illustration by Rene Castro
Amparo met him on a Friday night when the brothel was resurrected by the women’s laughter – too high pitched to be sincere – tobacco smoke, and dimmed lights winking off chipped glasses of rum. She strode into the bedroom, where he was sitting with the posture of a war hero’s statue in the plaza.
Amparo introduced herself by offering her back so he could unzip her dress. His hands were smooth and weighty like rocks worn flat by constant water, unlike the calloused sugar cane cutters who sometimes held her by the throat, as if she were a goddamn reed herself. Amparo removed his fedora, somber gray suit, tie, shirt, shoes, socks and underwear, hanging up and folding as necessary. She was as thorough the rest of the night, so that the scar on her right index finger, the faded burns on her left forearm, or her pendulous breasts that hung like a wet nurse’s, did not matter. He finished not with a grunt but with an anguished pant in her ear as if he had bitten into food that was too hot. Amparo poured him a glass of water from a jug on the nightstand.
“When can I see you again?”
She lit a cigarette, inhaled, and passed it to him, while he gulped down the water.
“Ask yourself.” She pointed her chin towards his wallet, which she had placed conveniently within his reach on the nightstand. She would not remember his name until his fifth visit, when she wiped the sweat from his forehead with someone else’s forgotten handkerchief and Fede told her he loved her.
Noelia had spent every year since her twenty-third tightening the habit of spinsterhood around herself so that now, at thirty-three, men were wholly obscured from her sight. Men were something to be sifted through like the pots of uncooked pigeon peas that as a child she would watch the cook inspect for pebbles. Noelia had no shortage of suitors, but sooner or later – thankfully always sooner rather than later – they revealed themselves as pebbles. Noelia saw no good reason to risk what was certain to be a cracked tooth.
Noelia’s brother introduced her to Federico on a Sunday after Mass. He spoke to her for too long, too animatedly, about his work at the sugar refinery, the book of Pedro Mir poems he was reading, how the music young people listened to like that merengue sounded as if it barreled straight out of a bayou, his sonorous voice drawing curious glances. Noelia found him silly, especially for a man of forty-three, but there was something about his enthusiasm that made her smile as he spoke.
It was not until she was at the dining table, later that same Sunday, surrounded by her parents, brother, sister-in-law, sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews that Noelia allowed herself a moment to indulge in wondering what it would feel like to have a man seated next to her that she could look upon with tenderness, as he brought a forkful of food to his lips. To her surprise, she pictured the somewhat endearing laugh lines around Federico’s mouth.
Noelia declined Federico’s first invitation for coffee after Mass – since visiting London, she preferred tea – and a subsequent one for lunch – she ate with her family. His dinner invitation was far too intimate, but she finally acquiesced to a walk in the plaza. He was shorter than she would’ve preferred and his spicy cologne was so overpowering, she was grateful their proper walking positions – he, on the outside, closest to the curb and she, on the inside, closest to the houses and shops – did not place her downwind. Yet, she found herself wondering if his kiss would taste of his last meal, the mints that clattered against their tin prison in his suit jacket pocket, or nothing at all.
Their courtship was much like that first stroll – pleasant, unhurried, respectful. Saturday afternoons they enjoyed films at the local cinema – The Bridge on the River Kwai, An Affair to Remember, Tizoc. They attended dances at the San Juan Social Club, established by the burgeoning community of Puerto Rican émigrés, thanks to the refinery. Noelia waited for him to lie, make a disparaging remark or cross the line of propriety between a man and a woman, but the moment never arrived.
One evening, after the customary light dinner with Noelia’s family – fish soup, white rice, toasted bread, and marble cake that night – Federico smoked his cigarette on the porch. Noelia sat beside him on the swinging bench that cupped them in the breeze. The full moon hung low and heavy like an expectant mother.
“How beautiful.” Federico’s exhaled smoke drifted up to the moon like an offering.
“If you like old rocks,” Noelia teased.
“That old rock has been illuminating the darkness for millennia.”
“Don’t we have the sun for that?”
“The sun is a tyrant. The Earth is forced to revolve around it or die, but the moon orbits around us.”
“That makes the moon nothing more than our slave.”
“Not at all. Because as much as we pull the moon towards us, she also pulls back and rules a part of us. The ocean.” Federico clasped Noelia’s hand in his. She was no longer looking at the moon. Six months later, they were married.
Amparo had not seen Fede in a couple of months, but she only realized it when he reappeared seated at the foot of her rickety bed with a box in his hands. From the way Fede’s eyes grew large behind his glasses and he cleared his throat, Amparo could tell he was not expecting to see her hand holding another’s. I bet this will put out his fire, she thought. Her son peered at Fede from behind her thigh. She leaned down, whispered in his ear, and the boy slipped away.
“I noticed you have pierced ears, but never wear earrings.” Fede handed her a red box tied with white ribbon. Inside was a pair of diamond earrings mounted on white gold. Amparo resisted the urge to bite them, but considered their utility in an emergency with a visit to the pawn shop.
“You have new jewelry too.” She eyed his wedding band. Even in the caliginosity of her room, Amparo saw Fede’s cheeks flush. She began to unzip her skirt, but he grasped her wrist and patted a threadbare patch of sheet next to him on the bed.
“I’ve been promoted. To civil engineer.”
“I want you to stop working.”
Amparo nodded as if she were indulging a child. “You don’t say.” She marched to her door and swung it open, fist planted on her hip. “You don’t want me to stop working. You want me to work for you instead.” A panic rose inside her like a wave and crashed in her head. It was that same feeling that had made her believe in a man once. Back then, she needed to believe in just one man’s word. Because all the girls in her barrio had before getting married. Yet, she was the only one in a whorehouse who misstepped in her choice of man or how much of herself she gave. Her mother always said if two people are in a relationship, make sure you’re not the one in love. Her heart still limped at the memory of her son’s father, like an animal that manages to survive a trap, but not without broken limbs and missing patches of fur. Amparo wondered if it wasn’t too late though to get back to where she was supposed to be in her life.
“Get out.” She whispered hoarsely, barely louder than the din in her head.
Fede extracted bills from his clip and placed them on the nightstand. “You owe me time then. Or change.”
Amparo cut her eyes from Fede to the money. She closed the door, but hovered in front of it, fingers wrapped around the broken doorknob. The door trembled against its ill-fitting frame every time the girl and customer in the neighboring room exerted themselves.
“What did you dream about when you were a girl?”
“If you’re going to ask me stupid questions, I’d rather give you your change.” Amparo lunged at the money.
“Wait. Just answer me. What kind of life did you want to have when you grew up?”
“The same shit all the girls wanted.” Amparo stopped riffling through the bills. A blanket of dust had long settled over her wants and she was afraid she would regret this moment, disturbing it. “I wanted more than what I had. A clean house. A handsome husband. Children. A dog. My mother said it would be cruel to make a dog go hungry with us.”
Fede guided Amparo to sit next to him. “When I was a boy, I had a piglet. León. I fed him with one of my sister’s old baby bottles. He slept with me every night until he grew too big.
“Oh, don’t look at me that way. Pigs are intelligent animals. We’ve just limited them to being food. Anyway, one day, a hurricane ripped everything away. The only cow we had, the chickens, the two other pigs, the mango tree, the roof and two of the walls. León was the only animal left. Until my father told me to fetch him.
“Look, there are things we want and things that ensure our survival. When they’re one and the same, that’s a blessing, but when they’re not…Well, we are animals too so we’ll always guarantee our own survival above anything.”
Amparo brushed invisible crumbs off her skirt and tested the truth of what Fede had said against the misery of her twenty-five years. Survival was wrapped around her life like a plantain leaf around a pastel.
“Now… I may not be exactly what you dreamed of,” Fede lifted his fedora and ran his palm over his receding hairline, “but I can give you a better place to live. Your son can go to a private school. And I do love you. You and I are like two different fruits, but grown in the same conuco.”
Amparo narrowed her eyes. “What about you? What do you get out of this?”
“I’ve already secured my survival. Now I’d like to have what I want.”
Amparo did not receive another client – after Fede made arrangements with the madam, of course. Two weeks later Amparo had chosen the row house Fede would rent for them.
Fridays and Saturdays, Amparo and Fede expressed what they didn’t have time for during the week. He, his ardor, through roses, Neruda poems whispered in the dark and love letters left on the nightstand before Sunday dawns. Amparo, her cautious gratitude, with stuffed peppers, meatballs, and stewed codfish.
Amparo was very clear on her place and wasn’t in love with Fede anyway. That didn’t mean she was indifferent to his wellbeing or happiness, in fact she cared so much she was willing to be the reason for his. That was some kind of love, not the one he wished he would see in her eyes when he was on top of her, she was sure, and not the love that made her blood dance like her son’s father did, but it was something and it dug into her a little deeper each day.
Federico’s absences did not go unnoticed by Noelia. She came close to asking him several times, fortifying herself through the night with the belief that truth was preferable to illusion and questioning what good principles of character were if they crumbled at the slightest pressure. Hadn’t she considered herself a woman hecha y derecha? Well, here was an opportunity to distinguish herself as a woman who is, rather than a woman who thinks she is, but when Federico arrived Sunday mornings there was only enough time to get themselves ready for Mass. Then Sundays did not seem appropriate for anything but devotion to God. The rest of the week settled into a rhythm she was averse to disrupting on the distant hope it would continue through the weekend.
Noelia was certain, however, and she took that certainty and busied herself in the kitchen for fear the turmoil would devour her – which gave the cook heart palpitations about losing her job, but Noelia assured her this was just a whim and she would be needing her for the real work. Noelia’s fingers found peace in the repetitive chopping and stirring that quieted her mind so that only the dish mattered – not her charred ego or slices of jealousy. Cooking filled any holes that had eaten through her soul like moths, made them not quite whole but aromatic and vibrant. Noelia remembered how much she enjoyed the smell of onions and garlic sautéing, heralds of the good meal to come, before it became improper for her to spend her days as if she were the help. When her sisters were pregnant, they craved her rellenos, bursting with pork seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, oregano, and only her hen soup would do when her father came down with a cold.
At first it was random things – ñoquis, bread pudding, goat marinated in bitter orange and rum – until the first time Federico did not come home on a Thursday. She escaped the mocking of her empty bed before dawn and began a purposeful banquet, by the light of an oil lamp, so that her shadow on the wall resembled a witch hunched over a cauldron.
There was a knock at Amparo’s door precisely as she was adding auyama and carrots to the simmering pot of arvejas for Fede’s lunch. When she opened the door, a young black woman in a servant’s uniform stood on the porch. Avoiding Amparo’s eyes, she thrust a large basket into her arms: “De parte de Doña Noelia.” The girl scampered away before Amparo could say or do anything.
From Federico’s car, Noelia thought Amparo looked more like a cook than a whore. She was a sturdy mulatta with coarse hair held away from her face by a red headband. She’d actually come to the door in a faded housecoat! Noelia couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or offended. When her maid climbed back into the sky blue Ford, Noelia asked the driver to take them home.
When Fede arrived at noon, he showered as he usually did. As he dried his glasses and sat at the head of the table – which Amparo liked to point out was square so for all they knew the empty seats were the heads – Fede asked, with a pinch to Amparo’s bottom, if they were having an indoor picnic.
Amparo unpacked the ensalada de vainitas y repollo cocido, higado, pan, aguacate, even dulce de naranjas en almibar for dessert. The lettuce, string bean and cabbage salad glistened with olive oil and vinegar, reminding Amparo of the schoolgirls with shiny long hair who always chose to stand next to her and shake their tresses in her face. That bitch, Amparo thought as she served the liver. The one thing that Amparo couldn’t stand to eat – there was just not enough garlic and oregano in the world to make liver taste better than sucking on a handful of coins – and here it was reminding her of the things life would serve her whether she liked it or not. You don’t know who you’re fucking with, she fumed as she bit into a piece of crusty bread. She had never swallowed anything life threw at her – not her father’s nighttime visits, not her son’s father leaving soon after her menstruation stopped, and not this now.
“How is everything?” Amparo asked Fede as he chewed a mouthful of liver.
“Very good. As always.”
When she told him the meal was courtesy of his own house, his wife, he turned a shade of yellow to match the center of the avocado slice on his plate and choked on that mouthful of liver as his food went cold. As did he.
Noelia arrived at her parents’ house with two suitcases. Her parents looked at them as if they were stuffed with tapeworms instead of clothes. When Noelia confided to her mother that she had followed Federico, her mother shook her head. “Who told you to go snooping?”
Her father, the voice of reason, merely suggested finding a solution because while allowing Noelia to stay unmarried for so long had only inspired a few whispers – which they tolerated out of love – this was more serious. Besides, they were getting older. Where would she run to when they were no longer there? Perhaps a child would keep Federico at home more, after all the man had no family, no roots in the Dominican Republic.
Noelia did not bother to stay for dinner. As her father’s driver took her home, she thought of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden except she could no longer agree that their sin was egregious enough to merit exile.
A child. Apparently, she was herself only a child whose life decisions were really only indulgences her parents had granted her. Her life was like the tea parties she’d had with her dolls as a girl – she’d controlled the proceedings, but only until she was called for dinner by the real adults. She was not a moon, a sun, the earth or an ocean; she was a woman. Just a woman.
Back home again, Noelia’s unpacking was interrupted by a knock at the door. She told the maid she would answer, relieved for the distraction and, yes, despite everything, hoping it was Federico. But it was a boy. About five years old, with beautiful brown eyes that swept about nervously. He handed her a bag he could barely carry and ran off the steps, down the street.
She unpacked the bag on the mahogany dining room table and almost said, touché, out loud. The smell of sancocho de mondongo made her insides lurch. It was accompanied by steaming white rice, avocado, and dulce de coco con batata. She hated when mondongo was cooked in her parents’ house. Everyone was insane to even think of eating beef tripe. That was only a few degrees from eating entrails and they might as well be savages if they ate that way. She didn’t back down and she expects me to. Noelia forced a spoonful of sancocho into her mouth. She’s got nerve, but that doesn’t only grow in barrios and campos. Noelia continued to plunge her spoon into the food until it was all gone. There was another knock on the door, but Noelia could remember nothing but the sound of her own retching and the acrid taste of bile after the policemen had given her their condolences.
When her throat still burned the next morning and her stomach would not stop convulsing, her mother and sisters insisted it was the impact of such a terrible tragedy, but it occurred to Noelia that Amparo could have poisoned her. A visit from Dr. Linares proved them all wrong though. Noelia was pregnant.
Amparo watched Noelia from the gate of the cemetery as mourners filed past her. Noelia’s face was hidden behind large sunglasses and a hat with a veil, but the hair that peeked out against the nape of her long, ivory neck was fine and blond. Despite the balmy weather, her black dress and gloves, she seemed encased in a block of ice, apart from all those people around her. She moved only to dab her cheeks with a white, silk handkerchief.
At the end of the service, Noelia motioned to her family to walk ahead, that she needed a moment. She walked over to Amparo, lifted her veil and removed her sunglasses. Neither woman spoke, they stood side-by-side, watching workers shovel dirt onto his coffin.
“I’m pregnant.” Noelia’s hand rested on her stomach.
“You’ll have to eat better.” Amparo turned to face her.
Noelia was the first to pucker her lips to dam the laugh in her mouth, but it was no use. Both women burst into laughter behind their palms, until tears spilled over and all that was left at the end was a deep simultaneous sigh. They drew more than a few stares and whispers from mourners walking to their waiting drivers. Both women regarded each other for a moment, curious but too spent to ask.
“Take care.” Amparo turned and walked away, remembering her cravings for freshly baked French bread with butter when she was pregnant. She stopped at the bakery for a loaf. As she bit into the handfuls she broke off, her tears mixing into the butter, she wondered if Noelia’s growing belly would eclipse the memory of them all and she whispered a blessing for that baby.