Authors: Lara Santoro
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life
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Per la mia meringhetta
he could not remember meeting him. She tried, sifting through the early hours of that first night of summer, to retrieve the instant when their eyes first met, their hands first touched, but found that she could not. The boy had slipped into her life sideways: one minute he was not there, the next he was seated to her right, asking her things.
Yet there had to have been an introduction. They were at his father’s house and Richard Strand was not one to shed formalities, not even for his son. She’d gotten there late, there had been a small multitude milling about with drinks already, but how could it be that this boy—this dark son, this cauldron of want—had failed to register?
They’d been celebrating the arrival of summer with drinks of mint and sugar and way too much hard stuff. Anna had secured a stool in the kitchen and had been sufficiently entertained by the flow of conversation to stay put. Kitchens, with their innate goodness, their earthly balance, exercised a vast magnetic pull on Anna at parties, Richard Strand’s kitchen more so than most because of why the man cooked, the reason why his pans were blackened, his cutting boards cracked, his wooden spoons split. Richard Strand cooked for his children, so they could bite into his love, so they could taste the texture of his longing for them. He cooked for his older sons, whose comings and goings were notoriously hectic, and for his younger ones, whose small, cluttered lives he shared only in part.
On her stool, mildly drunk, Anna had gotten started on the subject of a movie actor whose face had always frightened her.
“It’s the plasticity of it,” she told her friend Mia. Mia knocked back half a glass of wine, considered the remaining half with mounting animosity, and said, “Plasticity?”
“Yeah. It scares me.”
She paused, thinking of how to better convey the depth of her discomfort, when to her left someone said, “And you don’t like that.”
She turned, struck by the quietness of the affirmation, and there, sitting on a stool, was the boy, Richard Strand’s firstborn son.
“Sorry?” she said.
“And you don’t like that.”
“No. I don’t.”
The boy kept his clear eyes on hers. “What else don’t you like?”
Anna took a closer look. The boy wore dark, baggy clothes so there was no discerning the profile of his body, yet Anna could tell, simply by the way he sat, that it must be a good one. She raised her eyes to his with calculated slowness and found to her surprise that they were free of fear, free of pretense, free of the myriad layers stretched by age over the human eye.
“What else don’t I like?” she murmured almost to herself. “I don’t know. I don’t know what else I don’t like.”
“I do,” the boy said, his eyes on her mouth.
A dark current ran up her spine. She’d come across that look before.
“You don’t like cheap white wine,” he said.
“Cheap white wine? Show me someone who does.”
“You don’t like having your back to the room.”
It was true, Anna never sat with her back to any room. It seemed crazy to her, a wholly unnecessary duel with the forces of chaos.
“You prefer the company of women but you attract the company of men. You’d rather drink than eat your calories. You wish you’d never quit smoking.”
She crossed and uncrossed her legs, stared stonily ahead.
“You drive a truck you don’t need. You’re capable of wearing the exact same outfit three days in a row. No use denying it: I’ve seen you. You’re always at the video store paying late fees. Netflix—the entire phenomenon, the great revolution—seems to have passed you by.”
She shot to her feet. “Have you been following me?”
Mia leaned in. “Has he been following you?”
The boy propped his elbows on the counter behind him. “I don’t follow people,” he said. “It’s not my thing. I watch. I observe. I gather information. I draw conclusions I keep to myself. I’ve got shit on everyone in this room.”
“Oh brother,” said Mia. “I’m leaving,” but then a realization struck her and she pointed a finger at the boy. “Weren’t you in college? Doing something useful?”
“Expensive. Not useful.”
“Oh brother,” Mia said, and pushed her way out of the room.
“What’s her problem?” the boy asked, his voice mellow.
“None that I can see.”
“You two are always at the coffee shop in the morning. You’re always talking.”
“That’s what people do in coffee shops. They talk.”
“Every day for the past two months. Endless conversations. What do you have to talk about?”
“The reasons we didn’t drop out of college.”
The boy smiled and shook his head. “Every day. For the past two months.”
“Two months? You’ve been back two months? How come I’ve never seen you?”
“You don’t wear your glasses. You spend half your life trying to put things into focus. You should wear your glasses.”
Anna sat back down. The population density in the kitchen had risen sharply; people packed like sardines were pressing in from all sides.
“So. What do you do with all this ‘shit’?”
He drained half of his beer. “There’s only one worthwhile application. Not two, not three, not four: one. Want to guess what it is?”
Anna crossed her arms, her blood now in full boil.
What happened to the days when conversations respected hierarchies, recognized barriers, reflected the social order—the entirely logical, in fact, judicious, stratification on which entire civilizations had been built?
“Do I want to guess? No, I don’t,” and she flung her bag over her shoulder. The boy rose to his feet, gaining vertiginous height, and fixed his eyes on hers.
“I use it to pick up chicks.”
“Chicks,” she said, temporarily at a disadvantage.
“Chicks,” he said, his eyes on her mouth once more.
There it was. There it was again—the reckless vault across generational lines, the unthinking traverse across years of hard, hard living. Somewhere in the queasy inching forward of the human species a natural restraint, a barrier built and buttressed over the generations, had vanished practically overnight with the result that children—kids barely out of high school—were holding the lives of grown women in their pale hands.
“You’ve been drinking, my young friend,” she said. “We forgive those who drink. We forgive them everything.”
The boy looked pensively at his beer. “I’m not drunk.”
“Not even close.”
“You could have fooled me.”
“Relax,” the boy said with a slow shake of the head. “You’ve got to relax.”
“You know,” she said between tight teeth, “there is such a thing as respect. It is
by the young to the old, and you don’t operate outside the social protocol, my friend. You may
you do, but you don’t. Nobody does.”
The boy threw his bottle of beer in a smooth arc halfway across the kitchen into the trash can. “The social protocol?” he said. “This is America. Nobody gives a shit about the social protocol.”
“Have another one,” she said, turning to leave. “For the ditch.”
At home she found Esperanza asleep on the couch, an empty bucket of popcorn between her legs. “Eee,” she said, “I fell asleep. I never fall asleep.”
“You always fall asleep. How did it go?”
“Good. You have to get her Cheetos. She says you never get her Cheetos.”
“What are Cheetos?”
“Why would I get her cheese puffs?”
“Because she’s a
Anna had taken out her checkbook. “How much?”
Anna let out a sigh. Esperanza gambled. Esperanza sat for hours on a stool, feeding coins into a slot, pulling down on a lever, cursing her fate, procuring more change, reclaiming the stool—all of it while putting away a twelve-pack of beer.
“I’ll work it off. You know me, I’m a sure thing.” And she was. Behind the mask of makeup, beneath the crust of jet-black hair, under the rough hoodies, the black sweats; despite the cursing, the drinking, the smoking, Esperanza was the surest thing Anna had had in a long time.
Esperanza had answered the ad for domestic help with rap music blaring in the background and had shown up at nine the following morning with fiercely minted breath and a bottle of Visine in one hand.
“People think I smoke dope because my eyes are always red,” she’d said, tilting her head back and squeezing a steady stream into one eye. “But I don’t. I used to. I don’t anymore.” So it was with understandable concern that Anna watched her go to her car, pull a vacuum cleaner out of the trunk, and come back inside as if an agreement had been made.
“And Stephanie, you know, the woman I clean rentals with? She’s always, like, Espi, you have to do something about those eyes, and I’m, like, what? What can I do?” and indeed, as Anna was to find out, despite the fact that Espi
really did not smoke dope,
the crimson tide never receded, never even mellowed. By then, however, the first of many panicked calls for help had been answered, Anna’s little girl punctually collected from school, brought home, fed, and put to bed at exactly eight o’clock by the only person who bothered to pick up the phone: Esperanza.
It hadn’t been long before Anna met
—three sisters and three brothers all living under the same roof with their errant offspring, partners, ex-partners, cousins of first, second, and third degree. Espi’s stepmother, Rosa, and her father, Luis, presided over the chaos with great, if vastly tried, patience while Espi’s own twenty-year-old son, christened Juan but called Thunder, went to bed content every night with a new tattoo. The door to Espi’s house was always open, a pot of posole on the stove, corn tortillas warming in the oven, empty beer cans strewn liberally and abundantly in each and every room. Every month there was a christening, graduation, wedding, or burial. Anna had gone to them all.
Now, with a sigh, Anna cut the check. Esperanza tucked it expertly in her bra.
“Get her some Cheetos,” she said on her way out. “Every kid should have Cheetos.”
Anna crept into Eva’s room, not to check on her breathing or dislodge some dark suspicion but for the pure pleasure of basking in the beauty of her sleeping child. The bridge of Eva’s nose had risen slightly lately—she’d have her father’s patrician beak to go with her blond hair. Settling on the edge of the bed, Anna ran a finger down her daughter’s cheek.
She’d come into the world a queer bundle of reticulated flesh, her little girl, a web of capillaries running red and loud just below the skin.
“She looks like a Jackson Pollock,” Anna told the nurse that first night in a hospital in Boston, where she had flown in from Africa to enjoy the privilege of a safe birth.
“Is that right?” the nurse murmured between some savage gum-chewing.
“Her capillaries,” Anna said.
“Them blood vessels you mean?”
“Blood vessels. Yes.”
“What about them?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about
The nurse, a woman with square glasses, square fingernails, and square white shoes, lifted her large, watery eyes to Anna’s and let the question go unanswered. Not out of malice or intent but because she’d already forgotten it.
“I need a doctor,” Anna said. “I need a doctor right now.”
“What on earth for?”
“My daughter’s capillaries are not normal.”
“I told you, you don’t need to worry about that,” but Anna did worry. She raised hell until an intern from a nearby delivery showed up with a mask on his face, latex gloves on his hands. He turned the baby roughly on her back, gave a cursory look, and stormed out of the room without so much as a nod in Anna’s direction.
A sound of improbable scale and depth rose out of the crib, past the hospital room, past the uninspired cheeriness of the maternity ward into the greater world where something—or nothing—was there to receive it, it was hard to tell. All Anna knew was that after the baby had been cooed, rocked, bounced,
to sleep, she found herself kneeling by the bed whimpering, “Somebody help, somebody please help.”
A few weeks went by before she was able to joke about Eva’s peculiar range of sound. “She’s a baby rights activist,” or, “We have a little Maiorca in the making,” but there were things that already needed hiding by then, things she’d never be prevailed upon to tell. Like the time the baby had been dropped on the couch as Anna walked in tightening circles around the living room, her hands in her hair, matching rising octave with rising octave in a surging tide of rage. Or the time she’d left Eva screaming bloody murder in the car, as she stood on the curb looking in, arms crossed against the cold, tears streaming down her face.
If motherhood leaves a residue from one lifetime to the next, a sort of encoded knowledge best deciphered at the direst times, Anna had every reason to suspect she was on round number one. Nothing had ever left her in her underwear and bra at three in the morning, screaming, “I can’t do this, I can’t fucking do this!” At no time in her life had she stood perfectly mute, stunned into silence by the unfathomable demand behind an infant’s wail. She lived on the equator and when they returned home, she could afford a battalion of nannies; but there were things she would not delegate, especially not to the girl’s father, who had excused himself from the child-rearing process at birth.
“This,” he announced at a dinner party, “is the animal husbandry period, to which men are phenomenally unsuited.” His only exposure to the girl was filtered through some photographic apparatus. Armed with a camera and lenses, Eva’s father captured his daughter as he would a nice bit of scenery. He developed the prints, enlarged them, and glued them in oversized leather-bound albums stacked in chronological order in his study. Anna was never featured in a single photograph.
“Not one,” she told her father.
“What did you do to the poor guy? You must have done something to the poor guy.”