Photos by Rebecca Cooney
English doesn’t have a word for la madrugada, those hours of darkness before dawn. In some cultures they are the werewolf hours, when vampires stalk and wild beasts prowl. For reasons unfathomable to me, I am waking in them, at three o’clock, four o’clock, sometimes as late as five o’clock in the morning. I could call that a lucky hour or two of found sleep, but then I would have missed much of la madrugada. For me those muffled hours are a time to dream and fly, wherever I want. They are my private hours.
Manhattan is a backdrop to my small neighborhood of Queens, officially named Blissville. It’s an isolated corner of the borough, bounded by an industrial creek, a cemetery big enough to cover three neighborhoods, and an expressway that stretches all the way out to the end of Long Island. It was built a century ago to house factory workers. Outside the bedroom window where the highways meet on the other side of the cemetery, I hear the hum of cars, their steady rhythms like bodies breathing. Every so often a truck will cough, or a car will screech. Inside the apartment, only the clocks tick, each with a different note and a different time. And next to me, in a rhythm of their own, Tito’s ronquitos, his soft little snores.
The sweat behind my knees makes me throw off the blankets, and I lie inthe darkness waiting. The images of my dreams are clear. I promise myself I will remember them in the morning. I rarely do.
I listen for the echoing barks of feral dogs. Once they roamed the neighborhood in packs. Sometimes, if they were close, they would wake me up. Now I catch their calls only in the distance. First one will bark, and then another, then another, and I’ll imagine myself traveling with them over the creek and into Brooklyn. The dogs and I will trade one wasteland for another. We will lope over the rubble, through the dusty weeds that smell of chemicals, and cross barren lots dotted with clumps of gras poking through the macadam, and along the long-abandoned factories that line the edge of the creek.
La madrugada may be seamless in its darkness, but not in its sounds. I know it’s after five because I hear Mohammad—once from Kabul, now from Syosset—raising the metal gates of his corner deli, and their clacking at this hour, just for a moment, interrupts my ruminations. And then all is hushed again. In the blackness of my bedroom I picture Mohammad standing in the blinking fluorescent light in the center of his bare linoleum floor. In a few hours the line for coffee will stretch to the door.
Officially la madrugada ends with first light. The starlings are the first to recognize the day, and they wake singing songs of slides and chirps. I’ve listened to these gregarious birds for years, and I still don’t know what they are saying. I heard their twittering long ago outside my bedroom in Connecticut while waiting for my life to begin. I heard them again in college in Minnesota while waiting for my imagined destiny to unfold. And I heard them in Westchester wrapped in the arms of a lover while waiting for a proposal in marriage and a life together ahead. It never came. He taught me the songs of a finch, robin, blue jay, catbird, and cardinal instead.
La madrugada has ended by the time Tito’s alarm buzzes. But he only leans over and shuts it off, and joins me in holding on to some corner of my own netherworld. I don’t relinquish it when the second alarm beeps. Or when he kisses me. Not even when he leaves my side for his morning shower.
My madrugada concludes when a Detroit engine parked beneath my window fires up. I wake to see a wall of confetti, my little squares of post-it notes tacked over my white walls, reminders of what I want to finish in this world. English has a word for this. This is morning.
Canta lo que no esté escrito.
(Sing what isn’t written)—Chilean proverb
What possesses a woman at 45 to learn a new language? It was the sexiest thing I could imagine. I was on the rebound from the love affair I thought would lead to commitment and never did. And while I didn’t like to admit it, I still carried the wounds from an old marriage of abuse. I was ready for a language of grace and beauty. There was French with its exquisite food and champagne, and there was Spanish with its endless stream of love songs pouring from the radio. I chose Spanish.
It would help in my work, I told myself, as I weighed the prices of classes. I was a freelance photographer, covering the news and the life of the city. With Spanish I’d be more marketable. And maybe I would meet people, too, for I was lonely in my solitary life. I pulled out my checkbook and signed up for a season of classes. I wouldn’t have to travel far to practice. Spanish was so immediate that my neighbors on both sides spoke it. In fact, it was the currency inside the local deli, in and around the garages and warehouses that line the main thoroughfare and pepper the side streets of Blissville. Even the bakers in the Afghani bread shop on the corner spoke it.
All things are possible for a beginner. The learning just goes up, up and up in those first courses. A beginner is allowed, even obligated, to make mistakes, and with that comes freedom. Oh, the exhilaration of learning a new word, a new conjugation! Voy, vas, va. I go, you go, he goes. Better than flowers on my doorstep, the brief conversations with my neighbors. The little victories of asking for bacon and egg on a roll. Deme un huevo revuelto con tocino en un rollo. Pearls. Learning Spanish was an encuentro. My worn Larousse defines encuentro as “a meeting, an encounter, a find.” But typical of another language, the more time I spend in it, the more I see the limitations of my dictionary. Encuentro is one of those words. My encuentros are more astounding, more precious than any of my dictionary’s descriptions.
I was an enthusiastic student as I moved through three terms of elementary classes and another three of intermediate, begging for extra reading and writing exercises. Only in the upper levels did I find myself among students with a passion as great, if not greater, than mine. We were committed to passing that elusive point in a foreign language where we could eavesdrop on conversations on either side of us, and where the sentences would flow from our tongues. We just used different strategies to get there. Some classmates read every book on proffered reading lists. Others rearranged their lives to spend long periods of time in Spain or Latin America. I opted to practice Spanish in my backyard. It was a way to learn more about my neighbors.
Daily I savored the dispatches from afar, reading the news from each Latin American country in the local papers, El Diario and Hoy. In their Metro sections I consumed updates on the growing Salvadoran gangs in Hempstead. I relished the politics between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans over their Independence Day parades down Fifth Avenue. I drank in the details of the Mexican hobos living above the tracks in the hills of Hoboken.
Finally, like the restless adolescent eager to leave home, I quit classes. I would use songs, much like my professors had done, to expand my vocabulary and cue my memory. And so the radio became my medium. I learned the slow lyrics and sang along with Julio Iglesias. He offered to be my hero, and I was looking for one. When Shakira sang, I turned up the volume. I liked her fire, even though I didn’t understand much. But I caught her refrain, Quiero vivir contigo. I wanted to live with someone, too. The Buena Vista Social Club promised Dos gardenias para ti. And I yearned for someone to offer me gardenias. One stem would have been enough. Spanish songs of romance filled my car.
Then one day I heard a voice on the radio so sweet and smooth, it stopped my heart. “Tengo un corazón…” it began. I tried to catch the words but I only understood I have a heart. It was too fleeting, too complex for my Spanish. Even the melody, so seemingly easy to follow while driving, evaporated when I stopped the car. Who was this singer? What music was this?
All through the fall months I caught that song on the radio. But if they mentioned the musician’s name I missed it each time, lost in the rapture of the song. I asked my Spanish-speaking friends about this singer, describing his velvet sound. They shrugged. It seemed to match so many. Record stores compounded my confusion. I met blankness everywhere. And so it was by chance, one bright winter morning when I drove my car into the garage for an oil change, that my song was playing on the car radio.
This garage was footsteps from where I lived. They spoke little English there, only Spanish. The lighting inside was poor, and the floor was greasy. The sign outside said they specialized in the Lincoln Towncars that make up every car service fleet in New York City. But inside they repaired everything, including my own compact model. It was different from the dealer’s service center where I received a long, computerized printout detailing each part installed, its price, and the hours used in replacing it. Here, they gave me a generic slip of paper that stated only the date and the charge. And they preferred cash.
I didn’t know the names of most of the mechanics there, even though I’d lived in the neighborhood for fifteen years and seen their faces much of that time. We always smiled when we passed each other. I had a special affection for its owner Nicolás, who didn’t flinch from my tears while I grappled with the loss of one particularly beloved truck. I wanted to trust this garage, so nearby. I made it my garage for simple repairs.
I stepped out of the car and left the song playing. It was too beautiful to turn off and it played so rarely. Out from the depths of the garage, a man appeared by my side. “You like Spanish music?” He was someone I’d never seen before.
The answer seemed obvious, with the music loud and me not even in the car, but I said, “Sí, la música y la lengua me encantan.” I love the music and the language. The sun streamed in over my back and my shadow stretched out in front of me across the black oily floor. I looked into his face, which the sun had lit up.
“You know what this song is about?” He spoke in slow, careful Spanish while studying me with his dark eyes.
I was flattered by his directness. I glanced down at the label on his uniform. “Tito,” it said. I could feel how my Spanish had dulled from quitting classes six months before. And here I was, being asked a question that he knew the answer to and I did not. I had come in for a simple oil change. I shook my head.
“It’s about yearning for love—like a fish in the sea, submerged in desire.”
In that moment I missed everything he said in Spanish but the words for love and fish. I told him I loved this song. “Who is the singer?”
“Juan Luis Guerra. He is very famous. He’s from the Dominican Republic.”
Surely I could remember the name of a singer whose last name means war in English. And Juan and Luis? Simple enough. But I went home and forgot Juan Luis Guerra’s name and remembered Tito’s instead.
The winter I met Tito, I had a morning ritual. Just after waking, my body still heavy with sleep, I would walk to the local pool. It was perhaps a mile away, and it was my camino. My walk, my road, my way.
Each block had its markers. First I passed by the walls of a massive, yellow storage building. Even on cold, gray mornings I imagined its glow over my bundled body. On the next block I discovered a street lamp, “Maria Rivas has great feet” scribbled at its base. A block further took me past a city building. For years I had only a mild curiosity about the rolls of cut wire atop its fence and roof. Men swept the sidewalks when I passed. And then one day, someone told me that it was a prison, where men close to their parole worked off the last weeks of their sentence. I’d like to say it was the remnants of sleep, but I suspect something deeper blunted my usual instincts to avoid it.
Blissville is a neighborhood at the fringe, its few blocks of tacky houses subsumed by the hulks of warehouses. My parents, even a few of my friends, wonder why I live here. It’s so desolate, they say. I can’t answer them as well as I’d like. Blissville is such a small and isolated corner of Queens that if it weren’t for an ad for an apartment in The New York Times, I’d never have known where it was. My landlord gave detailed instructions for finding it, and even so I got lost. But once there, I fell in love with the apartment for its blond wooden floors and airy rooms. And then there was the rent, always the rent in this city, reasonable then and reasonable now.
My friends ask, “Where do you do your grocery shopping?”
“This is what Soho was once like,” I say. I leave out that there are no artists, and that the stores are a neighborhood away. I tell them it looks like an Edward Hopper painting, and then I show them how the light casts shadows across the warehouses, the empty blocks and streets. They shake their heads. And so I ask, “Isn’t it enough that I am happy here?”
But in isolation, the usual refuges from danger don’t exist. There are no shops or cafes into which to escape menace. So on my walks to the pool I would imagine safety in my fellow pedestrians. That January I found two. The Indian was one, and Tito was the other.
I noticed the Indian several weeks before he saw me. He was tall and thin and straight, with a long, oily braid that fell down the back of his jean jacket, and always with a headband around his head. He walked with his eyes on the horizon, remote and indifferent to everything in between. Each time I passed I would try to catch his eye, but he never looked down. I think he noticed me anyway. By February I’d won a glimpse, then a nod, and finally the slightest of smiles. He looked as if he tolerated my overtures. But I felt victorious.
Tito, on the other hand, spotted me first. I was walking by the massive, yellow building, drifting along its sunny sides with my eyes half-closed, when I heard, “Rebecca.” Out of nowhere he stood in front of me, still, sturdy and straight, as if he’d been waiting for me all along, even watching over me. He smiled, beamed at me, and my cheeks felt warm. Without even thinking, I leaned in and kissed him on both cheeks. It was an impulse left over from my previous summer in Spain—the last of my Spanish classes—where attractive men greeted me like that on a first encounter. “Friendship,” I thought as I brushed my lips on his cheeks. I couldn’t admit that I wanted to spend a second or two close to his safe and steady presence and breathe in his scent, a little woodsy, a little spicy.
On those winter mornings I passed the Indian first and Tito next. Each morning we met this way. We’d say a few words, and then we’d part with a wave. It wasn’t long before I began to look for them both, and especially Tito. He had his own camino, from the subway to the garage, and most days he found reasons to pause, to wait for me, he told me later. We’d kiss hello, ask about each other and move on. I was floating before I reached the pool.
Still weightless, my footfalls echoed in the empty hall leading to the pool. I greeted my fellow swimmers with the barest of hellos. Unlike the pools in Manhattan or Williamsburg where women strutted naked from the shower to the dressing room, here at the community college, the women guarded themselves with a modesty I hadn’t seen since adolescence. I did the same, facing my locker and curling my shoulders inward. But from behind my bangs I peeked out and compared myself. I was medium with or without my clothes. Medium tall, medium weight, medium age. Only my whiteness distinguished me.
Each morning as the pool filled with swimmers, I stood at the edge to study those before me, thrashing down in lanes marked slow, medium, and fast. We each had our place. Mine was in a center fast lane, occupied by a single man, long and sleek, a breast-stroker who seemed to swim nothing else. Long ago I swam competitively. I lost that strength, but I kept my technique. I’d wait for an interval between us, and then I’d push off, he on one side, I on the other. After a few strokes I’d pass him. Sneaky pride would well up as I left him in my wake. I was one of the oldest swimmers there, but I was still the fastest, regardless of gender. Each day I had to push down my smugness and remind myself that this was morning, when the slower swimmers worked out. The über-swimmers swam at night.
The first strokes were always easy, and in seconds I reached the wall, flipped my feet over my shoulder, and pushed off. My body slid fluid and effortless through the water. When I tired, I concentrated on my strokes, how I pulled my hands through the water and under my body, all the way through their arc. I was sleek and powerful in the here in a way I never was on land.
It was never long before my focus wandered to where it always drifted, to work and to all of the worries that went along with working freelance. I hadn’t always been a photographer. Back when I was married, I was an art director in an ad agency, cozy in the security of a job, company, and decent salary. After eight years of jingles, I left it all behind for a call to altruism, to work for a non-profit. A few years later, I’d exhausted my new job and my marriage, too. There was no returning to advertising, for in the interim, the industry had collapsed. I lived off odd jobs, from freelance design to paintin murals. When a brochure arrived offering night courses, I decided on photography, an art I knew nothing about. I didn’t expect to love it. But I did and signed up for more classes. I moved to Blissville where no other photographers lived. I started freelancing, first at a local weekly, and then at a major paper, one assignment at a time. In time I was able to sustain myself working, on average, four to five days a week.
I reveled in assignments, the excuse I needed to poke my camera into the houses, lives, and landscapes of others. I relished being sent to make a portrait of a fat politician in his basement office in the depths of Brooklyn. I never minded being called out of sleep to photograph a triple murder in southern Queens. I mourned the deaths even as I reached for the eerie stillness of the night, where in the faint breeze the yellow crime tape flitted, the only thing moving by the time I arrived. I found every job absorbing, whether of new classroom trailers filling a school playground or the graffiti tags of a new gang in Queens. It didn’t matter if it was the scene at the courthouse of a college student on trial for date rape or the apartment of a young man fresh and new to the city, whose unlikely penthouse looked across the river to Queens where I lived. My work took me all over the city, to places I never knew about, and something always moved me.
But I was nearly 50 years old and still unable to commit to an evening’s plan, waiting for the next assignment instead. I’d been working at the same paper for five years without a staff job in sight. I depended on the whims of an assignment editor who might or might not decide to call me that day. Lately a young freelancer had arrived from California. Her images were predictable but technically superb. We didn’t talk, but whenever I glanced her way I caught in her face the satisfied peace that comes with being the editor’s favorite. That was my place once.
It didn’t help that I was so opinionated. I loathed visual clichés and assured all expecting such that I wouldn’t take those kinds of pictures. I resisted anyone’s suggestion to use a long lens because it turned the specific into the generic. Equally, I derided the arty, tilted horizons of some of my colleagues’ pictures, more revealing of their egos than their subjects.
What I cherished was intimacy, nuance, and subtlety. But only some photo editors saw and understood that. So I had my share of dry spells. I supplemented them filling in over vacation times as a photo editor. But that did not cover all the gaps. And that was when I tallied my finances and counted what I’d earned against what I owed, and the dollars I needed to cover my rent, car insurance, health insurance, telephone, and heating. If I was sufficiently anxious, I would peruse my files, stuffed with articles I’d clipped and notes I’d made. I was always on the hunt for stories to pitch to writers and editors. It gave me an edge on my competition, for if it was my idea, it was my assignment.
But I had days when I avoided work altogether. I could while away a whole day on the phone with friends. If I needed escape, I went to the Multiplex, timing it just so, from movie to movie. When that wore out, I found refuge in the library, and then at home, inside the covers of the books I’d checked out. I rarely knew in advance what my day offered. I had come to accept, even embrace, the surprise of it all. And mornings at the pool were full of possibility. I was a fish, I was a dolphin, I was a mermaid, I was a photographer.
On land I lurched into the shower and through the layers of clothes, scarves, and coat. But I left the tangles in my hair, a memento to myself of the creature I was in the water. And then I headed out the door to the day ahead. This was my morning way.
One day after returning from the pool, I took my car into the garage for a muffler repair. I looked for Tito, but I didn’t see him. Out from of the shadows walked the Indian instead. How had I not noticed him before at the garage? I nodded and gave him my keys.
A few weeks later I spotted the Indian again, in the deli. He was on his way out, and I was on my way in. We looked at each other for a second or two, confused yet recognizing each other. Then he beamed at me with a radiance that transformed his face. I smiled back. I’d wanted nothing from him but a moment of warmth, and he gave it to me in that instant. It was all I thought about that day.
As for Tito, I continued to see him. In our brief greetings, I’d ask about the garage, and then finally, about the Indian. Surely he knew something, anything, working alongside of him. But Tito didn’t tell me much. He waited until he knew me better.
“We call him el Apache.”
“But what is his real name?”
“Gabriél. Like the angel.”
“Yeah?” I looked at Tito with all of my flirty charm.
He leaned in. “He is half Taíno and half Apache.”
“So what does he talk about?”
“No sé.” I don’t know.
“Really?” I tilted my head and met his eyes.
“He fought in Vietnam. Now he curses all day long.”
Tito let the question lie.
I moved closer. “And?”
“One of the guys at work told me that he’d killed someone.”
I had imagined a whole other life for the Indian, a life of hardship, with
fits of struggle, work, discrimination, work, brawls, passion, even love. But I hadn’t foreseen this.
“He sleeps in the prison,” Tito said.
I wondered how this could be, where this could be. In the course of my work I had been inside most of the prisons in Queens. And then I realized—he was coming from the prison I passed each morning, on a work-release program. I fidgeted, itching to flick away this news the way I would a red ant making its way up my pants. “Do you know more?”
Tito shook his head. “Some things you cannot ask.”
By chance, a Williamsburg arts center invited me to participate in a small group show. Williamsburg is a Brooklyn neighborhood where artists had migrated and galleries had followed. Three of us were photographers, and the other two sculptors. I had never shown my landscapes, my most private work. Devoid of people, their subjects were the jumbled shrubs in abandoned lots and wildlife refuges, the results of my weekend jaunts to the city’s peripheries. A late aster in bloom among a mess of vines; the stalks of weeds on a hillock, outlined against the snow; the little globes of rain hanging from the tangles of witch-hazel; the white, thread-like, tendrils of a yucca, curling around its spiky leaves; the lonely paths through the dry stalks of phragmites, their dried flowers waving in the wind high above my head. I shot them in stark black and white with a portrait camera that gave me large, square negatives.
In my bathroom that doubled as a darkroom, I peered at them through grain finders and viewfinders. The negatives of my weeds shone luminous in the enlarger. Image by image, sheet by sheet, I led them through a series of baths. I would drop the exposed paper into the developer and lift the corner of the tray to caress the image with the dark liquid. Little by little the borders of my picture emerged from empty whiteness, then its lines, its shapes, until the details filled in to become the landscape I saw and recorded. When I judged it ready, I would slide it into the next tray to keep it from developing more. Then I lifted it out and into the next bath. Again I moved the clear liquid over it, stabilizing my blacks and whites for years to come. One to two minutes was all it took to ready it for the communal tray of water that held all the prints waiting for a long, final wash. But an exposure of seconds could take an hour or more to reach the print I envisioned.
I spent the winter wrapped inside those images. I stopped swimming, I stopped photographing, I stopped going out with friends at the day’s end. Only hunger drove me out, blinking like an underground creature suddenly unearthed, into the daylight, the street, and the corner deli.
One day on a dash to the deli, I ran into Tito, also racing. We didn’t kiss, but I felt my face flush from the chance encounter.
“I’ve missed you, where have you been?” he said.
“I’m getting ready for a show, I’m a photographer.”
Tito, always in motion, stilled, his dark eyes intent and focused. “What are they of?”
“They’re about….oh, I can’t describe them. They’re…” I gestured to the air around me. I didn’t know the word in Spanish for landscape, and I was too hurried to find other words. I looked around the deli for a picture, anything to help explain them, but I spotted nothing. “The opening is in two weeks,” I blurted.
“I love art, I will be there.” And then he rewarded me with a smile that made my knees weak.
I walked away believing in my ambition to fill that vast space with guests. And because I dreamed of my pictures living beyond the walls of my own apartment, I imagined Tito buying a photograph, too. I carried the invitation over to the garage that afternoon. “Venga, Tito, por favor,” I scrawled across its top. Please come. I pretended to forget about it, but I noticed later in my phone conversations with friends that I always found a way to mention that I’d invited the man who fixed my car.
The day of the opening arrived gray and damp. My skin was wan from exhaustion but alive with anticipation. When the hour came, I went to my closet and settled on a simple top and tapered pants. In the mirror I looked tall and lean in all that black. For an added edge, I tied a filmy wrap-around around my waist. It was something I’d bought but never worn. The way it opened in front hinted at a person who took risks. I put on my coat and headed out.
At the arts center I climbed the long stairs to the gallery. No one was there, not the gallery owner, or the others with whom I was sharing the show. I was alone in the chilly space. It was the first time I was seeing the show as a whole, with all of our work in the space and on the walls. On the wall opposite mine, four enormous, glossy prints hung. Eerie and lush with color, rich in detail, they were of rooms in an abandoned psychiatric ward. I immediately pronounced them superior to my small landscapes. On the next wall a hundred or so paper prints were tacked up. Close up, they appeared to be crumbling façades, but when I stepped away they made a large almost Pointillist square. The title told me that they were of the disintegrating buildings of Havana. Part of me judged the concept and execution facile, but the more I studied it, the more I liked it. It had boldness. I wasn’t sure I could say the same about my own photographs.
I walked to my side of the room, to the landscapes I had lived inside of for so long. They were ten by ten inch squares of photograph. They had seemed so large when I was printing them. Now they looked small, against the vast wall. But up close, I saw how they glowed. The blacks were black, the whites were white and the grays were radiant. I walked from one end to the other and greeted each as if we were old friends meeting each other for the first time in fancy clothes. But I had no idea if they were good, if they were art or not.
Ojalá is a word that Spanish teachers seem to take special pleasure in. It comes from the Arabic, law sha’a Allah, “if Allah wished it,” less a word and more of a philosophy. It encompasses a whole world of desires that can’t be fulfilled. But because it takes the subjunctive, I like to believe that thepossibility of fulfilling them lies within its scope.
I had dreamed of being an artist for as long as I could remember. Certainly it dated before that first photography class, and before college when I majored in art. My sister Nonnie thought that impulse came from our grandmother. When we were little, my parents and Nonnie and I stayed with her for a few weeks in August at her house in Maine. And somehow we all fitted into her neat, boxy house.
We must have gone to the beach, wandered through her meadows and woods. I know we picked blueberries. But my sharpest memories were of the evenings, when the grownups took their tinkling drinks to the living room, and Nonnie and I disappeared into the den. Cocktail hour was for adults, not for children, according to my grandmother. And so we had her den to ourselves, and we helped ourselves accordingly to her art books. One by one we pulled them from the shelves and spread them over our knees. Each night we turned their pages and studied the colors and compositions of the artists whose work she emulated, Corot, Manet, Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Bonnard, Seurat and Vuillard. We memorized their names and styles, and then we chose our favorites, Monet for Nonnie, Cezanne for me.
My grandmother was a painter in her own right. On rainy days she worked in her studio on portraits and still-lifes. Sometimes I joined her, and when she grew impatient with my chatter, she’d find a sketchbook for me so we could paint together. But on most mornings she took off in her Ford Fairlane, her easel and paint box packed in the back. We never knew where she went. We tracked her only by the landscapes she brought back. She left her own unique imprint on us both. Nonnie is now a senior curator at a major museum, and I am a photographer daring to be an artist. Ojalá
I heard steps on the stairs. I skipped back to the center to wait. The man who entered was dark and solid, in a wool sweater with stripes the colors of autumn, and I didn’t recognize him. But as he neared, I saw that he was Tito. He walked up to me and kissed both my cheeks, his lips still cold. Our faces bumped, clumsy in the awkwardness of being alone together for the first time. “Let me show you the show,” I said in tentative Spanish and I led him to the first wall, the one with the huge prints.
He stood in front of the first picture, of an empty room with an upturned chair.
“It’s by another artist,” I said, in case he thought it was mine.
He nodded and moved to the next image.
“What do you think?” We were standing now at the last picture, and I was sure he would think they were incredible.
He nodded again without taking his eyes off of it.
I walked to the next wall. “This is one piece. But up close you can see whatit is.”
“Bonita,” he said, his face still earnest.
I looked at it again, this gay, almost Impressionist wall in front of me and wondered what he would see in my pictures, so formal and austere, steps away on the adjacent wall. Then I walked over to my own wall.
“Tuyas?” Yours? His eyes were smiling at me, and I couldn’t help myself. I smiled back. He turned his attention to the pictures and stood for what felt like minutes. It was as if he were breathing in the open skies and withered vistas.
When I couldn’t take it any longer, I walked to the next set. “They were taken in Queens.”
But he didn’t move. “Linda,” he whispered. Beautiful. “Muy, muy linda.” And then he joined me to study the next grouping. I watched his eyes move from picture to picture to picture and then back again. “Me recuerdan…” They remind me of…and I missed the rest because I heard my sister’s voice. She had arrived with her husband and youngest son.
“Rebecca, Rebecca, they’re beautiful,” she said as she kissed me, her elegant perfume following her. Everything about her seemed glamorous and larger than life, even the heavy bouquet she handed me. It didn’t help that she was taller and wearing a suit from Paris. But she enveloped me in her warmth. Then she turned to Tito. “I’m Nonnie, Rebecca’s sister,” she said, holding out her hand.
“Tito,” he said, shaking hers.
“Ti-to,” he said, smiling still.
“He works at the garage down the street,” I said.
I could see it in her face, a suspended moment in which she took it all in, and then she recovered. “How nice, how great that you could come.” I escaped in the arrival of my friend Beth, her boyfriend, and both of his girls. She took my arm and pulled me aside. “Has the mystery man, the man who fixes your car, arrived?”
I pointed to him, and I watched her study him as he made his way towards us.
“He’s gorgeous,” she said just before Tito reached my side.
I looked at Tito with his straight eyebrows, bright eyes, and black hair that curled at his nape, whose open face secured my trust, and I saw what she saw, what I had probably seen from the beginning and then overlooked. He wasn’t tall, not even thin, but he was definitely good looking. I introduced them and then I spotted my parents, off to the side.
My father had told me they would be coming. He had hired a car to drive them here, all the way from Connecticut. And there they were, my father standing taller than almost everyone here, with his distinctive glasses and crew cut, in a jacket and tie. By his side, her arm over his, was my mother, faded and pale. She once sparkled at events like this. She loved the arts and all things decorative. She wasn’t an artist but she embraced craft after craft, from decoupage to painting vases to collecting antiques. This was her own mark on Nonnie and me. But now she had Alzheimer’s, and she wore what my father chose for her, a navy suit, pale stockings, and conservative pumps.
I hugged them, touched by their efforts. Tito was still by my side, and I introduced him. They shook hands, but I didn’t think much registered with anyone. I could see that my father was uncomfortable and eager to see my pictures, the reason for his trip to a neighborhood he had never visited before. I led them to my wall. I held my mother’s hand while my father and Tito studied the photographs. My father moved from set to set of my pictures. He pointed out the ones he liked and the ones he didn’t. When my sister appeared at his side, I left them and visited with my other guests filling the room. Tito followed.
With him by my side, I welcomed friends from college, from work, from Spanish class, and from all the parts that have made up my life. I wondered if there was a critic in the crowd, here to review the show. Would my work be noted? Was it even significant? But my cousin Janet came up to me and raved about the pictures. She worked at the National Gallery and had just finished a comprehensive exhibit of the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz. I relaxed.
The room filled with high and low voices, a giant harmony. I watched the faces of everyone around me as they studied my photographs. I moved among the clusters and listened for love, approval, and accolades. From the center of the gallery I could no longer see my photographs, just family, friends, and colleagues mingling. I took Tito’s arm and we walked over to my cousin Debbie, who spoke Spanish. “No, I only speak Portuguese,” she said in her clipped British accent.
“Falo portugués,” Tito said.
Her face lit at the sound, with its soft diphthongs and harsh consonants. I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I saw how it delighted Tito. I left them chatting in that dense language. Nonnie found me. “I think you’ve sold six.” She pointed to a mutual friend examining a quartet of four of my pictures. They were studies of trees in various forms of decay. “Edward’s thinking of buying the whole group.”
“How do you know?”
“He told me.”
This was more than I had imagined, and just the idea of it made me anxious. He was a collector. But I was more practiced with anonymity and rejection. She whispered that Dad was buying one. When I glanced back to Edward he had disappeared. Nonnie wanted to count the colored dots on my pictures, the pictures I had sold. Edward’s set had none, but we found four others. She showed me the one that Dad bought, then the two she purchased, one for herself, and one more, bought by a friend.
The light outside grew dim now. The room emptied, and warm spotlights shone over all the artwork. But no one was looking at it now. My family stood in a circle, with my father at its center. I heard him laugh, and then my sister. I neared and caught my mother’s babbling. I wasn’t sure anyone was listening, but she looked happy just being with everyone. Debbie made a joke in her London accent and they all chuckled. Even from the edge of the circle I could feel their happiness at being together as they waited for me. And in among them all stood Tito, listening, nodding, smiling.
Nonnie glanced my way and took charge. “We want to treat the family to dinner.”
Tito whispered, “Tengo planes, tengo que salir.” I have plans, I have to leave.
I walked him down the stairs. “Thank you for coming.”
“Gracias por invitarme.” Thank you for inviting me. He lingered in the doorway, not speaking, but not leaving either.
My family was waiting. “I have to go up,” I said.
He reached for my hand for a second and then let it go and walked out into the darkness. I shut the door and turned up the stairs.
“So who is this Tito?” Nonnie asked.
“Someone who works at the local garage, the guy who repairs my car.”
“Where is he from?” my father asked.
“Chile. I don’t know what he did there, but he’s also a musician, and art is very important to him.”
“He’s quite cute,” my sister said.
I looked Debbie’s way. “He speaks Portuguese.”
“I thought he was Debbie’s new beau,” Nonnie said.
“I thought he was Rebecca’s new boyfriend,” Debbie said.
They looked back at me. I could feel my face redden, and I shook my head. “He’s a friend. I see him on my walks, and I practice Spanish with him.” I wondered if I was overdoing it.
“Well, he seems very nice,” Nonnie said.
“I wouldn’t know, he can’t speak English,” my father grumbled.
“Oh, yes he can,” said my cousin Janet. “I found out all about him. We talked a long time.” She paused, the little grin on her face growing. “He’s married, and he has two children.”
“We should get together,” I suggested to Tito soon after we met. I’m not sure I meant it, or if I said it to fill in the gap in our conversation. But he seemed smart, curious, and forgiving, with a ready smile and the whitest teeth—and he was a perfect language partner. I was hoping for an intercambio, an hour or so for practicing Spanish. It was a term I’d gleaned at the institute where I’d studied Spanish, where little cards peppered the bulletin board with offers for intercambios, conversation with native speakers from Argentina, Spain, and Colombia.
“Superbien.” His eyes lit up. He told me he was taking English classes.
“Entonces, mejor. We can both practice our foreign languages.” But the when and where of getting together, it always escaped us. In time, its promise became our parting, as with so many earnest encounters.
But after the gallery opening, it was Tito who suggested the intercambio.
“Maybe in a few weeks,” I told him. I had work to do to make up for the time I’d lost in preparing for my show. Besides, he was married.
But we continued to see each other on the way to the pool, in the street, or in line at the deli. And with every encounter, his bright, warm spirit warmed me. I found myself waiting for him to ask me again about getting together. More time passed, and still he said nothing. So perhaps it was I who suggested anintercambio a few weeks later.
“Cuándo?” When? We had talked about this for so long that I couldn’t blame him for wondering if I was serious.
“Este sabado o domingo?” This Saturday or Sunday?
“Domingo, pues dónde?” Sunday, but where? Perhaps he wanted to be sure I was sure. But I hadn’t thought that far, and I turned the question back to him. “Dónde tú quieres?” Where do you want to go?
The clean lines of his face relaxed into the open visage I recognized, so beautiful it made my heart stop. He smiled. “No sé.” I don’t know.
“Coney Island? The Bronx Botanical Garden? The Cloisters?” They were the most breathtaking places I could think of, because even if we were getting together for conversation, we could still be surrounded by beauty.
“Quiero ver al mar, quiero ir a Coney Island.” I want to see the ocean.
It was drizzling by the time we reached Coney Island. I handed Tito the umbrella, and under its shelter we headed up to the boardwalk in the April mist, arm in arm. I could hardly breathe. Tito was talking in Spanish, but I was inhaling the salty air, mesmerized by the palette of grays in the sky, tinged with blue, violet, and the faintest green.
“I understand about living in two worlds,” he was saying. We had reached our destination, and the sea stretched out before us, an unbroken sheet of slate. I tried to focus on what he was saying, but my gaze drifted to the darkened line that made the horizon. Europe lay at its end, not Chile where Tito was a father and a husband. The garage, where he was a sweeper, lay over our shoulders, way behind us. Even if we looked up the shore, it wouldn’t take us to the Bronx, where he lived and where he cleaned the building in exchange for his rent. Every Sunday he collected the garbage placed outside each apartment on each of the fourteen floors, the bulging evidence of Saturday night binges, the black plastic overflowing with chicken bones, yellow rice, and beer bottles. On the way to the beach he had told me about all of his roles in New York—roommate, sweeper, and cleaner.
“I was many things in the time of the dictator.”
Tito had talked often about his country, but this was the first time he referred to the years under Pinochet. And I had wondered what he had done during those years. I had wondered from the moment I learned he was Chilean. Years ago I saw the movie Missing, about an American who disappeared in Chile’s coup, one of thousands who disappeared in those years. His family could have been a victim of Pinochet’s regime. Or they could have been part of the army who interrogated, tortured, and executed its citizens. Not that I’d met many Chileans, but it was always a silent question in the air whenever I did.
“I was eleven in 1973.”
I composed my face to hide the relief welling up inside me. Tito was innocent! He was an infant! In 1973 I was in college, ten years ahead of him, a dreamy student immersed in a series of paintings, abstractions of bubbles that floated along the edges of the canvas, all in the barest of colors. Did I even notice Chile’s coup when it happened?
“We thought we were making history. We had just elected the first Socialist government in South America.”
As he went on I caught the fact that one sister had supported Pinochet while his other two sisters had had to flee the country, but that they had all survived. His family hadn’t participated in the brutalities of the army. I sighed and hoped my happiness didn’t show.
“I lived seventeen years under the dictator.”
Fat drops of rain splattered over my glasses. I added seventeen to his eleven years at the start of the coup. “What did you do in those years?”
“I lived in two worlds. In the daytime I went to school and then to work in the port. But at night, after work, otra cosa.” Another thing.
I studied his shining eyes. I pictured him protesting in the plazas with the mothers of the disappeared. Producing underground newspapers. Getting word out to the freer world. My own eyes filled. As casually as I could manage, I put my hand through his arm and steered him down the boardwalk. I imagined we were two comrades walking together in the rain. I had never lived under repression, but I hoped my letters on behalf of Amnesty International counted as part of the struggle.
“I demonstrated in the streets for the union. I threw rocks at army caravans. I broke the windows of the people who I knew were supporting the dictator. We had socialistas, anarquistas, and comunistas.”
“Quién eras tú?” Who were you? Though I wasn’t sure it mattered, as long as he hadn’t supported Pinochet.
“I did jobs for all of them at one time or another. Back then, nothing was simple. Some of them were even terroristas. My high school professor kidnapped a person and tortured and killed him.”
I slid my arm from his and hugged myself. I had imagined simple right and simple wrong. “Y tú?”
“Nunca. I would never do anything like that. Those guys were no different than Pinochet. I had no idea about my teacher, none of us did, until we saw it on the news when they captured him.”
I put my arm back through his and held it close to me, not caring if he could feel my heart beating. We didn’t talk much now. The skies were lightening, and I was content to listen to the laughing gulls with their high-pitched ha-ha-has caught in the wind. We strolled past the skeleton of the Ferris wheel, past the boarded up hotdog stands, past the abandoned souvenir stands, past the wet benches facing out to sea. When we came upon an open Russian café on the boardwalk, I asked him if he was hungry. He nodded, and we sat down. When the food arrived, I announced that it was time for English.
He shook his head. “Your Spanish is better than my English,” he said in Spanish.
“Not possible. My Spanish is terrible.”
“But you understood everything I said.”
I covered my pride with my hands. “I barely understood.”
He looked homesick as he said that, and maybe he was, being so close to the sea and so far from his city that overlooked the Pacific. “Bien, español.”
He inquired about my life, my work, my family, and the sorts of things people ask as they are getting to know one another. I asked him about his children.
“I have two, a son in college and a daughter in private school. They are the reason I am here.”
He said more, but I was beginning to flag in Spanish. It was as if I had used up all my comprehension out there on the boardwalk. We walked back to the car side by side with our arms swinging to the same beat. Tito kept the conversation to simple things now. “Me gusta el trabajo,” he said, a phrase I had learned in elementary Spanish class. I like my work. “Me gusta limpiar los carros.” I like to clean the cars. “Me gusta borrar el taller.” I like to clean the work areas. “Sin estrés, sin responsibilidades.” No stress, no responsibility. “I used to work in the port. I managed the ships coming and unloading.” He said more but I missed it. I gathered only that his job had been important, with lots of details, deadlines, and pressure.
It seemed a long way to the Bronx by subway, especially on a Sunday when the trains were slow, and I offered to drive him home. He shook his head, but when I insisted he smiled and got in the car. We were tired, so I flicked on the radio. He tapped out light rhythms on his knees while the shapes of buildings, rooftops, wetlands, and streets flew by us. Tapping is on my list of Most Irritating Things, just below popping chewing gum. So I can’t explain why it didn’t irk me that day, except that the sound was soft and the music sweet. Every so often he would call my attention to a passage in the music. “Do you hear the horns? How they step on the trombones?” And then he repeated it so I heard it. He bubbled with the music, so palpable was his pleasure in it.
Outside his apartment we sat in our seats and listened to the rain beating on the roof. Shadows from the streaks of water running down the windshield rippled down his face, fitting, I thought, for the sadness that had suddenly enveloped me. I didn’t want the song to end, I didn’t want the afternoon to end, I didn’t want this time in the car with Tito to end, I didn’t want any of it to end. I thought about what we had talked about earlier, those years under Pinochet and the rifts they had created in his family. I wondered what I would have done in an era of such violence, how I would have managed, or the mistakes I might have made. “Where is forgiveness?” I didn’t expect an answer, it was just a question tossed out in the space between us.
He turned to me, his face earnest. “We have to let go of those wrongs, on both sides. Comunistas,anarquistas, socialistas, and fascistas, all of us, even you and I. This is the only future.” He spoke in formal Spanish, but the intimacy of it all shone through. Then he touched my hand, kissed my cheek, and disappeared into the building.
Tito says everyone in the neighborhood knows him, whether it’s the UPS man or the FED EX man, the towing man or the Traffic Police, the Fire Department on inspections for safety and flammables or the FBI agents, who make surprise visits to the garage seeking out stolen car parts. I ask him if this makes him nervous. He just shakes his head. “I don’t have temores.”
Tito is nothing like his countryman, Simón the bodyman. For years I have glimpsed Simón in the back of the garage, a shadow between crushed cars. Any time I catch him in the light he slides behind a car, fades into a doorway, slips into a van, or crosses the street behind me. “Okay, maybe you aren’t like Simón, but surely you have some fears.”
“Simón doesn’t want anyone to know he’s here.”
“But he can’t make himself invisible. He leaves a track somewhere.”
“You don’t even know what he looks like.”
“I know, I know.”
“He doesn’t trust anyone. Tiene demasiado temores.” He is too scared.
“He doesn’t want to be sent back.”
They say Simón is a genius at work, but that doesn’t stop his fears. Like Tito, Simón has overstayed his visa. Unlike Tito, he’s been here almost thirteen years. Tito thinks that his temores swell with each year. Simón turns down invitations to eat out, to see a movie, to go to the beach. Whatever curiosity or excitement he might have had about living in New York City has long left him. Tito says that each night Simón retreats to his refuge, a roomy apartment tucked away on a dead-end street deep in Queens.
At the garage, Simón works in the back. To reach him a visitor must cross over the yellow painted line to where clients aren’t allowed, past the car lifts and up an incline into another wide space. In a workplace that is his alone, he smooths out the crinkled hulks of Lincoln Towncars and transforms them into the sleek cars that glide through the city’s streets. He can erase all traces of their imperfect histories, but he can’t erase his dread. He is certain the immigration authorities will catch him and send him back to Chile. Simón is that kind of fatalist. From his perch he is vigilant in watching everything and everybody. And when inspectors arrive, he slips through the back doors and through the wrecks, and disappears into the street. He is not alone. Almost everyone who works at the garage sneaks out behind him. Only Tito is left to lead the inspectors through the garage.
I ask Tito how he squelches his urges to flee. He waves his hand as if to brush the idea away. He can tell by the clipboards they carry that they’re not looking for him. But I think it is just bravado, a way to ward off deeper fears. Because I’ve seen Tito afraid.
It was our second outing, and I had begun to think of Tito as a friend, someone with whom to do things, and especially the kinds of things I couldn’t do on my own. Listening to big band music on a Monday night in Harlem counted as one of those. I knew Tito loved music and was missing his trumpet left behind in Chile. And he had never been to Harlem. I would be his guide, I would bring music back into his life.
We sat at the bar. It was April, but colored Christmas lights draped the hot pink walls all around. We ordered red wine, and the barmaid pulled out two little bottles and two glasses. Then we swung around on our stools to listen to the music. The 16-piece band was playing classics from the 1940s. Tito nodded in appreciation at their musicianship, their timing and harmonies, their spontaneous riffs, while I watched the couples nestled against each other on the dance floor. It was too sexy for words, and we didn’t talk much anyway. To the slow rhythms I felt Tito’s knee move against my back. I leaned back so my body was closer. We ordered more wine, and our knees touched. Neither of us moved except to the melody. People came and went, but we stayed until the band put down their instruments. It was after midnight.
I could have taken Tito to the subway station, but I wasn’t ready for our evening to end. I offered to drive him back to his apartment in the Bronx. He would arrive home sooner. And, I reasoned with him, it was hardly out of my way. Naturally, he accepted.
We got in the car and headed uptown. With the darkness wrapped around us we touched fingertips as Tito recited his address. We crossed over the bridge, the lights twinkling below on the river. The entrance to the Bruckner was up ahead, and suddenly we were past it. Somehow in the darkness of the night, I’d missed the easy ramp to the highway.
“No, nothing. I just missed the turn, but I know where we are. Did you know I spent a year photographing boxing in the Bronx? I know where all the gyms are.” Tito had a blank look on his face. I wondered if he even knew where we were. I squeezed his hand, and he squeezed mine back. We meandered down the dark streets toward the highway. We were cherishing the intimacy of the night.
All of a sudden a red light slashed through the car, from behind Tito’s head, across the dashboard and into my face. “Fuck,” I hissed.
“Nothing, nothing, I’m sorry. A police car behind us. It’s nothing.” My heart lurched. I took my foot off the gas and moved over. I prayed it would pass.
“Stop the vehicle.” The loudspeaker came through the windows and into our bodies.
“Keep your hands on the wheel and stay in your seat.”
“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” I mouthed.
“Nothing. They should be looking for bad guys,” I said with a little laugh. I was doing everything I could to mask my temores. Tito just nodded.
I heard them call in our location and license plate over the radio. “No les diga nada,” I whispered. Don’t say anything. Tito moved his head, the barest of a motion.
We sat stiffly now, Tito in his corner, I in mine, each of us alone in our imaginings. I was picturing Tito sent to a cell deep in New Jersey, the kind of place I’d read about in the newspaper where illegal aliens were kept. The lucky ones were kept only months, and the unlucky, years, until finally being deported. They called them detention centers, but they were really prisons. Some, I’d read, were filthier than a state jail. Then I saw myself, convicted and sentenced for hiding and abetting an alien. I envisioned an old age of poverty, having blown my savings for each of our defenses.
I practiced breathing, as I always do when I am frightened. I let my chest fill more with each breath. But I couldn’t help Tito in the seat next to me. While I was expanding, Tito’s shoulders had slumped. He had wedged his thick frame into the space between the seat and the door. He was deflating himself so he would be invisible.
The two policemen came over and stood on either side of the car.
“Hi, officers. Can you tell me what is wrong?”
The man on my side shone a flashlight in my face, then Tito’s, and then back to me. “I need your license, registration, and proof of insurance.”
“It’s okay to move my hands?” I smiled up at him. When he nodded, I reached for my handbag and began rummaging for my wallet. I rued the absence of my press card because it had protected me in the past. But I had left it at home tucked in a camera bag, and I was on my own. I rifled through the cards in the center pocket and they spewed into my lap. In among them I found my license. I let out a breath and dug inside my wallet’s sides for the registration and insurance, thinner and more elusive. I just hoped that when I found them my documents were up to date.
“I’m so sorry, sir, it’s taking so long. My nephew gave me this wallet.” Inside I cursed the goddamn wallet and vowed, if I got out of this mess, to throw it out and buy one of my own choosing. I pulled out my credit cards. Then my subway card. Flat against it I found my registration, tattered and faded from wear. I let out another breath.
“Thank you for your patience, sir. It won’t be much longer.” I checked the pockets of my nephew’s wallet once again, this time with more deliberation. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. I dug down into the center pocket once more. At the bottom I could feel a tiny, hard square. I dug it out–my insurance card, folded in sixteenths. I unfolded it and checked the date. It was legal.
“I think you’ll find everything in order, sir.” I passed all my papers through the window to the waiting policeman.
The officer was silent as he studied my documents for what seemed like minutes. Tito and I held our breaths as one.
He shone the flashlight back into our faces. “Your headlight’s out. Did you know that?”
“No, sir, I had no idea. Thank you for bringing it to my attention,” I said, and I widened my eyes with innocence. Maybe they would let me go. Other officers had dismissed me on two different occasions, each for running a red light. But these officers turned and took my papers with them, and my heart sank. Would they have sent me off with a warning if I had been alone?
Back in their car I heard the static of more calls, more checks. How could they not find everything in order? Did they think I stole the car? Who did they think I was? “They’re just checking. It’s routine, I guess,” I said to Tito.
I pleaded silently with higher powers that the police find everything in order. “Did you like the concert? I love that place.”
Tito just nodded. He didn’t even look at me.
I begged to whatever god was listening, that if they let us go I wouldn’t eat meat for a week, two weeks, a month, a year. “How about the music? Linda, no?” Beautiful.
“Tomorrow I think I’ll work in the darkroom.” I was pretending how normal this was, him being here in my car and in my country, all while I had no idea what was delaying the police. What more could they possibly check?
“It won’t be much longer. We’ll be on our way soon,” I said. But the irony of it all never left me–how I had found myself here in my car with someone next to me who worked in a garage. Tito, though, knew almost nothing about cars. Tito was just the sweeper. Even if he had spotted my faulty headlight, would he have known how to change it? I didn’t think so. I lost my hubcap on one visit because he hadn’t known how to put it back on the wheel. We sat silent in our own thoughts, looking out into the dark night.
A light flashed across my lap and into my face. The policeman was standing by my window again. He handed me my ticket. “This is my ticket? Thank you, officer.”
“If you repair it tomorrow, you can bring your car to the local precinct where they’ll erase the charge. Do you know which precinct you’re in?”
“Thank you, sir. Yes, the 108th. I’ll do it first thing in the morning, officer.”
He passed back my papers, and I exhaled one more time.
The light flashed hard in my face, and I blinked. He leaned in, his face close to mine until I gasped.
“Have you been drinking? Because if you have, you should tell me right now.”
I had drunk two glasses of wine. I would never pass a Breathalyzer test. Tito had drunk even more. “Yes, officer,” I said. I swallowed, as if that could keep me from breathing out more of the wine. “We were listening to music tonight, and we each had some wine.”
“I have to tell you that I smell alcohol in this car.”
I gestured to Tito, pressed in his corner. “He had several glasses, officer.” All my notions of protecting him evaporated.
“And I had a glass and a half, sir.” I knew it was half glass too much. But small enough, I calculated, for the officer to overlook.
“I’ll let you go this time, but drive carefully.”
We didn’t say much on the drive to Tito’s apartment. I parked the car outside of his building, but he made no move to leave.
“Bring the car into el taller tomorrow, okay? Yo lo reparé.” I will repair it, he said, with an emphasis on the first person.
I let out another breath. “Okay.”
“Everything is alright.”
“I know. I know. But what a night. Are the police in Chile like this?”
“Más duro.” Worse.
I glanced toward the dark building. “Will your roommate be up?”
He shook his head. “He goes to bed at 9:00 and gets up at 5:00.”
“Everyone in the building has gone to sleep, I think.” I gestured to the clock. “It’s Tuesday.”
Tito put his finger on my lips. He reached for my hand and put it in his, and with his other he stroked my fingers, my wrist, my palm until my shoulders relaxed and I was breathing regularly. I nodded towards the clock. We had reached la madrugada. He unbuckled his seat belt, and brought my hand to his lips to kiss. “Gracias, Rebecca, gracias por todo.”
“I’m so sorry about the police.” My heart was still beating from everything that had passed.
“Tonight, tonight was perfect.” He turned to me with those broad shoulders of his facing mine. “Una noche linda.” A beautiful night. He touched me cheek with his fingertips and leaned in. I bent forward to meet him, and we kissed ever so lightly and brief, his soft lips on mine. I touched his face and breathed him in.
In the span of just three weeks Tito and I have traveled to Coney Island, Harlem, and, most recently, Astoria, when Tito invited me. “Meet me Friday night at the corner of 21st and Astoria Boulevard.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I have to change first. How is 8:00?”
I thought he might invite me to any of the new Latino restaurants popping up in Astoria, once a Greek neighborhood.
“Don’t worry, I’ll find you.”
Because Tito always seemed to find me in the neighborhood, I trusted he’d find me this time. But I waited at one corner for fifteen minutes, and then at another corner for another fifteen minutes. I wasn’t sure which side of the highway he meant. And then I started to think I’d gotten the day mixed up. But when my cell phone rang it was Tito, wondering where I was.
“I’m waiting for you, where are you?” I said.
“Dónde estás?” Where are you?
“Exactly where you said, at 21st and Astoria.”
“Ooh, lo siento, I meant Hoyt and 21st.”
Tito apologized with so much sincerity that I forgave him everything. I drove around the corner and found him waiting for me, a silhouette under the street lamp. He motioned for me to park, and we took off on foot. We passed the florist, the fish market, the newsstand, the 99-cent store, the one-hour photo, the laundromat, the bagel store, the beauty shop, the Carvel, the savings bank, the fruit and vegetable stands overflowing with produce, and the carpet store. It was all so familiar. I had strolled by these same shops on blind dates and with old boyfriends, and now with Tito. He took my hand in his and we walked into a Brazilian coffee shop. He ordered a sandwich and I a corn cake. As he pulled out the tattered bills to pay I realized this was our dinner. We ate, and then we wandered out and past the fancy restaurants and brass-plated clubs teeming with Friday night party goers.
We turned off the main road onto a darker one, and he pulled me closer. We were making a full circle to my car. We were now walking hand in hand, so close our arms brushed with each step. When we reached the car he leaned me against it and kissed me, running his lips along my neck and down my arms. I pulled him into the car where it was more private, and we kissed with abandon. Finally I pushed him away. “You are married.” Overhead the trains roared. They drowned my words. I pulled Tito to me and kissed him again, with an ardor that went far beyond the boundaries of what was proper with a married man. Finally I straightened my blouse and told him it was time for me to go home. That was seven days ago.
It’s Saturday night, and I’m restless with yearning for him, for hearing from him, for seeing him, for being with him. When I was young the consequence of each transgression was clear. If I lied to my parents, I was confined to my room. But now that I’m older, no one will punish me for dating a married man. And I have certainly crossed over the margin of chastity with Tito. I’ve even grown obsessed, looking for a glimpse of him at every turn by the garage. And with each sighting, a new tingle runs through me.
To quiet my itchiness I escape into television. It satisfies my urge to call him more than jellybeans, more than corn chips, more than butterscotch pudding. A single woman can count on an evening without interruptions on a Friday night after a certain hour. I change into my nightgown and leave the dishes stacked in the sink. I flick through the channels until I find a movie and surrender to it.
In the middle of the plot the telephone rings. I’m irked by the interruption and excited by the possibility that it’s Tito. And it is! But why has it taken so long for him to call?
“Cómo está usted?” He greets me with the formal form of “you.”
“Bien.” I have to work to calm my voice, to match his reserve. Besides, I shouldn’t be getting involved with him.
“Y dónde está?”
“At home. In my study.” I slouch further on the living room’s sofa and make myself comfortable.
“Y qué hace?”
“Oh, reading, cleaning, things like that,” I say. I put my feet up and peek back at the television. “And you?”
He switches to the informal. “Te echo de menos,” he tells me in a lower voice. I miss you. My heart quickens. “Quiero verte.” I want to see you.
I hold my breath. I want to tell him to get divorced first. “Well, it would be better if you’d call ahead of time, make a date, ask me out.” I’m oblivious to the contradictions between what I think and what I say.
I hear him sigh. “I should have called earlier. But I was so tired after work, I went home and fell asleep.” He pauses, and when he speaks again his voice is small and far away. “I want to be with you. Can I come over?”
I want to do a thousand things with Tito, look at the moon through a telescope, drive around the edges of the city together with the windows rolled down, share a cocktail in a seedy bar, go dancing in one of the glittering nightclubs in Jackson Heights, kick around a soccer ball at night under the bright lights in the park, listen to Tito Puente when he plays at his club in the Bronx, eat arepas in the street in our fancy clothes. And then I stop. His offer tonight feels so, well, ordinary compared to all I’ve imagined. I listen to him breathe on the other end of the telephone.
But whether we dressed up and went to the most glamorous of clubs or didn’t, we would still end up in my apartment. Our attraction to each other makes this more probable with every date we go on. Even on the phone he manages to make my skin tingle and my heart pound. I cast around for an excuse, but nothing comes. So I lie. “I’ve got to work tomorrow. I have to get up really early. Me entiendes?” You understand?
“I will only stay a little.”
“Another day, Tito, please?” I can feel my own resolve weakening
“I can be there in an hour.”
“How will you get home? It’ll be so late.” Too late I realize I’ve assumed he’ll be coming.
“The same way I’ll come. The subway.” His voice is light and happy now.
“No, it’ll be too late and too dangerous.” I look around at everything that needs cleaning before he arrives. I cringe at my feeble protests while my heart quickens at the idea of seeing him.
Tito laughs and warms me all over. “Sabes qué? I could spend the night on your sofa. And in the morning I can leave early so you can go to work.”
I gasp. “Oh, Tito,” I manage to say as I swing my feet off the sofa. The forwardness of his suggestion has left me without words.
“Okay. I’m coming over right now. Okay? I’m leaving now and I’ll be there in about an hour. Okay?”
I murmur yes and silently curse myself.
“Superbien,” he says. And then he hangs up.
I sit with the phone in my hand listening to the dial tone. When it starts to beep, I hang up. I have to clean, straighten, conceal. I look over at the television and shut it off. In the kitchen, the week’s dirty dishes are piled up in the sink. My bathroom is littered with dirty clothes. Strewn across the living room, over the sofa, chairs, and even the floor, are all the outfits of promise, clothing that I considered wearing and then discarded and never hung up again. The bedroom presents the biggest challenge with half-read, open books everywhere, in the bed, on the floor, on the desk, on the bureau. Tucked in between, on every surface, lie steno pads that I’ve partially filled with lists, phone numbers, notes, drawings, and scribbles. And scattered everywhere, partly paid bills, undeveloped rolls of film, yellowing newspaper clippings for stories I’ve meant to pursue, and more dirty clothes. Not even the bed is made. An hour isn’t much time.
I race from room to room. I gather my clothes and lay them over the rack in the closet. If I have extra time, I’ll find hangers for them. I pick up and straighten my books, squeezing them in shelves and piling them on the table next to the bed. I stack my bills and steno pads with my daily notes and jottings on my desk in the study. As each room falls into order, I try to picture Tito standing in its space. I imagine him standing before my photographs of swimming pools that adorn the bathroom. Maybe he will stand and peer at the books that line my kitchen and my living room. Or maybe he’ll study the collage of papers, cards, photographs and sayings affixed to my study walls, their edges curling from age. He could even peek into my bedroom with its centerpiece, the polished maple bed that was once my great grandmother’s. But I won’t lead him in. Instead, we will have tea and talk a while. And then I will either make up the sofa or drive him to the subway.
An hour passes and, incredibly, I finish. I change into clothes and lie down with a novel in Spanish that I think will impress him. My eyes close. Then the phone rings, and it is Tito. Blood pushes out to my fingertips. He’s on the corner.
When the doorbell rings, I rush to open the door, and suddenly we’re shy. I lead him up the stairs and usher him in. I point out the sofa, and we laugh. I show him my kitchen, study, and the bathroom. He admires each room. I offer him tea, and he accepts. And then I ask him why he came to the United States. I’ve asked him this before, but whether it’s the failing of my Spanish or my lack of focus, I have never understood well.
He answers me in patient, deliberate Spanish. “I had a good job in Chile. You see, many people complain about not being able to find work. I never had a problem. I’m a hard worker. I learn empiracamente.”
I look at him, startled at the word, sophisticated and unusual in English.
“Do you know what empiracamente means?” he asks in Spanish.
“Por supuesto. Empirically. ”
He nods at my vocabulary and goes on. “But then the port was privatized, and I got a new job in Santiago. It was almost three hours each way, so I lived there and went home on the weekends.”
I nod and then try steering the conversation to my real interest, why he left his wife and why he’s here in front of me in my apartment and what he wants from our so-called friendship.
He nods back. “I made a good salary.”
I sip my tea and wait.
“I have dreams.”
We are sitting opposite one another at the kitchen table of my childhood, the worn table where years ago Nonnie and I supped before Dad came home from work, always late, always tense. Whether it was constitutional or from the stress of his job on Wall Street, the pressures of providing for his family, or his unease about our future in the turbulent 1960s, I don’t know. But when Dad arrived, Mom made sure we were tucked away in the kitchen at what is now my little wooden table. Nonnie and I told each other secret desires over this table of dreams, and now I will listen to Tito’s.
“My children are both in private schools. My wish, my hope, my deepest desire is for them to be professionals. That is why I am here. My oldest is studying architecture and my youngest will probably be a lawyer one day.”
I nod, even as I know that this is beyond his control. His children will walk their own paths. I can only hope Tito will find joy in their choices. My father struggles with mine. Sometimes I think he still harbors ideas of my being a banker, but he discounts my lack of talent for numbers, let alone maintaining my checkbook.
“I came here because even with my good job in Santiago, my salary couldn’t cover the expenses of their schooling.”
I sit speechless, amazed that he can make more as a sweeper in the garage, earning $300 a week, than he could in Chile managing the export operations of a large, international company. “Of course, some months here have been difficult. But I always have managed to send the money back to Chile for them.”
I nod, wanting him to be the best father possible. I look at him from behind my cup and tell him his dreams for them are beautiful. Ever since Tito has told me his full name, Jose Hector Pizarro, I have imagined him as Homer’s Hector of The Iliad. Hector, the strong, the brave, the courageous, undaunted and faithful to his death to his wife Andromache, the mother of their child. And so I take a breath and face him. “Tito, why are you here, here with me tonight? What is it that you want?”
Tito unfolds his hands and rests them on his thighs. His hands are stubby, stained, and rough. He leans back and fills the chair. “I didn’t come here for love.”
I look up into his eyes at the bold mention of a word neither of us has ever said before. I study him, but I can’t read his expression. Love may be a notion, yes, even a word, that I listen for when I’m around a man who interests me, but tonight it alarms me as much as it thrills me. I am not ready for that responsibility. Yet I’m crazy enough right now to want him to have feelings for me. Even love.
“I came to this country for work and nothing more.” He smiles. “I never expected to find anyone like you. This has been so special. It is like being without water for so long and then finding it. I didn’t know what I was missing until I met you.”
I force myself to think about his wife who waits for him at home, but I am giddy all over. I try to remind myself that no matter how much we do together, no matter how much we desire each other, even love each other, that he will never be mine. He is promised to someone else.
He reaches over and traces his fingers down my hairline to my neck. “What is the matter?”
I’m touched by how much he sees. I want to lean across the table and kiss his soft lips. I want to run my hands through his wiry hair. I want to get up from my seat and walk over to his side of the table, sit in his lap, feel his strong arms around me. But I can’t. We have unfinished business. “Tell me about your wife, Tito. What is her name? What does she do? How did you meet? What is she like? Do you miss her?”
My profession as a photographer and journalist has trained me well. I can ask questions easily and directly. I can listen in a way that lets my subject tell me everything. But as soon as I ask Tito about his wife, I realize I’m not prepared for his answer, whatever it is. The only response I want to hear is, no, he doesn’t love her any more, that the marriage has withered, that they have long since fallen out of love, and, jumping way ahead of the friendship we have begun, that Tito loves me instead. But my training and the wisdom of my years make me hold back. I let Tito describe their marriage in his own words, and then I put together a simple outline for myself.
Her name is Carmen. They met when she was fifteen and he was sixteen. Then she found another boyfriend, had a son with him and married. It didn’t last, and she moved back with her parents. Years passed and Tito began to see her at parties. They saw each other more and more. They fell in love, married, and had a daughter, a child of their own.
Perhaps there were always problems. She was so young when she had her first child. Now she had another, and she had missed out on all of her youth. They found themselves arguing more and more until there seemed no way to get along without fighting. They grew apart. One day he learned she was involved with another man. When he asked her about it, she denied it. But it was her girlfriend who had whispered to Tito about the affair. So he knew that Carmen was lying to him. And all of it made it too painful to live with her, so he packed up and moved to another part of the city, even though it meant leaving his children. He visited them on weekends. He’d never lived alone before, and much of the time he felt lost. He missed the children, and he missed their being a family. After a year or so, he called Carmen and asked to return. He had the idea that they could begin again. Oh, I can understand so many parts of his story.
He found a roomy apartment in an old house in the center of a pristine Victorian neighborhood. At first everyone warmed at being back together. But betrayals, both little and large, are not so easily forgotten. They went back to fighting. “The same things irritated her, whether it was where I left the towels or how I did the dishes.” Worse, no matter how he tried, he couldn’t return to trusting her. “I stopped believing her and whatever she would say.” He strokes the insides of my arms as he tells me this. I melt in his tender touch and the sadness of it all. Still, he doesn’t mention leaving Carmen.
“Now that we are apart, we are doing well. We talk every day. She is different now, she misses me.”
I think to myself, of course. Everything is different with distance. I’m filled with an irritation that won’t let me sit. I get up and walk past him into the living room as if to look for a sweater, and Tito follows me helplessly. I sit down on the sofa, limp from all I’ve learned. Tito seats himself apart, on a chair next to me. He leans forward and reaches for my hands.
“Carmen and I, we aren’t living together now. And I know when I return nothing will have changed. We will go back to what we were doing when I left, fighting. It will return to what it was, un amor roto. Todo roto.” A love broken, everything broken.
A soft melancholy washes over me, for every love of my own that has fallen apart, too. For a while we say nothing. We just look at each other, searching. I offer more tea, and he shakes his head.
He pulls me towards him, until I am sitting in his lap. Tito is stocky, but I’m taller, and for a moment I wonder how this will work. But I fit just fine on top of him.
He puts his hands over my hair, my face, my arms and holds me in his arms. “I never thought, I never dreamed I would have feelings like the ones I have for you. I thought I had used up my quota of love and that there was no more left for me. But you? Eres linda. You give me hope. You fill my life with meaning.” He looks straight into my eyes as he tells me this.
Trust, in the end, is just an act of faith. I look back at his open face and believe him. My body, as if with a will of its own, kisses him. He closes his eyes and moans. My lips on his, his on mine, and then Tito pulls away and kisses me on the corner of my mouth. No one has ever kissed me there before and little shivers travel down to the base of my back. When we pull apart we are smiling. I watch his eyes drift down my face, my chest, my waist, and my legs. I look over at the sofa. “Tu sofá,” I say. He nods and starts to sit. I take his hand and lead him past the sofa and into my bedroom.
Every first time is filled with expectations and little tests. For me, the most telling is how we’ll wake up. Will he cling or will he rush out and away? Or, will he look into my face and kiss me gently?
We wake up in bright light. Morning comes early these days. I open my eyes and see Tito looking at me. How long he’s been awake or studying me, I don’t know. Surely my face is wrinkled with sleep. Surely he sees the years that separate us. Whenever I look in the mirror I see them everywhere – at the edges of my eyes, along my mouth, even in the crease between my eyebrows. I look back at his face, so soft and unmarked. I see only adoration in his eyes and in his lips. He moves across the pillow and kisses me as if it were the first time. We kiss past the beeps of one alarm and into the buzzes of the next. Finally, we throw off the covers and get up.
I expect Tito to rush towards the bathroom, but he turns around and does something no man has ever done. He makes the bed for me.
“Sabes qué?” He looks at me as he fluffs the pillows and straightens the bedspread. “This is the first bed I’ve slept in since my arrival.” He says this startling fact casually, but I sense that nothing about this night together on my bed has been so.
We linger over tea for Tito and coffee for me, and then we walk down the stairs together to our respective mornings ahead. I am still picturing all the apartments and houses Tito’s told me about where he has lived, from Brooklyn to Kansas, to New Jersey to the Bronx. He has moved four times in nine months. It never occurred to me that he hadn’t slept on beds. I unlock the front door and hold him in my arms before letting him go. “Pues dime, where were you sleeping all those months? On the floor?”
“En el sofá.”
The entire memoir, “Blissville” by Rebecca Cooney, will continue online, in
twice-weekly installments, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from now through
January at www.thewgnews.com.