Authors: Maria Espinosa
While she waited for the water to boil, she peered through the kitchen window above faded red cafe curtains. Craning her neck up,
with her nose pressed against the glass, above the roofs of neighboring buildings she could see a few faint stars and a sliver of moon.
When she stepped back from the window, the glass ceased to reveal what was outside and became a mirror reflecting her image. Her own face looked haggard; she felt weak from hunger.
That first week in the loft passed for Adrianne as if she were living in a dream, suspended outside of time. Everything was calm and uneventful. But she knew this calm couldn't last. The anguish inside her coupled with the tension and the violence she sensed in Alfredo made it impossible that these halcyon days should last.
After she got off work, she would go back to his place and prepare a midnight repast for him, which she kept hot in the ovenâroast chicken and salad, or perhaps black beans and rice cooked the way he'd once showed her. While he ate, she would sip a glass of water. She was proud of sticking to her diet, although she felt hunger pangs when she watched him eat.
Every night when he came home from work, she would rush into his arms. He was affectionate, but she could tell that he was under pressure. His eyes were often full of torment and his face was drawn.
Every night that first week, they made love. In the morning when the alarm rang at eleven and it was time for her to get up and go to work, he would hold her for a while in his arms. Then he would roll over and go back to sleep.
She continued at her cooking job. When she got home at night, she was usually tired and had to push herself to do domestic chores.
While she waited for him to come home from work, she made stabs at cleaning the apartment, at laundering, mending, ironing. As she worked, she would muse over their futures, tormented constantly with hunger, nervous from the diet pills, often with a splitting headache. She wondered if she and Alfredo could possibly live on her take-home salary of $210 a month. No, that barely paid rent and utilities. They still needed money for Alfredo's canvases, his paints and frames, his clothing and food. If only she could get a better paying job, he could stay home and just paint. At other times, in periods of exultation, she had visions of babies, diapers on a rooftop line, Alfredo painting out his brilliant visions while she lay in bed and nursed their first baby. Alfredo would softly nuzzle the baby and embrace them both. He would sell his paintings and make lots of money.
That first week she lost five pounds. Now she was down to 158 pounds on Alfredo's scale, but she was tired and nervous.
Every night when twelve-thirty approached she would glance at the bedside clock. Then she would listen for the rhythm of his footsteps, heavy but rapid, on the stairs. If he were fifteen minutes late, she grew so afraid that her breath choked up and a chill ran through her. Death could come at any time, as it had with her father.
Two weeks after she moved in, Alfredo did not come home from work at the usual time. That night Adrianne was more tired than usual and lay down to rest. When she woke up and looked at the luminous numbers on the clock, she saw it was one o'clock in the morning. Where was he?
Putting on his maroon robe, she got up. She kept listening for the sound of his steps. In the harshly lit kitchen she took a chicken out of the oven. It was overdone and too dry. Nevertheless, she tore off a piece of meat with her fingers and devoured it. She was terribly hungry. If it hadn't been so late, despite her diet she would have walked down to the corner grocery and bought a whole German chocolate cake or a frozen boysenberry pie just to still the hunger which was like a wound blazing inside. She took a can of beer out of the refrigerator and drank some of it to calm herself down. She should take a Dexedrine, but it didn't mix with liquor and would keep her up all night.
The grocery was closed at this hour. She had no money to take a taxi to an all-night delicatessen. And she didn't feel safe alone on the streets at night in this part of the city. There was nothing to eat except the chicken in the oven, some rice on the stove, and lettuce in the refrigerator, along with a bottle of ketchup and a can of pinto beans. Grease covered her hands and face. She spooned some rice out of the saucepan. It also tasted too dry. The rice at the bottom of the pan had burned.
She stared at a watercolor that Alfredo had tacked over the stove. A man on a cross in a lush jungle was surrounded by huge birds, and above them all floated a woman's pale blue face and streaming lavender hair. Alfredo's visions were strange; she did not know
whether she found the picture hideous or beautiful.
She felt trapped. The room was too bright. The wooden floor was cool beneath her bare feet.
When she turned on the radio, it gave off a lot of static. She tried to tune it to get a clear sound on the all-night jazz station, but the static continued, and so finally she gave up and turned it off.
The ghost of her father seemed to be watching her. An uncanny sensation. Her father wished her ill. He did not want her to be with another man. Although he had passed into the grave, he wanted to keep her as his alone.
If only Alfredo would at least phone. She resisted her impulse to phone the Rose Bar, to phone hospitals, police, the morgue. Everything was burning, tearing, devouring inside her, as if snakes were crawling inside the yellow walls of her brain, snapping and hissing, ready to poison her with their deadly bites. If she screamed out, no one would hear. The furniture factory below was abandoned at night.
Instead of screaming, she finished off the beer, ate some rice and chicken, and lit a half-smoked cigarette lying in the ashtray. She felt an even stronger sense that something outside herself was taking over her mind. It was forcing her to think these horrible thoughts, have these feelings. But this alien will was intertwined with her own; she could not separate them.
A malign presence pressed in on her. The kitchen was so bright; the beer tasted sour; the crucified man in the picture seemed an omen of evil. Perhaps she was the disembodied face. Against her will, perhaps she would cause Alfredo some deep harm.
She imagined him with a girl at this moment, their bodies entwined, whispering words of endearment.
Perhaps he had been run over, stabbed, or shot. Or perhaps, overcome with fatigue because he drove himself so hard, he had tripped and fallen into a gutter, cut open his skull on a ragged bottle edge. Perhaps he had been beaten up and robbed.
She went into the studio where the black window panes reflected her shadowy image. In the corner she found a sketchbook filled with drawings. There were lots of portraits of her. Nude. Clothed. Her face. Her hands. Ankles. Feet. She was touched, and a smile of pleasure swept over her face.
A strange humming noise filled the silence.
Could someone be hiding inside the loft?
Alfredo, please come. God, protect him.
After drinking another can of beer to numb herself, she finally dozed off on the bed, fully clothed.
The sound of footsteps awakened her. When she opened her eyes, she saw Alfredo moving in the dark. The clock showed 2:40 a.m.
“Alfredo, where were you? Tell me.”
“Out,” he said genially. His breath smelled of liquor.
All the anxiety and rage she had been suppressing erupted, and she grabbed him and dug her nails into his back. “Tell me Alfredo, where were you? Tell me!” she cried.
“Where? Why are you so late?”
He wrenched himself away from her. “I lost my job.”
“They asked me to work overtime for the next monthâtwelve fucking hours a day! I told them to shove it.”
He reached behind some books on the shelves for the lacquer box. Inside it was a joint which he lit, inhaled, and then passed to her.
She shook her head. “Marijuana costs money.”
“Idiot! You know nothing about life,” he snapped.
She burst into tears, and he put his arms around her. “Baby, I didn't mean to make you cry. Sometimes marijuana nourishes the soul.”
“Don't worry, sweetheart. I can handle it.”
He lit a candle and took off his clothes. They lay in bed together watching the shadows cast by the flame. Love and pity surged up in her as she looked at his tired face.
“I wish I could help you more,” she said.
He laughed. “With your salary?” Then he sat up suddenly and looked at her. “There is something you can do. But I don't know if you have the guts.”
“A while back we talked about hustling. Remember? We were joking. But, Adrianne, it's no joke that if you were out on the street you could bring home in one night what you do now in a month. We'd be okay. Harris wants me to do six or seven new paintings in time for the exhibit. There's no way I can while I'm working another gig.”
A shock ran through her. “You want me to hustle? I thought you loved me.”
“Love's got nothing to do with it, baby. I'll love you all the more for helping me survive. I'm talking spiritual survival. How can I paint when I'm working forty hours a week in a bar?”
“You're doing it now.”
“I'm not painting enough, and I'm wearing down. Sometimes I'll paint all night after I get home from work. Then I catch a few hours sleep. Baby, I can't go on like this.”
He relit the joint, inhaled, and slowly blew out the smoke. “The God I worship is far beyond most people's limited understanding. This God wants me to create the visions He's inspired. Shit, if I'm working some half-assed job, then I'm copping out. Do you understand?”
“I can't do it!”
“They just touch your skin. What's skin anyway? Your skin's not you.” Lightly he punched her arm.
“I don't want to screw anybody else,” she cried. “I love you. I wanted you to be the last man I ever screwed.”
He laughed. “You! Adrianne! Just a couple of weeks ago you were making it with Lucille.”
“She's like a sister. That's different.”
“Bullshit! It's all skin. Look, why romanticize fucking? You've fucked enough men in the past. Besides, when I met you, you were
it away. All they touch is your skin. They can't touch the real you, because you belong to me.”
His bare back was narrow, like Lucille's, only darker and more muscular. She smoothed his skin and leaned against him for a moment. “I don't want to,” she said, even while a part of her was responding with an unhealthy desire. Hadn't she thought about working as a hooker before she met Alfredo? Take strange men's money and run. Stop giving it away. Buy beautiful clothes and luxuries. Get back at men in this way for the hurt they had inflicted on her.
She inhaled on the joint, held it in while it burned her throat, then let it out slowly.
“Baby, it's hell to be living like this. If I don't paint, something in me dies. You can help me do what I was born to do.”
“Let me think about all this,” she murmured.
He took her face in his hands. “You're so young,” he said. “You've got an innocence about you, like Marilyn Monroe. That's the secret of her charm. You've got it, too.”
“Really?” she beamed with pleasure. Maybe it was the effect of the marijuana, but she could see rays of light around his head. She understood how badly he wanted her to do this.
“I suffered too much while I was growing up,” he said. “But it opened me up and made me aware and made me an artist.”
Was he a con artist like Lucille said? His eyes had a gentle look in the candlelight just now.
“What was your childhood like?”
He took a sip of cold tea from the cup on the floor. “Mama left my father in Havana and took my little brother Luis and me to New York when I was three. We moved in for a while with an uncle and aunt. I think Mama slept around with different men. She hated my father, and she took it out on me because I looked like him. She loved Luis. Then Mama remarried and things only got worse.”
He took a deep breath, and a look of torment came over him, as if he were once again in the past.
“My stepfather was a janitor. He drank too much, and he had terrible, jealous fights with Mama. I don't think he had ever really learned to read, and it bugged the shit out of him to see me reading and drawing all the time. He used to beat me while Mama just looked on, although she never let him touch Luis. Finally, I got big enough to hit back, and I nearly killed that man. The next day I moved out.”
“That's so sad,” she said. Perhaps because her perceptions were intensified by the marijuana, his emotions flooded through her, filling her up so that she scarcely knew where she ended and Alfredo began.
“Did you ever see your father again?”
“When I was ten, I went down to Cuba for the summer. He was kind to me.
Un hombre verdadero
. I wanted to see him again, but I never had a chance.