Mitad y Mitad
(half and half)
“Tú vas a practicar tu inglés y yo mi español.” This was how I asked Tito out for our first date. “Media media.”
“Mitad y mitad,” he said, correcting me.
“Mitad y mitad.” I repeated, hoping I’d remember the phrase. Half and half was my intention, but already, I noticed, we were conversing mostly in Spanish. Maybe he was oblivious to the inequity, and maybe he wanted it that way. Off we went to Brighton Beach where neither English nor Spanish was spoken. Somehow, being surrounded by Russians added to our privacy and the romance of it all.
I hadn’t spoken much Spanish since the previous summer, when I’d gone to Spain to study. It was just one month, and I brought a suitcase full of hopes. But after I unpacked in that tiny dormitory room, from which I glimpsed only a corner of the Cantabrian Sea, I was homesick. My classmates were ten and twenty years younger than me. They came from all over the world. Spanish would be our only medium. How was I to find intimacy in basic Spanish?
My Spanish improved, and in time I learned how to ask for whatever I wanted, whether in a restaurant or on the street. I understood the content of lectures. I could make out, though not completely, the plot of movies. And while I never mastered eavesdropping, I did understand the conversations I sat in on between Spaniards. My homesickness faded, and I made friends from Spain, France, Italy, and Algeria.
Then I returned. “Fast learning is fast forgetting,” a teacher once told me. His counsel rattled in my mind as I started to forget words and phrases.
But I didn’t give in. Back in my apartment I reached for “Cien Años de Soledad.” I’d never read One Hundred Years of Solitude in English. Why not now, in Spanish? This was a book read and revered by people of all classes throughout Latin America. I wanted to be moved by it as they’d been moved. So I mapped out the chapters and set goals for myself. If I met them I could finish in two months.
It was filled with words I didn’t know, and still I persevered. I made lists of unfamiliar words, like catalejo, azote, and azogue—spyglass, whip, and quicksilver, and a hundred others I would never use in dialogue. Night by night, page by page, I persevered. I was determined to hold onto Spanish however I could.
In the morning I caught the traffic reports in Spanish and added demorras and choques, slowdowns and collisions, to my vocabulary. But the jokes eluded me, and the accents confused me. I could feel it; the Spanish I’d gained in Spain had slipped.
Out on the boardwalk with Tito, I stumbled in his language. I heard all my mistakes, how I mixed tenses, misused prepositions, and modified simple masculine nouns with feminine adjectives. I was powerless to correct them. I had no choice but to plod on. We walked from Brighton Beach to Coney Island and back again, all in Spanish. When we stopped in a café on the boardwalk, it was time for Tito’s mitad. He shook his head. “No quiero,” he said. I don’t want to.
I didn’t understand. I’d loved my half in Spanish.
“Otro día,” he said. Some other day. Your Spanish is better than my English, he said.
While I didn’t agree, I was flattered. And so I acceded, and we continued in Spanish.
“De la cuna o de la cama,” is how the phrase goes for learning a language. From the crib or from the bed. I chose the bed. And now it’s our language of love.
But mitad y mitad has become todo en español, everything in Spanish. I have no doubt who has benefited from this. When I go out with old friends from Spanish class I hear their pauses and errors. It makes me giddy to see how I’ve progressed.
But todo en español has left Tito still struggling in English. Of the two languages, I had the easier one. Never mind that English is full of letters that are never pronounced. Negatives have complications that I never noticed before. And what about all the different tenses that can be paired with desires? ‘I wish I were there.’ ‘I wish I could have gone.’ ‘I wish you would go.’
Tito tells me he learns by mimicking. He knows ‘thank you’, spacibo, in Russian, ‘everything’s good’, todo bem, in Portuguese, and ‘how are you?’ comment ça va, in French, from the drivers of Ukraine, Brazil, and Senegal. And he’s proud of the English he’s learned. “What do you mean you don’t have the money?” “Put the car there, huevón.” “Move, move, move out of the way.” At the garage, English has become a language of orders.
I take the same shortcuts in Spanish. It’s easier to use the imperative than find the polite way to phrase a need. But in my pride of mastering another verb form, I don’t hear how it sounds when I tell him to put the knives in the drawer. Tito turns away from me in those moments. Most of the time we recover and go on, and sometimes we don’t. I follow him around the apartment. “Qué pasó?” I ask. What happened? I don’t understand his sudden coldness.
But when he sits down to explain, my nervousness causes my Spanish to get up and walk away. And that’s when I have to ask him to tell me in English. English has turned into our language of discord. But sometimes all language fails Tito, and he shakes his head and walks out the door, wordless. Maybe he takes a walk, visits friends, or just watches television in the garage. Only later I’ll learn where he went. And only much later will I learn about the imperative’s sting. “I was married for many years to a woman with whom I could never do anything right. She had a correction for everything. I learned to hold my silence.”
But now Tito is with me, not with Carmen. He is subdued when I return from Maine. I probe with as much gentleness as I can manage, but he only shakes his head. Their marriage, alive or dead, is not my business. And perhaps his loss is beyond the reach of language. We go back to how we were before, rising early, a kiss at the door, and then together again for supper. The only difference is that we are quieter. I wait for Saturday and the evening, our beacon at the week’s end.
When it arrives, I throw on a dress and shawl. Tito puts on a t-shirt I brought back from Maine, the one with a bear in its center, and over it, a jacket. The nights are a little longer now, a little cooler. We walk to the car, awkward in our finery. When Tito opens the door for me, I slide in without a murmur. It’s his turn to drive tonight.
He turns the ignition. Te regalo una rosa, the voice on the radio sings. I give you a rose. Tito has yet to give me a rose, but I don’t care. It is enough to have him next to me, tucked in my car. Never mind the torn seats, the orange peels, and the half-read books strewn across the back seat, the maps of New York and Maine, the crumpled paper bags and empty coffee cups that litter my aging car. Never mind the worries about the things I have to do and the things I probably have to redo. Never mind all those questions I have about our future together. We don’t need to talk about anything tonight.
He runs his fingers along the inside of my arm and sweet shivers run up my back. Tito first kissed me in this car, and maybe we were listening to the same song on the radio. La encontré en el camino. I found it in the street. I put my hand on his cheek. I ask him if he remembers that hesitant kiss. He smiles. I trace my thumb down his cheek and across his lips. He leans back and closes his eyes.
This song that plays on the radio is a bachata. Long before I met Tito I wondered what bachata meant. It was a hand-written word I saw tacked up as an afterthought, tucked in between the merengue and son sections in the music stores of Queens and East Harlem. I knew so little in those days.
Bachata comes from the Dominican Republic. It grew from the poorest communities of Santo Domingo, where people made music on guitars and little else. Today pop bachata retains the simple instrumentation and rhythms of its roots. Its themes are love and loss. Eres la rosa que me da calor. You are the rose that warms me. Tito never told me what bachata was. He showed me. It was a bachata that played on the radio the day we met, but I didn’t know it.
We sit wordless in the darkness all around, rapt in the silky voice that seems to sing only for us. Te regalo mis manos. I give you my hands. Tito opens his eyes and bends over to kiss me. I savor the softness of his lips. I drink in his sweet cologne. I have traveled miles already, and the car hasn’t even moved.
In those early days I dreamed we’d go out dancing in any of the flashy nightclubs on Roosevelt Avenue, in the heart of Latin American Queens. They were clubs with golden doors, tuxedoed bouncers, and perfumed crowds that just begged to be let in. The lipstick, the hair, the jewels, the heels! I once wanted to be a part of that glamour too. But sitting here in the dark with Tito tonight in Blissville, with all of its rough edges—I need nothing more. El beso más profundo que se ahoga en un gemido. The deepest kiss that drowns in a moan.
For now our future is blank, and after all the drama of the past months, I am happy to leave it that way. He takes my hand and kisses it, and with his other hand he taps out the song’s rhythm on my shoulder. I can hold a tune, but not the beat. I don’t know how to dance. But tonight, with Tito’s help on the rhythms, I believe I could. I can feel the music flowing through me, down my arms, through my hips, over my knees, and down into my feet where it surges back and through my spine, shoulders, and once again into my arms. Un rayo de ilusiones, un corazón al desnudo. A ray of illusions, a heart stripped bare.
Tito doesn’t know many dances either. Back in his youth, Chile tended to look to Europe, not to the tropics, for its culture. Only in the last few years have merengue, son, bolero, and bachata made their way south. Still, he can feel and move with the beat of salsa in a way that I can’t. Tito learned the bachata at the garage, and now he’s taught it to me. Two steps to the side and hold, two steps back and hold, the simplest of dances. Ay, ayayayay, amor. It’s the only dance we know.
When we get home tonight from wherever we go, he will put on a CD of Juan Luis Guerra, the man singing this bachata on the radio. Tito will walk out to the center of the room and beckon to me to follow. Looking at him I will float far away, to a dark and smokey club off a cobble-stoned street in Valparaíso, where the women wear fishnet stockings and flared skirts, and sway to the rhythms.
We will stand together in the center of my little living room, with its books and mementos, and he will wrap his arm around my waist, and put his eyes on mine. I will watch him nod to the rhythm. When he thinks I feel its beat, he’ll take my hand in his and place it next to his heart. We will move together, as one. When the refrain comes, we will separate, my hands still in his. His gaze will never leave mine. He will turn me around under his outstretched arm and bring me back again. We are dancing. Ay, ayayayay, amor.
Everyone at the garage remembers Simón the body man’s words. Because Simón, from his perch in the body shop above everyone else in the garage, had watched Tito, the new Chilean, on his first day of work. He had watched him sweep, and learn how to change oil and repair tires. And he had seen his confidence around the impatient Nicolás. So when they punched out their timecards at the end of Tito’s first week, he told them. “Just wait—in six months that guy’ll be the manager.”
Danilo was the manager then, and Danilo had worked there ten years. If Danilo left, Nicolás had plenty of candidates for his job. Any of the experienced mechanics who had worked for him would qualify, whereas Tito was new to the garage and new to repairing cars. So how did Simón know? Maybe he saw what I did when I first met Tito, someone confident, even bold.
Was this all? When I ask Tito he nods. But then he shakes his head. “I have magic. I know you don’t believe in that, but I do. Back in the Port of San Antonio, Chile, I just missed being in the epicenter of an earthquake. I don’t know what it was. I got in my car and drove away. If I had stayed where I was working, I would have died. How do I explain that?”
Tito has lots of proof of his luck, so powerful he doesn’t tell many about it. “My first winter here, I had no money, not even three quarters for a coffee. I was working then out in Jamaica, Queens, getting up at 5:00 and commuting two hours just to get to work. That job was hard, physical labor, and I would get hungry. When I ran out of money one week I didn’t know how I would make it. I didn’t even have enough for food. The next day, when I was walking to the factory, I found a twenty dollar bill at my feet.”
And then there’s the story of how he got his credit card. “My friends were always telling me that the best place to open a bank account was in Plainview, out on Long Island where there are a lot of Chileans. So one day in September, I take the train out there. I arrive just as the bank is opening. I sit down, explain what I want, and begin to fill out the papers. She takes them and looks them over. Everything seems fine. Then she asks for my social security number. I don’t have one, so I give her a false number and pray. She types the numbers in her computer then frowns. The number isn’t working. I write it down for her, the same number, and hold my breath. She types it in and nothing happens. Her computer freezes. She tries again, but it’s still frozen. I act as if I’m in a hurry. She apologizes for this problem. She’s going to put through my application anyway. When I get out of the bank I learn what happened. That day was September 11th. The World Trade towers had fallen.”
But even with his tales, I don’t believe in magic. Can it extend to keeping him safe? If Tito were truly magical, then he would be able to sway Nicolás to sponsor him for his Green Card. And he would be able to induce Carmen to file for their divorce, or rather, annulment, since divorce still isn’t permitted in Chile. His country is one of the few left in the world that does not allow divorce. Tito blames Pinochet, but I’m not so sure. Pinochet has been gone almost 20 years. But what is the difference? An annulment requires of a couple a petition, a hearing, and a judge’s signature, the same as a divorce.
So I don’t count on luck. I think of it as something other people have. It’s why, when we go into Manhattan on a Saturday night, I drive around blocks in search of a parking space. But if Tito’s behind the wheel, he finds a space steps away from our destination. He says I fail because I am too negative. I think I just don’t have luck.
My success has come from dedication, commitment, and perhaps a pinch of luck. At mid-life I went to photography school, and became a professional photographer able to make a sustainable living. Most young people can’t even do that. I may have worked harder than most, but was that all? Years later, at the institute where I was learning Spanish, I was awarded a full scholarship to study in(?) Spain for a month. I never even applied. They selected me out of hundreds of students. I was an A student, but there were other dedicated A students. So why me? And how do I account for the summer I won an artist’s residency, by invitation only?
Tito thinks some of this luck is because I am with him. “Good things happen to the people who are with me,” he says.
“But these things happened before I met you.”
“No importa. You were going to meet me.”
As skeptical as I am, Tito seems to have a spell following him that can cast its powers either way. “Bad things happen to people who wish me harm.” He cites a man who had threatened him in the port. The next day the man fell into the ship’s hold and broke his spine. “I didn’t wish this on him. I don’t want to hurt anyone. It’s just how things are. But this magic, it protects me and everyone I love.”
“Would it protect me if we broke up?”
He nods. “Carmen will always be safe, because I loved her once.”
I hold up my hand. I don’t want to listen to any more of these tales. But inside I have begun to think of him as a duende, an imp with dark and magical powers.
But Tito can’t explain how he became the manager. “The day that Danilo left, I wasn’t even in the garage. I’d gone out to the Bronx, to do an errand for Nicolás. When I came back, I was the manager.”
He learned from the mechanics that Nicolás accused Danilo of shorting him on a bill. In all the abuse from Nicolás over the years, Danilo had never been accused of stealing. He called Danilo ladrón, thief, which must be an insult like no other, an utter affront to a man’s honor.
“Who are you calling ladrón? If I’m the robber, then how come I’m not a millionaire like you? You’re the ladrón here, paying your workers so little.”
This was an accusation Nicolás couldn’t tolerate. “You’re fired,” he screamed.
“And I quit.” Danilo slammed the keys to the garage down on the desk and walked out on the only job he’d had since he’d arrived from Colombia years ago. He hadn’t escaped his country’s violence and made the voyage to New York to be called a thief. He had his self-respect to protect.
When Tito came back, Nicolás offered him Danilo’s job. Tito could hardly believe it. To match the added responsibilities Tito would have, Nicolás gave him a raise of fifty dollars a week. He promised another hundred in six months if the job worked out.
“Don’t you see? You earned it. Nicolás promoted you because you are enterprising in everything you do.” To celebrate I take him to a festive Cuban restaurant in a section of Queens called Corona. In Spanish corona means “crown”, but this neighborhood is the poorest of the Latin American neighborhoods. It is the first stop for newcomers. It’s a hodge-podge of crooked, one-way streets with stores disguised as homes and homes masking as stores. Nothing appears as it is. It’s where I always get lost when I’m by myself.
On the way back from supper we hold hands, content and sated. We pass a house with loudspeakers perched above the doorframe. Only a voice tells us it’s a church. “Deja las preocupaciones atrás,” we hear. Put down your belongings and worship God.
I smile. It reminds me of when I used to listen to evangelical radio in Spanish because of its simple language and slow rhythms. “El reino de Diós está cerca. Ellos que crean, verán.” The Kingdom of God is within your reach. Those who believe will see.
I feel Tito looking at me. “Ves?” See?
The voice promises that God will pay our car loans. He will pay our rent. He will even pay for our retirement.
We move on. When we reach the car, Tito turns to me. “You have to have la Actitud Positiva.” He enunciates like the preacher, but his eyes are serious. “With la actitud positiva, you can fulfill your dreams. You can accomplish what you want. I was a poor immigrant from a Third World country. And now I have a job, I have a home, I have security.”
I know he is trying to tell me that magic doesn’t entirely account for his good fortune, that his belief in himself and his willingness and optimism have also contributed to his success. I can see that he is telling me that those things could be mine too, with the right attitude, the right belief. All those things that I’ve deeply desired such as steady work and a cottage of my own, all of them are within my reach if I am willing to approach life in this way. He holds this out to me as if it were a potion.
And if it were, I would have sipped from it. After all, he’s accomplished much with his own actitud positiva.
“But finding love, Rebecca, when I had given up on it? When I never thought it possible? Eso era otra cosa.
That wasn’t luck. That was from God.”
We have reached that comfortable stage with each other, where evenings find us reading propped against the pillows in bed, Tito with whatever is at hand and I with my Moby Dick.
But it’s been four months into my tome, and still I toil, night after night. I breezed through the first two hundred pages, where Ishmael decided to go to sea and signed aboard the Pequod, but once the ship pushed off, the narrative slowed. I am becalmed under the equatorial sun, in the unending heat, with the unspeakable monotony of the horizon wherever I look, without even a mere speck of land for relief.
I picked it up because a friend had finished it and recommended it. I confessed to her that I’d never read it, or ever wanted to. Then I heard a program on the radio about it, and grew interested. And I was ready, in the mood to read an epic. I went out and bought a copy. The chapters looked short. And it had woodcuts by Rockwell Kent.
But I only manage a page or two each night before my eyes drop down and close. I’ve limped through the biology of whales, the history of mastheads, and philosophical ramblings on all things white. I plod on, page by page, and still most of the book remains ahead.
Meanwhile, Tito is buried in the most recent issue of Condorito, a comic book from Chile featuring a skinny bug-eyed condor, who, for some reason, Tito adores. That Tito flips through page after page, shaking the bed in laughter each night, only makes my concentration harder.
The lumpy bird bears no resemblance to the elegant lines of my whale, still awaiting me. This is not an edgy comic from the Lower East Side. The drawings are hokey in a commercial way. But the condor, Tito reminds me, is to Chileans what the American bald eagle is to us.
Each month Tito carries in a new booty of tattered copies that have been handed down by his friends. I can always tell when he’s gotten a fresh stash by the pile on his side of the bed. One by one, night by night, another comic falls to the floor. When he’s finished them all, he’ll pass them on to the next friend. This is how the Condoritos make their rounds.
On my side of the room, books lie in stacks on every surface. Around the apartment bookshelves reach up to the ceiling, filled with books two levels deep. They line the apartment walls. Books are my weakness. And still I haunt bookstores. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t read a good half of the ones I already own. Deep inside, I know I will. This is what I tell myself each time I stand at the cash register with my arms filled with the week’s indulgence.
Pobrecito, Tito. He struggles with this compulsion of mine that threatens to upset the order he tries to maintain throughout the apartment. But he never criticizes me for buying more books. He isn’t a constant reader, but I have found him absorbed in books. He’s read all of Paulo Coelho. He was transported by my Relato de un náufrago by García Márquez, the story of a shipwreck. Once in a bookstore I tried to buy him a novel by Vargas Llosa about Trujillo, because I knew he liked history. He took it from me and put it back on the bookshelf. He’d already read it.
But he doesn’t share my craving to absorb everything that lies between a book’s pages. I swear, whether it’s about the rings of Saturn, the notion of infinity throughout cultures and history, the life of a 19th century explorer of butterflies, the novels of Nigerian writers, or the short stories of Hemingway—I want to know it. At least this is what I tell myself as I put away my latest purchase, to rest on my shelves for the day when I will reach for it instead of another mystery.
Tonight Tito is chuckling his way through his whole comic book. He is oblivious to my little humphs, the nearest I can come to telling him to be quiet. He is clueless to(?) the challenges I face in Moby Dick. I monitor his progress from the corner of my eye. Finally he puts it down with a grunt of contentment and rolls over to my side. I sigh and start again at the top of the page. I am trying to focus on famous sperm whales in history, with names like Morquan and Timor Jack. There are others, but they blur before me. My eyes have drifted off the page, and I have to shake my head and try again. I reach the bottom of the page without the slightest sense of what I’ve read. I straighten up against the headboard. Tito’s Condorito lies on the cover next to him. I look down at its cover. The bony condor is bent over a broken fence while a bejeweled, buxom woman sits behind the wheel of a car whose front is damaged. “¡Me convenciste maneja tú, condorito! ¡Ay,” she says to the beleaguered condor. I translate it as you convinced me to drive, Condorito. Once again I don’t get the joke. The humor must be unique to Chileans, I conclude.
Moby Dick slides off my lap, and I close it. I pick up the Condorito again and leaf through more pages until I come to a story that looks simple and short. It’s titled la Prueba, the test. In this story the condor is older with a beard and long gray hair, and he stands on a cloud outside a large gate. In front of him stands a caricature resembling Albert Einstein. Naturally the condor asks for proof of his identity. So Einstein rattles off his formula for relativity. “Pasa,” says the Condorito. Pass.
In the next drawing, a man in a black beret stands before him and tells the condor that he is Picasso. He looks more like Gauguin to me, but I won’t quibble. Once again the condor asks for proof. “Fácil,” says Picasso. He hands the condor a drawing, and the condor admits him.
Then a mustached man with brilliant white teeth raps on the door. From within, the condor asks who is there. “Me, Pepe Cortisona, the most important businessman in my country, the man who owns a huge company and is written up in all the newspapers.” Silence. “Let me in, you silly bird,” the businessman says.
The condor peeks from behind the crack in the door. “You have to prove yourself, just like Einstein and Picasso did.”
“Who are Einstein and Picasso?”
Condorito holds the door wide for the businessman. “Pasa, Pepe,” he says.
I let out a laugh despite myself. I look over at Tito, snoring gently by my side. He doesn’t stir. I close his comic and lay it on top of my Moby Dick. Then I turn off the light and curl my body into his.
The next installment will be posted Thursday, Dec 30.