been yearning for in the apartment he’d rented for them both.  When she moved to warm Miami, she promised to return.  That was two years ago, and he was still waiting for her.  She was his beloved, and all the mechanics knew it.

So they shouted out for Simón, their voices echoing back into the body shop where he was working.  And when Simón appeared, they put down their tools and followed him out to the front and into the light, one after the other.

Surely they had been a little blinded by the sun.  She was not Simón’s beloved.  She was Mouna, with roses in her arms and tears dripping down her face in little rivers, as a soft rain slides down a window.  Simón turned back, but the mechanics stayed, helpless while she wept.

She had come looking for Junior, but Junior hadn’t come in that day.  He’d stayed home that day, to be with Nidia.   But they didn’t tell Mouna that.  Junior would be back the next day, they told her in broken English.  They tried to calm her with their soft voices.

She looked back at them with watery eyes reddened from crying.  She had traded her bed, her heart, and her secrets for Junior’s love.  But these precious gifts were not enough, and now she had nothing left but the roses she held to her heart.  She walked back out into the street.

They shook their heads as they watched her go.  How could she not know, they wondered, that Junior’s love for her had faded?

But she never could have known that he had found renewed love, with Nidia.  Mouna didn’t know about Nidia.  Mouna was simply living in the moment of love’s urgency, an innocent victim of the heart.

I am not like Mouna in this way, for I always have known about Carmen.  And still I indulged in loving Tito.  Oh, the sweet rush of those early days!  We were like childhood sweethearts, with him calling me after work from the corner telephone because my doorbell didn’t work.  I waited for him at the doorstep with the door open.  Up the stairs he’d go, his bag of clean clothes in hand, and I behind him, the two of us laughing, intoxicated with the thrill of it all.  We’d kiss in the hall, his lips all salty.  Some days his face was almost black from the oily dirt he’d been sweeping.  I’d send him into the shower, and often I’d follow him there.

Mornings were as sweet, though we lingered less.  A dash to the shower, a song, and a skip and a dance on the way to our clothes.  We skipped down the stairs, a brief kiss at the doorway, and then I’d shut the door.  As quickly as he’d arrived, he’d leave.  My walk back up the stairs was always slower.  Alone in the apartment I walked from room to room resting my hand on the things we’d touched during the evening before.  I was collecting the memory of his presence.

Now I am living with him, a married man, and I have grown dazed in the delirium.  I have surpassed every boundary I have set down for myself.  I have no future with him.  Tito is planning to leave and return to Carmen far, far away.  And when he gets back, he’ll open up a travel business.  He repeats this as regularly as a mantra.

But whatever he says about the life he will return to there, here on the other side of the world, I know he loves me.  Nonnie asks, “How do I know?”  But Nonnie married her only boyfriend, a man she met when she was eighteen.

“How does anyone know?  Would I know any more if he gave me pearl earrings?  How does anyone know?”  Nonnie married a kind and good man and has one of the best marriages I’ve ever seen.

Naturally she wants the same for me.  Tito may be kind and good too, but he is poor.  He is nothing like her husband in that respect.  And he is foreign.  She’d never go so far as to call Tito a Latin lover, but maybe that’s how she thinks of my attraction to him.  I did.  In those early days, after two or three days apart, I was sure I smelled the scent of another woman.  When I kissed him I would press my nose against his neck, his hair, his chest, his back, his legs.  I was trying to sniff out the truth.  It took me time to trust that I was the only one.

Tito uses the word transparencia to describe me, because my emotions are clear on my face.  But I could use it about him, in how he looks at me each morning and night.  Nonnie might retort that I’m looking for what I want to see.  But I have watched him in ways she hasn’t.  I know what I’m seeing.  His actions bear him out.  He will drive into Manhattan long past the hour of his bedtime to pick me up from a night out with my girlfriends.   “I could have taken a cab or the subway,” I say to him.

No es problema.  You will be safest with me, mi amor.”

He does these little favors, hundreds of them, with nothing asked for in return.  They are the traces of love he leaves behind, so many I could never describe them all to Nonnie.  What I can’t admit to her is that it still isn’t enough.  I want to be one of one, not one of two.

Tito’s face shuts when I ask, “Isn’t one woman enough?”  He hears my bitterness, and he has no answer.  Sometimes I think he could probably go on forever loving two women on two sides of the world, 6,000 miles apart, if I weren’t asking him to choose.

Mi amor para tí es real,” he tells me.  My love is real for you.  The verb he uses signifies permanence.

“And Carmen?”

Ese amor se falló.”  That love is broken.

I nod in a way that neither agrees nor disagrees.  It’s obvious to me that his tie to her precedes his feelings for me.  Even if he hadn’t stood up in a church before his parents and God, he seems unable to finish what he began with Carmen.  He is that kind of man, loyal to his promises.

Entonces, disfruta la vida,” he says as he tries to smooth the lines between my eyes.  So, enjoy life.  It’s the only solution he has.


PART 2

Steal a minute between the tide and the eddy.
—New England proverb

Costumbres

(habits)

Summer is ending, and so must my summer romance.  I decide to get away.  I am due a visit to my parents, so I call and make the plans.  The next day I pack the car and leave for Maine, where they live for half the year in the grand summerhouse that was once my grandmother’s.  It is a place full of memory—remote, peaceful and beautiful.

Once there, the days start luminously.  I wake as the skies just start to lighten.  I dress quickly, then head out.  I am looking for my own solace.  My feet leave tracks through the dew, so heavy it soaks my sneakers within minutes, and now they squeak with every step.  I cross the fields until I stand on top of a little knoll that looks over the bay, the sea glassy in its stillness.  I check the high branches of the plum trees for fruit, and I look on the ground for mushrooms.  Then, empty-handed, I turn and walk down to the shoreline to watch the mosquitoes dance across the water’s surface.  A kingfisher flits over the water, and up high in the oak trees I see warblers darting for insects. They are eating for their long journey south.  If only I could store up on fortitude as they do.

When the sun rises well above the horizon, I slog through the fields and back to the house.  The already warming grass brushes against my legs.  My parents’ home gleams like a white, colonnaded plantation in the mist.

I find them sitting where they sit every morning, in the kitchen.  Its walls are the pale blue of the sky outside, but with windows that face north those walls are never touched by sunlight.  My parents don’t seem to mind it, though.  No matter how shimmering the day, no matter how warm it is outside on the porch that overlooks the sparkling bay, each morning they sit bent over their newspapers, their trays of pills in front of them.  Details fill their days.  The weeds in the garden.  The bills to pay.  The sheets to wash.  They plan their daily chores over a breakfast that leads almost into noon.  I quell my restlessness and join them at the table.

My mother is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  Little by little she has let go.  Once she did everything for my father, tending to all of his needs.  She was a full-time housewife, cooking and serving every meal, washing every dish, dusting and vacuuming the house, doing the laundry, the errands, and all the shopping.  When we arrived home, she drove us to Girl Scouts, swim practice, and friends’ houses, and an hour or so later she drove us back.

But it was my father’s arrival home around which her day was built.  Each night, an hour before he arrived, she would put on a fresh blouse and change out of her pants and into a skirt.  Then she would head downstairs and prepare a bowl of nuts and ready the glasses for their nightly cocktail.  Then she settled on the living room sofa to listen for his car.  She met him at the door with a smile and a kiss each night.

Now my father is in charge of the meals, even breakfast.  Never mind the bacon and eggs, my mother can no longer set out the cereal bowls.  But that doesn’t deter my father, who thinks, with enough coaching, she’ll get it.  He rejects the doctors’ diagnosis of Alzheimer’s even as he pushes into her hands the pills they prescribe.  She has been in four clinical studies.  But he can’t leave it at that.  He has also researched alternative medicine.  At each meal he gives her vitamins and herbal remedies, a regimen he would have scorned before her illness.  He’d never admit it, but deep inside I think he believes that she can grow back those neurons in her brain that have now shriveled.  And his determination has held her illness in check.  He will not let her succumb, even now.  This morning he scolds her, in the same loud voice he used for Nonnie and me when we were little and struggling with our table manners.   “Alice,” he shouts, even though she’s a step away.  “The fork belongs in the drawer.”

She’s spent her life rising and tending to his fits.  Now she stays seated and looks at the same page she’s been looking at all morning.  When he calls her name again, she tells him she doesn’t know who put the forks with the towels.  I silently cheer her on.  He slams them in the drawer and shoves it closed.  His impatience is as sharp as the noon light outside.  He returns to his newspaper.

Their morning ritual stretches for more than two hours.  What takes my father minutes, to rise and shower, takes my mother at least an hour.  He has to wake and guide her out of bed, and then bathe and dress her in whatever he selects for the day.  While she fumbles with her shoes and buttoning her sweater, he makes the beds.  Then he leads her down and prepares breakfast for the two of them.  He takes care of their doctors’ appointments, the weekly shopping, the driving, the cleaning of the house, and all the things he did before,overseeing their investments and their money, and maintaining their house here and their house in Connecticut.  He is exhausted.  He couldn’t have imagined a life like this when he stood at the altar reciting, “in sickness and in health.”  But even if he had, he would have said, “I do.”  In the peace of my room I can see that he is simply trying to hold onto the woman he loves.  His anger just masks his fears.  But it’s painful to witness, and each day I wonder if I shouldn’t cut my trip short.

We spend our days alone.  My father retreats to his study where he escapes into the annual reports of drug companies.  He still believes there is a cure out there for Alzheimer’s.  He pores through his business magazines and clips all articles alluding to treatment.  When he takes my mother in for her doctor’s appointment in a month, he’ll cite those studies.

My mother wanders out into the yard.  She pauses at each of her gardens and touches the flowers and shrubs she’d once nurtured.  Now she collects the dead, fallen branches from all over the lawn and deposits them at the base of the trees.  I keep her company while she explains that she’s saving the twigs for a cold day.  Then she tells it to me again.  She’s in a world I can no longer follow.  She doesn’t even notice when I leave her side.

I grab a sketchbook and head for the apple orchard.  I walk among the bent trees looking for a place to sit, but nothing seems right.  So I cross the fields and pick armfuls of wildflowers.  Later I’ll place a nosegay by my mother’s bed, a bouquet in the hallway, an arrangement in the kitchen, and in all the places she frequents.

I look for the postcards of Maine that I’d bought at the town drugstore to send to Tito.  I spread them out in front of me, my pen in hand, but I can’t find a carefree tone to match the gay pictures.  I decide to email him instead from my father’s computer.  But despite his offer, my father is reluctant.  He can’t resist hovering.  “How long will you be?” he asks as if he suddenly needs his computer.

“I don’t know, Dad.  Does it matter?”  His computer has barely warmed up.

“It’s eight cents a minute.”

For a second I am as indignant as he is about the expense, and then I do the arithmetic.  We’re sitting in a living room filled with antiques that he and my mother have collected.  Primitive paintings hang on every wall.  Rare duck decoys sit on top of the bookcases.  A collection of ornate hand-made glass paperweights lies on the coffee table.  Twenty minutes on his computer will cost $1.60, pocket change for him and me as well.  I laugh out loud to cover my outrage, and I promise to pay him for the minutes I use.  He humphs and walks out.  I let out a sigh and hope he overhears.

Tito has sent a message full of the tenderness I crave.  He signs off with a poem of love, and underneath, he writes the date and his full name.  I write to him in the barest of prose.  I tell him about the weather.  I describe how my day has passed, the things I have seen.  And ever so carefully, I send him a tiny portion of my love.

That evening my parents and I sit outside and watch the sunset from the back porch.  The sun sinks down on the water as we swat mosquitoes.  It’s cocktail hour.  I match my father drink for drink.  The gin makes us aggressive, and we trade snipes.  Finally we go in for supper before we hurt each other more.  I have cooked my father’s favorite dish, beef stroganoff.

And so the time passes, with my father and I growing sharper with each other every evening.  This is an old pattern for us, as old as my adolescence.  I never rebelled with drugs, boyfriends, or even friends in the turbulent 1960s.  It was enough for me to challenge my father’s assumptions, needling him away each night while Nonnie and my mother watched.  I think everyone breathed in relief when I went away to boarding school.

This visit is not much different, but there is one exception.  I am storing my anger now.  I resist the seduction of returning my father’s barbs with my own as I would in other years.  That energy I’m saving, for when I return to Tito and send him back to Carmen.

Chat

(chat)

I listen for the house to quiet and sleep to come to my father and mother.  I throw off the sheets and tiptoe downstairs to the pantry, to where the telephone is.  When I lift up the receiver the keypad lights up, and so do I.  My fingers move over the numbers they know so well, and I listen for the phone to ring.  For years I heard only my voice on the other end, “This is Rebecca, leave your message after the beep.”  Now it rings for Tito.

Mi amor,” he answers.  I can tell from the softness of his voice that he has waited all night for this call.  I’d like to invoke the bear of a man that I am going to leave.  I murmur soft words and hope they will stay him through the night.  I picture him stretched out on the bed we’ve come to share, in the darkness of Blissville.  “Te echo de menos.”  I miss you.

He asks me how I am.  “Difficult.”  I leave it at that.  My time here is too much to explain.  And he barely remembers my parents from that art opening now six months ago, though he knows about my mother’s illness.  We stay on the phone together, wordless.  The Maine night pulses with crickets.  Back in Blissville he must hear only the hum of traffic.  I listen to him breathe.

“Carmen wrote to me today.  Estabamos chateándonos.”

Chateándonos?”  I don’t recognize the word.  But anything to do with Carmen carries urgency, and I press the receiver to my ear.

Chateándonos.  Chat.  Chat.”

Over the phone it sounds like chat.Qué significa, chat?”

Correo electrónico chat.”

That he uses “chat” with Carmen fills me with stupid pleasure.  I have always considered it a trivial medium, relegated to children and teenagers no older than my nephews.  I overlook that colleagues use it, that even Tito engages with it nightly with his children, and his sisters.

“Do you remember our conversation about Carmen?”

I try to recall which of our many discussions about her he’s referring to.

“You were asking what she was doing in her free time and what she wanted to do.  And I didn’t know.  Well, I asked her.”

I never dreamed he would ask her that.  This was a conversation months ago.  I had been musing with him about what Carmen was doing now that he was gone and the children out at school all day.  Perhaps she felt some of the same freedom that I’d felt when I left my husband, when I’d started studying photography.  Maybe there was something she itched to study.  Maybe she wanted to work towards being financially independent.  These were my ways of pricking at her veneer.  I knew she wasn’t doing much with her time.

He coughs.  The dew-soaked lawn gleams silver in the moonlight.  “She doesn’t want to live with me.  She doesn’t want anything more to do with me.  She doesn’t love me anymore.”

This has come so suddenly, over the phone and in Spanish, that I distrust it immediately.  Listening is like that for me.  I listen for what I hope I’ll hear.  “Qué?” What?

He says it again for me, more slowly, more clearly.  “She told me she wants to be Carmen, known for herself, not la esposa de Tito.”  His voice is so faint he could be in Chile.

“But how can you be sure that was what she meant?”

“I saved the ‘chat’.”

Suddenly everything about chat makes sense.  But here on the phone with Tito, I have nothing to say.  Carmen has given me what I have wanted for so long, but I never imagined it, never prepared for it.  Tito catches his breath.  I can’t tell if he’s crying.  If he is, I’m helpless to comfort him.  I’m too dizzy myself.  One question follows another.  Why would she let Tito go?  Does she know something about him that I don’t?  And then I wonder.  Will she change her mind?

I look down at the telephone cord, twisted and knotted.  Tito’s voice grows dim again.  He’s talking, but I hear only the roar of my doubts in the stillness of the house.  Where do we go from here?

la Balsa

(the raft)

My father wades into the water in front of me, his pale, wide body balanced on top of his spindly legs.  He flicks his hands in the water, and just the way he does it, I can feel his impatience for me to join him.  Today is my last day in Maine and my last swim.

But right now all I want to do is wiggle my toes at the edge of the water and watch the butterflies in the sun.  They are sulfurs.  Each June they hatch, fluttering with wings of clear lemon yellow.  By the end of summer their wings have faded to white, the edges frayed.  These are the marks of time, I think.

My parents’ beach is nothing like a conventional beach with silken sand.  With boulders strewn along its edges, sea grass that creeps with every year, and a tiny stretch of flat, gray pebbles it almost doesn’t deserve to be called a beach, but we do.  I have already stubbed one toe on the rocky steps down and cut my other foot on a clamshell.  I let the salt water wash over them.  It soothes my little wounds.  The sun has been warming its surface all day long.  But three inches below, it’s Maine cold.  That is why getting into the water takes so long.   My father, now thigh-deep, turns around and shouts for me to hurry up.

“What is your rush?” I shout back.  He doesn’t turn around, but he is hard of hearing, so I can’t tell whether he heard me or if he’s ignoring me.  He takes another step.  The water now touches the edges of his baggy suit.

I have had enough idleness.  I take my first step into the water.  It wraps its chill around my ankles.  I have swum here with my parents since I was an infant.  When Nonnie and I were young, my father would leave us here with my mother and grandmother.  We swam and played on the beach while he sweltered in his Wall Street office in an era without air-conditioning.  When the tide was out, Nonnie and I collected sea glass and hunted for fossils.  And when we tired of that we searched for nests of crystals embedded in the boulders.  We spent our days by the water.  My father only joined us for the last two weeks of the summer.

The water numbs my ankles, and I take another step.  My father is now waist-deep.  He looks back at me, the water now on my calves.  “What’s the matter?  Scared?”

This is how we egg each other on each summer.  Sometimes, depending on how aggressive we’re feeling, we’ll splash the frigid water on each other.  The rules are subtle.  A little splashing is fine, but too much and it’s trespassing.  We nearly always cross boundaries in this game.

But today I am subdued with the weight of Tito’s news.  I inch my way to my father’s side.  Silver hair graces his sagging chest.  I, too, will grow old in ways that I cannot control, I think.  We don’t speak.  We look out toward the raft that floats in the distance.  I was seven when he and my mother made that raft.  I held the nails, and they hammered together the pieces.  I watched my father fit the Styrofoam underneath.  I wanted to help them paint it, but I was too little, they said.  They covered it in cobalt blue, darker than the skies overhead.  When they launched it, I stood high on the bank while they floated it out.  I could see them consider where to put it, and then they tossed out the anchor.  From where I stood it looked too close to the shore.  But once on the beach, I saw how far away it really was.  I tried to swim out to it, but I couldn’t make it.  My father had to carry me out there on his shoulders that first year.

The next year I managed to kick to the raft the whole way.  But once there, I couldn’t lift myself up on its top.  It was too high, and I wasn’t strong enough.  My father had to help me.  He hadn’t considered building steps.  He must have thought it too small for a ladder.  The following year I could both swim and get on it.  I had just learned to dive, back in Connecticut.  I knew to tuck my head in between my upraised arms before launching myself into the water.  But in Maine, the raft, tipsy even from my little weight, slipped out from under me when I pushed off its side, and I belly-flopped.

But for all its faults, the raft has always held its pull on me.  Even now, with its peeling paint, it does.  I can’t imagine our beach without it.

The sun dips behind a cloud.  I can feel a whisper of winter in the air and on my skin.  I look up at my father.  “Shall we?”  He dips his hands in the water and splashes the salty water over his arms.  He tells me this helps acclimate his body to the cold.  I copy him with less zeal.  The water is chilling on my exposed body.  A horsefly buzzes around my back, looking for a tender spot to sting.  I shake it off and plunge in, yelping as I go.  “What are you waiting for?  The water’s warm,” I shout back at my father when I come up for air.

He shakes his hands as if to ward me off.  But I don’t want to splash him today.  I tread water and watch him lower his body.  I am too cold to wait any longer.  I roll on my back and kick to the raft.  I can’t seem to swim fast enough to escape the cold.  I belt out the first song that comes to my mind.  “June is busting out all over,” I sing, my voice wobbling from the freezing water.  The old-fashioned ditty from Carousel is one that fills me with possibility.  “June, June, June,” I sing, as the refrain dies in the air.

But June is long gone.  Back then I was having my summer fling.  I may have resented Carmen’s hold on Tito, but I reaped its freedom.  I enjoyed the pleasures of his company and escaped all the responsibilities.  Perhaps it was an illusion, but I believed it.  But with her accession, he becomes mine.

I turn around to check where I am in relation to the raft.  It’s always farther than I think.  I windmill my arms through the water.  When I was an adolescent, I swam the backstroke.  One summer I brought home only blue ribbons.  I was undefeated until I reached the county championships.  My coach told me I could have won there too, but for not knowing how to do a flip turn.  I made up the distance in the next lap, but I lost by a finger.  In the end, it didn’t matter whether it had been a finger or a lap.  Losing is losing.

The raft falls behind me.  The cold and my restlessness drive me farther out.  I swim out until I feel tired, and then I stop and catch my breath.  I have left in the distance the markers of my youth.  The rock by which we dug for treasure one summer.  The fallen tree on which we played horses.  The point of land where a boy I didn’t like kissed me.  His kisses were wet and sloppy, nothing like what I’d imagined a first kiss to be.  I float on my back and catch my wind.  Above me scattered clouds hang suspended in the sky.  I once brought the boyfriend who taught me the birdcalls, the man I thought would propose to me, here.  One night he pulled out a dictionary of clouds.  We paged through the photographs, lingering on the skyscapes and the subtleties that differentiated one cloud from another.  These fat and fluffy clouds overhead look like alto cumulus.

As my strength returns, so does my queasiness about the future.  I turn over and swim harder, breathing now on every other stroke.  I swim until my arms and legs burn.  When I stop, the shore is just a line on the horizon on all sides.  I calm my breathing to listen.  I think I can hear my father’s cries in the distance, but without my glasses I can’t see him.  He will never hear my answering call, so I don’t bother.  I turn away from him and face the other shore.  Then I lower my head in the water and stroke towards it.  I have never swum this far out.

Suddenly I feel something brush my leg.  I tell myself it’s seaweed and swim on.  But I am unnerved.  I can’t stop imagining what it could have been, a bluefish, a sand shark, even a lobster suddenly lifted from the bottom, its claw outstretched and waiting.  I stop and look around again.  I am far away from my father, who I know is still waiting for me.  It takes everything in me not to panic.  I take a breath and head back.

I tell myself to think about Tito instead of what is underneath the water.  And as I do, the questions I’ve held back swarm.  Where are we going?  What do I want?  What does Tito want?  He is illegally here.  What will I do if something happens?

I lift my head from the water.  Between gasping breaths I hear only the cries of a few sea gulls.  Surely I’ve closed the distance to the shore by 100 yards or so.  But from here it looks no closer.   And I am so far from the shore.  If anything happened, my father would be helpless.  As for my mother, would she even recognize my absence?  My apprehensions exhaust me.

I turn over on my back and kick.  I try to think of nothing else but the clouds overhead.  When I am calm, I slide onto my stomach and force my arms through the water.   Each time I turn my head to breathe, I note my speed.  I am churning through the little waves.  I focus on a distant pine until it falls behind, a protruding boulder, a fallen oak lying along the shore, the old boathouse, and then the raft.  I pass them all and swim to the boulder where my father sits, waiting.

The next installment will be posted Tuesday, Dec 28.

Blissville: A memoir” (Installment 4, 12/21)

14.la.llamada

la Llamada

(the telephone call)

Venga conmigo a la lavandería y para comprar fruta.”  Come with me to the laundromat and to buy some fruit.  “Y para una tarjeta.”  And a phone card.  How romantic these chores sound in Spanish.

But I loathe errands almost as much as I hate cleaning.

No demorará  mucho,” he adds.  It won’t take much time.  Tito looks at me with such expectation that I accept.  His face radiates at the prospect of my companionship.  Even his thick, heavy body lightens as he lifts the laundry bag over his shoulder.  This is how we spend our Saturday evenings before night falls.

Saturdays are precious for Tito.  He has worked 52 hours.  On Saturday, the last day of his week, he works without a lunch break.  It makes a long week.  Often he takes a nap as soon as he arrives.  A couple of hours of rest before his weekend begins.  When he wakes he changes the sheets and sorts our clothes, separating the dirty from the clean, then the whites from the darks, and then he stuffs it all into a laundry bag.  Next he straightens the living room and vacuums.  He dusts.  Then he does the errands.  After all that, how can I not accompany him if this is what he wants?

We park under the subway.  We have dropped off the laundry and shopped for fruit together.  But I remain in the car while he dashes out to buy a phone card.  Phone cards are sold in New York City on every corner of every neighborhood.  They hang down in rows, stapled behind the cash register like Lotto cards, bright and vibrant, each card offering a different promise.  The Pan Africa card comes striped with the colors of the African National Congress—green, red, yellow, and black—and assures two hours of conversation to fifteen African nations.  Big Red is a solid red card with the world’s flags lined at its bottom.  It promises three hours of talking time anywhere in the continent of Asia.  Boss, splashed with the bodega colors of red, blue, and yellow, guarantees three hours to Ecuador, Colombia, and the rest of South America. But no matter what they advertise, there’s always fine print underneath.  Tito has tried them all, and in his opinion, only the Union City card gives him his money’s worth: a full two hours on a clear line to Chile for $5.  And, always looking for a bargain, he’s found a shop that sells it for $4.  So even though it’s out of the way, this is where Tito insists on buying his phone cards.

I watch him cross the boulevard and disappear into the news shop.  A minute later he comes out smiling, and I can see the card in his hand.  We wave to each other through the traffic.  I reach over to open the door, but Tito doesn’t cross with the other pedestrians.  He darts over to a pay phone instead.  I’d like to think he’s going to make a quick call to his mother, but most likely he’s going to call Carmen.  He freely makes calls to the rest of his family from the apartment.  But out of consideration for me, he avoids calling Carmen from there.  And maybe he also thinks it would betray her, too, if he called from the apartment.  But if he believes that, I don’t understand why he wants my company to watch him call her from the street.  Surely he knows this, too, will spark my resentment.

I am an old friend of jealousy.  After my marriage broke up, I was involved with a man who would recount an old love affair whenever he felt my attention drift away.  He hooked me back in with each tale.  It became a drug for both of us.  So many stories, so many loves!  A house filled with keepsakes from his amorous past.  There was the blue and white pitcher beside his bedside, a gift of courtship from a young woman he once fancied.  The Japanese wooden box that sat atop his bureau, a token from a violinist he once dated.  He didn’t display everything, but they always made their presence felt.  One day he uncovered a delicate watercolor of a flower, painted by the girlfriend before me.  It was exquisite in its simplicity.  “She’s brilliant,” he said.  I was overcome with jealousy.  I had no words.  Another woman might have walked away from a man like this.  Looking back, I think it was part of what held us together.  And yet, at some point it lost its allure.  Perhaps it had simply exhausted itself.  It no longer held attraction for me, and soon after, our relationship fell apart.

Afterwards, I promised myself that I would do things differently if I were lucky enough to have another try at love.  Everyone comes with a history, I reminded myself.  I didn’t need to dwell on the past, and I didn’t need to know everything.

But here I am again drowning in jealousy.  I should have known better than to go out with Tito today.  This is not the first time I have watched him call Carmen from a public phone.  I look around the car and reach for a yellowed newspaper on the back seat.   I unfold it and try to read, but I see only words.  I peek back at Tito huddled against the phone.  I watch him dial the local number on the back of the card.  Then, more slowly, the string of numbers that he’s scratched off.  Finally, the long number that will connect him to the other hemisphere and link him to Chile.

His face is animated with the first hello.  I return to my paper, but I can’t even read its headlines.  I glance at the car’s clock.  The digits wink back at me.  Only two minutes have passed.  I look around the parking lot, at the vendors and people passing through on a late Saturday afternoon.  More minutes pass.  A subway overhead stops and passengers descend.  I study their tired faces and imagine their lives.  More minutes pass. Tito has his back to me now, and his posture leaves no clues.  I pick up the newspaper again and page through it, looking now at the pictures and then the bylines.  I didn’t have any photos in the paper that day.  Twenty minutes pass this way.

When Tito returns he is full of restless energy.  I ask him how Carmen is, and he says she’s fine.  She’s managing with the money he sends, though sometimes little emergencies call for more.  I want to know more, of course, but I stop myself.  Carmen is his wife, and this is their business.

I know his calls to her, in fact, to everyone, are filled with the events of our life together—the exhibitions we see, the movies we watch, the parts of New York we explore.  I am the only element missing from his tales.  I am invisible to all of his loved ones in the southern hemisphere.

As for Carmen, I’ve made Tito promise he would never tell her about me.  It’s the only demand I’ve made of him, and he’s honored it.  She shouldn’t suffer jealousy unnecessarily.  Tito should carry that secret and burden.  But Tito hasn’t told anyone in his family about me, and I’ve come to resent it.  While I protect Carmen, I erase myself.  I may be important to him up here, but down in Chile I am invisible.  It rankles.

When he returns I suggest he make all his calls to Chile from home.

Por qué?  You know my phone calls upset you.”

“This is your house as much as mine.  The telephone is your connection to your children and to your family.  Lo insisto.”  I insist on it.

He frowns as he mulls over the idea.  Maybe he fears a backlash of my jealous moments.

“You can have all the privacy you want.  I won’t go into the bedroom when you call. I’ll do dishes, read, or watch television while you call Carmen.  I will be fine.  De verdad.”

He nods and agrees to the new plan.

My apartment is a walk-through of rooms without doors.  Only the bathroom and bedroom have doors, and they are almost never shut.  When Tito makes calls from the bedroom— whether to his sisters, cousins, mother, children, or Carmen—he leaves the bedroom door open,.  I try to relax in the kitchen at the other end of the apartment or work on my billing.  Because I never know who he’s calling, I position myself so I can’t see into the bedroom.  It’s my way of curbing my jealousy.  But it hardly matters, because wherever I sit, I’m still monitoring the tenor of his voice.  Most of the time I can discern whom he’s talking with by his tone.  If it’s low and steady he’s speaking with Ayelén, and if it’s boisterous, he’s on the phone with Matías.  When he’s all business I know he has to be talking with his sister or a colleague or any of the myriad people from his city that he stays in touch with.  These days I’ve started hearing an impatience in his voice.  When he comes out he tells me he’s been talking with Carmen again.  Naturally I’m a little more animated after those calls.  Only when I hear his voice go sweet, whisperingly soft, do I wonder about the wisdom of my new arrangement.  But there’s no going back.

I try not to ask him about her.  But there are days I can’t help myself.  She’s fine doesn’t tell me if he loves her more than me.  She misses me stings, and I can’t bear to think of how he answers her.  I’m in wait for the occasions when he tells me she needs more money.  They make all my nosiness worth my efforts.  I may not be a great money manager, but at least I’m independent.

One weekend Nonnie invites me to her country house in the Berkshires for her annual summer party.  It happens to be the hottest weekend of the summer.  But I’m not ready to introduce Tito to the family, and I drive up by myself.  In my guilt for leaving him behind while I party, I promise to buy him a phone card so at least he can talk with his family.  But I forget in the rush of leaving.  Used cards litter the apartment.  Surely some of them have leftover minutes, I tell myself.  And if he runs out, I have told him to call Chile direct.  How much could it cost?  The phone companies are always promising low rates.

This is our first weekend apart since he moved in.  When I return the next day, he tells me how lonely he was.  When I ask him what he did, he tells me he spoke to his mother and to his son and to his daughter.  He talked with his sisters, his nieces, and his nephews.  He phoned old friends in Chile.  He exhausted every phone card he had.  Past midnight, when all the stores had closed, he called direct, to the home in Valparaíso.  He confesses this to me as I’m unpacking my suitcase.  I am only half listening.  I tell him that was what I wanted.  After all, I have just spent the weekend eating pâté and drinking champagne.  He kisses me in happy relief.

We resume our days and weekends as before.  Then the phone bill arrives.  I glance at it, ready to pay the usual amount, but when I look down I see that it’s over $400.  I gasp.  Surely this is a mistake.  I study it more carefully.  Down at the bottom I spot rows of calls to Valparaíso, Chile, the reason for the spiked cost.  It takes me a while to remember that these were the calls made over the weekend of my absence.  I look again.  The numbers, I realize, are the trail of Tito’s affections.  So whom[who?] did he call?  I notice that one number appears more than any other.  My fingers tingle as I realize it must be Carmen’s.  I page through his papers for his tattered phone book, but I can’t find it.  I pick up the bill again.  He has talked with that person both days, several times each day, no shorter than ten minutes, no longer than twenty.  I turn on his computer, where he maintains a list of his contacts from home.  None of the numbers match up.  I check through his drawers again.  I grow itchier with each search.  The wisdom of phone cards is clearer than ever.  I straighten his papers and turn off his computer.  Then I pay the bill and put it away.

More weekends pass.  I let Tito make his weekly run for a phone card by himself.  Back at the apartment he calls Chile several times a week.  Lately I am hearing more irritation in his voice.  Later, when I ask him about it, he tells me that Carmen wants to give Ayelén a lavish party for her quinceñera.  Tito had promised her he would be home for that special day when she turns fifteen, symbolic of becoming a woman.  We both know he will be breaking his promise.  “I would give Ayelén anything, and she knows it.  But what Carmen is planning, I can’t afford.  I told her I will send what I can.”

I’m secretly pleased Tito and Carmen are arguing.

“But I can’t afford to upset Carmen, either.  She’s the mother of my children, and she takes good care of them.”  Tito tells me this with such earnestness that I want to mutter a spell to exorcise her from the apartment.  I try to comfort him while wondering if Carmen could comfort him more.

One Saturday Tito calls to let me know he’s going out with friends to watch a soccer match in a bar.  “Disfrútelo,” I tell him.   Enjoy.  I’m happy he isn’t dependent on me for all his social interactions.  I’m thrilled he has friends for things like this.  I tell him to take his time, and add, as I always do, “Cuídate.”

I settle in with the afternoon before me, with responsibilities to no one.  Just me, the cat, and my books.  A sweet silence descends on the apartment.

In the middle of the afternoon the telephone rings.  Normally I answer it saying my name, since home doubles as my office, but something about the hour today prompts me to say only, “Hello.”

Hola, Tito está?”  The woman’s voice is round and rich.  Is Tito there?

No, no está,” I say.

Cuándo vuelve él?”  When is he coming back?

For any student of Spanish, the telephone presents the difficulty of being a disembodied voice lacking gesture and place, the normal cues for a listener.  In Spanish class we practiced by listening to conversations on tape, then to telephone answering machines.  Despite not being especially proficient at them, I loved these exercises.  Even now when I manage a conversation on the phone, I am elated.  Today is one of those moments.

No sé,” I say.  “No sé nada.”  I don’t know anything.  The words fall out of my mouth without even thinking.  I am protecting Tito by instincts alone.  “Quién habla?”  Who’s calling?

La esposa.”  The wife.

Her words hang in the ether for a second, and I say, “Lo siento.  No sé donde está.”  I’m sorry, I don’t know where he is.

And then she hangs up.  I don’t think we even said chao.

Guapa

(gorgeous)

I have a photograph that stands on my desk.  There are six of us standing, shoulder to shoulder, in that softly focused photo.  We are the survivors of my first Spanish class, and we have just celebrated our last class together.  I have since lost touch with my classmates.  It was five years ago.  But with this photo, I hold on to the memory of our small group.  We are a teacher, banker, librarian, union organizer, saleswoman, and photojournalist.  We are tall, short, thin, plump, dark, and light.  We are a little of everything—blonde, brunette, and redhead.  We have learned all the words that describe us, from our professions to our looks.  We are radiant in that photograph, and that is what we share.  We are guapa.  We are gorgeous.

I grew up during the years of feminism.  But even before its tenets reached my consciousness, I chose to spend my time on homework instead of makeup.  It was what I knew how to do.  I could even excel there, whereas I didn’t know how to make myself beautiful, much as I coveted it.  And I didn’t dare make the attempt.  What if I tried but failed?  I didn’t have the confidence to withstand such an outcome.

Perhaps in New York City the currency of beauty is especially apparent.  I marvel at the ease with which beautiful women move through the streets and through their lives.  I see it in Nonnie, who is blessed with both beauty and brains.  A part of me envies her and all stunning women.  But envy is the path of sorrow, so mostly I avoid mirrors.  They show me the person I don’t want to see, a woman with a stubby nose, little eyes, and receding chin.

But if I am candid, I admit I haven’t let go of the hope of being beautiful.  In fleeting moments of optimism I see in my reflection a graceful woman.  My eyes are deeply set, even more so when I’m tired, and when I wash my face in front of the mirror at night, I can look a little French, whatever that is.

Tito called me linda on our first date.  On our second, he called me superlinda.  I didn’t have to look it up to know that it meant pretty.  Tito calls his niece linda, too.  I knew it was a special word.

But next to guapa, linda has always felt a little ordinary.  Maybe it’s my association with the name, Linda, prosaic compared to my own name from the Old Testament, beautiful and strong Rebecca who was desired by many, faithful and courageous Rebecca who married Isaac and journeyed hundreds of miles to his land, intelligent and resourceful Rebecca who ensured wise leadership for their lands.  How could linda compare?

So I campaigned for guapa.  I used each date as an excuse to show off a new dress.  Linda, Tito pronounced. I painted my fingernails.  Muy linda! I dusted off my high heels. Más linda! I applied eyeliner, mascara, and rouge.  Linda, linda, linda. A month passed, and I ran out of outfits.

Tito knew none of this.  That we were in love was what he knew.  Surrender is not in my nature, but inside I reached an accord.  I would stop listening for guapa.  But I still continued to dress up for him.  I reached into my wardrobe and mixed and matched.

In the back of my mind I always had the image of Carmen in Tito’s photograph of her, with her high cheekbones and Cupid mouth and elegant scarf.  In my mind she was guapa.   “Why do you never call me guapa?” I complained one day to Tito.

“Oh, mi amor. I am much more guapo!”  He laughed, playing, even flirting with me as he pretended to misunderstand my meaning.  Tito does not normally act or talk this way.  I interpreted his silliness as a game he played with Carmen.

He never says much about her despite my queries.  I know little about his seventeen years with her and his subsequent two love affairs during their separation.  But I believe he was faithful to her during their marriage because that is what he says.  As for the years before he was married, I’ve probed and teased.  He admits nothing except that they were full.  “You have to remember, mi amor, back then I was a musician and más o menos guapo.”

So I started a new crusade for guapa. By now I was spellbound by the word.  “Why do you never call me guapa, Tito?”

“Because, my love, you are linda.”

“But I want to be guapa.”

“But, my dear one, I call you linda because you are beautiful.”  He saw my disbelief and shook his head sadly.  “Guapa is something superficial.  Linda is from within.  Guapa is your looks.  Linda is your soul.  That is why you are linda, Rebecca.”

And so we went round and round.  I could have relinquished my quest, knowing that he calls Ayelén and all his loved ones linda. For them he would only use the sweetest of words.  But still, I couldn’t let go.  Tito’s love for me is surely the most patient.

I turned to my work and friends for consolation when he still didn’t call me guapa.  They reminded me about my warmth, artistry, and intelligence, and my hunger for that magic word receded.

Then one day I ran into a dear, older friend from years before.  She had time, and so did I, so we stopped for a cup of coffee.  I had known she was born in Uruguay and had grown up in Colombia, but during the years of our close contact I barely spoke Spanish.  When I started studying Spanish, I couldn’t manage well enough to hold a conversation.  We always reverted to English.

But Spanish had become my second language, and I was eager to try with her again.  We covered the superficial changes in our lives, and I told her about Tito.  Suddenly I found myself confessing all of my yearnings to be gorgeous, my desires to be ravishing and adored as only beautiful women are.  It just poured out of me, and soon I was weeping.  I wanted to be guapa, and linda was not that.  Only guapa was.  And Tito thought I was linda.  That simple word had become the vessel that held all my insecurities.  She listened until she could bear no more.

“Rebecca,” she called, bringing me back to the booth in the coffee shop. “Oye, amiga, you are not guapa.”

I stared back at her.  I could feel my face crumble again and my shoulders shake.

She softened her voice and leaned in to me.  “I would never call you guapa, Rebecca.”

I put my head in my hands.  I wanted her confirmation, not her betrayal.

“I use guapa for someone dark-haired,” she continued gently.  “You don’t have dark hair.  Your skin and your hair are light.  You are linda, Rebecca.”

I wiped my cheeks and looked back at her.

“Besides,” she went on, “guapa is for someone who spends a lot of time on her face, who cares more about what she looks like than what she does.   Linda is for someone pure.  It means beautiful in a pure way.  It is used for beauty that shines through a person’s core.  You are linda, Rebecca.”

la Habitación

(the bedroom)

A jersey here, socks there.  A bottle of aftershave above the sink.  A crusted toothbrush, so full of his personality, both soft and strong, next to mine.  This is how Tito’s things have started appearing around the apartment.  Some have arrived without preamble.  For others, Tito has asked for my permission, his dark eyes peering into mine.  His clothes lie in a stack on a chair in the bedroom.  His toiletries rest in a brown case nestled in the towels.  His laptop lies on the desk across from mine in my study.  They make me half ecstatic, half uneasy.  Officially, because this is how we describe it to each other, he is spending single nights here.  But unofficially, he is sleeping here six out of seven evenings.  His belongings have become my solace and my burden, entwining me to him more with each addition.

One day Tito announces that his friend Pancho will have a room available for him to rent.  My stomach tightens.  Part of me wonders if he is already tiring of me, while the other part knows that was our arrangement from the start.  When I commented on the number of nights he was spending, he assured me this was only until he found his own place.  And I exhaled, knowing this was temporary.  Living with a married man would have been way beyond my limits.

“Just $400 a month, with two windows that look out on trees, and kitchen privileges.  Es habitación.”  It’s a bedroom.

My own bedroom will feel empty when he goes.

“We just have to wait until the guy who’s renting leaves.  Pancho says he’s going back home, to Argentina.  He just needs time to get everything in order before he leaves.”

I shrug.  The newspapers are predicting a collapse [due to](?) that country’s staggering inflation.  I can’t believe this man will return now.

“Pancho thinks the room will be vacant in a week or two.”

But a week passes, and the failure of Argentina’s banks is splashed across all the headlines.  The country is bankrupt.   “Maybe el Argentino isn’t planning on leaving yet.”

“Pancho says he is,” Tito says.

Over the next week we watch Argentina’s economy spin into a freefall.  At work, I look over editors’ shoulders at the pictures coming out of Buenos Aires.  Lines of anxious men and women stretch for blocks outside of Citibank and other banks.  Demonstrations that begin peacefully in the morning turn into riots by the afternoon.  I make more room for Tito instead.  I have always thought of my apartment as luxurious for one and cramped for two.  But somehow, with Tito, there is enough room for both of us.  It helps that Tito does what I can never seem to manage for myself—clean.  He hangs up my clothes and creates order out of my papers and books.  And when he comes home from work, he vacuums.  He even dusts.

The following week news arrives of a famine in the north of Argentina.  Chaos is now everywhere in that country, from the warm swamps of the north to the barren, frigid south.  In the cities robberies and kidnappings become commonplace.  But Tito discounts these things.  Soon, he tells me.

One Saturday morning, Tito asks if I can drive him to the Bronx.  He wants to pick up the remainder of his things.  He wants to be ready for when la habitación vacates.

How can I say no?  We drive up, Tito brimming with hope.  I park, and he disappears into the building.  Twenty minutes later he emerges dragging two large suitcases, looking like every other misshapen suitcase I have seen tumbling down the ramp at the International Arrivals building at JFK, frayed and fat, bursting at their seams, stuffed with mementos from homelands around the world.

We muscle them into the car and head back to Queens.  They are so heavy I let him lift them out of the car and lug them up the stairs, their weight thumping on each step up the flight.  He hauls them into the bedroom and stacks them at my feet.  He darts about the apartment in his excitement in reuniting with his possessions.  He was now opening drawers, moving quickly between the bureau, his desk, and the suitcases, rearranging his life here, now, with me, in New York, in my bedroom.  He unzips the top suitcase and pulls back the flap to reveal his clothes, all neatly folded.

These are Tito’s clothes, I realize, dark and foreign and mysterious.  One by one he sets them on the bed next to me, readying them for the bottom two drawers of my bureau, which I have cleaned out for him.

But for now they lie in a display across my bed.  Surely they carry scents of Chile.  I close my eyes and put my nose to the stack of shirts nearest to me.  It smells of his cologne.  I want to inhale his country, its mountains and its sea.  I can’t tell through the musk if this is a whiff of Tito’s former life or not.  I spot a tiny splash of red on the shirt.  It’s a little red horse with a polo player atop embroidered onto the pocket.  I reach for the collar with as casual a gesture as I can manage.  I don’t want to look as if I am snooping.  But the label is just as I expected, Ralph Lauren.  Do they have Ralph Lauren in Chile?  I lift it up.  All of the instructions for cleaning are in English.  I check the shirt below.  It’s another Ralph Lauren.  I turn to his pants, refolded and ready to go in the drawer.  I finger the edge of its waist.  I am looking for any sign of exotic Chile.  Banana Republic.

I try to hold back my judgments, but I can’t help it.  A sense of unfairness wells up inside of me.  At my own insistence, I cover our expenses—the rent, the telephone, the electricity, the car repairs, and the insurance.  Tito earns barely enough to support his family in Chile and to build savings for his return.  Besides, I argued, I would have to pay for all those things with or without him.  He protested, and we reached for an accord.  He would pay for the groceries and the occasional meal in a restaurant.

But to learn that he was spending his savings on clothes like these, stings.  “Tito, since when do you like clothing with labels?  Eso no es plástico?”  I am referring to his favorite song by Rubén Blades, who sings against globalization and commercialism.  Ella era una chica plástico de esas…sudan chanel number three…el era un muchacho plástico de esos…She was a plastic young woman with her Chanel No. 3, he was a plastic young man, the song says.  To me, it preaches, but Tito loves its message.  And now for the first time, I embrace it too.

He holds his Ralph Lauren shirt against his chest.  “This is my favorite color.”

I stroke the smooth, fine cotton that probably won’t pill after laundering like all of my shirts do.  “But Tito, how can you afford it?  Where did you buy it?”

“Ahhh,” he says, and I can hear, just from his voice, that these shirts, too, have their own story.  He looks up at me.  “You know how outside the deli there’s a pupusa seller?”

I remember her well, the wrapped woman who sells Salvadoran cornmeal snacks, from buckets wrapped in tin foil, stacked in a laundry cart that she wheels from block to block.  I assumed she was a bag lady until Tito explained what she was doing.

“And how on Saturdays there’s the man who goes door to door to the garages selling Chilean empanadas?”

I nod again.  I’ve never seen him, but I’ve bit into his plump, juicy turnovers filled with meat, raisins, quarters of hard-boiled egg, and whole olives.  Every other Saturday Tito brings one back for me.

“Then there are sellers with CD’s, DVD’s, toys.  All sorts of things.”  He reaches for a CD lying on a table. “See?  I got this one the other day.”  It’s the CD of “Caballeros de la Salsa”, Gentlemen of Salsa, the very one we had been listening to for the past week.  “He wanted five but I got him to give it to me for four.”

I smile at his pride in negotiating for a dollar.

Tito leans in.  “Eso es el subterráneo,” he says.  “El Underground.”

I nod, vaguely understanding.  I have never been part of any underground.

Tito climbs on the bed next to me.  “In the time of the dictator, I was both underground and legitimate.”

I wonder if he is trying to blame his complicity on Pinochet.  Surely he knows theft had nothing to do with politics.

“One thing they could never take away was our underground.”

I look at him sideways.

Mira, I worked in the port.  A box here, a box there.  Who misses it?  That’s what I did to make ends meet.  It was like this—I’d buy a bundle of jeans, or maybe someone would give them to me, and Carmen would sell them.  We earned a little something, and the customer got something else that they couldn’t have afforded elsewhere.  It’s expensive to buy Calvin Klein’s in Chile, much more than here.  What’s so bad about that?”

I don’t answer.  I can’t believe he is so naïve, that he hasn’t recognized the economics of it all.  Doesn’t he know that the company always wins?  That the company passes the cost of losses to customers like me?  I shake my head.

But he is oblivious to my disapproval.  “So, we have a little trading here, too.”  He tells me this in the delighted voice of having found something that is practically free.

“A couple of weeks ago, this tipo came by selling Gap shirts, Banana Republic pants, and colognes.”

I realize they must be the spoils of a truck hijacking.

“These shirts?”  He points to the ones with the little red horseman.  “Only ten dollars!  I bought two and I got one extra to send home to m’hijo, Matías.”

He looks up at me.  “Junior bought three pairs of pants.  Simón bought two.”  He knows I’ll never get angry at these men who work six days a week with no healthcare.  Why shouldn’t they want to wear designer labels?  I’d like them too.  Like the workers at el taller, I work without benefits.  I pay my taxes gladly, and in my spare time I volunteer in the neighborhood, planting and cleaning our little green parks and corners.  I am exhausted with my own frugality and righteousness.  I brush my hand over the smooth, silky cotton of the Ralph Lauren shirt, cool and luscious on my fingertips, a luxury I deserve.  “Do they sell women’s clothes?” I ask, the question slipping out before I can stop it.

Tito smiles.  “Oh, mi amor, I have never seen that.”

One Saturday morning while Tito heads off to work, I drive to Ikea.  Even though he’s leaving, I have decided he needs his own bureau.  I have measured the space and have just the place for it. And when he moves, he can take it with him.

When he arrives, I show him his present and apologize that it’s in pieces.  “You have to assemble it, mi amor.”

Tito just beams.  I can see he is overwhelmed by my gesture.  He opens the box on the living room floor and lays out all the flat pieces, tools, and instructions.  The array is dizzying, but Tito is unfazed.  I blow him a kiss and leave to do the grocery shopping.

When I come back, what was a vast collection of boards and hardware has become a bureau.  It stands gleaming white in the center of the living room.  “Te esperaba,” he says.  I was waiting for you.

Together we lift it and fit it into its space.  Tito arranges on the bed all the piles of his clothes that have been  in the corners of the bedroom.  “I want you to have a drawer too.”

“But you need it, it’s for you.”

He looks at me with those dark liquid eyes of his.  “I want our clothes to be together.”

“But you need the space.”

He opens the top drawer.  “Tuya.”  Yours.

I hesitate.

“You can put your underwear, your scarves, things like that.  The other four drawers are enough for all of my things.”

“Are you sure?”

He smiles.  And so we fill the bureau, I with my personal things in the top drawer, he with his shirts, socks, underwear, and pants in the drawers below, and incredibly, everything fits.  We have accomplished my goal, and I have moved on to cooking.

When we go to bed that night, the bedroom looks cozy in a way it never did before.  On the top of the bureau Tito has set his bottle of cologne, a few of my jewelry boxe, and a small collection of pictures that he has found frames for.  There is a black and white photo of his parents, posed with the harbor of Valparaíso in the background, one of Ayalén in her school uniform, standing with the school band, and another of Matías in the hometown soccer team’s green, with his arms up in a cheer.  And in between them all is a picture of me, taken several years ago, long since buried among my things, a photo full of color, with the blue frames of my glasses and the pale green sweater, the flush on my cheeks and my blue eyes and my red hair and the wide smile that covers my face.  Where Tito found it, I have no idea.  But I am there, sitting among his family at the center of his bureau.

Fuegos Artificiales

(fireworks)

In the days leading up to July 4th, we watch an exodus of Manhattanites wending their way through Blissville, their bikes, boats, and beach toys balanced atop their SUVs.  They clog our streets and honk their way out to the highway that leads to their summer homes out in the Hamptons.  Usually they bring on little pangs about my missing out on some existential party, but this year the cocoon of bliss that I’ve created with Tito insulates me from my envy.  When the holiday arrives we may have no plans, but I feel fine.  The only thing I want to do is show Tito the fireworks.

When dusk falls we walk west, out of Blissville and towards the river, about a mile away, where there is a clear view of Manhattan.  We will have plenty of time to secure a space.  On the way I try to explain what we’re about to see, but he doesn’t understand.  I’m certain there’s a word for them in Spanish, but I don’t know it, so I describe them with my body.  I push my fists high up into the air and open my hands wide.  “They go, ‘Boom!  Boom!’”

Tito’s eyes light up.  “Fuegos artificiales,” he breathes.

Fuegos artificiales,” I echo.  Artificial fire.  “We celebrate our Independence Day with fuegos artificiales.”

Tito nods.  “In Valparaíso we have fireworks each New Year’s Eve.  Extraordinarios.  The whole horizon fills with fuegos artificiales.  Imagínate.”

“They are amazing in New York, too.  They set them up on barges out on the river,” I say.

Tito pats my hand.  “In Valparaíso we have thirty to fifty barges.”

I shake my head. “You have to see them here first before you can compare them.  The fireworks in New York are spectacular.  A single burst can pop again and again.”

“In my city you can stand and see fireworks from both ends of the bay.”

“Here, the fireworks go up against the skyline of Manhattan.”

“In Valparaíso los fuegos artificiales go on for an hour or more.”

I don’t answer because we have reached the parking lot and it is packed with earlier comers.  I try to negotiate for a spot to stand.  When I find something big enough for the two of us, I spread out a blanket.  I gesture to the crowds all around us.  “This is what I love about the fireworks here in New York.  I don’t know if it’s the same in Chile.  But here I’m almost always by myself, and it doesn’t matter.  Each time I feel part of this grand community as we watch and ooooh and ahhhh together.”

This is my first time seeing fireworks with a loved one.  I am overflowing with silly happiness.  “Just wait.  You’ll see.  On this day, no matter our race, politics, or language —we’ll all be together.  And when they all finally come to an end, after the grand finale, there will a moment of hush, as if we can’t believe it’s over.  And then we’ll clap, and in the open air our claps will sound so small compared to the booms we’ve heard for the past half hour or so.  You wait, mi querido.”

Tito nods, but I can’t tell what he’s thinking or if it’s the same in Valparaíso.  He has grown quiet.  I wonder if he’s aching for home.  I hold his hand and stroke it, eager to fill his void.

“I want so much to show you my city.  I want to show you its hills, its neighborhoods, where Pablo Neruda lived, the port where I used to work.  And I especially want you to see our fireworks on New Year’s Eve.”  His eyes are glistening.

I want to pull him away from his memories of Valparaíso and back to me, here in Long Island City at the edge of the river waiting for the fireworks.  But I just listen.  We stand together while the children around us shriek.  The men joke and the women gab, and all around us the light fades.

He turns around to me.  “Come to Chile with me.”

“Go to Chile with you?  You are inviting me?”  We’ve never gone anywhere in anything other than the car, let alone on an airplane.  The flight to Chile is long, twelve hours, but it would be brief sitting next to him, where we could kiss in the back of the plane, him by the window, me on the aisle.  We could eat airplane food and watch movies together, he in Spanish, I in English.  Then in the darkness, I could put my head on his shoulder and we would sleep.  Outside the stars would shine down upon us.  And at dawn, when the plane landed, we would walk out into the bright air of Santiago, the capitol of his country.  On the tarmac beyond, Tito would find his family among the throngs, waving to him and to me, welcoming him and welcoming us.  Then Tito would lead me over and introduce me to them.  I would meet his mother, his sisters, his children.  I stop.  Where would Carmen be?

“Well, we wouldn’t go together.  I’d go first, maybe in late November or early December, and you’d come later, for New Year’s.  Just in time for the fireworks.”  He shines his satisfied smile at me.

I’ve dreamed of going to Valparaíso, ever since I met Tito.  Sometimes I think I’m as in love with his city as I am with him.  I’ve imagined holding his hand while we wander down the crooked streets and by its promenades, through its salty markets and smoky bars. But where will I be if Carmen is there?  When the fireworks blast off, will she stand next to him while I remain behind them, submerged in the crowds?  Whom will he rush to, to kiss at midnight?  Maybe he would station me on one of the other hills that overlook the bay, leaving me to return to an empty hotel room  while he strolls back to Cerro Alegre with Carmen.

But he would miss me too.  I can picture it all clearly, Tito caught in a web of his own, racing through the day and the night, between Carmen and me.  It almost makes me giddy to think of him all sweaty and breathless, trying to please two women.

I sample this idea of his, rolling it around my tongue and rattling it along my teeth like I would the pit of a cherry, its sweetness long nibbled off.  I’ve indulged Tito’s musings, about loving me and loving her, many times.  Tonight my patience is finished.  I am emboldened by the happy couples and families who surround us.  “You’re going to run back and forth between Carmen and me?  That’s no way to treat someone you love.  That’s just …” and I stop, searching for the strongest word I can find in Spanish.  Cruél, bárbaro, maldito, malhecho, I can never tell how potent they are, and the Spanish book that is supposed to ratchet my skills to the next level is at home, out of reach for tonight.   “Sadístico,” I finally say, hoping this will puncture his fantasy once and for all.

Tito stands by my side, motionless and contained.  Even in the dark I sense him distancing himself from me.  My evening of utter harmony has slipped away.  Sadness and regret wash over me.

I take a breath.  I cannot let this night that was meant to be perfect slide away from me.  Maybe I can still patch the rift between us.  “Mi amor, when you tell me you want me to visit you while you continue to live with Carmen, it hurts me.  I know you don’t mean to do that, but….”  The first fireworks go up with a long hiss and then a boom.  It flowers into a burst of glitter.  Tito stands by my side, his face upturned and blank.  I can’t even tell if he heard what I had explained with all the delicacy I could muster.  A cheer goes up around us, but Tito and I are mute.  The air crackles.  The sky fills with sparkles of light streaming down.  Maybe if I let him be he will come around.

More fireworks go up, until the sky is blazing.  They blast into the air over the elegant outline of Manhattan.  It’s just like the lyrics of our anthem, but with fireworks, not bombs, on this first 4th of July since September 11th.  Hope shines everywhere on the faces around me.  I look over at Tito.  His face has softened too.

With each series of bangs I anticipate the finale, but the fireworks go on and go on.  They open into bursts and flames that transform into stars and stripes.  And with each rocket, something new explodes into the sky.   Smiley faces shimmer down on us.  Then a burst, and we are showered with baby, pink hearts.  A flare explodes into chrysanthemums.  One after the other, fireflies, palm trees, ringed planets, and tiny bows glitter in the air in gold, silver, violet, turquoise, and neon orange.  The finale is upon us.  I grab Tito and wrap my arms around him.  I can feel his heart beat in my hands.  The sky is lit up from all the sparkles floating in the air.  When they fade, everyone is hushed from the spectacle.  Only smudges of smoke remain, suspended in the night air.  On an unspoken cue, we clap.  The sound is lost in the vast sky, but no one cares.  Slowly it dies down and chatter fills the void.  All around us people are packing up.  I turn to Tito and whisper in his ear, “Cómo pareció?”  How was it?

He nods.  “Lindo, muy lindo.”  He looks into my eyes and I think I see tears in them.  He touches my face, my hair, my neck, and my shoulder.  Without saying anything, he puts his fingers on my back and guides me through the crowds.

At home we’re quiet and tender with each other.  I prattle as I put away the dishes.  It takes me a while to notice that he’s said nothing since we’ve arrived.  But I am still feeling righteous, unwilling to take back my words.  And even though I know the answer, I ask him what is the matter.  I want to break his silence, talk it out and return to how we were when we started out this night.

He shakes his head.

“Speak to me, please.”

He looks away.  I stand in front of him and hold out my hands to him.  But he steps by without even brushing against me.  My fingers grow cold as they always do when I’m scared.

I am too familiar with the weapons of fighting.  The man I married used them all.  In those years people were just starting to talk about “domestic violence.”  It seems a feeble description for the stinging insults and smacks I received.  Even so, I couldn’t admit that I was its victim.  I was too enmeshed in proving my love for him.  Long after the bruises faded I tasted the bitterness of his abuse.  They filled my body, and eventually they inhabited every room of the house.

Then one day he called while I was at work.  He was packing for a trip to Los Angeles, and he was looking for his razor.  I told him I had thrown it out.  It was broken.  He let out such vitriol and obscenities I had to hold the receiver away from my ear.  I was shaking when I hung up.  I took my time heading home.  I had to be sure he had gone.

The house was quiet when I arrived.  But the marks of his rage were everywhere.  He had ripped my drawings from the walls—for those were the days before photography, when I drew instead—and they lay scattered all over the floor, in the hall, the living room, the bedroom.  He had walked over them and left the prints of his sneakers on their surface. I gathered my drawings in my arms and wept.

I could predict the arc of his anger, the violence and cold silence that followed, sometimes lasting days.  And after, his remorse and all the apologies he would make.  His violence and ensuing rue were imprinted on him, and nothing I could do would change him.  In a moment of clarity that has never left me, I saw that my only option was to leave him.  I made plans that day.  It was several weeks before I found a place to stay.  The day I left I waited until he had gone to work, and I packed the car and drove away.  I never went back.  With the help of friends and a therapist, I have tried to change how I live and love.  But even so, sometimes my progress looks like a sin curve.  I just like to picture the hills and valleys as being smaller.

But as much as I know about the language of conflict, this is my first fight with Tito.  So I don’t know his cues or how he argues or resolves resentments.  And I certainly don’t understand his rejection.  I start to cry and hope my tears will soften him and bring the Tito I know back to me.  But Tito only sits down on the sofa and closes his eyes.

Tu sofá,” I say in between sniffles.

Mi cama,” he says.  He startles me.  I realize suddenly that he is planning to sleep on it.  This will be the first time we have slept apart from one another in the apartment.

I stand up and hold out my hand once more.  “Please, por favor, please come to bed.”

He shakes his head.

I panic and sit down again.  “What are you going to do?”

“I’m tired.  I’m going to lie here.”

“But, but, but.”  I can hear myself stuttering.  “What about tomorrow?”  It comes out as a squeak.

He makes some kind of sound.

I raise my voice.  “Tomorrow, then what will you do?”

He opens his eyes.  “Mujer, I don’t know.”  And he shuts them again and rolls over.

“Does that mean you’re moving out?”  Another woman might have let him be, waiting until whatever emotion he is feeling passes.  But I have always accelerated my fights.  The sooner for them to explode and pass, I’ve reasoned, despite the evidence to the contrary.

I stand and wait for him to shake his head and tell me not to be so ridiculous, that of course he’s not planning to leave.

Tito only nods, and a little frown creases his forehead.  All I want to do is press it out with my finger and return to where we were, before I uttered that stupid idea.  He says nothing.  I let out a wail in helplessness and retreat to the bedroom.

I climb on the bed and pile the pillows behind me.  I decide I won’t let this man who’s already married and planning to return to his wife upset me.  I pull out a stack of mystery books that I hoard for upsetting occasions and spread them around me.  In between spurts of weeping, I read.  I finish one book and start the next.  It’s almost three A.M.  Soon it will be light.  I put the book down again.  I wonder what Tito is doing.  I tiptoe to the edge of the living room.  He is asleep, and the way his eyelashes curl he looks almost angelic.  I break into more sobs and scurry back to the bed.

The sky has changed from black to blue.  Suddenly I realize that by the time I return from work today, he could have packed and left.  But if he hasn’t, and he’s still planning to leave, I won’t want to be there to watch him packing up.  I know my own limits.  I walk back into the living room and stand over him.  This morning might be the last time I see him.  I want to touch him, but the force of his silence holds me back.  I settle down on the floor next to his face.  Waves of exhaustion pass through me, and for a while I just listen to his breathing.  It soothes me, and I close my own eyes.  Then I remember that this could be my last glimpse of him.  I open my eyes as wide as I can.  My heart is pounding.  I reach out and stroke his hand and arm in the places I know he loves to be touched.  He stirs, but he doesn’t push me away.  I continue caressing him.  Maybe, I can make his darkness lift.

Qué hora es?” he asks, his eyes still shut.  What time is it?

I look out at the windows and see that it’s light, even bright.  The morning has crept up on us without me even noticing.  I glance at a clock. “Las siete quinze.”  Seven fifteen.  I have only 45 minutes before he leaves for work.

He rubs his eyes and groans.  I want him to say something about me, about us, about last night.  But he gets up and goes to the bathroom.  I start weeping again.

“Rebecca,” he calls out from behind the door.  “Para, por favor.”  Stop, please.  Tito is calling me by my name, something he almost never does.  And I’ve hungered for it so much.  It’s symbolic, I know, but with my name, he can’t confuse me with Carmen or anyone else in his past.  Mi amor, mi cielo, mi vida, my love, my sky, my life are his names for me.  But those names could belong to anyone.  My name belongs only to me.

I hear him washing now.  He’ll shave next, rinse his hair, and then he’ll be gone.  I cry some more.

He comes out washed and dressed.  He checks the clock and puts his arms around me.  My body shakes from all my sobbing, and he holds me against him tightly, as if trying to wring all my tears out and away.  And still I can’t relax.  I want to know what he’s planning to do.  He kisses me softly on the cheek and breaks away.

“Where will you go?”  I croak.

“Pancho’s,” he answers.  Pancho is his friend with the room to rent, the one with the Argentinean boarder who hasn’t left yet.

“How will you get your things there?”  My face is wet from all my crying.

“There are cars, Rebecca.  I’ll just get a car.”

I start to wail.  Tito looks at me, his face sad, and then he walks out the door.  The apartment echoes with silence.  I run to the bedroom window and watch him walk to the garage.  His gait tells me nothing about what he is feeling.  I don’t understand him at all.  He looks like he is moving as if this were any other day.  I turn back and look around at all the remnants of him in the apartment.  There are signs of him everywhere.  In the bathroom my eyes fill as I look at the drips of toothpaste oozing from his tube, the cap, as always, tossed to the side.  In the kitchen, I notice the breadcrumbs and banana peels he has left from a night snack.  In the bedroom, I see his oil-stained socks discarded in the corner.  They still hold the shape of his busy feet.  I stand at the bureau and study the pictures of his parents and children that he has taped to the wall.  The photos have grown yellow and brittle in the sun, and soot has settled into the edges where they’ve pulled away.  But Ayalén and Matías smile back at me, and I touch the edges of their faces.  Warm tears stream down my cheeks.  Pictures of me, photos that Tito has adorned the walls with, gaze at me in rebuke.

I wipe my tears away.  I have bills to pay, invoices to make, and probably a photography assignment later.  I turn on Tito’s computer.  A picture I have never seen of me swims in front of me.  I am leaning over my Rollei camera with my entire body focused on framing the weed in front of me.  In the picture, strands of my hair fly out in front of me, in front of the camera, in front of the lake in the background.  The golden rays of the late day’s sun have made my hair even redder, a startling splash of color in the landscape.  This in itself would be enough, but Tito pressed the shutter just when a flock of geese were taking flight.  Over my head they fly, their beating wings silhouetted against the sky.  As I look at the picture I see that Tito has caught me as no one ever has, alive, wild, and free out in the marshes of Jamaica Bay.  He has seen my secret self.

An irrational trickle of hope tugs at me.  We don’t need to end this way.  I can put away my pride and ask Tito to stay.  The idea floods through me.  I’m buoyant with optimism.  I run to the bathroom to wash my face.  I brush my hair and put on a little makeup for good luck.  Then I race out the door and towards the garage.

From the corner I look, but I don’t see Tito.  I walk closer.  My heart is hammering.  What if he doesn’t want to stay?  There is no time to consider that.  I peer into the garage, but I don’t see him.  I run around and check the back lot behind the building.  I recognize his thick shape bent inside a car.  I stand and wait in front of the chain-link fence between the car lot and me.  I am as still and vertical as the posts.  Finally Tito straightens and inspects the car.  His back is to me, and he doesn’t see me.  I don’t move.  When he turns, he looks straight at me, and I see his face relax.  He doesn’t smile, but I catch sweetness in his eyes.  He walks up to me, and I try to smile.  Tenderly he touches my fingers that protrude through the fence.

Quédate, quédate conmigo, mi amor,” I say to him.  Stay, stay with me, my love.

“Ok,” he says.  Just two syllables.  One for each of us, I think.

Mi amor, tengo que trabajar,” he says after a few seconds.  I have to work.

I motion to him, placing my hands over my heart.  “Te amo,” I say.  I love you.

We have said I love you to each other many times since it first slipped out of my mouth one morning while we were brushing our teeth, not all that long after we’d spent that first night together. He looked up, but I didn’t apologize.  He didn’t need to reciprocate, and to my relief he didn’t.  I heard la amo a couple of weeks later, when we were washing the dishes.

He puts his hand over his heart and mouths I love you back to me, through the chain-link fence.

The next installment will be posted Thursday at noon.

Holiday How-To: Hand-Stamped Wrapping Paper

wreathandtreepres

Everyone knows one of the greatest joys of the holiday season is tearing through that wrapping paper.  Until you start making amazingly intricate, personalized, wrapping paper yourself, that is!

Why Hand-Stamp Your Wrapping Paper?

It’s easy! Do you have a hand?  Can it hold a stamp?  Can it apply pressure to a flat surface, while holding said stamp?  You are officially qualified for this project.  More > >