At dusk I liked to sit out on the front stoop of my building and watch the people coming and going. Betty Amurrio’s cousins hung out in front, too, in the parking lot, listening to salsa blaring from their lowrider. I liked the graceful way they gestured at each other, slapped hands, and glanced around to see if they were being admired, at times adjusting their jeans hanging low on their slim hips or running their hands over their stubbly short hair. On warm evenings they wore their white t-shirts pulled up high on their hairless chests, exposing their flat stomachs and puffed chests with the alert, fearful glances of doves.
I was the only gringa in the neighborhood, and my neighbors took an interest in me for that reason alone. But Betty was different. Unlike other immigrant neighbors who came to me in desperation—asking for help finding people to hire them who wouldn’t care about green cards or immigration—she never asked for my help finding work. Instead, the night we met in the laundry room she talked about the miracle and the fortune teller “with nails like long, red knives” who read her palm and told her she’d go to America to seek her fortune. She shrugged and laughed as if to say, Why wouldn’t everyone want to be so lucky?
Whatever it took, Betty didn’t care. She took three buses to the suburban home of a wealthy Persian family, crossing invisible boundaries of our area. I imagine her standing coolly before them in their mahogany hallways as though she belonged there. She was utterly sure of herself and what she’d do to make money, and they must’ve realized this. She didn’t care about the opinions of others or about cleaning toilets six days a week or selling her meat pastries on the sidewalk on holidays. She cared about her dreams, and I admired that. I offered to help her, and she accepted and hugged me not so much from gratitude—because she already knew she was lucky—but from our newfound friendship, which lasted several good, long months.
Unlike Betty, holidays and Sundays were the worst for me. No matter how hard I tried, my plans fell through, and I ended up alone at home watching old movies and drinking diet soda to kill time. One Sunday, Betty came upstairs after selling her pastries on the corner and knocked on my door. When I let her in, she waved the cash she’d made like a deck of cards in her hands.
“You see? If you work hard, everything is yours,” she said.
“It’s the good, old American way,” I replied.
She looked at my sofa—the blanket, the leftover sandwich—and at me in my slippers and faded bathrobe.
“Alone again, eh? Tch, this is crazy. Don’t be that way. Come downstairs and I’ll make you something to eat.”
We went downstairs to her apartment and talked about our big plans, like sisters, while she prepared a batch of empanadas.
Betty and I were the same age, but came from different worlds. I grew up on the flat, silent land of central Illinois. My parents were farmers, stubbornly Protestant and connected to that piece of earth and committed to honesty and hard work. In the fallow time between fall and winter, I used to sit alone in the empty fields, picking at the dirt, and a great wave would build in my chest until I was almost suffocating as though I were drowning inside myself. The doctor prescribed medication, but I knew what it meant.
“I knew I had to leave and go where I could breathe,” I told her. “I wanted to live in a place where people worked and laughed and loved out loud and in bright colors.”
“So, you came here?” said Betty. “But we are none of this.”
I majored in Spanish in college and found a job working at a community center in our suburban Washington, D.C. neighborhood because I wanted to help others.
“Here total strangers treat me like one of their own. Here I can do some good,” I said.
Betty pinched my arm, saying, “You are our little American girl. Look at how white your skin is. Like milk! No matter. You are Bolivian in your soul.”
With so few sources of pride at the time, I took it as a compliment and wholly believed her. I leaned heavily on these feelings when work got me down. My job consisted of carefully following all the rules set out by the administration, playing the role of soft-spoken interpreter, and calling the police whenever trouble erupted. In between I made calls about housecleaning jobs for Betty.
One evening, Betty revealed that her family was also from the countryside, outside the Bolivian city of Potosí. Her parents worked in the zinc mines and grew coca plants. She married after high school, had two children, one right after the other, and left her husband “because he didn’t work,” she explained.
“My father died and with him, I died a little, too. I left my husband and took my children, Mari and Octavio, to live with my mother.” She pulled a photo from her purse. “See? Here are my babies. So big now. I look at this on the bus on the way to work. That is my mother.” She sighed. “I didn’t know what to do or where to go. The woman read my palm and, like your dream, I knew I had to go away.”
Somehow—she would never give the details—she crossed many borders into the United States to work.
“I thought maybe two years would be enough,” she said.
She overworked herself until she got sick, recovered, and worked some more, cleaning and watching children who had more money in the clothes on their backs than she made in a week.
“One day I will go home with enough money to open my own shop and give my children a good life.”
She explained this to me, as she did everything, with a shrug as though challenges were simple facts she could ignore or overcome like a bird lofting itself above a storm.
Despite our similar dreams, sometimes we argued. She complained about my so-called resistance to having fun.
“You’re young,” she said. “Forget about everything and have fun. Why do you fight it?”
I countered with, “I just want to find my soul mate and a place to call home.”
“Find,” she said flatly. “But you are not finding, are you?”
Once, when I had the nerve to tell her I was lonely, she scoffed at me and prescribed copious amounts of wine and a forgettable roll in the hay, as though loneliness were some cute thing. But to me it was more like the piercing of a knife or the persistent, oozing, throbbing ache of a wound—life and death things. Sometimes she became so frustrated that I wondered if I’d finally said the wrong thing to make her tire of me and my ways that were so different from hers.
She looked at life and saw gardens springing up from every turn, a bounty of rewards waiting to be handpicked. How could I ever explain to her the complexities of my loneliness when she could not understand? I might as well have tried to describe the sky to a blind woman. She might look at the sky, but she would not feel its vast blue emptiness, weightlessness, calling to her. All my life I had felt that fearful loneliness haunting me, and no one had ever come along to prove me wrong. The only way to be free was to live a life devoted to service and hope to meet someone of like mind. This made perfect sense to me.
I could never share this with Betty. On the surface, perhaps to her, it seemed ridiculous, crazy even, that I should feel this way. Life is meant for extracting as much pleasure as possible. Problemas are to be solved. If you’re lonely, get a boyfriend. If you have no money, get a job. If you need more, get a better job or maybe two. If you have bad luck, see a curadera who will find out the name of the spirit that is giving you bad luck, find out what it wants, and help you get rid of it.
Betty lived her philosophy through a full work and social calendar. She and her four cousins lived in a two-bedroom apartment in our building. Every Friday night, they invited friends and neighbors over for food and dancing.
I have never liked parties—the forced small talk, the greasy food that inevitably ended up in my lap. So humiliating! But I went to every party for Betty’s sake because she was my friend and I liked my neighbors—old Señor and Señora Morales who had a parrot that could curse in three languages (they thought the previous owner had been a sailor); Luis Quisbert who worked for his brother’s construction business by day and took English classes at night; and Marlita, a seamstress and the lone Salvadoran in our building, who promised to make my wedding dress one day.
I went to these parties, but didn’t dance, even when asked. It would’ve looked silly. I knew this and other things about myself—couldn’t drink alcohol without throwing up, dance without tripping, or fantasize about a man without blushing.
I tried not to be noticed, but was noticed because I was the only one not dancing. Some of them, the ones who didn’t know of my Bolivian soul, must’ve been laughing at me, at this woman who couldn’t relax and have fun.
People said, “Julia, what’s wrong? Why don’t you dance? Are you unhappy?”
“Who, me?” I said and tried to dance by wiggling and jumping up and down, pretending to have fun until no one was watching and I could slip into the bathroom and sit on the edge of the tub with my glass of warm Coca-Cola.
Betty was the center of attention with her shiny hair, easy smile, and low smooth voice that had a slight growl to it when she laughed. She did all the cooking and was the first to start dancing, always pulling the quietest man to his feet. I knew she wouldn’t be single for long. That was how she met Miguel. He owned his own woodworking shop (she liked that he was independent and had money) and could play guitar and rhyme like the most romantic troubadours of South America.
I didn’t like him.
Soon he replaced the Friday night parties. There were no more dinners on Sundays, either. I missed our dinners together. Actually, I missed the parties, too. I was left alone without so much as an apology. Only in passing would she speak to me, grasping my shoulders and saying, “I am happy!” while I stood on the sidelines and wrung my hands like a confused observer watching the important parts of her own life pass her by.
Sometimes I saw them cruising the streets together, arms crooked like wings through open windows, laughing, always laughing. Within three months they were engaged, and at the time I resented her astonishing ease with intimate relationships, but knew this was mean-spirited and told her I was glad for her. I also made up excuses for her. Her behavior was not a deliberate attempt to hurt me, but a result of the overpowering pull of love. Over time she would miss me, apologize for this betrayal to our friendship, and come back to our home-cooked meals and long talks. We’d promised each other to always stay friends. I tried to believe it at the loneliest times.
When Miguel died in a car crash while visiting family in Bolivia, she came upstairs to my apartment, crying and moaning. I felt at once relieved to have her back and guilty for having been angry with Miguel for taking her from me.
A special mass was held in his honor. It had rained for an entire week, but that day the sunlight was intense, giving the small stone church a silvery glow. We carried boxes of potted lilies to lay at the front of the church. Jorge Fernandez, the gray-haired Father of the Iglesia San Pedro, prepared a space for the special mass, smoothing a white swath of cloth on the table like a map and purposefully placing a candle at each end and a thick Bible and loose papers in the center. The church was simple and small and smelled of the woods, fresh and cool. The whitewashed walls and high-beamed ceiling were barely visible in the low indoor light.
We went to the front pew and waited. Betty sat silently praying and crossing herself. She sobbed into her hands or on my shoulder. Soon the cousins filed into the church. I almost didn’t recognize them in the light of day—they were clean-shaven and wearing buttoned shirts, pressed slacks and snakeskin cowboy boots.
Betty’s young cousin Angie was in the pew behind us with her aunt, known to all as Mama Lupe even though she had no children of her own. Every few minutes she leaned forward to pat Betty’s face and coo comforting words. Angie worked as a teller at the local bank branch. I first saw her there a few weeks after she dyed her hair blonde and the black roots were growing out. Her blouse was pulled to one side, revealing a tiny red flower and the words Li’l Cutie tattooed under the right collarbone. She covered it and wore a scarf on her head for mass.
The air was gray and heavy with incense, and Father Fernandez began to speak, reading from Psalms in Spanish. We sang hymns and read from the liturgy, repeating the language of faith. The golden chalice and plate emerged, but few took communion. I’d never been to a Catholic service before and had to mimic the others. The place, the light, the ceremony, all these things consumed what remained of my angst over the past, at least for the hour-long mass.
Toward the end of the service, Father Fernandez spoke in practiced earnestness, trying to give meaning to Miguel’s death. “Como la semilla del trigo tiene que cambiar a la fruta por la muerte,” he said with a slight smile, “también todos tienen que morir para llegar al paraíso.” Like the grain of wheat that changes into fruit through death, so must we all die to reach Heaven. The Father’s low, docile voice and the leaves outside shifting like whispers seemed to calm the crying.
After the mass, we all went to the house of Miguel’s brother, Beni, for the wake. He had his own construction business and clientele that tipped him hundred dollar bills “like they were giving away candy,” Betty told us. He lived in suburban Virginia in a house with a yard.
We drove through our neighborhood, past the little shopping center parking lot where the produce man was selling mangoes from the back of a flatbed truck and where homeless men lived around a small grove of trees. We traveled over rough roads and potholes, past patches of old homes and scattered trees, slivers of parks wedged between concrete buildings and sidewalks where people were pressing into one another. We crossed the invisible boundary, and the view quickly gave way to smooth residential streets, cut lawns and invisible neighbors.
A van, normally parked at a main intersection of our neighborhood, was parked in front of the house. One side of the van advertised tacos, empanadas, and burritos, and the other side, fast and hot homemade food. We marched slowly in line into the house and into the kitchen where the women from the van, friends of the family, were preparing to serve everyone. The cousins went downstairs where the music was playing. I joined the other women outside on the patio behind the house.
“Miguel called four days ago. He said, ‘Beatriz, I’m coming back early to be with you,’ ” Betty said. “That was the last time I spoke to him. His sister called the next day.”
She told us what his sister had told her about the accident. The other women moaned softly and clicked their tongues, reacting as if we were hearing the story for the first time. She had told the story before, but repeated it in a way that made it seem real instead of like something imagined or overheard about a young, dark-haired man from the plains of Bolivia racing through narrow, rutted side streets and crashing into a truck.
I imagined each traveler found death by transcending physical space, passing through something on the way to another place—the young Miguel through the windshield, the truck driver hanging by his boots out an open window, and some chickens in crates in the back with their heads blown through the slats, their loose necks hanging over the side of the truck, as if they were trying to get a better view of the damage.
“Will you go back to Bolivia now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Betty said. “Maybe one more year here.”
I nodded at her because I thought I knew what that meant. Maybe one more year of cleaning houses and eventually home to a young son and daughter and a simple life that had been carefully maintained in Potosí since she left.
We ate without speaking. The yard was small and lush and enclosed by a high wood fence. Crows flapped over.
“Do you want to see pictures of my little angels?” Mama Lupe asked.
She took some photos from her purse and passed them around. Her little angels were three terriers and a multicolored fish named Ignacio she’d found slapping around in a gutter after a thunderstorm. She said he was a gift from God and had surely claimed her as his mother. He sat in a tank on her mantle between a framed picture of Jesus and another of Saint Francis of Assisi.
“Do you have children?” Mama Lupe asked me.
I had prepared myself for the question because it was always the first question women asked other women in my neighborhood.
When no explanation came, she said, “What about your boyfriend or your husband—he could not come today? He let you come alone like this?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend or a husband.”
An awkward period of silence passed.
“One day you want to marry a Spanish-speaking man? Maybe a Bolivian?” she asked. There was a friendliness in the way she asked the question.
I wanted to scream, Yes! Yes, I do! I want to feel his hot breath on the back of my neck every night and see his strong, brown hand holding mine. I want to feel desired and from a man’s desire feel powerful in that special way. I want to learn how to make empanadas and swap recipes with his sisters in perfect Spanish. I want to learn how to dance. I want to be transformed into everything I am not.
But I didn’t. Instead I finished chewing and swallowed hard. “How could I? I can’t even dance.”
The women chuckled, all but Betty, who was staring at her glass of wine like a lost girl, eyes open wide and ridged with pink.
I hoped a light-hearted answer would mean the end to Mama’s line of questioning, though it never worked on my mother, who’d only get angry, tell me not to be flip. Sharing feelings with her brought out her anxiousness, her grieving over unrealized dreams for a daughter too shy to attempt romance and too young to be alone. My father, a stoic man, would respond with no words, no expression, guarding his opinions with silence, wondering all the while, What kind of daughter is this? as I’d try to make him understand until he’d mutter something about the danger in being picky. They looked, instead, to my younger sister for reassurance of their parenting skills. She’d married two years earlier, bought a house, and was living comfortably in Boston with a new baby boy in her arms and a socialite husband at her side, just as she’d planned.
Betty studied me. She drained her glass of wine in one final gulp. “You don’t even like Bolivian men and this is the problem. Hmm, my Boliviana?”
“Of course, I do!”
“You don’t try to dance with them. When they ask you out, you give some excuse and say no.”
“Asked me out? No one’s asked me out.”
“Anselmo Arias told me he did and you said no. He came to me almost crying, poor thing.”
“He has one good eye and is a foot shorter than I am.”
The others laughed softly at the minor spectacle. In our little neighborhood, an exchange like ours would be prime grist for the gossip mill. I was sure to hear alternate versions at the community center on Monday.
“He is a hard worker, owns a house, and called you cute,” she replied. “Yes, that was it. He said cute. You have to try sometimes. Besides, it is only for fun. Nothing serious.”
I raised my chin at her. “I’m only interested in serious relationships.”
At this she laughed. “You cannot reach serious without first playing little games with them. If you don’t, they will run away like scared rabbits. You cannot succeed, if you do not play. Bolivians are not for you. Maybe you like bad men. This is the problem.”
I could feel the heat in my face and fumbled with my napkin, desperately searching for the right reply.
Thankfully, Angie filled the pause. “I have to marry a hot guy. A sweet, romantic, hot guy.” She looked at me. “Maybe even an American. I see them looking at me at the bank.”
Betty said, “What is wrong with you? You have to marry a Bolivian, like you. If you don’t, it cannot work.”
“Mama thinks she can marry a Bolivian,” Angie said, gesturing at me with her thumb. “I can marry an American.”
“She said it like joking,” Betty said.
Mama laughed and whispered to her in a staccato stream of slang, some of which I caught, words like silly kid and a term for candy.
“Okay, I get it. God,” Angie said.
“You can’t help who you fall in love with,” I said, only half expecting some agreement.
Everyone sat relaxed and taking in the backyard scenery as if I’d made no sound.
Finally, Betty said, “Listen. Try to use your head and not your heart. You could do anything, live anywhere. You went to school and you were born here. Life is easy for you. Why don’t you go home to your family?”
She uttered these words without a hint of malice, but the words surprised me and brought on a fit of wheezing. I scrounged around in my purse for my medicine, found a pill, and swallowed it.
At the sight of my reaction, she seemed to soften, saying, “Let me tell you a story. “When I was young, ah, how terrible, I was like my friends—bored with no life. I married a man and took care of him until one special day I met a woman who told me I would escape and change my destiny to make a better life. She said one day I would find a new husband and be rich.”
Betty announced this breathlessly like a revelation and then fixed me with a cold stare.
“But she was wrong. Miguel is gone. Every week I call my mother and she says to me, ‘If only you hadn’t gone out into the world’… ‘If only you’d stayed home and married a nice man and devoted yourself to your children’… Now I know she was right. So, I say her words to you now. Listen to me. Chasing something that you hope will change your life is a waste. You must go back and get married and have children because this will solve your problem.”
Instead of answering, I put a meat pastry in my mouth. It was hot and greasy with a spiciness that tingled as it slid down my throat and landed heavily in my chest.
Betty took me by the arm inside, put a glass of wine with Coca-Cola in my hand, told me to drink, drink it all, and waited until I had. As we descended a narrow staircase to the basement, the ripe smell of men and stale wine hit my face. The brother, the big man from the van, and the cousins and their friends sat in chairs against one wall. A fast, light song came from large speakers at each end of the room. The men nodded at us, and Beni rose to greet us. He gave Betty a tall glass of beer, which she drank in gulps until her eyes watered.
I sat in a chair near the other men, who were speaking among themselves, leaning forward with their elbows on their knees. Beni and Betty rose from the couch to dance to a slow song on the stereo. Betty pushed her hair out of the way behind her and placed her head on Beni’s shoulder. The men stopped talking to watch them sway to the rhythm in a tired way. The big man’s brow wrinkled, and he looked down at his hands, turning them around and examining his palms as if trying to read a message in them, but the cousins watched the couple dancing.
Beni and Betty teetered around, but soon became entangled, holding on to one another as if clinging to the edge of a cliff, and Beni began to place kisses on her face, on the face of his dead brother’s fiancée, and Betty permitted this all the while weeping and moaning.
A damp hand touched my arm. It belonged to one of the young cousins. He gaped at me, and his eyes looked into mine briefly before looking away embarrassed.
“I can’t hear you.” I leaned my ear toward his face.
“You want to dance with me?”
He asked this in Spanish and gave me a wide smile.
I could see him through his watery eyes looking at me, thinking he could like me if he tried and guessing my age to be maybe only a few years beyond his when it was more than that. I looked at the other cousins and then at Betty on the dance floor. As I watched her, the wine’s numbing hold fell away from me like the erosion of our friendship, which she’d shrug off like everything else, as though it had been merely a predictable exchange of favors—housekeeping jobs for her, empanadas for me—easily wiped clean in one simple exchange. In this room of men, I was left alone again and maybe for the first time didn’t care.
The young cousin repeated his question slowly and in broken English. I nodded and let him take me by the hand to dance to Beni and Betty’s slow song. He smelled of cologne and held me gently, and I liked that. I closed my eyes and thought of sleeping with all the windows open on cool nights under heavy blankets, the weight of them embracing me. In the morning, I’d wake to the humming of buses on the main drag a block away, those noises of people and their machines in motion, unable to avoid one another. As we danced I hoped that night would be another cool night.
After the dance, I left immediately, giving some awkward excuse, and drove toward the city with the radio off and windows rolled down to feel the night air rush cool over my skin like fingertips. Instead of going home, I turned into the little shopping center, which was bustling with activity at dusk. The Goodwill, Dollar Store, check-cashing business, and tienda latina, selling imported goods from Latin America, would be open until midnight. In the laundromat, men and women crowded around the machines, children were transfixed on plastic chairs in front of the television and video games, and in the back, a few ladies no doubt would be having their nails done or their hair curled and plumped.
I pulled into a space at the far end of the lot where a crowd of people had gathered around the produce truck and got out. A man in the back of the truck was knee-deep in coconuts.
“From Florida,” he announced to the crowd with a sweep of his arm.
We all stood around sipping the juice, and some scooped out the white flesh with a flap of coconut skin.
Two men who lived under trees nearby joined the crowd, speaking low to people as they approached the truck. Their clothes hung loose and heavy. One of the men snatched a mango from a large grocery bag leaning against the truck and walked away in slow, exaggerated strides, glancing around for any reaction. We remained silent, sipping our coconut juice. The second man snatched the mango from him and returned it to the bag. The man in the back of the truck was smiling, laughing quietly to himself, staring at the two men. They exchanged words in a low tone, but the men were ignored as the people continued with their private conversations.
As I returned to my car to drink, with each step a suffocating wave swelled in my chest and seized me just as it had before. Through the roar of it I heard it calling as though waking me and telling me to go do something, anything, so long it meant moving on. I was able to reach my car and struggled with my breath as a child wrestles another to the ground, all the while talking it down until it broke through, smooth and full again. I sat there for some time breathing, flaking off bits of coconut with my fingertips. The light diminished, and the lot emptied.
The two men retreated to the cover of a dogwood tree across the road where they remained until darkness fell and spread out their blanketed pallets in the dirt to go to sleep.
Marjorie Robertson teaches at the University of California, Irvine and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University. Her first novel, Bitters in the Honey, was a semifinalist in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition. She is working on a novel based on her short story, “The Gleaners,” which was published by The Santa Fe Writers Project. She has also completed a collection of ekphrastic short stories. Her writing has appeared in The Quarterly, Inversion Magazine, Missouri Life, Touch Magazine, and The Sunday Journal. She can be reached at www.marjorierobertson.com and on Twitter @Marjorieann3.