Carefully, Old Juan laid the hand-embroidered napkin across the scratched countertop and began to fill it with tortillas from the frying pan, each as warm and supple as the belly of a newborn puppy. He’d brought the napkin with him from Mexico in a duffel bag full of Matilde’s belongings; it was one of a set she’d bought years ago in a market stall near Chapultepec. He’d brought it because the set was one of her favourites and because it reminded him of home, little imagining that in his son’s house there would be none. In Santo Tomás, everyone wrapped their tortillas in napkins like these. Doña Eugenia sold them in steaming bundles – thick, hearty, with flecks of cornmeal visible in their fleshy surface, like spots on the skin of the aged – for eight pesos a kilo at the corner of Calle Ángel. Everyone there ate them daily, for how else would the children get their minerals? But here, in Carville, Virginia, there were no tortillas worth eating, only thin, prepackaged ones with no flavor – and, Old Juan suspected, no nutrition – in the refrigerator section at Food Lion. Still, one does not give up tortillas at the age of eighty-two.
When he’d pulled the last tortilla from the pan, Old Juan turned off the stove and tucked the corners of the napkin up around them, then with his good hand he took a firm grasp of the little package. He set it on the table between a sticky paste of refried beans and a green tomatillo salsa mixed up in a bright yellow melamine bowl the night before – not pounded out in a proper molcajete, for there was no such thing in the house. His son’s wife, as she’d remarked pointedly on several occasions, was American. What would she want with a mortar and pestle? No matter that she’d been born in Arizona to Mexican parents; it was a point of pride with her that she didn’t eat chile. From what Old Juan had seen, she didn’t eat food at all – just McDonald’s, KFC, canned soups, and microwave dinners – but these observations he shared only with Matilde. Why cause trouble with his son?
It had been bad enough that night at the airport, when he’d met his grandsons for the first time and discovered that they spoke no Spanish. Old Juan had been unable to hide his dismay, and he’d seen that Juanito was offended. “We live in the U.S.A., Dad,” his son said huffily, and Old Juan had turned his face to the glass of the back seat window and vowed to himself never to mention it again.
He’d made many such vows to himself over the past weeks, things that he wouldn’t anger or embarrass his son by bringing up in conversation. The soap that gave him a rash (he’d used Lirio for decades, but there was no Lirio here, with the closest Mexican grocery hours away); the fabric softener – not Suavitel but some American brand in a garish pink bottle whose name he couldn’t pronounce – that made his clothes smell like a chemical flowerbed; the barber who shaved off all his hair because Old Juan hadn’t been able to explain and Juanito had stepped out for a cigarette; the tasteless white flour tortillas that made a lump in his throat. About these things the old man unburdened himself only when he and Matilde were alone.
And now here she was before him, his precious, beloved Matilde! She’d entered the kitchen as soundlessly as a kitten and sat in the opposite chair watching Old Juan as he lowered himself to a sitting position at the table. With her thin forefinger she toyed with a small hole in the flowery plastic tablecloth where the cotton of the underside stuck through. It was a habit of hers, every mealtime, to worry the hole absent-mindedly, as though she could repair it by the sheer force of will. Matilde had never been able to bear anything out of its place, torn, broken, unusable. Their home in Santo Tomás had been spotless and uncluttered, everything in its place and in good working order. This was what his little Matilde did: fixed things, made things right.
“Did you have a good rest, my darling?” Old Juan asked her tenderly now, noting that her great black eyes were still drawn at the edges from sleep. Matilde made no answer but nodded gently and smiled.
“You made it just in time for the classics hour,” said the old man with contentment as he slowly stood again, reaching up to switch on the radio that sat atop the refrigerator behind him. It picked up just the one Spanish-language station, and that inconsistently, with static and interference. But every afternoon he and Matilde listened to the boleros and sones of the classics hour, reminiscing about when the music was new. It was their ritual.
“Shall I fix you a plate?” Old Juan asked, but Matilde wrinkled up her nose and shook her head decidedly.
“Eat, my lovely, you’ll blow away. . .” he urged by rote, but the truth was that Old Juan was proud of his wife’s discipline, her lithe figure, like that of a young girl. Even in old age she’d never let herself go the way so many other old women did.
“Pues,” he concluded, as he often had during the past sixty years, “you’ll have something later, when you’re ready.” Then a danzón came on the radio, and suddenly Old Juan chuckled delightedly. “Do you remember this one?” he asked her.
Matilde grinned, her eyes crinkling at the corners. Of course she remembered.
“It was 1945, wasn’t it, my love? How we danced to this song! It was all the rage that summer. Remember how they used to clear the tables from the market square every Friday evening, and the young men would turn out in their zoot suits, the women with their hair done up in those peinados that took hours to get right. You’d wear your curlers all morning on Fridays, like Doña Florinda on the tele!”
Old Juan gave a deep belly laugh, and Matilde beamed demurely, her head inclined forward to reveal the long gray braid wound behind. Then she looked up at him musingly, her eyes shining, and all at once Old Juan had a vision of her – not as she was now, in her old age, but as she’d been that summer of 1945, the summer before they married. She’d been as delicate and graceful as an alcatráz flower, her skin the color of almond milk, her eyes like obsidian. How he’d burned for his Matilde those Friday nights, holding her little body in his arms, the promise of love yet to be fulfilled unspoken between them. Then in the fall they’d married and she became his, truly and completely his. Within a year she’d borne him a son, another Juan, but the delivery almost killed her and they hadn’t had more children. Looking back now, he saw her long recovery then as a precursor of lifelong frailty, culminating in her final long illness last year. . .
Then another song began, a story of love and loss half a century old.
|“Ya no estás a mi lado, corazón,|
|En el alma sólo tengo soledad. . .”|
Old Juan stood slowly, leaving his unfinished meal on the table, and reached up to the radio, turning its dial to full volume so that the sound of the song filled the kitchen. He held out his palsied hand to Matilde. She put her hand softly in his and took a step toward him, wrapping her other arm around the old man’s stooped back, nestling her head against his thin chest. They danced, attuned to the same rhythm, and it was as though the years fell away from them. Like youths of twenty again, their hearts beat together, their steps, steady and firm, forming a pattern on the cheap linoleum floor as they swayed from side to side. Old Juan felt a lucidity, a unity of thought, rare these days, and in the light of that clarity, he saw that all his life had been lived to bring him to this moment, to prepare him for this certainty: the realization of how utterly, how wholly and uncompromisingly, he loved his wife. For this he had lived, nothing more – to love Matilde.
Then a voice broke in upon Old Juan’s thoughts.
“Dad! Dad!” Juanito crossed the kitchen in great strides toward the radio, which he switched off in one deft motion. “Sit down, before you fall again!”
Old Juan stared at his son as though he were a stranger. Surely this couldn’t be his little Juanito, whose thin face and great soulful eyes as a child had so resembled Matilde’s – not this hulking, red-faced creature with wrinkled shirttails hanging loose over his size 40 pants, scarcely covering the fat rolls underneath. And behind him, the bleach-blonde that reminded Old Juan of Miss Piggy from The Muppet Show, who could she be?
“Juanito –” the old man began in a choked voice, reaching out toward him with his good hand.
“It’s John, Dad.”
Old Juan stopped abruptly, staring again at his son. Then the old man heaved a deep sigh and turned away. He shuffled through the open doorway toward his bedroom down the hall. When he reached it, he sat down heavily on the twin-sized bed in which he slept, night after night, alone. He didn’t look at the photograph on the bedside table. He didn’t reach up to wipe the hot tears that seeped from his eyes, making trails down his leathery face. He seemed unaware of everything around him. A single word – Matilde – escaped his lips, a word, whispered under his breath, so soft that it was hardly a word at all. It was a plea. A prayer.