Authors: Brendan Kiely
It was twilight when I found her street. On the corner, I stopped at a bodega and bought a giant armload of flowers and marched up the street without waiting for my change. I didn't know what I was doing. Eyes were on me from every direction. I'd never felt my whiteness so strongly until I stood there as the only white person, waiting for the light to change, waiting to find her front door and close it behind me and lock out the rest of the world.
Undercliff Avenue curled away from the bustling neighborhood near the train and wound around the foot of a large hill clustered with old clapboard houses. Like the houses around it, Elena's had a garage that stood a few yards back from the sidewalk, and a stone staircase climbed a steep slope up to the front stoop. Two stories rose above the front door, and it looked like a little lighthouse on a precipice, if a lighthouse could be a cube with a gabled roof. Even in December, the three-tiered garden embedded in the slope beside the stairs was colorfully alive. Ivy clung to the rocks and evergreen shrubs.
From inside the house, the voice of a swaying balladeer gently rocked. I held my breath and rang the bell. Teresa answered. I recognized her immediately from her picture. She was two years ahead of me in school. A naked strip of scalp divided the perfectly parted hair that fell over her shoulders, but I fixed my eyes on her vibrant sneakers. She crossed one foot over the other as she leaned on the handle of the wooden door.
“Oh my God. What are you doing here?” She looked at the flowers skeptically, and I remained silent. “You okay?”
“I've seen your picture,” I said. “You were on the volleyball team this fall.”
She looked at me with a confrontational smile. “Yeah, I've seen yours, too,” she said. “You always look like somebody just died.” She cocked her head over her shoulder and yelled up the stairs behind her. “
, your other boy is here.” Teresa turned back to me. “She's on vacation, you know.”
“I know. I just have these,” I said as I held up the bundle of flowers.
Elena came down the flight of stairs from the second floor wearing a snug sweater and powder-puff, fuzzy slippers. She beamed, and her smile comforted me, but I could see the anxiousness in her eyes. “Tere, step back. Let him in,” she said.
Bronx,” Teresa said sarcastically.
I squeezed past her, and Elena quickly embraced me.
She held me for a while.
I could feel Teresa staring at my back. I began to release myself, but Elena hugged tighter. She only let go after Teresa pushed by us.
Elena tut-tutted and drew me by the arm into the living room. The smell of sizzling onions was in the air. The crooner's song ended, and a more bubbly merengue began as I surveyed the couch, the armchair, and the tall, freestanding birdcage by the stereo cabinet. A small forest of plants surrounded the front window that looked down onto the street. A large painting of Mother Mary hung on the wall over the armchair. The gold disk of her halo glimmered faintly. Although her head was humbly pitched down, her eyes looked askance, as if she peered out into the house. Round and bright, they followed me around the room.
“What a surprise,” Elena said. She was nervous. “Are you here alone?”
“I don't know what to say.”
“How about âWhy are you here?'â” Teresa said as she leaned against the doorway to the kitchen.
I handed Elena the oversized bunch of flowers. “Happy holidays,” I said. “
I never gave you a present.”
Elena gripped the hem of her sweater. “What a surprise,” she said again.
Her hair was down too, and it made her look younger. “I wouldn't have expected you to give me anything.”
“And come to our home to do it,” Teresa added.
I nodded and wished I had thought of something more to say when I arrived, something to whisk away their questions. I had the urge to speak only in facts.
This is a
birdcage. There are two birds. Yes, one is blue and one is yellow.
“Tere,” Elena said, handing her my flowers. “Find a place for these.”
“Did you buy the place out?” Teresa asked me, but she took the flowers and stepped into the kitchen.
She banged around the cupboards as Elena walked me to the couch and sat me down. “
,” she said with a sad smile, “I'm happy to see you.” She hugged me again and then sat back. “Why didn't you call to tell me you were coming? Your motherÂ .Â .Â .Â ,” she began, but she trailed off. She sighed and looked toward the front window, a dark wall now, speckled only with a few dots of light from other windows down the hill and the faint orange glow from the streetlamp. “I am confused,” Elena said.
“Me too,” I said softly. I wanted to lean on her again but wondered how weird it would be to continue doing that in her house. We were quiet for a moment, like we were watching TV together up in my bedroom, eating dinner on little folding tables. Elena grabbed my hand and patted it gently. There was something so warm about Elena's house, I felt snowed in, and when Teresa marched back in I could have pictured her carrying two steaming mugs of hot chocolate, not the vase cramped and bursting with my flowers.
Teresa set it on the coffee table and looked at her mother.
“No boy ever came here to give me flowers,” she said with her hand on her hip. Elena smiled up at her. “Caz,” Teresa went on, “that boy wouldn't know where to buy flowers even though he lives right next to the store.”
“Aidan is not Caz,” Elena said.
“Don't I know,” Teresa said. “I've heard how wonderful you are,” she said to me.
Elena had told me about Teresa's successes at St. Catherine's too, but watching her rock her hips as she spoke with me, I wanted to talk to her, but I didn't know how. I'd never known how to talk to girls, no matter how much I wanted to. I liked girls, didn't I? That's what I'd always told myself, but who the hell had I been with Father Greg? Was that me too? I felt dizzy and rested my head against the back of the couch.
“Okay,” Elena said. She stood and wiped her hands down her hips. “Tere, go add another place at the dinner table.”
“You're staying for dinner?” Teresa asked me.
“Yes,” Elena answered. She snapped her fingers, and Tere went back to the kitchen. “
,” she said softly to me, “this is not okay. How did you get down here?”
“Thanks for letting me stay for dinner.”
“What is your mother going to say?”
“Please don't make me leave.”
“No,” she said as she pulled me close. “I'm happy you came to me.”
My head sank into her. The edge of her sweater's neckline itched at my eye. “I'm sorry,” I said. I shook out a few tears and held back everything else I could.
Voices mumbled on the stoop, and the screen door wheezed open. I broke from Elena's embrace so quickly, I startled her. She still held my hand in her lap when Candido let his younger child, Mateo, run into the room. Mateo bounced a basketball once. “Hey!” Candido shouted after him. They both stopped and looked at me. Mateo backed up and pressed into his father's jeans.
“We have a guest,” Candido said, glancing from me to Elena.
Elena walked over to her husband and kissed him on the lips. “There's room for one more,” she said in English.
Candido nodded. “Why is he here?” he asked in Spanish. “What's wrong?”
“He speaks Spanish,” she replied.
“I forgot,” Candido said. He smiled. “
,” he said to me. He took his time hanging up his leather jacket.
“Aren't you still on vacation?” Mateo asked Elena.
Elena shushed Mateo and pushed him forward. “This is the boy whose family I work for,” she said.
“I know,” Mateo said.
Candido came up behind him, and I stood to take his hand. “I've heard a lot about you,” Candido said. He had a belly that spilled over his belt, but he was taller than I had pictured him, and he made the room seem smaller and more
cramped. He and Elena exchanged glances. “Welcome to our home,” he added. He excused himself and took Mateo upstairs to wash before dinner. Elena patted my shoulder and followed them.
I dropped back onto the couch and stared at the ceiling, not wanting to bring my head back down and make eye contact with Mother Mary. I closed my eyes and listened to Candido's and Elena's voices upstairs. It was hard to hear exactly what they were saying, especially with the radio playing a few feet away from me, but I didn't have to hear the words, I only had to hear their chatter to know they were used to talking over each other and listening at the same time. I heard my name, but it didn't concern me. I was at Elena's house, and without Mother and Old Donovan around it was peaceful.
“Hey,” Teresa said. She hovered next to me, behind the couch. “Don't fall asleep. You just got here.” She shook my shoulder.
“What's for dinner?” I asked.
“Not what she cooks at your house.” She came around the couch and sat down next to me.
“She makes this chicken, red bean, and rice dish sometimes,” I said. “If it's just me and her for dinner. I love it.”
“You mean, like, her Dominican food?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I don't know it,” Teresa said, playing with the little gold cross on her necklace.
“Does she teach you any recipes?”
“Irish stew. Lasagna. Soups and chili. You know, stuff we can pick at all week.”
“But one time she showed me how to make
“Those sound cool,” I said, hoping I could get out of this conversation. “She never made those at my house.”
“Yeah, I'm just playing,” she said. “She never made those here, either.”
I laughed uneasily.
“But my friends love coming here to eat. We'll do our homework, and then I'll heat up some leftovers. They all know how good a cook she is.”
“She could work in a restaurant.”
“Yeah, she should.” Teresa's glare challenged me.
I nodded in agreement. There had been plenty of nights growing up I had fantasized that Elena was my actual mother. I had come to envy Teresa and Mateo, thinking they were lucky to have such a devoted and caring mother, but as Teresa stuck her nose down into one of the bunches of flowers, I wondered if she felt differently about Elena. She'd seen her mother less than I had, for God's sake.
“These must have been crazy expensive,” she said sullenly.
It had been the wrong gift to the wrong person. It frightened me to realize how much I knew about her mother and
that there was no way for me to share it with her. It was easier to pretend all my memories with Elena didn't exist. Teresa turned the vase in a circle.
“I should have gotten more,” I said. “I should have gotten some for you, too.”
“Oh my God, did you just say that?” She laughed and shook her head. “Damn, I thought you were supposed to be shy.” She smiled as if she knew something I didn't and was waiting for me to catch on. Maybe it was just like her laugh, an easy openness that said something like,
Hey, buddy. Relax already. Tranquilo
. She put her hand down on my thigh and smiled. “Why don't you help me fill the water glasses for dinner?”
“Yeah, of course,” I said, standing up quickly. I was as surprised as she was that I had said what I had said. It felt good, though, and safe, but I wanted to get busy doing something before I blew it and said something stupid. In the kitchen, she handed me the glasses and talked about her classes at St. Catherine's. It was good to be a senior, she kept saying. Her whole life was going to change in just a few months, and she was excited. She wanted to face it head-on. I was jealous of her breezy confidence: I admired her.
Before we could eat, the Gonsalves family and I gripped hands around the table, the hot food only a foot away, tempting us. My hands were in Elena's and Teresa's. The food was blessed, and God was thanked that I could join them. I hazarded a blink and opened my eyes: Steam rose
off the plates in the dim air, wavering to the incantatory tone of Candido's voice, thanking the Lord for his guidance and his strength. I couldn't follow along with Candido, because I had my own prayer, and although they usually felt so empty, just chants to beat away the pain, I had something I wanted to shout:
Christ, leave me alone with this family
. I closed my eyes again as Candido ended the prayer. “
En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Esp
Elena sat between her boys, Mateo to her right and me to her left. She cut her meat delicately, taking her time, as Candido talked to his children. She occasionally offered some advice, but she mostly ate in silence, smiling, watching Candido and Mateo slap hands as they talked basketball. Candido winked at Elena occasionally, when she hushed him.
“You should have had that game against St. Mike's. Coach Carney's an idiot.”
“Candi,” Elena scolded.
“What's that lesson you were getting at before,
?” Teresa asked. “Play a team sport to learn how to be indignant?”
Candido stuffed a forkful in his mouth and chomped it slowly. “
Mira, la pequeÃ±a maestra.
You can add something to this conversation after you've come and watched one of your brother's games.”
Teresa sighed with what seemed habitual melodrama. “Jesus Christ,
. Always with the guilt.”
“Eh! Watch your mouth,” Candido said in Spanish. “There are rules in this house.”
Elena reached across the table in front of me and touched her daughter's arm. “Please. Listen to your father,” Elena said in Spanish.