A drama of World War II years and after, in Mexico and the United States
"When she sleeps, her soul, I know,
Goes a wanderer on the air,
Wings where I may never go,
Leaves her lying, still and fair,"
The four lines above define my mother perfectly. I found Rupert Brooke's volume of poetry at her bedside, read a few pages, then watched her sleep. How miraculous, I thought, that she has come this far, squeezed through so much, and finally she can sleep so peacefully.
She's writing about what happened. This must have helped her because she asked me to do the same.
I think I will do it, even if it will mean to let the past sink its claws into my flesh once more. I will tell my version of it, our stumbling and slipping inside the two cultures, inside the two worlds, and inside the hands that pull wars and conflict.
It will be hard. It will be hard not to shrivel with fear. It will be hard to crawl back into the past and to re-live those days, only to crumble again. Maybe one has to crumble first, to become whole at the end, but this takes courage; tremendous, enormous, spine-chilling courage.
Come to think of it, maybe my mother and I were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but don't all stumblers' tales start this way? Still, how could I have stumbled at so young an age? No, it wasn't me, and it wasn't us. It had to be the years, fate, kismet, or whatever you call it that stepped on us, and while doing so, it left its scuff marks on our souls and a bitter taste in our mouths.
I suspect putting what happened into words will not erase those scuff marks, but maybe I'll come to accept them as part of my soul's scenery.
(Date: some day in 1944)
Some memories are like photographic exposures. My earliest memory is a single exposure of me, sitting on a potty in Barra de Navidad, Jalisco, inside Abuela's house.
Abuela, my father's mother, has her specific ideas on bringing up a child. She insists toilet training starts at birth, and she tells me I am not to get up until I am successful. As I sit on the potty, Mama sends funny looks at her mother in law. Another storm is brewing between the two of them, and I sense if I don't obey, I'll be blamed by one or the other or maybe both. I push until I am red in the face, but nothing comes out. So, like a chained convict, I sit and sit.
My mother is a gringa from California, and she doesn't like Abuela's ways. My father, too, is a gringo, at least half-gringo since his father was an American, but Papa worships his mother. Mama feels Papa holds his mother above her, his wife. If he didn't, why would he oblige Mama to live with Abuela when he set out to go to the war overseas? Papa had to leave just before I was born, and he feared, being the jealous type, other men would get to his wife.
Mama is strikingly beautiful. Everyone says so. That is why Abuela doesn't let Mama out of her sight. Mama never goes anywhere alone.
Mama is petite and thin, with huge brown eyes, chestnut hair and very white skin. Strange men, Mexican hombres, whistle at her and shout piropos when we walk on the street, even when they see Abuela with us, which is almost always. Abuela pushes Mama in front of her and tells her not to glance at those men. Mama bites her lips and pouts with anger. I can tell she feels insulted, and I fear the outcome.
Mama has nerves like crystal. She gets headaches; she cries; she screams; and sometimes, she faints. Her fainting spells scare me and that is why, even though Abuela is stricter with me, I am more afraid of Mama than I am of Abuela. I don't like to cross Mama because, unless a fainting spell hits her first, she bawls and yells at me; afterwards, she hugs and kisses me. When she is having such an outburst, Abuela comforts me. "Never mind," she says, "Only a berrinche, a tantrum. Her parents spoiled her, that's why."
Sometimes, I hear Mama unburdening herself to Lupita. Lupita, Mama's friend, is a neighbor a bit older than Mama. Lupita has five children; Mama has only me. Lupita has long dark hair, dark skin, and a very short neck. Her head seems to ve sprung up from her chest before her shoulders were formed, making her facial features seem broader and larger than they really are. Lupita's dresses are in all colors with dirndl skirts and ruffles, making her look chubby. Lupita, too, screams at her children, but her children are naughty, while I am an angel. At least, I think so.
Mama tells Lupita she feels betrayed and her life is way too hard. I gather from what I hear that it is the cooking Mama has trouble with. Mama refuses to learn how to cook Mexican food. She says she hates cooking. I can't tell if she is troubled with Abuela's kind of food or if she is afraid she'll have to do the cooking. If it means having to do the cooking, she should not be that troubled by it, since Abuela likes to do all the cooking.
Abuela doesn't like Lupita's family. "Mestizos," she calls them scornfully. "All they do is drink cerveza." I wonder why Abuela doesn't like them when she herself, except for her skin color, looks so similar to Lupita. Abuela's name is Guadalupe. So she could be called Lupita, too. Sometimes Abuela scolds Mama for being chummy with Lupita, but afterwards she sighs and says, "The good thing is, she lives next door where I can keep an eye on you until Emiliano comes back."
Emiliano McGrath is my father. Even though I don't remember him, I love him because both Mama and Abuela love him, even if Mama and Abuela don't like each other much. Papa went to fight the good war for the Northerners. When he comes back from Europe, he'll bring me a big doll that will open and close her eyes and call me "Mama," and we'll go back to California and live happily ever after. My mother has assured me it will be so, and I wait for him and pray for him, as does Abuela. That's the one thing that unites the three of us. We pray for my father's safety in front of Abuela's altar on a tall chest of drawers in the living room.
On the altar, on top of an embroidered white doily, surrounded by candles, is a lady doll. She is called Virgen de Guadalupe. I ask Abuela why this Guadalupe is called Virgen.
Abuela doesn't like to give long explanations. She just says, "Because she is untouched." It must be why she doesn't let me play with it. We only touch her lightly when we have a special wish. "Our Lady is not a plaything," she tells me. "Our Lady is sacred."
Later I ask my mother, "What is sacred? What does it mean?"
"Something heavenly. Something beyond human reach."
"Will my doll be sacred, the one Papa will bring?"
"Dolls are not sacred," Mama says.
I point to the Virgen. "But she is sacred."
Mama lifts her eyebrows in a bizarre gesture and murmurs. "Abuela's everything is sacred."
"From the candles and dumb shadows,
And the house where love had died,
I stole to the vast moonlight
And the whispering life outside.
But I found no lips of comfort,
No home in the moon's light
(I, little and lone and frightened
In the unfriendly night)"
I have taken to reading poetry lately. Words skillfully put together sound so beautiful and so intriguing, and they help me in so many ways.
I'm no poet or writer, but writing was prescribed to me to validate the past, to validate my sorrows, but mostly to validate me; therefore, I needed to write, to put into words all that has happened, all that has ailed me, and all that shook me off from my foundation so powerfully.
I asked Maya, my daughter, to do the same, since she, too, has been shaken "in the house where love had died."
Oh, Maya won't let it show...of course. She thinks she is so strong, much stronger than me, but I have my doubts. My daughter talks with a hard, authoritarian voice, giving nothing -to me or to others- of her genuine self. She is always polite and well-behaved. She is determined to do things right, too. She has gotten a wonderful education and is successful. Plus, she never took a misstep. Everyone thinks she has made good choices. As a matter of fact, people think, unlike me, she is a master in the art of making choices, but I know better. She is hurt and angry, too, but won't show it.
They say anger is the most common cover-up for hurt. Is that why I feel so much anger toward my life? Toward myself? Is that why Maya feels the way she does?
I never wanted Maya to feel my anger and catch on to my hurt, but it must have happened anyway. Children have a way of discovering things adults want to protect them from. At the end, most children feel unjustly treated by those same adults. I think, Maya concluded that I have taken her existence for granted. I haven't. I cherish my daughter. If it weren't for her existence, I'd most likely do away with myself.
I so wish Maya could understand and forgive me. Is this an impossibility to wish for? Can Maya ever figure me out? Can I figure myself out?
On the other hand, I can decipher many things on my own; although, I cannot undo anything. So much hurt, so many things...
There are things I cannot put into words. Then, there are things that cannot be told because once told, they cannot be untold. I shall stop writing, once I've said all I can say.
No matter, I have been doing this for me, as I promised it to me.
I have a page from a diary I kept after I got sick. The date on it is July 30, 1952. Decades have passed since. I recall how I ripped apart that diary one day. That one page, though, I still have.
This morning I woke up, and looked around for Emiliano. The nurse says this is normal. Sometimes patients dismiss the events and create their own. She says yesterday and an entire month before that, I told everybody I was a bird. Funny, I thought I dreamt I was a bird. I keep mixing up real life with dreams, but then, what's the difference?
I used to be like a bird, but they cut me up. I don't know who. I only wanted to fly forever and ever to whirl over the ocean to reach where Emiliano had been. Some days I see everyone having the same face; they are all like statues. I can't say for sure, but I may have partied with the devil and swam in some deep, sorrow.
This morning, some medicine may have taken effect because the doctor said I was doing all right, and they'll send for Charlene and Maya. The last time they were here, Charlene told me in no uncertain terms, if I act the way I act, she won't bring Maya on visiting days, Only because I asked Maya how her father was doing. She panicked and clung to Charlene. Her eyes teared up, too.
Who is mistreating my daughter? Someone must have. She looked so somber as if I were dead and talking to her from the grave. Or is it not me who is dead? Is it my father? He did have two heart attacks, first when I was in my teens, second when I got sick and they brought me here. They said then that it was a psychotic episode.
Pa cannot be dead. He came to visit me a short time ago. I know someone died, but I can't remember who. It had to be someone I didn't want to lose. Or else, why would I have a psychotic episode?
But then, I had several psychotic episodes that made me switch between this place and home.
So sad that Emiliano doesn't come to see me. He must be with Guadalupe, that witch of his mother. But then, whether he likes it or not, I am his wife. And I have been a dutiful wife, or else why would I leave my country and go live in another one with his mother?
After that thing with Maya, Charlene came to see me alone.
"Rosie," she said. "The whole thing was as difficult on Maya as it has been on you. Promise me, you won't talk of Emiliano to Maya. She falls apart when you do."
"But he's his father."
"She knows that, Rosie. We all know that. I know you are having a difficult time accepting some facts, but whether you accept them or not, I can't let you hurt Maya. Just remember this. Maya gets very upset when Emiliano is mentioned. Okay, do you understand? No talk of Emiliano near Maya."
The psychiatrist told me I was blocking reality, but for now, he said he would go along. I heard him ask the same thing outside the door to Ma and Charlene. Each time my family leaves, I tiptoe to the door and listen because the doctors and nurses gossip about me to my family.
"Earlier personality disorder gone haywire. She can't take life's blows well. She is not technically psychotic, but she had and may have psychotic episodes, or rather episodes imitating psychosis. Please, let's go along with her when it happens. We're very hopeful about her case, but we'll keep her under observation."
What kind of gobbledygook was that?
That page aside, I don't remember what I wrote earlier. So I'm going to start from the beginning.
I first met Emiliano when we were both children in Victorville. Emiliano's mother Guadalupe liked me then. She even brought me a corn husk doll she had made herself. During the early days of my childhood, Victorville was the magnet for Hollywood people. Situated on the rim of the Mojave Desert, it had become the capital for Hollywood's westerns, so much so that quite a few of the movie people took up residences in our town. The McGraths were one of those families. My father was the town doctor and Emiliano's father Ernest T. McGrath was a sound man for one of the movie companies.
Mr. McGrath was Guadalupe's second husband; from her first husband who was deceased, she had another son. Her only daughter had died earlier in Mexico from pneumonia, after a boating accident. Guadalupe's English was practically non-existent, so she hung out with the Hispanic people until she made friends with Ma. Ma's Spanish was fluent since she taught school to a mixed group of children, most of them Latinos who lived in the area. Charlene and I spoke Spanish well, too, thanks to Ma's insistence and teaching.
In the early days, we saw a lot of the McGraths, and even then, Ma noticed Guadalupe's closed thinking. It seemed odd to her that a woman with a husband in the movie business believed women had to be chaste, devout, and subservient.
Ma said, once, Guadalupe advised her to keep her girls under lock and key, since Victorville—according to Guadalupe—was full of sinners, call girls, and actresses. Ma said later she should have known Emiliano wouldn't be a good match for me, but at the time, Ma enjoyed Guadalupe's quirky friendship a lot, and Emiliano and I getting hooked up someday didn't cross her mind. How could it? We were all little children then, and even our Nana and Guadalupe's maid were friends with each other.
Our Nana was not related to us; she had come to live with Ma to take care of the house and Charlene while Ma taught school. Charlene, my half-sister, had come with Pa into my mother's life. After I was born, Nana stayed with us for the rest of her life and she truly proved herself to be an unforgettable family member.
My family's friendly exchange with the McGraths halted a couple of years after the 1929 Depression when Mr. McGrath keeled over to die of a heart attack on a movie set. Since she thought her boys would get the best education in the US, Guadalupe succeeded to place Emiliano and Francesco at an East Coast boarding school, and she returned to her native town, Barra de Navidad in Jalisco, Mexico, a place she had longed for while she lived in California.
They tell me I was the prettiest girl in Victorville. It is true. I have always been a head-turner, but I have also worked at it. Next to me, my half-sister Charlene looked clumsy, homely, and ordinary. In the beginning, Charlene and I didn't know we had different mothers. Sometime during our teenage years, we found that out accidentally.
What became the problem were the boys Charlene dated. As soon as Charlene brought home some boy to introduce to the family, a must for our parents, the guy couldn't keep his eyes off of me. Annoyed with their behavior, Charlene dropped the boys one after the other. Charlene was four years older than me; she was allowed to date while I wasn't, because the cut age for dating, according to our parents' rules, was sixteen.
When I was barely eleven, I decided to be as luring as Jean Harlow or Ida Lupino before Charlene's sweet-sixteen party, so I would make an impression. To achieve my objective, I began watching the movies and actresses and mimicking the way the stars moved about. I noticed they just didn't plop down, but converted their sitting motion into a dainty and elegant art. They didn't just turn their heads to look, but they glanced with every inch of their bodies. I recognized the art in their every motion and imitated it, as well as making it my business to study etiquette and social skills.
Charlene, on the other hand, buried her head in books, brought in stray animals, and fed the wild birds as if nature wouldn't take care of them. I tried to help her with her looks and style, but she refused. Working on frivolous things would make her feel like a fake, she said. No, she wasn't putting me down; she was only accepting the fact of who she was and who I was becoming.
The only time I felt any negativity in her was when we found out we were only half-sisters. It happened on a day when we went out with Pa to run an errand. In the store, we ran into someone, a schoolmate of Charlene's mother from the East Coast.
The woman looked at Charlene and started weeping. "You look so much like your mother, may she rest in peace."
I immediately thought that the woman was nuts.
"My mother is alive," Charlene said.
"Charlene's mother is Peg, now," Pa said. "She's my second wife."
I was so shocked I was speechless. Charlene, too, was dumbfounded. We drilled Pa on the way home, as he had some explaining to do. Once home, Ma said she asked Pa to keep the truth from us so we'd all bond better. Charlene threw a fit over this, and cried until her eyes were swollen red. Then she sulked for days, and I didn't know what to say or how to act.
Ma tried to tell Charlene that she was as if she had given birth to her, but Charlene was inconsolable. She even accused Ma of liking me better.
With Ma, however, the preferential treatment wasn't because I was the preferred child, but because Ma feared I could die. When I was nine years old, I became sick with measles; the disease ran into complications resulting in pneumonia. One day, I was so sick that everyone thought I was a goner, but somehow I survived that day and the crisis. This childhood illness kept me away from my peers for many months and caused my mother's giving in to my every whim, even years after my recovery. From my point of view, this wasn't so bad, but Charlene might have seen my mother as the great spoiler and me as the brat used to getting her way.
Maybe Charlene had a point. One day, while in ninth grade in an all girls' school, I refused to go outside to the yard during recess. I was a bit under the weather, and the teacher on duty wouldn't listen to my pleas. We had an altercation; the problem grew to enormous proportions thanks to my wild mouth, and I got a suspension for disobedience and saying nasty things to the teacher.
That did it for me. I had had it with school. My parents tried to find a middle ground, but I was adamant. School was over for me. I felt my reputation was tarnished, and I never wanted to see the insides of any school as long as I lived. Charlene, who had just started college at the time, tried to talk sense into me, but I refused vehemently. My fainting spells started during those days. The taste of failure was something I couldn't deal with.
Dropping out of school is the one major thing I have always regretted; although, even today, I know I was right and that teacher was wrong.
When I was fifteen, boys swarmed about me even though I wasn't allowed to go out with anyone. Some boys whose mothers Ma was friendly with would come to visit us with their mothers just to take a look at me. Very often, I found a love note from someone, and sometimes, a boy pushed his mother or his sister to become the go-between person.
At the tail end of my adolescence, I pulled the wool over my mother's eyes a few times for a few childish escapades, just to see if I could do it, but the funny thing was, there was no need for this. Ma looked the other way or consented to anything I wanted.
Pa was a different story. I remember locking horns with him a few times. During one of those clashes, Pa had his first heart attack, and at that same exact time, I fell to the floor, fainting. Poor Ma didn't know which one of us to go to. It must have been on that day that Ma, weepy and distraught, must have decided to marry me off.
A little after I turned sixteen, Charlene called home from the coast and said that, for Easter, she was bringing home, to present to the family, a friend she had met in college, named Joseph. At this time, the talk of unrest in Europe was beginning to take shape.
Truth is, I loved and admired my sister, but I don't know what it was then -fear, pride, egoism, or longing to be the best but not quite achieving it- that made me do what I did to Charlene.
Anyway, I did what I did, not out of jealousy or dislike for Charlene, but more out of contempt for myself, for having cultivated the wrong ground. Yet, Charlene understood as Charlene always understands, and Charlene forgave me as she always forgives.
During the Easter dinner, I gazed at Joseph. He looked stronger and more handsome than Charlene had described him. His shoulders were level and wide, his body trim, and his waist so thin, it would make a starlet cringe with envy. If it weren't for the acne scars that hadn't cleared out yet, his face, too, could be considered handsome with green eyes and a broad chin. He was, at best, Charlene's height but had a swagger to kill for, and a low, shy voice that made up for any defect he might have had. I was shocked at my own weakness when I looked at him.
Ma had told a few people that Charlene was bringing home a beau during the Easter weekend. Several people dropped in on us to take a peek at Joseph. Even in a town like Victorville where Hollywood rumors reigned, local gossip could not be overlooked.
After the Easter dinner, Pa was called to the hospital on an emergency, and Ma told Joseph and Charlene to go to the living room to watch television, asking me to stay in the kitchen and make coffee.
"No, Ma," I resisted. "Charlene makes better coffee than me."
"You come with me to the kitchen," Ma ordered.
"Never mind, Ma, I'll make the coffee, and you cut the cake," Charlene laughed. "Let's give Rosie a break today."
"May I help?" Joseph asked.
"No," I answered hastily. "You sit with me in the living room."
Joseph stared at me, a funny grin spreading across his face. I knew then that I had impressed him. After a moment's silence, Charlene took Ma's arm and led her into the kitchen.
"You have an amazing family," Joseph said, settling into Pa's armchair.
"They are all so capable, unlike poor old me."
"You are not old."
"I feel old and useless." I pouted.
"You could prepare yourself while there's still time."
"I can't." I grinned impishly. "I act on impulse."
At that moment, I locked my gaze into his and didn't move. Neither did he. Maybe he didn't dare to look away. Softly he whispered, "You're very pretty and you know it, don't you?"
"What are you talking about?" I shrugged with a Greta Garbo shrug, as Ma and Charlene entered, bringing coffee and cake.
Whatever happened during the following days was embarrassing and ridiculous like a B-movie, a true Victorville western. In the backyard of a house, a flirtatious young maiden suddenly fainting in the arms of a young man, her sister's beau, who carried her inside while a neighbor or two looked on and then gossiped.
A day later, the young maiden, me, kissed Joseph in front of the movie house while Charlene stayed back to talk to a high-school friend of hers, and the town gaped and held their breath.
Mind you, Joseph never kissed me back, but he was so taken aback that he stood motionless. This view incited the town's busybodies' imagination and set their tongues wagging to cause Ma to scold me for making her the laughing stock of the entire world.
Later, however, Joseph rode into the sunset with Charlene. Actually, they left for the coast on a train.
As soon as Charlene and Joseph left, Ma said, "What a poor excuse you are for a sister! You want to make sure Charlene doesn't get married, don't you?"
To this day, Charlene insists that she didn't break up with Joseph on account of me after that Easter recess. She says she discovered several serious ideological differences between her and Joseph, such as Joseph siding with the Germans since he was so impressed by their technological advances.
At the time, however, I felt mind-numbingly terrible for my inexplicable actions. Ma's rage, instead of helping my guilt, emphasized it.
Then, for days, Ma looked upset and deflated, and I felt guiltier and guiltier by the minute. So much so that I considered getting married and going away, as soon as the opportunity knocked.
Several months after this, Guadalupe came to visit Victorville to see her old friends. I feel, at this point, destiny began to hurl its rotten eggs at me.
When Guadalupe rang our doorbell, I was the one to open the door. My eyes held Guadalupe's as she stood at the threshold, shell-shocked.
"Dios mio, no puedo creer! Is that you Rosa?"
How nice! She says she can't believe I am so pretty, I thought.
Then, I corrected her politely. "I am Rosie."
"You are Rosa to me, mi amor." Next instant, she was all over me, hugging and kissing.
I nodded and said, "Okay," even though I probably didn't agree to a name change at the time. My soft demeanor, however, seemed to elate her already high spirits.
Both her warmth and my momentarily mellowed temper were false messages we sent to each other that day. These misdirected messages led to the worst catastrophe in my life.
Senora Guadalupe wobbled into our living room and sat in the sofa, giving us the details of her life. No, she hadn't married after Mr. McGrath, but her older son Francesco had, giving her three grandchildren with the fourth one on the way. Francesco had moved to Cancun, Mexico near his wife's family.
Her younger son Emiliano was an officer in the US army after graduating with honors from a prestigious military school.
Guadalupe soon turned the topic to me by asking Ma, "Is Rosa promised?"
"Not yet, she's too young," Ma answered.
"I bet a pretty girl like her won't stay with you for very long."
I have to admit, I took an Olympic-size liking to Guadalupe as the result of my ego getting stroked. Later on when the tides turned, I often wondered what really did happen, what kind of a black magic led me into such deceiving feelings that day.
A month later, Guadalupe came to call on Ma again. I was upstairs in my room, leafing through the Vogue Magazine. Through my open bedroom door, I heard, "Where's Rosa?" It had to be Guadalupe since she was the only person to call me Rosa.
"Rosa," I repeated to myself. Compared to Rosie, Rosa sounded exotic, eccentric, almost like an undiscovered treasure in one's own attic. Maybe I should be called Rosa. Yes, I'd like that very much.
When I entered the living room, Guadalupe's face lit up with a broad smile. "Rosa, mi amor, com'estas?"
At that moment, I noticed the young, tall man in uniform rising to his feet. He was breathtakingly handsome with a physique that would make Mr. Atlas squirm with envy: black hair curled in spite of its short cut, enticing dark eyes, a smile that displayed deep dimples on a square face.
"Remember Emiliano?" Guadalupe asked with pride.
At that first glance, to me, Emiliano became Tyrone Power, the actor every girl had a crush on. An instant image flashed inside my mind, an image of me as the leading feminine lead in the "Mark of Zorro" with Emiliano as Zorro.
Stuttering a bit, "He's...he's changed," I replied to Guadalupe.
I still wonder what movie Emiliano had put us in, for he, too, was staring at me, his mouth slightly ajar and a blush spreading to flatter his already handsome face. I still wonder how I pulled myself together. I still wonder how, without flinching, I offered my hand to Guadalupe and then to Emiliano.
To Emiliano, I said, "So nice to see you again," and God knows, I meant it.
Guadalupe said they came to San Bernardino, because Mr. McGrath's sister had passed away some time ago, and in her will, she had left her house and a 1938 Buick to Emiliano. So, they would be staying in that house for a while until the deed was transferred to Emiliano's name.
Emiliano said he had taken a leave of absence for three weeks and was trying to recall his childhood days around the area. "That steel truss bridge looks great," he stated, looking at me. "They had just started its construction when Dad died. Is the theater still where it has been?" His voice was soft and serious, but captivating. Yes, definitely captivating. Everything about Emiliano was captivating.
"Yes. Still operating and getting packed all the time." I was kindled with enthusiasm. "And the movies, they are still shooting them out there in the desert."
"We came directly from San Bernardino. I didn't have time to wander around yet," Emiliano said.
"Maybe Rosa can take you around and show you the changes, if it's all right with you, Rosa?" Guadalupe interjected.
Not knowing what to answer, I looked at Ma. After that mishap with Joseph, she was determined to clean my reputation in Victorville. To be seen with Emiliano could start the idle tongues wagging again.
Yet, Ma was relaxed. "Sure, go ahead," she said. "Be sure to get back in time for dinner. Guadalupe, you'll stay for dinner, won't you?"
And that's how it all started.
The next few things from the next several days that I remember vividly belong to Emiliano and me together, washing Pa's Plymouth PT 57, admiring its chrome accessories, having soda pop at the drugstore, watching "The Good Earth" three times in a row, walking hand-in-hand around town and near the Mojave River, throbbing with laughter and joy, and falling completely in love with each other.
One rare rainy day, when we took shelter under the eaves of the dime store, right there, off Main Street, Emiliano kissed me for the first time, whispering, "Rosa, Rosa," and I felt the entire town and everything else slip away into a time warp. Then he softly begged, "Marry me." Just like that.
My eyes had to be swiveling back and forth on my face. I gazed at his rain-soaked face, and that image implanted itself under my eyelids and inside my mind forever. Some say, love is blind, but I say, "No, love's sight is better than 20/20." Even today, I can close my eyes and see that certain image of Emiliano's. But then maybe, I was the blind one, blind and ignorant to many things.
When we returned home, before we even told anybody anything, we found Ma and Guadalupe making plans for our engagement party. How did they know? While I stood there in the middle of the room and gazed at the two of them with my mouth agape, I felt inside me a sigh, soft as a suppressed sob, go down through the middle of me. A premonition, no doubt, I knew its signs. I had felt it before whenever things were about to go wrong. Was fate weaving on its iron loom an unalterable weft?
After Guadalupe and Emiliano left, Ma spilled the beans. Guadalupe had acted the matchmaker from the start and brought Emiliano here just for the purpose of introducing us. Ma had been in on this, but she had told Guadalupe that she wouldn't push anything before Emiliano and I had warmed up to each other. Emiliano had told his mother he'd propose to me that day.
"I didn't say yes to Emiliano, Ma," I said, taken aback. With what Ma was telling me, the romance drained out of the relationship, and the entire situation took the shape of a snare.
"You didn't say no, then. Did you?"
"No," I shook my head. "It felt too sudden."
"You seem to like him. His future is bright and he comes from a good family."
"Ma, I just turned seventeen."
"Well, what are you waiting for? Or what are you betting your future on? You dropped out of school. Your father and I won't be around forever. As to your beauty and youth, that will fade in no time."
"Look Rosie, You like Guadalupe, and I bet you are really taken with Emiliano."
"That may not be enough."
"I need to get you married off," Ma said solicitously.
"I want to see you both get married, you and Charlene. You have to get married, so Charlene can, too. She can't...with you around."
"Ma, are you referring to that Joseph thing? Ma, Charlene understands; that was a mistake. She said she didn't want Joseph anyway."
"Charlene is being gracious about it." Ma sighed. "It is up to you, but Emiliano is a godsend. Opportunity may not knock on your door twice."
I was annoyed with Ma. "You want me get married just to make you happy."
"Not only me, but to make you happy too."
I looked at Ma and I saw a bribed fortune-teller babbling about my future, but then, I also saw Emiliano's face, wet with rain and heard his soft whisper, "Marry me." That image could melt boulders. Still, shouldn't love be between two lovers alone? How could romance be preplanned? Yet, Emiliano had planned this thing with his mother.
So what?...Emiliano's face, Emiliano's rain-soaked face. Emiliano's kiss...and Guadalupe is nice to me.
Maybe, I was thinking wrong. Did it matter how love started? What if I could love nobody else? What if nobody else could love me?
"Okay, Ma," I said. "I'll marry Emiliano."
Right then, another sigh like lightning hit the middle of my chest. Definitely a premonition. Oh, that stupid sigh overstepping its bounds...
And yes, I admit. Emiliano...I loved him. I've always loved him. I still love him.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1941, Emiliano and I were officially engaged. In our engagement party, I wore a long, backless, form-fitting, halter-neck blue chiffon gown similar to the one I had seen Claudette Colbert wear in a movie. Was that a mistake? No, it wasn't because the dress was exactly what I wanted.
Guadalupe, however, put her hand on my bare back and said, "Won't you be cold, Rosita?"
"I guess that's the fashion nowadays," Emiliano said, lifting his right eyebrow.
Only Emiliano could move his brows separately like that, and as I found out later, in uncomfortable situations. No matter what anybody thought about my dress, I enjoyed myself immensely. I felt, if I were pretty before, I outshone even myself that day.
"Be careful, Rosa," Emiliano whispered jokingly, after we sat down after a short waltz to an LP on Pa's 'His Master's Voice'. "I am a jealous man. I don't want other eyes on you."
"You have nothing to worry about," I answered, straightening a fold on my dress.
After the engagement party, I was on cloud nine and Ma and Pa seemed contented with my incessant talk about Emiliano, despite the bleak news of world events circulating around. But then, even happiness has its own end.
A few days later, on December 7 of 1941, a radio commercial was cut short by some garbled words and the following bulletin:
"The attack of Pearl Harbor and a severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by army planes...undoubtedly Japanese. The city of Honolulu has also been attacked and considerable damage done. This battle has been going on for hours now. It's no joke. It's real war."
"Emiliano..." My whisper froze on my lips. He had left three days ago to report for duty in Baltimore. What if a full scale war broke out...and...and...
Four days later, Hitler declared war on the USA.
Emiliano was not sent to war immediately. Since he was an officer with higher learning, they began training him for special duty. In a letter, he wrote he couldn't talk about what his job would be because it was a military secret.
In the meantime, Guadalupe returned to Jalisco, after selling Emiliano's house and car that his aunt had left him. "Too expensive to keep up that house. The place is coming apart, but there's a buyer now, luckily," Guadalupe told Ma. "The kids will buy a better one later on." I know Ma disliked this, since she had hoped I would live close by in San Bernardino, but she didn't say a word about it to Guadalupe.
I felt a coolness in Guadalupe just before she left, but I gave it to the anguish we all felt about the war. Ma years later told me, that Guadalupe, after the engagement party, had asked Ma about the incident with Joseph. One of her meddlesome Victorville friends had warned her about me, saying I was not a good girl for I had stolen my sister's boyfriend in stark daylight. Ma had told Guadalupe that it was just a nasty rumor. Yes, a friend of Charlene's from school had visited, but he had left together with Charlene.
During February 1942, when Emiliano was sent to San Diego, he managed to take off a couple of days to come for a visit.
"I want to marry you before I am sent overseas," Emiliano pleaded with me. "A fiancée will make me uneasy; a wife will be someone to return to."
Pa said a justice of peace would marry us quickly, but Ma wanted a wedding. I didn't see the need for a wedding, especially because everyone was getting married lightning-fast those days with our boys being sent to war in hordes.
Still, Ma insisted on at least a short reception. Emiliano said he wanted his mother to be present also, and since he didn't expect to be shipped right away due to the nature of his work, he could probably manage to get permission to come back to Victorville in three weeks time. Then, we could take our vows and Ma could put together a small reception at the house.
Ma wrote to Guadalupe and began her arrangements. Guadalupe, however, wrote back to Ma to say she wished us the best, but she couldn't come, because her older son Francesco had fallen ill and his wife, now with four children, needed her help.
Emiliano in uniform and I in a white summer dress with a pink sash took our vows at the city hall. Afterwards we borrowed Pa's car to drive around. Somewhere alongside the Mojave River, Emiliano stopped the car and took me in his arms.
Our wedding reception was scheduled to take place at home three days later, but Emiliano did not want to wait another moment to be with me since he was scheduled to be sent to Miami in a week and he wanted to have more time with me. "Rosa, Rosa," he whimpered. "If I go without enough time with you, I'll end up becoming a wreck. My heart needs you. I need you, now. Today!"
"What'll I say to Ma? She told me to wait until after the reception."
"What difference does it make? Aren't you Mrs. McGrath already?"
"Okay," I agreed uneasily, "but not in Pa's car."
We drove to a motel near the Bagdad Café in Newberry Springs. I was dying of hunger, but I agreed to check into the motel first.
When the clerk asked if we were married, Emiliano shoved our new marriage license in front of the clerk. In the hallway, in front of the room, before he turned the key inside the lock, Emiliano kissed me. Then, he opened the door and kissed me again. Repeatedly kissing me, he hoisted me up and carried me inside.
His kisses opened my locked senses up, and as he put me on the bed, something gargantuan inside me made me pull him up to me. Emiliano lost his balance and fell on top of me. In his arms, then, I was not a little girl afraid of her first time. Emiliano had extricated something miraculous out of me. Marveling at the deftness of his touch, I responded to his every move with fluidity. Afterwards, I fell asleep immediately, barely noticing the serious look on his face.
When I woke up, he was standing up in front of the window, dressed, with his back turned to the bed. Sensing me stir, he turned around. The softness was gone from his face, and I noticed something new, something not right, something like hostility. His taut, tired look frightened me. Just fatigue, maybe?
"You fooled me. That's cheating," he said in a voice I could barely hear.
"What?" I rubbed my eyes. Did I hear him wrong?
"Look at the sheets. No blood, nothing. And...and...you are experienced."
"No, no...no, not true." So astounded I was, even my own words didn't make sense to me. His accusation was irrelevant and entirely untrue.
"Who were you with before me?" He ran his fingers through his hair.
"Nobody. What do you mean? If this is a joke..." I had never been so confused in my life before.
"You know this is no joke. How can I trust you again?"
I sat up in bed like a tidy stone, pride or anger never crossing my mind. I only felt fear; fear that Emiliano would leave me. I needed him to hold me again, to repeat that he loved me, and to tell me I had a terrible nightmare.
"Who was it? Or was it just one person?"
He suddenly looked much older as he sank at the foot of the bed. At that moment, I felt an immense pity for him or was the pity for me, I couldn't tell. I still can't.
"Nobody," I answered him, now my tears coming down in torrents. "I swear I have never been with anyone."
"When they said you were a flirt, my mother and I didn't believe it. Slander, we thought. How wrong we were!"
"Who said that? Who can say that?"
"A friend in Victorville. My mother's. We didn't pay her any attention, then."
The way he said "then," the way he stressed on that particular word sunk into me like a dagger.
Echoes and whispers of Victorville had come to haunt me. Victorville, what a town! Everyone ratted on everyone. When they could find nothing, they made up their own tales. Someone had lifted a stone and all the creepy crawlies had burst out from underneath.
All my crying and swearing that I hadn't been with anyone else didn't make a dent in Emiliano's distrust of me. Worse yet, he fell apart in his own way. He looked hopeless and haggard as if he were chopped wood. Our first time together had turned into a clash: foul, offensive, and sewage-like.
Emiliano dropped me at the door of my parents' house and left without a word. When she opened the door, Ma found me there, at the threshold, fainted into a heap.
Ma, Pa, and Nana were furious, and Charlene more so.
Ma, the ever practical one, brought me chamomile tea and told me to rest, assuring me things would get better, one way or another. Then, she dutifully canceled the reception, telling people that Emiliano had to report to duty suddenly, which no one took as strange, because due to war, strange things were happening all over the country.
Pa must have felt like killing Emiliano, but he didn't let on as he showed an amazing talent in restraining himself. He only said, "Now we have seen what kind of crap he's made up."
"Okay, so he's paranoid and scared, but that doesn't excuse him. Drop the bastard," Charlene said. "What an ass! You leave him now, or else you'll be sorry the rest of your life."
But I needed no part of their bad-mouthing, for I cried with a deafening peal for hours in longing for Emiliano, grieving for my life, and needing my husband to hold me again. This was not a whim or a losing of grip on reality. I simply wanted Emiliano back.
And Emiliano came back. A week later. Ma was just about to bang the door at his face but I was right there, behind Ma. I charged forward so fast, I almost bumped Ma aside.
"I don't care...I don't care..." Emiliano held me tight, sinking his face in my hair. "I can't stand it without you. I can't stand the thought of you with anyone else after this."
"I can't stand it without you either," I said.
"Idiots!" Stomping her feet, Charlene hustled up the stairs. Ma retreated toward Pa who stood agape at the living room door while he watched us, Emiliano and me, in each other's arms, sobbing and carrying on.
After we pulled ourselves together, and managed to fend off the shame and panic we felt, Pa took Emiliano to his study to show him something; his books, as I later learned. Pa tried to explain to Emiliano the medical facts that women may have differences in their anatomy.
When I learned this, instead of thinking of my hurt pride, I cringed with embarrassment. Silly me, although I had never wished or brought on any of this. Nothing was my fault.
Come to think of it, from the beginning, nothing was ever my fault: dropping out of school, Joseph, my temper tantrums, which Guadalupe loathingly called "berrinches," what happened with Emiliano and then with Maya...nothing.
I have searched for all the reasons and explanations, and then, it sunk in like lead that fate and Guadalupe's meddling pretty much defined my life. I was not to blame then; I am not to blame now.
Emiliano had taken a sick leave; he stayed with us, with me, for a week. Maybe because of my youth and inexperience, I was deliriously happy to be at the beginning of my marriage again, regardless of how different Emiliano and I were, regardless of facing a future, in which the harder we pushed apart, the tighter we would stay locked together. Three weeks after Emiliano left for Miami, I found out I was pregnant with Maya.
When the frog test came back positive, I can't say I was glad. It only surprised me I could get pregnant so easily. I had been with Emiliano for only a week and although I liked babies just fine, I didn't know how to handle myself through this pregnancy and the child care.
Before I married Emiliano, I had no idea life was a give and take; I was used to taking and I liked it that way. My parents, Nana, Charlene, and I lived in a big house with an occasional help from a cleaning lady and a gardener. If I wanted to, Ma would let me sit on the couch all day and leaf through my magazines like Variety Daily, Calling All Girls, Harper's, Movie and Radio. I even had a bigger room than Charlene's, on Charlene's insistence, no less.
Handling difficult situations was beyond me. For example, I couldn't handle school and not because of my grades either. If anything, I got the highest grades without opening a book. Also, I was popular with the other students, and boys crowded around me as if I were a magnet.
What Emiliano did on our wedding day was a knife in my back; nobody had treated me like that before, not even Wanda, a childhood friend, who later wrongly accused me of stealing her boyfriend in high school. Wanda was so wrong because I never went out with anybody thanks to Ma and Pa's set rule of no dating before turning sixteen. Before Emiliano, I hadn't been with any other man; although, he didn't believe me until the very end, despite my father's trying to educate him on the subject.
Emiliano was not shipped to war immediately. He wrote to ask me to join him in Baltimore, since he'd be there for some time, to become part of a special unit, a military secret.
Ma worried that things would get messed up with me being pregnant, but Charlene told her to let me go and let me live my life. Charlene also offered to accompany me during the trip to Baltimore, so Ma wouldn't worry.
Looking back, I see my sister as always the level-headed one, even better than Ma at living through difficulties. I also see another reason for her accompanying me. If Charlene didn't accompany me, Ma probably would. Then, on her return home, she'd cry and carry on, making the separation more difficult for me. Besides, Charlene didn't want me to make the trip alone, in order not to make Emiliano's jealousies flare up, and if they did, she'd be the one to give it to him and give it to him good.
The long cross-country train ride with Charlene and running into Emiliano's arms again was like being caught up in a song without knowing the tune or the lyrics, but loving every second of the singing as long as it lasted.
Before she left me in Baltimore, Charlene said, "Rosie, listen." Charlene didn't like me being called Rosa, and she thought I should stick to my own name. "Rosie," she said, "You are a very capable girl, believe me. Don't deny yourself what you can do, what you are able to do. You can take care of your baby. You can take care of your husband. You can do what needs to be done. Don't ever forget that. Ma has difficulty seeing how capable you are. I love Ma, but she has a problem there."
"You have a point, surely," I said, but I was slightly surprised to hear Charlene say that about Ma because Charlene really loved Ma.
"I know I am right about this," Charlene continued. "I think it will be better for you to stay away from home for a while. Also, stand your ground. Do not let anyone push you around. Do not cry, scream, and faint. If you do that, you'll only be giving in, as usually is the case."
Was that what I was doing? "Okay," I said half-heartedly, but I believed my big sister could see through people and situations much better than anybody.
Emiliano and I saw Charlene off and returned to our small apartment at the military base. I spent a year there with Emiliano, living the most wonderful time of my life, even if the entire world was collapsing with the dismal news from Europe and the Pacific.
When I think about it, I see happiness as conspiratorial, since during those months, my love for Emiliano grew by leaps and bounds. With relief that they still kept him on US grounds, I constantly observed and admired his good looks, clear-skin, tall, solid body, tanned face, curly head, and the way his hands glided over my body each time we made love. I could never get enough of Emiliano. At home, while he was working and drawing charts, I'd go tickle him, arouse him, until I had my fill of him. He usually laughed later, saying, "If they leave it up to you, we'll never finish this war."
At the base, military wives stayed close to each other, because of or maybe in spite of an unspoken fear of future that overlapped the rhythm of the camaraderie. I had friends now who advised me on housekeeping chores, pregnancy, and the babies. I felt everything was going my way. Also, I was as healthy as a horse.
Maya was born after two hours of easy labor, and the first thing I noticed was her curly head, exactly like Emiliano's.
"She's cute," Emiliano said. "But she isn't as pretty as her mother. She looks like me."
"Then, she's handsome." I beamed with pride.
A couple of weeks after Maya's birth, Guadalupe came to Baltimore. "I have four grandsons, now a granddaughter," she said, watching Maya. "She's too big for a month-old. Are you sure she isn't older? I'll have to say she's prettier than you. She resembles Emiliano." Then, she gave me a serious look. "Don't spoil her," she said, "like your mother did to you. I like your mother very much, but she spoils her daughters."
I didn't answer. But why was she calling me spoiled? And what did she mean by Maya being older?
A few days later, Emiliano left for Spain.
Before Emiliano left, with our baby not sleeping through the night, Emiliano's imminent leaving and the scratchy sex due to Guadalupe's presence, the bad taste I had in my mouth for the idea of going to Jalisco took its toll on me. I was afraid of breaking down and causing disgust in Emiliano just before he left. I thought we should do something fun to cover up for all the acidic quality our lives had taken. As easy ideas come to me first, I invited a few friends to give Emiliano a surprise farewell party.
The party in our apartment, two days before Emiliano's sendoff, appeared to be a success, although Guadalupe treated the guests with inattentive courtesy and yawned a few times. Emiliano, at the beginning, enjoyed himself with his buddies around, and at one point, he kissed me, inciting a well-rounded applause from everyone. Everyone except Frank, who I guessed, would give anything to take Emiliano's post in his mission.
Frank had asked for that assignment to Spain, but due to his lack of the Spanish language, was turned down. When they appointed Emiliano instead of him, Frank felt miserable although he still acted friendly to Emiliano. How could he not? This wasn't Emiliano's doing. These decisions were handed down from the powers that be.
During the party, Frank said, "Let's have some dance music." We stacked the furniture on the side of the room and put on a few records on the old record player whose arm needed constant cranking.
I started dancing with Emiliano. Frank cut in, and then Warren, the officer who had given me the lift. I saw Guadalupe, from the mirror on the wall, shift in her seat, glance at me, and lean over to say something to Emiliano who sat cranking the arm of "His Master's Voice."
A minute or two later, I saw Emiliano call Matt to crank the arm of the record player. Next, I saw Emiliano walk directly to me. "Hey Warren, give me my wife back." His voice was frightening but strangely low.
"Thank you, Rose." Warren let go of me. I felt a crisis approaching but didn't know how to sidle it. Emiliano grabbed me tight and whispered, "Is this how you are going to act in my absence?"
"For God's sake, Emiliano, how can I party without you?"
"I'll make sure that you don't." His eyes looked ahead, fixed and blurry.
The storm erupted after the last guest left. If anyone heard us, this is what they heard: a man yelling, a woman sobbing and --in her high-pitched voice-- saying things she didn't mean, a door slamming, and a thud, the sound of the woman falling to the floor after she fainted.
When I came to, Guadalupe was putting a wet cloth on my forehead. "What a way to see your husband off!" She sounded cross.
"I didn't want this to happen."
I sat bold upright. At that time, I still took Guadalupe as a friend to me.
"Emiliano?" I asked. "Where's Emiliano?"
Emiliano walked in the room from the kitchen. "You were vicious," he addressed me. "Do you have any sharper words left for me?"
I remembered then. In my uncontrollable rage, I had called him names and told him he amounted to nothing in bed recently. "I'm sorry," I whimpered.
"How am I going to do my duty, if my pretty wife I leave behind flirts with every other man?"
"I won't flirt. I wasn't flirting in the first place."
Guadalupe interjected. "Rosa's coming with me. You have nothing to worry about, M'ijo."
Emiliano looked at Guadalupe. "Mama, promise me --no, swear to me on the most sacred...that you won't let Rosa out of your sight...and that you'll let me know, should anything go wrong."
"I swear." Guadalupe crossed herself, and touching her thumb to her forefinger, raised it to her lips.
I stared at Emiliano in disbelief. His stare at me, on the other hand, pierced through my heart.
I was very stupid then, stupid enough to think that it was me who botched up Emiliano's farewell party. Worse yet, I thought I had once again smashed his image of me with my whip-like tongue. This last year of my life, the only gloriously happy year of my life, was about to end because Emiliano was going to war. When he would come back, if he did, we could have another beginning, but now was the only chance to glue back what I had just shattered.
"I promise I'll stay with your mother, until the war's over," I said guiltily.
Emiliano and I made up that night. We made love passionately, fiercely, as if we'd never do it again, neither of us caring whether Guadalupe heard us or not.
To this day, I still don't understand why my mother accepted to go to live with her mother in-law in a country that wasn't hers. Since her story about this decision always changes, it is difficult to pinpoint the real reason, but then that is my mother. She has several stories or rather several versions of the same story each time she tells it.
My other set of grandparents—my mother's parents—lived in Victorville, California, where my grandfather practiced medicine. They were not rich but well-to-do. Mama was their only child together, unless you count my aunt Charlene, my mother's half-sister from my grandfather's first marriage. When Grandma married Grandpa, Aunt Charlene was only a year and a half old. Aunt Charlene discovered that Grandma wasn't her real mother at age of sixteen when, one day unexpectedly, a relative of her mother's from the East Coast showed up. After the initial flare-up at this trickery about her origins, Aunt Charlene calmed down and gained objectivity, although her envy toward my mother was somewhat reinforced.
During my school years, when I cozied up to her, I grew to love Aunt Charlene. Aunt Charlene was taller and plumper than my mother with slightly-crossed, small, blue eyes and blond straight hair so fine that it would stick to her large head and make her look as if the hair was painted on. Yet, Aunt Charlene understood people and loved animals. She housed many cats in a separate structure designed as a gardener's hut in my grandfather's place. It was Aunt Charlene who helped me overcome my dread of cats later on, since cats had given me my worst aggravation in Jalisco, and for a while, I had thought of any cat as boding evil.
Mama usually stressed that she went to Abuela's prissy and practical home in Barra de Navidad, Jalisco, because my father insisted on it, and she wanted him to serve his country without worrying about our well-being. On an occasion, however, I heard her say that she was forced to go there, in spite of the premonition she had.
My mother has been big on premonitions. At the time though, her premonition couldn't have been so strong or significant; before she married my father, my mother liked Abuela.
Abuela had lived in Victorville with her second husband –my father's father- and Abuela was friends with Grandma when my mother was a little girl. Then, when Mama married my father and she ended up living with Abuela, my mother saw Abuela's true colors, as my mother puts it. In this, I think, my father is guilty because he mismanaged the situation by not giving each woman her proper place in his life, but the circumstances with the war and my father's own state of mind may justify him...who knows.
My father's ineptitude turned the problems between my mother and Abuela into a sequence of rapid-fire explosions like fireworks gone haywire. I still remember some of those days and Abuela's place in Barra de Navidad vividly.
Although Mama says it is falling apart, Abuela has the best house in Barra. Olivia, Lupita's daughter tells me that. I think so, too. Most of the other houses are built shabbily out of local materials, mainly sand and wood.
Abuela once said she grew up in a house just like the others, but Abuela's present house has two stories with large rooms and a huge kitchen with a hearth. I sometimes sit at the table in the middle of Abuela's kitchen and watch her putter about, preparing our meals.
Abuela's hands are always in motion, conjuring up mixtures of peppers and spices that will explode in my mouth like a crafty volcano, but I'm used to my tongue's getting fatter as it burns bit by bit; I even treasure the sensation, because it is the most thrilling thing available around here, next to walking too near the water.
Mama says she hates the taste and the heartburn she gets from Abuela's food. She says this is Abuela's way of showing off, and it is as absurd as too loud music and boasting. I don't dare to repeat her words to Abuela, but I watch Mama's face contort with revulsion each time we sit down to eat.
Once, I overheard Mama's comments to Lupita: "If it weren't for her gringo husband's money, she would have been dirt poor." The actual words Mama used were 'muerto de hambre', something like 'dead from hunger'. Until I grasped the implied meaning of Mama's words, I thought it had something to do with Abuela's making foods that burned the mouth; I figured they fooled the stomach to keep a person alive, so the stomach wouldn't feel hunger on account of the burning.
Abuela's house has a pond with circular cement siding and red fish inside. The fish is difficult to keep because they die if the weather gets too hot or too cold, which is often in Barra de Navidad. Abuela had someone dig up a really deep pond and had it lined with boulders so the fish can escape to the bottom when the temperature on the surface becomes impossible to bear.
Mama is afraid of me falling into the pond. Abuela stretches a string between two trees to divide the yard. On the farther side is her pond. Abuela tells me I'm never to walk on the pond's side alone because it is Chupacabras's territory. Chupacabras is a goat-like monster; it sucks the blood out of children to make them disappear. I believe Abuela and watch the pond from a distance. My mother complains to Lupita about Abuela giving me nightmares. Funny, I never recall any nightmares about Chupacabras, although I dream all the time.
Every morning Abuela asks me what I dreamt the night before. I tell her my dream stories willingly, and what I don't remember, I make up. Abuela knows a lot about dream stories. She can always tie the dream plots to some future event, a reason, or a moral.
Lupita has let her children adopt two stray cats. At the time, I am okay with cats. I am even envious, until one cat climbs over the fence and stealthily approaches Abuela's pond. In horror, I watch the cat use her paw like a ladle and scoop up a baby fish. I shriek and bawl; Abuela darts out of the kitchen door. I point to the cat and sob, "Chupagatas!" (blood-sucking cat-monster). Abuela hugs me and laughs, but then she scolds Mama for letting the cat in.
Mama's eyes cloud up menacingly; through the slit between her lips, I see the teeth bite the tongue. Then, as she turns her back, "It's such a lie," she hisses, "sinister and nefarious." Mama uses big words in English when she's mad at Abuela, and Abuela acts as if she hasn't heard Mama, but I know Abuela hears every word even if she doesn't know the exact meaning. I also know Mama didn't let the cat in; Mama doesn't even like cats. I have seen the cat climb over the wall on its own, but I don't have enough of either language —English or Spanish— to defend Mama.
Mama talks in English to me and Spanish to others. Everyone else uses Spanish. When I try to talk, I mix the two. Unfortunately for me, Abuela doesn't understand my twisted babble. My speech consists of mispronounced English word fragments that attach themselves to what little broken Spanish I can pick up from Abuela and Lupita's children. Although Abuela has lived in the States for fourteen years, she hasn't learned enough English.
Abuela, when she is relaxing, sits at the round table with the fringed red and green paisley tablecloth and plays with cards. Her cards can tell her about everything. "My cards never lie," Abuela says. "You will go to school like your father and be a very, very good girl, mi amor. You will learn to be clean too." I look at my dirty hands and hide them behind my back.
When Mama talks of Abuela's cards to Lupita, she refers to them as witchcraft, and she says Abuela is using prayers the "mala" way.
One day, in front of the Virgen Doll, Abuela says she'll now say a prayer for me. "Please, not the mala way," I request.
Abuela slaps my behind. "A prayer is never mala. Who told you that?"
I shrug and say nothing.
"Never mind," Abuela says, "I know who."
Barra de Navidad enchanted me at first sight. Maybe because Emiliano was somehow connected to the place, maybe because, after the terrible bus ride on a road that curved dangling around a mountain, the town seemed like a refuge, or maybe because Barra had its own charm. Who knows? Whatever it was, for a long enough time, Barra held me inside its bars like a caged canary who loved her cage so much that she didn't need to be aware of the open blue sky.
When Maya, Guadalupe, and I arrived at Barra de Navidad and walked from the bus-stop to the house, a huge orange sun on the gold and turquoise sky was getting ready to set over the darkening ocean. In the distance, crying and whirling, white sea-birds seesawed between the sand and the sea. I stopped stricken for a second or two and took in this inexhaustible beauty. The young porter carrying our bags asked, "You have never been here, have you?"
"No," I said. "The view is breathtaking."
"You should see the lagoon, down that way, and the Melaque, four miles up. My sister and I can take you around, once you are rested."
"That won't be necessary, Manuel," Guadalupe said. "In due time, my daughter in-law will see the sights. Right now, she has a baby to take care of."
After we were in the house and Manuel had left, Guadalupe wagged her finger at me. "You need something, you want something, you tell me that, Rosa. In this town, you don't talk to any young men directly. Wise up; you may be used to it, but people here talk. You do as I say. Everything will be fine then."
"Mama Lupe," I said, "You don't have to babysit for me. I can take care of myself."
Her mouth curved downward in a sneer. "Maybe you can," she said. "But I took an oath not to let you out of my sight. A married woman with a husband away is trouble, always."
No need to argue, I thought where Emiliano put her was just as difficult a place as mine. Besides, Maya was whimpering with hunger.
The lagoon that separated Barra de Navidad from southern Jalisco was sparsely populated. On its beaches were small huts, sheds with thatched roofs under which fishing nets and tackle were stored, and colorfully painted fishing boats, some with thick-wood masts and hulls leaning to their sides on the beach. Every so often, whales swam by, spouting water into air; from the jungle and the mangroves, marsh and sea-birds, and other wildlife dared to sneak into towns, adding more beauty to the landscape. And yes, I was able to experience all that with Guadalupe. I sort of deduced Padre Belisario had something to do with this, just maybe.
In church, I heard the Padre tell everyone to be tolerant of each other and stay within the bounds of the scriptures. During one of our flare-ups, Guadalupe let it slip that the Padre told her not to blame me since I was brought up in the country of sinners and I needed to be re-educated in their moral ways. Also, Lupita told me that she had heard the Padre tell Guadalupe to treat me nicely. Lupita was our next door neighbor to the right. She and I became fast friends.
When we first met, Lupita, taking on a saddened air, said that her mother-in-law lived with her until a year ago. Then she passed away, but as soon as Guadalupe went to the kitchen, Lupita leaned to me and whispered. "She was a real witch." Then she pointed toward the kitchen. "She was her best friend."
Lupita's younger sister Ramona who lived in San Patricio and who use to visit her often had a new baby, born a little earlier than Maya. For that reason, she couldn't come to visit as frequently. Lupita's four sons and one daughter ranged in age from 2 to 8, played outdoors most of the time.
"If I can see them when I look out, it is okay," Lupita said. "If I don't, they get spanked. But they are good children. They listen, at least most of the time."
For me, the worst things in Barra de Navidad were the phones. I couldn't call or talk to my parents or to my sister as I wanted to. With only three phones available in town, one had to wait a lot to get connected.
Guadalupe usually was not in the mood to go wait with me, and I didn't insist, only because I didn't want her to write and tell Emiliano anything that would upset him. Looking back, I appreciate the difficult situation I was in, but at that time, I didn't know what independence was. I had always been dependent on other people: Ma and Pa, Nana, Charlene, and later, Emiliano. Despite my outbursts and my futile attempts at temporary freedoms, I chained myself to other people for support, emotional and otherwise.
I guess I could have left in the beginning, before Guadalupe's web had totally ensnared me, but each time I thought of doing so, I thought of Ma's words. "Charlene, for Charlene. You have to get married, so she can too. With you around, how can she?"
The real reason, of course, was Emiliano. Even the tiniest thought of Emiliano sent a tingle between my legs and goose bumps to my skin. Would it be the same with any other man? If I left Guadalupe, it meant I also left Emiliano. War would be over soon, and Emiliano would come to take me back to the States. With Maya and our other children to follow we'd live happily ever after, just like in the movies. I daydreamed a lot about Emiliano. And when Maya grew old enough to understand language, I involved her in my daydreams, with a fancy doll Emiliano would bring her.
I guess, through daydreaming, I who had never attempted to make or construct anything constructed a future, a make-believe world conjured out of the darkness and out of my own blindness.
Yes, I was giving a shape to my blindness.
Most of my daydreams were built upon my past relationship with Emiliano during the happy times. I'd close my eyes to feel him next to me, to feel his kiss, his tongue darting between my lips. I imagined me asking him what he wants for dinner, and him, with his hand exploring my crotch, saying, "Let me think. I do my best thinking this way." Then I imagined him, at another time, edging close to me after his shower, unwrapping the towel around him, his breath brushing the skin of my neck, moving all the way down with furtive kisses, asking me, "What do you want from me?" and me answering, "Everything."
Maybe the fault lay with the "everything" I asked for that he could never give. How could he? He had already given that "everything" to his mother. What was left for me was his physical self, but the real Emiliano, the Emiliano with the intimacy of his soul, belonged to his mother. They had found me, Guadalupe and Emiliano together, just to satisfy the part of Emiliano with the physical body.
Yet, in those days, I was too young, too inexperienced, and too sheltered to see this. I also took happiness as my due, overlooking each second I was wasting by dreaming of Emiliano and losing my youth under Guadalupe's lock and key. Maybe, I stood in my own way.
A few times, I dared to push against the cage bars. The first time was when Maya was asleep and Guadalupe was listening to a Mexican novela on the radio; I sat on the open kitchen window's sill and threw my legs over to thrust myself out, landing on the dirt with bare feet.
I ran fast behind chicken coop and then through the sunflowers and the corn, around a neighbor's outhouse, to the beach. I only wanted a few moments alone, sitting on the beach, watching the ocean. I would have returned on my own, since Maya would be awake in an hour or so.
I did make it to the beach and even sat down long enough to catch my breath. A man with a rifle and in some kind of a uniform approached. "Señorita, please come with me."
"Señora," I corrected him. "Why? I'm just sitting here."
"Are you a fugitive?"
"Of course not. I live over there with my mother in-law, Señora Guadalupe."
"Does the Señora know you're here?"
"Then you're a fugitive."
"Who are you?"
"Raphael Muñoz from La Guardia Civil"
"Let me just go back home, please."
"I'll accompany you. Please, sign this paper here."
He walked behind me until we reached home. "Thank you, I can find my way in," I said.
"I'd like to talk to the Señora in person," he said, knocking on the door.
Guadalupe yanked me in as she said, "Thank you, Raphael," to the officer.
"An oath is an oath," Raphael said.
What was this? An oath? How did Raphael know of Guadalupe's oath? Had Guadalupe set the entire town to spy on me?
I lost it right there. I threw a fit, screaming and calling Guadalupe names. Then I fainted.
When I came to, I found myself on the couch and Lupita sitting next to me. Maya was crying upstairs.
"Don't get up." Lupita held me down. "Guadalupe is with your daughter. I came when I heard you. Did she hurt you?"
"No," I answered. "I went to the beach. I wanted to be alone a few minutes. Why was it so wrong?"
"Guadalupe says she swore to it. She'll never leave you alone. The honor of the family, you know. It's big around here."
"I am not her prisoner."
"Oh, yes, you are. Same as I was with my mother in-law, even though my husband wasn't away. She only let me go out with my sister or someone she trusted. I call it the tyranny of honor. Your mother in-law will be even tougher, because she swore to it."
This was probably the first true battle of the Rosa vs. Guadalupe war; however, Lupita had embraced me as her friend with a fervor equal to what fueled Guadalupe's mistrust of me.
Before this, I had surmised the hassles Guadalupe caused were unplanned and she provoked me or Emiliano without wishing to. I found out later, it was more than that.
Believe or disbelieve, she mixed black magic with her vilifications. Even if it weren't for her black magic through which Guadalupe was so adept at provoking Emiliano, her role in anything disappeared as if by a sleight of hand, and left behind my temper tantrums for everyone to see as the only reality.
Black magic...hard to believe...and in a woman who was a regular church-goer, and not just on Sundays or for confession.
Guadalupe, my mother in-law, was the right-hand person of Padre Belisario in Barra de Navidad, Jalisco. The Padre's ideas of how women should act like were as warped as his ideas of himself and his solutions to anybody's problems. If anything, he made the people's problems worse by preaching to women "el pardon" and subservience.
After the beach incident, Lupita arranged someone to take me, Guadalupe, and several other women on a boat tour around Laguna de Navidad, Isla de Puercos, up the coast on Bahia de Navidad. "This is a welcome party for you," she said. "Don't worry about the baby; bring her along. Our youngest children come with us everywhere."
With the native women of Barra I sat on the side of the boat, and eagerly tasted their chicarron (roasted pork skins), and didn't even mind the escamoles (ant eggs wrapped in tortillas). To impress me, they had cooked the weirdest local food.
The locals were especially proud of the "elephant rock," an unusual rock formation like an elephant that seemed to rise out of the sea. From their shrieks and comments, I realized a few of these women had never been out of town and this outing would be the one they'd cherish for a long time.
"You know Rosa," Lupita whispered. "Your mother in-law is trying. She didn't want you to know, but she's the one paying for the boat and everything."
There, inside that boat, for a short moment, I reflected on how Guadalupe was like a desert that one could get lost in, yet, every once in a while an oasis sprung up, though with poisonous vegetation, and made you feel you were alive.
Could that be because some magic glue unites all women, even if they are so apart? With these sizzling thoughts turning me inside out, I looked at Guadalupe and smiled. Startled, a hint of a smile also passed through Guadalupe's face; although, as her lips pursed and poised, she looked quickly away. That give-and-take between us, like the breezes of that day bringing the aromas of the distant jungle and the brine of the Pacific Ocean, could endure only so long.
The storm broke out again when Guadalupe handed me the letter from Spain, garnished with Emiliano's handwriting.
I hope you, Maya, and my mother are doing fine.
As I write these lines, I imagine I'm smelling that special fragrance of jasmine on my beautiful wife's soft skin. How I wish I could touch you now, but that isn't possible. I must make do with the thoughts of you.
Our work here is very important and dangerous, more dangerous than that of a soldier on the front lines, because it is a highly classified military assignment. I can only tell you this much about it; all the same, I expect you understand that any disconcerting news from home, especially about you, can change my mood and put my life in danger.
Running off to sit at the beach alone and subjecting yourself to the fishermen's eyes is inconsiderate and thoughtless. When I heard about this incident, I lost sleep due to rattled nerves. Please, my beautiful Rosa, keep yourself for my eyes only.
Kiss Maya for me and tell my mother how much I appreciate her caring and vigilance over my family.
With much love,
It took me several readings of the letter to adjust to the tone of it, to its words of subtle light grading down to darkness, from my jasmine smell to the stay-in-your-cage order.
"Why did you tell him about me going to the beach?"
Flaming and vulnerable, I stood in front of Guadalupe, filling and refilling my lungs with air, using each breath to utter each word.
"I swore to it. I took an oath. You heard me do it."
Who did she think she was: Moses, accepting God's mission?
"Why did you bother him, out there?"
"He is bothered by you. Not by me."
My patience did not survive my burning rage and I lost it again, as my reactions have always been unfitting like everything else in my life.
Not that I didn't cry easily at the time...I did, with screaming and stomping my feet, no less, but without careful planning ahead and without a right response at the right time, as in: suspicion when suspicion is due; anger when there's something to rage about; and tears for sadness.
Grasping my weakness, Guadalupe, in her wicked, twisted way, succeeded in mixing me up. She knew my inner life; she knew me when I was a child and very ill; and she made believe --and made Emiliano believe-- that her actions were solutions to her "spoiled" gringa daughter-in-law's temper tantrums.
It wasn't always Emiliano; most any little thing set me and Guadalupe off. Still, the thought of Emiliano squirmed in the bottom of it all.
This pattern strengthened with time, repeated itself, and caused an insuperable gap between Guadalupe and me. Even Maya's upbringing led to more tension-filled incidents.
I had little success in keeping calm in front of Maya. As soon as Maya grew old enough, she felt the tension in the house daily. During her earlier years, as soon as she sensed irritability in my voice, her lips quivered and she started bawling. Guadalupe took care of that by slapping her hands and saying, "Good girls don't cry."
I worried for Maya. Yet, I couldn't stop Guadalupe; neither could I curb my own coarseness. My nerves and tears gave way to my tongue's lashing. Then, for a finale, I either fainted or walked away to sulk in a corner. Yet, in spite of all my acting out, I was helpless and misunderstood with my voice mocked and the meaning lost inside my tears.
I now think the problem was in getting married too young.
My daughter was two years old when I turned twenty, and the war in Europe had ended. Although Mexico had sided with the US, its contribution to the war was minimal.
Emiliano returned to US --to Baltimore-- for two weeks, but after a short hop to Barra de Navidad to see us, he returned to Europe.
"Why do you have to go back?" Both Guadalupe and I echoed the question.
"Unfinished business. I have to go back," he said. "It's a special assignment. I can't talk about it. At least, not now."
Maya was sitting on Emiliano's lap. When he said that, Maya burst out with her baby laughter. "Chistoso, funny!" She was talking in full sentences then and in both languages, however mixing English with Spanish. Although I laughed with her, I felt that sighlike heaving go through my chest. What omen was warning me?
Still, it felt wonderful to be in Emiliano's arms again. During the week he stayed, our nights filled up with lovemaking: ardent, lustrous, fiery, blistering, and fervent. Guadalupe's domination over me paused, and the problems suspended.
Maybe my problem was I loved Emiliano too much and Guadalupe too little. Chances are Guadalupe felt the same way. Or maybe Emiliano, the only man in whose arms I felt complete satisfaction, loved neither of us enough, since he was the one who put us in the awkward situation we were in.
Two days before Emiliano left, I overslept.
"Mama, a boy, really!" At the top of the stairs, I hesitated hearing Emiliano's excited voice, followed by some whispering. Why would they whisper for? The house was amply built. A normal tone of voice wouldn't travel upstairs, if they didn't want to awaken me.
"Did somebody have a baby?" I asked, walking down. In Barra, people had babies nonstop, although not all lived to see their first birthday.
When I entered the room, Emiliano sat stiffened in his chair and a stunned silence fell on both of them. I sensed something obscure hiding in that moment's sudden silence, but after a split second, Guadalupe answered in a barely audible voice. "Emiliano was telling me about somebody he knew in Italy who had a son."
"Oh, how nice," I said, glancing at Emiliano who looked away at the bright watermelon painting on the wall as if he was seeing it for the first time. Instinct warned me to suspect. What could be wrong? If nothing was wrong, why would they whisper about other people's children?
Just before Emiliano left, after our last love-making, I watched him lying curled up in the bed, faking sleep, and I imagined an invisible rope tying me to him, to his alert brain, to his slavelike ways around Guadalupe, to his perfect body glowing with light, to the dark ringlets adorning his head, to the features of his face, correct and handsome in every detail, and I wondered if any woman's heart, at another time and place, could resist tipping toward Emiliano. The reckless thought of other women made me feel pungent all over. A hot wave passed through me; I had to breathe deeply.
"I love to hear you sigh," Emiliano said with a grin, abruptly sitting up.
"You can't outfox me. I knew you were faking sleep," I giggled, my mind groping for a clever thing to say, but my heart started pounding with a strange arrhythmia and my body rippled, desire tipping and rolling through it all over again.
Emiliano leaned toward me, then abruptly pulled away, getting out of bed. "I have a long way to travel," he said. "And your beauty drains me." Now he had grown serious. "It's a drag to be away from you so much. You have no idea how difficult it is."
Difficult? What about me? Didn't he know how difficult it had been for me?
"I'll be back soon. Then, we'll sit down and talk seriously. There are some situations we must face and deal with."
"I can hardly wait until we are back at the States and live in our own home," I exploded with a survivor's enthusiasm.
"We'll see," said Emiliano atonally.
Only in hindsight, I realize that in those two words, "We'll see," an omen resided, the omen of a secret I wasn't privy to, but Guadalupe was. Only in hindsight.
Did Emiliano ever love me? I can never answer that question clearly.
Sometimes I think he loved me passionately and he loved me intensely, but in a secretive, stubborn, unreliable way. At other times, I think he didn't love me, not really. He never let me get close to the center of him, where only Guadalupe had access to. The astonishing thing was, I was the one who truly, passionately loved him.
From the first sight, I felt Emiliano was diffusely creeping through my soul like fog lights through the mist, but for our future together, I held steady, enduring everything and anything, even Guadalupe's battle-axing and verbal spearing. Yet, I had to draw the line on the day I felt she put my daughter's well-being at risk.
Emiliano never returned. At least, he didn't return to Barra de Navidad while Maya and I were there. I suffered two more years of Guadalupe in Barra, with or without patience, after Emiliano left.
Abuela is truly devoted to Virgen de Guadalupe. Anything she does revolves around the Virgen or is done with her permission. Before Christmas, on the 12th of December, a celebration of the Virgen takes place in Barra. Abuela adores this holiday even better than Christmas. But Mama, my mama, tells me that she is a Christmas girl, only Christmas makes her happy, and no other holiday is better than Christmas.
Abuela's distant talking or prayers to the Virgen, a desolate ritual raised to perfection, usually is accompanied by a shivering motion and a lonely tear. Watching her, regret and sorrow fills me as if she were a cripple languishing on artificial limbs while the gusts of hell —brought on by my mother and me— howled inside her precious casa.
Mama, Papa, and I are not the only relatives of Abuela. Abuela has a cousin in Colima, to whom she refers to as "Pobre Carolina." We don't visit Carolina very often because we need to take a bus to Colima, and also, we don't want to make matters worse for Carolina because her husband beats her up at the slightest provocation. Abuela often sends Carolina food and other goodies from Barra with somebody who has a truck.
Abuela's other son, Tio Francesco lives on the east coast of Mexico, close to Cancun with his wife Laurita, to whom Abuela refers to as "una de nosotros" (one of us), while darting icicles at Mama from the corners of her eyes. Unfortunately for Abuela, these descendants of hers, the spectacular top cream of the crop, live too far away. Fortunately for my mother and me, visiting them is out of the question; however, on one occasion, they come to Barra de Navidad to visit Abuela for a few days. I immediately sense my cousins' loathing of me.
Sebastian, one of Abuela's angelitos, calls me "bastarda"; I ask what it means. Mama says I must have misheard Sebastian because there is no such word, and Sebastian must have said, "Basta ya!" But I don't believe Mama's words; Mama has a way of making up stories.
Another thing is, Abuela's angelitos are more like little devils, even if they are older and bigger than me. Sebastian calls me names, especially "mugrosa," while he himself is the one with the runny nose; Leo pinches me when nobody is looking; Ricardo pulls on my braids until tears rush to my eyes with pain while I try to be brave and hold my own; and Mauricio tramples on my favorite doll. Mama, however, is on her best behavior. She has made friends with Laurita, and Abuela, too, is all smiles because she is with her "real" family.
Tio Francesco takes his boys fishing out to sea. I bawl because I want to go with them, but Tio Francesco says women in a boat are bad luck. Abuela picks me up and wipes my tears as well as her own with the edge of her shawl. Why is Abuela crying?
Mama told me why, many years after we left Abuela's house. Abuela once had a daughter named Celia. Celia, born a frail child, died of pneumonia after getting soaked to her bones at sea when the boat flipped upside down. After Abuela's death, despite the insistence of my cousins, I accepted nothing, except for a shawl of Abuela's. Unfortunately, what they sent me was not that particular shawl, but a fancier one she wore to church during her last days.
One enigma of my life, the one thing that still perplexes me, is why I have been so unforgiving of Abuela. Maybe because I was brain-washed by my mother's tears. Or maybe it was because of an explosive cat incident that decomposed my view of Abuela's piety and her Virgen de Guadalupe.
It is the rainy season. Rumors circulate that a storm is approaching. The heat and the muggy weather are unbearable; all the windows are open.
During a momentary truce between Abuela and Mama, I crouch on the living room floor—instead of playing on the porch as Abuela expected of me—dressing and undressing a handmade cloth doll. Mama is sweeping the hallway with frenetic energy and Abuela is in the kitchen cooking something dramatic, probably Chiles en Escabeche (pickled fresh chili peppers with vegetables).
Suddenly, a thump...I look up...
It is Olivia's cat again on the windowsill, anxious, although with a stealthy manner. I am happy to see the cat, because her presence means Olivia, Lupita's eleven year-old daughter, may not be far behind. I call out for Olivia. No answer. That means the cat is on her own, and I sense, the cat, with her black sleek body, white chest and neck, and white-tipped tail, is a lethal weapon in Abuela's house.
I move slowly toward the cat. The cat's fur rises up; she arches her back. I reach to her to shove her out, but the cat, with obstinacy, jumps inside the room. I go after her; however, my foot tangles with the fringed edge of the rug and I tumble down to the floor. The cat, briefly puzzled, hops to the back of the sofa, eyeing me. Fearing her next move, I lie on the floor frozen, although I call out, "No!"
My voice scares the cat even more. She hops on the top of the chest of drawers, stampeding Abuela's altar, upsetting everything. I retreat toward the door to Mama who has arrived just in time to see the cat knock down Abuela's Virgen Doll. The statuette flies into the air and falls on the floor, shattering to pieces.
The cat darts back to the window and jumps out. Trembling, I run to clutch Mama's skirt. Abuela has appeared at the door and is now looking in shock at the mess on the floor, but Mama, oblivious to my panic, her eyes fixated on the pieces, shoves me aside and rushes toward the fragments of the Virgen. She picks up a piece of paper and some black beads that have fallen out from inside the statuette. She examines the paper and turns to Abuela with contempt.
"Voodoo, voodoo!" Mama keeps muttering that as if trying to believe her own words.
By this time, though, Abuela has me in her grips. With her sensibilities cut out by the tragedy of her Virgen doll, her mind has written a violent scenario other than what really happened. She goes at me with unstoppable furor, slapping, hitting, kicking. Mama cannot stop her even when she bodily tries to stop Abuela.
Abuela takes one of her slippers off, and with it, hits both me and Mama. It is as if her ears are plugged to what Mama says: "It was the cat. I saw the cat. I swear. It wasn't Maya. I swear to God it wasn't Maya."
Mama picks me up as I shake and drown in tears. "This won't do, Baby," she says in English, "Enough is enough."
After Abuela's Virgen Doll is broken, I hide away from Abuela, the exact thing someone guilty would do. I am, however, not guilty, and I shouldn't be hiding or crying for everything gone wrong. I'm upset because Abuela acts cross. She doesn't look my way; she doesn't call me "mi amor" anymore. I miss the warmth of her lap and me picking the dry folds of her skirt with my tiny fingers when she lays her tarot cards on her round card table with the fringed, red and green, paisley-design tablecloth.
A few days later, a new, taller, fatter Virgen Doll occupies the throne of the old one. Abuela, although still distant to both Mama and me, goes about her chores as if trying to straighten out after a hurricane. Mama is quiet, too quiet, foregoing her regular crying spells and those diabolical fainting fits. Much later in my life, I'll recognize this as contemptuous determination, a planning stage, which now scares me more than the Virgen Doll's breaking.
Mama goes over to Lupita's more often, lately. Several times, she has given some of my clothes and a few of hers to Lupita. Mama tells me, Lupita will give them to poor people from church. The idea baffles me. Abuela is more active than Lupita in the church. Why doesn't Mama let Abuela give them away? Still, I don't question the truth in Mama's words, but I feel vaguely uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable, because I sense something unknown lurking in the dark, like a monster baring its phosphorous teeth, growling ominously. Abuela hangs about Mama resolutely and eyes Mama with a mixture of suspicion and interest. Mama, however, is unusually tranquil, and she goes about doing her chores without complaining.
Lupita has a sister Ramona who visits Lupita often. Ramona's daughter Catalina is my age and she wears her hair in braids just like I do. I like playing with Catalina better than playing with anyone else.
One morning, Mama asks, "Would you like to play with Catalina today?"
"Is she coming?"
"She'll be over at Lupita's."
"Good, I'll show her my stone."
I like Mama better when she is so calm as she has been recently. I watch Mama open up her drawers, and alongside with some other papers, pick up Papa's letters. I know they are Papa's letters, because she has them tied up with a ribbon, and also, she sometimes shows them to me when she tells me of the doll Papa will bring me.
"What are you doing?" I ask her, hoping she'll tell me about Papa again. Every kid I know in Barra de Navidad has a Papa, except me.
"Just cleaning up," Mama says, sticking everything in a paper bag.
I watch Lupita's backyard from the kitchen window to see if Catalina has arrived, the same way Abuela watches Mama when we're over at Lupita's.
"Catalina's here!" I yell with enthusiasm, when I see her in Lupita's yard. I consider Catalina my best friend, because she is my size and we make mud bricks together that dry quickly under the sun. Then we can stack them up and imagine building castles out of them.
Mama says she'll take me over there once she gets her knitting together. She comes downstairs with her knitting needles sticking out of a paper bag. Isn't that the same bag she used when she was cleaning her drawers in the morning? I'm so impatient to play with Catalina that I don't ask.
"Go kiss Abuela goodbye," Mama whispers. So strange...we're just going next door.
Abuela pecks a kiss on my forehead. "Don't get too dirty," she warns. "I'll be watching you from the kitchen."
I wave at Abuela from Lupita's yard. Few minutes later, Mama calls us inside. She is wearing Ramona's clothes. Ramona strips Catalina to her underwear and hands Mama her clothes.
"We're going to be Ramona and Catalina," Mama says. "It's a game. Isn't this fun?"
Lately, Mama has been playing with me a lot, but this is a new game and I am curious. Ramona puts my clothes on Catalina and tells her to go sit with her back turned to Abuela's house. "Let's see if you can fool Maya's Abuela," Ramona tells Catalina.
Mama kisses Lupita and Ramona; Lupita gives Mama a big homemade cloth sack. Mama takes it, hugs Lupita again and again, and covers her head with a huge shawl.
If this is a game, I wonder why Mama and Lupita are crying.
Mama holds my hand and says, "Let's see if you and I can pass as Catalina and her mother."
We slip out through the front door into the street and walk for a long time.
We get up on a camion. A camion is a bus that goes to far places. The road winds up a mountain and I fall asleep. Mama wakes me up. We get on another camion.
"We are going to Grandma's house," Mama says.
At some point, I get sick on the bus. Mama cleans up after me and gives me a slice of a tart apple that she buys from a kid vendor who brings apples to the bus. "Eat this. It will keep your stomach quiet."
I finish the slice and close my eyes. I am so tired.
Next time I wake up, we're in a train, and it is dark out. How did we get on this train? Mama must have carried me; I don't know how because she's thin and I'm a big girl.
Standing on the side of Mama's seat, I look out of the window. The stars are scattered in the sky. Inside the wagon we're in, I listen to the sound of train wheels chewing the night away on the tracks. Next to Mama, an old woman with her striped knit-shawl snugly wrapped around her steadies a bundle of something on the floor in between her two feet. Her eyes are closed, but she breathes noisily.
Another woman wearing a hat with a short veil and a man snoring softly sit across from us. The woman's hand is tucked inside the sleeping man's folded arm. She smiles at me. Waving my hand slightly, I smile back.
I wonder if Papa looks like the sleeping man. Mama tells me I have seen Papa twice, but I don't remember seeing him. Is my papa a real man or is he one of Padre Belisario's angels? Mama says Papa came back after the war, but he had to go back again. She tells me Papa is doing some very important work; still, he'll find the time to get me the best doll in Europe. I am more curious about Papa than the doll. Mama says, right after the war, he came to Barra for a week, then went back on another assignment.
If I can remember me sitting on the potty, Abuela's huge sunflowers, and other scattered patches of events, why don't I remember Papa? Why can't I remember him? I am impatient with my sluggish mind, but I am also overwhelmed by Mama's rapid streams of tears when she talks of that distant event of Papa's return.
So I close my eyes, and like magic, make Papa's image that I have seen in photographs come alive and talk to me. I strain to hear his real voice as it might sound with a sweetness of tone, bathing everything around me. Papa asks what I think about. "Maya, what are you thinking about?" "Nothing," I say inside my mind. "Nothing, except you, Papa. Before I knew you existed, I had nothing to think about."
Then Papa hands over a dulcita to me and I eat it, or I hold his hand and we go walk by the beach, so the kids in Barra, lying in wait to call me names again, see my Papa, and they look at me with awe, since my Papa is the kindest and the most handsome father. Papa will never spank me like Abuela; he'll never scream, cry and carry on like Mama. Unfortunately, I cannot hold Papa's image too long, because a chain has to have at least two links, and I am alone in this pretending.
I look at Mama who is sitting up straight in the wagon, her gaze glued to the darkness outside. I rest my head on her arm and close my eyes. My thoughts converge on half a day ago when we went to Lupita's and I couldn't play with Catalina but boarded the bus in Catalina's clothes.
I recall that morning when I was awakened by the roosters' crowing and didn't go back to sleep, I watched Mama move about the room noiselessly. I saw her taking the paper grocery bag where she had placed her important papers. I expected her to arrange them neatly in her drawer again, as usual, when she cleaned the room, but she didn't. Instead, she covered the bag with her good shawl. In the descending morning light, her motions intrigued me as much as the egg-shaped stone I had found the day before. When I reached out to the floor to pick up my stone, Mama looked at me and put her finger to her lips.
"Shhh, let's not wake up Abuela."
I shudder. Then I stroke the egg-shaped stone in my pocket. It is a good thing I remembered to take it when Catalina and I changed clothes. I close my eyes. The image of Abuela seems to wane inside a viscous, menacing liquid, together with the broken fragments of the Virgen doll, and the round votives on the altar assume more fiery shapes. Abuela, together with everything, sinks into the ground as if quicksand. The earth closes up, letting out a putrid odor, and there is no more of Abuela, who used to call me, "mi amor," and told me of the old legends of Jalisco while braiding my hair.
I think, now that we are not there anymore, Abuela will be able to walk to Temastian to see El Senor de Los Rayos.
Abuela used to say, "Because I have to keep an eye over you and your Mama, I cannot walk to see El Senor." Since God is also called El Senor, each time Abuela said that, I used to think she wanted to meet God at Temastian. When I told this to Lupita's kids, they laughed so hard. Then, Lupita told me about El Senor de Los Rayos, a saint up on a hill on Temastian. From Barra, to reach Temastian, it took three days to walk.
I can't grasp why Abuela wanted to walk all that much to visit a saint, and a dead one yet. If it were God she wanted to see, I would have understood better. But then, Abuela loves all the religious things. Mama says Abuela wastes good money on religious knickknacks, which has nothing to do with reverence.
Still, I believe that Abuela is close to someone of higher authority. Each time we go shopping, Mama holds my one hand and Abuela the other, and when we pass through the Church Square, the church bells ring. When that happens, Abuela crossed herself, kisses her own finger and thumb, and murmurs prayers. I learned from Abuela how to cross myself, too. Sometimes, Abuela blesses me; although she hasn't done that after the cat broke the Virgen Doll.
Strange...Inside this train, as my eyes close halfway, Abuela and Barra de Navidad insist sticking to my thoughts.
Abuela calls to me as she wades across a small creek eastward, "Come on, it's perfectly safe." Other people slip on wobbly stones on the creek bed; no matter how carefully they hop, no one can avoid getting wet. Mama's ahead, waiting for us on the other bank.
I run to Mama, my feet slithering through pebbles and mud. Abuela chuckles at my effort; then she wipes me clean with a rag she produces from some mysterious pocket in her skirt.
A few yards ahead, we stop and watch a cow give birth. The calf tries to stand, but staggers and falls. Sunlight reflects in a pink hue through its wet umbilical cord. Two men come running; however, they slow down when they see the calf. Abuela waves at them. They wave back.
"That's the cycle of life for you, mi amor. Just like people." Abuela sighs. "Just like your Mama had you."
"His Papa went away, too," I remark. Mama starts sobbing.
"Rosa! Don't start." Abuela scolds Mama. We walk ahead --Mama sobbing, Abuela scolding— a strange duet looping through an outing that's supposed to be fun, and I'm so used to this.
Once, a hurricane blew across Barra de Navidad. What I vividly remember is my hastily-put-together bed of pillows under the stairway. The sea is only a quarter mile away and the lashing winds are a force to reckon with. Abuela and Mama have taped the windows and brought the chickens and the pig inside the living room.
"You stay put there, inside your little doll-house, mi amor," my Abuela tells me, giving me a corn husk doll and a spoon. "Feed the doll. She's hungry." She stands guard outside the closet door. The rumbling around the house continues. The house shakes. The doors to the shed and the chicken coop keep banging. Abruptly, the banging stops. Mama announces, "No more chicken coop. The shed's gone too."
I slide open the closet door. Mama is looking out the window.
"You are like the hurricane," Abuela tells her. "See the damage? Just like your berrinches."
Mama turns around. Her eyes have formed into slits and they rage like thunderheads. I don't want to hear the rest of this. I slide back, close the door, and stick my head under the pillows. I fall asleep.
Afterwards, we find out that not much damage from the hurricane has come to our house, but some other dwellings in Barra are totaled.
I look across at the sleeping man and the woman with the veiled hat. The lady smiles at Mama and Mama says something to her.
"No Español," the lady answers. So Mama talks to her in English.
I'm sleepy. I rest my head on Mama's lap. She wraps her shawl around me.
When I open my eyes, Mama and the lady are engrossed in a lively conversation. Mama can make friends fast with strangers whenever she feels like it. The man is now awake and joins in their dialogue every now and then.
"Why El Paso? Too far off."
"I thought the Juarez route with the train would be safer for me, traveling alone with a child," Mama says.
"Come with us," the lady offers. "We'll get off the train and rent an auto. We can all cross the border together at Tijuana."
"Wouldn't I be imposing, though?" Mama sounds relieved.
"Not at all," the man says. "We live in Los Angeles. It will be easier to go to your mother's from LA.
"Are you sure?" Mama asks again in a pleasant voice.
"Definitely. We'd love to have you come with us. Neither of us know Spanish. You'd be helping us."
Years later, I crossed over the Tijuana River near San Ysidro where the water bubbles thick with sediment and mixes with sewage. Sometimes birds drink from that water, as the river slowly flows toward the Pacific Ocean. When I ride in the trolley going into Tijuana for shopping, I watch those birds and liken them to me: serious, scarred, suspended upon two cultures because of a clumsily put-together family, yet unbeaten for having risen above the sewage and my own split head.
In 1948, however, we pass over the Tijuana River with that couple, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas from LA. The river is clean, and the town of Tijuana is just losing its image of a gambling town, while a new golf course resort is being built. I watch the big trucks carrying building materials with interest.
At the border on the Mexican side, I feel the grief and the hunger, but also in the small, shabbily-built, one-story dwellings, I see a miracle...the miracle of wounds that give wings to one's psyche, even if one is deserting the only scenery one has been used to. When the border officials look through our papers and wave us along, I close my eyes and touch the metallic image of the Virgen on my medallion necklace with my fingertips. I am indecisive about praying since the shattering of the Virgen statuette.
Mama is convinced Abuela's praying has something to do with black magic, something Mama has suspected all along. I have heard her talk to Lupita. How could she explain otherwise Papa's extreme attachment to his mother?
I now hold tight inside my hand that Virgen medallion Abuela always insisted I wear. Just as we cross the bridge, flocks of birds dart across the clear blue sky. Mama points to them and says, "Look Maya, they are migrating too. This must be a good sign for us."
Probably the good sign is the offer of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas. They insist we go to their house and from there call Grandpa and Grandma. Another good sign is the landscape, not the natural one, but the man-made kind. To me, Los Angeles looks magnificent, elegant, airy; it has so many buildings, taller, larger, and so different than those I am used to seeing in Barra; although, as we entered the city, a street or two resembled the ones in Mexico.
"My mother and father are picking us up soon. They said they'll leave Victorville immediately," Mama says putting the phone down. "But I so hate imposing on you, Mr. Douglas."
I stand in awe; Mama's diction and mannerisms are completely changed, and she shows such grace when she addresses these people. I feel foolish for my earlier fears of her exhibiting a sudden outburst. All through our journey, until we met Mr. and Mrs. Douglas and learned they taught at Girls Collegiate School in LA, Mama, who was wearing Ramona's clothes, had acted exactly like a Mexican woman. Mr. and Mrs. Douglas, too, have recognized her sudden transformation, but Mama excuses herself, as well as our attire, pointing to the fact that an American woman alone with a child would be more subject to nasty treatment, whereas a native would attract less attention.
In Mrs. Douglas's bathroom, Mama combs my hair and changes my clothes with impatient hands. Then, she nods judgmentally. "This'll do." The clothes I now have on are the clothes Mama took to Lupita's as donation to the church. Isn't this a sin, to take from the church? It has to be. But I keep my mouth shut. Since we left Barra, Mama hasn't cried, fainted, or screamed at me.
"Feel like a coffee?" Mrs. Douglas asks Mama.
"Coffee would be heavenly. Thank you."
I sit by the window and look out at the street. Mrs. Douglas hands me a cheese sandwich.
I remember to say thank you, before I take it. Mrs. Douglas strokes my hair. Startled, I jump. "Don't be afraid, my dear. You'll soon be home with your grandparents," she says soothingly.
"They should be here soon. The distance is less than a hundred miles," says Mama.
I bite into the cheese sandwich and force myself not to grimace. The taste is so bland...nothing like Abuela's fiery burritos. When will I see Abuela again? Despite the Virgen Doll incident, I miss her. Maybe after seeing her parents, Mama will take me back to Abuela; however, I know better. I am more than five now, and I understand we fled from Barra like fugitives.
Abuela will never forgive me for this, never ever.
This must be my fault in some way. I shouldn't have entered the living room in the first place. I should have played on the porch steps like Abuela wanted me to.
Mama and I sit in the back of Grandpa's car. I'm still stupefied because of all the hugging I got when Grandpa and Grandma first saw me as if I were a new toy. In Barra, I wasn't used to being coddled so much, except by Mama who got chided by Abuela for babying me.
My eyes cloud up. Abuela did love me once, before the Virgen Doll broke. Like Mama, Abuela too stroked my hair when she braided it and gave me a pat on the back if I did something right, although that wasn't very often, since I didn't do many things right. But Abuela's loving wasn't like Mama's.
Mama loved me when I least deserved it or after she had a berrinche and shocked me. Maybe Mama likes shocking people, just like a short while ago when she fainted again, as soon as she saw Grandma and Grandpa at the door of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas's place.
Grandma turns to us, and reaching underneath her small round metal-framed eye-glasses with her handkerchief, wipes her eyes. "Do you remember me, Maya?"
I shake my head.
"Don't gesture," Mama says, "Answer with words and politely."
"No, Ma'am," I say, embarrassed.
Mama has told me a lot about Grandma and Grandpa, but Grandma and Grandpa are regular people, different from what I have envisioned. Grandma is short, slightly chubby with a belly, and she walks fast with small, vivacious steps. Her hair is thoroughly white, twisted in a tiny bun behind her head. She has a round, moon-like face with freckled oatmeal skin. In the Douglas's house, she had me sit on her soft lap as she rocked me constantly as if I were an infant. That was when I looked directly into her brown eyes and saw the blue circles around their irises.
Grandpa stands tall and erect, and walks with resolute, uniform steps. He has a full head of dark brown hair, with tiny whites at the temples, a remarkable thing for a man his age. He hugs me and calls me, "Little Beauty." No one has ever called me a beauty before. Grandpa smiles whenever he looks at me. I don't mind smiling back at him since Grandpa's demeanor doesn't overwhelm me like everyone else's, except I try not to stare at his nose, because his nose is large and hooked at the end. I wonder why I didn't get such an interesting nose.
"You were a tiny baby when I first saw you," Grandma says when we are in the car. "Then I saw you again when you were two years old."
"Too bad, you couldn't come again, Ma," Mama says.
"I wouldn't," Grandma says indignantly. "I couldn't bear the misery SHE put you through. Worse yet, you refused to leave."
"Not here!" Grandpa's voice is powerful and loud as the car jolts over a pothole. Grandpa idles the car by the roadside and gets out to check the tires. Then he walks around to Grandma's window and utters a few things very softly. I can only hear a phrase out of all that he says, "not near the child."
Grandma and Grandpa's big, clean house with many tall windows sits on a huge yard, so huge the neighbors cannot be seen. I'm so impressed.
"I grew up here, Maya," says Mama. Grandma takes my hand to show me around. Mama's room upstairs is way bigger than Abuela's entire living room. Mama tosses her jacket and hat on the bed. "Ma, can we put a bed here for Maya?" she asks Grandma.
"Maya should have her own room," Grandma says.
"But she's used to sleeping with me."
"She can still have her own room and sleep here until she is ready to sleep alone," Grandma says.
"I'm ready," I say, gloating over my newly-recognized importance.
"Ma, she has nightmares," Mama insists.
"Then, we'll do both. Maya can have two beds, one in your room, one in her own," Grandma says, as she walks out of the room to the top of the stairway and calls, "Grace, I need you up here."
Grace is Mama's Nana. Mama says Grace took care of Mama and Aunt Charlene when they were little. Grace has a tiny hump on her back although she is younger than Grandma. One of her eyes looks outward and is cloudy, but she doesn't have any trouble seeing.
I gather Grace does most of the housework and rules over other help. When I first saw Grace at the door, her sobs startled me, but then, she hugged and kissed me, asking me to call her Nana because that's what Mama, her Rosie, called her. Grace still keeps weeping whenever she looks at Mama or me, although it has already been a few hours since we have arrived.
Grace climbs up the stairs, scurrying.
"Nana, be careful. Don't rush," Mama says. "You don't have to push yourself so hard for us. I can do some things, too."
"You aren't used to..." Nana sobs.
Mama's voice turns drab. "I am now," she says.
Grace wipes her eyes with the hem of her flower-print apron.
Abuela used to wear aprons, too. Her aprons--reconstructed from old dresses--usually had ties frazzled beyond repair and their faded surfaces bore the stains of her inimitable Salsa Verdes and Salsa Rojas. I venture near Nana with an embarrassed splurge and touch her apron gently. The apron coaxes forth memories, some very special, others ratty.
"She likes me, my little angel." Nana sobs again and takes my hand to kiss it.
"Enough of that now," Grandma tells her. "You're going to hurt your eyes and scare the child."
"I cry because I am happy." Nana reassures me. "Your mother was little too, just like you, even littler when I first saw her." I look at her hands with palms facing each other closely to show how little Mama had been. I feel a quick rapport forming between Nana and me as she embraces me again and again like a warm quilt.
When I first enter my room, I am amazed. I sit on the floor in the middle and look around. Nana asks me why. I say I don't want to break anything, because when things break, it is bad luck and bad things happen. Grandma says it doesn't matter if anything breaks by accident; we'll just get a new one. This makes Nana sob again. I don't understand why Nana cries so often. She must be really happy, since she says she cries when she's happy.
My room has pale yellow walls, green curtains, and green carpet with flowers on it. Grandma and Nana bring a small desk from the attic just for me. They even put a tiny lamp on it. Nana says the desk used to belong to Mama. Grandma says she hopes I'll make better use of it than Mama did, as she gives me some of Aunt Charlene's old books.
I wish I could show this room to Catalina. She would adore the ruffled skirt and all the soft pillows on my bed. I'll love sleeping in this bed.
In one of the desk drawers, I find an empty box. Inside it, I put my egg-shaped stone and the sand from the beach of Barra de Navidad, the sand that got into my shoes.
Just before we left Abuela's house, Mama told me to wear my new shoes, but Abuela said I'd dirty them up, playing outside with Catalina. So I wore the old shoes that I always wore when we went walking on the sand. My shoes kept the sand in their insides all the way to here. I think I'll keep Barra's sand hidden in my desk, since Mama says these shoes have got to go. Tomorrow, we'll buy new shoes.
Nana keeps bringing me things from the attic. I have a globe of the world that stands on a pole. I ask Mama where Barra is. She says I don't need to think about that, but Grandpa shows me. It is only four inches away. To think that we came from such a long way and it is only four inches away...
In the living room downstairs, Mama is talking with Grandma and Grandpa while I sit in my room. Nana keeps me company, only leaving to bring me things from the kitchen, but I don't want to eat or drink in my room. I must keep it clean, because it is so pretty, and I think it is really mine. Nana goes downstairs to bring me a coke. I walk to the top of the stairway after her. I hear Mama telling bad things about Abuela. If Mama talks like that about Abuela, will my father still return and can we live happily ever after?
Nana is coming up the stairs. She stops half-way, and a little too loudly, she says, "Maya, are you coming down? Come, let's sit on the back porch." I walk down. Nana holds on one hand a round tray with an hourglass coke-bottle on it and directs me gently toward the porch with the other hand; she shows me to a white wicker rocking chair. I sit down and sip the coke from a loopy straw.
Suddenly, I pull my legs up and my heart propels. From the backyard, three cats have appeared.
"Nothing to worry about," Nana says. "They are your Aunt Charlene's cats rushing here to welcome you. Your aunt, Charlene, will be home tomorrow just to see you and your Mama."
I stand up, fearing bad luck, let the cats slither through my legs, feeling their soft fur and breezy touch on my skin.
When bedtime comes, everyone wants to put me to bed and tuck me in. I'm stunned with my new popularity. They have me wear one of Grandpa's tee-shirts like a nightgown and everybody laughs, because I get lost in the shirt. Grandpa has bought me a huge stuffed bear. I hug the bear and listen to Nana telling me the story of three pigs who have difficulty with a wicked fox and improper housing. The color of the walls, pale yellow, almost gold, almost amber, keeps seeping through my half-open eyes. I close my eyes tight to let sleep and happiness shelter me.
Next morning, I wake up in Mama's bed. How did I get here? I don't remember coming here. I want to go back to my bed, but Mama has her arm tightly circled around me and I can't let loose. "It's okay. Go back to sleep," Mama murmurs.
"I want to go to my room," I say.
"Shhh!" Mama says. Then she begs, "Please, stay with me."
At breakfast, I sit near Grandpa and read him the newspaper. It is something about a Marshall plan. I don't quite get it, but Grandpa is very impressed. "She reads at least at third grade level," he says.
"She reads in Spanish better. I only showed her a few letters. The rest, she did on her own," Mama gloats, but I feel embarrassed because I don't think I deserve so much praise, especially since I make up what I can't decipher.
Grandpa says I should be given special attention, and maybe Charlene would help us with what to do. I'm so curious about Aunt Charlene. I hope she arrives very soon.
After breakfast, Grandpa drives me, Mama, and Grandma downtown to shop for clothes. Mama buys me shiny black patent shoes with straps. Grandma insists we buy another pair. I choose rubbers, so I can run faster. Mama doesn't approve. "Let her," Grandma urges. "She knows what she wants."
Grandma makes me and Mama pick so many clothes, but since we can't carry all of them, we leave most of the packages at a store for Grandpa to pick up later. Everybody in Victorville knows Grandma and Grandpa. They even know Mama, which surprises me. So many people have stopped us on the way to greet us and I am kissed by so many people that I think my cheeks will fall off. A few of them ask about Papa and Abuela, but Grandma tells them they are fine and they sent their greetings to all. Didn't we run away from Abuela, and why is Grandma lying?
Wearing my rubber shoes, I stand under a beautiful, green pear tree in the backyard and watch the pears hang from the branches, making them bend down. Some of the limbs are already cracked or broken. What good is beauty if it can't carry any weight, I wonder.
Someone from the back porch waves at me as she walks toward me. I wave back and run toward Aunt Charlene. I know this lady is Aunt Charlene because she has golden hair.
I finally stop and stand in front of her, looking up to her face. As the setting sun's rays bounce off her skin, her lips part with surprise. "Maya!" She is almost breathless. She squats down in front of me and holds out her arms. I fall into her, my arms around her neck. I touch her hair. It is really yellow, golden yellow.
"Hello," I say, "You're so beautiful."
She is surprised even more. "Thank you," she whispers. "Nobody ever tells me that."
"Can't they see?"
She laughs. "I guess they don't have your eyes. You know who I am?"
"Aunt Charlene. Mama showed me your picture, but it was black and white." I keep touching her hair; I can't help myself. I have seen other blondes before, but Aunt Charlene's hair is the most beautiful I have ever seen.
Aunt Charlene picks me up and carries me inside.
"Rosie, your daughter is the warmest child, I have ever met," she tells Mama.
"Not always," Mama answers. "But she was dying to meet you."
I cling to Aunt Charlene until bedtime. She is taller than Mama and Grandma. When Aunt Charlene has me sit on her shoulders, I'm the tallest, and if I stretch my arms upward, I can touch the ceiling.
It is only a day that I am here, and already, I have so many dolls. What I had in Barra were corn-husk dolls and one Raggedy Ann doll that Grandma had sent.
Everybody gave me dolls today; even Grandpa says he's ordering a doll-house for me. I can hardly wait for it to arrive. The doll I like best is the doll with two long black braids and a striped shawl.
Aunt Charlene brought this doll from Berkeley; it reminds me of Lupita and the village women from Barra. Nana brought down a movie star doll from the attic that used to be Mama's. It is a boy doll with hands and legs swinging about. I don't like to hold it. Mama's doll has the ugliest face.
In my grandparents' house, there is a telephone. Everyone calls asking for Grandpa. It is because Grandpa is a doctor. If someone takes for the worse, Grandpa leaves with her black bag. His black bag has instruments in it. Grandpa shows his instruments to me. I listen to my own heart with Grandpa's stethoscope. I think a stethoscope would be the best thing to own, better than any of the dolls I have.
Aunt Charlene formally introduces me to her cats: Russkie, a grey, short-haired cat with glassy blue eyes; Paradox, a fluffy black and white cat; and Aristo, a cute, friendly tabby. Aunt Charlene sits me down and puts Aristo on my lap. I am a bit hesitant with the cats, although Aristo licks my face and I giggle.
"Touch him, like this." Aunt Charlene holds my hand and makes me pat Aristo's back. The cat purrs, leaning against my hand. "He loves you," Aunt Charlene says. "Cats like people."
"Aren't cats unlucky?" I ask in small voice.
"Cats are lucky," Aunt Charlene says. "I have had cats all my life and, believe me, they aren't unlucky." Aristo settles on my lap, closes his eyes and breathes in a steady rhythm.
"Is Aristo sleeping?"
"He's resting on your lap, because he thinks your lap is the best place to be."
I think maybe a cat is lucky after all. If it weren't for the Lupita's cat breaking the Virgen Doll, I wouldn't have met Aunt Charlene and Aristo wouldn't be sitting on my lap now.
I smile at Aunt Charlene. "I never had so much luck, before," I say.
Soon school will open. I have new school clothes, a school bag, pencils, notebooks, and a fountain pen. They tested me at the principal's office. Some teachers wanted me in their classes. One was third grade, the other second, but Mama wanted me to stay in first grade, close to my age-group. "She is too young even for first grade. She is not emotionally ready," she said. I think I am, but nobody ever asks me what I want. Most of the time, they just give me what they want
Aunt Charlene stays at her own school where she teaches. She comes over during the weekends "just for me," but this is our secret, and I am not supposed to say anything to anybody about that. When Aunt Charlene is here, she takes me out for long walks.
During those times when we are alone, except for Aristo who likes to follow me wherever I go, Aunt Charlene encourages me to talk about Barra, Abuela, and my friend Catalina. I showed her the box in the back of my desk, inside which I have my egg-shaped stone and Barra's sand hidden, and also my medallion with the Virgen of Guadalupe etched on it. Mama doesn't want me to wear that medallion anymore. Once, when I put it on, Mama had a berrinche. I was afraid she'd faint. Then Grandma said not to do things to upset my mother.
So I put the medallion in my drawer.
That's what Grandma is most concerned about, Mama getting upset.
Mama sometimes becomes upset because she worries Abuela or Papa may kidnap me. It is because Papa is cross with Mama and has not written to her for a long time.
I overhear Grandpa tell Mama and Abuela not to talk of such things near me and make me nervous, but I am never nervous. I just like finding out about things. Most of the time, nobody knows I listen to the conversation, because I sit away and act busy with a doll. I would like to tell Mama and everyone, I wouldn't go with Abuela even if she came for me, but I can't say that, because then, they'll know I'm listening.
I love my life here; I got everything. I especially like the television. Grandpa bought a new TV set in the living room; its name is Admiral. It has two channels with pictures that come in black and white wavy lines. I like reading the program leaflet, called, "On the Air"; half of it shows the radio programs, the other half, what will be on TV. Every Sunday evening, I watch cartoons on it with Nana and Christine.
Christine is my new friend, well...sort of. Christine is the daughter of one of Mama's old friends. Mama wants me to stay friends with her, but I think Christine is boring. When we are not watching television, all she does is feed the dolls make-believe food with a tiny spoon. Back in Barra, Catalina and I used to play in the mud constructing things, and sometimes in the garden, we pretended we were explorers, exploring the jungle.
Aunt Charlene says, once I go to school, I'll make other friends, but I tell her, "what if Mama doesn't let me? I bet she won't." Aunt Charlene laughs, then says, "Oh, Wise Solomon!" I don't think that was bad. At least, I'm glad she didn't say, "Wise Alec."
When Mama and I are alone in the garden, Mama reads me stories. I like sitting next to Mama, but I like to read my own stories. In the first place, I read faster than her. I don't tell this to Mama, because I'm afraid she'll get testy or will have a berrinche.
Mama dresses more differently than she did when we were in Barra. Now she concentrates on wearing the latest fashions and she spends a lot of time trying on clothes everyday.
I think fashion is to put on hats with veils and high-heeled sandals. Everything looks stupendous on Mama, partly because her nails are painted red, even her toenails.
Once, in the garden when she sat in the wicker chair and I perched on my small stool next to her, I started playing with her toes and I scratched some of the red polish off. Mama slapped my hand and became very cross. I think playing with red toenails is like playing with fire.
I still find myself in Mama's bed some mornings. Mama says I come to her in the middle of the night because I have nightmares. Why can't I ever remember going to her room at night? I don't recall any nightmares either. Sometimes I dream about Abuela and Catalina and the house in Barra, but I don't talk of those dreams to Mama. I think saying anything about Barra would be more dangerous for me than having a nightmare or getting kidnapped.
Some days, when Mama and Grandma go visiting friends, I stay with Nana. I like that very much because Nana lets me do whatever I want. If I make a mess, she cleans it in no time and she lays down clean clothes for me on the chair every day. Nana says she likes doing those things because she loves me and loving me so much helps her do her work better; because love is an energy booster, she says.
"Welcome Maya," Mrs. Crenshaw takes my hand and leads me into the classroom, as she motions my mother to leave. I turn back to see her walk into the hallway when I hear the principal call her name, "Mrs. McGrath, one moment, please!"
"You know what I am going to do, Maya," Mrs. Crenshaw says, "I'll have you sit separately from the class, near my desk. Your classmates have a lot of catching up to do."
Such a downer! How in the world am I going to make new friends if I sit separately? But Mrs. Crenshaw reads my mind. "Don't worry, you won't sit alone," she says. Then she pulls one of the long tables near her desk and puts three chairs side by side facing the class. I hesitate a bit, but I sit upright in the seat closest to the teacher and fold my clammy hands on the table top, thinking my desk at home is better than the tables in school.
Mrs. Crenshaw has another girl sit next to me. Her name is Cathy; she is repeating the first grade. She knows all the letters, but she can't read. Then she puts a boy, Taylor, at the other end. Taylor can read well, but he has difficulty holding the pencil.
One day during the first week, Mrs. Crenshaw asks the class, "Who can tell how much a loaf of bread costs? You can guess, if you don't know it exactly." I say, "Twelve pesos." The class laughs. Mrs. Crenshaw says that may be true of our neighbors to the south, but here in The States we use dollars and cents. I decide not to guess anything else again.
Mrs. Crenshaw gives me special assignments. Some of them have to do with Math or counting money. Both are new to me since I can just count with my fingers and know only of pesos, even if I read and understand better than anybody. I decide to ask Aunt Charlene to help me on the matter of money.
During the recess, a kid named Larry makes fun of me. He says I sit in the retard section. He tells me, people in the retard section can get away with anything. He has an older brother, so he knows how this school works. He says I could poke the teacher with my pencil and I wouldn't have to see the principal. I tell him I already saw the principal before the school started, and I wouldn't poke Mrs. Crenshaw with anything. He points at me and doubles up laughing. "You are a real work," he says.
On the playground, I meet other kids, but only Etna plays with me. I like Etna. Etna says she was born near a volcano in her grandparents' house; that's why she is named Etna. I tell her all my life I lived close to a volcano too, but they didn't name me Colima. Then we both laugh at that; it would be so weird if they called me Colima.
During the weekend, I tell Aunt Charlene about everything that happened in school. Aunt Charlene looks at me thoughtfully, but doesn't say anything. Then she shows me a dime, a penny, a quarter, and paper money, a one-dollar bill and a five dollar bill. She says what I need to know about money is this much for now.
Afterwards, Aunt Charlene and I go shopping. Aunt Charlene mails a letter and shows me its three-cent stamp. She buys a loaf of bread for 14 cents and a gallon of milk for 86 cents. She gives me a five dollar bill and asks me to pay for it. I get four single dollars back. On the way back, we see a house with a "For Sale" sign. There's a lady in the front yard. Aunt Charlene asks the price. The lady says $12,800. I say I can't count that high.
In Snyder's Department Store, we see a doll with only underwear and shoes. The salesman says this new doll at the market is called the Ginny Doll and her outfits are sold separately. Aunt Charlene asks the man to repeat the prices. I know she is doing this for me, so I pay attention. The doll costs $1.98 and its outfits cost from a dollar up, depending on the outfit. Aunt Charlene tells me, Nana and Grandma can sew better outfits for the doll than those on sale. I think the doll's price is too high, but Aunt Charlene buys it for me anyway. I thank her and dutifully trot alongside of her, carrying my new doll and the loaf of bread. Abuela would be so mad if she were here and knew Aunt Charlene was throwing good money away.
Aunt Charlene and I stop to let people go by. There's a crowd around a person across the sidewalk. Aunt Charlene says that person is the movie star, Clarence Brooks, and she saw him in the Bronze Buckaroo. She lifts me up so I can get a look at him. I don't see why the excitement; he's just a regular person, that's all.
I haven't talked much about Abuela to anyone but Aunt Charlene. Even then, I get restless and dig my right thumb into my left palm, trying to hide that I still like her. Talking about Abuela is intimidating. Aunt Charlene says I can tell her anything, and she won't say a word to anyone.
"Really?" I ask.
"Abuela was nice most of the time; she liked me, I thought."
"Did you like her back?"
"Yes," I sigh, "but she hit me."
"That must have hurt."
"She didn't believe me."
"No doubt. But, I bet, if she knew the truth..."
"She was just mad."
"You understand, then."
"That's good," Aunt Charlene says, "I mean it's good to understand why people do things sometimes."
"Mama hits me, too."
"Are you afraid of her?"
"I'm more afraid of Mama than Abuela," I whisper.
"I know." Aunt Charlene hugs me.
While Lupita and I were planning how I would escape from the talons of Guadalupe, I had written to Ma that things weren't working out for me and I might come home with Maya. I'd asked her not to get in touch with me or Guadalupe because it would make things harder for me. I feared Ma would try to ease the tension between me and my mother in-law or would write something disconcerting to Emiliano.
I couldn't be so wrong. When I came home, I found in Ma an anger even stronger than mine against Guadalupe, her old friend. Charlene must have had a hand in that since and I had written to her regularly, telling of my daily life in Barra with Guadalupe and Emiliano's unpleasant behavior toward me, no doubt because of his mother. Finally, when Maya and I, in our beggarly outfits, made it home with the kindness of strangers, Nana and Ma accepted the two of us with open arms and pampered us as if we were made of crystal.
Pa's advice to me was: "Forget any trifling matter like he-said she-said, premonitions, black magic, whatever. Think things thoroughly, and then commit to your decision."
Charlene thought I should dump Emiliano and design a better life for myself. Probably she was right, but at the time the word divorcée tore through me like doom, and somewhere inside my heart, I still wished to have Emiliano by my side permanently, but without Guadalupe. Guadalupe had too much control over Emiliano; Guadalupe should be the one to disappear. I don't know why I kept thinking that Guadalupe's absence would clean out any problems between Emiliano and me.
Thinking back, I find Emiliano just as much to blame, if not more than Guadalupe. It could be that time may have cleared my sight.
Maya took to Pa, Ma, Charlene, and Nana with passion, as if she had known them forever. Maybe this was due to an unspoken agreement, an acknowledgment of our mutual fate, but Maya's strength made me feel hollow and needy for her affection, and I wanted to keep her at my side forever. Maya, on the contrary, moved away from me and warmed up to everyone else in the family, especially Charlene. To me this felt like a powerful alienation, something I least expected or at least not what I expected.
It could be that blood was running thick between Maya and my family or it could be the beginning of Maya's little mind holding me responsible to whichever blasted thing would come to pass in her life. Although Maya never openly accused me of anything, I sensed that she did, and I found nothing justified her blaming of my actions. If anything, I had torn myself apart and sacrificed my own life for her. At the end, she wasn't even grateful, and many times, she showed me contemptuous disrespect, ignoring my need to be around her.
To Pa and Ma, Charlene was the brainy daughter with the common sense, the one they didn't have to worry about too much, the one who could take care of herself. As for me, I turned out too pretty, too spoiled, and too frivolous for them. Strangely enough, of everyone in my family, Charlene was the one who stood by my side through thick and thin. Charlene faced any situation head on; she told Emiliano off; she advised Maya to move closer to me; and she offered me her shoulder to cry on whenever I needed one. It may have helped that Charlene became a professor of psychology and because of her training, she could see into the human soul, but I believe it was more than that. I believe my sister truly loved me and she truly cared for Maya from day one.
In those emotionally impoverished days of mine, I wanted my daughter near me; I needed to feel the warmth of her little body and to hear her shallow breathing when she slept, but I knew I was toast when Ma gave Maya her own room. Ma believed children should have their own space, but what Ma didn't know and wouldn't approve of was that in Barra several children slept in the same room, some with their parents. If those children turned out okay, why couldn't I have my daughter with me?
That first night when Maya chose to sleep in her new room, for the first time away from me, I couldn't fall asleep easily. After midnight, I tiptoed to Maya's room and carried my sleeping daughter into my bed. The next day, I told Maya that she came to my bed on her own. This isn't something I'm proud of, but I am not ashamed of it either.
Pa urged everyone not to pressure me for the decisions I had to make, but Ma was against divorce at any cost; plus, she liked Emiliano. She thought if we could live separately, away from Guadalupe, our marriage would have a good chance of succeeding. Charlene, however, was against another iffy situation; she said anything cancerous should be cut off.
With everyone's consent, Pa wrote the first letter to Emiliano. He simply told Emiliano that Maya and I had arrived at his house, and Emiliano shouldn't worry for we were in fine shape.
Once I felt brave enough, I, too, wrote to Emiliano to explain why I left Barra de Navidad, with the hope that things would take care of themselves afterwards.
Emiliano's replies to Pa and me arrived on the same day. His letter to Pa was simply a letter of thanks; I, however, received a condescendingly-written letter of reproach.
I am glad you and my daughter are safe. I am sure your parents will take good care of you. But why, Rosie? Was my mother's place not good enough for you?
Why do you look down upon a place where my family lives?
What you did to my mother is unforgivable, making an old woman worry so much about your safety. What is worse is you used the people of the town who go to the same church with her.
My mother may not fit in with your fancy ways, but she has been a good mother to me and my brother. You should at least respect that, and respect me.
I understand your upbringing and probably lack of education have a lot to do with the way you are, but you could make an attempt to change.
Just take good care of the child, and remember, as a married woman, that you have a husband overseas, doing work for the country.
I answered Emiliano with a simple, sweet letter telling him how much I loved him, but I also told him, during his absence, I would rather live with my family than with his mother.
In his next letter, Emiliano invited me to join him in Italy where he was working undercover near Trieste in an assigned mission with Allied Military Government. He wrote: I live in a dump with two other men, an old woman, a younger woman and her two sons, some chickens and a goat. I know you are used to living in luxury in your family's home, but come and join your husband instead of stepping on clover and licking honey. If you can stand it here, then I'll believe in your love for me. If you dare to come, don't bring Maya. She can stay with your parents. I don't want her exposed to this.
When I showed Charlene Emiliano's letter, she muttered, "The nerve!" That's all she said. Ma and Pa told me to do whatever I liked. After giving it some thought, I couldn't see myself going and living there, but I couldn't tell Emiliano that. So I wrote him another sweet letter as if he hadn't made that offer.
His answer was furious. Why do you always avoid the real issues? Are you trying to make me lose focus? You are always evading the core of any problem, he wrote.
I answered with another cutesy letter, telling him how well Maya had adjusted to Victorville. Emiliano didn't answer that letter. As a matter of fact, he didn't write to me for five months.
Sometimes I wonder why I do what I do. Aside from eliminating Guadalupe from my sight, I don't know what good came out of going back to Victorville. Maya and I were well-cared for, and I was calmer, but I found Maya distancing herself from me gradually.
In a way, I was glad her physical care was taken out of my hands; in another way, I wasn't sure of the closeness between my sister and my daughter. Every once in a while, dark thoughts lowered themselves, and I started becoming suspicious of my sister. Could it be that Charlene subconsciously wanted Maya in return for Joseph? Is being born pretty such a curse that my husband is eaten up with jealousy, and my sister takes away what's most important to me, my daughter?
When I mentioned these thoughts to Ma, she scolded me.
"Charlene is not like that. I don't know what's the matter with you? Your sister comes home during weekends only. Plus, she has backed you up all your life. Can't you see she's trying to help Maya? Aren't you forgetting she's qualified to do that better than any of us? Plus, Charlene is Maya's aunt, for Heavens' Sakes!"
"Maya is the only thing I have, and I want to raise her my way."
Ma sighed. "Are you telling me this because you want me talk to Charlene?" Then she adjusted her eyeglasses and stared at me. "I won't do that. You tell Charlene what you want to tell her. Knowing how mixed-up you are, I have stayed away from Maya, but I can't ask anyone else to do the same. Maya is your daughter, and you'll raise her. All right! You won't hear a peep from me, but don't forget that you do not own people."
Good thing about Ma, no matter what she'd utter, she'd back me up, always. She also knew with Emiliano acting the way he was acting, I needed Maya, and I needed to feel free at the same time.
I took to going for a walk during midmorning each day, since I'd most likely see the mail truck on my way in and take the mail. Unfortunately, no letter from Emiliano arrived.
One morning, I went a little farther than I cared for and found myself around the Primary School. It ought to have been recess time, since children were playing outside. I saw my daughter by the swings, excitedly telling something to another little girl.
Although I yearned for Maya to notice me and run to me, I ducked behind a stone column on the sidewalk and watched her from afar. I hadn't been aware of the drizzle until a teacher emerged, carrying an umbrella, and herded the children inside.
"Mrs. McGrath, how nice to see you?"
I turned to face the principal, Bill Roth. I hadn't noticed him coming out the side entrance. As I caught the electrified blinking inside his eyes--the kind that implied appreciation for my looks, I thought he was rather young to become the principal.
"Hello," I said, "I was just taking a walk. I stopped to watch the children outside."
"Come inside the school and have a cup of coffee with me. You're getting wet under the rain."
Bill Roth had a nice smile and a warm, sincere approach to people. As he gathered the papers on his desk with an awkward clutch, he informed me that Maya was doing exceptionally well and he was delighted to have her in the school.
"With all the little ones running around like banshees, we do appreciate an angel," he said grinning.
I answered him briskly with one-or-two-word sentences, letting him do most of the talking, which seemed to please him even more. I concentrated on the handle of the mug I was holding, so I wouldn't stare at his mouth slipping toward his right cheek. In this town, it would be so easy to find another man, but I wanted only Emiliano.
Yet, Emiliano was so far away in very many ways. Despite the warm desert atmosphere in Victorville, life seemed harsher, colder, and I felt dislocated, longing for Emiliano, for something or rather someone that could not be recovered.
Aside from stopping to communicate with me, Emiliano hadn't taken any action while I made every effort to maintain the illusion, if not for me, but for Maya. I still clung to my tale that her father would be home soon, he would bring a big doll that opened and closed its eyes and called her Mama, and we would still have that happily ever after thing.
One day, unexpectedly, Maya cut me short, "Write to him. Tell him I don't want that doll. I have too many dolls already."
Maya's words inspired me. I suggested to her to write to her Papa, to show him how well she could write.
"He has to write to me first," she said and pressed her lips together. "Etna's father takes her places all the time. Last week, he took her canoeing. He let her row the canoe even."
"Then write and tell him about Etna's father," I proposed. "That may inspire him."
"No, Mama, you write," Maya said curtly.
The obstinate streak in my daughter ignited the cranky spark inside me. I leaned over and slapped her. "Don't you say no to me! He is your father, not mine," I said.
Maya's eyebrows arched up with fear. She took a step back daintily, trying not to bump into furniture.
"Then, you tell me what to write," she said, as if flatly tucking away an unpleasant offense.
Obedience is obedience and it should be instilled in children. With Maya, I had won this round, but I had expected obedience out of respect, not out of fear.
"Yes, you shall write," I said, "and I am cross with you. I demand an apology."
"I am sorry, Mama," she said, her eyes clouding. I slapped her again. She began to sob. Ma walked in.
"Promise me you'll never sass again. I'm not accepting your apology, until you give me your word."
"I promise, Mama."
"Why are you crying, Sweetie?" Ma asked.
"I slapped her. She is talking back at me," I said.
This time Ma scolded Maya. "Don't ever do that to your mother, Maya. Do you wish to make your mother sick? Don't you see how thin she is?"
I could count on Ma always. If there was one constant, trustworthy thing in my life, it was Ma's backing me up. Maya was now bawling. I took her in my arms and kissed her. "Let's go see if Nana has a bottle of Pepsi we could share," I said.
Maya's face changed its expression. Hugging me back, "Yes, Mama," she responded through her tears. "I am really very sorry, Mama."
Ma watched us puzzled, then left the room in an evasive haste.
All through the week after this, I felt like the mean old witch who lured Hansel and Gretel, offering them candy. But Maya was/is the only fruit, a sweet yield, I had from Emiliano. How else could I thaw Emiliano's icy, unforgiving nature, except with a letter written by Maya?
From the beginning, Maya had a streak of her father in her in that her appearance brimmed with sweetness and her so-called well-adjustedness deceived; I can swear by this. There were days when she couldn't have enough of me and other days when she distanced herself from me, barely uttering a word. I resisted her alienation by appealing to her good side or by using force; however, just like Emiliano, Maya had an uncanny ability to gain other people's approval and an enormous gift for making me look and feel bad. I felt slightly envious also, because Maya began to replace me with Charlene.
I had a hunch that Maya complained to Charlene about me, but I trusted Charlene. Charlene would never talk against me. Still, in her loyal and straightforward way and with the intention to help Maya's adjustment, Charlene was causing Maya to stray away from me.
To push on with Maya's writing a letter to her father, I waited for the school week to come to an end, so I wouldn't hear any excuses from Maya. Come Friday, however, Maya seemed eager, way too eager, to write that letter, and she didn't put up any resistance to any of my suggestions concerning the letter's content, which had to be all about Maya and not me, so it would get Emiliano's attention.
The letter turned out to be perfect for my little idea to work, but my daughter did it again. When Charlene took her to mail the letter, she sweet-talked Charlene to let her add a sentence about me. When I heard this, I snapped at Charlene, and made Ma upset.
Yet, Ma said, since I felt the way I did, she'd talk to Charlene after all. So, Charlene started avoiding Maya after Ma and Charlene had a heart-to-heart. Maya, as young as she was, had to have sensed this, for each time she talked of "Aunt Charlene," she turned to stare at me with a defiant twist of her little head.
During the following days, Maya started ignoring me by getting more and more entangled with school and the new friends she made; although, I put limits on whom she can be friends with and how much time she can spend with them.
In the long run, after Emiliano's suffocating disdain from continents away, my daughter's giving me the cold shoulder infuriated me. I felt screened and isolated by the very people I loved the most. Why were they slipping away from me? Was this a larger conspiracy of life?
Later, while I was attending one of parent-teacher conferences, I bumped into Bill Roth.
"Mrs. McGrath, how nice to see you again!" He touched my shoulder gently. "I bet it is good news. Her teacher praises your daughter all the time."
"Yes, thank you," I said, smoothing my hair backwards as if everything was so simple, and Bill Roth stared at me as if he couldn't believe his eyes. I looked back at him without showing anything, but he must have read something in my tired eyes.
"Is something the matter, Mrs. McGrath? Do I sense a little sadness?"
"It doesn't have anything to do with the school, really..."
"Would you like to talk about it? I have two good ears," he said, although he did not sound so sure. "Come to my office if you have finished talking with Mrs. Crenshaw."
I guess I could have said no. I guess I could come up with an excuse. I guess I could turn back and go into Mrs. Crenshaw's room as if I had forgotten something there. But I didn't.
If anything, I was flattered that someone cared about me.
Bill Roth closed the door softly behind me, and I stood there, still at first; then, I started to cry, hugging my jacket around me.
There are many beautiful people on earth, and every woman carries in her heart the image of a stunning, ideal, gentle person, someone like a bluebird that streaks down out of cloudy sky to bring a smile, a momentary respite from the rage of the elements. At that instant, Bill Roth was that bluebird with something about him I trusted and found attractive at the same time.
"I'm sorry," I said, sniffling. "I am sort of wrapped up in some unpleasant things."
He went to the door and opened it ajar. "Mrs. Fadden, please hold my calls," he instructed his secretary, "Tell people I'm busy."
He didn't go sit at his desk like he did the last time, but sat on the rickety beige and brown damask couch and motioned me near him. I sat down.
"My husband..." I stuttered. "He hasn't been around. Now, he's mad at me, and I'm afraid he'll never come back."
"Why is he mad?"
I told him. I told Bill Roth everything from the day Emiliano left me in his mother's care when he went overseas.
I won't lie and I won't be snobbish about it. That day all my emotions, my urges, everything I kept hidden rushed to my mouth, and I talked with my instincts, provoking sentiments in Bill Roth who glanced tensely at my arms in order to avoid my eyes. My grand disappointment in Emiliano made me have, at least, some rate of preliminary success with another man.
"I can't believe he could stay away from a woman like you," Bill Roth muttered as if flicking on a light.
"I am considering leaving Emiliano," I said, although this wasn't true. "I worry about my daughter though, Mr. Roth."
"I am Bill to you, and if you don't mind my saying so, I don't see why you take such abuse, standing around and waiting for a man who doesn't appreciate a good, attractive woman."
So here it was: a coded promise.
"Thank you, Bill," I said. "These days I don't have many real friends, but you have been a great friend."
On my way out, he kissed my cheek.
In Bill Roth, I found a good ear and admiring eyes. How strange it was, I wondered, that a fiasco, in this case the fiasco of my marriage that left me drained and searching for breath, had led me to another man. I couldn't talk about Bill Roth to anyone but Charlene. Charlene, always so accepting and perceptive, said, "In a way, I'm glad you realize men other than Emiliano can be interesting. Just don't do anything that could hurt Maya."
I don't need to go into detail with how my friendship with Bill advanced. I am not so proud of it myself, especially with what happened next, because after a few so-called chance meetings or planned ones, Bill invited me to his place for tea on a Saturday afternoon. It was about five months now since Emiliano had written me that last awful letter.
Bill's place was a rented two-bedroom, roughly-built guest house on a ranch outside of Victorville. Not seeing the front door on the side of it and after winding my way around the driveway, I knocked on the kitchen door by mistake.
To let me pass, Bill slowly stepped aside, trying not to look surprised to see my father's car I had borrowed on his driveway. I was grateful for the gentle prodding of his hand in the hollow of my back as I stepped in.
My resolve not to rush things was already failing. "I can't believe I am here," I said.
"I can't believe you found my kitchen door," Bill said, trying to rescue me from feeling stifled. "They say to a man's heart is through the kitchen and you know how to get to a man's heart. You look magnificent."
I perched on a kitchen stool and looked away from him to the neatly stacked open kitchen shelves and few utensils hanging from hooks on the walls. "This is different," I said.
"Different it is. The whole thing came with the house," Bill said. "I have the mind of a four year-old when it comes to cooking, but I think I can manage tea just fine."
I sipped the tea slowly, knowing full well what we both wanted. Bill sat on the stool next to mine. "I don't know how we go about this," he said, touching my arm lightly as if leading me to the gist of the matter. "I just want you to understand you're in no danger from me, as long as we're open and sincere with each other."
"That is exactly what I need," I said, squirming. "Sincerity...sincerity is the most persuasive thing in the world, I think."
"I'm not so naïve as to lay claim on anything concerning you, especially after what has happened to you. I think you need to feel free with me."
"Today," I said, twisting my napkin's edge. "If you want sincerity, I want to do what you want to do."
Until I said this, I hadn't grasped how scared I was. Until I said this, I hadn't realized how desperately lonely I had been, how much and for how long I had needed to be held. I had planned this moment; yet, here I was, gasping for breath.
Instantly, Bill's arms were around me. "I'm the one who's here now." He lifted my chin and raised my lips to his. I closed my eyes and tried to extricate Emiliano from my mind.
Later, wrestling with my clothes and Ma's voice running in my head, I rebuked myself, "No self respect, no pride. You stupid girl! Bill isn't Emiliano, and you're still married. If this leaks out, do you realize how much your family will be disgraced?"
I guess the path of an affair is laden with resentments: physical, mental, and emotional. Yet, Bill's touch was like a butterfly's; gentle, simple, and dignified, a comfort, yet a disappointment. I was genuinely surprised; it had nothing in it to remind me of the glorified intensity of Emiliano's passion. Would I be looking for Emiliano under every man's wraps the rest of my life? When I asked myself that question, I found myself more in pain for the way I felt toward Emiliano than for what I did with Bill.
My unseen father crowds my life like a cunning ghost, casting a web over me with his unfamiliarity and vague existence. Having seen other kids with their fathers, even those strict types, I can't quite grasp Papa's ever-continuing absence.
On one hand, I believe in my mother's words and am rather intrigued by her persuasive promises of the future. On the other hand, my personal data, passively gathered by eavesdropping on adult talk, warns me not to trust this ritualistic mockery. Mama, too, feels this and, resenting the vacuum left by Papa's silence, makes me write a letter to him.
On a Friday evening after school, I write the letter to Papa that Mama dictates to me.
I miss you. I hope you are well. I worry that you are not.
I am going to school now and I would like to see you.
Please come home soon.
Now, I feel I have accomplished something, and I am eager for the letter to reach Papa's hands. I draw a flower picture at the bottom of the page. Then I tell Mama I want to make sure the letter is mailed.
"Tomorrow," she says. "we can go to the Post Office and mail it together." Then she remembers an appointment she has with her friends.
"Maybe I can go tomorrow with Aunt Charlene," I suggest.
Mama hesitates. "Or we could do it, Monday," she murmurs.
"No, tomorrow...tomorrow. Please, Mama."
"Maybe, let's see if Charlene wants to," Mama says, tucking the letter into an envelope. The address is difficult to write because it isn't in English; still, I write the address on the envelope well.
Mama tells Aunt Charlene about the letter. Aunt Charlene is pleased.
"Now, that's a great thing to do," she says.
On the way to the post office, I tug on Aunt Charlene's hand. "I forgot to write one more thing in Papa's letter. Is it too late?"
"No, Maya. It isn't," she says. We stop at the drugstore and order soda pop. Aunt Charlene buys a small container of glue and borrows a knife from the waiter. She slides the knife into the envelope and carefully lifts the flap. She unfolds the letter and gives it to me together with the pen she takes out of her purse.
I find a blank space on the page and write carefully.
Mama is doing well. She made me write this letter to you.
I fold the letter and give it back to Aunt Charlene. Aunt Charlene, without unfolding the letter, puts it inside the envelope and glues the flap.
Glancing at the envelope, "I like your handwriting," she says. "To think that you just turned six. I'm so proud of you, Maya.'
"I'm proud of you, too, Aunt Charlene."
At home, I tell Mama I added to the letter. She asks what I wrote.
"I told him you were well," I say.
"You shouldn't mention me," Mama says crossly, then turns to Aunt Charlene. "Why did you let her open the letter?"
Aunt Charlene shrugs. "It's her letter."
Mama hisses, "She is MY daughter."
During the afternoon that day, Grandpa puts up a swing set in the backyard. I watch him grade the soil underneath and hammer the poles through. Grandpa gets thirsty and asks me to get him a drink. From the kitchen, I hear Grandma talk to Aunt Charlene inside the living room. Her voice is hesitant and mildly apologetic.
"I know you mean well, but Rosie is...well, Rosie...feels...you know...she's like that. Maya is her daughter and everything she has now."
"Okay, Ma," Aunt Charlene says. "I understand. I'll step back gradually."
Next weekend Aunt Charlene doesn't come home.
Meanwhile, at school, I become a sudden celebrity, only because Mrs Crenshaw hears a kid call Cathy and me retards. Mrs Crenshaw gets very upset. I tell Mrs. Crenshaw where we sit is called the retard section. Mrs. Crenshaw moves Cathy and Taylor's seats to the front row and asks my friends Etna and Rita to sit next to me. Then, Mrs. Crenshaw tells the class that no seat in the classroom is for any retard, and she wants me near her because she is giving me advanced work because I read so well. After that, everybody wants to be my friend.
Now that I have a swing set, I am allowed to invite two kids at a time to play with me. The first one I choose is Etna, and I insist on inviting her even though Mama thinks she wouldn't be okay when she hears her father works in the quarries. I don't see how Etna's father's work could have anything to do with this. Grandpa tells Mama to let me choose my own friends. The second kid is Rita. Mama doesn't object to Rita because her father is the chief manager at Victorville Lime Rock. I want to remind Mama of her friendship with Lupita and her annoyance whenever Abuela had looked down upon Lupita, but I am afraid to mention Barra and anything related to it. It is as if Barra is an old movie whose reels have been erased forever.
When she comes to Victorville again, Aunt Charlene announces she'll be very busy since the end of the school year is approaching. Aunt Charlene is still nice to me, but we don't go on our special walks and shopping trips anymore. Aunt Charlene says she's tired and spends most of her time resting in her room or in the living room when Mama and Grandma are around even on the weekends when she comes home.
Grandma makes great desserts. One of them is flan with whipped cream on it. Abuela used to make the same dessert when the hens laid extra eggs. I tell Grandma that. Grandma puts her finger to her mouth. "Shhh!" she says, eyeing the kitchen door. "Your Abuela gave me the recipe, but don't talk about her. Your Mama gets very sad."
Although she had something to do with Aunt Charlene's not coming home often, I love Grandma. On this or any other matter, I can understand why Grandma is concerned, since Grandma is always up front with me; she tells me she doesn't want Mama upset, and that is the most important thing for her. I don't want Mama upset either, because I fear her berrinches. Back in Barra, Mama's berrinches upset Abuela too. The worst part is, Mama faints at the end of a berrinche. Then I get scared; I think she is dying. Grandma tells me she won't die, because she always had this problem. But who knows? What if my Mama dies one day all of a sudden? I think I'd die also.
Surprise, surprise! I hadn't expected an answer, but a month later when Grandma hands me a typewritten letter from Papa with a black and white photo of himself inside, my eyelids flutter with excitement.
"My Beautiful Daughter,
I am so glad to have your letter in my hands now and that all is well where you are.
I'll return very soon. I am not ill or anything. Don't worry about me.
In the photo, Papa looks like a magical prince in mountaineering gear. He stares into the camera with a piercing look and a cheesy grin. He has curly dark hair and bushy eyebrows. His eyes and hair are so like mine! I gaze deeper into the photo; he isn't an illusion after all. I take the photo to school for show'n tell so everyone knows I got a father.
My excitement and interest annoys Mama. I know this because her insides penetrate through everything she does, even the way she grips my hand: abrupt, coarse, and thorny like the cacti in the desert. She tosses and turns inside the house from room to room doing nothing or letting things go half-done. Maybe Papa should write her instead of me. I want to write an answer to Papa's letter, but Mama says no.
"He says he's returning," she says. "What if he is on the way and he doesn't get your letter?"
A lame reason, but I know better than to argue, and I restrain my tiny ripple of joy. I am apprehensive about Papa's return now, since I sense something inconsolable about Mama. My letter will not be written.
Everything about Papa blows back at my face anyhow. In school, I tell Etna and Rita about the letter I received and that my father will be returning soon.
I cannot hold back the excitement, and we start whispering about it in class. Mrs. Crenshaw hears us, and like the wind gusting in our faces, she blasts angry words at us. I am so upset... I was never scolded in school before.
Etna talks back at Mrs. Crenshaw, giving her the wrong information, but not on purpose. Etna has a way of misunderstanding things. "But, Mrs. Crenshaw," she says, "Maya's father is back."
Mrs. Crenshaw presses her lips together. She is like an active volcano. With apprehension, I wonder when she'll burst out.
"That's very nice, Maya," she says. "I'm sure Mr. Roth will be delighted, too." I think I sense a silent scorn in her voice as she looks at me expectantly.
"My father isn't here," I say, my voice a bare whisper.
Mrs. Crenshaw goes to her desk. "Maya, come here," she says.
I walk with hesitant steps. Mrs. Crenshaw gives an assignment to the class. Then, she sits at her desk, and she puts out her hand to pull me closer to her.
"Why did you lie, Maya?"
I don't know what to tell her. If I tell her the truth, she may get mad at Etna. I can't get Etna in trouble, and I can't lie either. Tears jerk forward out of my eyes as I stare down at a crack on the linoleum floor. Mrs. Crenshaw grips my hand tight and stands up.
Then she calls the tallest boy to the front. "Mike," she says. "I want you to act the teacher for a minute or two. You tell me if anyone makes the slightest noise." Next, she addresses the class. "Not a peep out of you. Do your work. I'll be right back."
Mrs. Crenshaw pulls me out of the classroom. "Calm yourself," she orders in the hallway. "There are many children whose fathers are missing. There was a war, remember? We talked about it in class?"
"But my father is coming. He wrote me a letter," I say.
The way Mrs. Crenshaw shakes her head, I realize she doesn't believe me.
"Let's go see Mr. Roth," she says.
I have never been in so much trouble before to be taken to the principal's office. I am so shaken that I am ready to retrieve the truth and come up with a real lie.
"My father is at home," I say.
"Enough, Maya," Mrs. Crenshaw says. "I am not angry at you." She pulls me to herself and pats my head outside the principal's office. "I think we should figure out why you come up with such stories, and Mr. Roth should hear this." She clears her throat. "Only because he is in a position to help us."
In front of a file cabinet, Mrs. Fadden stares at us with no convention, but while this tight situation embarrasses me, I go with the flow like a broken branch in a rushing tide.
"Mrs. Fadden," Mrs. Crenshaw addresses her. "Let Maya stand here for a minute while I have a word with Mr. Roth."
Mrs. Crenshaw goes in the principal's room and pulls the door behind her. "What did you do?" Mrs. Fadden asks me. I just shrug and avert my eyes from her, because if I talk, I'll burst into crying again. Mrs. Fadden turns back to her filing.
The principal's door doesn't close well when Mrs. Crenshaw pulls it behind her. I hear my name and some excited voices. Not the words spoken but their inflections scare me.
Mr. Roth's sudden presence at the doorway is unsettling. I take a step back. Mr. Roth's is smiling, but his face seems worn out.
"Maya," he says softly, "Isn't it nice to see you again!" He walks up to me and gently nudges my shoulder. I look up at him in alarm. "Not to worry," he says. "I know you weren't lying. Mrs. Crenshaw was excited about your father's return, too. Weren't you Mrs. Crenshaw? And only because he's so important."
Mrs. Crenshaw, although she nods her head, rolls her eyes. Mr. Roth doesn't press Mrs. Crenshaw and me further. He orders us to return to class.
"Mr. Roth is such a nice person," Mrs. Crenshaw sighs just before we enter the classroom. "And you too, Maya." Then she mutters to herself, "Unfortunately, you both have the privilege of knowing your mother." There's that sneer again in Mrs. Crenshaw's voice.
I keep hearing Mrs. Crenshaw in my head throughout the day: "You both have the privilege of knowing your mother."
Am I being congratulated or rebuked because of my mother? And why am I left to grasp the meanings inside adult voices when I am not yet good at it?
Surely, I sense scattered, unforgiving hints and feel maybe they are directed at me. Maybe, there's something disrespectable about me. Or maybe Mrs. Crenshaw is weird. I decide on the latter. Things are easier that way.
Ever since Emiliano left, everything became heavier, harsher, colder. Then, I found myself in Barra de Navidad, an alien place and time in which I felt dislocated. I had surmised leaving that situation would benefit Maya and me.
While I could never get my life right, coming to Victorville did help Maya, but if it helped me, it was in a complicated way. Now, a part of that complication was Bill.
Sometimes I wondered if Charlene had pushed me into this. She had told me that I should let go of Emiliano, since he didn't respect me, and that I should keep my options open. Charlene must have always been jealous of me; everyone around must have suspected this. Maybe her envy of me made her hint I should look around because I was Ma's natural child, and she was not.
Yet, when I told Charlene about Bill, little miss prissy didn't like it. She told me not to do anything to harm Maya because people talked about affairs.
In those days, the folks became rattled even when movie stars had affairs. That year, the whole world was gossiping about Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rosselini. Why? Was it because the woman was traipsing around Europe with a director while still married? Maybe they were just making films. Who knew for certain what was happening to these people at that time!
When men fooled around, it became a gentlemen's agreement, and no one said anything. When it was a woman, however, she had sinned and sinned big.
It was a good thing Bill and I were unknowns, or so I thought. I was Maya's mother; he was the principal in her school. We had a good reason to act friendly with each other.
But if our relationship were to be out on the open, we would both have become pariahs. What for, I asked myself. I didn't even love Bill.
Emiliano had been my only love, but in our extraordinary case, Emiliano was already attached and even married, not to his wife but to his mother. Anytime I thought about this, I fumed with rage.
Even Maya carried in her that bad blood, her abuela's blood. I wished I could extricate that blood out of Maya and rinse her clean.
Maya avoided talking about Guadalupe to me. My mother had to have warned her. I witnessed a couple of instances when people, who knew Guadalupe from the time she was in Victorville, asked Maya if she missed her abuela. Maya glanced at me with a puzzled, sorrowful expression and said she remembered very little of her, although it had only been about eight or nine months since we had escaped from Barra de Navidad. My little girl...far too calculating, wasn't she?
In a way, Maya acted slick to avoid my anger and did everything to make her precious self lovable to others, particularly to Ma and Pa. They were her grandparents, for sure, but didn't I come first with them...and with Maya, too?
Maybe, I could teach Maya to become a comfort to me. What would it take for her to cross the boundary between us and to take me by the hand? She had to learn that, in comforting one's mother, one finds solace for herself. Yet, Maya acted so independent... even then, at six years of age.
Ma, Pa, Charlene, and even Nana were all guilty with the way Maya had lost direction. Ever since our first day in Victorville, they showered her with attention, as if she was the bruised one by Emiliano and Emiliano's family. She was just a child. She understood nothing, just only her own welfare.
Her own welfare? How? Simple. By managing to offer me apologies when I was about to get on her case. Maybe I should have practiced more patience with her as Ma told me, but Maya had that bad blood in her, and she knew instinctively how to manipulate people.
Then, things didn't go so well, either. What I didn't know was, Maya's classroom teacher, Cindy Crenshaw, acted like a gossip, and I believe she had her eye on Bill since her own husband had died in Europe toward the end of the war. As the principal of the school, Bill was hot stuff for her. When Bill showed interest in me, things became awkward, even my school visits concerning Maya, and thus, the gossip snowballed into an iceberg to sink my ship.
I don't know how Pa came about to hear the gossip. Sometimes I thought Charlene might have told him out of her jealousy of me, but then, Charlene was always a defender of women, and as my big sister, she'd never do anything to intentionally hurt me. I still wonder, with all those movie actors and actresses running amok in the area, why the people of Victorville paid so much attention to me.
On one sweltering day, although it was the end of May, Pa came home fuming. Ma went into his study after him to ask him if he wanted tea or anything. I thought that he had a bad day in the hospital with a patient or something. So I shrugged it off.
I was looking at the TV when Pa called out to me. "Rosie, I need to talk to you."
Ma signaled to me by raising her eyebrows and walked out of the study as I entered. Sometimes, when the past becomes a sequence of images, you remember the exact shapes and colors of the background. So like today, I remember Pa's study as it was then: his red leather wing chair in the corner with the ottoman in front of it, his large oak desk with the banker's green lamp and a black rotary phone on top of it, built-in bookshelves housing wall-to-wall books, the antique oriental rug in the middle of the room with the pheasant design, and near the wall, the two chairs padded with red brocade sharing an oak side table between them.
"Jesus, Girl!" Pa started. "You are making all the hornets come out from the nest." He was sitting at the desk and tapping on its surface with the unsharpened end of a pencil.
"What's the matter, Pa?" I sensed something wrong, awfully wrong, as I perched on a chair.
"You run around like a five-penny street girl with that principal, and you make me look like a fool in this town. Why don't you remember you have a family and a young daughter?"
"Pa, it is just gossip." I pouted, knowing he never could resist my pouting.
"So, you say."
"Yes," I lied. "It is the truth."
"I don't want anyone insinuating that they saw you getting into my car in front of HIS place, in which case, whatever you do, I forbid you to use my car again."
I didn't have time to answer, because Maya dashed in.
"Grandpa! You're home." Pa's face immediately changed its shadowy haunted look.
"Is something wrong with your car, Grandpa?" Maya asked, snuggling into his lap.
"It just needs a little fixing. I was telling your Mama not to use it," Pa told her as he pulled her on to his lap.
When there is a will, there is always a way. Next time, I took a taxi to a different part of town from where Bill picked me up.
Yet, Pa was not finished with me. A few days later, on a day when Ma took Maya shopping, Pa came home early to talk to me.
After going off on a lecture of decency and propriety, he asked me point blank, "Did you sleep with that man?"
"No," I lied. "But even if I did, so what, Pa? Isn't Emiliano the guilty one? The war's over, and he isn't home. At least, he isn't home with me."
"The war's not over for him," Pa said wearily. "You know that he is an important officer on a covert mission in Trieste. We aren't supposed to talk about this even among us, but you forced me."
"Why? Why did he have to take on such a risky thing? Why does he have to leave me always?"
"Because he is a patriot and you..." Pa didn't finish but made a gesture by raising his hand to his forehead.
I gasped as something fierce went through my insides. Immediately, I got up, and with quick steps, I walked out of Pa's study, but it was like plodding through trails of muck.
I threw up right outside Pa's door. Ma came rushing and scolded Pa for pushing me around, me the one with the delicate nerves. The real irony is that she thought Pa's talking to me had made me sick. The whole thing was so depressing because of something I had been suspecting, something quite unexpected.
Although not very sure, I thought I might have Bill's baby growing in me. I could never tell Ma or Pa or even Nana, but maybe only to Charlene who could be home probably on the weekend, if she could.
I had become obsessed with what had happened to my body. The next couple of days, I woke up in the middle of the night in my sweat-dampened nightie, clutching my throat. Life had punished me again and so unjustly. After feeling so betrayed by Emiliano, I had only wanted some connection to someone who appreciated me, but I didn't need to be enslaved by another child or another man.
This realization reinforced the fear of my situation, which only Charlene would know what to do with, but I worried Charlene would stay away this weekend. Friday afternoon, when no one was around, I called Charlene on the phone from Pa's study.
"Charlene, please, come home tomorrow," I begged.
"Did you change your mind? I thought you didn't want me around your daughter," she said, needling me. Then she quickly added, "What happened?"
"I think I am in trouble, and I can't tell anyone except you."
"Jesus!" From the way Charlene said Jesus, I knew she had guessed it. "Okay, I'll come and we'll talk. Stay put, and don't do or say anything stupid."
At another time, I'd get mad at her for throwing the word stupid at me, but at this time, I let it go. I'm an impatient person, and I had a problem to solve. I had to get out of this.
So I put my mind to what I could do to escape this entrapment, especially if Emiliano really showed up. I remembered a girl named Josie from high school who had gone to a woman who had done away with her problem. I could get in touch with Josie and get that woman's address from her.
To do this, I did need Charlene's help and Charlene would come home soon. I knew that. Some people you can count on, no matter what you do to them. Charlene was one of those people in my life, and I felt lucky for having a big sister like her.
"I can't do this. It would be murder," Charlene said. "Maybe if we told Ma and Pa..."
"No," I cut her. "They are the last people I want to tell."
"Maybe you can go away for the summer with Maya."
"The baby must be due late fall..." but I couldn't finish my sentence, because Nana brought us some tea. I changed the subject. "I'll ask Maya how she'd feel about a vacation with me."
At this time, Maya came in from the garden. She waved a polite but distant hi to Charlene while she observed me.
When Nana left the room, I asked Maya: "Do you sometimes wish for a little brother or sister?"
"No," Maya grumbled, widening her eyes as if I had said something inflammatory. "What would I do with a brother or sister if my father isn't here? Children have two parents unless one gets killed in the war. Mrs. Crenshaw says so."
"But you do have your father, Maya," Charlene reassured her. "He's coming back after finishing some work."
"The war's finished," Maya said. "And he isn't here. He wrote he's coming back, but nobody believes it. I don't believe it either."
"I believe it," Charlene said, but Maya shrugged and left the room, excusing herself that she'd wait for her friend Etna in the yard.
"What's with her?" Charlene asked me. "She acts hurt."
"Bill says the classroom teacher thought she lied when she announced her father would be back. That woman freaks out easily after her husband got killed. That's what Bill said."
"Oh well, the war has taken a toll on everyone."
We were quiet for a few seconds.
The war, that atrocious war, with a ruthless glare had shaken everyone, and within my heart, I had opened the gate to another kind of atrocity. Then, when I stepped in there, I got used to the darkness inside.
"Charlene, I really can't have this baby," I blurted out. "Remember Josie, and how she had taken care of her problem? I sometimes run into her in Snyder's. I could ask."
"No, Rosie, don't do that. It's dangerous. You could get hurt or even die."
"I don't care. I just don't want this."
"Did you tell Bill?"
"Heck, no. He'd want to marry me or something. Who wants him!"
"Bill would make a better father for both your children."
"You know I lost a baby in Barra, thanks to Guadalupe's voodoos and things. I wanted that baby, Charlene; it was Emiliano's."
"Voodoo? Stop that, Rosie! It had to be your nerves that made you lose the baby."
"Bill isn't for me, Sis. I like him, but just a little. You know what I mean..."
Charlene looked at me wearily. "Let's take this week and think this through. In the meantime, I'll ask around to find out if we can do something in a more sensible way than Josie's. At least, a doctor should take care of this. It is illegal, but I think, someone I work with in Berkeley knows a doctor in Sausalito who discreetly does things like that. But let me tell you, Rosie. I don't like this one bit."
Still, Charlene came through for me. She called Ma during the following week to tell her she'd take me to a concert in Sausalito. She said she was going there with a few friends, and she thought maybe I'd like to go.
"Sure, I'd love to," I said.
"This is nice," Ma beamed. "I like it when you girls warm up to each other. It will be nice for Maya, too, to visit Sausalito."
"Ma, please, will you keep Maya here? I'd like to do adult things for a change. I don't want to drag Maya along with Charlene and her students."
Ma glanced at me with a vague air of intrusion. "Is there something you and Charlene are not telling me?"
"No, Ma, I'll take Maya along if she'll be too much for you," I bluffed.
"Maya's never too much for me," Ma answered indignantly. "You go along. Maya will be fine here."
Holding Charlene's hand, I entered the examination room in a doctor's office on the first floor of a wood-planked building. We were later led to a back room where a nurse told me to lie on a flat surgical table. Although I didn't say anything to anyone, I wished someone would dim the lights, so I wouldn't have to watch Charlene's weeping.
The nurse asked me if I wanted to be asleep or awake.
"Asleep," I said. It would be better not to see or feel anything, since this baby had happened without purpose or meaning, but to make my sister and me to carry this shadowy secret between us for the rest of our lives.
The nurse inserted a needle in my out-stretched arm. She was an elderly woman whose eyes or face I cannot remember, but Charlene said later she was quite eccentric. I remember the doctor though; he had a full beard and hair flecked with gray. He gripped my hand tight and said in baritone, "It will be over in a little while, Mrs. McGrath."
Telling me to count backwards from fifty, he started the insertion. I drifted off into a deep sleep.
I woke up in the recovery room, feeling alien to the immediate surroundings. I recall a sink with the tap running. Charlene was sitting with her back to me. When she heard me stir, she turned around.
"I'm sure it will all be fine," she said. "How do you feel?"
"A little doozy, but okay."
"Don't sit up, just yet," the doctor said, moving with hurried steps next to me. "But you two can leave in about three hours."
When the time came, Charlene found a taxi to take us to the hotel. "You seem rather worn out," she said, trying not to sound too concerned. "If you'd like, you can rest here a while before we go to Ma's."
In our teenage years, Charlene and I had once attended a performance by a famed piano player and a young violinist. It was one of the most memorable performances we had ever seen on stage. On the way home, we talked about that concert and mused how the two of us as sisters were so different from each other like those two musicians and still we managed to find a way to make great music together.
This re-discovered closeness inspired me to ask Charlene to reach to Maya again. In her controlled voice, she said, "Only if you don't regret it. Maya is probably feeling betrayed as it is, and I don't want to step back again once I gain some ground with her."
"Please, Charlene," I replied. "I was very upset when we returned from Barra. I thought my daughter was leaving me forever like her father."
"Maya is not the kind to do that," Charlene said. "You should know her better."
A dark mood fermented inside me for a few of days after this, but before the dark mood settled in, an abrupt change in our lives took place. Before I had time to make peace with myself for the loss of Bill's baby, I heard the door ring one afternoon while Ma and I were having tea upstairs.
Ma looked down the window and screamed.
I don't know why, but maybe because I wasn't expecting Emiliano to return or maybe because we had no previous notice of his arrival, I didn't believe Ma. Still, we ran downstairs. Nana had opened the door and was crying and talking at the same time.
"Where have you been all this time? Why didn't you call? What happened to you?"
I blinked at the abrupt apparition of Emiliano. He was the same man I had loved; yet, he seemed a stranger. His hair had grayed a little and his eyes seemed sunken in. His skin had darkened and toughened. His jacket hung crooked over his shoulder. Then I saw it: his left arm was in a sling.
I tried to collect myself, but the blood drained from my head, and I fainted right there at the entrance.
Ma said the next few minutes were tragicomic. While Emiliano was attempting to hold my head up with his one arm and Ma was trying to help him, Nana rushed with a glass of water and spilled half of it on everybody. On top of it all, Maya, who was playing by the swing set, heard the excitement and ran inside from the back door to find me fainted on the floor with his father trying to hold me.
Ma said she saw Maya only from the corner of her eye and was frightened to see her face so puzzled, overwhelmed, and tinged with fear. According to Ma, Maya stood frozen a few feet away as if in a semi-coma, and when Emiliano looked up at her, she took a step back.
When I came to, with the splash of water on my face, my first thought was one of joy. I felt incredible joy in seeing Emiliano. My second thought was how to tell Bill I was leaving him.
They took me to the small room near the entrance where everyone settled down.
"Are you all right?" Emiliano asked me, looking concerned.
"I'm perfect," I answered. "Everything will be perfect now. You're back!" Then, I looked at his arm. "What happened?"
"Nothing," he said, "Not important. Just a little accident."
"Where's your luggage?" Ma asked.
"I have it in a friend's place," Emiliano answered.
"Well, we'll have it brought here," Ma said.
"Let's first talk about things," Emiliano said in a cold whisper.
Just then Nana dragged Maya in and pushed her from her back toward Emiliano. "Go to your Papa," she said.
Maya blinked, and in complete silence, fixed her gaze on Emiliano as if he were bad news; a restlessness, an almost a wild panic, had settled inside her eyes. She didn't move on her own but didn't resist either when Nana pushed her forward. I got up and went to sit on the couch to Emiliano's left and motioned Maya to his right side. "Come Maya, come sit next to us."
She took a hesitant step forward. Emiliano ventured toward her without totally getting up and held her hand. He slowly pulled her to him and made her sit on his knee. Maya averted her eyes from Emiliano's face to the sling. Emiliano kissed the top of her hair, and moving his sling slightly, said, "That's nothing. I broke it playing. It will heal soon."
Still not a word out of Maya, but she moved her head up and down to acknowledge Emiliano's words. Both Emiliano and Maya stayed as they were for a while, until Emiliano moved grimacing. Ma figured it was his arm hurting from the awkward way he was holding Maya on his knee while keeping the sling towards me. "Let her sit next to you, Emiliano," she said. "She is a big girl now, and your arm must be giving you trouble."
Before Emiliano could say anything, Maya slid out of his lap and sat on the couch next to him.
"Did the cat eat your tongue?" Nana asked jokingly to Maya. Then she turned to Emiliano. "She really talks well and she reads and writes, too," she said.
"This all so new to everyone," Emiliano said. "Let's leave her alone until she gets used to it." From his tolerant tone, I assumed he wanted Maya to feel comfortable.
I looked at him with longing and then my eyes caught Maya's gaze. When our eyes met, Maya gave me her sweetest smile, a smile that I probably would never find directed to me again, at least not like that.
Mrs. Crenshaw has been very nice to me since that incident with Papa's letter. I don't know if it's a good thing, but school's over, and I am promoted. Some kids didn't know the meaning of the word to promote. I did. Mrs. Crenshaw said I was verbal. I thought she meant something like having to do with verbs, but then, I guessed it meant being good with words.
If I weren't good with words, how could I write a letter to Papa, even if Mama told me what to write?
It has been a long time since Papa has written back; he hasn't returned yet. I guess Papa doesn't care much about his promises. Mama still keeps talking about the doll. I think she wants that doll more than I do.
Actually, I don't even care. I think I'll hate that doll. I can't take the doll and my father to Barra and show everyone I really have a father, because Mama says she won't set foot in Barra again as long as she lives.
I still keep the sand from Barra and my stone. It isn't anything like the stone my papa gave to Mama when they got married, but this is my stone. I like it because I found it all by myself.
I wish I had one more thing from Barra: the beach blanket Abuela and I used to sit on. I sometimes imagine I am sitting on it with Abuela, and she is telling me a different legend of Mexico or a ghost story like llorona. After Mama and I left Barra, I wonder if Abuela went around crying like the llorona, wishing I was there again.
I don't tell this to anyone, but I sometimes miss Abuela. I think maybe I shouldn't. I hope God doesn't punish me for missing her, because I have so much here with more people to like me, and no one spanks me except for Mama.
The good thing is, in the mornings, I have been finding myself in my own bed. Probably, I got used to sleeping alone. I had wanted to do that from the beginning, but Mama said I was going to her bed in the middle of the night without being aware of it.
Mama has not been feeling well, and it isn't any berrinche either. I see her throwing up several times, but she makes me promise not to tell the others in the house because they are older, and worrying about Mama would make them sick. Then, Aunt Charlene tells me probably some food she ate hurt Mama's stomach. Aunt Charlene says she'd take care of Mama, and if need be, she'd take him to another doctor other than Grandpa.
I don't understand why. If I got sick, I'd want Grandpa to take care of me.
Anyway, at the end, things turn out for the better. Mama and Aunt Charlene go to Sausalito for a concert. Maybe the music in the concert has helped Mama's stomach. When they come back, Mama goes to bed and sleeps for a long time. Aunt Charlene tells me Mama's just tired because of something she ate a long time ago that made her sick. She has to sleep it off.
I 'm glad; now Mama is cured. Aunt Charlene may know more about doctoring than Grandpa, because Mama didn't get sick again. I suggest to Aunt Charlene that she should take Nana to a concert in Sausalito, too, so Nana's bad leg stops hurting.
I am glad Mama is well again, because a few days afterwards, something dramatic occurs.
I am on the swing set trying to make the swing go higher to the sky when I hear a commotion from inside the house. I run in to find out what is happening.
Mama, Nana, and Grandma are at the entrance. Mama has fainted and Nana is throwing water at her and at everyone. Plus, a stranger with a broken arm is trying to help Mama up.
The man looks up at me. When I see his face, I recognize him immediately, because I have studied and memorized his looks from the photo he has sent me. Then, Grandma turns around to me, and Mama opens her eyes and lifts herself up. That is when I feel like running away, far away, farther than Barra, but my legs don't move and my insides feel frozen as if they are getting sucked away by an icy leech.
Yet, Nana is crying and pushing me toward the small room by the entrance, because that is where everyone has gone. "Your father's back. Go to him," she sobs, but going to my father is the last thing I want to do at that moment.
If I could gather enough strength, I would run to the backyard and burrow away under the ground like the moles Grandpa is trying to get rid of. There, maybe I could fall asleep and wake up to find this to be a dream. I waited for Papa for so long, but now that he's here, something isn't right. Maybe too much waiting has wasted me. I am so confused with the way I feel...
Mama looks well again, even happy. She sits near Papa and tells me to sit with them. I can't object Mama because she is just back from a fainting spell. Then Papa shifts toward me without fully standing up and holds my hand. He pulls me to sit on his knee. I don't resist, but I am afraid of the sling and his broken arm.
I gaze at his large hand sticking out of the sling. His hairy fingers are thick, stiffened, and almost twisted. What if I moved wrong and he got hurt more?
Papa says, "That's nothing. I broke it while playing." I know he's lying again. Grown-ups don't play. Probably, Papa broke his arm because of something to do with Hitler, although Hitler has been dead for a long time now.
Since I am afraid to say anything to the contrary, I nod. I couldn't speak even if I wanted to. My voice would come out like someone else's. Then Papa wouldn't like me or my voice. I sit on Papa's knee without moving while I feel his eyes hovering over me. He's not the only one doing that though. They all watch me as if I am the one who went away for years and then suddenly showed up.
Papa's knee feels warm. At last, I dare to look up at him. He's got my eyes and my hair, but something inside him weighs him down. He is serious like Grandpa, but his smell is more different than Grandpa's. My nose is always well aware of smells; it can smell each person's different scent. Papa smells scorched and sad; why, I cannot tell. At least, not yet.
Then, Grandma says Papa's arm must be hurting, because I am too big, and I should sit on the couch instead of on his knee. I take to the suggestion immediately and slide out of Papa's lap. I sit next to Papa, Papa who is a stranger to me as much as I am a stranger to him.
Nana tells me to talk, and she elaborates to Papa how well I do things. Why is she trying to sell me to Papa? Shouldn't Papa try to find out by himself? Let him see who I am. Let him know what he has missed by not seeing me up to now, but I doubt Papa is aware of all this. He tells them to leave me alone, so I can get used to the situation.
The situation! He doesn't know I have stopped caring. He doesn't know I do not want to be where I am. He doesn't know what it is like when the other children in Barra call you a bastard because they don't see your father around. Papa doesn't know that pain. Only Mama knows.
Our eyes meet, Mama's and mine. Her eyes are happier than mine, but Mama always fools herself. Maybe it feels better to fool oneself and let other people lie to you. Mama and I smile at each other, and everybody in the room together with Mama probably think we are, oh, so happy.
Papa says he has to go to his friend's apartment, and he'll be back the next day. He doesn't come the next day. In this, I find another proof that he is a liar. Then, Papa comes a week later. This time, he tells me, he's here for good. La di da...I don't believe him.
A few days later, I hear Aunt Charlene and Grandma whisper that probably Papa's acting this nice for a reason. The reason is me. He wants to kidnap and take me to Barra to live with his mother, my abuela.
Once I loved Barra and Abuela; I still do, but I don't like the kidnapping part. Mama will faint and die without me. Not only that...inside me, Papa feels more of an outsider than anyone I have ever met. I don't think Papa is as nice as Mama; although, Abuela once said he is nicer. If he was nice, he'd want to be near me all the time, and not when it fits his purpose. I must keep out of Papa's way.
After Papa came, everyone is trying to make me act super nicely to him. I am nice. I just like to evade him, like he did to me.
Aunt Charlene comes home next weekend and talks to me. Probably, someone asked her to come and influence me. Aunt Charlene says, "Your Papa's circumstances kept him away from us. The situation couldn't be helped. He did it for our country."
"If he did it for our country, why did he ask Mama to go and live with Abuela in another country where nobody's father died in the war?"
Aunt Charlene answers me with a question. "I thought you liked your Abuela, didn't you?" I can't answer her right away because Mama comes in the room, so I shrug. I know Mama doesn't like Abuela because Abuela has her ways, and if I say I like Abuela, Mama could faint again.
Then, Aunt Charlene says, "I know this must be difficult, because you have been away from him for so long. Maybe you can do this little by little. A tiny smile first, a little sentence later. How about it?"
Although I don't mean to, I say, "Okay," because Mama is looking at me. Mama says, "If you don't act lovingly to your father, he may think I raised you wrong. He'll think it's my fault."
I can't help it; the words just slip out of me. "Let him! Let him think what he wants."
Mama gets all red and slaps me. Aunt Charlene jumps in between us. "Let's not make a scene just before Pa and Emiliano get back," she says to my mother, I surmise, making a sign with her face. For a long time now, Aunt Charlene and Mama have been making signs and looking at each other as if in code, any time someone says something. I suspect they have a secret between them. I hope their secret is not about me.
I run out to the backyard. I am trying to hold my tears but they are streaking out. I do not like getting slapped.
Anyway, after Papa's coming, my summer vacation is ruined. I don't enjoy asking friends over now. I don't like being around the house too much either, in case I run into Papa.
At least, I don't have to explain Papa's broken arm to my friends, if they show up. Papa doesn't have the sling any longer. He says his arm healed better than new. How can anything be better than new?
Events prove me right in suspecting this. No, he isn't better than new. I overhear Grandpa talk with Grandma about it. As I am just coming inside from the garden, I hear Grandpa say, "I need to tell you something very serious, Peg, but I don't want Rosie and Maya hear it, not just yet."
In an instant, I plaster myself between two bookshelves and crouch.
Grandma says,"Maya is in the yard, and Rosie and Grace are shopping."
"Okay then, sit down."
"What is it? You are scaring me."
"Emiliano is not well. Not well at all. The day I took him to the office then to the hospital for the x-rays of his arm, I had them run a few tests on him."
"The tests showed things that were quite discouraging. Something terrible is going on in his insides. Something I can't put my finger on. I don't know what kind of a mess that boy got himself into. It is as if some of his internal organs are not functioning well, but why I don't know."
"Did you tell him?"
"I told him some tests did not fare well. I told him he'd better go to an army hospital and get checked again. He said he had no symptoms and he felt just fine. Only his arm hurt."
"What do you think it is?"
"It could be something the army would know. We could find it, if we ran a lot more tests, but he is in no mood for more tests. I sort of insisted but he got upset. So, I can't say much."
"Is it that serious?"
"I don't know, Peg. It may be or it may go away. It looks like he has something we weren't taught in Medical School; it looks more like a poisoning of sorts, but even that, I am not sure of."
"Oh, dear! My poor Rosie... Could this be contagious?"
"No, I don't think so. We found no virus or anything like that. He told me he broke his arm on a job, a job far away from Trieste, a job its details he isn't free to discuss. Not like he tells everyone that he broke it skiing while in Trieste. Military secret, he said, Not a word of this to anyone, Peg. Okay?"
"Sure. Not a word, but I have a bad feeling about this. What'll we do?"
"First, he has to accept it himself. With the exception of the broken arm, he thinks his health is fine."
"Rosie is not in any condition to help him, either."
"I'll try again, but he's as stubborn as a mule."
"Aren't they all? Maybe in time, he'll get better. You think?"
"Let's hope so, Peg. Let's hope so."
At this point, I hear them move about in the room. So I tiptoe out to the kitchen and sit on a chair in the porch.
So something's wrong with Papa, like something is always wrong with Mama, which means I've got the sickliest parents. Now I have two people to worry about. Inside me, I want to run away, but I know running away is no solution. Mama and I ran away from Abuela, but nothing got solved. Except, I don't see Abuela anymore.
Now we have a new rule. I can't go into Mama's room whenever I want to. I have to knock on the door. Aunt Charlene says this is because Papa and Mama need privacy. What about my privacy? Nobody respects my privacy.
Every night Mama and Papa come to my room to say goodnight. Sometimes, I act as if I'm sleeping before they come in. Then, after they go to Mama's room, I tiptoe to the hallway and listen, because I suspect some nasty thing is happening, which nobody wants me to know.
One day, when Grandma and Nana are out to buy groceries and there isn't another person around, I walk into the living room where Mama and Papa are talking in angry voices. They both stop talking as soon as they see me. Then Papa asks me to show him how well I read and write. I am so anxious, I write the number two backwards. Papa raises his eyebrow and says there must be something wrong with me learning-wise. Mama tells him irately that I'm the best in class and nothing is wrong with me, just that I was careless. Then, she tells me to go out and play.
I go out and sit on the swing. I have to. I know they'll be watching me to see if I went out so they can continue whatever it is that is so important and so secret from me. As I sit, I think of the best doll from Europe Papa was supposed to bring me and he never did. Even Mama doesn't mention it anymore. I don't care about getting a doll, any doll, but I am angry at the lie. Yet, I don't think it was Mama who lied.
Between Mama and me, things are looking better. She doesn't pick on me or scream and faint much. It is as if we have found a quiet, unspoken way between us, a way of relating to each other better because of Papa. Not because he came and we are so happy, but because of something not right that I can't put my finger on.
"I could push you higher." Papa startles me from behind. My mouth pumps by itself, but no sound comes out. I stop swinging. Papa picks me off the swing. He sits on the swing and traps me inside his lap.
"Why do you run away from me?" He asks.
I don't answer.
"I won't tell anybody whatever you tell me," he says. "It will be between us. I'd really like to know why."
I still don't say anything.
"Did your mother tell you anything bad about me?" he asks, again.
I figure I have to respond now, and I have to add Abuela to reinforce Mama's words. "No, Mama said you were the best...Abuela, too."
"If so, why? Is there some reason? A reason you don't know yourself, maybe?"
"You weren't here, before. You weren't in Barra. They called me bastarda there."
"It doesn't matter what others say." There's a struggle in his voice. I feel lighter, more in control. Maybe I should be the one to ask questions.
"Why didn't you come home before? Why didn't you come when you wrote me you were coming?" I'm just as shocked at myself talking like this as he probably is. If they could hear me, both Grandma and Mama would get very upset.
"It wasn't possible before. I'm here now. We'll make up for lost years." Papa kisses my cheek, and to my surprise, I kiss him back.
"There's a fair in town. Would you like to go with me?"
"Yes." I move my head up and down. I am so eager now.
"Good then," he says and he gets off the swing, puts me on it, and pushes me high. I turn my head and smile at him. He doesn't look sick at all. Could Grandpa be mistaken?
The next day, we walk to the fair together. It is just Papa and me; my hand feels warm and snug inside his hand. Papa buys me pink cotton candy and we go inside a tent where there is a wild boy in a cage. The boy screams and sticks his tongue at me. A man with a whip says the boy got lost in the jungle when he was very little and chimpanzees took care of him.
I move behind Papa away from the wild boy. At least, I didn't get lost in the jungle because Mama took care of me.
Afterwards, Papa buys us hot dogs and soda. We sit outside on a wooden bench to eat.
"How would you like it, if you knew you had a brother?" Papa asks me.
"But I don't! Mama has only me." Is Papa testing me again? Didn't Mama ask me a similar question just before Papa showed up?
"Suppose you did. Would you like it?" Papa's intent looks are on my face. My jaw tightens. Is this something important? Or is Papa weirder than I thought he was?
I pause, trying to find an answer. "Christine's brother bothers her. He eats her candy bars," I say. That is the only truth I can come up with.
"Don't you think sharing our things with others is nice?" Papa's one eyebrow lifts higher, exactly like the time when I wrote the number two backwards. "We must learn to share in life."
Oh Papa! Just when I thought we were getting somewhere, here he is lecturing me... Still, why am I feeling guilty about something make-believe?
I glare at Papa but say nothing. Our return home doesn't feel so pleasant after that.
When Papa leaves with Grandpa a few hours later, Mama grills me. "Tell me how it was in the fair? Tell me every single thing you did. Tell me everything your father said."
Puzzled, I answer every question Mama asks. If I don't answer Mama correctly, she'll somehow know it, and I'll get in trouble. Right after I finish telling the part about the fake brother, Grandma walks in the room.
"Why are you pushing the child? Let her alone," she scolds Mama.
"I'll kill him!" Mama's voice squeaks and her face is all red. Grandma pulls me to herself while Mama stomps out of the room.
"You didn't have to tell your mother everything," Grandma says softly.
I am so confused...I don't even know how I can't do anything right.
That night, when I open my door, I overhear Papa and Mama yelling at each other.
"You shouldn't take my daughter to someplace where a wild boy scares her," Mama says.
"She didn't look scared."
"She was, too."
"Did she tell you she was?"
"She tells me everything. She's used to me..."
"Don't worry then! I won't take your precious daughter anywhere ever again."
I see Grandma and Grandpa coming out of their rooms. Leaving the door ajar, I run to my bed and fake sleep.
Papa avoids me after that. Isn't this what I had wanted? If so, why do I feel so rotten?
About a month after Papa comes to Victorville, Papa and Mama have to go to Baltimore; it has something to do with Papa's finishing his job. Papa says he needs to take care of a few things; then, he may leave the armed forces and will see how things go.
I am not very happy about this. I have never been away from Mama except for the one night Aunt Charlene took her to Sausalito.
Grandma says, "You have me. Aren't I enough? Don't you like me?"
Grandma has been so nice to me, and I believe she likes me a lot. She'll be so hurt if I don't say okay. So I agree.
I feel happier when Mama and Papa are both away, but I still miss Mama. Mama has been with me all my life; I'm so used to her and to her spanking.
The day they arrive, Grandma tells me to run and hug my father, so he feels better about Mama and me. From upstairs, I run and jump at my father who is coming up the steps. He laughs out loud and picks me up. I hug him.
Mama is behind Papa. She stops and says, "Aren't you glad to see me, Maya? You prefer your father over me, I see." She says it like she's joking, but I know she isn't.
Papa puts me down and I go to my mother. "It isn't the same," she needles. "You went to your father, first."
Why can I never do anything right by anybody?
Next morning, Papa comes downstairs earlier than Mama. I sneak upstairs to Mama's room. Mama is not on the bed; she sleeps on a mattress on the floor. She raises her head and sees me looking at the room. "My back hurts," she tells me. "I think I'll sleep on the floor from now on."
Something is not right. I hear it in her voice. Is it something I did?
A day later, Nana takes me shopping. She holds my hand tightly as she sniffles all the way to the market.
"Are you happy, Nana?" I ask. "You're crying again."
"I have a cold, Dearie," she says. "I am not crying."
Nana dawdles along the way. We stop and watch the store windows for a long time.
"Let's go," I pull her. "Grandma will be mad."
"No, she won't. She knows where we are," Nana says.
When we get home, I see the cleaning lady coming down the stairs. This is odd, because it is not the cleaning day. Grandma is so organized that she has a different day for each chore and she sticks to her days like glue.
I walk upstairs looking for Mama. She is not in the sitting room, nor is she in her bedroom. Plus, there has been a change. I notice it immediately. Papa's things are missing.
Grandma comes up the stairs after me. "Maya, come down," she says, like a tour guide. "There is something we'll have to talk about." From the throb in her words, I already sense it. This has to do with Papa.
I walk downstairs with Grandma. Mama emerges from somewhere behind me and hugs me, letting out a scream of anguish. "Not this way," Grandma scolds her.
All three of us go sit inside the covered porch. Mama says, "Your father left, Maya. He won't be living with us anymore."
I pick at the lint on my skirt, gazing into the weave of the serge cloth. I don't want to look into anyone's eyes.
Grandma says, "Sometimes parents find out they do not want to stay together. It doesn't mean they don't like their children. Their decision has nothing to do with the children. Your father's leaving has nothing to do with you."
"He still loves you," Mama says. "He'll come to see you, I am sure. It is me he can't stand." She sobs.
A week later, when I am downstairs in the foyer, the doorbell rings. Mama opens the door. Papa is there. I hide under the circular table covered with a large tablecloth with its skirt sweeping the floor. Papa has come to pick up something he has left behind. Mama asks him to come in. Papa steps into the foyer and asks for his radio. Mama tries to coax him to come inside.
"Cut out the pointless talk. Just give me the radio," he says.
"Don't you want to see Maya?" Mama reproaches him.
"No, there's no need. Stop it! You and and your tactical moves...I don't need to see her," Papa says angrily.
"Shhh!" Mama says. "She's around here somewhere. She'll hear you."
"I don't care if she hears. Stop wasting my time and give me the radio."
I lift the tablecloth just a tad to see them from the side. Papa stands tall in a light gray herringbone suit, looking away from Mama. Mama just watches him with her eyes keenly focused on his face as if she's seeing him for the first time. Nana brings the radio. Papa takes it and leaves.
Mama sees me under the table. She kneels down and lifts the tablecloth up. She stretches her hand to me. "Come out," she says. Nana starts sobbing uncontrollably. I get out from under the table.
"Your Papa loves you. He didn't mean it that way," Mama says.
I shrug. Then I run away from Mama and Nana, all the way to the swing set. I roost on the swing and kick the ground and soar high....then higher and higher, kick more, higher and higher...
All the years of my setting up Maya to receive Emiliano with open arms did not do any good. To the contrary, as soon as she saw Emiliano, Maya acted like a fawn surrounded by hunters and scampered away from him in horror. We all thought, once she could get used to him, she would adapt just fine, but no. Emiliano's return turned into a bewilderment for Maya.
I was astounded, too. Maya used to dream with me about her father even when she was a tiny tot. Her behavior now was more so unexpected because, just about a year ago, Maya had taken to my parents, Charlene, and Nana as if she knew them from day one; yet her own father, she evaded like deadly bacteria.
Emiliano could not figure out how to act with Maya, either. Maybe Emiliano felt Maya was my opus magnum, and because of that, there had to be something wrong with her. Since he had always been too intent on criticizing my actions, he set out to point out the tiniest faults in Maya, instead of letting the child warm up to him first.
Emiliano was so wrong. It was all so wrong.
Charlene once told me that Maya had more sense in her than both her parents put together and multiplied by a million. I don't know about that, but the events that circled around Emiliano surely proved Charlene right.
Maybe, as civilized as Emiliano presented himself to others, there was something savage about him, and nobody else but Maya sensed it. Maybe the hint of that something savage had attracted me to him in the first place.
Emiliano had a vulgar sense of possession that tied him to his mother. He possessed his mother and his mother possessed him. When it came to me, he probably felt I could not be possessed the way he desired. Still, he achieved some kind of dominance over me by making me live with his mother, until I broke loose.
Emiliano never forgave that Maya and I left Barra and the way we did it. Looking back, I am not sorry I did what I did, because there was no other way.
I am not even sorry for hurting Bill. Bill and I knew our relationship would be short-lived, and that it was a pastime of sorts. Bill also understood my attachment to Emiliano. Once, Bill said he felt like an impostor who stole Emiliano's identity just for a few minutes of my time. Probably that is the highest compliment anyone has paid me.
When Emiliano returned unannounced, Charlene came home to help me with Bill. I can't ever repay what Charlene has done for my life. When I called her about Emiliano's return and the situation with Bill, she came home immediately even though she was in the middle of teaching a summer course. She and I slipped away during the afternoon when Pa took Emiliano to the hospital to x-ray his arm.
Unfortunately, that day, we couldn't find Bill at home. Charlene told me to write a letter to Bill and she would hand deliver it somehow, since me going to Bill's could be too risky, taking into account Emiliano's jealous nature.
Had I known what was to come after that, had I known then of the other child Emiliano fathered overseas while he was married to me, had I known that boy took a bigger place in Emiliano's heart than our daughter, I would never have bothered to break up with Bill. I definitely would not break up with Bill. But I did.
Charlene says when she handed him the letter, Bill looked sad, but he did not react too strongly. "I knew this day would come," he said to Charlene. "Tell Rosie to be happy. I wish the best for her and Maya. Tell her I will never stand in her way or do anything to cause her unhappiness."
Charlene says she felt very bad for him because what she saw seemed unbelievable, almost mythical to her. "Bill was a gentle person, Rosie," she told me, years later. "That day I cursed the fate that glued Emiliano into your life instead of Bill."
Charlene says she still feels bad that I didn't keep Bill's baby and that she had something to do with that. But then, neither of us knew of the surprises Emiliano would be tossing at me.
When Emiliano showed up that first day, he had not returned to me as a husband and a lover. He had returned because our marriage, in his jagged thinking, had become a knot he needed to untie. This I found out much later.
That day he showed up, I was so beside myself with joy that I refused to see the implications inside his actions. If he had come to me full-heartedly that day, he would not have left again.
He left that evening, saying he'd be back the next day. He returned a week later, but not as the man I had first met and whose touch, for years, I had longed for.
This returning Emiliano had lost his fevered desire and his love for me that used to resemble adoration. Maybe the war, the years of separation, and the difficulty of his assignment overseas were to blame. I, the pathetic one, conjured up all kinds of excuses. Yet, I must admit, I have never lived a love so exciting, so lustful, so totally gratifying in the arms of any other man other than Emiliano, even in those last days that we were together.
For that love, I was ready to excuse anything, even infidelity on Emiliano's part. When Emiliano told me, about a couple of weeks after his sudden arrival, that he had fathered a son from a peasant woman in Trieste, I excused him for the patriotic job he was doing and the needs he had while he was doing it. What I couldn't forgive was the remark he made.
"It didn't matter much," he said. "The flesh has its own laws, and all women are the same. One way or the other, they have the same anatomy."
"Even me?" I asked. "I matter the same way to you?"
"What for do you ask that? What makes you think you are above the rest of the world?"
I understood then. I understood that all my life I had lived in a dream. No, it was not a dream but a delirium; to be exact, an Emiliano delirium.
Yet, Ma advised me differently. "He is saying these things to get back at you, because you disobeyed him by leaving Barra," she said. "Do not act spoiled and try to save this marriage, if not for your own self then for your daughter."
But I had lost my will and my patience. As much as I tried, I didn't last very long.
Emiliano and I had to go to Baltimore for him to settle the few finishing touches that had to do with his assignment in Trieste. At first, I enjoyed the experience like a waft of nostalgia from the happiest year of my life, while Emiliano and I walked around the old compound, now occupied by other army men and their families.
Then, one day, Emiliano told me something horrendous. "I want to bring back my son," he said. "You must adopt him, also."
"What about his mother?"
"She's going to fight it, but if you agree, we'll be on stronger grounds."
"I can't do that," I said. "I can't love another child as much as Maya. I can't be so unfair to another woman either."
"You have to," he said. "You have to sign a form that says you will be adopting him. I live for that child. My son has to be with me."
I refused. Maybe his words, "I live for that child. My son has to be with me," scared me. I realized Emiliano had attached himself to his son like he did to his mother. What about Maya? I thought. Isn't she yours, too?
When Emiliano returned from Trieste, a few years too late, he returned with an ultimatum. The ultimatum was: "Either you stay with me as a decent, married woman, respect my mother, and adopt my illegitimate son whom I fathered while I was married to you, or there is no future for us." Even if he didn't say it in these exact words, the content was there.
More than that, in Baltimore, he unearthed the threat of preferring his son to our daughter. What would Maya's life be like, had I agreed to Emiliano's conditions? So, not only did I refuse, but I also fought Emiliano as if he were a raging blaze that tried to consume me and Maya.
After my refusal, our relationship or what little there was left of it plunged downhill.
Emiliano went ahead alone and filled in an application to bring his son anyhow. The next day, he went for a check-up in the hospital on base. He told me Pa asked him to and there was nothing to worry about. Maybe there was, but how could I have known that at the time?
The following days, we warred constantly. In my younger years it used to be, I'd have a nervous fit ending with me fainting; then, I'd regret my words and actions afterwards. This time I regretted nothing...not in Baltimore and not after we returned home. Even though I had a fit and I fainted a couple of times, I was not --I am not-- sorry I said all I said to Emiliano.
The night I separated my bed from his, I told Emiliano that any man would do for me because of the way he has treated me and our daughter. I told him my whole relationship with him had been a trick, a bed-trick for sure. It didn't matter to me anymore if a man's name was Emiliano, Juliano, Bill, or Bob, since I wouldn't recognize him in the dark of the night anyhow.
I was right in saying all that and then some. Despite the events that followed, I still think I was right.
When I was young and inexperienced, I went to bed, for the first time, with someone from a dream. I woke up to discover it all had been a nightmare and my dream-boy was someone else or even something else, like a scorpion, an alien, or an ugly hoglike creature.
Unfortunately, what I felt in the embrace of that creature I would never feel again with any other man.
After Emiliano left Maya and me, Guadalupe came to Victorville to Emiliano's one-bedroom rented apartment to sleep on the sofa and so she could poison him further. I didn't know about her arrival right away...until I heard it from others.
Years later, Guadalupe swore to me that she had come to make Emiliano change his mind about leaving us. I still have my doubts, despite what happened later. I think, Guadalupe was trying to emit an angelic image of herself, while she was fiddling with Emiliano for God knows what.
Ma says she heard it through the grapevine that Guadalupe was in town, but she didn't say a word not to set me off. That was not right because I hated to hear it from Janice Doniger.
Janice informed me, with a tipsy smile, "Your mother-in-law's in town. I am surprised she didn't come to see Maya." When I asked her the details, she told me what she knew, opening her eyes as if a photographer's flash was cast into them. My jaw tightened while I listened to her. All I could think at that moment was Maya.
What if Guadalupe and Emiliano took my daughter away from me? That possibility reverberated with power.
In my grayest days in Barra, with a lightning's sudden brilliance, Maya had opened her tiny arms to me and had made my tears go away. I had hugged her back then, hoping my daughter would be with me forever, like a divine lead.
Charlene said I was being unfair to Maya with my narcissistic false-ego and I should let her grow freely. Charlene may have been the greatest psychologist in the world, but what did she know?
Did she know about motherhood? Did she know, when one discovers the wings of loving one's own child, one's shortcomings are born? Did she know, when Maya outgrew her first baby blanket, her mother cried, because she didn't want her daughter to grow and wander away from her?
Did she know when I had no one and nothing, except for the bogus dream of Emiliano, Maya was the only gentle reality in my life? Did she know I could never let go of Maya, even for her own good?
Ever since she was born, Maya had been my tiny piece of security, when there were so many things about me that no one knew or understood. No one knew the reason I acted so harsh with Maya. I was strict with her because I resented her wandering away from me. I didn't want her unhappy, but I wanted her to be happy while she clung to me. I wanted her to stay next to me always. And now, I feared I would lose her.
When I brought up my fears later to Ma and Pa, Ma said we would keep an eye on Maya and not let her go anywhere alone. Pa said, for what he knows of human nature, neither Emiliano nor Guadalupe would do such a thing, and we shouldn't let our imagination get the best of us and hurt the child along the way. If Emiliano wanted it, Pa said, we should welcome him to see this daughter and take her for outings. I doubted that Emiliano would be up to that; I didn't think Emiliano wanted to see Maya, but Guadalupe was another story.
There are certainties in life that cannot be erased, however much one wants to. I knew that Guadalupe had to be distraught to be away from Maya. Despite her unacceptable behavior toward my daughter, Guadalupe did want Maya around her and sometimes she even indulged her, feeling she was a part of her, like an internal organ one she isn't aware exists but cannot do without either.
Guadalupe, therefore, was a danger to me. Since Emiliano was her puppet, he'd do anything Guadalupe ordered. Although I didn't tell that to my parents, I felt I had the right to warn Maya.
Before I could do that, Emiliano's savagery unbolted itself, infuriating my entire family. A few days later, I was served with court papers. Emiliano had filed for divorce.
So that was what he wanted. I put the papers on the table and looked out of the window. Maya was still by the swing set although dusk was setting in. The sky had turned a brilliant but somewhat hazy pink, beautiful as the light filtered through rusting leaves. I wondered if all this could be true.
With the skies, whatever came, that's what people had to accept, as should I. The only control available to me was my ability to shelter myself and my child. But did I have to accept whatever Emiliano wished? Hadn't I done that all my life already? And look at what had happened. I wasn't going to give in to his wish this time.
Pa called a lawyer, an acquaintance of his, to represent me. He also warned me not to rattle Emiliano too much because things may exist I have little knowledge of. Why was Pa so generous toward Emiliano? Unfortunately, the answer to this question, I would learn much later.
The first time I entered Attorney Douglas Ryan's office, I mistook him as someone from his staff. A middle-aged, slightly chubby man with an off-the-rack suit and a crooked tie, he didn't look the scholarly type; although, he had several tomes of law books and several years of Ivy League teaching to his credit.
Mr. Ryan came straight to the point. He had heard of the town gossip about me and Bill Roth. He said he never believed everything he heard, but it would be a wise idea for me to be careful should Emiliano claim complete custody of Maya. He said even if the courts favor the mother, they would not look kindly upon extramarital anything where women are concerned. When I told him about Emiliano's son, he said that could help my case, but for the moment, we should keep that information to ourselves to use it as leverage should things get ugly.
Then, to his surprise, I told him I did not want a divorce but a reconciliation. I told him I had not waited for Emiliano for so many years to get a divorce.
"Then, we'll contest it," the lawyer said. "I still advise you to be careful. Never go anywhere alone, even if it is to pick up a loaf of bread."
So it was agreed. Although Ma and Pa advised me to leave my husband for good, I would not let Emiliano have his way this time. I would not let him go, only because he wanted to go.
I would not give Emiliano the freedom he denied me for so many years. I wanted justice, justice in the form of getting locked up inside a situation...the same form of enslavery he saw appropriate for me in Barra de Navidad. when he made me go live with his mother
To find one's way in between the right thing and almost right thing is a very difficult matter. What had happened with Bill may not have felt like the right thing at the time I was seeing him, but in hindsight, I felt good about it shortly after Bill was out of my life. Why should I be the one taking it from Emiliano all the time! I wanted to tell it to Emiliano's face that I, too, had a lover, but that couldn't be done; not in the times we were living in and especially because of Maya.
Bill Roth, on the other hand, had left Victorville a couple of months ago, after sending me a note saying his presence in the same town with me would be detrimental to both of us. At this time, he was no threat to my case except for the wagging tongues of the Victorville crowd. The lawyer said the court would not honor hearsay; however, he reiterated I should be very careful even if my parents' impeccable reputation was something in my favor.
The day Nana and I ran into Guadalupe on the street, I was too full of my own self to realize how strange it ought to have been for her. I first saw her from afar, turning her head to a store window as if wanting to go in to escape from talking to us, then stopping short as if seized by an urge to prey upon me. She arrived in front of us after pushing her way through people and began gesticulating with her hands.
"Rosa, mi amor, why all this? Why do you do this? Why couldn't you two stay together the way God intended it?"
"Please, leave her alone. You have done enough harm," Nana defended me.
"I came to see you, but she told me to scram," Guadalupe continued, pointing to Nana. "Why can't I see you or Maya?"
I was feeling faint again. People were looking or I thought they were. Strangers maybe, but they were not without incomprehension. I willed myself not to faint. "Maya is fine," I said. "There's nothing to tie us, again, Guadalupe." She was Guadalupe now and not Mama Lupe anymore.
A sigh-like feeling hit the middle of my chest, right then, which almost knocked me out. A premonition for sure, and I knew it when it came. I forced myself to breathe as if I had a muscle spasm or an asthma attack.
"Don't talk to her; enough is enough." Nana pulled me away.
As much as I was intrigued by it, I let the premonition go. Its repetitive surge didn't matter. I was determined not to give into it again and not to give in to Emiliano; so, I suppressed it.
Since Douglas Ryan represented me during the court proceedings, I had to show up only once or twice. The last time I was there on the witness stand, I looked at Emiliano. He looked serious as he usually did, but something was different about him. His face felt tattered, sunk in, like a sinkhole sort of. What wasn't quite right? I couldn't put my finger on it. When he saw me staring, Emiliano looked away, uneasily.
"Mrs. McGrath," Doug Ryan addressed me. "Why do you want to stay with a man who wants out of your marriage?"
"Because our daughter needs him. Because I waited for him all through the war and then a few more years. Because I still love him," I said, tears flowing down my cheeks.
The tears didn't blur my vision, and I wasn't sobbing. From the movies and the movie stars who had frequented Victorville in my teen years, I had learned to cry quietly. Tears always proved more effective that way.
When Emiliano's lawyer was about to get up for the indirect, Emiliano suddenly bent to him and whispered something. I twitched uneasily in my chair. Could it have something to do with Bill?
The lawyer approached the bench, and throwing an angry glance toward me, said, "No questions, your honor."
In a surprise move, Doug Ryan called Guadalupe to the stand. I was shocked, but I understood that lawyers sometimes did unconventional things during the court sessions.
"Why?" I asked him with an annoyed voice before he stepped forward. He smiled smugly. "You'll be surprised," he mumbled.
What was Douglas Ryan's reason to call Guadalupe? Hadn't I told him in detail what this woman had done to my life? My heart sank seeing her on the stand, taking an oath. It was an exasperating moment. If I had known about her, I would have refused to come to the court.
"Mrs. McGrath," Douglas Ryan addressed Guadalupe. "Do you feel there is hope for your son's marriage?"
"Yes," said Guadalupe. "Marriage's sacred... never be broken for tiny things."
"How do you know your daughter-in-law?"
"She is a good girl... Should be with her husband."
"Do you know why she isn't?" Douglas Ryan asked.
"Yes. My son left... moved out... on her."
Why the sham? But Guadalupe didn't look happy: if anything, she looked old, as if she had aged several decades in one day.
"Do you know the reason why your son does not want to stay in this marriage?"
"Yes, I promised...the oath... Dios mio,..I not finding the word..." Guadalupe stuttered a little. She was uneasy with her words, but the entire room gave it to her broken English. Guadalupe straightened up. "Being away, separate, for a long time. Not enough time... to get to know again...each other," she said.
I knew her well enough to spot that Guadalupe was hiding something. What was it? What was her switch about? Why was she taking my side?
Another sigh-like feeling hit the middle of my chest. That premonition again!
I put my fingers to my temples and tried to massage away the feeling. I didn't want to care. Maybe I have something wrong with my breathing, I reasoned inside me. I tried to refocus on the decision I had made. What Guadalupe did or didn't do could not matter. It was Emiliano who had really hurt me, and I would, in some way, get back at him.
The judge said he had to look our papers over and would come to a decision during the following week.
Before the judge called us back to court, Ma and Nana ran into Guadalupe in front of the Red Rooster Café. Guadalupe told them that Emiliano had told Guadalupe to leave him alone and go back to where she came from.
"Emiliano just showed what he is really like under the skin." Ma related the encounter with indignation. "He kicked his own mother out. Can you believe that?"
"Maybe he realized what a snake she is," I said.
"Wake up, Rosie. See the man as he really is. You wouldn't believe what he did to her."
"What did he do?"
"Guadalupe says he bought a bus ticket and held it in front of her face. Then he said, 'Use this, immediately. I need to be alone.' I felt like asking her to come stay with us, but I knew better. She was intent on leaving, any way."
"It's a good thing you didn't ask her over, Ma. I can't bear to be in the same room with her, not even in the courtroom while she was taking my side."
"Guadalupe said something odd though."
"What did she say, Ma?"
"She said she couldn't bear to watch the rest anyway, come what may."
Was this rift between them because of me...because Guadalupe had taken my side in the court?
"I can't tell what she meant with that but I feel a bit better. She had it coming. Sorry Ma, if you feel offended because I'm saying this."
Ma shook her disapproving head, but said nothing.
During the following week, the judge called both lawyers to his chambers and advised them to draw up a legal trial separation, since he wasn't totally sure that our marriage wouldn't work.
I had won. Yet, the irony of the situation was unbearable under the artificial light of this triumph, only because of Maya. Maya avoided people, all of us, even Charlene. She seemed to be okay in school, I guess, since I heard no complaints from her teacher, but she was disinterested in everything. When any one of us tried to pull her out, she obliged like sheep as if she did not have a mind of her own.
When I attempted to talk to her directly, she shrugged and said nothing was bothering her and nothing was the matter. I stamped my foot and exclaimed how hard it was being her mother and bearing with all the difficulties all the time.
"Then don't be my mother," she sassed me. And I lost it. I gave her the biggest beating of her life, until Ma and Nana came to her rescue.
I wish now school was open, so I wouldn't have to listen to the people talking about Mama and Papa splitting up. When Mama's and Grandma's friends come for a visit, all they talk about is this. The theme fascinates everybody. The tale of my family gets twisted with sarcastic laughter and other people's experiences, while what has been real to me gathers dust.
"The physical behavior of dust follows laws that are not always comparable with that of solid or fluid matter," The encyclopedia says. But then, dust is dust, and dust settles on things and clouds them, but especially clouds the sight.
So much dust has settled in my life that I can hardly remember why it is that my father's return has been such a traumatic experience for me. As such, I feel uneasy, dirtied up, and feeling accountable for the dust that arose from a past, which I can hardly remember being a part of in the first place. That dust is choking me, and I have to put up with it while my existence is the trophy on the wall for grown-up conversation. I hate the pitying stares and head shakes people throw in my direction, and so disgusting it is when Mama tells Mrs. Doniger how I used to run away from Papa.
"That didn't help, did it!" Mrs. Doniger says, eyeing at me.
Then one day, Mama is angry at me when I muddy up my new leather shoes. I tell her it isn't my fault if outside is wet and mucky.
"You should be more careful, Maya. You have many faults. Just face a few facts about your own behavior."
"Like what? You have faults, too."
Mama starts crying and says I am sassing her. I have to go hug her so she doesn't faint.
Mama hugs me back and says, "Everyone has faults. You'll be a good girl, and you'll make me proud some day."
"Is it my fault Papa left?" I don't understand how that question has slipped out of my mouth. Afterwards, my tongue feels heavy.
"If you were nicer to him, he might have stayed," Mama says. Then, she hugs me because she feels bad for both of us or maybe because she dumps the fault on me. "We'll be okay. Don't worry," she says.
So Papa's leaving is my fault. I was kind of thinking it could have been.
Before, when we first came here from Barra, I used to like to eavesdrop on the grown-ups' conversation, so I could learn what is going on. I don't care about that anymore. I don't think I want to know.
Before, everything seemed different. Before, everyone was telling me, once Papa would be here, everything would be so great because Papa loved me.
Papa didn't want to see me. I heard him say he didn't need to see me.
I wish invisibility was a dress I could wear. I hate it when people act so sweetly to me, as if out of pity, when they do not know what pity is. They do it out of their own need for excitement, the excitement of gossip.
Etna tells me her parents would never get a divorce, because they are Catholic. My father is Catholic. I think that makes me half Catholic. Jeez! Even my religion lacks a safety latch.
Maybe, a person's religion depends on which grandmother she is with. Abuela took me to the Catholic Church in Barra. Here in Victorville, I have been going to another church with Grandma.
Aunt Charlene says she doesn't go to any church. She says she chose it that way. Why can't I go live with Aunt Charlene?
School will be open in a week. Grandma says I need school clothes. Those I have from last year are too small, but I don't feel like shopping for clothes. I just want to go to school.
Etna says Mr. Roth went to another school in San Francisco, and we have a new principal this year. Etna and I will probably together again in second grade in Miss Beall's class. I like Miss Beall. She wanted me in her class even last year, but I must be careful not to write number two backwards. That could get me in trouble.
Grandma and Nana go shopping only when Mama's friends come to visit her. They don't leave Mama alone in the house, even if I am there. It is because Mama is going to a lawyer and the lawyer advised her not to stay alone or go anywhere alone, in case Papa claims something concerning me. I don't know what, and I don't understand why. He didn't even want to see me. Is everyone forgetting that?
Mama tells this to her friends, Mrs. Doniger and Mrs. Wyatt. Mrs. Wyatt is divorced, too. I hear her tell Mama not to hide anything from me. She says I should know what kind of a rascal my father is. She says her children know everything about their father. Mama tells her, "Come to think of it, you are right."
At first, Mama goes to the lawyer's office with Grandpa, but a few times Grandpa is called on an emergency and he has to leave her alone. So Mama starts going with Grandma. Then Grandma's arthritis kicks in, and Nana is always busy or she cries too much, making Mama nervous. So, Mama starts taking me along.
There is a waiting room outside. I just sit there on a chair too high from the ground. As I dangle my feet, I recall Mama's friends saying, "Poor Rosie, she doesn't deserve this."
We are in this trouble because of Papa being a rascal and me running away from Papa. Maybe it is because we left Abuela, but that part cannot be my fault. I didn't know we were leaving Abuela when we did; besides, I didn't want to leave Abuela, even if she spanked me.
The lawyer comes out and sees me. He says I shouldn't think that hard. I wonder how he read my thoughts. I nod, and he gives me a piece of candy.
Mama is cross with me for sitting with an expression on my face, because the lawyer has told her not to bring me to his office again. I didn't even know I had an expression on my face. I was just sitting there, chewing a cheap piece of candy that kept sticking to my teeth. Mama tells Grandma the lawyer talked of the negative effect on me. Maybe the lawyer thinks me not being nice to Papa was the negative effect.
I just wish the school would open sooner.
I'm at school, finally, and with something feverish about my days; hours fly so numbingly fast that they leave me without feeling anything, except the chill in the air as the autumn sun wanes in the evenings.
I love school. It is the only place where no one talks about the divorce.
Soon there will be a school play, and I'll be in it. The play pushes its emphasis over anything else in my life. As Miss Beall says, "The play is the thing," and I need not notice anything else. My social life is with my classmates now, and we all like to talk about the play in our free time during the recess.
In the school yard, one day, in the middle of the afternoon recess, I find myself standing right before Abuela. The other kids have stopped talking and playing games; the whole school is watching us.
Abuela weeps. I feel as if I am on stage barefoot, wearing a clown costume. No, this is not a nightmare. What will Mama say now? Is this my fault, too?
"Abuela!" My voice comes out in a whisper, topsy turvy like.
"Mi amor!" Abuela lunges at me. Her embrace is the bridge between two disparate worlds and over the chasm of our disconnection. I hug her back.
"You have grown so!" The blood that connects us flows freely from her to me and from me to her.
"I didn't mean to run away," I say, pushing myself to explore the questions that might have inflamed her.
"I know, mi amor," she says. "I just came to see you. Just for a minute. That's all."
"Who let you in here, Madam?" I hear Miss Beall's voice behind me. "Who are you?"
"She is my abuela, my grandmother," I say, turning to the teacher. "She came from Mexico to see me."
Miss Beall looks at me, mystified. She starts beating the ground with her right foot for lack of a decision. Then, she says softly, "I guess, it is all right; although, I don't have her parent's permission. In the future, please see your granddaughter at her home, rather than here."
Just then, the bell rings. Miss Beall takes me by the hand and herds the students inside the building. I turn around to see Abuela again. She is walking out of the school grounds. I wave at her, but she doesn't see me.
Inside, I begin worrying about Mama. I also find my situation baffling. Did Abuela come to kidnap me? It sure didn't look like it. Abuela missed me; that's why she came. She came all that way to see me, even though Mama and I ran away from her. I feel tears building up and I am afraid to blink. Else, they will flow down. What'll I say to Mama now?
When I go home, I go straight up to my room. Nana brings me a snack. I don't look at her face in case she understands I am hiding something. "Your Mama and Grandma went out," Nana says.
"Good!" I say with relief. "I have a lot of homework."
I sit at the desk and study. I even study the pages we are not supposed to study yet. Then, I pick out other books that are not school books and study them, too.
It is Thanksgiving. I feel happy.
We all sit around the table. Grandma puts a crown on my head made of a headband and colorful leaves. "You're our Thanksgiving Queen," she says.
Then Grandpa gives me the wishbone from the turkey. "Make a wish," he says. I tell him I'll keep it for later when I have an important enough thing to wish for. Everyone laughs except Mama, because she is still cross with me for sassing her earlier about something insignificant.
I take the wishbone to put it inside my treasure-box along with my other special things like the sand from Barra, my egg-shaped stone, my Virgen de Guadalupe pendant, the lock of blonde hair I cut off from Aunt Charlene's hair, and the button that once fell off my father's jacket during the short time he lived here, which no one knows I found it.
No one knows about Abuela coming to school to see me, either. I wish I could talk about it with Aunt Charlene, but I am afraid she'll tell Mama, because a few days earlier, I overheard her telling Grandma she didn't want to be a part of anything concerning me if she has to hide it from Mama.
When Papa was here, Aunt Charlene hardly ever came home from Berkeley. Now she hangs around Mama a lot after Papa left. Nana says Aunt Charlene has a beau in Berkeley.
Grandma has the Christmas tree ready even before Thanksgiving. The tree has three tiers around it. "That's where we'll put our gifts," Grandma says. I'm painting pictures for my gifts. I think I'll paint a picture of a bride for Aunt Charlene. I don't know what to paint for Mama. She is the difficult one, as always.
In the meantime, I discover something about Mama. Mama is a liar, too, just like Papa. When we came back from Barra, I wasn't the one going to Mama's bed because of any nightmare. After Papa leaves, I start finding myself in Mama's bed again in the mornings. Mama tells the whole family and everyone else I have nightmares because of Papa leaving us.
One night, when I am just about to sleep, I hear Mama in my room. It is the night after the day she spanked me for sassing, giving me bruises on my arms. I fake sleep, because I don't want to listen to Mama telling me, once more, what a bad girl I am and how sick I make her. Mama picks me up and carries me to her room. Doing the dead man's float, I lie still, but then inch away from her. She pulls me to herself and puts her arm around me. I don't move because I don't want to make her upset, and also, I like to feel my Mama's warmth, even if she spanks me. We fall asleep in the same bed together.
Next morning, I wake up first and I lie awake next to Mama watching the sheets rise and fall with her breathing. Her arm still holds me. On my part, the night before was a kind of spying. I feel like talking about this with someone, but I can't. I am scared of getting in more trouble.
I ask Etna if she ever sleeps with her mother. Etna is perplexed. "Why do you ask? No one would want to do that, except a baby," she says. She tells me her mother's bed is a big no-no. Except for her father, no one is allowed there. Etna waits for my reply when she comes to the end of her words, but I can't tell her anything, and I know my silence will lead to suspicion.
"I used to sleep with Mama in the same room in Barra, when I was a baby," I say. Then I take an easy breath thinking, at least, I didn't lie, even if I concealed something from my best friend. From this day on, half of my life will be unpronounced, and what is visible to the naked eye will lull everyone, me pretending to be occupied with this and that, and them pretending not to notice or understand the stuff inside my head.
In the school play, I am a lamb. All I need to do is yell baa, but that is not all. Before the play, I read a poem and everyone claps. All the parents are here. Mama, Grandma, and Grandpa have seats in the front at the third row in the middle. When I get up on the stage, I give them a short wave and I start reciting the poem. When I finish, the person operating the spotlight goofs and directs the light away from the stage. That is when I see a shadow, far away at the entrance to the auditorium. I don't know if it is in my head or I am really seeing what I am seeing.
The silhouette of the man at the entrance to the auditorium looks exactly like Papa. I bow to the audience and step back. Then I run down the side steps of the stage to the door. A teacher rushes after me.
When I reach the back of the auditorium, the door opens a crack and closes again, but then a teacher grabs me by the arm. "What are you doing?" she whispers. "You're supposed to go backstage."
At that moment, the lights come up and everybody laughs at me.
"We had a little mix-up in the stage direction," the principal jokes through the microphone.
Now I will never know if it was Papa who came to watch me, but I will think about it backwards and forwards inside my head without telling anyone. Then I will decide to imagine it was him, even if it wasn't him; even if the source of my imagination will burn me up the rest of my life.
"Rosie and I, we need to talk."
It wasn't his familiar sight that made me anxious but the tone of his voice.
I watched Emiliano from the kitchen door I'd opened just a crack. His face was darker, grayer and his eyes seemed to have sunk in their sockets. He didn't look right, somehow. He had that solemn expression on his face, far more solemn than usual. He leaned against the door jamb as if expecting the door to be shut to his face, but he didn't notice me peeking at him.
Nana hesitated before asking him in, but opened the door anyway. Thinking she didn't hear him well, Emiliano repeated the question, only louder this time.
I stepped back into the kitchen and whispered to Mama, "Tell him I'm not home."
Mama stared at me unbelievingly, but was quick to get out of the kitchen. I heard her say, "Sorry Emiliano, but she is not home. Would you like to leave her a message?"
A few seconds later I heard Emiliano. "This is my address. Sorry, I don't have a telephone."
"We'll give it to her," Ma said.
"Don't cry, Nana, it is okay," Emiliano said softly. Nana had to be sobbing again.
I vacillated for a couple of days, then called Charlene. "Go talk to him," Charlene advised. "If you don't want to go alone, I'll take off and come home. We can go together."
After a moment's hesitation, I said no, I would go alone. I didn't think I could talk freely if Charlene or anyone else would accompany me because I wanted to talk and to pour all my disappointment at Emiliano. At that time, I was feeling, beyond doubt, an immense anger toward the man I had ever loved.
Emiliano's so called apartment was two small bedrooms with a tiny bathroom in the middle on the top floor of a run-down corner house on Bear Valley and Hesperia. His landlady opened the door. She was short and chubby, with deep set eyes and enormous cheeks wearing a cotton print duster with a white collar.
Scanning me from head to toe, she said, "Mr. McGrath is upstairs. He rarely goes out anyway. Just walk up and knock on the second door on the left, Dear."
"Come in," Emiliano called out when I tapped lightly on the door. He was sitting at a make-shift desk, a slightly rusted, metal card table with a wobbly wooden chair. The arrogant jerk didn't get up but motioned me to sit on the sofa along the wall.
Was this the same man I had known and loved? He seemed to be a shadow of who he once was, and no more. His dark curly hair--Maya's hair—was the only part of him that reminded me of the man I once knew. Reeling in my rage, I was sure I was seeing Emiliano as he truly was for the first time, and this time, I made up my mind not to give in to him.
"What do you want to say?" I asked snappily.
"In court, you said you didn't want a divorce and you wanted this marriage."
"That was in court."
"I know you are angry. Maybe you have a right. Isn't there a way we can talk this out?"
"No," I said. "You tell me what's on your mind."
"We could give it a go. It won't be for a long time."
"This is not child's play." I was really feeling my wrath now. Not for a long time? The nerve! "You either do it or you don't."
He moved toward me as much as the cramped way he was sitting in that excuse of a desk permitted him. He opened his mouth as if to say something important, then he gave up. He turned to his prior position.
"What happened with your precious son?" I asked mockingly.
"They won't give him to me," The extreme sadness in voice almost paralyzed me. "His mother married a man who is adopting him. Maybe it's for the better," he said.
I almost said I'm sorry. But I didn't. He hadn't asked about Maya. He would never ask about Maya while he mourned his other better-loved child. My coming here had been for nothing.
"I don't think there is anything left," I sounded determined. "I said what I said in the court because I didn't want to give you what you wanted. Now that I see who you really are, I don't want anything to do with you again, Emiliano."
"For once in your life, can't you think straight? Just maybe, you are mistaken and there are extenuating circumstances?"
"Now, you are telling me I can't think. Well, that's to be expected of you. After all what you have accused me of..."
I rose to my feet and walked toward the door.
"I hope you won't feel sorry," Emiliano said.
I turned around to insert my serrated words further into him like a carving knife.
"I feel sorry about nothing," I snarled. "Especially the love I experienced with the man named Bill Roth."
"Then it was true... And I did not believe it..." His face sunk in even more.
"You'd better believe it." I knew my words were corrosive, and I rejoiced I said them. Then I stomped out.
From the vantage point of revenge, my actions felt good. I had gotten to Emiliano this time. I had had the last word. I had flung at him what he had wrongly accused me of from the start. His accusations of me had been like wishes, and what he had wished so strongly for so long had become reality, his reality.
Over and over again, I enjoyed my recall of the desperate glare in his eyes when I closed the door of his messy, run-down apartment behind me.
From the vantage point of revenge, my actions felt good. I had gotten to Emiliano this time. I had had the last word. I had flung at him what he had wrongly accused me of from the start. His accusations of me had been like wishes, and what he had wished so strongly for so long had become reality, his reality.
Over and over again, I enjoyed my recall of the desperate glare in his eyes when I closed the door of his messy, run-down apartment behind me.
I re-lived this last meeting with Emiliano until the next day and the day after that as something drilled horribly into me, even though I rejoiced in my one upmanship over Emiliano, Even my joy was the crumbling kind, where it ruined everything inside me. "I hate you Emiliano," I said out loud when I was alone. "I hate you...and... and dammit, I love you."
My flailing between the taste of revenge and the venom of sorrow lasted only so long. Two days later while we were having dinner, Nana rushed in stumbling over her own feet.
"Two men at the door, policemen, they are asking for Rosie or anyone who knew Emiliano."
Tears were streaming from Nana's eyes. I rose in panic, but Pa motioned me to sit down. Then Ma pulled me down on my chair. At that moment, I glimpsed Maya's worried face.
"I'll take care of this. You stay put," Pa ordered.
"Did they say why? What's the matter?" Ma asked Nana as Pa exited the room.
Nana, sobbing and making motions with her arms as if the words wouldn't come out, shouldn't come out, looked at Maya. My heart sank. I hesitated to say anything at all. Maya panicked and started crying.
"Am I getting kidnapped?" she asked.
"I am sure it is something else, dear," Ma tried to calm her down. "I wouldn't let that happen to you, would I? Grandpa will tell us what it is when he comes back. Eat your dinner now, okay?"
But Maya sprang up out of her chair and ran upstairs. Nana went after her. Ma and I looked at each other. I rose again to see what was happening. "Sit down, Rosie," Ma ordered, suddenly wearing that school-teacher look of hers, probably because she had sensed the same disaster I had sensed.
I shut my eyes, then opened them again terrified with the darkness inside my eyes. "Ma, what's happening?" I asked, although dreading her answer.
"It's probably...I don't know...It can't be good," Ma said. "Let's wait and see."
What I really wanted to do was to go after Maya, but Nana had gone up already and I wanted to know what Pa would find out.
Pa paused at the doorway before he entered the room. He looked at us and then at Maya's empty chair. "Where's she?" he asked.
"Upstairs," Ma said. "Grace is with her."
"Good," Pa said. He sat down, took a sip of water, then got up again. He was jumpy, no doubt about it.
He looked straight at me, and bit by bit he said, "I have to go. They found a body by the bridge with a gunshot to the head. He had Emiliano's ID in his pocket."
A wicked weight, an intense fear, start to pressure me from all directions. "Emiliano...dead?" I asked gulping, as if I needed to detain the words coming out of my mouth.
Was he really dead?
How stupid I had been...Again! Why did I go to his apartment two days ago? Why did I say what I said as if I had a chance of winning? As if I could ever win where Emiliano was concerned,...Worse yet, how could I have known that it might be the last time I would ever see Emiliano again?
This part is so difficult for me to write years later, but the staff psychologist at the Clinic believes writing things down validates our sorrows and lets us get over them. Charlene and Mike, her husband, agree.
Do I want to get over anything? Maybe yes, maybe no. But I will continue writing if only to validate my sorrows because my sorrows are valid.
The night of Emiliano's death, after Pa left, nobody talked. While we were all stricken, I was the one who froze on the chair at the dinner table. I couldn't move, open my mouth, or do anything. Ma took over as usual, maintaining order. A little later, Nana hobbled down. "Maya slept. I told her it has nothing to do with us, just some trouble in the neighborhood." Then, avoiding my eyes, she carried the untouched food into the kitchen.
I tried to answer Nana, but I don't recall if I did or could. I just kept remembering how sickly Emiliano had looked the last time, how viciously I had thrown my relationship with Bill Roth at him, and the words Emiliano had said, especially, "We could give it a go. It won't be for a long time."
Was "It won't be for a long time" an indirect suggestion, a lead-in to tonight?
I sat at the table and thought all those things. Then I suddenly realized something.
My marriage would not exist anymore if Emiliano were to be dead. I just couldn't bear life without Emiliano in it, despite everything. Despite Guadalupe, despite his jealousies, despite his betrayals.
Then a thought struck me. Maybe he didn't die. Maybe it was someone else, a burglar who took his things and was killed by someone we didn't know. The more I hoped, the more I was sure of it.
I was so wrapped up in my reverie that I didn't hear Pa come in.
I looked up.
"You need to be very brave, now, Rosie."
"Pa..." My voice was hoarse. "Who was it?"
Pa stared at me as if what I said was extremely incredulous.
"Emiliano...It was Emiliano."
Pa turned the other way in order not to look into my eyes.
I kept staring at the back of his head, and things around the room started to blur.
"When I got there, he was already gone, passed away several hours ago, They took him to the morgue. An autopsy is needed." I barely heard these last things that my father said, since my body tumbled sideways and I couldn't feel my body, my toes, or my fingers. Time slipped away.
They think I don't know anything. They think I don't hear anything. They think I am asleep.
But I fake it all. I know how to fake sleep. If I close my eyes, and from inside them, look at the same spot, like where the tip of my nose would be, my eyes don't move inside the eyelids, and because I am so still, people think I have fallen asleep.
On the night when the police comes to the door and Nana takes me upstairs, that's what I do. Fake sleep. Nana is easier to fool than Mama since Mama knows me for a longer time.
While I am faking, I am also thinking. First, I worry a bit because I really think I'll be kidnapped, but then, I reason with myself. Papa doesn't want me, I say to me. The day he came to get his radio, I heard him say so, in the foyer while I hid under the table. He'd never kidnap me. Yet, Abuela would; Abuela liked me, in her own manner for sure, but she liked me. It wouldn't be so bad being with Abuela, but I'd miss Aunt Charlene, Grandpa, Grandma, and Mama too.
Why can't all my family be in the same place like other people's? Even if they fought once in a while...
Nana stays until I sleep or rather she thinks I have slept. Then she leaves closing the door behind her. I wait for a while. I have to make sure she won't be back, although I think she wants to be downstairs where everything is happening; that is, everything that they are trying to hide from me.
I get up as soon as I am sure. Luckily, Grandma put a night light in my room so I won't trip in the dark. The trick is in opening the door because the door knob makes a clicking sound. The hinges won't creak. Grandpa has oiled them recently, which is in my favor now.
I am not wearing my slippers. I have my socks on, but I still walk on tiptoe. What if I turned the knob very slowly...
Yes, it seems to be working; the knob is turning all the way without a click. I open the door ajar and listen. I hear voices but can't make out what they are saying.
I have to cross the hallway and go to the top of the staircase.
I can crawl to the darker side of the grandfather clock down on the landing in between two stories. The landing has a good view of the entrance and the dining room if they don't close its door.
I crouch near the clock and stare into the dining room. Mama is sitting at her seat, doing nothing, while Grandma and Nana are carrying the dishes into the kitchen. Each time Nana is out of the dining room, she starts sobbing and Grandma elbows her to hush her up.
The silence in the house is more terrifying than the Santa Ana winds that uprooted the trees on our street several weeks ago. I shiver although I am not cold.
They must not see me here. If they do, they'll make sure I go to bed and hear nothing and learn nothing. I must not fall asleep here either. I have to be ready for whatever it is. I have to hang on tight and keep my eyes on Mama who is still sitting there motionless. Nana had said the police asked for Mama and if anyone knew my father. Is it because of me? Did I do anything wrong? Is Grandpa trying to protect me from the police?
I hear the turn of the key on the front door. I am all attention. Even though I want to scream and bawl my eyes out without knowing why, I stay put. Grandpa looks worn out and he moves slowly, carefully. He stops before entering the dining room and stares at Mama, but Mama doesn't see him. He goes across from her and leans on the side of the table. His back is turned to me. I'm all ears now.
"Rosie..." Grandpa clears his throat. "You need to be very brave, now, Rosie."
"Pa, who was it?" I can barely hear Mama's voice, almost whisper-like.
Grandpa is quiet for a second, then turning his back to her, he says, "Emiliano...It was Emiliano."
Mama doesn't look well. Her face is getting distorted like she's about to have a berrinche or a fainting fit. I am so scared. Grandpa speaks again. His voice is weighty, and the words stumble out.
"When I got there, he was already gone, passed away several hours ago, They took him to the morgue. An autopsy is needed."
Passed away? Is my father dead? What is a morgue? What is an autopsy? I want to scream but I bite my hand in order not to. Then Mama falls off her chair. Did she faint? What if she died? What'll I do now? Is this all my fault?
Grandpa rushes around to the other side of the dining room table where Mama is lying on the floor. "Grace, Peg," he yells. "Bring my bag."
That is good. Grandpa will make her well again. He has medicine in his bag. He'll handle it. Grandpa can handle anything.
But I can't. I want to yell and scream and have a tantrum. Still, I mustn't. They'll be distracted from taking care of my mother.
I start sobbing. Tears flow like crazy. I cover my mouth and slink back to my room. I am not so careful anymore. I can't be. I close my door. The doorknob clicks, but no one hears it from downstairs. They are too busy with Mama.
Once I calm down, I turn on the light over the desk and open the dictionary.
I now learn what a morgue is and what an autopsy is. I want to throw up, but I must keep the vomit inside me.
I open the top drawer and reach in to my secret box. I find the button that fell off my father's jacket. I hold it in my hand, then put it back.
I get in bed, then get up again to turn off the desk light that I forgot. They must not know about this.
Dios mio! Forgive me. I imagine I am praying in front of Abuela's altar again for my father, but I can't control my sobs. I bite on the quilt to quiet them.
I'll never see Papa again, Papa who had hair like me. Papa who asked me why I avoided him. I was bad. Why did I do that? I am sooo sorry. I must be at fault in this, somewhere, somehow.
I fall asleep crying.
Next morning, Aunt Charlene rushes home to Victorville. She is really early, so early that I am still in bed. When I get up to wash my face, I hear her voice in the dining room.
"How fast life changes!" she says. "What did Maya do? Does she know?"
"No, she slept early, and she is sleeping late this morning, fortunately." Mama's voice is drained of energy. "Pa gave me a tranquilizer, but I woke up in the middle of the night. I checked on her. She had the quilt all the way to her head."
"She has to be told."
"You must. It's better if she hears it from you."
"No! You. Please, Charlene."
"Okay, okay. I'll do it. I don't know how, but I'll do it."
"She must be up now!" Grandma's voice announces. "I heard the bathroom door upstairs."
"I'll go up, then," Aunt Charlene says.
I run to my room and start dressing. Aunt Charlene knocks on the door.
"Come in, Aunt Charlene!"
"How did you know it was me?"
"Only you knock on my door."
Aunt Charlene sits on my bed. Straightening out the sheets, she points to a place near her.
"Come, sit with me Maya. Let's talk."
"You have something to tell me."
"Smart girl! However, this isn't very pleasant. Sort of...very sad." She is uneasy as she searches for words. I must make it easier for her.
"I know what a morgue is. I even know what autopsy means. I looked them up."
Aunt Charlene abruptly covers her mouth with her right hand. She is surprised. I go sit near her. Tears are running from her eyes. I put my hand on her shoulder.
"It is okay, Aunt Charlene. Don't cry."
"Who is supposed to take care of whom?" Aunt Charlene asks, but it is not a question. "Maya, how did you know?"
"Don't tell them, okay? I heard Grandpa tell it to Mama. I listened from the landing."
"Oh, you!" She embraces me and wipes my face. Funny, I didn't realize I had tears, too.
"Aunt Charlene, please don't tell them that. Let's tell Mama and Grandma that you told me."
"Oh, Kiddo! Okay, if that is what you want... Is there anything else you want to say, you want to ask?"
"Abuela? What about Abuela?"
"She knows. She knew your father was sick much earlier than we did."
"He had a broken arm."
"Yes, but we think that is not related. This was different. Once he got sick, he did not want to feel even sicker."
"How did he die then? Did he ask someone to kill him?"
"No. I really don't think that. I don't know much, Sweetie. But the gun was his."
"There was a gun?"
"You don't know that?"
"No, I heard only Grandpa talk to Mama after he came back."
"Oh, how I hate to do this!" Aunt Charlene is talking to herself now. "Maya, your father was very sick. So sick that he didn't want to live anymore."
"You mean he shot himself?"
"Possibly. I am so sorry, Sweetie." Aunt Charlene stops and thinks. Then she speaks again. "We don't know the details, but...Anyhow, you'll find it out because everybody will be talking about it everywhere. I can only tell you what I know."
What a shock! This cannot be happening. My father dying is bad enough, but this?
How could God let this happen? I'm so ticked off at God.
What'll I say to Etna? No one I know has a father who killed himself. Someone else killing him would have been better. Why did he do it? Sick people still go on living all the time.
Is this my fault? I know it is. I acted badly. I ran away from him; my avoiding him must have made his sickness worse.
The door opens slowly and Mama comes in. Aunt Charlene is about to get up. I hold her hand and pull her down. I don't want her to leave. What if Mama faints again? I don't want to be alone with her, not now.
"She knows it." Aunt Charlene fluffs my pillow. Mama sits at the edge of the bed next to me.
"So awful! We sit down to dinner and life changes that instant. My poor baby! The tongues will be wagging all over the place, now." Mama looks even paler when she talks.
I shrug. I am not going to show how I feel. I'm never ever letting out my sadness again. I am not going to be like my mother. I am not going to faint, ever. And I'll never ever cry again.
According to the autopsy, some unknown poison had entered Emiliano's body and parts of his internal organs were totally destroyed.
"We could give it a go. It won't be for a long time." No wonder Guadalupe wanted me to go to Emiliano. No wonder she looked so stricken during the divorce hearings.
Why didn't Emiliano ever tell me the truth? Why did he treat me like a rag doll? Why did he always confide in his mother but not me? But then, in his last days, he wanted to be with me, didn't he?
If I knew that for sure, I would go to him. I would still go to him.
The funeral was very quiet. Maya, my little trouper, sat near me in the church and behaved wonderfully. She didn't cry and neither did I. Still, I don't know how we both made it through the service. I remember feeling as if I were out of my body, watching everyone else go through the motions.
Guadalupe did not come to the funeral. She told Pa on the phone that her church in Barra de Navidad would hold a special service, a mass, for Emiliano because that was what Emiliano had asked her. Pa mentioned Emiliano's illness, but Guadalupe wouldn't say much. Probably she didn't know the details of it. Except she said, whatever happened to Emiliano did not happen in Trieste, but in a different place, about which Emiliano was not allowed to talk.
The chief of police, who was a friend of my father since they had worked together in a few cases, came to see us after the funeral.
Because Emiliano's death was a suicide, the local police felt a detailed investigation would not be necessary. After the funeral, after all the legal processes were handled, my father went into Emiliano's apartment, since I refused to go there again.
Among Emiliano's papers, Pa found a copy of a letter he had sent to the State Department and some of his medical data.
According to what Pa found, after Trieste, Emiliano penetrated into the Soviet Union, to a place near or in the Aral Sea area, into a Soviet biological warfare research station that was not disturbed during the war. Except, on his way out probably during a melee, he broke his arm, and he had been exposed to a deadly chemical.
This information we kept from Maya for a long time. After all, she was a child, and this was a classified secret.
A month or so after Emiliano's death, one morning, I woke up suddenly, thinking I was in Barra de Navidad. I screamed and carried on.
I vaguely remember Maya's terrified eyes on me. This went on for days. Charlene could do nothing. Nobody could.
Pa took me to a psychiatrist friend of his, Dr. Malroy. Dr. Malroy kept me under observation and sedated me with tons of medication.
They say, after I quieted down, I started to talk nonsense. I don't remember those psychotic episodes that came and went unannounced. Maybe I don't want to remember. Maybe it is better that I don't. But these episodes visited me, on and off, leaving my life full of black holes.
I think back to the time when Emiliano left me. Did he leave because I'd have nothing to do with his son or was it because he didn't want to expose me to his last days or to his illness?
But then his illness was not contagious. He must have wanted me back after I declared in the court I didn't want a divorce. He might have changed his mind right then, but stupid me, I botched that up, also.
How could I love a man so much and act so badly? And just when did Emiliano discover he was so ill? These are things I'll never be able to figure out.
What I know is, my illness, my losing touch with reality, started after Emiliano's death. Still, I am grateful for feeling well occasionally, so I could watch Maya grow up.
We had days when I thought maybe she would make the world right for me again, but I guess this was too much to expect. This is too much to expect from any one person.
No one, not even my daughter, could make the world right again, except Emiliano.
"God knows I'm flawed, but the problem with you is, you're all head. You never use your heart." I know she's right. These words are right.
But Mama had other words, too. For everyone she snapped at. I knew she wasn't well and she couldn't help herself, but her words, her raging words, haunted me in my formative years like an affliction, even though I knew she wasn't responsible for everything that came out of her mouth. After she uttered them, those words furtively unfurled and left scuff marks decades of time could not expunge.
Scuff marks came from not only her words but from long ago. Scuff marks from unsaid things, scuff marks from mysterious silences, scuff marks from impulsive actions, scuff marks from the uninhibited steps of the two people closest to me. Scuff marks on my life left by ghostly feet scraping and dragging across my soul. Scuff marks of people who could not help themselves and their fiery, passionate insides.
Yes, my parents' love for each other was too real, too passionate, in spite of all that happened between them, all that, which ruined the three of us.
Oh, I did have several relationships, and one or two of them came close to love, but nothing as passionate and stormy like that of my parents, probably because I knew how to hold back; I was so afraid to give all of me like Mama did. I envy Mama for that, now that I am much older and alone. I envy her even if, when the storms ended, Mama was left behind with an immeasurable grief, a tremendous grief.
At first, I didn't understand grief. Especially her unique, inimitable grief. I suspect, however, that grief, Mama's grief, began, not with my father's death but much earlier.
What I cannot tell is if it existed before I was born or if it appeared with "the great sham," as Mama puts it. Did my mother feel that life duped her, ripped off her identity, and gypped her, or was it my father's deceiving her that produced her heartache and disappointment? As I said, I didn't understand her grief, since at its onset, I was probably not there for her because I was too young or too dumb. Then I became inured to it, adapted to it, and found out I could do nothing about it.
Still, I love them both; I accept them both; I forgive them both. Especially Mama with her flimsy nerves. She loves me in her infirm style, as she always did. Infirm because after my father's death, not much was left of her, only a shell of a person whose body and mind needed almost constant medical care.
What pains me is, while growing up, I didn't know why my father killed himself. I thought for many years that it was my fault or my mother's. No one told me what really happened to him, except for Aunt Charlene when I was in my late teens. She said she waited for me to mature because this used to be a government secret. After the Soviet Union fell, some documents were made public. Among them was a document that started with:
12/20/1948 SUBJECT! Soviet Capabilities to Wage Biological Warfare
The Soviet Union began research and development on biological warfare prior to World War II. One of their research stations (believed to be on an island in the Aral Sea) was not disturbed during the war...
I came across the photocopy of this document, decades later, while doing an academic research. It is a long document, but it is proof of what Aunt Charlene had told me.
Yes, thank you, aunt Charlene, for that and for everything else.
Maybe this was why I chose political science as my major. If our minds can penetrate into the flaws of our past, we might not have wars again. I believe this is not too much to hope for. I believe this will happen in a utopian future we shall build. I believe we'll all get over our mistakes and the mistakes of the people before us, and we'll accept, love, and respect each other's existence, be it on a personal level or the international one.
Then, in my little, unimportant life, if it weren't for Aunt Charlene, where would I be? Aunt Charlene tore herself to help every member of our family during the crisis that followed my father's death. Then she became a second mother to me all through my life, especially after my grandparents' generation passed on. On account of my mother being so sick, my aunt was made my legal guardian, and after I received my Masters degree in Political Science, she helped me ease into the academic life.
Aunt Charlene has tact, clarity, and maturity etched in her every cell, and I am so glad that her life, fortunately, turned out to be the happiest. Her husband and colleague Mike is just as nice as her, and both have helped my mother immensely.
The odd thing is, since my father's death, neither Mama nor I ever got married. Mama was too sick, and I was too scared.
Funny, isn't it, I envy Mama in some ways like in her ability to give herself to love so completely and she has envied me in other ways? The other day, while looking through my old teenage diary, I found this entry.
Mama envies my dreams. Imagine that! I have all the dreams, novel-size ones and every night, but she, zilch. At least, she thinks so. On the weekends when I stay with her, I sometimes sleep in her room because she likes me around, and sometimes, I wake up to her grumbling and talking deliriously in her sleep. I think she has terrible nightmares. I am going to mention this to Aunt Charlene and to her doctor.
To me, dreams are like having a beautiful room with huge windows looking out into a sunny garden full of exotic flowers that are a pleasure to behold.
The room, which -I guess- is my bed, has an ornate stone fireplace, comfortable seating, fancy area rugs, side tables, cathedral ceilings, and beautiful music. I look outside from the window and see anyone I have ever come in contact with, even those I have read about or heard about. I suddenly find myself among them, and we all take part in the incredible adventures of my imagination. Sometimes, I even dream I am on the sand by the beach in Barra de Navidad, but I never talk about that to anyone. The mention of Barra de Navidad and Abuela are taboo. Grandma is very strict about it on account of Mama.
When I wake up from my dreams, I am surprised. The world I open my eyes to is too dull, because the party of the night is over. Probably that's why Mama envies me, because I party every night in my dreams.
This is a happy entry. There are others, not all that happy, but I can't complain. My life is calm now. It has been calm for a very long time. I willed it so. Just that there has been no specific man or any children. I think it is better this way. I couldn't go through what my mother went through. I couldn't...ever, because I am not as strong as people make me out to be.
After so many years, Aunt Charlene and Mama have taken the place of the older generation. Funny... even I will be a senior citizen in a few years, but I still teach, and I'm in good health.
Aunt Charlene still asks, "It was over. Really over. Why did you let it screw up your entire life? Why didn't you let love in?"
I tell her it is because of the scuff marks that did not, would not come out.