“La ciudad es mágica en esas horas, Rebecca.” The city is magical in those hours. I can see its spell on his tired face. Tito has found a second job, and it’s his first time working in Manhattan. This is not the first time Tito has taken on extra work. Some weekends he volunteers for odd jobs for his friend Pancho, cleaning his garage, washing his cars, anything Pancho needs. And one summer Tito parked cars at the U.S. Open, earning pocketfuls of tips. Now, since Thanksgiving, he’s been working as a newspaper deliveryman. It makes me uneasy, all this driving. “More police in Manhattan, more chances for something to happen,” I say to him.
“The city is empty then. And the money’s useful, extra for presents to send to Chile.” Tito got the job through a driver who needed someone to substitute for him while he was away in Ecuador visiting his family. In this way Tito holds the job for his friend. He rises at five and returns at eight, as daylight is emerging, just in time to open the garage. He comes home at night exhausted and goes to bed right after supper. And each morning after he turns off the alarm, he invites me to accompany him.
“Mañana, mañana,” I say before I roll over. Sleep has become suddenly bountiful, and all I want to do is sleep through those madrugadas I once woke for. But tomorrow his friend returns. Today is Tito’s last day delivering newspapers. I have listened for weeks to his stories and descriptions of the places he’s seen and the people he’s noticed. And as he’s predicted, all has ended well. If I want to see the city through his eyes, this is my last chance. Mañana is here. I dress while he warms up the car.
Outside I see he has borrowed one of Nicolás’ Towncars.
“More room, mi amor,” he explains as he opens the door for me.
I slide in across the soft, leather seats. “Oooh, qué lujoso,” I say. How luxurious.
“Que lujo, el trabajo“ he says. What a luxury, work. I nod. Tito, more than anyone I’ve met, treasures work. It’s almost as if it’s a privilege for him. But then again, he comes from a country where there’s not much of it.
We wend our way towards, then over, the bridge, and instantly we are in Manhattan. Even in that sleepless city we glide through dark and quiet streets. We catch glimpses of unfinished stories. We pass a man who gets into a car, but when he opens the door, the light inside shows a car full of men. A few blocks down we spot another man. He runs through a parking lot bricked on three sides and then disappears, as if through a secret door. Further west, a bearded young man shakes off his backpack. He sets it on the sidewalk and walks away. He doesn’t once turn to check on what he’s left. No wonder Tito loves this job so much.
He parks the car. We’ve reached the office with the newspapers. He jumps out to pick up his daily allotment, but he comes back, his hands empty. “The Daily News and Newsday are late again,”
“So what now?”
All around us cars and vans are double-parked, their motors humming, their drivers milling in the cold air. Everyone is waiting for the papers to arrive.
Tito suggests coffee, and I feel my energy return at the very word. We leave the car parked and walk to the deli on the corner. “This is where I go every morning for tea. The guy who works there, he’s Korean. But sabes qué? He speaks better Spanish than I speak English. And we are the same age.”
When we enter Tito shakes his hand and gestures to me. “Ella es mi novia,” he says to his friend. She’s my girlfriend.
“De dónde es? De Chile?”
“No, no. USA.” I nod, as if to confirm my nationality a little more.
“Ah, USA.” the grocer says to me in English. “I have a girlfriend, too. She’s from Venezuela. She was looking for a rich Chinaman, and she found me.” He laughs. “She thought I was Chinese. But I didn’t want to learn Chinese, so I learned her language instead. Poor girl. She has her Chinaman but no money.” He hands us steaming cups and turns to Tito. “USA. Not so good for money, but good for love, eh?”
Tito pays for the coffees and shakes the hand of his new friend once more. “Ves? USA good for love.”
Back at the distribution center I wait by the car while Tito disappears inside the building. I watch a thin man pile papers into his bicycle basket and pedal away. Next to us a stocky man loads bundles into his van. He makes endless trips to the van, his hands laden with fat stacks of papers. Others are already shutting the doors to their cars and leaving. Everyone is working with the coordinated energy of a beehive. Tito comes rushing out, too, his arms full of papers. “I need to load them in the order of my route,” he says to me as he heaves them into the back seat. He packs pile after pile into the back seat and then into the trunk. Finally I hear him slam it shut. He gets in and starts the car. We’re off.
“Everyone has their own route. Mine goes from Times Square to Washington Square. I love this route.” In the beginning Tito worked other routes. One took him up Broadway to the Upper West Side. Another extended all the way down to Wall Street. But both of them took so long that he couldn’t get back to work on time. So he negotiated for a shorter route, and because he was punctual and responsible with the papers, the owner gave it to him.
“I have a stop to make.” He pulls up next to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, unthinkable any other time of day because of traffic and police.
“I say a prayer here.” He bows his head. I lower mine, too, and wonder what Tito is praying for. We pause a moment longer, and then he puts the car in gear.
The next time he stops, he dashes out for a delivery. “Each day has its own rhythm, ” he tells me when he rejoins me. Already he is readying for his next stop. “Lunes, se enforteleza.” Mondays, you get your strength. Tito runs out with another stack of papers.
“Martes, se encuentra el ritmo.” Tuesdays, you find your rhythm. He drives around the corner to his next client.
“Miércoles es la mitad.” Wednesdays are the halfway point. He turns down Seventh Avenue and parks. He takes out three thick bundles. Then he runs off with them and disappears around the corner.
He’s not even breathless when he returns. “Los jueves son lindos.” Thursdays are beautiful. His face, lit from all the colored lights of Times Square, is beautiful, too.
“Y viernes es el día de prisa.” Fridays are rush-days. And so he rushes this Friday. I offer to help.
“No, es mi trabajo.” It’s my work.
He makes more stops, crisscrossing midtown, all the while moving southward. I watch him trot into buildings laden with papers, then run out with arms free and light. Sometimes he’s jogged as far as a block with the bundles swinging from his hands. I marvel at his stamina. Most of the time I’m the one with the energy. But today he is simply bursting with it.
The car clock glows 6:30. Tito stops the car at the Empire State Building. Police stand on all of its corners. “Éste es el más importante.” His voice is hushed with reverence. He snaps on a security badge, and I feel his chest expand. He isn’t a citizen. He doesn’t have papers. He doesn’t even have a Social Security number. His driver’s license is from Kansas, not from New York where the laws are more stringent. But into this important building, the tallest in the city now, he has permission to enter. His badge gives him the right to deliver papers on the 12th and 19th floors. He hands me a newspaper and tells me to wait.
I look over the headlines. One article promises a renewed economy from the war in Iraq, while another reports on its casualties. It feels far away from where I am sitting, enveloped in the plush Towncar.
Tito gets in. He’s emptied out the trunk and most of the back seat too. “Are you done?” Suddenly I don’t want our journey to end.
He shakes his head. “The bundles are just smaller.”
Now the clock shows 7:00. The No Parking zones have turned into No Standing zones. A ticket for violating this could be hefty, but luckily we’re below 30th Street, where the streets are still empty, of both cars and police. He parks and gets out to deliver a few papers. I watch him ring the bell for the doorman, but no one appears. He shrugs and leaves it on the pavement.
“Can you leave it like that?”
“It’s the only thing I can do. I don’t know when they bring them inside, but they must be getting their papers, because if they didn’t, I think I’d hear about it.” He turns to me. “But sabes qué? In Chile I could never leave them like that, outside the building. Someone would steal them to resell later.”
“Even in the early hours of the day when everyone is asleep?”
He nods, his face serious. The trust we enjoy here never ceases to surprise him. I have come to marvel at it too. Tito drives on, my personal Baedeker. “This building here always has people just arriving home from their night out.” And sure enough, I spot a woman teetering on her high heels, her arms around a man whose tie is askew.
He points to the block beyond. “And there is where the women of the night stand.” At this late hour, only the stragglers remain, their makeup smeared, their stockings torn. We drive past them and head down a side street.
“And here, this is where my girlfriends live.” He has already told me about the three gold Labradors who greet him with panting smiles each morning from the end of their leash. He has made friends with the woman who owns them too. Tito leans out the window searching for them.
I tell him it doesn’t matter, because I doubt we’ll see her this morning. We started late. Incredibly, he sees them. He turns to me, victorious in his conviction. Then he waves to them from the car, and I see her smile. The dogs look up and wave their tails too. He gets out with more papers and chats with the woman while he strokes the dogs. Then he breaks off to deliver the newspapers. “Mis amigos,” he says as he starts the car again.
He turns onto Bleeker Street with its trashy signs and little storefronts offering free haircuts and cheap clothes. “Me encanta esta calle,” he says. I love this street.
I glance over at him. To me it’s just a shabby snare for tourists eager for a taste of a Greenwich Village that has long since vanished.
“Es bohémica,” he says.
Through Tito’s eyes I see how even with its tacky souvenirs the street hasn’t lost all of its Bohemian character and history. Vestiges remain, and if not them, something of its old spirit, anyway.
“La calle me recuerda de mi juventud.”
I nod. This street reminds me of my youth too, with all its confusions, the people I hurt, the people who hurt me. How can Tito remember it with such joy? Could he have escaped that part of growing up? Because whatever he suffered back then, it’s left no traces that I can see. Sitting next to this man brimming with excitement, I realize how contagious it can be. I feel this crazy, irrational joy all the time these days.
We pass a tiny square, and Tito slows down. It’s one of the city’s concrete triangles dotted with benches. At this hour homeless people are slumbering all over the park. Every bench has a man stretched out on it, asleep. “Tanta pobreza.” Such poverty. He stops the car and for a second I think he’s going to run out and give them money because he’s already made all his stops. “I say a prayer for them here.”
I sit while he bows his head for a short minute. Then he starts the car, and we weave through the streets towards the bridge. It’s gray outside, a gray that promises only more gray for the day ahead. I catch the streetlights dimming. The lights from within apartment buildings on both sides of the street begin to flicker. People are waking up all around us.
As we near the bridge we see people out in the crosswalks, on the corners, along the sidewalks. Men and women in suits wave for taxis while guys in work clothes disappear down into the subways. Tito pulls onto the bridge. A parade of cars drives towards us in the other lane, their headlights shining towards the city. In our direction the lanes are empty and the road lies open and clear ahead.
It’s the blizzard of the year, according to the weathermen. It started in the early morning, lasted through the day and through that night. We wake to the screams of only the wind. Not a single car, not even a truck can be heard. Tito peeks through the slats of the blinds. “Tanta nieve.” He’s never seen so much snow. He checks the clock. “Tengo que quitarla. Soy el jefe.” I have to shovel, I’m the boss.
I am amazed at Nicolás’ luck to be in Cabo San Lucas during the winter’s biggest storm. The snow and the garage, they are now Tito’s responsibility. He slides out from the covers and jumps onto the cold floor. I watch him empty his bureau drawer of everything he has, to protect himself from the snow and cold. Soon he is fat with long underwear, shirts, sweaters, and his puffy parka.
From the bedroom window I watch him waddle out through the snow. The drifts float up to his thighs. He disappears into the whiteness of the storm. The experts have predicted three to four feet, but some of the drifts completely obscure the cars parked on our street. I don’t know where Tito will put all the snow.
El taller has a long sidewalk on two sides, and of course, a long, wide entrance. And then there is the back lot that stretches along the part of the block where Nicolás keeps his unrented Towncars. But Tito’s pressure comes from the few who lease parking spaces from Nicolás, like Tarzán. The snow has buried them all. The only thing Tito and the mechanics will be doing today is shoveling.
As the day lightens, the neighborhood wakes. I hear the soft scrapes of shoveling all down the street. In the distance I can see Tito and his small team of mechanics, their figures small, blue and blurry, bent by the weight of the snow in their shovels. For me it’s a day off. A day’s assignment is not worth the price of an accident. So it hardly seems fair that Tito has to work so hard. I decide to reward him with a thermos of cocoa.
As I pick my way through the drifts to the garage, I admire how much everyone on the block has already cleared. Someone has made a path through the snow to the deli. At least one car on the block has been dug out and two others are almost free. At the garage next to Tito’s, they have shoveled both their own wide entrance and the long sidewalk. They have cleared it down to the pavement. But they are lucky, because they have both a snowplow and a snow blower. At el taller, Nicolás has only shovels.
Towers of snow frame the gaping entrance. Tito’s small crew is now making a deep path out to the back lot. But the back lot is one broad expanse of white. I wave to everyone, and Tito runs to my side. He is out of breath, his dark eyebrows white from the snow, his hat frosted with its powder. Only Jorge and Argentinean Guillermo have made it in to work that day. Jorge is the new arrival at the garage. He is also from Chile. But while each of their countries has snowbound regions, none of the three has ever seen snow before. They put down their shovels to smile at my praise, savoring the respite. Tito leans forward to kiss me. His lips are wet and chilled. I give him the thermos of cocoa and he beams back at me. He pours a cup and passes it around, then turns back to me. “Mi amor, tráeme la cámara, por favor.”
The camera he is asking me to bring is the digital camera he uses to stay in touch with his family. With it he has documented our Sunday outings, pictures he has then sent off to his children, sisters, nieces, and nephews. There is the one of Tito at the beach in the calm, clear waters of Long Island Sound. Tito strolling the boardwalk at Coney Island. Tito in Bryant Park after an outdoor concert. Tito in Times Square. Tito under a Broadway marquis. Tito on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum. Wherever we went that fall and winter, he commanded me to take his picture. It didn’t matter that we hadn’t gone inside of some of the venues. He wanted his family to think he was enjoying everything New York City had to offer.
I would protest. “These pictures make it look as if you’re on one big vacation. How will they learn how hard you work? That you spend six days a week in a greasy garage and have just one day off?” Tito didn’t care. He would just wink and gesture at me to take the picture.
I go back, grab the camera and wade back with it through the snow. Tonight I will overhear to him retell all of today to his family. He will make the windy, bitter day into one of comradeship. And he’ll take special glee, because back in Chile everyone is suffocating in the record temperatures from a heat wave that has wilted the country. I hand him the camera and Tito clears its lens. He calls to Jorge and Guillermo. This photo is for each of them too, so they can remember this day, and so they can share it with their families back home. “Saca la foto, Rebecca,” he says. Take the picture.
They straighten their tired bodies next to their tall shovels. They stand serious before the camera, as if they were in a snowy Grandma Moses painting. I click off as many pictures as Tito has patience for, just three or four frames. Then Tito takes the camera from me. It’s time for them to return to work. They head to the back lot, and I shuffle back to the apartment. When I turn back to look at them, their shovels are waving in the air and the snow is flying.
They work through the afternoon. And everyone else in Blissville plays. Underneath my window el Apache makes a snowman. I listen to the rises and falls of whatever song he is singing. He grows louder with each beer he downs and each snowball he rolls. Across the street the little girls make snow-angels, and the little boys make forts. I hear their shrieks all afternoon. And always in the background, the scrapes of the shovels from Tito’s garage. I hear them long after darkness falls.
When Tito comes home, he turns away my offer of homemade chicken soup. He heads straight into the bed instead. “Lo cumplimos, querida,” is all he says. We finished it.
I flutter around him, helpless. I can’t do anything to assuage his exhaustion. I stroke his hair until he is breathing softly and steadily. He is asleep. I gently lift my hands from him and he rolls over to face me, his eyes still shut. “Did you see the snowman?”
I didn’t, I say. He replies with only a snore.
We wake to bright sun and the groans of traffic. Tito tells me his arms ache, and he shows me his blistered hands. His face is so dry that it flakes from the bitter winds of yesterday. But his spirit is untouched from his toils. “Ven, Rebecca,” he calls to me as he dresses. “I want to show you the snowman.”
We bundle up and head out. A lopsided snowman sits in the middle of the sidewalk. Someone has shoveled out a path on either side of him. At the bottom he is gloriously fat and lumpy, so wide that he covers a whole cement square in the sidewalk. His stomach is round and smooth. Two sticks poke out on from his sides, skinny and crooked arms black against the blue sky. He doesn’t have a neck, but that doesn’t matter. He has a scarf, an old rag, really, wrapped around what might have been a neck. As for his face, it carries the mark of its maker. Using the caps from his bottles of beer, El Apache has made circles for the snowman’s eyes and a long line, ragged like teeth, for his mouth.
Tito hands me his camera. “Take my picture.”
I look through the viewfinder. The snowman dwarfs him, but Tito stands sturdy and straight just like el Apache’s snowman. “Are you going to say you made this?”
Tito only smiles. I press the shutter.
Tito has two groups of friends outside of the garage, his musical friends and his futbol friends. Each weekend or so he does something with one of them. And lately he’s taken to inviting me along, whether to hear Rodrigo play his flute or to watch a futbol match with Claudio. But I shy away from the thought. “Mi español,” I tell him, my stock excuse. I don’t confess my real fear, how his friends will perceive us. We are two people from different backgrounds, countries, and languages, in love. But I am also an older woman with a younger man whose only path to a Green Card is to marry me. Which version will his friends see? It’s safer to rebuff his overtures. What we have at home is already whole and complete.
But when Paco, a former soccer star, invites Tito to a party, Tito begs me to accompany him. He is so excited I can’t refuse. Tito has a special kinship with Paco. He opened his door when Tito had nowhere else to go. Tito slept on the sofa and borrowed against his credit card to pay the rent, but Tito didn’t question it. Even though he’s still paying off those debts, he is grateful.
In the week leading up to the party, Tito tells me about the other guests—Carlos, Javier, Arturo, Vicente, and others whose names I don’t remember. Once they were wings, forwards, and halfbacks. Here they work as painters, mechanics, and drivers. They may have changed uniforms, but they dazzle Tito. He remembers their spectacular plays to the roars of the packed stadium.
Like Tito, most have left their wives and children behind in Chile. Only two have family here. “Mejor, Rebecca. A single man can share a room with others. He can live without supper if there’s no money that week. He has only himself to worry about. It’s easier to survive here alone.” But in doing so, some have made new lives, and found new loves. Two of the futbolistas are bringing their girlfriends to the party too. Tito tells me this in passing. I can tell he doesn’t want me to worry that I’ll be the only woman there. I don’t tell him that I want to be more than a girlfriend.
Nothing dampens Tito’s spirit now that we are both going, not the rainy week, not the incessant yelling of Nicolás, not even my bad mood in agreeing to this party so easily. The day before the party, Tito cleans and washes the car. He shops for two bottles of Chilean wine. He picks up his clothes from the dry cleaners and lays them out. He brings home a map too, because Paco lives in New Jersey. We plan when we should leave. I think we should be on time, and Tito thinks we should arrive an hour later. “Los chilenos no son puntuales,” he says.
“But you’re punctual, Tito.”
“I don’t want to get stuck in traffic. Besides, it’s a dinner party,” I say, remembering the times my guests have arrived late to a cooling meal.
We compromise, but even so we pull up in front of the building exactly on the hour, not a minute late. Tito leads the way, down to the basement. Now that we are here, Tito can’t wait to see his old friend and his former apartment.
When Paco sees Tito, he gives him a loud slap on the back. He’s gracious about our early arrival, for the other guests won’t be coming for another hour or so. He leads us in and introduces me to Arturo, a futbolista who has just arrived from a trip to Chile. He’s brought packages of locos for the party. Arturo explains that they are a rare abalone that all Chileans are crazy for. The locos will be the base of the seafood soup they plan to make.
While his friends cook, Tito inspects the old apartment. “Mi cama,” he says, and he pats the soft, modular sofa. I put my arms around him, remembering the first time he slept in my bed. He peeks in the bathroom and the bedrooms. “Nothing has changed, nada,” he says to anyone listening. He seems amazed how, in altering his own life, no one else has transformed his.
We return to the kitchenette where his friends have begun to cook. Tito and I stand at the edge and watch. They talk about futbol while Paco and Arturo chop onions and peppers for the soup. They cut up various shapes of frozen shellfish and add them to the pot. A slow hour passes this way.
One by one the futbolistas trickle in. The men greet their old friends with booming hellos and more loud smacks on the back, how men in Chile seem to greet each other. The little living room fills with men. I am the only woman so far, and as such, special among them. I ask where they are from, how they know Tito, and how long they’ve been here. They are from Valparaíso, Santiago, Concepción, Temúc, and Puerto Montt, names so romantic I will look them up later in my atlas. They tell me they know Tito through the port back in Chile and through Saturday afternoons in the park here. They haven’t been here so long, they say, just five, eight, or fifteen years. Whatever the answer, it seems a long time to be away from a home, a wife, and a family.
Someone turns on the television, and we all relax in relief. They click from game to game, country to country, continent to continent. Futbol matches are being played all over the world. Outside the afternoon sun slides down to the horizon, and it fills the little living room with light. Sweet, briny scents float through the apartment. Another hour passes like this. We are waiting now for las novias, the girlfriends.
And suddenly they are here, circling around us. “Son colombianas,” Tito whispers, as if to explain their lateness. To me, surviving a country with a long, artistic tradition, yet one torn apart with violence, only makes them more exotic. I can’t take my eyes from them as their hands dance in the air and their bracelets tinkle. Their voices titter everywhere. They flit and flutter, circling around the room to drop down and press a soft, soundless kiss upon the cheek of each man. Their glistening lips touch nothing more than air. “Son como mariposas,” I whisper back. Butterflies.
“No,” Tito says.
“But they look like them.”
“Mariposa in Spanish refers to a woman who goes from man to man, like the song.” He hums a bar from a song by the Mexican rock group Maná. “Eres como una mariposa.” You are like a butterfly.
I know this melody by heart and none of its lyrics. But we love this song.
“Mariposa traicionera,” Tito whispers to me. A betraying butterfly.
But there’s no other creature to describe them, and butterfly in English carries none of the darker connotations of Spanish. Everything about las colombianas shimmers. Their faces glow under their liquid foundation. Their hair waves and sparkles with highlights. Their dark eyes shine behind their mascara. One is tall, the other curvy, and to me they could both be models for Latina magazine. Their satin blouses barely reach their midriffs, and their jeans hug their hips and long legs. Graceful red toenails extend out of their dainty sandals. They are iridescent.
I look down at my own feet, encased in comfortable walking shoes. My baggy cotton pants let me cross my legs with ease, but are hardly glamorous. Even my hands, one of my best features, so I think—so strong and sure with a camera in them—even they look wrinkled and knobby here. Worse, I can see they are speckled with little brown age spots. Why hadn’t I noticed this before? I am plain. This is an old feeling that is visiting me today, one I thought I’d shed but clearly haven’t.
The tall colombiana is now in front of me, and she bends down to kiss my cheek. “Yolanda,” she whispers as her cheek touches mine, and I clear my throat to tell her mine. She kisses Tito next, while her friend kisses me, and I miss her name. When they move on, the slightest scent of jasmine and honeysuckle floats behind.
“Ella es la novia de Paco,” Tito says. She’s Paco’s girlfriend. The darker, voluptuous girlfriend takes the only seat remaining, on the sofa next to me. I apologize to her for not remembering her name. “Malena,” she says. When I ask her where she’s from, she simply says, “Medellín.” I nod, at a loss for more questions. It’s a city I know nothing about, except for its cocaine cartels. I look over at Tito, now on the other side of the room, but he is engrossed in a conversation with an old friend whom he hasn’t seen since he moved from New Jersey.
Malena rummages in her handbag. I wonder if she’s looking for her lipstick, but she pulls out a CD. She turns it in her hands and looks around the room as if waiting for something. I peer over to see what music it is. Maybe it’s something I will recognize, and then we will have something in common. But it’s a collection of salsa greatest hits, and I know nothing about salsa. Paco takes the CD and slides it into his player. Latin music with a fast, syncopated rhythm fills the room. It drowns out the conversations and the television too.
Malena stands up and looks around the room. She gestures to Yolanda and together they mince their way into the center of the confined space and begin to dance, their bodies leaning into the rhythms. They laugh together and tease the men on the sofa, but no one gets up. I look over at Tito to see what he will do, but his only focus is on his friend. Finally the song ends, and I take a breath. When the next song begins, it sounds the same. They call out again for their boyfriends, still in the kitchen. The men emerge with aprons tied around their waists. Paco goes to Yolanda and Arturo to Malena. At first they move as four, and then they become two. The women move in and out of the arms of their men in perfect rhythm, never missing a step. They are so sexy I can hardly watch. I concentrate on their dainty footwork for later when I will practice with Tito. But I will never be able to copy the way their hips and shoulders turn and sway. I’ll be lucky to remember some of the steps. In the end, I’ll have to fake it with Tito as I always do when we dance together in our living room.
The song ends and another begins, and they continue dancing. I glance at Tito again. He’s sitting on the arm of a chair so that he faces only his old friend. He is not noticing any of their dancing. I edge my way to his side. He slips an arm around my waist as if to claim me, but he doesn’t stop talking. “This is my friend Carlos, the best I know,” Tito says when he finally introduces me.
Now the songs end and begin seamlessly. When the conversation lulls, Tito asks me to dance, but I shake my head and root my feet to the floor. He turns back to his friend and to whatever it was they were talking about. I go back to studying the dance moves. Finally the CD ends.
Paco heads into the kitchen, and both girlfriends follow him. I look at Tito for a signal about when we are to eat. By now I am ravenous. But in the kitchen the women are huddled. I don’t catch what they are saying. Tito translates for me. “They have to make the rice. Son colombianas, they eat rice with everything, mi amor.”
I am amazed by his generalization but helpless to contradict it. I watch them reach for a large pot and fill it with water. It will take forever for that to boil. I wonder how Colombian rice is different from ours. I wonder how long it will take. My stomach rumbles in readiness.
They reach in the paper bag, pull out a box, and pour the whole thing in. When they set it down I see that it’s Uncle Ben’s. Someone turns on the television, and we hear “Goooooooooooool.” The room erupts in cheers. “Chile just scored against Uruguay,” Tito whispers without taking his eyes from the screen. I try to follow the tiny figures, but even with the huge monitor, it means nothing. But everyone else comments on the game play by play until it ends, and even after.
Paco shouts from the kitchen that the rice is cooked. Everything is ready, and we are to serve ourselves. I line up ahead of Tito and scoop out some rice. It sits fluffy and bright, whiter than the white of my paper plate. It doesn’t look anything like the rice I cook, too mushy or too hard. I ladle the seafood soup along its side. I look back to Tito. He claims that he doesn’t like rice, but I note that he has piled his plate high with it. We sit down side by side. The smooth, slightly nutty flavor of the rice melds with the firm, slightly salty shellfish. I never knew rice could taste like this. One at a time the futbolistas rise for another helping, and I do too. No one can stop eating. We eat until nothing is left. And then it is time to leave.
I am quiet in the car. I am still rapt by the images of las colombianas, how they dressed, the care they took with nail polish and jewelry, the way they carried themselves, and danced. What would it take for me to be more audacious? We enter the tunnel. We are enveloped in this car and long tunnel that runs deep below the Hudson, and I can hardly breathe. He turns to me. “Por qué estás silenciosa?” Why are you quiet?
We speed through the tunnel, the yellow light streaming down its walls. “No sé.” I don’t know. The car starts to ascend and suddenly we are out of the tunnel and in Manhattan, with all its promise glowing in skyscrapers before us. I roll down the window and gulp in the cold air. “Por qué no te anulas?” Why don’t you get an annulment?
I feel his reproach in his silence. When Carmen told him she no longer loved him, Tito let it be, and so did I. I knew about the sting of rejection. I let a season go by before I inquired about his intentions. Many of his friends were starting up with new girlfriends, never thinking to finish what they’d left behind in Chile. I wanted something different for us. So Tito asked Carmen for an annulment, and to speed things along, he made all the necessary arrangements. He found a lawyer, procured the papers, and signed his name wherever he could. But like here, he needed Carmen’s participation. And she has moved more slowly, taking almost a year to complete her part. They wait only for the lawyer to submit them to the court. Tito is cautious. Those papers are Carmen’s leverage against him. I have no right to prod Tito to rush her.
But if I had never asked, when would he have asked Carmen for an annulment? How long would he have let it slide? I watch him navigate the twisting streets of lower Manhattan leading to the Brooklyn Bridge. These are lanes where I wind back and forth upon myself until I have lost all sense of direction. Tito, though, maneuvers the car with the confidence of a taxi driver. I study his profile, his straight forehead, even nose, and soft and rounded chin. His dark eyes are focused on the road, not on me. “Why do you love me, Tito?”
He doesn’t answer. We are circling up the ramp onto the bridge. Even at this hour there’s a line of cars feeding in on both sides of us. “Me cuidas.” You take care of me.
I stare at him. This is not what I expected to hear. The driver in the car in front of us puts his arm around his sweetheart. Doesn’t Tito notice him? Where has our own romance gone? I reach for ways to ask Tito in such a way that he gives me the answers I’m seeking. I take a breath. “That’s what I do for you, because I love you. But why you love me?”
We are on the bridge and open sky is all around us. “I find peace with you.”
I shake my head, wondering why this is so hard. All I want is for him to tell me that I am beautiful, sexy, challenging, original, smart, brave, artistic, gorgeous, warm, sensitive, insightful, funny, and loving. That should be so easy, but of course, it’s not. The familiar thick towers of the bridge stand stark against the dusky sky. I decide to break it down in parts. “So what do you love in me?”
“You are a good cook. “
I heave a gigantic sigh, but in the din of the traffic no one hears it but me. We pass under the first tower. There’s a web of netting above us and below us the East River glints. He is telling me everything but what I crave.
“You are a good photographer. “
He is trying so hard and failing so badly. I shake my head, my mouth open, but he doesn’t take his eyes from the road. I turn and look away. Even on this moonless night I can see the unwavering horizon of the Atlantic in the distance.
“When I first saw you in the taller, do you remember that day? You wore red socks and I said to myself, who is this person? I loved you from that moment, mi cielo.”
So what is it that I want from him? When we first met, Tito often spoke of wanting to marry me. But I discounted it. He was proposing from the safety of already being married. In Spanish class we called clauses like that ‘the past conditional.’ Marrying me was something he would have done. It was unrelated to the present, just an easy wish. So I ended such talk, and he hasn’t mentioned marriage since. And now, here on the Brooklyn Bridge, I long for it.
“Even if you and Carmen annul, you have to have your Green Card first.” I have never wanted to be his conduit to a Green Card. Love should not mix with immigration. We pass under the second tower and begin to descend. All of Brooklyn shines in front of us.
“Yo sé, mi amor,” he says. He keeps his eyes ahead and doesn’t try to convince me otherwise. At the exit he takes the side streets instead of the highway home. We ride under the highway and then into Williamsburg, where all the streetlights are yellow. From outside we hear the fast beat of a merengue coming from a corner bodega. It’s a song I recognize and like. But tonight it’s a bitter reminder of the party.
We pass by a park where, on summer nights, men play baseball and families gather to watch. The floodlights shine down on the empty green triangles. It’s too late, too cold, just too early in spring for this. I wonder if Tito will ever be able to say what I need to hear from him. We drive by the shadows of crumbling factories. Finally we cross over the creek and into Queens. I exhale. We are two blocks from home. Tito turns down our street and slows the car.
Maybe it’s the difference in our ages that makes time feel so precious to me. I feel an urgency I could never explain to Tito to do—to complete—everything I have left. A car pulls out in front of us and opens a space right in front of our apartment building. Tito glides into it and turns off the motor. We sit quietly in the car while the motor ticks.
Then he turns to me. He takes my fingers and rubs them between his rough hands. “Rebecca,” he says. He says it as if it were a sentence. “La amo.” He is using the formal to tell me he loves me. He says it in the most respectful way he knows.
In the weeks that follow I will go out and buy rice. I will buy brown rice and not Uncle Ben’s. Like Tito takes care of me by caring for my car, I take care of him through the meals I serve, and brown rice is healthier than white rice. Each time I will burn it. I will put on a CD of salsa and pull on his arms to dance. He will follow me once or twice, and after that he won’t budge from his computer. “I know what you’re trying to do, Rebecca,” he’ll say, shaking his head.
I’ll deny it and flash my painted nails at him. When that fails I’ll twirl to the music and flounce my skirt in his direction. I won’t give up cajoling him to dance.
In a week the enamel on my nails will chip, and my skirt will lie on top of the laundry pile. I will toss my rice pans in the trash and go back to cooking the staple Tito loves, potatoes. Potatoes sautéed with rosemary, potatoes mashed with green onions, and potatoes baked with fennel. I will make potato soup and potato gnocchi and potato gratin. And each night I will put on the music. It could be salsa, merengue, or bachata. Whatever it is, I will dance to it, in my own way and to my own rhythms.
“Nunca cambies,” he’ll say to me. Never change. He wrote that to me on my first birthday with him, over a year ago. Don’t change, ever.
A month or so later we will go to another party at a friend’s house. Las colombianas will also be there. They will seem more ordinary to me this time, with a little less glitter and a little less iridescence. And I will miss it.
The next installment will be posted Jan 6.