by Bob Ritchie
I know what you see. I know that your eye is caught by the window mended with Saran Wrap and duct tape, the wounded bumper that we could never afford to repair. Your surreptitious examination of Rafael, my husband—his mouth dropped open and from which issues a soft, halting snore—does not escape my notice. I am old, cataracts cloud my vision; I am not blind. Yet. Yesterday, dizzy, I fell to my knee crossing the street to the hospital. But I can still see the angry swelling that reddens and raises the skin around the scrape.
As you pass, leather soles clicking on the cracked sidewalk, step young and full of energy—as you pass, your eyes slide sideways, and you see me put my fists to my thighs. (I will not let my face wince when the net of pain is thrown over my knuckles.) Yes, this is our home. I want to tell you: It isn’t such a terrible thing. We lost the apartment, and Carlito’s wife, Leila, would not willingly let us stay. Even if she would, we would not ask. She smiles and nods when we visit. But the muscles around her eyes contract with tension. Their mansion in El Monte, one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Ponce, could house two families from the Dominican Republic, where she is from.
Carlito—her husband, my son—he was such a troubled child. Then, you would not have approved. Now, you would shake your head and feel pity that Carlito never deserved. He did the drugs. He took my pearl necklace and pawned it—I would have given it to him. His own car, a gift from Rafael on his sixteenth birthday, he sold for only a few hundred dollars. But Carlito—you cannot know that he has changed; he is a good boy. Smart and always in trouble, he was the devil’s own imp growing up. But then he went to school here, where you work. He had the scholarship and what Rafael and I could give him. Naomi, his daughter, my granddaughter, if you could see her, you would know that Carlito is a good boy. A good man. Naomi is bright like the sun. She smiles the 100-percent smile that is only possible when you are five and the world has not yet revealed its intentions. Carlito, her papi, my son, he is a good man. She would show you.
The uncultivated dirt beds that border the sidewalk overflow with weeds and wild ferns. When you brush past the waist-high Johnson grass—it reaches out with feathery flowers—you try to imagine what it must be like to live in a camper parked on the street. The too-long, too-pale hair falls before your eyes, and you toss your head. Even in the shade, you think, it must be brutal. In your office at the medical school—which is full of minds and vigor and money—you will work in cool comfort. We borrow electricity from an external socket so that our fan can push the wet, hot air back out of the always-open door. I watch your face lift, your eyes note the air conditioner that squats, low and silent, on the roof of our home. Our last home, I think. This is not the first time that I have noticed your noticing. This is not the first time that the question has radiated out from your sun-reddened skin: Is it broken?
No, it functions well enough. But Rafael said, “We will only take what power we must: for the fan, the stove for our coffee in the morning and rice and beans at night, and the radio in the morning for the news. No more. We are not thieves.” He has pride, though you will never have the opportunity to observe it. And if he wore it openly on his lined face, displayed it before your judging eyes, you would not perceive it. You cannot see his expression when he speaks. You cannot see the grimace, the lowered eyes, the lip-turning frown that is not anger, but shame. If you could, I do not believe that you would believe.
You first saw us three weeks ago. We had parked the camper under the wide, protective branches of a maricao tree, unaware that it was your favorite of all those that lined the small street. It is my favorite, too. We share that. You thought little of us that first day, being lost in your worries of an uncertain future. If you had noticed me carrying the small bag of trash, you would have assumed that it was our own. Would you have believed that I had awakened at dawn in order to pick up the discarded cups and fast food bags and even a water bottle full of urine that littered the gutters?
The second day, shaded by the same fluttering leaves that kept us cool all the long hot day, you took note. Who do you suppose they are? you asked. Is this their idea of a vacation? You shrugged, thinking that it takes all kinds. I still can’t believe that people would choose the grass verge of the freeway for their picnics, you mused. You did not stare, not exactly, but you saw. Noticed. As I bent and dropped a handful of the fallen and browning leaves into the Supermercados Grande bag, you lowered your chin in a half nod, nice. That’s all.
On the third day, you watched Rafael carry in the dish rack. You could see him stop by my chair, incline his upper body, but you could not hear him tell me to stay still, to relax for once. Still, Rafael’s gentle scolding smile and the relief that smoothed the creases from my face were evident. Your furrowed brow smoothed as the distress of yesterday’s failed PCR assay fell away. Sweet, you thought, smiling. You should thank us for the brief respite, hmm? You were not aware that you were staring—yes, with eyes focused and mind concentrated; not only at us, but at one of our last belongings. The camper, which once traveled from one side of Puerto Rico to the other, from El Yunque to Adjuntas to Guánica. It once had bulged with five laughing/playing children and two laughing/scolding adults. Now, like its owners, it has a motor that wheezes, and tires that are too weak to carry its weight. Just traveling here, to its final resting place, something popped and fizzled in the front. Rafael told me that it was nothing important, but I am sure that he lies. A good lie. One that is supposed to protect me from the knowledge that we are at the end of the road.
Sometimes, I can still hear it all: the laughter, shouts, and squeals of seven loving humans; the bubbling-over joy. It stands upon the night traffic sounds of ByPass number 2 and sings to me. I forgive myself for the moisture that springs to the corners of my eyes, but I keep it from Rafael. Would you say that that is my own good lie? That I am protecting him from the knowledge of my knowledge?
If you were to enter this, our home (our last home), and snoop, you would see that we possess little. The narrow closet next to the tiny kitchen sink holds my other three outfits, Rafael’s additional two. He wears his shorts for four days before he will let me wash them. “I do nothing to get dirty, Mi Vida.” He does not want me to scrub—the arthritis—and knows that I will not allow him to. If I were to let him, he would wear them, his one pair of shorts, a week or more. Today you see me in the bright yellow shorts with the white sleeveless blouse. Tomorrow it will be the comfortable gray jeans and the pale blue sweatshirt from Spain that María de la Cruz bought when she was on tour with Enrique Iglesias. It will be dry by then; it hangs from the shower head in the tiny stall. I breathe a prayer of thanks that I was able to scrub out the vomit stain. It is the outfit I always wear for my chemotherapy. It is cold in the hospital; even if it weren’t, I could never bring myself to wear shorts. What would people think?
On most mornings, you see Rafael walking away from our camper. Your gait is rapid and as carefree as your self-imposed gravity will allow; his, slow and careful, as his creaking joints insist. By the time he reaches his destination, you will have put your finger to the time clock and officially started your day. You do not know that we sometimes splurge on café con leche from the food truck that parks down and across the street. For those days that we do not (most days), the days that we tip a measured amount of warm milk from the quart box, adding three teaspoons of instant coffee—for those days, we have a small pan and two stained mugs. The one from Disney that Stefan bought me has a chip from when I threw it at Rafael. Without thinking, I run the tip of my forefinger along the rim and find the rough notch. It should have broken completely, but it bounced off the arm of the sofa and landed on a stack of towels I had just brought in from the lines that crisscrossed the small porch. Such luck. Rafael’s mug I bought on our honeymoon. I found it in the gift shop beneath the Rincón lighthouse. It is white and has a line drawing of the lighthouse, with two palm trees as parentheses. We made love nineteen times in our small, neat room at the parador Villa Antonio. Every hour or two we took cool showers, not to dampen our passion, rather as relief from the summer heat and humidity. A crying child who stumbled in thinking to find his papi and mami was the only interruption in those three, passion-drenched days. After ushering the frightened boy from our room, trying not to giggle, we locked the door. No more interruptions. On our return, I couldn’t clean the accumulated dust of our absence from the tiny, comfortable house that we rented for those first years, stopped by the beautiful aches in my legs, arms, and other areas. María de la Cruz, our oldest, visited her beauty upon us only nine months later. With your pale skin and closed, childlike face, you are very like the one who took her from us; Rafael tells me that I am not to curse the devil. But it is only you to listen, so I say God damn his very soul. I know you are not him, so in the same breath of damnation, I send to you a small blessing. I trust that God will know who is to receive what.
Even outside the door, mounted on the plastic milk box that serves as a step, you would hear—were you to attempt to enter—the fan before you saw it, it rattles so. In the last quarter inch of its back and forth sweep (on the left side, only), it emits a grating ratchet that would make you believe it is about to fly completely apart. I think you would cringe, afraid that an outward-flying piece might lacerate your smooth cheek or put out one of your hazel eyes.
Yesterday, you turned your attention to the Se Vende, “For Sale,” sign that partially blocks the front windshield. I am sure you wondered about the local—as opposed to cellular—number written in my husband’s angular hand. You probably assumed, correctly, that we didn’t have a landline in the camper.
Carmelita. She is the youngest of our five. You would like her. Her eyes burn and laugh simultaneously. It is a combination that seems to intrigue many men. Rafael once told me that the heat and joy he found in my eyes did more to ensnare him than the efforts of another part of my body. Her apartment is not much larger than Carlito’s walk-in closet. Can you hear her voice in the soft rasp of my husband’s snore? “Mami, stay with me. You and Papi, both. I can sleep on the floor. It’ll be like the sleepovers I used to have with Samantha and Cassandra and Tatiana.” Can you hear her giggle in Rafael’s clutching breaths?
This is a new thing, this small wheeze. That it sounds like a beloved daughter’s soft chuckle fools me not at all. And you? I know that you are not a medical doctor: no white coat or casually draped stethoscope. Yet, you work in a medical school. Are you a researcher? A graduate student? The last, perhaps. You are young. No more than twenty-five, perhaps as old as thirty. A laboratory tech, I guess. A grad student, a postdoc. I remember the vocabulary from Carlito’s tense/happy recountings.
Is Rafael’s moan loud enough to reach you? I shake my head to free it from the feathery net of fear. There is hardly enough money for my chemotherapy. And not enough to purchase the drugs that would relieve the nausea I feel after every session. I wonder, again, whether I could somehow fool Rafael into believing that I am getting my treatment and squirrel away the money. I am afraid that he will need a doctor. Soon.
Carmelita, mi bebé. My baby; a wonderful surprise for us. She stops here every evening on her way home from Pizza Hut to give us any messages (there have been none—who, really, would want to buy our decrepit camper?); to check; to share a few minutes of laughter and love. Our first day here, she brought us a warm pizza. Someone called it in and did not pick it up, she said. We thanked her, shook our heads in dismay that a person would waste such food. As she left, I captured her eyes with my own, gave my head another shake. Tiny. “You mustn’t.” “But Mami—”
During the year she works from 4:00 to 10:00, three or four days per week. As lovely as our island is, it is not so full of jobs that one can be lost. No matter how much you love your parents. It is true that I tell her it is too much—a full-time job and full-time studies; one or the other will surely suffer. But that is the mother in me, the one who has always worried about sleep and nutrition and infections. At this gentle nagging, she always smiles, not quite a laugh. She possesses energy enough to power our air conditioner and fan, simultaneously. She is studying criminal law at UPR-Ponce. Now on summer break, Carmelita works every minute that they give her, eight hours per day, five days per week. Has she taken your order? Because you walk to work in the morning and home in the afternoon, I assume you live nearby, perhaps in a garage-turned-apartment in the upscale neighborhood, Valle Real, next to the school. The Pizza Hut is in the small strip mall that protects the neighborhood from enquiring eyes. Easy walking distance, and it seems that you like to walk. Do you eat there sometimes? Do you and your friends/girlfriend/wife stuff yourselves with pizza and pasta, joke and talk and laugh?
I sweat. The cloth seat of our single portable chair chills my bottom every time the sluggish, heavy breeze stirs. It will rain today; the pain in my fingers tells me as much. The pain and the hot, wet air that wraps your body like a new-washed sheet and the sixty-three years that I have lived in Ponce, Puerto Rico. You did not have an umbrella when you rushed by. Will you get wet? Will you catch a chill? I would like to give you tea with honey and a splash of rum. But we have no tea; we have no honey. And the rum is Rafael’s last pleasure. A sip here, a sip there, and the bottle will last six months—longer, perhaps. He can’t be sure when he will be able to get another.
Every day of the last three weeks— every work day—you have seen us: me, Rafael, the camper. You couldn’t know that Ramón, second-to-the-last and older than Carmelita by eleven years, you couldn’t know that his comic intelligence named this, our last home, though the name never “stuck.”
Parked by Río Limaní, a chuckling and friendly river outside the mountain town of Adjuntas, Rafael is scolding María for going around without a top; she is only nine, and there are no other people anywhere close, so I don’t worry…. Perhaps I should have. Still in the middle of summer, the temperature by the river is no more than seventy degrees. If you could see Ramón: not the oldest nor the youngest, not the best nor the worst…. I think that you would like Carmelita, I said. But I know that you would like Ramón. If for different reasons. Everyone likes Ramón. He would make you laugh until you howled. Even you, who wears your seriousness like a shield so that none can get too close. If you were there, you would hear Ramón say, “She needs a name.” And my reply, “Who is that, my son?” You would see him twirl on his toes and throw back his head, hands wide enough to grab hold of the infinite world. You would be blasted by the eight years of continuous joy beaming from his laughing eyes and rushing from his open mouth.
“The camper. She needs a name.”
“Manchita the dog, Resbi the fish—”
When I turn to him, does the love I feel glow in my face? Enough that the afternoon sun seems pale? Would you see? Does my wonderful son? “A name?”
Do you speak Spanish, I wonder? Would you recognize the clever little joke that my young son made? Guagua, a bus or van, and the name Guadalupe; it would not put an adult audience to rolling on the floors, I admit. His humor is more sophisticated, now. And I have seen the people laugh until their cheeks shine with tears. But that first joke will, to me, always be his best.
No, we never called our traveling home “GuaGuadalupe.” I think that it was too clumsy on the tongue. But even sophisticated and disparaging Stefan deigned to laugh at his little brother’s wit.
GuaGuadalupe, the camper, our last home—by Ramón’s name, or yours. When you pass, every morning at 7:30, every afternoon at 4:30, you wonder why. Why here? And it is a good question, especially since we have four living children. Why?
(My stomach cramps; a moan slips past my lips. I am unprepared for the bubble of gas that also slips out, though not past my lips. I can’t help it; I giggle.)
The reasons why? The simple answer is that the hospital is within walking distance and Rafael doesn’t trust himself to drive, not even the three or four miles from our old apartment. Of course, my simple answer would not satisfy you. You would insist on knowing why our children are not taking charge of our lives. It is their duty, isn’t it?
I could tell you that Stefan lives in Miami. He is a concert promoter. I think that he might be involved in money laundering. The disloyal thought makes my cheeks warm. I want to believe that his great success stems from his “American work ethic”; his words. Such a serious boy. And with little time. He has no wife, no live-in girlfriend; his apartment is in South Beach. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a private study (whose carpet has longer hair than I do at the moment), a view of the Atlantic. And he offered: “Ma, you and Papi should come live with me. I have room.” He doesn’t lie, Stefan. He would house us and pamper us and feed us. And the truth is, sixty-three years in one city is long enough. But no.
I could tell you that Carlito has a tiny little house for the nanny and that she never uses it. She prefers to drive in every morning at 6:00 and drive out every evening at 8:00—fourteen hours under Leila’s critical surveillance is enough for anybody. We could watch Naomi grow—for a few years, anyway. And we could put up with Leila’s resentment; she is not so tough. But no.
I could tell you, again, that Carmelita has offered. Offers still. It is not the fact that the queen-sized bed is fighting the television for disputed territory. Nor is it the fact that she is young and needs what little room she has to flower and grow and explore. No.
I could tell you that the beach house Ramón bought is next to Villa Antonio, where Rafael and I honeymooned. (Puerto Rico is a very small island.) But he is never in it, his house. The last time he was in Ponce, when we lost the apartment, he offered. Like his brother, like his sister, as Carlito aches to do. But if he did, we would answer no.
I could tell you that all of our loved and cherished children offered their homes, offered to continue paying the rent for our apartment, offered to pool their considerable resources and buy us any house we desired (Carmelita vowing to pay back every cent of her share to her brothers). But no.
You are young and have a future. In ten years, you may be a doctor; you may be a successful researcher, traveling the world to talk about your investigations. Whether or not there is a wife, now or in the future, I cannot say. Perhaps you are like Stefan, who has no desire for a wife. Still, your movie is unwinding at its own pace, and it may be happy or sad or triumphant or something of all of those.
But we are old, Rafael and I. In ten years, one or both of us will be with María de la Cruz. She will be happy to take us in, as well; do you know? Soon, Rafael will be wearing his other suit of clothes, the one that remains. And I, the last of my outfits: the lilac dress with the spray of pale yellow freesias stitched into the left shoulder. I will wear it once for Rafael and then once more. I don’t regret that. Rafael, I think, welcomes it. He won’t say, would never! but part of him died on the night that the FBI called us from Florida. The hurricane wind simply snatched up a piece of his heart, took it to María, and never said please or thank you. In the meantime, we have his pride. We have café con leche and the news in the morning, rice and beans at night, and a fan that struggles with its obligations. We have the camper. ■
Bob Ritchie is a writer, medical editor and English teacher at a medical school in Puerto Rico.