In those breathless days when Tito and I were getting to know one another, I dreamed of roses. Dark, luscious and red, partly opened, densely packed, a bouquet overflowing with fragrance. In my fantasy I open the door and see Tito, his arms full of roses, roses, roses, and his radiant face peeking through the crimson blossoms.
I’m old enough to know that romance comes in many forms. And experienced enough to know it stays only as long as it’s nourished. I felt I’d had little enough in my 50 years, so I was not going to surrender it easily now that I had met a man who I adored.
For my part, I cooked and presented him with my favorite meals. One night I made spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce. I used twelve cloves of garlic, lightly sautéed, and then cooked them with the tomatoes until it was luscious and creamy. Another night I stewed up a pot of Swiss chard, adding porcini mushrooms and chickpeas. I served it with a dust of Parmesan cheese. When he hungered for a full meal, I roasted a lemony chicken with garlic and carrots, followed it with a salad of wild greens and goat cheese, and concluded with dark chocolate squares and mint tea.
In return, Tito kept me company while I diced and stirred, and offered me stories about the daily happenings at the garage. These were his gifts to me. Through him I learned about the lives and dreams of everyone at el taller, from the timid Simón to the overblown Guillermo. After supper Tito would take my hand and lead me out into the streets for a walk through the neighborhood in the fading light. When we came back he’d put on music from Chile. This was our cortejo. But with all this, I still craved roses. I blame it on the extravagant Junior.
One afternoon Tito called me from the corner telephone on the street. In those days he rarely phoned in the middle of the day. He said he’d be late for supper that night. “I’m going out with Junior to get flowers, and then I’m going to deliver them.”
He spoke so fast I only caught flores. Perhaps our courtship was entering a new phase. That evening I assembled a Niçoise salad and put on a translucent purple blouse, flared skirt, and high heels. It was a combination I’d never worn for him. I set the table and readied my prettiest vase. When I heard him at the door I rushed to open it. He looked me up and down and beamed in happy surprise. I kissed him even as I noted that his hands were empty. When he changed clothes, we sat down to supper. “Junior’s fallen in love,” he said.
“De quién?” Junior was already living with someone, I thought to myself.
“Mouna. You know her – she lives in the neighborhood, on the next block.”
I shook my head. I didn’t know anyone named Mouna, and I couldn’t think of anyone who fit her description – pretty and plump, according to Tito. “What about Nidia?” They had lived together so long they were practically married.
Tito shrugged. She was extraneous to his story. Junior met Mouna in the deli, and something about her caught his eye. He asked her out. She told him she wasn’t interested. For Junior, that just fanned his interest. Mouna knew nothing about Nidia, but she didn’t date men she had just met. But Junior couldn’t stop thinking about the woman who had rebuffed his overtures. It was all he talked about with Tito for days.
Like the young boy who selects, then mails, a cherished Valentine anonymously to a secret crush, so Junior desired to show his adoration for Mouna. He thought up a plan, because every goal needs a plan. He would go with Tito to buy flowers. Then Tito, in his uniform from work, would carry the roses to her door, looking just like a flower deliveryman.
Junior bought two dozen roses. I picture them in my car, back from the florist’s with the bouquet, parked in front of Mouna’s house, and Tito stepping out, dwarfed by all the blossoms. Junior had timed it so only Mouna and her younger sister would be at home. A little girl opened the door. Tito didn’t speak much English back then, but he knew enough to ask for Mouna. When she came down, he pointed to the card buried inside the blossoms, and then he ran back to the car. I’m sure they were both rolling in glee as Tito drove Junior home to Brooklyn, back to his Nidia.
Nidia is older than Junior, not so different from Tito and me, except that Nidia is 20 years older than her beloved. I am certain she waited for him, as I waited for Tito, with the dinner table set. At least she hadn’t readied a flower vase. I tried to be light about the misunderstanding, pointing to the empty vase standing tall on the counter. Tito just glanced at it. “Can you imagine how much those roses cost?”
I nodded, but that didn’t stop me from wanting roses from Tito. I picked up our plates in silence. Had we passed through the delirium of courtship and into domesticity without even recognizing it?
“Demasiado, no?” He was still marveling at how much Junior was willing to spend.
“Es adventura y nada más,” he pronounced. It’s just an affair and nothing more. He shook his head.
I didn’t answer him. I am a Cancer, the crab, and sometimes I act like one, a soft creature in a hard shell who has no other mode of walking but sideways. So I reproached Tito later that night when we were in bed. We went around and around until I accused him of betraying Nidia.
“Oh, mi amor. Junior asked me for my help. What else could I have done?”
“You could have taken a stand. You could have asked him about his commitment to Nidia.” While I’d never met Nidia, my loyalties lay with her.
“Oh, mi vida, that is not my business.”
“You should have refused to take part in that little venture.” I was remembering the pictures Tito showed me one night of Junior and Nidia together in their kitchen. In one they smile at the camera, their heads together. In another, they stand by the stove, sharing a spoonful of rice from a pot. “You’re his friend, Tito. It’s your job to help him be faithful.”
Tito is wise for his years. He knows some arguments are about other things. He leaned over to stroke my hair. He reached for peace, but I turned over and away from him.
Neither of us talked about Nidia again. That night I lay awake in the darkness and thought about Carmen. She was waiting for Tito to come home, too.
And so the summer began, with Tito enabling Junior in his courtship of Mouna. Some nights he was her limo driver, picking her up from her work in the Bronx. Other nights he reverted to being a florist’s deliveryman. He seemed to enjoy the intrigue. I didn’t ask questions. Tito knew to hold back those stories. He understood how I felt about his complicity. We went on as before. After dinner we still wandered through the streets and avenues, and sometimes further, out of Blissville and down the commercial boulevards. When we passed a flower stand I made him stop. I told him about the mystique of roses. I bent down to breathe in the scents of each bouquet, moving my face from color to color, bucket to bucket, savoring the subtle differences in their fragrances. Each time I explained to Tito their magic. He listened carefully. He’d never bought flowers for a woman before, he admitted. “There are so many kinds, I can never choose. I will buy the wrong bouquet.”
“But I love them all.” And I did. I was also hoping to give him confidence. But he didn’t buy any, and I couldn’t press him further. I felt Carmen at my side. I think Tito heard her summonses too. On our June walks together he would sometimes suddenly ask, in polite and formal language, to make a quick call. And then we would go on, as if before. But it wasn’t the same, of course, at least for me.
One day I chanced upon Junior in the street. He was bursting with exuberance, caught up in the thrall of newfound love. I couldn’t share his excitement about it as Tito had. I had to challenge him instead. “Why do you men always start up with something new before finishing what you already have waiting for you at home?” I watched my bitter words streak across his face the way a summer squall darkens a bay.
Junior’s eyes grew small and his mouth tight. “You don’t know what she is like, nagging me day and night.Yelling and complaining all the time. I’m sick of her.”
I nodded while not understanding anything and moved on. But my sourness followed me home. I should have found a single man, not a married one.
One day an assignment took me out of New York and into Connecticut. It was a simple job, to photograph an upscale bar and their fancy summer drinks. I dressed for the occasion and headed off. We photographers like to imagine that we are invisible. We never see what we look like, a camera in front of our eyes, peering into other faces, other lives. We like to think we meld in wherever we may be. But with a camera in our hands, representing a newspaper or magazine, we are like celebrities. And often that works in our favor, though we would never admit it. And our subjects, for a brush with fame, will accommodate us, acceding to whatever we need. The people in that Connecticut bar were no different.
It was packed but they parted for me and led me to the bar. As I worked, I grew friendly with my neighbors. When I finished, the man next to me continued our conversation. He was a lawyer—older, thoughtful, and funny. I ordered a drink. We talked. We even flirted. When I paid my bill, he asked me to have dinner with him.
I hesitated. I wasn’t used to attention like this, but I was flattered. I looked back at him, considering for a moment his invitation. And then I told him I was seeing someone. But his very suggestion awoke in me a sense of what could have been with another man at another time.
He must have sensed my ambivalence. “Come on, try me. It’s only dinner,” he said. He reached in his wallet for his business card and held it out to me. “If you change your mind, call me.”
I looked back into his warm, playful face. I reached for a napkin and wrote down my own on its flap and slid it over to him. “I need to think about it.” I gathered up my things, smiled back at him, and left.
Outside, the sky was pink and the heavy air salty. I paused to breathe it in and savor everything that had passed and all that lay in front of me. My cell phone rang. My home number glowed in my hand. I had given Tito a key to the apartment because we were spending most nights together. I could feel him waiting for me.
“Dónde estás?” He wanted to know where I was. “Cuándo vuelves?” When are you coming back? I could hear his loneliness.
I told him I wouldn’t be long, that I’d just finished my assignment and would be on the highway soon.
He was quiet, and for a second I thought we were disconnected. “Hablé con Carmen.” I spoke with Carmen. The softness of his voice pierced me.
“Todo va bien.” Everything was fine now, but there had been a problem. His monthly money hadn’t arrived, and she was panicked. He had calmed her, and together they’d found a solution until the money would arrive.
I stood by the car wordless with the phone to my ear, bewildered by why he was telling me this. He never told me much about her when, and if, I asked. I looked up at the sky that had now turned purple. I had nothing to say. I listened to him breathing on the other end of the phone and waited.
“Do you think it is possible to love two women at the same time?”
I felt the buzz from the drink and the glow from the evening seep out. Dark blues and grays gathered at the horizon. Tito talked on, but I held the phone away from my ear. When I heard him pause, I ended the call.
I leaned against the car and watched the streetlights in the parking lot grow stronger in the cool light of the evening. I waited until they made yellow puddles on the pavement. Then I got in the car and pushed the key in the ignition. But I didn’t turn it on. I rummaged for my wallet and pulled out the card the lawyer had given me. He lived and practiced in Connecticut, just two towns away from my parents. Perhaps, as he promised, we’d have fun for a date or two. We shared social class, education, and the Connecticut suburbs. And then what? I slid his card back in my wallet and turned the key.
When I arrived home, the apartment was still. Tito had gone to bed early. He had cleared and cleaned the kitchen, and every surface sparkled. On the kitchen table a candle flickered, his welcome. And next to it, a tall vase of pink carnations.
No one works at the garage thinking they’ll stay. At least that’s what Tito says. “El taller is just a step toward something else.”
They’re there, as they remind themselves each lunch hour by the greasy desk in the center of the garage, for only as long as it takes to buy their dream.
Simón the bodyman says that when he goes home, he’ll buy a truck with his earnings. He longs to drive the lengths of Chile carrying its produce and products. He knows he won’t find riches doing that. It’s being his own boss that he wants.
Tito whispers to me later that Simón enjoys his personal computer too much, the big television and the soft, leather sofa his salary has afforded him. Not to mention his two-bedroom apartment. These things would have been beyond his reach in Chile. Simón has been here eleven years and still he wonders if he’s staying. If he has to stay, he’d want to open his own body shop somewhere in Queens. Tito says, “Sueños. He spends everything he makes. You can’t open a body shop with no money.”
Guillermo, the Argentinean, listens each day to shy Simón. He puffs on his cigarette and brags he’ll have his own garage someday. He knows exactly where he’ll put it, too – out on the pampas by the highway that leads from Córdoba to Buenos Aires, a route that never lacks for cars. Out there drivers always need gas and fresh tires. Or, as Guillermo likes to add with a smug smile, extensive repairs.
When I ask Tito later about this idea of Guillermo’s, he bats it away as if it were a big buzzing fly, too fat and tired to get out of its own way. “Pffft, do you know how much he smokes? That’s why he doesn’t eat lunch. He can’t afford it. He’d rather spend $10 each day on cigarettes. And then he’s got his whole family here, and he’s the only who works. Can you imagine? Not his teenage son, not his wife, not even his grown first-born son.” He rolls his eyes. “Charla…ilusiones.”
Grey-haired Manolo says nothing. His dreams are for his young wife and the two boys and two girls they are raising. They live in Bushwick where the rents are low and the schools are poor. But that doesn’t stop him from expecting perfect grades on the report cards his children bring home. Through them he will live another life. Each Saturday he gives his wife everything that Nicolás pays him—$600 a week in cash. But some weeks their needs are more, whether for school clothes, notebooks, pens, or team uniforms. And that’s when the phone is cut, and everyone eats rice without even an egg. But he and his wife know it’s better than being in Ecuador where there are no jobs.
Danilo the foreman has no nostalgia to return to his homeland either. He is from Colombia and a victim of his country’s casual violence. He fled after a man he’d reprimanded stalked him and shot up his house. They only survived because they hid under the bed. And he had had a good job as a manager at an oil refinery. No, Danilo prefers the peace he finds here. And he, too, has dreams of his own garage one day. He already has clients who will follow him for the work he does there and after hours. In the meantime he is collecting tips. From almost every car inspection andjob he assigns to a mechanic, he nets a tip. He could share them, but he doesn’t. He pockets them for the future he imagines. It’s only his green card that eludes him.
Tito shakes his head when I ask him about this. “Danilo is waiting for Nicolás to sponsor him. And Nicolás is never going to do that.”
When I ask him why not, Tito snorts. “Nicolás has a big family, and there’s always someone else who needs sponsoring. Danilo will probably work his whole life on the sidelines, working for other people.” He pauses. “It’s not a bad life.”
I wonder. For someone who yearns to be his own boss, it looks like a half-life (half of a life)(?).
Lunch is short, just a half-hour for such ambitions. There’s no time left for Junior. But Junior has other aspirations.
Of all the mechanics, Junior is the person with whom I talk the most, even though his Spanglish is harder for me to understand than his Spanish. He is warm and spontaneous, and though I could never tell him, he also has a streak of vulnerability that touches me. We greet each other, and more often than not, talk about our plans. “I’m gonna be a world-class wrestler, fighting in the WWF,” he confides to me one day. “Japan. That’s where I’m gonna to fight.”
I laugh out loud in amazement, and later, when I tell Tito about it, he laughs. But maybe we are wrong. After all, he’s started winning local matches. And Tito saw him win a championship at the famous Gleason’s Gym.
But I think Junior knows the difference between a sueño and a fantasía. Lately he’s been itching to move to Boston. He and Nidia already spend weekends there visiting cousins. “In Boston, everybody stays in his house,” he tells me one day.
I have to smile. I can think of many reasons why a city might be attractive, but I wouldn’t have thought of this one.
“Amazing, yeah? I can sit by the window a whole half hour and not see anybody. Not even a car driving by. And nobody drinking six-packs outside and people going crazy like with their guns and all.”
Everything depends on your point of view, I suppose. Junior lives in one of Brooklyn’s devastated neighborhoods. I’ve never seen his home, but I’ve been in the area more than once to cover multiple murders. I would like a calmer, safer life for him, too. But if he moves I will miss his impetuous enthusiasm.
He looks down at his watch. “The houses are so cheap around Boston.”
I tilt my head. I’d read Boston was one of the country’s most expensive cities. I can’t believe he could afford something. I know I couldn’t. But regardless of the city, Junior wants what I want. With my uncertain income, this is just a dream for me. How real is it for Junior?
That night Tito shakes his head at the idea, too. “Mujer, how can he save? Junior’s a child. He sees something he wants, and he buys it. He’s spent over $10,000 on tools already. Mechanics with twice his experience don’t have so many tools.”
I ask Tito about his own aspirations, and before he can answer I propose a pact. I tell him that we must be the keeper of each other’s dreams. Tito tells me that he wants to start a tour business in Chile. This has been his dream for five years, to lead visitors to the remote, secret parts of Chile, from the sacred festivals in the north to the copper towns in the south. “But first I’ll take them through the streets of my home in Valparaíso. I’ll lead them down to the oldest barrio by the port where the sailors drink and then way up to Pablo Neruda’s house on the hill where all the artists live.” And with that he launches into his marketing plan consisting of leaflets and advertising and all the contacts he’s already made with travel agencies and student exchange programs. He knows exactly how much money this will cost, and even how much he will need to cover a sluggish first year. He even has a schedule for his goals. I realize that as much as Tito believes in portents, he’s not waiting for them. All of his finances are on the timetable he has created for himself. If he keeps going that way, he could be done and gone in two years. I’m awed by his confidence.
And this makes me hesitate to tell him my own sueños, but he waits. Soon they are rushing out of me as if alive. I tell him I want to produce a body of work that’s both startlingly personal and intensely worldly. I want the kind of recognition that propels collectors to buy it, museums to show it, publishers to print it, and editors to offer me assignments all over the world. I want all of this. But most of all, I want my pictures to live beyond the span of my life. Of course, my dreams don’t stop there. With the money I’d earn, I’d buy a house, nothing very big, not too far, not too near, something out in the country with neighbors and just enough space for a garden. Oh, these are such dreams they make me giddy. I know they will require work, I say. I will accomplish them only project by project, and I have three in mind: an essay of the public pools; portraits of child street vendors; and a series of roomscapes of all the fraternal societies that dot the city. As I talk I don’t see Tito or the expression on his face or anything else, except the pictures I have in mind.
And then I stop, emptied of all my aspirations. I lean in. I am waiting for something more, but I’m not sure what it is. I can see by his expression that he’s heard and understood everything. In the space between us, I realize that I’m looking for him, like the lucky stones I pocket, to make all this come true. But he simply smiles and takes my hand. He has no enchanted spell for me. He has simply given me his faith.
I kept Tito from my friends, but they noticed anyway. It showed in my walk, my face, my voice, and the ever-present half-smile that wouldn’t go away. So I told them I’d met someone special, and left it at that. If anyone asked further, I said he was from Chile. This led to questions about how we met and what he did. “How wonderful,” they’d exclaim after the faintest of pauses. “How convenient,” they’d add. Their awkwardness about his being a mechanic didn’t bother me. But when we came to his legal status I shrugged. “I have no idea where this is going,” I’d admit. And that was the truth. After all, it was a summer affair. These were the things I told myself.
No one thought to ask about his marital status, and I didn’t volunteer it. I only told a few, and even with them I fibbed. “He’s separated from his wife,” I said. But I knew it was only a half-truth. After all, he was living 6,000 miles away from Carmen.
As for the whole truth, for I had to tell someone, I reserved it for the one friend I knew who had dated a married man. At least she would understand.
Karen was my yoga friend. Not that I did yoga. We met in a beginner’s class. She went on to advanced yoga, and I went back to swimming. But we held on to the friendship we had started and cultivated it. A long time ago she’d told me about an affair she was having with a married man. At the time, I shied away, overwhelmed by her confession. But now I was ready to hear all about it. I asked her out to brunch without telling her my agenda. We met in a crowded café in her neighborhood, impersonal enough for such intimacies. I proceeded delicately, starting with my own confession. “You know how I’ve been seeing someone? There’s something I haven’t told you.” I took a huge bite of bread to make room for a pause. “He’s married.” I heard the lilt of a secret in my voice.
She looked at me without saying anything. I thought I read disapproval in her frown. “Didn’t you have an affair with a married man?”
Karen is younger than I am by ten years, but her raspy sigh sounded like an old woman’s. “That doesn’t mean it ended well,” she said. She let out her breath as if it ached to breathe. “I don’t think I’ll ever love again as I loved him. We met at a conference. He was from Denmark. Yes, he was married, but he was living here for the year. He traveled back home only twice that year. We started seeing each other. Soon we were seeing each other every weekend. We even took vacations together.”
“He was probably the most brilliant man I’ve ever met. But that wasn’t it. I’d never been with anyone who understood me like that before. And never since.” She shook her head. We sat still in the din of the café. Then she went on. “You know what, Rebecca? I thought he’d leave his wife. He promised me he would. He didn’t love her. He hardly liked her. But they had a child.”
She paused. “He loved me. I’m certain of that. He asked me to give him time. He needed to put his affairs at home in order. So I gave him months, but we couldn’t stay apart. I was impatient. We started fighting. I wanted him to choose, but I really just wanted him to leave her. We spent more and more of our precious time together arguing. I accused him of emotional blackmail. He agreed and asked for another month.”
“But in the end, he always went back to her.” She busied herself in brushing off crumbs from the table. “He wasn’t mine. Finally I broke it off.”
She stirred the remains of her tea. “But that wasn’t the end, of course. Eight months later he called. He was miserable. He wanted to see me. I missed him. Oh, I had ached for him, so I agreed. And it was delirious to see him after all that time apart. We lasted for a night, and then the arguing began again, the same old thing.”
“We went on for two more years like this, breaking up and getting back together again. I’d tell him I was exhausted with the whole thing. He couldn’t give me what I needed and wanted. I’d beg for him to stay away. He promised not to call again. Some time would pass, and then he’d call. Each time I was elated and relieved, can you believe that?”
“And then I didn’t hear from him. A whole year. Funny you should ask, since he called a month ago. He was in New York, and he wanted to see me. This time I refused him.” She paused. I looked around at the sleepy couples all around us, their faces still tender from the intimacy of waking together. I signaled to the waiter for the check, and when it came, pulled out my credit card. It was the least I could do. “We talk on the phone now sometimes. He was the love of my life.”
The waiter placed the chit by my hand, and I signed it and gave it back to him.
“Do you want my advice?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. “Break it off.” She nodded. “Do it now. Don’t wait.”
I nodded. “I know, I know, I know I should. But I don’t want to. It’s June, for heaven’s sake, and summer’s just beginning. It’s a fling, that’s all.” And that seemed to justify it, my affair with Tito. But her story lodged in my heart like a small pebble in a shoe.
In a far away city overlooking the Pacific, Tito once lived on Cerro Alegre. I heard him whisper that name many times before I knew what it meant. “Happy Hill” he told me when I asked. These days I’m asking him questions all the time about his life in Chile. Yes, I’m curious, but mostly I’m eaten by a jealousy that no matter how much I learn, the more I crave. Sometimes I wonder if it can ever be satisfied. By now Tito recognizes that anything he says about Carmen will only stoke my jealousy. So these days I’ve become an expert at the oblique question. This Sunday as we lie in bed I ask him about this magic hill and pretend that I’ve forgotten that Cerro Alegre was where Tito reconciled with Carmen after that year apart.
“Wherever I looked I could see the horizon of the sea. I watched the storms arrive and I watched them leave. And always, there was the smell of the ocean.”
I trace my finger down his arm, imagining the long coast of his country. We are thousands of miles and an ocean away from Happy Hill in a neighborhood where there’s no hill, no view, and no horizon. From the bedroom window we see only billboards and highways. We smell only gasoline and diesel and the yeasty scents from the Afghan Bakery. On a lucky day we catch scents of anise from the spice factory a few blocks away. But if the wind blows in the opposite direction, we are surrounded with the odors of sewage drifting from the treatment plant across the creek in Brooklyn. This is where I live.
They lived in an apartment, on the first floor of a grand house built back in the middle of the 19th century. Cerro Alegre is a Victorian neighborhood where the British, who were stationed there, built mansions in the years before the Panama Canal, back when Valparaíso was the most important port in the Southern Hemisphere, Tito tells me. I hear the romance of another era in his voice.
“We had so much space we could breathe again, with wide rooms, tall ceilings, and high windows,” he tells me.
This is already too much for me, and I interrupt and tell him I want to make breakfast. I slip out of bed and head right to the kitchen. Tito pads behind me in his bare feet. The sun splashes across the turquoise floor. My kitchen is one of the largest and happiest rooms in my walk-through apartment, and the first room a visitor sees. “Are the rooms as big as this?” I fling my arms wide to encompass the whole apartment, large by New York City standards.
Tito nods. “Más grande, querida.”
I pull out the eggs. One by one I break them and watch them drop into the bowl. I can’t imagine a sweeter kitchen than the one I have.
“I’ll show you.” Tito sits down to draw the diagram while I beat the eggs.
When they’re frothy I look up. Tito holds up his floor plan to me, scratches of pencil on a small piece of paper that somehow manage to evoke an enormous apartment. “This is my home in Valparaíso.”
As he pronounces that wondrous name, I think about its meaning, Valley of Paradise. I wonder how heavenly it could be if it’s where wives cheat and lie to their husbands.
He points his pencil at one of the squares. “Matías’s room.” Matías is Tito’s 20-year-old son who is studying architecture. I picture a room lined with drawings and models. Tito moves his pencil to another square, across a corridor. “Ayelén’s room.” Ayelén is his 14-year-old daughter, a cellist and perfect student, and the one he hopes will be a lawyer. I pour a coating of olive oil into the frying pan.
He is tapping the square next to Ayelén’s. “Carmen’s room.”
“Vuestra habitación,” I correct. Your room. I flick a drop of water into the pan. It sputters back. I slide the eggs in. As I throw in a handful of the parsley I’ve minced, I tell myself we’ll have scrambled eggs better than Carmen could ever make. With a wooden fork I stir the yolks into the whites until they are a canary yellow.
“There’s the courtyard, then the dining room, then the sitting room, and in the back, the kitchen.” I am sure he says more but I miss it. I am concentrating on bringing the eggs just to the point of fluffiness. I lift the pan from the fire, spoon them onto our two plates, and pass them back to Tito. I join him at the table. When he sees the frothy eggs flecked with parsley he reaches for my hands and kisses them. “After we eat, I’ll show you the pictures.” A lump of dread settles into my stomach. But we manage to leave Happy Hill and talk about the week past, the one to come, and the hike we’ll take today.
At the meal’s conclusion Tito leads me back to the bedroom, to my computer. He logs on and after a few clicks he brings up a grid of little photos. “My pictures. From home. Of my city, my family, and my children.”
I take in a breath. Maybe I’ll see a picture of Carmen. I’ve never seen what she looks like.
He clicks on the first picture of a sullen four-year-old staring back at me. “M’hija,” he says. My daughter. “She is first in her class at school. Mi niña y mi sueño.” My little girl and my dream.
I wonder for a second why parents always seem to shift their hopes to the youngest. I am the oldest, and my father probably thinks the same about my sister Nonnie, who shares almost everything with him in addition to excelling in everything she undertakes. Tito clicks on another picture. I see a young man wearing bell-bottoms and a tie-dyed shirt. Wiry, thick, hair spreads out from his face, and he wears a proud smile that is all Tito. In front of him stands the little girl, now smiling. “Preciosa.” Beautiful. He brings up a picture where he stands among a group of hippies. “I was músico back then. I played the trumpet, and we performed at festivals all over Chile. This is our group, el Bandalismo.” He says it just like vandalism, and I realize the pun is intentional. He clicks to the next image. Tito, a woman, and the young girl stand tightly together before the camera. I come nearer to look more closely, but he has already moved on. A baby fills the screen. “Ayelén.” He pauses on it.
I tug on his arm to backtrack a frame, to the threesome, the one before the baby, but he shakes his head.
“Was that Carmen?” I can hear the shrillness in my voice, but I’m long beyond control.
He doesn’t answer. He brings up more photos, naming them in turn. “My music group. My nieces and nephews. My mother and father. My sisters,” he tells me. His family seems endless in the way other people’s families always feel. Finally he pauses on a picture of four. “Matías, ves?” He points to a young boy standing near the edge of a frame in which Tito, a woman, and little girl stand together in its center. I move my face close to the screen. She has long wavy hair, the kind I’d always envied, and it frames a heart-shaped face with red, full lips. Her eyes are dark and luminous, and even from where I stand I can see they have long, curly lashes. Around her neck she has draped a scarf just so, an elegant touch to her flared dress and high heels. She presses Tito’s arm against her tiny waist. She looks so glamorous that she could be a movie star. They stare into the camera, and Tito beams for the lens once again.
He shuts off the computer before I can see more. “Here, I’ll show you my house,” he says. He gets up and pulls open the bottom bureau drawer. He reaches in for a notebook tucked under his stack of pants. We sit on the bed together. He unzips the little case and color photographs spill out. He gathers them up and passes a photo to me. It shows a gray, tall mansion sitting on the corner of a street that runs down to the harbor, and the ocean beyond. “Cerro Alegre,” he exhales. He hands me another. “El patio.” The courtyard. “In summer this is where we eat. Nice, no?”
The plain courtyard has leafy plants tucked in its corners. The center holds the kind of impersonal, wrought iron furniture that my aunt had on her patio when I was growing up. I can’t tell if it’s the lack of flowers or simply the stale design of furniture that makes it feel cold. “Pretty,” I tell him.
He holds out another. It’s a bare, utilitarian kitchen, a little grease-spattered, the sort of place not meant for lingering.
“Looks like dinner is cooking,” I say with a little laugh.
He passes over another photo. “El salón.” Their living room is filled with Scandinavian furniture from the 1960s, harshly colored the way things looked in the movies back then. A few plants sit in the corners, but no pictures hang on the walls.
“How nice and roomy,” I say.
“El comedor.” The dining room is long and dark, dominated by a plain dining room table. Except for the lack of lights, it nakedness reminds me of a table in a library.
“A good place for studying,” I say. I try to imagine Ayelén and Matías with their books open on the table.
“No, they study in their rooms, where their computers and televisions are.”
“Everyone has a TV in their room?”
He smiles. “Did you think Chile was a Third World country?”
Listening to Tito, I can never tell in which world Chile belongs. It seems to be one of those countries caught in the middle, with a sixth of its population living in shantytowns and the rest in houses with potable water and septic systems. Apparently the number of computers and televisions inside an ordinary apartment has nothing to do with anything. “When I grew up we only had one television for all of us,” I say.
Tito acts as if he hasn’t heard me. He’s studying the next photo. “Mi gato, precioso, no?” I look down at it. A yellow cat squints out at me. It’s obvious that my gray tiger cat is more beautiful. I lean to look closer. His cat is perched on top of a bed, the bed he had to have shared with Carmen. I reach for the photo from his hands but he holds it away, beyond my grasp. From over his shoulder I can see that the bed is a double, just a mattress on a frame, half-covered with a wrinkled, orange bedspread.
“Mi habitación,” Tito says, and he tucks the photo back into the stack. My bedroom.
I look around at my bedroom, gaze on my bed with its blond, turned posts, an object of grace and an heirloom. I study the antique bedspread that Nonnie gave me, and the books stacked all around and over every surface. I stare at the walls where my photographs of friends, family, trips, and childhood are tacked to the walls. I think about my neighborhood, with no such glorious history, either long ago when it was made of tenements, or now, with its garages, tire shops, and broken and stained sidewalks. But it has welcomed me, and now Tito. And I realize that my neighborhood has something more in common with Cerro Alegre. It shares the meaning of its name—Blissville.