Green Hills Literary Lantern

The Remedy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One warm Sunday in Mexico City in 1969, my mother and I stood waiting at a crosswalk at the Paseo de la Reforma when a red Mustang convertible swooped past us.  I couldn’t see the man driving, but I saw, as the car sped off down the street, that the woman on the passenger side had long, pineapple-colored hair, which whipped behind her in the wind, braiding itself into the pink scarf she wore around her neck. 

            “Look!” I shouted.  “There’s a car just like Papi’s car!”  I was twelve—too old to be shouting and pointing in public—but my mother didn’t admonish me.  She collapsed on a bench with one hand at her temple as if a stone had hit her. 

“That was your father’s car, Carolina,” she said.

“But who was the lady with him?” I asked—stupidly, because I’d already guessed—though I hadn’t known until that moment that my father had a mistress.  He was a highway engineer who was helping to bring our country into the modern age: the President of Mexico had said so at the inauguration of a viaduct my father built.  So dedicated was Papi to his work that he often slept at the construction site.

My mother turned to face me, her large brown eyes filling with tears.  She had the kind of beauty that was considered tasteful by the Mexican upper bourgeoisie: alabaster skin and thick, dark-brown hair that she wore in a knot at the nape of her neck.  Mamá had attended finishing school in Switzerland and spoke French.  How could my father prefer a woman with flopping yellow hair to someone like her?

 “That was Gloria,” Mamá said, and a tear splashed on the skirt of her elegant black suit. “Your father’s had a casa chica with her for more than a year now.”  I sat down beside her and patted her shoulder as she rocked back and forth, her face buried in her hands. 

A situation like my parents’ was so common that even children knew the term for it: the casa chica was the “little house” where a married man kept his other woman.  Such a place sounded both attractive and dangerous, like a cottage in a fairy tale.

“Do you think Papi will take us to the casa chica so we can meet Gloria?”  I asked.

My mother stopped crying and looked at me. “Meet Gloria?”  she repeated. “Dear child, your father would never allow you to meet a—a dreadful person.”

“If she’s dreadful, why does he like her?”

A breeze shook the branches of the jacaranda trees overhead, sprinkling us with lavender petals. “Mexican men are fools when it comes to women,” my mother said finally.

“Well, gringo men are fools, too.”  I’d seen them in the Zócalo wearing shorts that exposed their pale, hairy legs; snapping pictures and smiling with their big teeth at people they didn’t know. 

            Mamá smiled faintly.  “Perhaps you are right, Carolina.  Look at what poor Señora Kennedy had to put up with. But she carried on bravely, all the same.”

            As if encouraged by the example of Señora Kennedy, she took a lace handkerchief from her purse and dried her eyes.   Then she looked me over—hair coming unbraided, blouse untucked, socks down at the heel—and shook her head.  “My heart, what is to be done with you?”

            There was no answer to this question, and in silence we walked the few blocks to our pink stone house, which stood on the edge of Chapultepec Park. 

The house was large and in the Spanish style, built around a courtyard lush with roses, lemon trees and birds of paradise.  Portraits of Mamá’s Castillian ancestors lined the corridors, and I followed my mother past these solemn, dead people to her bedroom.  My father said his ancestors were the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl and the Aztec king Montezuma.  At the Museum of Anthropology, he’d shown my brother, Horacio, and me the face with the stuck-out tongue in the middle of the Aztec calendar.  “There’s Grandpa.  And over here,” he’d added, leading us before a fearsome carving of the goddess of death with her skull necklace, “is dear old great-Granny.”

“Don’t tease them, Rogelio,” my mother had said.

“Who’s teasing?” Papá had said, winking at us.

But it had been months since our family had gone out on a Sunday excursion. Recently, Mamá’s doctor had diagnosed her with melancolía, and prescribed bed rest. She obeyed his instructions faithfully, and spent much of the day lying down in a French lace-trimmed slip, drinking sugared coffee, reading historical novels, and dozing. 

I wasn’t supposed to bother her while she rested—my sprawling on the furniture and knocking over her perfume bottles worsened her nerves.  But now that I knew about Gloria, I thought, maybe I could be a “comfort” to my mother, as the latest issue of Hola declared Caroline Kennedy was to her mother. 

I slipped into the room behind her and flung myself onto a chaise longue while she undressed and got into bed.  She glanced at me as though about to speak but then appeared to change her mind. She opened La Tragedia de Ana Bolena.

“Gloria’s bedroom is probably a pigsty,” I said. 

My mother looked up from her book.  “If you’re old enough to know about her, you’re old enough to understand that her name is not to be spoken in my presence.  Is that clear, Carolina?”

“Yes.”  Gloria, Gloria, Gloria, I hummed.  My classmates and I sang her name in chapel every morning as we raised our eyes to the mural painted on the ceiling, where fat blond angels swam in the sky around God. 

Mamá sighed but went on reading. After a few more minutes, I left the room and went to the kitchen, where Anunciada, our cook, was making tortillas.    

Tortillas meant that my father was expected for lunch. When he was away, building highways, we ate European-style food: meat cooked in wine, fish cooked in butter, boiled potatoes.  But Papi said only Mexican food decently filled the stomach, so when he was home Anunciada made spicy pork stew, chicken in chocolatey mole sauce, stuffed chiles with almonds and cream.  He could consume these dishes using tortillas for utensils, and show us his perfectly shining plate afterwards.  “Never be ashamed of your father’s peasant roots,” my mother had told us.  Anunciada was a peasant, too, and when guests praised her cooking, Mamá would smile and say, “We consider her to be a member of the family.” 

I adored her.  She was small and squarely built, with a black braid as thick as a child’s arm. I sat down at the kitchen table and waited for her to bring me a bowl of coffee with milk before saying casually, “I saw Papi driving with Gloria to the casa chica.”

Anunciada shook her head and clucked her tongue as I described the red car and the pink scarf and the yellow hair.  “The Señora shouldn’t have told you about that.”

“Well, she told you.”

“Anyone who’s suffered the pain of a casa chica doesn’t have to be told,” Anunciada said.

This was astonishing news.  “You have a husband?”  I’d overheard one of Mamá’s friends say that Mexican men were so difficult to care for that they each required two women.  But when would Anunciada have time to attend to even half a man?  Sunday afternoon was the only time she couldn’t be found in our kitchen.  On that day, as soon as lunch was over, she put on her rebozo and parceled up leftovers and rode a bus to the suburb beside the airport to visit her relatives.  Like a jealous lover, I’d quizzed her relentlessly about the other people in her life: the aunts and uncles with their many ailments, the errant nieces and nephews.  But she’d never mentioned a husband. 

“Is he still alive?” I said. “Why does he never come here?”

Anunciada didn’t answer.  She turned to the stove, where three tortillas were puffing up with air on the hot comal.  She peeled them off the griddle with her fingers and added them to the stack on the table.  “I could have recommended a remedy for the Señora’s trouble long ago, if she’d asked me.”

Anunciada had often applied her remedies to my brother and me as we grew: onion slices touched to the soles of the feet for colic, mescal sprinkled on chicken pox with a salvia twig, an unbroken egg rolled gently over the belly to ward off the evil eye if a child got too much attention at a birthday party.  But since Mamá put her faith in the pediatrician, Anunciada administered her cures in secret.  She pretended to agree that the pink medicines from the pharmacy made us get better. 

“Are we going to poison Gloria?” I said. 

Anunciada looked at me sharply.  “Nobody dies from my remedies.  This one is to bring your parents back together.”

“Mamá won’t take it, though.”  I didn’t want to say what my mother called Anunciada’s treatments—peasant ignorance.  

“The Señora is very modern.” Anunciada said regretfully, as if moderna were one more unfortunate disease.  “But this remedy can be applied without her knowledge.  Put one piece of red thread inside the clothing of your mother, and another inside the clothing of your Papi. Then wait.”

“How long?”

“It depends. You must be patient.”  A pot on the stove began to bubble angrily, and Anunciada hurried to attend to it. The consultation was over.

“I’m going to try it today!” I jumped up, tipping my coffee bowl over the stack of fresh tortillas.  It did not occur to me to apologize or help clean up.  In the world I lived in, everything I dropped magically righted itself.

I raced back to my mother’s room.  After my parents were reunited, I’d tell them what I’d done.  I pictured the two of them sitting with their arms around each other, amazed, congratulating me.

I found my mother awake and sitting in a chair as though awaiting a train. The routine for our Sunday lunches was that she'd seat herself at the table after my father arrived, pick at her meal in silence and then retire to her bedroom before dessert.  My father would eat heartily, as though everything was normal—which, in a way, it was. He'd kick a soccer ball around the courtyard with my brother and then kiss us goodbye at dusk.  “My men are waiting for me,” he’d say. 

I opened a drawer in Mama’s dressing table and found a spool of red thread which I slipped into my pocket.  Then I went to her closet and selected a pink dress that everyone said made her look exactly like Señora Kennedy.  “Why don't you wear this?”

Mamá eyed the dress as though it were a fattening pastry. “It's a party dress, my love.”

“But we can have a family party!  I can put makeup on you and do your hair and it will be so much fun!”  I threw myself on the carpet and clutched at her ankles. “Please, Mamá!  Please!” The piteous sound of my pleading brought tears to my own eyes.  

Dios mio,” Mamá said.  “You must be suffering from hormones. Perhaps, at last, you’re getting your—”

“No!” I shrieked, as if she’d just pulled a knife from the dressing table.   

“Very well,” Mama said.  “We’ll do the dress and the makeup. We’ll have fun.  Of course, we must.”

I set to work, piling her hair on top of her head in a new way I'd seen in the pages of Vanidades and daubing circles of rouge on her cheeks. As I was buttoning the back of the dress, I slipped a piece of red thread around the strap of her slip. 

My ten-year-old brother gazed at Mamá in amazement as she took her place.  The spots of rouge looked very round and red, away from the dim light of her bedroom.  Her hairdo cascaded to one side like an overfrosted cake.

“How colorful you look today, Pilar,” my father said.  His brown face showed amazement; worry too, perhaps.

“Why are you wearing a shiny dress?” Horacio said.  “And red circles on your face like a clown?” 

Mamá looked down at her silver service plate and smiled at her reflection.  “If I’m a clown, why then, I ought to tell a joke.  Let me see if you children know this English one: Why did the chicken cross the road?”

I pretended not to know; Horacio didn’t know much English yet, but he yelled with laughter at the answer.   Mamá drank her wine.  “Carolina thinks we should have more fun in this house,” she said, holding up her empty glass.   

“She’s smart, like her father,” Papi said. He filled my mother’s wineglass, then lifted his glass and drank, too. 

“I know another joke in English,” I said.  “I learned it at school.”

“Yes, yes, let’s hear an educational English joke,” my father said.   

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Marmalade.”

“Marmalade who?”

“That’s just what my father wants to find out!”

Mamá began to laugh, but Papi’s jovial expression faded.  He looked from my mother to me and back again.  “Forgive me, Rogelio.  It’s really not funny.  But at last you see how things are.”

“What things?  An explanation for the new hairdo, the makeup, the dress?  Is he somebody I know?”

My mother rolled her eyes and drank more wine.  “Do you actually imagine that between the house, the garden, the meals, and raising two children I’d even have the time?”

“Out of the mouths of babes.”  Papi shrugged.  He poured himself another glass and gulped it.

“Exactly my point,” my mother said.  “She’s dangerously precocious.”

“She’s a child, Pilar.  She has no idea.”

“Yes, I do,” I said.  “I’m going to be thirteen, and I know that Mexican men are fools when it comes to women.” 

My father threw his napkin on the table.  “This is what you see fit to teach my only daughter?”

Mamá stood up, her cheeks flushed, her shining hair completely out of its haystack and falling to her shoulders.  “This is what you are teaching my only daughter.  If you would like to consider the alternative I’ve suggested, I shall be in my room.”  She turned and walked, somewhat unsteadily, to the door. 

“Oh, Pilar,” my father said, in a strange, sad voice.  He rose to follow her.

“Papi, Papi,” I cried, running to him with the red thread wadded up in my hand.  I flung my arms around his neck. 

I gloried in being his favorite child; his treasure. On any other Sunday, he’d have taken me on his lap and listened to my adventures of the week, while Horacio, always second fiddle, raided his jacket pockets for candies. 

“My octopus daughter,” he said.  “You’re getting big to climb all over your poor father.”  I managed to cling to him long enough to slip the red thread down the back of his shirt.

“Be a good girl and keep your brother amused,” he said.  I took the ball and herded Horacio outside to the courtyard.  But he refused to play with me. He picked an unripe lime and threw it at my mother’s bedroom window.

“Stop that,” I said.  “Don’t you know what adults do at siesta time?” 

“What?”

“The disgusting thing dogs do.”  I still wasn’t entirely sure it was true.

“They do not,” Horacio said, and kicked the ball into the shrubbery.

The sun was low when my parents finally emerged.  Mamá looked smooth and pretty in a dress with blue flowers, but Papi was red around his eyes, as though he’d been crying.  He cried often, though, even from happiness.      

Horacio ran toward them. “Carolina said you were rolling in caca.”  

My mother turned to my father. “See what I mean?”

Papi’s eyes welled again.  “It will be so hard to give her up.”

“You must not be selfish, Rogelio.”

My father dug his hands into the pockets of his jacket and pulled out fistfuls of hard candies. “Children, my men are waiting.” 

I stood stiffly as my brother scrambled for the sweets my father showered on the patio stones.  “You don’t want candy?  Then kiss me, Carolina.  Pilar, you’re right as usual.  Next week, I’ll tell her.”  

I realized then that my father intended to tell Gloria that the casa chica was finished.  Maybe the house would be bulldozed, as often had to be done to houses so a highway could pass through.  It was pleasant to imagine the little cottage crumbling to rubble as Gloria stood watching, weeping, her yellow hair streaming about her face. 

I inclined my cheek so that my father could kiss it.

 

The remedy began to work on Mamá.  I’d come home from school to find her up and dressed and talking on the telephone or at her desk, writing letters.  Although it was early summer, she took me to her dressmaker in the Zona Rosa to be measured for a winter coat with a velvet collar.  I complained that the fabric was too heavy—in Mexico City, winters were colder indoors than out in the brilliant, thin-aired sunshine. “A young lady must have a proper coat,” my mother said firmly, and the dressmaker murmured agreement as she crept around me, her mouth full of pins.  

I gazed out the shop window at the people on the sidewalk—most of them elegant, pale-skinned women like Mamá.  It wasn’t unusual to see blondes in this expensive district of the city, but suddenly the sight of those passing yellow heads made me shiver. What if Gloria used a remedy of her own, like a witch, to imprison my father in the casa chica?   “I hope Gloria doesn’t try to trap Papi,” I said.    

My mother pressed her lips together and shook her head. 

“It’s shocking how fast girls grow nowadays,” the dressmaker said, stretching her tape measure from my waist to my shoulders once more. 

 

The next Sunday, I went into the kitchen early to find Anunciada making tortillas.

“Papi has left Gloria!” I shouted, grabbing the end of her braid and twirling it like a jump rope. “We’ve done it, Anunciada!  The remedy worked!”

“All we know is that your father’s coming for lunch,” Anunciada said.  Gently, she pried her hair from my hand.

 

At lunch Mamá looked like a sunflower, beaming in a yellow dress. She and I traded riddles in English—what has four eyes but cannot see? And, what’s black and white and red all over?  Horacio clowned to amuse himself—barking like a dog and mewing like a cat. Only Papi was solemn, intent upon rolling his tortillas into cones to scoop up every drop of mole poblano. “All right, Pilar,” he said, pushing back his plate.  “Shall we have coffee with Carolina in the salón?”

I tried to catch Anunciada’s eye as she brought in the coffee tray, but she kept her gaze fixed on the delicately trembling cups. “Will that be all, señora?

“You may go, Anunciada,” my mother said. “Please take any leftovers you think would please your relatives.”  Mamá was always careful to spare Anunciada’s pride by suggesting that it was her exquisite cooking, not the free nourishment, that her family might wish to savor.

I was sitting opposite my parents, who were next to each other on the sofa—not embracing, but otherwise exactly as I’d pictured for telling them about the remedy.  How surprised they’d be, I thought, when they learned it was all my doing!

“You’ve grown so fast, Carolina. Faster than I’ve realized.” Papi stopped and glanced at my mother and she nodded.  “I didn’t agree at first, but I know that your Mamá is right.  You’re old enough now to go to school in Switzerland, as she did.”

“We didn’t want to tell you until everything was settled,” Mamá said. “Luckily, a spot has opened up for this fall. I’ve just received a letter from the headmistress, who says she’ll be delighted to welcome a daughter of mine.”  

“No.”  I gripped the hard, polished arms of my chair.  “No, no, no.”

“It’s not a punishment, Carolina,” Mamá said.  “It’s a wonderful school.  You will like it, and you’ll like your new friends, and Geneva.  I did.”

“I’m not going.” 

“Why, even Caroline Kennedy is going to boarding school,” Mamá said. 

“That gringa girl can go to la mierda,” I said.  I ran out of the room to the kitchen, where Anunciada was loading parcels of food into her basket.  “You can’t go!” I said.  “The remedy went horribly wrong—Gloria’s not going away.  They’re sending me away, to school across the ocean!”

“You’re lucky that your parents have begun to think of you, and not only of themselves,” Anunciada said. “And that they have money to pay for a daughter to be educated. Mine didn’t.” 

“Ignorant peasant!”  I picked up a long wooden spoon from the table and threw it at her.  The handle hit just above her eye.  A red welt rose immediately. 

“You must apologize,” she said, putting her hand to the lump.

I stared at her and didn’t move.

“I warned you the remedy doesn’t work quickly,” Anunciada said.  “Dry your tears and have patience, child.”  She pulled her rebozo over her head and went out.  I hadn’t realized until that moment that I was crying.

 

 Now I wanted to leave everything, and as soon as possible: my horrible parents, my whining brother, and Mexico City, teeming with red cars filled with blonde women being driven to hidden casas chicas.  Most of all, I wanted to put thousands of miles between me and Anunciada.  I couldn’t stand to look at her. The lump soon vanished from her face, but it stayed in my mind, red and ugly.  I couldn’t wait to be in Switzerland, clean and pretty as a land in a storybook.  In winter, Mamá had always told me, pure white snow covered everything. 

                                   

I believe my mother expected the school to blanket me in purity, too—as it had when she was a student there twenty years earlier.  But times had changed, and the girls I met in Geneva, though they were from rich families like mine, were sophisticated and wild.  When I first arrived I was known as “the little Mexican,” with a trunk full of old-lady clothes.  My classmates asked me if I had a burro for a pet, if I knew how to do the hat dance.

  Over that year, though, as Mamá predicted, I came to like the school, and my new friends, and the Geneva that contained them.  My bespoke outfits stayed wrapped in tissue; I dressed in army surplus and leather headbands, as my classmates did.  I learned to smoke and to swear in French.  We sneaked out of school and drank beer in bars in the Old City.  There, amidst the smoke and noise, I believed I, too, was becoming sophisticated and wild. 

I went home for the summer holidays expecting that everyone there would be scandalized by my transformation, but in Mexico, too, life was changing.  Mamá was absorbed by her own metamorphosis into a mujer liberada, wearing her skirts short and her hair loose down her back; she was taking classes at the university.  She’d started a feminist discussion group that met in our salón. The women sat on the rug, smoking and drinking as they debated politics, psychology and machismo late into the night. A few of her friends were even getting divorced. 

When Horacio reached boarding-school age, my mother bought a pied-a-terre in Geneva overlooking the lake so that she could visit us more comfortably.  Finally, one “visit” became permanent—along with more luggage than usual, she brought Anunciada. 

My family settled back into its familiar pattern: my father fond but absent, my brother living the boy-life of which I knew and cared little, my mother nearby but preoccupied. She had many admirers—French bankers and Venezuelan oil barons among them—about whom she confided to me.  I supposed she hoped to elicit return confidences, but I had nothing to report. I’d suddenly grown very tall—my friends had begun to call me, jokingly, “the big Mexican”—and I was as disheveled and awkward as ever.

   One Sunday when I was fifteen, I went to have coffee with Mamá in her pretty sitting room with its view of the Lake Geneva promenade.  She told me she’d just gotten a “sweet” note from my father, in which he admitted that the divorce had been the right step, after all.  “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he asked Gloria to marry him,” Mamá said, quite cheerfully.

“I would!” I cried, aghast.  It had been less than a year since I’d walked hand-in-hand with him along the lakeshore, after he’d failed to persuade Mamá to return to Mexico and give up her divorce suit.  He’d looked like a small, brown mammal, bundled up against the unaccustomed cold, and I’d pitied him, as I’d once pitied my mother her tears and melancolia.  But my parents had recovered from their unhappy marriage much more quickly than I. 

Just then Anunciada came into the room.  I still felt a little uncomfortable around her, but now I knew how to treat her. “Are you enjoying Geneva these days, Anunciada?” I asked, in a kindly, patronizing tone. 

“Not much,” she said, setting out the coffee things. “It’s too poor.”

My mother and I exchanged smiles.  “How can you say this city is poor, compared to Mexico?”

“I look out the window and the streets are empty.” 

“You must be the first person in the world, Anunciada, to long for Mexico City traffic,” Mamá said, laughing. 

                        *    *    *

“Anunciada got her way, as usual,” is how my mother likes to describe the fact that, one by one, we all migrated back in the old neighborhood around Chapultepec Park.   I was the first to arrive, with my American husband, who’d decided to start a business in Mexico; then came Horacio, who went to work for Papi, and finally, my mother and Anunciada, both of whom had spent several years in London because of a man who was in love with Mamá.  My mother settled in a handsome bungalow on the side of the park closest to the mountains.  I called it her casa chica, to tease her. 

My father still lives in the pink stone house.  Every year, he and my stepmother, Gloria, hold a grand reception; this year, the President of Mexico attended the party. I arrived late, because I’d been unable to get off the phone with a client in New York, and was met by Gloria in the front hall. 

“Thank heavens you’re dressed decently, Carolina!” she exclaimed, as though I were still the sullen teenager who’d worn denim overalls to her and my father’s wedding, decades earlier.  El Presidente had just arrived, Gloria said, and was eager to meet me.  “I’ve told him you are the perfect example of the professionally modern Mexican woman.”

Professionally modern?” I repeated.  I’m basically fond of Gloria, but her malapropisms set my teeth on edge.  Tonight she was wearing a tight turquoise dress that made her look like a dolphin. 

My father was round and elderly and splendid in white tie and tails.  His face shone as he took my hand.  “Señor Presidente, I present to you my greatest treasure.”  I winked at Horacio—my brother had grown into a gentle soul who seemed to overlook all the years I’d treated him like a crawling insect.  Standing nearby in his perfectly fitted dinner jacket, Horacio accommodated my father in everything, and was never late.  Papi was still a fool when it came to women.

The President bowed.  “Indeed so,” he said. 

            “Thank you, Señor Presidente,” I said.  Across the room, I saw my husband, Richard, chatting with his business partner, Marisela, whom I’d known for years—since our days of exchanging dirty English jokes in the refectory at the nuns’ school.  The way Richard leaned toward her, smiling, and her manner of returning the smile, as if it were a ball he had tossed, suddenly clarified months of confusion and doubt in my mind.  The President moved on, down the receiving line, and I stepped out into the hall and left a message on Richard’s phone that he should go home without waiting for me. Then I drove up Paseo de la Reforma to Mamá’s house. 

            Anunciada opened the door for me.  She’s my mother’s only servant now: “In this little house, we two old ladies manage beautifully,” Mamá says.

            “Your mother’s having her coffee outside, under the bougainvillea,” Anunciada said, and I followed her out to the patio.  After Anunciada had served me, Mamá asked her, in the new informal style, to sit and drink some, too.  Anunciada poured a third cup, but she didn’t sit down.  She lit candles in the tin luminarias and then began dragging a potted bird of paradise toward the house, out of the breeze.  She refuses to adapt to modern ways, Mamá says—always finds some pretext not to sit when my mother is seated.

            I decided to begin with the reception. Mamá laughed heartily at my description of Gloria’s dolphin dress and pineapple-shaped-and-colored hairdo bobbing before the President.  But she said, “You mustn’t be snobbish, Carolina.  Gloria is a far better wife to Rogelio than I was.”

            “Maybe it’s for the best that our remedy didn’t work, Anunciada,” I said.

            “It worked,” Anunciada said, without turning around. She was still fussing with the flowerpot.

            “What remedy?” my mother said.

            “Some bits of thread that were supposed to get you and Papi back together.” 

            “Well, Anunciada’s right,” Mamá said.  “I count your father among the dearest of my old friends.”

            “I got mad at Anunciada over the remedy and threw a spoon at her.”  I’d never confessed this—not even to Richard, who, being a gringo, believes that confessing secrets can work magic; even save a failing marriage.

            “Carolina, how naughty!  I hope you apologized,” Mamá said. “I recall you went through a difficult phase, and your timing couldn’t have been worse—just when your father and I were in crisis.” She sighed.  “But being a parent obliges one to set aside one’s own troubles.” 

            “I’m sorry,” I said.

            “It’s long forgotten, child,” Anunciada said.  She went into the house and came out again wearing her rebozo and carrying a string bag filled with waxed paper bundles—showing my mother the food she was taking without actually speaking of it.  With all our concessions to pride, I suddenly thought, we keep alive the idea that poverty is a personal embarrassment.

 “Now I will say goodnight, Señora.”  Anunciada left through the door in the garden wall.

            “Where is she going at this hour?” I said.  I’d never seen Anunciada leave any house, in any country, after dark.  “I don’t care for ghosts,” she used to say, as another person might say, “I don’t care for sushi.”

            Mamá shook her head.  “You know how hard it is to get anything out of her.  I finally threatened to fire her if she didn’t tell me where she was going.”

            “Mamá, you didn’t—at her age!”

            “One has to maintain discipline,” my mother said, unabashed.  In some ways, she’s as old-fashioned as Anunciada.  “She admitted that she’d recently run into an old love of hers on the street.  His wife had died.  He happened to have gotten a job in the tortillería around the corner.”

            “I don’t think it just happened,” I said.  I pictured Anunciada walking down the dark street with her string bag.  She would stop and rap at the narrow tin door of the tortillería and the man who’d made the streets of Geneva look empty would open it.  The light of a hanging bulb would shine in her eyes like the sun.

            “Don’t tell me you believe she became reunited with this man by casting one of her spells!” my mother said.  She got up to pour us more coffee.  I supposed she’d learned how to do this since Anunciada’s evenings had become occupied. 

            I shrugged, and brushed what I thought was a stray ant from my arm—they like to nest in birds of paradise.  Then I realized that the red thread I’d tied under the strap of my evening gown had come loose, and that was what was fluttering on my bare skin. 

 

 

Kathleen Wheaton grew up in California. She has worked mainly as a journalist and travel writer, and lived for 12 years in Spain and Latin America. Her short stories have appeared most recently in the Baltimore Review, New South, and the anthology Flash Fiction Forward. A recipient of a 2008 Maryland Arts Council grant, she lives in Bethesda, Md. with her husband and sons.