(the telephone call)
“Venga conmigo a la lavandería y para comprar fruta.” Come with me to the laundromat and to buy some fruit. “Y para una tarjeta.” And a phone card. How romantic these chores sound in Spanish.
But I loathe errands almost as much as I hate cleaning.
“No demorará mucho,” he adds. It won’t take much time. Tito looks at me with such expectation that I accept. His face radiates at the prospect of my companionship. Even his thick, heavy body lightens as he lifts the laundry bag over his shoulder. This is how we spend our Saturday evenings before night falls.
Saturdays are precious for Tito. He has worked 52 hours. On Saturday, the last day of his week, he works without a lunch break. It makes a long week. Often he takes a nap as soon as he arrives. A couple of hours of rest before his weekend begins. When he wakes he changes the sheets and sorts our clothes, separating the dirty from the clean, then the whites from the darks, and then he stuffs it all into a laundry bag. Next he straightens the living room and vacuums. He dusts. Then he does the errands. After all that, how can I not accompany him if this is what he wants?
We park under the subway. We have dropped off the laundry and shopped for fruit together. But I remain in the car while he dashes out to buy a phone card. Phone cards are sold in New York City on every corner of every neighborhood. They hang down in rows, stapled behind the cash register like Lotto cards, bright and vibrant, each card offering a different promise. The Pan Africa card comes striped with the colors of the African National Congress—green, red, yellow, and black—and assures two hours of conversation to fifteen African nations. Big Red is a solid red card with the world’s flags lined at its bottom. It promises three hours of talking time anywhere in the continent of Asia. Boss, splashed with the bodega colors of red, blue, and yellow, guarantees three hours to Ecuador, Colombia, and the rest of South America. But no matter what they advertise, there’s always fine print underneath. Tito has tried them all, and in his opinion, only the Union City card gives him his money’s worth: a full two hours on a clear line to Chile for $5. And, always looking for a bargain, he’s found a shop that sells it for $4. So even though it’s out of the way, this is where Tito insists on buying his phone cards.
I watch him cross the boulevard and disappear into the news shop. A minute later he comes out smiling, and I can see the card in his hand. We wave to each other through the traffic. I reach over to open the door, but Tito doesn’t cross with the other pedestrians. He darts over to a pay phone instead. I’d like to think he’s going to make a quick call to his mother, but most likely he’s going to call Carmen. He freely makes calls to the rest of his family from the apartment. But out of consideration for me, he avoids calling Carmen from there. And maybe he also thinks it would betray her, too, if he called from the apartment. But if he believes that, I don’t understand why he wants my company to watch him call her from the street. Surely he knows this, too, will spark my resentment.
I am an old friend of jealousy. After my marriage broke up, I was involved with a man who would recount an old love affair whenever he felt my attention drift away. He hooked me back in with each tale. It became a drug for both of us. So many stories, so many loves! A house filled with keepsakes from his amorous past. There was the blue and white pitcher beside his bedside, a gift of courtship from a young woman he once fancied. The Japanese wooden box that sat atop his bureau, a token from a violinist he once dated. He didn’t display everything, but they always made their presence felt. One day he uncovered a delicate watercolor of a flower, painted by the girlfriend before me. It was exquisite in its simplicity. “She’s brilliant,” he said. I was overcome with jealousy. I had no words. Another woman might have walked away from a man like this. Looking back, I think it was part of what held us together. And yet, at some point it lost its allure. Perhaps it had simply exhausted itself. It no longer held attraction for me, and soon after, our relationship fell apart.
Afterwards, I promised myself that I would do things differently if I were lucky enough to have another try at love. Everyone comes with a history, I reminded myself. I didn’t need to dwell on the past, and I didn’t need to know everything.
But here I am again drowning in jealousy. I should have known better than to go out with Tito today. This is not the first time I have watched him call Carmen from a public phone. I look around the car and reach for a yellowed newspaper on the back seat. I unfold it and try to read, but I see only words. I peek back at Tito huddled against the phone. I watch him dial the local number on the back of the card. Then, more slowly, the string of numbers that he’s scratched off. Finally, the long number that will connect him to the other hemisphere and link him to Chile.
His face is animated with the first hello. I return to my paper, but I can’t even read its headlines. I glance at the car’s clock. The digits wink back at me. Only two minutes have passed. I look around the parking lot, at the vendors and people passing through on a late Saturday afternoon. More minutes pass. A subway overhead stops and passengers descend. I study their tired faces and imagine their lives. More minutes pass. Tito has his back to me now, and his posture leaves no clues. I pick up the newspaper again and page through it, looking now at the pictures and then the bylines. I didn’t have any photos in the paper that day. Twenty minutes pass this way.
When Tito returns he is full of restless energy. I ask him how Carmen is, and he says she’s fine. She’s managing with the money he sends, though sometimes little emergencies call for more. I want to know more, of course, but I stop myself. Carmen is his wife, and this is their business.
I know his calls to her, in fact, to everyone, are filled with the events of our life together—the exhibitions we see, the movies we watch, the parts of New York we explore. I am the only element missing from his tales. I am invisible to all of his loved ones in the southern hemisphere.
As for Carmen, I’ve made Tito promise he would never tell her about me. It’s the only demand I’ve made of him, and he’s honored it. She shouldn’t suffer jealousy unnecessarily. Tito should carry that secret and burden. But Tito hasn’t told anyone in his family about me, and I’ve come to resent it. While I protect Carmen, I erase myself. I may be important to him up here, but down in Chile I am invisible. It rankles.
When he returns I suggest he make all his calls to Chile from home.
“Por qué? You know my phone calls upset you.”
“This is your house as much as mine. The telephone is your connection to your children and to your family. Lo insisto.” I insist on it.
He frowns as he mulls over the idea. Maybe he fears a backlash of my jealous moments.
“You can have all the privacy you want. I won’t go into the bedroom when you call. I’ll do dishes, read, or watch television while you call Carmen. I will be fine. De verdad.”
He nods and agrees to the new plan.
My apartment is a walk-through of rooms without doors. Only the bathroom and bedroom have doors, and they are almost never shut. When Tito makes calls from the bedroom— whether to his sisters, cousins, mother, children, or Carmen—he leaves the bedroom door open,. I try to relax in the kitchen at the other end of the apartment or work on my billing. Because I never know who he’s calling, I position myself so I can’t see into the bedroom. It’s my way of curbing my jealousy. But it hardly matters, because wherever I sit, I’m still monitoring the tenor of his voice. Most of the time I can discern whom he’s talking with by his tone. If it’s low and steady he’s speaking with Ayelén, and if it’s boisterous, he’s on the phone with Matías. When he’s all business I know he has to be talking with his sister or a colleague or any of the myriad people from his city that he stays in touch with. These days I’ve started hearing an impatience in his voice. When he comes out he tells me he’s been talking with Carmen again. Naturally I’m a little more animated after those calls. Only when I hear his voice go sweet, whisperingly soft, do I wonder about the wisdom of my new arrangement. But there’s no going back.
I try not to ask him about her. But there are days I can’t help myself. She’s fine doesn’t tell me if he loves her more than me. She misses me stings, and I can’t bear to think of how he answers her. I’m in wait for the occasions when he tells me she needs more money. They make all my nosiness worth my efforts. I may not be a great money manager, but at least I’m independent.
One weekend Nonnie invites me to her country house in the Berkshires for her annual summer party. It happens to be the hottest weekend of the summer. But I’m not ready to introduce Tito to the family, and I drive up by myself. In my guilt for leaving him behind while I party, I promise to buy him a phone card so at least he can talk with his family. But I forget in the rush of leaving. Used cards litter the apartment. Surely some of them have leftover minutes, I tell myself. And if he runs out, I have told him to call Chile direct. How much could it cost? The phone companies are always promising low rates.
This is our first weekend apart since he moved in. When I return the next day, he tells me how lonely he was. When I ask him what he did, he tells me he spoke to his mother and to his son and to his daughter. He talked with his sisters, his nieces, and his nephews. He phoned old friends in Chile. He exhausted every phone card he had. Past midnight, when all the stores had closed, he called direct, to the home in Valparaíso. He confesses this to me as I’m unpacking my suitcase. I am only half listening. I tell him that was what I wanted. After all, I have just spent the weekend eating pâté and drinking champagne. He kisses me in happy relief.
We resume our days and weekends as before. Then the phone bill arrives. I glance at it, ready to pay the usual amount, but when I look down I see that it’s over $400. I gasp. Surely this is a mistake. I study it more carefully. Down at the bottom I spot rows of calls to Valparaíso, Chile, the reason for the spiked cost. It takes me a while to remember that these were the calls made over the weekend of my absence. I look again. The numbers, I realize, are the trail of Tito’s affections. So whom[who?] did he call? I notice that one number appears more than any other. My fingers tingle as I realize it must be Carmen’s. I page through his papers for his tattered phone book, but I can’t find it. I pick up the bill again. He has talked with that person both days, several times each day, no shorter than ten minutes, no longer than twenty. I turn on his computer, where he maintains a list of his contacts from home. None of the numbers match up. I check through his drawers again. I grow itchier with each search. The wisdom of phone cards is clearer than ever. I straighten his papers and turn off his computer. Then I pay the bill and put it away.
More weekends pass. I let Tito make his weekly run for a phone card by himself. Back at the apartment he calls Chile several times a week. Lately I am hearing more irritation in his voice. Later, when I ask him about it, he tells me that Carmen wants to give Ayelén a lavish party for her quinceñera. Tito had promised her he would be home for that special day when she turns fifteen, symbolic of becoming a woman. We both know he will be breaking his promise. “I would give Ayelén anything, and she knows it. But what Carmen is planning, I can’t afford. I told her I will send what I can.”
I’m secretly pleased Tito and Carmen are arguing.
“But I can’t afford to upset Carmen, either. She’s the mother of my children, and she takes good care of them.” Tito tells me this with such earnestness that I want to mutter a spell to exorcise her from the apartment. I try to comfort him while wondering if Carmen could comfort him more.
One Saturday Tito calls to let me know he’s going out with friends to watch a soccer match in a bar. “Disfrútelo,” I tell him. Enjoy. I’m happy he isn’t dependent on me for all his social interactions. I’m thrilled he has friends for things like this. I tell him to take his time, and add, as I always do, “Cuídate.”
I settle in with the afternoon before me, with responsibilities to no one. Just me, the cat, and my books. A sweet silence descends on the apartment.
In the middle of the afternoon the telephone rings. Normally I answer it saying my name, since home doubles as my office, but something about the hour today prompts me to say only, “Hello.”
“Hola, Tito está?” The woman’s voice is round and rich. Is Tito there?
“No, no está,” I say.
“Cuándo vuelve él?” When is he coming back?
For any student of Spanish, the telephone presents the difficulty of being a disembodied voice lacking gesture and place, the normal cues for a listener. In Spanish class we practiced by listening to conversations on tape, then to telephone answering machines. Despite not being especially proficient at them, I loved these exercises. Even now when I manage a conversation on the phone, I am elated. Today is one of those moments.
“No sé,” I say. “No sé nada.” I don’t know anything. The words fall out of my mouth without even thinking. I am protecting Tito by instincts alone. “Quién habla?” Who’s calling?
“La esposa.” The wife.
Her words hang in the ether for a second, and I say, “Lo siento. No sé donde está.” I’m sorry, I don’t know where he is.
And then she hangs up. I don’t think we even said chao.
I have a photograph that stands on my desk. There are six of us standing, shoulder to shoulder, in that softly focused photo. We are the survivors of my first Spanish class, and we have just celebrated our last class together. I have since lost touch with my classmates. It was five years ago. But with this photo, I hold on to the memory of our small group. We are a teacher, banker, librarian, union organizer, saleswoman, and photojournalist. We are tall, short, thin, plump, dark, and light. We are a little of everything—blonde, brunette, and redhead. We have learned all the words that describe us, from our professions to our looks. We are radiant in that photograph, and that is what we share. We are guapa. We are gorgeous.
I grew up during the years of feminism. But even before its tenets reached my consciousness, I chose to spend my time on homework instead of makeup. It was what I knew how to do. I could even excel there, whereas I didn’t know how to make myself beautiful, much as I coveted it. And I didn’t dare make the attempt. What if I tried but failed? I didn’t have the confidence to withstand such an outcome.
Perhaps in New York City the currency of beauty is especially apparent. I marvel at the ease with which beautiful women move through the streets and through their lives. I see it in Nonnie, who is blessed with both beauty and brains. A part of me envies her and all stunning women. But envy is the path of sorrow, so mostly I avoid mirrors. They show me the person I don’t want to see, a woman with a stubby nose, little eyes, and receding chin.
But if I am candid, I admit I haven’t let go of the hope of being beautiful. In fleeting moments of optimism I see in my reflection a graceful woman. My eyes are deeply set, even more so when I’m tired, and when I wash my face in front of the mirror at night, I can look a little French, whatever that is.
Tito called me linda on our first date. On our second, he called me superlinda. I didn’t have to look it up to know that it meant pretty. Tito calls his niece linda, too. I knew it was a special word.
But next to guapa, linda has always felt a little ordinary. Maybe it’s my association with the name, Linda, prosaic compared to my own name from the Old Testament, beautiful and strong Rebecca who was desired by many, faithful and courageous Rebecca who married Isaac and journeyed hundreds of miles to his land, intelligent and resourceful Rebecca who ensured wise leadership for their lands. How could linda compare?
So I campaigned for guapa. I used each date as an excuse to show off a new dress. Linda, Tito pronounced. I painted my fingernails. Muy linda! I dusted off my high heels. Más linda! I applied eyeliner, mascara, and rouge. Linda, linda, linda. A month passed, and I ran out of outfits.
Tito knew none of this. That we were in love was what he knew. Surrender is not in my nature, but inside I reached an accord. I would stop listening for guapa. But I still continued to dress up for him. I reached into my wardrobe and mixed and matched.
In the back of my mind I always had the image of Carmen in Tito’s photograph of her, with her high cheekbones and Cupid mouth and elegant scarf. In my mind she was guapa. “Why do you never call me guapa?” I complained one day to Tito.
“Oh, mi amor. I am much more guapo!” He laughed, playing, even flirting with me as he pretended to misunderstand my meaning. Tito does not normally act or talk this way. I interpreted his silliness as a game he played with Carmen.
He never says much about her despite my queries. I know little about his seventeen years with her and his subsequent two love affairs during their separation. But I believe he was faithful to her during their marriage because that is what he says. As for the years before he was married, I’ve probed and teased. He admits nothing except that they were full. “You have to remember, mi amor, back then I was a musician and más o menos guapo.”
So I started a new crusade for guapa. By now I was spellbound by the word. “Why do you never call me guapa, Tito?”
“Because, my love, you are linda.”
“But I want to be guapa.”
“But, my dear one, I call you linda because you are beautiful.” He saw my disbelief and shook his head sadly. “Guapa is something superficial. Linda is from within. Guapa is your looks. Linda is your soul. That is why you are linda, Rebecca.”
And so we went round and round. I could have relinquished my quest, knowing that he calls Ayelén and all his loved ones linda. For them he would only use the sweetest of words. But still, I couldn’t let go. Tito’s love for me is surely the most patient.
I turned to my work and friends for consolation when he still didn’t call me guapa. They reminded me about my warmth, artistry, and intelligence, and my hunger for that magic word receded.
Then one day I ran into a dear, older friend from years before. She had time, and so did I, so we stopped for a cup of coffee. I had known she was born in Uruguay and had grown up in Colombia, but during the years of our close contact I barely spoke Spanish. When I started studying Spanish, I couldn’t manage well enough to hold a conversation. We always reverted to English.
But Spanish had become my second language, and I was eager to try with her again. We covered the superficial changes in our lives, and I told her about Tito. Suddenly I found myself confessing all of my yearnings to be gorgeous, my desires to be ravishing and adored as only beautiful women are. It just poured out of me, and soon I was weeping. I wanted to be guapa, and linda was not that. Only guapa was. And Tito thought I was linda. That simple word had become the vessel that held all my insecurities. She listened until she could bear no more.
“Rebecca,” she called, bringing me back to the booth in the coffee shop. “Oye, amiga, you are not guapa.”
I stared back at her. I could feel my face crumble again and my shoulders shake.
She softened her voice and leaned in to me. “I would never call you guapa, Rebecca.”
I put my head in my hands. I wanted her confirmation, not her betrayal.
“I use guapa for someone dark-haired,” she continued gently. “You don’t have dark hair. Your skin and your hair are light. You are linda, Rebecca.”
I wiped my cheeks and looked back at her.
“Besides,” she went on, “guapa is for someone who spends a lot of time on her face, who cares more about what she looks like than what she does. Linda is for someone pure. It means beautiful in a pure way. It is used for beauty that shines through a person’s core. You are linda, Rebecca.”
A jersey here, socks there. A bottle of aftershave above the sink. A crusted toothbrush, so full of his personality, both soft and strong, next to mine. This is how Tito’s things have started appearing around the apartment. Some have arrived without preamble. For others, Tito has asked for my permission, his dark eyes peering into mine. His clothes lie in a stack on a chair in the bedroom. His toiletries rest in a brown case nestled in the towels. His laptop lies on the desk across from mine in my study. They make me half ecstatic, half uneasy. Officially, because this is how we describe it to each other, he is spending single nights here. But unofficially, he is sleeping here six out of seven evenings. His belongings have become my solace and my burden, entwining me to him more with each addition.
One day Tito announces that his friend Pancho will have a room available for him to rent. My stomach tightens. Part of me wonders if he is already tiring of me, while the other part knows that was our arrangement from the start. When I commented on the number of nights he was spending, he assured me this was only until he found his own place. And I exhaled, knowing this was temporary. Living with a married man would have been way beyond my limits.
“Just $400 a month, with two windows that look out on trees, and kitchen privileges. Es habitación.” It’s a bedroom.
My own bedroom will feel empty when he goes.
“We just have to wait until the guy who’s renting leaves. Pancho says he’s going back home, to Argentina. He just needs time to get everything in order before he leaves.”
I shrug. The newspapers are predicting a collapse [due to](?) that country’s staggering inflation. I can’t believe this man will return now.
“Pancho thinks the room will be vacant in a week or two.”
But a week passes, and the failure of Argentina’s banks is splashed across all the headlines. The country is bankrupt. “Maybe el Argentino isn’t planning on leaving yet.”
“Pancho says he is,” Tito says.
Over the next week we watch Argentina’s economy spin into a freefall. At work, I look over editors’ shoulders at the pictures coming out of Buenos Aires. Lines of anxious men and women stretch for blocks outside of Citibank and other banks. Demonstrations that begin peacefully in the morning turn into riots by the afternoon. I make more room for Tito instead. I have always thought of my apartment as luxurious for one and cramped for two. But somehow, with Tito, there is enough room for both of us. It helps that Tito does what I can never seem to manage for myself—clean. He hangs up my clothes and creates order out of my papers and books. And when he comes home from work, he vacuums. He even dusts.
The following week news arrives of a famine in the north of Argentina. Chaos is now everywhere in that country, from the warm swamps of the north to the barren, frigid south. In the cities robberies and kidnappings become commonplace. But Tito discounts these things. Soon, he tells me.
One Saturday morning, Tito asks if I can drive him to the Bronx. He wants to pick up the remainder of his things. He wants to be ready for when la habitación vacates.
How can I say no? We drive up, Tito brimming with hope. I park, and he disappears into the building. Twenty minutes later he emerges dragging two large suitcases, looking like every other misshapen suitcase I have seen tumbling down the ramp at the International Arrivals building at JFK, frayed and fat, bursting at their seams, stuffed with mementos from homelands around the world.
We muscle them into the car and head back to Queens. They are so heavy I let him lift them out of the car and lug them up the stairs, their weight thumping on each step up the flight. He hauls them into the bedroom and stacks them at my feet. He darts about the apartment in his excitement in reuniting with his possessions. He was now opening drawers, moving quickly between the bureau, his desk, and the suitcases, rearranging his life here, now, with me, in New York, in my bedroom. He unzips the top suitcase and pulls back the flap to reveal his clothes, all neatly folded.
These are Tito’s clothes, I realize, dark and foreign and mysterious. One by one he sets them on the bed next to me, readying them for the bottom two drawers of my bureau, which I have cleaned out for him.
But for now they lie in a display across my bed. Surely they carry scents of Chile. I close my eyes and put my nose to the stack of shirts nearest to me. It smells of his cologne. I want to inhale his country, its mountains and its sea. I can’t tell through the musk if this is a whiff of Tito’s former life or not. I spot a tiny splash of red on the shirt. It’s a little red horse with a polo player atop embroidered onto the pocket. I reach for the collar with as casual a gesture as I can manage. I don’t want to look as if I am snooping. But the label is just as I expected, Ralph Lauren. Do they have Ralph Lauren in Chile? I lift it up. All of the instructions for cleaning are in English. I check the shirt below. It’s another Ralph Lauren. I turn to his pants, refolded and ready to go in the drawer. I finger the edge of its waist. I am looking for any sign of exotic Chile. Banana Republic.
I try to hold back my judgments, but I can’t help it. A sense of unfairness wells up inside of me. At my own insistence, I cover our expenses—the rent, the telephone, the electricity, the car repairs, and the insurance. Tito earns barely enough to support his family in Chile and to build savings for his return. Besides, I argued, I would have to pay for all those things with or without him. He protested, and we reached for an accord. He would pay for the groceries and the occasional meal in a restaurant.
But to learn that he was spending his savings on clothes like these, stings. “Tito, since when do you like clothing with labels? Eso no es plástico?” I am referring to his favorite song by Rubén Blades, who sings against globalization and commercialism. Ella era una chica plástico de esas…sudan chanel number three…el era un muchacho plástico de esos…She was a plastic young woman with her Chanel No. 3, he was a plastic young man, the song says. To me, it preaches, but Tito loves its message. And now for the first time, I embrace it too.
He holds his Ralph Lauren shirt against his chest. “This is my favorite color.”
I stroke the smooth, fine cotton that probably won’t pill after laundering like all of my shirts do. “But Tito, how can you afford it? Where did you buy it?”
“Ahhh,” he says, and I can hear, just from his voice, that these shirts, too, have their own story. He looks up at me. “You know how outside the deli there’s a pupusa seller?”
I remember her well, the wrapped woman who sells Salvadoran cornmeal snacks, from buckets wrapped in tin foil, stacked in a laundry cart that she wheels from block to block. I assumed she was a bag lady until Tito explained what she was doing.
“And how on Saturdays there’s the man who goes door to door to the garages selling Chilean empanadas?”
I nod again. I’ve never seen him, but I’ve bit into his plump, juicy turnovers filled with meat, raisins, quarters of hard-boiled egg, and whole olives. Every other Saturday Tito brings one back for me.
“Then there are sellers with CD’s, DVD’s, toys. All sorts of things.” He reaches for a CD lying on a table. “See? I got this one the other day.” It’s the CD of “Caballeros de la Salsa”, Gentlemen of Salsa, the very one we had been listening to for the past week. “He wanted five but I got him to give it to me for four.”
I smile at his pride in negotiating for a dollar.
Tito leans in. “Eso es el subterráneo,” he says. “El Underground.”
I nod, vaguely understanding. I have never been part of any underground.
Tito climbs on the bed next to me. “In the time of the dictator, I was both underground and legitimate.”
I wonder if he is trying to blame his complicity on Pinochet. Surely he knows theft had nothing to do with politics.
“One thing they could never take away was our underground.”
I look at him sideways.
“Mira, I worked in the port. A box here, a box there. Who misses it? That’s what I did to make ends meet. It was like this—I’d buy a bundle of jeans, or maybe someone would give them to me, and Carmen would sell them. We earned a little something, and the customer got something else that they couldn’t have afforded elsewhere. It’s expensive to buy Calvin Klein’s in Chile, much more than here. What’s so bad about that?”
I don’t answer. I can’t believe he is so naïve, that he hasn’t recognized the economics of it all. Doesn’t he know that the company always wins? That the company passes the cost of losses to customers like me? I shake my head.
But he is oblivious to my disapproval. “So, we have a little trading here, too.” He tells me this in the delighted voice of having found something that is practically free.
“A couple of weeks ago, this tipo came by selling Gap shirts, Banana Republic pants, and colognes.”
I realize they must be the spoils of a truck hijacking.
“These shirts?” He points to the ones with the little red horseman. “Only ten dollars! I bought two and I got one extra to send home to m’hijo, Matías.”
He looks up at me. “Junior bought three pairs of pants. Simón bought two.” He knows I’ll never get angry at these men who work six days a week with no healthcare. Why shouldn’t they want to wear designer labels? I’d like them too. Like the workers at el taller, I work without benefits. I pay my taxes gladly, and in my spare time I volunteer in the neighborhood, planting and cleaning our little green parks and corners. I am exhausted with my own frugality and righteousness. I brush my hand over the smooth, silky cotton of the Ralph Lauren shirt, cool and luscious on my fingertips, a luxury I deserve. “Do they sell women’s clothes?” I ask, the question slipping out before I can stop it.
Tito smiles. “Oh, mi amor, I have never seen that.”
One Saturday morning while Tito heads off to work, I drive to Ikea. Even though he’s leaving, I have decided he needs his own bureau. I have measured the space and have just the place for it. And when he moves, he can take it with him.
When he arrives, I show him his present and apologize that it’s in pieces. “You have to assemble it, mi amor.”
Tito just beams. I can see he is overwhelmed by my gesture. He opens the box on the living room floor and lays out all the flat pieces, tools, and instructions. The array is dizzying, but Tito is unfazed. I blow him a kiss and leave to do the grocery shopping.
When I come back, what was a vast collection of boards and hardware has become a bureau. It stands gleaming white in the center of the living room. “Te esperaba,” he says. I was waiting for you.
Together we lift it and fit it into its space. Tito arranges on the bed all the piles of his clothes that have been in the corners of the bedroom. “I want you to have a drawer too.”
“But you need it, it’s for you.”
He looks at me with those dark liquid eyes of his. “I want our clothes to be together.”
“But you need the space.”
He opens the top drawer. “Tuya.” Yours.
“You can put your underwear, your scarves, things like that. The other four drawers are enough for all of my things.”
“Are you sure?”
He smiles. And so we fill the bureau, I with my personal things in the top drawer, he with his shirts, socks, underwear, and pants in the drawers below, and incredibly, everything fits. We have accomplished my goal, and I have moved on to cooking.
When we go to bed that night, the bedroom looks cozy in a way it never did before. On the top of the bureau Tito has set his bottle of cologne, a few of my jewelry boxe, and a small collection of pictures that he has found frames for. There is a black and white photo of his parents, posed with the harbor of Valparaíso in the background, one of Ayalén in her school uniform, standing with the school band, and another of Matías in the hometown soccer team’s green, with his arms up in a cheer. And in between them all is a picture of me, taken several years ago, long since buried among my things, a photo full of color, with the blue frames of my glasses and the pale green sweater, the flush on my cheeks and my blue eyes and my red hair and the wide smile that covers my face. Where Tito found it, I have no idea. But I am there, sitting among his family at the center of his bureau.
In the days leading up to July 4th, we watch an exodus of Manhattanites wending their way through Blissville, their bikes, boats, and beach toys balanced atop their SUVs. They clog our streets and honk their way out to the highway that leads to their summer homes out in the Hamptons. Usually they bring on little pangs about my missing out on some existential party, but this year the cocoon of bliss that I’ve created with Tito insulates me from my envy. When the holiday arrives we may have no plans, but I feel fine. The only thing I want to do is show Tito the fireworks.
When dusk falls we walk west, out of Blissville and towards the river, about a mile away, where there is a clear view of Manhattan. We will have plenty of time to secure a space. On the way I try to explain what we’re about to see, but he doesn’t understand. I’m certain there’s a word for them in Spanish, but I don’t know it, so I describe them with my body. I push my fists high up into the air and open my hands wide. “They go, ‘Boom! Boom!’”
Tito’s eyes light up. “Fuegos artificiales,” he breathes.
“Fuegos artificiales,” I echo. Artificial fire. “We celebrate our Independence Day with fuegos artificiales.”
Tito nods. “In Valparaíso we have fireworks each New Year’s Eve. Extraordinarios. The whole horizon fills with fuegos artificiales. Imagínate.”
“They are amazing in New York, too. They set them up on barges out on the river,” I say.
Tito pats my hand. “In Valparaíso we have thirty to fifty barges.”
I shake my head. “You have to see them here first before you can compare them. The fireworks in New York are spectacular. A single burst can pop again and again.”
“In my city you can stand and see fireworks from both ends of the bay.”
“Here, the fireworks go up against the skyline of Manhattan.”
“In Valparaíso los fuegos artificiales go on for an hour or more.”
I don’t answer because we have reached the parking lot and it is packed with earlier comers. I try to negotiate for a spot to stand. When I find something big enough for the two of us, I spread out a blanket. I gesture to the crowds all around us. “This is what I love about the fireworks here in New York. I don’t know if it’s the same in Chile. But here I’m almost always by myself, and it doesn’t matter. Each time I feel part of this grand community as we watch and ooooh and ahhhh together.”
This is my first time seeing fireworks with a loved one. I am overflowing with silly happiness. “Just wait. You’ll see. On this day, no matter our race, politics, or language —we’ll all be together. And when they all finally come to an end, after the grand finale, there will a moment of hush, as if we can’t believe it’s over. And then we’ll clap, and in the open air our claps will sound so small compared to the booms we’ve heard for the past half hour or so. You wait, mi querido.”
Tito nods, but I can’t tell what he’s thinking or if it’s the same in Valparaíso. He has grown quiet. I wonder if he’s aching for home. I hold his hand and stroke it, eager to fill his void.
“I want so much to show you my city. I want to show you its hills, its neighborhoods, where Pablo Neruda lived, the port where I used to work. And I especially want you to see our fireworks on New Year’s Eve.” His eyes are glistening.
I want to pull him away from his memories of Valparaíso and back to me, here in Long Island City at the edge of the river waiting for the fireworks. But I just listen. We stand together while the children around us shriek. The men joke and the women gab, and all around us the light fades.
He turns around to me. “Come to Chile with me.”
“Go to Chile with you? You are inviting me?” We’ve never gone anywhere in anything other than the car, let alone on an airplane. The flight to Chile is long, twelve hours, but it would be brief sitting next to him, where we could kiss in the back of the plane, him by the window, me on the aisle. We could eat airplane food and watch movies together, he in Spanish, I in English. Then in the darkness, I could put my head on his shoulder and we would sleep. Outside the stars would shine down upon us. And at dawn, when the plane landed, we would walk out into the bright air of Santiago, the capitol of his country. On the tarmac beyond, Tito would find his family among the throngs, waving to him and to me, welcoming him and welcoming us. Then Tito would lead me over and introduce me to them. I would meet his mother, his sisters, his children. I stop. Where would Carmen be?
“Well, we wouldn’t go together. I’d go first, maybe in late November or early December, and you’d come later, for New Year’s. Just in time for the fireworks.” He shines his satisfied smile at me.
I’ve dreamed of going to Valparaíso, ever since I met Tito. Sometimes I think I’m as in love with his city as I am with him. I’ve imagined holding his hand while we wander down the crooked streets and by its promenades, through its salty markets and smoky bars. But where will I be if Carmen is there? When the fireworks blast off, will she stand next to him while I remain behind them, submerged in the crowds? Whom will he rush to, to kiss at midnight? Maybe he would station me on one of the other hills that overlook the bay, leaving me to return to an empty hotel room while he strolls back to Cerro Alegre with Carmen.
But he would miss me too. I can picture it all clearly, Tito caught in a web of his own, racing through the day and the night, between Carmen and me. It almost makes me giddy to think of him all sweaty and breathless, trying to please two women.
I sample this idea of his, rolling it around my tongue and rattling it along my teeth like I would the pit of a cherry, its sweetness long nibbled off. I’ve indulged Tito’s musings, about loving me and loving her, many times. Tonight my patience is finished. I am emboldened by the happy couples and families who surround us. “You’re going to run back and forth between Carmen and me? That’s no way to treat someone you love. That’s just …” and I stop, searching for the strongest word I can find in Spanish. Cruél, bárbaro, maldito, malhecho, I can never tell how potent they are, and the Spanish book that is supposed to ratchet my skills to the next level is at home, out of reach for tonight. “Sadístico,” I finally say, hoping this will puncture his fantasy once and for all.
Tito stands by my side, motionless and contained. Even in the dark I sense him distancing himself from me. My evening of utter harmony has slipped away. Sadness and regret wash over me.
I take a breath. I cannot let this night that was meant to be perfect slide away from me. Maybe I can still patch the rift between us. “Mi amor, when you tell me you want me to visit you while you continue to live with Carmen, it hurts me. I know you don’t mean to do that, but….” The first fireworks go up with a long hiss and then a boom. It flowers into a burst of glitter. Tito stands by my side, his face upturned and blank. I can’t even tell if he heard what I had explained with all the delicacy I could muster. A cheer goes up around us, but Tito and I are mute. The air crackles. The sky fills with sparkles of light streaming down. Maybe if I let him be he will come around.
More fireworks go up, until the sky is blazing. They blast into the air over the elegant outline of Manhattan. It’s just like the lyrics of our anthem, but with fireworks, not bombs, on this first 4th of July since September 11th. Hope shines everywhere on the faces around me. I look over at Tito. His face has softened too.
With each series of bangs I anticipate the finale, but the fireworks go on and go on. They open into bursts and flames that transform into stars and stripes. And with each rocket, something new explodes into the sky. Smiley faces shimmer down on us. Then a burst, and we are showered with baby, pink hearts. A flare explodes into chrysanthemums. One after the other, fireflies, palm trees, ringed planets, and tiny bows glitter in the air in gold, silver, violet, turquoise, and neon orange. The finale is upon us. I grab Tito and wrap my arms around him. I can feel his heart beat in my hands. The sky is lit up from all the sparkles floating in the air. When they fade, everyone is hushed from the spectacle. Only smudges of smoke remain, suspended in the night air. On an unspoken cue, we clap. The sound is lost in the vast sky, but no one cares. Slowly it dies down and chatter fills the void. All around us people are packing up. I turn to Tito and whisper in his ear, “Cómo pareció?” How was it?
He nods. “Lindo, muy lindo.” He looks into my eyes and I think I see tears in them. He touches my face, my hair, my neck, and my shoulder. Without saying anything, he puts his fingers on my back and guides me through the crowds.
At home we’re quiet and tender with each other. I prattle as I put away the dishes. It takes me a while to notice that he’s said nothing since we’ve arrived. But I am still feeling righteous, unwilling to take back my words. And even though I know the answer, I ask him what is the matter. I want to break his silence, talk it out and return to how we were when we started out this night.
He shakes his head.
“Speak to me, please.”
He looks away. I stand in front of him and hold out my hands to him. But he steps by without even brushing against me. My fingers grow cold as they always do when I’m scared.
I am too familiar with the weapons of fighting. The man I married used them all. In those years people were just starting to talk about “domestic violence.” It seems a feeble description for the stinging insults and smacks I received. Even so, I couldn’t admit that I was its victim. I was too enmeshed in proving my love for him. Long after the bruises faded I tasted the bitterness of his abuse. They filled my body, and eventually they inhabited every room of the house.
Then one day he called while I was at work. He was packing for a trip to Los Angeles, and he was looking for his razor. I told him I had thrown it out. It was broken. He let out such vitriol and obscenities I had to hold the receiver away from my ear. I was shaking when I hung up. I took my time heading home. I had to be sure he had gone.
The house was quiet when I arrived. But the marks of his rage were everywhere. He had ripped my drawings from the walls—for those were the days before photography, when I drew instead—and they lay scattered all over the floor, in the hall, the living room, the bedroom. He had walked over them and left the prints of his sneakers on their surface. I gathered my drawings in my arms and wept.
I could predict the arc of his anger, the violence and cold silence that followed, sometimes lasting days. And after, his remorse and all the apologies he would make. His violence and ensuing rue were imprinted on him, and nothing I could do would change him. In a moment of clarity that has never left me, I saw that my only option was to leave him. I made plans that day. It was several weeks before I found a place to stay. The day I left I waited until he had gone to work, and I packed the car and drove away. I never went back. With the help of friends and a therapist, I have tried to change how I live and love. But even so, sometimes my progress looks like a sin curve. I just like to picture the hills and valleys as being smaller.
But as much as I know about the language of conflict, this is my first fight with Tito. So I don’t know his cues or how he argues or resolves resentments. And I certainly don’t understand his rejection. I start to cry and hope my tears will soften him and bring the Tito I know back to me. But Tito only sits down on the sofa and closes his eyes.
“Tu sofá,” I say in between sniffles.
“Mi cama,” he says. He startles me. I realize suddenly that he is planning to sleep on it. This will be the first time we have slept apart from one another in the apartment.
I stand up and hold out my hand once more. “Please, por favor, please come to bed.”
He shakes his head.
I panic and sit down again. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m tired. I’m going to lie here.”
“But, but, but.” I can hear myself stuttering. “What about tomorrow?” It comes out as a squeak.
He makes some kind of sound.
I raise my voice. “Tomorrow, then what will you do?”
He opens his eyes. “Mujer, I don’t know.” And he shuts them again and rolls over.
“Does that mean you’re moving out?” Another woman might have let him be, waiting until whatever emotion he is feeling passes. But I have always accelerated my fights. The sooner for them to explode and pass, I’ve reasoned, despite the evidence to the contrary.
I stand and wait for him to shake his head and tell me not to be so ridiculous, that of course he’s not planning to leave.
Tito only nods, and a little frown creases his forehead. All I want to do is press it out with my finger and return to where we were, before I uttered that stupid idea. He says nothing. I let out a wail in helplessness and retreat to the bedroom.
I climb on the bed and pile the pillows behind me. I decide I won’t let this man who’s already married and planning to return to his wife upset me. I pull out a stack of mystery books that I hoard for upsetting occasions and spread them around me. In between spurts of weeping, I read. I finish one book and start the next. It’s almost three A.M. Soon it will be light. I put the book down again. I wonder what Tito is doing. I tiptoe to the edge of the living room. He is asleep, and the way his eyelashes curl he looks almost angelic. I break into more sobs and scurry back to the bed.
The sky has changed from black to blue. Suddenly I realize that by the time I return from work today, he could have packed and left. But if he hasn’t, and he’s still planning to leave, I won’t want to be there to watch him packing up. I know my own limits. I walk back into the living room and stand over him. This morning might be the last time I see him. I want to touch him, but the force of his silence holds me back. I settle down on the floor next to his face. Waves of exhaustion pass through me, and for a while I just listen to his breathing. It soothes me, and I close my own eyes. Then I remember that this could be my last glimpse of him. I open my eyes as wide as I can. My heart is pounding. I reach out and stroke his hand and arm in the places I know he loves to be touched. He stirs, but he doesn’t push me away. I continue caressing him. Maybe, I can make his darkness lift.
“Qué hora es?” he asks, his eyes still shut. What time is it?
I look out at the windows and see that it’s light, even bright. The morning has crept up on us without me even noticing. I glance at a clock. “Las siete quinze.” Seven fifteen. I have only 45 minutes before he leaves for work.
He rubs his eyes and groans. I want him to say something about me, about us, about last night. But he gets up and goes to the bathroom. I start weeping again.
“Rebecca,” he calls out from behind the door. “Para, por favor.” Stop, please. Tito is calling me by my name, something he almost never does. And I’ve hungered for it so much. It’s symbolic, I know, but with my name, he can’t confuse me with Carmen or anyone else in his past. Mi amor, mi cielo, mi vida, my love, my sky, my life are his names for me. But those names could belong to anyone. My name belongs only to me.
I hear him washing now. He’ll shave next, rinse his hair, and then he’ll be gone. I cry some more.
He comes out washed and dressed. He checks the clock and puts his arms around me. My body shakes from all my sobbing, and he holds me against him tightly, as if trying to wring all my tears out and away. And still I can’t relax. I want to know what he’s planning to do. He kisses me softly on the cheek and breaks away.
“Where will you go?” I croak.
“Pancho’s,” he answers. Pancho is his friend with the room to rent, the one with the Argentinean boarder who hasn’t left yet.
“How will you get your things there?” My face is wet from all my crying.
“There are cars, Rebecca. I’ll just get a car.”
I start to wail. Tito looks at me, his face sad, and then he walks out the door. The apartment echoes with silence. I run to the bedroom window and watch him walk to the garage. His gait tells me nothing about what he is feeling. I don’t understand him at all. He looks like he is moving as if this were any other day. I turn back and look around at all the remnants of him in the apartment. There are signs of him everywhere. In the bathroom my eyes fill as I look at the drips of toothpaste oozing from his tube, the cap, as always, tossed to the side. In the kitchen, I notice the breadcrumbs and banana peels he has left from a night snack. In the bedroom, I see his oil-stained socks discarded in the corner. They still hold the shape of his busy feet. I stand at the bureau and study the pictures of his parents and children that he has taped to the wall. The photos have grown yellow and brittle in the sun, and soot has settled into the edges where they’ve pulled away. But Ayalén and Matías smile back at me, and I touch the edges of their faces. Warm tears stream down my cheeks. Pictures of me, photos that Tito has adorned the walls with, gaze at me in rebuke.
I wipe my tears away. I have bills to pay, invoices to make, and probably a photography assignment later. I turn on Tito’s computer. A picture I have never seen of me swims in front of me. I am leaning over my Rollei camera with my entire body focused on framing the weed in front of me. In the picture, strands of my hair fly out in front of me, in front of the camera, in front of the lake in the background. The golden rays of the late day’s sun have made my hair even redder, a startling splash of color in the landscape. This in itself would be enough, but Tito pressed the shutter just when a flock of geese were taking flight. Over my head they fly, their beating wings silhouetted against the sky. As I look at the picture I see that Tito has caught me as no one ever has, alive, wild, and free out in the marshes of Jamaica Bay. He has seen my secret self.
An irrational trickle of hope tugs at me. We don’t need to end this way. I can put away my pride and ask Tito to stay. The idea floods through me. I’m buoyant with optimism. I run to the bathroom to wash my face. I brush my hair and put on a little makeup for good luck. Then I race out the door and towards the garage.
From the corner I look, but I don’t see Tito. I walk closer. My heart is hammering. What if he doesn’t want to stay? There is no time to consider that. I peer into the garage, but I don’t see him. I run around and check the back lot behind the building. I recognize his thick shape bent inside a car. I stand and wait in front of the chain-link fence between the car lot and me. I am as still and vertical as the posts. Finally Tito straightens and inspects the car. His back is to me, and he doesn’t see me. I don’t move. When he turns, he looks straight at me, and I see his face relax. He doesn’t smile, but I catch sweetness in his eyes. He walks up to me, and I try to smile. Tenderly he touches my fingers that protrude through the fence.
“Quédate, quédate conmigo, mi amor,” I say to him. Stay, stay with me, my love.
“Ok,” he says. Just two syllables. One for each of us, I think.
“Mi amor, tengo que trabajar,” he says after a few seconds. I have to work.
I motion to him, placing my hands over my heart. “Te amo,” I say. I love you.
We have said I love you to each other many times since it first slipped out of my mouth one morning while we were brushing our teeth, not all that long after we’d spent that first night together. He looked up, but I didn’t apologize. He didn’t need to reciprocate, and to my relief he didn’t. I heard la amo a couple of weeks later, when we were washing the dishes.
He puts his hand over his heart and mouths I love you back to me, through the chain-link fence.
The next installment will be posted Thursday at noon.