A fat, worn cardboard box sits in the center of the living room. A friend has carried it back from Chile for us, Tito tells me. Its tattered corners testify to the thousands of miles it’s traveled. Other than daily emails, Tito never receives anything from Chile, not at Christmastime, not on his birthday. This is Tito’s first package from home. He seems content just to looks at it. He tells me he was waiting for me.
He pulls the box towards him and slits open one of the seams. He pauses. I can see that he doesn’t want to rush the moment. I sit down next to him and put my arm around his shoulder. He opens a flap. I peer over to look. Inside it shimmers, brimming with little presents wrapped in gold tissue. He turns to me. “They’re for you, Rebecca.”
“It can’t be. They’re for you, mi amor.”
“No, they are for both of us. They’re wedding presents.”
“You have to go first.” I reach in and hand him a gift. His fingers fumble with the tape. The paper does not want to rip. He peels off an end of the tape and pulls it off. Inside is a decorative copper plate with a city scene painted on it. At the bottom it says Valparaíso.
He brings it up to his face and inhales. “This is the view from the harbor,” he says. It’s as if he can smell his home, his port, his city.
I hand him another gift, and he pulls out one for me. We unwrap the presents together. He holds up another copper plate, and I hold up a towel that says “Chile”. We dig in the box for more. We unwrap a copper wall ornament that says “Chile” down its length, key ring that says Valparaíso, and a hot pad in the colors of the Chilean flag. The pile of souvenirs grows. Tito opens a set of copper coasters that match the wall plaques, also with painted scenes of the hills of Valparaíso. I open a rectangular copper painting of Pablo Neruda. An apron emblazoned with C-H-I-L-E across its front, two picture books of Valparaíso, and a calendar of the city. Part of me wonders how much of Chile our small apartment can hold. Another part of me recognizes that this is just the beginning. I have not only married a man, but his family and his country. I have tried to keep up with the names but there are so many. His family seems bigger than ever.
Tito reaches in and pulls out a package that’s simply rolled in blue tissue. Written on the tissue is “Mi viejo. De Matías.” His son has sent him a lush, soft red sports jacket with the letters of “Chile” on its back. As Tito holds it up for me to see, a fat roll of paper falls out. He puts down the jacket and picks up the roll, slipping off the elastic band. Together we lay the papers out. In faint pencil we can make out Matías’ architectural designs. We bend down and study them, but neither of us can really picture the buildings he’s created. Tito rolls them up and places them on top of the jacket. He sits quietly. “This was why I came to New York, so Matías could stay in school.”
He rouses himself and looks back inside the box. He holds out a tiny gift. The tag says, “Para Rebecca, Ayelén.” I’m amazed his daughter has thought to give me a gift. We haven’t even met each other, and she is only sixteen. Tito watches me as I unwrap the little package. A little silver heart of lapis lazuli spills into my lap. I am awed by her generosity. I never expected anything from her. I get up and find a necklace for it, a thin silver chain that my mother gave me years ago. It slips through the clasp easily. I ask Tito to fasten it around my neck. “Luce linda en ti,” he says. I run to the bathroom to look. The baby heart fits perfectly inside my collarbone. “It’s beautiful,” I say to the mirror.
He shuffles inside the box for her gift to him. After some rummaging, he pulls out a present wrapped in paper of the same pattern. It’s wide and flat. He unwraps it slowly, commenting on the care she’s taken in wrapping it. It is a framed photograph of her, and inside an envelope a card and loose photos. He opens the card and reads it. Then he reads it again. He says nothing. He just puts it back in its envelope, and we go back to the presents.
We have reached a new level in the box. These presents are wrapped in plastic bags. “These are from my mother.” I ask him how he knows. “She collects plastic bags just like you, mi cielo.” He hands me a bag. Inside is a group of thin pamphlets printed on newsprint. I leaf through the top one. They are little recipe books. “She knows you like to cook.” He lifts out something larger and heavier and pulls it from the bag. It’s an old book, a history of Valparaíso. Another bag contains a collection of photos from Tito’s youth. He pulls them out to look and show me. They are his school pictures. I recognize his round head and face in all of them. In his early grades he looks serious, staring fiercely at the camera. In the later pictures he doesn’t look at the camera but at his friends. Already I can see his resistance to authority.
He sets them down and looks inside another bag. It holds a small stack of newspaper clippings, yellowed and brittle. He sifts through them. He shows me himself in the news, supervising at the port and demonstrating in the streets, a protest against the privatization of the port. He doesn’t know where she has found them, but he is glad to have a part of his history here in New York.
We unwrap two older picture books of Valparaíso, a video of the city, a used guidebook of the city, and more copper plaques. He shakes his head at the bounty she has given him. “All of these things. She has collected them since I left. ”
A picture of Tito’s mother hangs in our bedroom above his bureau. I see it every morning when I open my eyes. In the photograph she stands before the camera, straight and confident in front of her house. He has told me about her life, how she was the child of a poor young woman and a wealthy father who never acknowledged her birth. Her mother raised her alone. But they had no money, so when she turned ten, she left school to work. She found work in a store, and read every newspaper that passed through. When she met Tito’s father they fell in love, and they married. They were each poor, but they knew how to work. Together they ran a small business selling fruit and vegetables. All the while she was raising five children, one of whom was the child from a dalliance by her husband.
And still they persevered as a family. Fifteen years ago she lost her husband, Tito’s father. She still works every day in her tiny store. And she is nearly 80. I imagine her to be the proud and independent woman I see in the picture, someone intensely protective of those she loves. But with her gifts, I feel her welcome.
Tito tells me that her shop is a lot like our deli, in a marginal neighborhood not so different from Blissville. She carries a little of everything. In his weekly call to her, he listens to her stories. The economy has changed, and some of her customers can no longer afford what they need. She gives it to them anyway. In exchange, they give her items from their homes. I imagine a shelf behind her counter where she might have stored all the things she has saved for Tito, her only son. It would have been full after four years of his absence. But now her presents are here, and her shelf is empty.
We’ve emptied the box. I shake it just to be sure. A small, flat gift, this one wrapped, falls out. It says “Tito” in wobbly writing across its center. I put it in his hands.
“I know what it is. I don’t need to open it.” He brings it up to his lips and kisses it. I watch him, baffled.
“It’s a prayer card. To San Expedito. My mother’s saint.”
“San Expedito? This is the name of a real saint?”
“Of course he’s real, mi amor. He’s a very important saint. How could you question that? He’s the saint my mother prays to every day.” Tito unwraps it and hands it to me.
It’s a simple laminated card with the requisite haloed figure of a man. He wears a long, red cape. In one hand he holds a branch from a fir tree, in the other he raises a small cross. A helmet lies on the ground beside him. I turn over the card and read Oración a San Expedito. The type underneath is in verse, but it’s too dense, too small to read. Besides, it’s in Spanish. I give it back to Tito. I am a Protestant, and my lexicon of saints goes no further than the Gospels.
One by one the copper plaques go up on the walls. I discover a new one every day in the corners of the apartment. Tito has tucked them in among all the drawings, paintings, and photographs I have collected over the years. To my surprise, they all fit in. Before long we have integrated almost all the presents from Chile into our apartment.
But San Expedito we leave off to the side. It’s as if, without even talking about it, we have each decided that San Expedito is something that we don’t share. One day I find the little card on my desk. Tito must have placed it there for me. I pick it up and hold it to the light. What does it mean? What does it say? I have to refer to the dictionary often. But in the end it’s only a prayer of adoration. So I Google him. After reading entry after entry, I learn that San Expedito was a soldier in the Roman army in the fourth century who discovered the light of Jesus after a battle. San Expedito converted to Christianity in that blinding moment. He is called San Expedito because at the moment of revelation he called out, “Hodie, hodie, hodie.” Today, today, today. I look down at the little card. His halo shines, and his hand stretches out to me. Not yet, I think.
I call Tito over. “Did you put this here?”
“Maybe you did?”
“I don’t have any memory of doing that. Maybe.” I am as absent minded as Tito is intentional.
“San Expedito is the saint of urgent problems. He is like his name. He finds solutions quickly.”
I wonder if I have any problems that I need to resolve.
“My mother prays every day for you to get work.”
I realize that what is usually a dry season has been a full one. I have had more work than I’ve been able to accept, in fact.
“I think that is why you have been doing so well these days, mi amor.”
I look at Tito, still afraid to trust a saint. His eyes shine back, willing me to believe. I touch the card’s haloed head. Thank you, I whisper back.
We’ve arrived to celebrate Christmas Eve at Nonnie’s country house in the Berkshires. This is our second Christmas as a couple among my parents and all of Nonnie’s family. We find seats by the fire in the living room, alongside little hand-carved Santas sitting on the antique tables, and boughs of fir draping across the mantel. Nonnie enters with a tray of caviar and pâté. Her husband follows with a bottle of champagne and fills our flutes. We raise our glasses in the candlelight and give thanks that this year finds us together once again. The champagne sparkles back into our faces.
As is our family tradition on this night, we have gathered together to sing carols. Nonnie waits for us to finish our hors d’oeuvres, and then she passes out the song booklets. We have decided ahead of time that I will lead the singing because I have the best pitch. She nods, and I begin. Everyone follows. Their voices boom out whatever note they can find. At least half of the family is tone-deaf. Tito doesn’t know these carols. I don’t hear his bass until the second verse. I love him fiercely in these moments. We move through six songs, and then my nephews stand up with their father to sing We Three Kings. This is the program we sing every year.
Maybe it’s the snowflakes flying so freely outside that makes me want to shake things up and transform our own Christmas tableau. “Tito and I are going to sing a song now,” I say. Nonnie looks over and beams. I can tell she welcomes a performance by the two of us.
I look over at Tito, who is sitting across the room and behind my mother. On holidays like this he always tries to place himself in the background. I smile to give him encouragement. He frowns and shakes his head ever so slightly. Last year I suggested we sing a Chilean Christmas carol, but he felt too uncertain of my family then. This year we practiced one on the way up. He taught me a simple song, and we went over it many times. But now I can’t remember its words. I can’t even remember its tune. And I can see by his narrowed eyes that he won’t take the lead. He’d rather sit in back and hum through the carols as he’s been doing.
But tonight I am determined that we sing something that marks his presence in my family. I look around the room at the waiting faces. They’re ready for whatever surprise performance I have in mind. My nephews giggle. My father sighs. My brother-in-law raises his eyebrows, and my mother shines a vacant smile. I nod at Tito hoping he has changed his mind, but he just leans back in his chair and waits to see what I’ll do. I start with the only song in Spanish I know.
“Feliz Navidad, feliz Navidad.” I look at Tito while I sing the first measure. The song always makes me brim with happiness, and Tito feels it. He joins me. “Feliz Navidad, prospero año y felicidad,” we sing. I hear my mother’s wobbly voice now. She doesn’t know the words but she knows the tune, and she loves all the songs of Christmas. “I wanna wish you a merry Christmas.” Tito’s voice is deep and sure. I hear my Nonnie’s voice, high and clear. She looks radiant as she sings, “I wanna wish you a merry Christmas.” My nephews are now laughing. “From the bottom of my heart.” They join in. As we start a second round, I catch my brother-in-law’s flat baritone. “Feliz Navidad, feliz Navidad.”
I glance around the room. My father is the only one not singing. I know he knows this carol from the radio. It was a hit song when I was little, and he listened to the radio every morning while he shaved. I’m certain it’s also on the numerous Christmas albums he buys and plays. But he looks away from all of us. I see the line of his jaw, hard and unwavering, and the strength with which he’s pressed his lips together. I realize he hates this song. “Feliz Navidad, prospero año y felicidad.”
I try not to care. I listen to all the voices layered over Tito’s and mine. “I wanna wish you a merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.”
My father abhors anything and everything foreign. “Why do you need the message on your answering machine in both English and Spanish? People should learn English if they’re going to live here. You shouldn’t help them, Rebecca.” He is full of advice. If Tito greets him with “Hola,” my father leans in and enunciates, “Hel-lo, Tito.” Tito smiles and holds out his hand. Somehow he remains patient around my father. Perhaps it’s because he is also a father of a daughter.
Despite all my father’s misgivings, he wouldn’t dream of not buying gifts for Tito at Christmas time. This Christmas he’s called me several times to find out Tito’s shirt, waist, and shoe size. Part of his agenda, of course, is to see Tito dressed as he thinks he should be dressed. He also doesn’t want to be left behind in the gift giving. And maybe, just maybe, he’s beginning to accept that Tito is in all of our lives for good.
When we go downstairs the next morning, the tree, even the room itself, is piled with presents. In our family the opening of gifts is an all-day affair. It starts before breakfast and ends after dinner. As much respect as this gives the giver, I suffocate in its slowness. But mostly it’s the quantity of gifts, as beautiful and useful as they are, that makes me uneasy. Any sanctity of the day is lost among the ribbons and wrapping paper. And with such an abundance of gifts, the beauty of a single gift is lost. Underneath, I fear everyone is using the gifts to make up for the year’s emotional deficits.
Tito is always the first to rise and fill the plastic bag with crumpled balls of wrapping paper, to replace the last bag with a fresh one, to keep order however he can. I can’t tell if he is cleaning because he feels a debt to us for all his gifts, because of his craving for order, or because he wants to charm my family. Probably it’s a little of each. I watch his pleasure with each gift he receives. No matter how high his pile of presents grows, each new gift is special.
Tito has also chosen and wrapped his own set of presents. He looks under the tree and pulls them out. He finds one for each member of the family. One by one they unwrap them. A mini toolset for father, a clock-timer for one nephew, a swanky belt for the other, a stuffed animal for my mother, and a sequined pocket book for my sister. Everyone adores his gifts.
As the pile shrinks, my father gets up and picks up a box from under the tree. I can tell by all the scotch tape he’s used that he has wrapped it himself. Once my mother wrapped the gifts. She was such an expert at it that she didn’t need scotch tape. Now she struggles to wrap a single present. My father and I now do the wrapping.
He holds the box out to Tito. Tito looks up at him and flashes one of his devastatingly warm smiles. “For me?”
Tito has already opened boxes of shirts, belts, pants, a blazer, and socks, gifts from all of us. He’s astounded at everyone’s generosity. What more could he need?
He places the present in his lap and opens it. His face is delighted and expectant. He holds it out for all of us to see. His face is beaming. It’s a deep-olive jacket stuffed with goose down. The fabric looks lush, soft, and expensive. It has a leather collar and a thermometer on the end of its zipper. Tito adores these sporty details. He gets up and tries it on and pronounces it perfect.
My father looks enchanted by Tito’s happiness. He looks over to Tito and says, “Fe-li-liz Na…Na..,” and then his voice drops. “Whatever it is,” he says.
Tito smiles. “Merry Christmas.”
Twilight. Just saying it evokes the sweet sadness of mourning for the day’s end. It’s the time of day that Tito and I have made sacred, when we walk about the neighborhood and tell each other the tales of our day.
We never take the same camino. Tonight we walk towards the deli. Blissville has other delis, but for me, this one at the corner will always be its center. A few years back Mohammad retired, and since then there have been a succession of owners, each offering less than the last. I try not to be sentimental, but I can’t help it. I miss Mohammad and the community he created. Derek, the man who bought the business, converted the deli into el bar informal, a place where workers would gather after work and drink beer. It was quintessential Blissville. Cheap beer and no tips. Every Friday and Saturday night it was packed with workers from all around. It stayed open until almost midnight. This was how it attracted customers and made money. Naturally the latest owners tried continuing in the tradition. But they didn’t understand the ways of Blissville. They failed to make friends with the police. And worse, they peeled back the tinted plastic that the previous owner had known to put up on the windows. The little unlicensed bar became too public for the police to ignore. The new owners received a bundle of tickets. And still they didn’t give up. They switched to selling beer in Styrofoam coffee cups. But someone must have reported them. They had to shut down the bar for good. Now they pack plastic bins with cold cans of beer and set them out all over the deli. They are learning quickly that they need friends here.
On Van Dam Street, the main boulevard, traffic rushes by us, but we aren’t in a hurry. We are already home. We stop to look at a skeleton of a building going up. Each day it rises by another floor. Already it’s twice the size of any other building. Soon we’ll be able to see it from our bedroom window. Tito tells me it will be a hotel. I try to imagine how strangers from other parts of the world will feel about Blissville. Most will simply appreciate its convenient proximity to Manhattan. Only a few will see the treasures hidden behind its fronts.
We turn up to Starr Street. Every corner holds a memory. Tito points out the garage in front of us. “A mechanic died there last week.” When I ask why he tells me that a lifter collapsed. The mechanic had been working underneath it. I squeeze Tito’s hand. This is where Danilo, the original foreman at el taller, landed after his big fight with Nicolás. But Danilo has long since left Blissville. He’s found luck beyond its borders. An owner at another garage sponsored him for his Green Card. Since then, he’s been able to buy a house for his family and he’s opened his own garage, called Danilo’s Garage. Tito hears from him every so often. He’s doing well. But Tito isn’t sure how much is bluster and how much is true. Still, whenever we drive past his garage, Tito tells me that he, too, dreams of having his own garage.
We walk past the Rent-A-Truck, our steps in unison. I tell him I saw el Apache in this exact spot last weekend. El Apache once featured daily in Tito’s stories. Now we rarely see him, so even a sighting is worth a mention. His hair has grown down to his waist. Tito tells me he sells used electronics like radios, watches, televisions, toasters, microwaves. But they are worn and broken, and Tito thinks they are probably stolen. I tell him they could have been thrown out. Tito shakes his head. “Watches?”
In the seconds I saw him, he looked as if he had aged decades. El Apache told me a car had hit him, and that he’d been in the hospital for weeks, and then spent months in a rehabilitation center. No wonder I hadn’t seen him. He shuffled away, and I haven’t seen him since. I miss him on our street. I remember his unpredictable spirit and his wild ways. He was part of what defined our landscape.
No one hangs out in the street any more. El Dominicano moved over a year ago, and with him went our small esquina of men who would brag through the night. He comes back on occasion, but less and less. I know him as Thomas the window washer now, because he scales high buildings to clean their panes. He told me he moved because he wanted to live in a place with a yard for his dog. He told me about his new place, his backyard, the peace of it all, just a neighborhood away. He made it sound, well, suburban. I asked him if he missed it here. But what I really meant was, how could he not? He shook his head. He said he doesn’t miss it at all. He likes his new stability. I tell him the block is quieter sincehis departure. But noise or not, I am nostalgic for the old Blissville.
Tito takes my hand in his. His skin has grown rough from his years in Nicolás’ garage. Even so, his fingers warm mine. He leads me up Greenpoint Avenue towards the cemetery. Cars whiz past, but we don’t pay attention to them. We are in our own world. We have reached the hour when the details of the landmarks fill in until they are just shapes. In a little while they will transform into forms we barely recognize. I hear the cry of Tarzán in the distance. He’s been drinking more these days. His call reminds me of Mouna, and I ask Tito about her. He says he’s seen her laughing and flirting with another man. I hope she’s found new love, because Junior has gone for good. He bought a house with Nidia in Boston, just as he said he would, and works in his uncle’s garage. One day it will be his. He took Simón with him, and he works in a neighboring bodyshop. Simón has a new girlfriend, and they live in an apartment near Junior’s house. As for the last of el taller’s cast? Argentinean Guillermo has moved on, to another garage where he’s more appreciated. His asado still stands, but the smoker has been dismantled and the asado’s chimney has been rebuilt. It looks stockier, squatter, and it has none of its predecessor’s grace. But it drafts perfectly.
We walk away from the bright lights and head down Bradley Street. I slip my hand through Tito’s arm and move closer to him. We have reached the front door of el Adicto’s building. “Do you think he remembers that day he singled me out in the deli?”
“Por supuesto, mi amor. Why do you think he nods to you when you pass him on the street? It’s his way of apologizing.”
I find it hard to believe, but I let it drop. El Adicto has grown smaller for some reason. Much of the time I barely notice him. I don’t even think about him. He’s just a character at the fringe of my Blissville.
We turn the corner. My own life has taken its own turns. I no longer work as a photographer, but as a photo editor. I paid the price for rejecting digital technology. But I was also drained, and I had lost my focus, my sense of purpose. Now I play at photography, and I am experimenting in ways I’d always wanted, but never dared. For the moment, they are my own private exploration.
We can see our apartment from here. Our block is full of children again, but their parents are from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Dominican Republic. But no matter where anyone is from, we all still hear the cries of Tarzán ring out through the neighborhood on Sunday mornings.
Sometimes I think Blissville is a state of mind. There are no subway trains to Blissville. It requires independence because there are few resources. Being isolated, it attracts loners, and together they make a community of misfits. It has a hierarchy of its own, with its own set of laws, and the canny survivor quickly discerns them.
I like to think this outpost is more than its parts. Blissville means being open to the unexpected, even to change. It’s where I met Tito. If we settle here, we will discover a new Blissville with new neighbors, new factories, new garages, even newcomers, and maybe even the lost tourist or two. If we move elsewhere, we will take all it with us, inside of us. We will bring it to whatever new neighborhood we find.
Night has fallen and we stand in the darkness by the front door. I can’t tell if the streetlight is broken or is late to light. In the refuge of the shadows I pull Tito into my arms, pull his face, his lips to mine. It’s too dim for stars tonight, but I feel them over us anyway.
He puts his cheek against mine. “Nunca cambies,” he whispers. Never change.
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