The more problems, the better. That’s what Tito says. He claims he loves problems. That was what he did best at his old job in the port, where he had to decide where to dock a given ship, when to unload its cargo, and how to get it all done within the shortest time possible, in time for the next ship and its precious perishables. Even after the port was privatized and he took another job managing a company’s shipping, he enjoyed crises. Only five hours to unload ten tons of paper with a storm on the horizon? His kind of conundrum.
In the garage, he’s uncovered and fixed problems no one was aware of. Tito, the sweeper, computerized the office with a system for tracking when a car was due for servicing. To speed the payout by insurance companies for accidents, Tito brought in his digital camera. He emailed the pictures instead of sending the Polaroids through the mail. He has ideas galore for the garage. But the mechanics don’t understand his spirit of helpfulness. “Why do you tell Nicolás these things? He won’t pay you more for them. He pays you only to clean the garage,” says Simón, his countryman. And sure enough, Nicolás doesn’t seem to notice. But Fernanda has, and she is grateful for all Tito has done in the office. He’s made her job simpler.
“Hay que solucionar.”. You have to find a solution, he tells me as he taps away on my computer to reconfigure it to my printer. “Hay que tener la actitud positiva.” You have to have a positive attitude, he says as I curse my equipment. I study him while he works. He has boundless optimism for everything except for the puzzle he’s created for himself in loving two women. All his skills in solucionando can’t solve that dilemma.
Carmen and he lived together through la época del dictador, in the time of Pinochet, a time of curfews, violence and repression. She was at his side when he traveled the length of the country playing his trumpet with his band at festivals. She is the mother of his children. She is his wife.
When I get like this, I think about the story Tito told me, about the woman who came to the garage one day. She was only a profile in the summer light. For a long minute the mechanics in the garage thought she was Simón the bodyman’s lost Peruvian girlfriend, the one he had been yearning for in the apartment he’d rented for them both. When she moved to warm Miami, she promised to return. That was two years ago, and he was still waiting for her. She was his beloved, and all the mechanics knew it.
So they shouted out for Simón, their voices echoing back into the body shop where he was working. And when Simón appeared, they put down their tools and followed him out to the front and into the light, one after the other.
Surely they had been a little blinded by the sun. She was not Simón’s beloved. She was Mouna, with roses in her arms and tears dripping down her face in little rivers, as a soft rain slides down a window. Simón turned back, but the mechanics stayed, helpless while she wept.
She had come looking for Junior, but Junior hadn’t come in that day. He’d stayed home that day, to be with Nidia. But they didn’t tell Mouna that. Junior would be back the next day, they told her in broken English. They tried to calm her with their soft voices.
She looked back at them with watery eyes reddened from crying. She had traded her bed, her heart, and her secrets for Junior’s love. But these precious gifts were not enough, and now she had nothing left but the roses she held to her heart. She walked back out into the street.
They shook their heads as they watched her go. How could she not know, they wondered, that Junior’s love for her had faded?
But she never could have known that he had found renewed love, with Nidia. Mouna didn’t know about Nidia. Mouna was simply living in the moment of love’s urgency, an innocent victim of the heart.
I am not like Mouna in this way, for I always have known about Carmen. And still I indulged in loving Tito. Oh, the sweet rush of those early days! We were like childhood sweethearts, with him calling me after work from the corner telephone because my doorbell didn’t work. I waited for him at the doorstep with the door open. Up the stairs he’d go, his bag of clean clothes in hand, and I behind him, the two of us laughing, intoxicated with the thrill of it all. We’d kiss in the hall, his lips all salty. Some days his face was almost black from the oily dirt he’d been sweeping. I’d send him into the shower, and often I’d follow him there.
Mornings were as sweet, though we lingered less. A dash to the shower, a song, and a skip and a dance on the way to our clothes. We skipped down the stairs, a brief kiss at the doorway, and then I’d shut the door. As quickly as he’d arrived, he’d leave. My walk back up the stairs was always slower. Alone in the apartment I walked from room to room resting my hand on the things we’d touched during the evening before. I was collecting the memory of his presence.
Now I am living with him, a married man, and I have grown dazed in the delirium. I have surpassed every boundary I have set down for myself. I have no future with him. Tito is planning to leave and return to Carmen far, far away. And when he gets back, he’ll open up a travel business. He repeats this as regularly as a mantra.
But whatever he says about the life he will return to there, here on the other side of the world, I know he loves me. Nonnie asks, “How do I know?” But Nonnie married her only boyfriend, a man she met when she was eighteen.
“How does anyone know? Would I know any more if he gave me pearl earrings? How does anyone know?” Nonnie married a kind and good man and has one of the best marriages I’ve ever seen.
Naturally she wants the same for me. Tito may be kind and good too, but he is poor. He is nothing like her husband in that respect. And he is foreign. She’d never go so far as to call Tito a Latin lover, but maybe that’s how she thinks of my attraction to him. I did. In those early days, after two or three days apart, I was sure I smelled the scent of another woman. When I kissed him I would press my nose against his neck, his hair, his chest, his back, his legs. I was trying to sniff out the truth. It took me time to trust that I was the only one.
Tito uses the word transparencia to describe me, because my emotions are clear on my face. But I could use it about him, in how he looks at me each morning and night. Nonnie might retort that I’m looking for what I want to see. But I have watched him in ways she hasn’t. I know what I’m seeing. His actions bear him out. He will drive into Manhattan long past the hour of his bedtime to pick me up from a night out with my girlfriends. “I could have taken a cab or the subway,” I say to him.
“No es problema. You will be safest with me, mi amor.”
He does these little favors, hundreds of them, with nothing asked for in return. They are the traces of love he leaves behind, so many I could never describe them all to Nonnie. What I can’t admit to her is that it still isn’t enough. I want to be one of one, not one of two.
Tito’s face shuts when I ask, “Isn’t one woman enough?” He hears my bitterness, and he has no answer. Sometimes I think he could probably go on forever loving two women on two sides of the world, 6,000 miles apart, if I weren’t asking him to choose.
“Mi amor para tí es real,” he tells me. My love is real for you. The verb he uses signifies permanence.
“Ese amor se falló.” That love is broken.
I nod in a way that neither agrees nor disagrees. It’s obvious to me that his tie to her precedes his feelings for me. Even if he hadn’t stood up in a church before his parents and God, he seems unable to finish what he began with Carmen. He is that kind of man, loyal to his promises.
“Entonces, disfruta la vida,” he says as he tries to smooth the lines between my eyes. So, enjoy life. It’s the only solution he has.
Steal a minute between the tide and the eddy.
—New England proverb
Summer is ending, and so must my summer romance. I decide to get away. I am due a visit to my parents, so I call and make the plans. The next day I pack the car and leave for Maine, where they live for half the year in the grand summerhouse that was once my grandmother’s. It is a place full of memory—remote, peaceful and beautiful.
Once there, the days start luminously. I wake as the skies just start to lighten. I dress quickly, then head out. I am looking for my own solace. My feet leave tracks through the dew, so heavy it soaks my sneakers within minutes, and now they squeak with every step. I cross the fields until I stand on top of a little knoll that looks over the bay, the sea glassy in its stillness. I check the high branches of the plum trees for fruit, and I look on the ground for mushrooms. Then, empty-handed, I turn and walk down to the shoreline to watch the mosquitoes dance across the water’s surface. A kingfisher flits over the water, and up high in the oak trees I see warblers darting for insects. They are eating for their long journey south. If only I could store up on fortitude as they do.
When the sun rises well above the horizon, I slog through the fields and back to the house. The already warming grass brushes against my legs. My parents’ home gleams like a white, colonnaded plantation in the mist.
I find them sitting where they sit every morning, in the kitchen. Its walls are the pale blue of the sky outside, but with windows that face north those walls are never touched by sunlight. My parents don’t seem to mind it, though. No matter how shimmering the day, no matter how warm it is outside on the porch that overlooks the sparkling bay, each morning they sit bent over their newspapers, their trays of pills in front of them. Details fill their days. The weeds in the garden. The bills to pay. The sheets to wash. They plan their daily chores over a breakfast that leads almost into noon. I quell my restlessness and join them at the table.
My mother is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Little by little she has let go. Once she did everything for my father, tending to all of his needs. She was a full-time housewife, cooking and serving every meal, washing every dish, dusting and vacuuming the house, doing the laundry, the errands, and all the shopping. When we arrived home, she drove us to Girl Scouts, swim practice, and friends’ houses, and an hour or so later she drove us back.
But it was my father’s arrival home around which her day was built. Each night, an hour before he arrived, she would put on a fresh blouse and change out of her pants and into a skirt. Then she would head downstairs and prepare a bowl of nuts and ready the glasses for their nightly cocktail. Then she settled on the living room sofa to listen for his car. She met him at the door with a smile and a kiss each night.
Now my father is in charge of the meals, even breakfast. Never mind the bacon and eggs, my mother can no longer set out the cereal bowls. But that doesn’t deter my father, who thinks, with enough coaching, she’ll get it. He rejects the doctors’ diagnosis of Alzheimer’s even as he pushes into her hands the pills they prescribe. She has been in four clinical studies. But he can’t leave it at that. He has also researched alternative medicine. At each meal he gives her vitamins and herbal remedies, a regimen he would have scorned before her illness. He’d never admit it, but deep inside I think he believes that she can grow back those neurons in her brain that have now shriveled. And his determination has held her illness in check. He will not let her succumb, even now. This morning he scolds her, in the same loud voice he used for Nonnie and me when we were little and struggling with our table manners. “Alice,” he shouts, even though she’s a step away. “The fork belongs in the drawer.”
She’s spent her life rising and tending to his fits. Now she stays seated and looks at the same page she’s been looking at all morning. When he calls her name again, she tells him she doesn’t know who put the forks with the towels. I silently cheer her on. He slams them in the drawer and shoves it closed. His impatience is as sharp as the noon light outside. He returns to his newspaper.
Their morning ritual stretches for more than two hours. What takes my father minutes, to rise and shower, takes my mother at least an hour. He has to wake and guide her out of bed, and then bathe and dress her in whatever he selects for the day. While she fumbles with her shoes and buttoning her sweater, he makes the beds. Then he leads her down and prepares breakfast for the two of them. He takes care of their doctors’ appointments, the weekly shopping, the driving, the cleaning of the house, and all the things he did before,overseeing their investments and their money, and maintaining their house here and their house in Connecticut. He is exhausted. He couldn’t have imagined a life like this when he stood at the altar reciting, “in sickness and in health.” But even if he had, he would have said, “I do.” In the peace of my room I can see that he is simply trying to hold onto the woman he loves. His anger just masks his fears. But it’s painful to witness, and each day I wonder if I shouldn’t cut my trip short.
We spend our days alone. My father retreats to his study where he escapes into the annual reports of drug companies. He still believes there is a cure out there for Alzheimer’s. He pores through his business magazines and clips all articles alluding to treatment. When he takes my mother in for her doctor’s appointment in a month, he’ll cite those studies.
My mother wanders out into the yard. She pauses at each of her gardens and touches the flowers and shrubs she’d once nurtured. Now she collects the dead, fallen branches from all over the lawn and deposits them at the base of the trees. I keep her company while she explains that she’s saving the twigs for a cold day. Then she tells it to me again. She’s in a world I can no longer follow. She doesn’t even notice when I leave her side.
I grab a sketchbook and head for the apple orchard. I walk among the bent trees looking for a place to sit, but nothing seems right. So I cross the fields and pick armfuls of wildflowers. Later I’ll place a nosegay by my mother’s bed, a bouquet in the hallway, an arrangement in the kitchen, and in all the places she frequents.
I look for the postcards of Maine that I’d bought at the town drugstore to send to Tito. I spread them out in front of me, my pen in hand, but I can’t find a carefree tone to match the gay pictures. I decide to email him instead from my father’s computer. But despite his offer, my father is reluctant. He can’t resist hovering. “How long will you be?” he asks as if he suddenly needs his computer.
“I don’t know, Dad. Does it matter?” His computer has barely warmed up.
“It’s eight cents a minute.”
For a second I am as indignant as he is about the expense, and then I do the arithmetic. We’re sitting in a living room filled with antiques that he and my mother have collected. Primitive paintings hang on every wall. Rare duck decoys sit on top of the bookcases. A collection of ornate hand-made glass paperweights lies on the coffee table. Twenty minutes on his computer will cost $1.60, pocket change for him and me as well. I laugh out loud to cover my outrage, and I promise to pay him for the minutes I use. He humphs and walks out. I let out a sigh and hope he overhears.
Tito has sent a message full of the tenderness I crave. He signs off with a poem of love, and underneath, he writes the date and his full name. I write to him in the barest of prose. I tell him about the weather. I describe how my day has passed, the things I have seen. And ever so carefully, I send him a tiny portion of my love.
That evening my parents and I sit outside and watch the sunset from the back porch. The sun sinks down on the water as we swat mosquitoes. It’s cocktail hour. I match my father drink for drink. The gin makes us aggressive, and we trade snipes. Finally we go in for supper before we hurt each other more. I have cooked my father’s favorite dish, beef stroganoff.
And so the time passes, with my father and I growing sharper with each other every evening. This is an old pattern for us, as old as my adolescence. I never rebelled with drugs, boyfriends, or even friends in the turbulent 1960s. It was enough for me to challenge my father’s assumptions, needling him away each night while Nonnie and my mother watched. I think everyone breathed in relief when I went away to boarding school.
This visit is not much different, but there is one exception. I am storing my anger now. I resist the seduction of returning my father’s barbs with my own as I would in other years. That energy I’m saving, for when I return to Tito and send him back to Carmen.
I listen for the house to quiet and sleep to come to my father and mother. I throw off the sheets and tiptoe downstairs to the pantry, to where the telephone is. When I lift up the receiver the keypad lights up, and so do I. My fingers move over the numbers they know so well, and I listen for the phone to ring. For years I heard only my voice on the other end, “This is Rebecca, leave your message after the beep.” Now it rings for Tito.
“Mi amor,” he answers. I can tell from the softness of his voice that he has waited all night for this call. I’d like to invoke the bear of a man that I am going to leave. I murmur soft words and hope they will stay him through the night. I picture him stretched out on the bed we’ve come to share, in the darkness of Blissville. “Te echo de menos.” I miss you.
He asks me how I am. “Difficult.” I leave it at that. My time here is too much to explain. And he barely remembers my parents from that art opening now six months ago, though he knows about my mother’s illness. We stay on the phone together, wordless. The Maine night pulses with crickets. Back in Blissville he must hear only the hum of traffic. I listen to him breathe.
“Carmen wrote to me today. Estabamos chateándonos.”
“Chateándonos?” I don’t recognize the word. But anything to do with Carmen carries urgency, and I press the receiver to my ear.
“Chateándonos. Chat. Chat.”
Over the phone it sounds like chat. “Qué significa, chat?”
“Correo electrónico chat.”
That he uses “chat” with Carmen fills me with stupid pleasure. I have always considered it a trivial medium, relegated to children and teenagers no older than my nephews. I overlook that colleagues use it, that even Tito engages with it nightly with his children, and his sisters.
“Do you remember our conversation about Carmen?”
I try to recall which of our many discussions about her he’s referring to.
“You were asking what she was doing in her free time and what she wanted to do. And I didn’t know. Well, I asked her.”
I never dreamed he would ask her that. This was a conversation months ago. I had been musing with him about what Carmen was doing now that he was gone and the children out at school all day. Perhaps she felt some of the same freedom that I’d felt when I left my husband, when I’d started studying photography. Maybe there was something she itched to study. Maybe she wanted to work towards being financially independent. These were my ways of pricking at her veneer. I knew she wasn’t doing much with her time.
He coughs. The dew-soaked lawn gleams silver in the moonlight. “She doesn’t want to live with me. She doesn’t want anything more to do with me. She doesn’t love me anymore.”
This has come so suddenly, over the phone and in Spanish, that I distrust it immediately. Listening is like that for me. I listen for what I hope I’ll hear. “Qué?” What?
He says it again for me, more slowly, more clearly. “She told me she wants to be Carmen, known for herself, not la esposa de Tito.” His voice is so faint he could be in Chile.
“But how can you be sure that was what she meant?”
“I saved the ‘chat’.”
Suddenly everything about chat makes sense. But here on the phone with Tito, I have nothing to say. Carmen has given me what I have wanted for so long, but I never imagined it, never prepared for it. Tito catches his breath. I can’t tell if he’s crying. If he is, I’m helpless to comfort him. I’m too dizzy myself. One question follows another. Why would she let Tito go? Does she know something about him that I don’t? And then I wonder. Will she change her mind?
I look down at the telephone cord, twisted and knotted. Tito’s voice grows dim again. He’s talking, but I hear only the roar of my doubts in the stillness of the house. Where do we go from here?
My father wades into the water in front of me, his pale, wide body balanced on top of his spindly legs. He flicks his hands in the water, and just the way he does it, I can feel his impatience for me to join him. Today is my last day in Maine and my last swim.
But right now all I want to do is wiggle my toes at the edge of the water and watch the butterflies in the sun. They are sulfurs. Each June they hatch, fluttering with wings of clear lemon yellow. By the end of summer their wings have faded to white, the edges frayed. These are the marks of time, I think.
My parents’ beach is nothing like a conventional beach with silken sand. With boulders strewn along its edges, sea grass that creeps with every year, and a tiny stretch of flat, gray pebbles it almost doesn’t deserve to be called a beach, but we do. I have already stubbed one toe on the rocky steps down and cut my other foot on a clamshell. I let the salt water wash over them. It soothes my little wounds. The sun has been warming its surface all day long. But three inches below, it’s Maine cold. That is why getting into the water takes so long. My father, now thigh-deep, turns around and shouts for me to hurry up.
“What is your rush?” I shout back. He doesn’t turn around, but he is hard of hearing, so I can’t tell whether he heard me or if he’s ignoring me. He takes another step. The water now touches the edges of his baggy suit.
I have had enough idleness. I take my first step into the water. It wraps its chill around my ankles. I have swum here with my parents since I was an infant. When Nonnie and I were young, my father would leave us here with my mother and grandmother. We swam and played on the beach while he sweltered in his Wall Street office in an era without air-conditioning. When the tide was out, Nonnie and I collected sea glass and hunted for fossils. And when we tired of that we searched for nests of crystals embedded in the boulders. We spent our days by the water. My father only joined us for the last two weeks of the summer.
The water numbs my ankles, and I take another step. My father is now waist-deep. He looks back at me, the water now on my calves. “What’s the matter? Scared?”
This is how we egg each other on each summer. Sometimes, depending on how aggressive we’re feeling, we’ll splash the frigid water on each other. The rules are subtle. A little splashing is fine, but too much and it’s trespassing. We nearly always cross boundaries in this game.
But today I am subdued with the weight of Tito’s news. I inch my way to my father’s side. Silver hair graces his sagging chest. I, too, will grow old in ways that I cannot control, I think. We don’t speak. We look out toward the raft that floats in the distance. I was seven when he and my mother made that raft. I held the nails, and they hammered together the pieces. I watched my father fit the Styrofoam underneath. I wanted to help them paint it, but I was too little, they said. They covered it in cobalt blue, darker than the skies overhead. When they launched it, I stood high on the bank while they floated it out. I could see them consider where to put it, and then they tossed out the anchor. From where I stood it looked too close to the shore. But once on the beach, I saw how far away it really was. I tried to swim out to it, but I couldn’t make it. My father had to carry me out there on his shoulders that first year.
The next year I managed to kick to the raft the whole way. But once there, I couldn’t lift myself up on its top. It was too high, and I wasn’t strong enough. My father had to help me. He hadn’t considered building steps. He must have thought it too small for a ladder. The following year I could both swim and get on it. I had just learned to dive, back in Connecticut. I knew to tuck my head in between my upraised arms before launching myself into the water. But in Maine, the raft, tipsy even from my little weight, slipped out from under me when I pushed off its side, and I belly-flopped.
But for all its faults, the raft has always held its pull on me. Even now, with its peeling paint, it does. I can’t imagine our beach without it.
The sun dips behind a cloud. I can feel a whisper of winter in the air and on my skin. I look up at my father. “Shall we?” He dips his hands in the water and splashes the salty water over his arms. He tells me this helps acclimate his body to the cold. I copy him with less zeal. The water is chilling on my exposed body. A horsefly buzzes around my back, looking for a tender spot to sting. I shake it off and plunge in, yelping as I go. “What are you waiting for? The water’s warm,” I shout back at my father when I come up for air.
He shakes his hands as if to ward me off. But I don’t want to splash him today. I tread water and watch him lower his body. I am too cold to wait any longer. I roll on my back and kick to the raft. I can’t seem to swim fast enough to escape the cold. I belt out the first song that comes to my mind. “June is busting out all over,” I sing, my voice wobbling from the freezing water. The old-fashioned ditty from Carousel is one that fills me with possibility. “June, June, June,” I sing, as the refrain dies in the air.
But June is long gone. Back then I was having my summer fling. I may have resented Carmen’s hold on Tito, but I reaped its freedom. I enjoyed the pleasures of his company and escaped all the responsibilities. Perhaps it was an illusion, but I believed it. But with her accession, he becomes mine.
I turn around to check where I am in relation to the raft. It’s always farther than I think. I windmill my arms through the water. When I was an adolescent, I swam the backstroke. One summer I brought home only blue ribbons. I was undefeated until I reached the county championships. My coach told me I could have won there too, but for not knowing how to do a flip turn. I made up the distance in the next lap, but I lost by a finger. In the end, it didn’t matter whether it had been a finger or a lap. Losing is losing.
The raft falls behind me. The cold and my restlessness drive me farther out. I swim out until I feel tired, and then I stop and catch my breath. I have left in the distance the markers of my youth. The rock by which we dug for treasure one summer. The fallen tree on which we played horses. The point of land where a boy I didn’t like kissed me. His kisses were wet and sloppy, nothing like what I’d imagined a first kiss to be. I float on my back and catch my wind. Above me scattered clouds hang suspended in the sky. I once brought the boyfriend who taught me the birdcalls, the man I thought would propose to me, here. One night he pulled out a dictionary of clouds. We paged through the photographs, lingering on the skyscapes and the subtleties that differentiated one cloud from another. These fat and fluffy clouds overhead look like alto cumulus.
As my strength returns, so does my queasiness about the future. I turn over and swim harder, breathing now on every other stroke. I swim until my arms and legs burn. When I stop, the shore is just a line on the horizon on all sides. I calm my breathing to listen. I think I can hear my father’s cries in the distance, but without my glasses I can’t see him. He will never hear my answering call, so I don’t bother. I turn away from him and face the other shore. Then I lower my head in the water and stroke towards it. I have never swum this far out.
Suddenly I feel something brush my leg. I tell myself it’s seaweed and swim on. But I am unnerved. I can’t stop imagining what it could have been, a bluefish, a sand shark, even a lobster suddenly lifted from the bottom, its claw outstretched and waiting. I stop and look around again. I am far away from my father, who I know is still waiting for me. It takes everything in me not to panic. I take a breath and head back.
I tell myself to think about Tito instead of what is underneath the water. And as I do, the questions I’ve held back swarm. Where are we going? What do I want? What does Tito want? He is illegally here. What will I do if something happens?
I lift my head from the water. Between gasping breaths I hear only the cries of a few sea gulls. Surely I’ve closed the distance to the shore by 100 yards or so. But from here it looks no closer. And I am so far from the shore. If anything happened, my father would be helpless. As for my mother, would she even recognize my absence? My apprehensions exhaust me.
I turn over on my back and kick. I try to think of nothing else but the clouds overhead. When I am calm, I slide onto my stomach and force my arms through the water. Each time I turn my head to breathe, I note my speed. I am churning through the little waves. I focus on a distant pine until it falls behind, a protruding boulder, a fallen oak lying along the shore, the old boathouse, and then the raft. I pass them all and swim to the boulder where my father sits, waiting.
The next installment will be posted Tuesday, Dec 28.