The first day, five sewing-machine operators came, some out of curiosity and the others as an act of charity. In the dress factory it was well known that Antonia had fallen on hard times. With the first taste they raved about the food and when they left all remarked about the reasonable cost. The seamstresses promised to return; serving lunch at home was a success.
As satisfied customers they spread the word and by the following week, Antonia could count on a group of five, or six every day for lunch.
Along with her lunches, Antonia started preparing pasteles, rellenos de papas and alcapurias to sell to others in the factory like Bernie, the foreman of the sewing floor. Although it was his custom to eat with the factory owners, (it was their time to discuss the running of the business) Bernie never failed to order pastelillos, or tostones. He ate so many tostones that most afternoons, his belt hung unfastened, its buckle jingling as he tended to his duties.
Everyone was happy with this new arrangement: the operators finally had good food for lunch, and Antonia was able to pay her bills. For the first time in months, she was hopeful about their future.
Forgotten were the heavy silences; the apartment was full of happy noise again. The awful stench in the building that no one, but Antonia, could detect, had retreated before a wave of aromatic seaonings. Only at night, when the apartment was quiet and dark, did Antonia occasionally detect traces of the odor; it smelled of sweat, hardship and fear. In time, even fear become so familiar that she learned to ignore it when the need for rest was stronger than anything she had ever experienced. Fear just wasn’t important any more.
Alicia enjoyed the excitement the operators brought with them. Lunchtimes, she rushed home from school just to hear the stories that Josie and Angela told that day.
Manolo, however, hated everything about serving lunch. He complained about the loud laughter and the mess in the living room.
The first time he complained, Antonia looked him in the eye and said, “At least we’re going to be able to pay our bills.”
Red-faced, he turned away. “Yes,” he said. “And don’t forget to put some money aside for my funeral.”
In response, Antonia grunted. She turned on her heel and left him sitting on the edge of the bed, with his arms folded across his chest.
When he saw her disappear down the hall into the kitchen, his jaw fell open in shock.
“Wait a minute, woman. Don’t you dare turn your back on me. I’m talking to you.”
“Manolo, I’m busy,” she said, without looking back.
“Come back here and explain where you got the money to buy so much food.”
Antonia retraced her steps—inches at a time. Standing in front of him and staring down at her feet, she took a deep breath.
“I sold our wedding rings.”
Manolo’s face turned white, then red and purple and he had trouble getting his words out. “You did what?”
“Manolo, calm down. It’s not good for you to get excited.”
‘You sold your ring? Let me see your hand.”
Antonia held up her left hand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I had to do it. I needed the money to get started. Please, calm down.”
“How could I not have noticed it missing?”
Antonia shrugged her shoulders.
“You were too busy planning your funeral.”
Manolo ignored the comment about the funeral.
“Without my permission, you took my ring and sold it, too? Do you realize what you have done? My wife has become a thief.”
“I’m sorry, but there was no other way.”
“You should have asked my permission.”
Antonia shrugged again. “It’s done now,” she said.
“Just like that? You say it just like that, with a shrug—like it was unimportant. Woman, those were our wedding rings. They were never supposed to come off. Never. We promised each other, at the altar, in front of God.”
“A married woman must always wear a wedding ring. What will people say when they see your finger bare?”
“You always said you didn’t care what people said, remember?”
“But this is important. On the street, men will think you’re single and talk to you.”
“Don’t worry. I have no time to talk to anyone on the street, Manolo.”
“Everyone will think you took off the ring because you have a lover, or something.”
“Well, now I don’t care what anyone thinks.”
“No, I guess not. Look, how you bring strange people into our home. And you cook for them, too. Now, everyone knows I’m an invalid, unable to support my family.”
Antonia shook her head. “Manolo, I don’t care who knows what. Do they pay our rent and put food on our table?”
“No, of course not. The lady of the house does that now. You don’t need me any more.”
“Yes, I do. Manolo, be reasonable. Someone has to earn money in this family. Since you can’t, I will.”
“I should die now.”
Antonia rolled her fingers into a fist.
“Manolo, I’m too busy to waste time on a conversation like this.” She turned to leave the bedroom.
“Woman, how dare you say that to me? How dare you turn your back on me?”
“Stop it!” Antonia screamed. “What do you want from me? I’m sick and tired of hearing you talk about dying.”
Manolo’s gasp was weak—more like a faint hiss.
“How can you talk like that to a sick man?”
“You’re not sick, Manolo. The doctor said you’re well.”
“What does he know? I’m dying.”
“For God’s sake, Manolo. We’re all dying! We started the day we were born.”
“So, now you have become a philosopher. Write this down in your manuscript of knowledge, Antonia.” With his finger upraised, as if he were conducting a symphony, Manolo formed the words, “I’m dying now.”
Antonia stamped her foot.
“If you insist on dying, then for God’s sake hurry up and do it, so Alicia and I can start living again.”
Manolo clutched his chest. “Is there another man?”
She looked down at the floral linoleum floor. Someone in a nearby apartment was playing loud, dance music on the radio. Antonia felt her heartbeat move into high gear, matching the rhythms that throbbed and vibrated through the walls—as if alive.
“No, you fool. There is no other man. How could you ask me such a thing?”
“But you sold our wedding rings. Didn’t they mean anything to you?”
“They were not as important as the money they brought in, Manolo. Sometimes you have to be practical.”
Antonia saw him reaching for his cane, but she didn’t rush to help him up, instead, she turned to leave again.
She stopped mid-step, but didn’t turn around, nor did she answer.
“I know you didn’t love me when we married, but I was sure you would in time. Haven’t I been a good husband?”
Antonia turned to face him. “Yes, Manolo. You’ve been a good husband all these years—until now.”
“That’s not fair. I can’t help it if I’m sick.”
Manolo screamed, grabbed his cane and threw it at the wall.
The cane bounced off the wall, chipped the paint and came down on the dresser. With a loud crash, it felled Manolo’s collection of pill bottles. From the dresser, the cane bounced to the floor, but not before it shattered her only bottle of cologne—Evening in Paris. Mariana had given it to her last Christmas. In seconds, sweet perfume filled the room.
Antonia looked sadly at the broken blue bottle, but did not move to pick up the pieces. It had been such a pretty bottle, even prettier than the perfume. She looked up and fixed her gaze on Manolo.
“You’re not a good husband because you would rather abandon me, and leave Alicia fatherless, than fight to get well.”
“What a crazy thing to say. Of course, I want to get well. You think I enjoy being sick?”
“Yes. Why else do you lie in bed all day, whining and complaining?”
“Antonia. Be quiet!”
“No, you be quiet and listen.” Antonia’s face had lost all color, and her dark eyes grew large, but there were no tears.
“For God’s sake, Manolo. If it makes you happy to lie down in some hole in the ground and rot, go ahead. Die if you want to. But don’t expect me to wear black at your funeral, because I can’t afford to buy a black dress. My only good dress is the red one I wore to your cousin’s wedding. I’ll wear that, and then you’ll hear people talk—even from the other side of the grave.”
“How dare you talk to me like that, woman. How dare you.? I knew it.” Manolo grabbed the cross he wore around his neck and kissed it. “I knew it all along. You want me dead.”
Antonia crossed her arms across her chest, dug her fingers into her arms and remained silent. Too many bad things had been said; she didn’t want to say any more.
Manolo got up and walked a few steps toward her with his arms outstretched. For the first time since his heart attack, Manolo walked without his cane. At that moment, Antonia forgot the argument and smiled.
Seeing her smile, however, infuriated Manolo.
“You mock me. This is my thanks for everything I’ve done for you and Alicia. This is my thanks.”
Antonia shook her head, but remained silent, watching Manolo sway unsteadily until he reached the solid comfort of the wall.
“Answer me, Antonia. Is it true? Do you want me dead?”
“No, you fool. I want you to get your ass out of that bed and go back to work.”
Manolo took a few more steps toward her.
“I can’t get up.” he said. “I can’t walk.”
“Yes, you can. Just like you’re doing now.”
Realizing that he had no cane in his hand, he turned and walked slowly back to the bed. He stopped after each step to look back at Antonia’s expression— that ridiculous, twisted smile on her lips.
“What a cold bitch you have become.”
Still, Antonia didn’t answer; Manolo shook his head.
“Antonia. I don’t know you anymore!”
“That’s probably true.”
“If we had remained in Puerto Rico you wouldn’t have become the shrew you are.”
“Well, we’re not in Puerto Rico. This is America.”
“I curse the day I ever heard of this place.”
“Manolo, remember what you told me that afternoon when you found me by the fountain in the plaza? I was crying because Don Andrés had offered me money, like a whore. You asked me to marry you—something I never expected.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Do you remember telling me that the past is dead and can’t be changed? ‘Forget how things might have been,’ you said; ‘worry about the here and now.’ Those were your words exactly, Manolo.”
“I remember everything I said, and the promises I made.”
Manolo reached the bed and dropped down on it; the bed springs creaked loudly. He held his head with his shaking hands.
“Someday we should get a quiet bed,” he muttered.
“Someday, maybe, but for now, we have bills, the rent to pay, and a child to feed. I can’t do it alone, Manolo.”
“No you’re wrong. You can do it alone,” he whispered. “You don’t need me anymore.”
Antonia walked over to the bed and sat down next to her husband.
“Maybe, that’s also true, but I’d rather have you with me than in some hole in the cemetery.”
“I hate this place; it’s unnatural.”
“What are you talking about now, Nolo?”
“In America, the women are like men.”
“I never thought I looked like a man.”
“Not in that way, Toña. It’s just that here women work and support themselves and don’t need us anymore.”
“And in Puerto Rico I had a life of leisure? Manolo, sometimes you are such a fool. Do you think I cleaned the school teacher’s house for fun? I have always worked. No one ever gave us something for nothing.”
“You sound so bitter, Antonia.”
“What’s wrong with being bitter?”
After long minutes of silence, Manolo cleared his throat. He looked down at the spaces between his fingers. “Antonia?”
“What is it, Manolo? And for God’s sake, speak up. I can hardly hear you.”
Manolo cleared his throat again.
“Do you love me, Antonia?” he whispered.
“What kind of a stupid question is that?”
He looked up at her and spoke through clenched teeth.
“It’s my stupid question, woman. Do you love me, or not? Answer me.”
Antonia looked straight into his eyes. “After all this time,” she asked, “why do you ask? You should know.”
“I know nothing because I haven’t heard your answer. Do you love me, yes or no?”
Antonia rubbed her forehead.
“You know I love you, Manolo.“
“Well, you have a strange way of showing it, Antonia.”
“All I want is for you to get well. I want you to live, yet you insist on dying. What am I supposed to do?”
“But you don’t need me anymore.”
“So what? Is that a reason to die? What are you talking about, anyhow?”
“You work like a man and you can support yourself. You don’t need me at all.”
“No, I don’t need you to support me, but did you expect me to throw you away like yesterday’s newspaper? What kind of human being do you think I am?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything since we came here. This is the most confusing place.“
“Some things always stay the same, no matter where you are. I loved you in Puerto Rico and I love you in New York. It will never change.”
“You love me even though you don’t need me?”
Antonia shook her head and smiled; he looked so sad.
“You know that I love you. Manolo, what have you been thinking?” Antonia took his hand and squeezed it; she felt him tremble.
She caressed his face and smoothed his hair “You are my husband. Who else would I love?”
“All these years I have believed that if you loved me, it was because you needed me. Now, I discover that you need me because you love me.”
“Sometimes, you are such a fool.”
“It is this city, this country. Life is upside down, and I’ve become a fool.”
They sat in silence, holding onto each other, listening to wailing police sirens from the streets below.
“Manolo, lie down and rest for now. I’ll go into the kitchen and get out some asopao from the refrigerator. Fighting always makes you hungry and it’s almost dinner time. Alicia should be home soon. I had sent her to the market for more vegetables for the pasteles.”
“You sent her alone?”
“There was no one else to send.”
“You know I don’t like it when you send out alone like that. Young girls have to be protected.”
“American girls learn to protect themselves, Manolo. Alicia will not be as helpless I was.”
“But, Antonia, she isn’t an American.”
“Yes, she is!”
The moment she spoke, Antonia realized it was the wrong thing to say. She felt the muscles in her stomach go hard.
Manolo frowned. “Since when? When did she become an American?”
Antonia smiled nervously and spoke softly, carefully.
“On, I don’t know. Maybe, she became an American the day we arrived in New York. It could have happened the first time she spoke English, or perhaps, the day she started school. It’s not important when it happened; it just did.”
She smiled and looked down at her feet.
“Well, you’re wrong. Alicia will grow up to be what she was born to be—a Puerto Rican, just like her parents. When we go back, the both of you can forget this nonsense about being American.”
Antonia raised her eyes and met his gaze. Her voice was soft and the words she spoke lingered on her lips, as if afraid of letting go.
“In America, Alicia has a chance to be more than her parents. I want that for her. Think of it, Manolo. Alicia will be whatever she wants to be, and I don’t expect she’ll choose to be poor. She’ll be better than us.”
“Better than us?”
“So that she can look down on us. Think, woman, Alicia will be ashamed of us. You’ll lose her to rich and snobby friends. That’s why we have to go back, Antonia—before its too late.”
“I don’t think Alicia will ever go back to Puerto Rico. And as for me . . . well, I might go back for a visit.”
Manolo’s eyes open wide and he crossed himself.
“We had agreed to go back as soon as we could—when Don Andrés was dead, and no longer a threat. I didn’t come to live here in this cold forever.”
“The cold isn’t so bad—when you wear something warm—”
“I’m not talking about the temperature. I’m talking about the people. Here no one cares for anyone else. You can get robbed, even killed on the street in broad daylight and no one will come to help. This is not the way that people were meant to live—stacked up, one over the another, like chickens in crates. There is no room to breathe.”
“Manolo, calm down!”
“Even you, you’re becoming cold. I can see it in your eyes, and in the way you smile. Promise me, Antonia, promise that we’ll go back. Promise me.”
“Maybe, we will. . . .”
“No maybes. I don’t want to hear, maybe. Ever since we got here I’ve done nothing but pray for the day we can go home, so that we can live a normal life again.”
“Manolo, life here is not so terrible. It’s hard, but not unbearable.”
“Life is Puerto Rico was good.”
“It was not good. You forget how hard we had to word for the little we had, and we were the lucky ones.”
“I don’t understand you, Antonia. You’re never satisfied with what you have. You always want something better.”
“What’s wrong with wanting something better?”
Manolo covered his face with his hands. “If I don’t go back home, I don’t want to live. Promise me that we’ll return.”
Antonia bit her lip, remaining silent.
He dropped his hands into his lap. “If you love me, you’ll promise me this. It is the only thing I’ve ever asked of you—the only thing. Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes, I heard.” Antonia squeezed his knee. “You are my husband and I love you. I promise that we’ll go back—someday.”
She stood eager to escape; Manolo held onto her hand and pulled her back.
“Not someday,” he said. “I want to go back now.”
“You just said that we would wait until Don Andrés is dead—”
“Oh, to hell with Don Andrés! Aren’t you tired of being afraid of him?”
“Maybe you’re right, Manolo. I’ll think about it; I promise. Now, get back into bed and I’ll bring you a tray.”
Manolo released her hand, stood and walked over to the dresser where he looked into the mirror at his image. He ran his fingers though his hair then rubbed the stubble on his cheek.
“I’m tired of eating in bed.” Manolo stretched his arms over his head and yawned. “I’m going to get dressed and have dinner in the kitchen, instead.”
“Yes, that would be good—the three of us having dinner together, again.” She turned to leave the room.
“And tomorrow I’ll help you prepare the vegetables so that you can go to the store yourself, and not send Alicia.”
Antonia stared at him open mouthed. “Manolo,” she said. “You always said that cooking was woman’s work.”
“I didn’t say I was going to cook. I said I would prepare the vegetables. Anyhow can’t a man change his mind in America?”
“Work is work,” he shouted. “All that matters is that it be honest work. What’s the difference if I work in the kitchen for a while? What does not kill me makes me strong! Besides,” he added in a whisper, “I won’t let anyone see me.”
“Oh. I see.”
Antonia’s whisper was even softer his, and turned her head so that Manolo wouldn’t see her smile.
“Don’t forget what I said about returning to the island.”
Suddenly, Antonia felt cold and her smile faded.
Manolo kept his word. Each morning, he helped Antonia prepare the food. At first he tired after just an hour, and he had to lie down, but his strength and stamina increased steadily. In just three weeks he was able to rise at dawn, and spend the whole morning, preparing lunches. He worked as long as none of the operators was in the apartment. When the customers came, Manolo retreated into the bedroom.
One day, however, after overhearing a customer rave over the rice and gandules he had prepared, Manolo strode into the kitchen and took credit for his work. Seeing the stunned look on the woman’s face, he rushed out of the apartment, giving shopping as an excuse.
Open mouthed, the operators laughed after he left. Always ready to assume sophisticated airs, Ana demanded they stop laughing.
“Everyone knows that male cooks are superior. That’s why fancy restaurants only employ men,” she said.
Her words were greeted by hoots and howls of laughter.
“That’s ridiculous.” It was no secret that Carmencita hated Ana’s know-it-all attitude. “How many fancy restaurants do you go to?”
“Not many now,” Ana admitted. “Before I was married there were dozens of rich, young men eager to take me to the best places. I went out every night of the week.”
“Sure, and I’m the Queen of England.”
Ana ignored the comment. “This is excellent rice,” she said. “I know quality.”
Everyone agreed; the rice dish was superb.
Thereafter, Antonia had a difficult time keeping Manolo out of the kitchen, and he no longer hid in his room when the customers arrived.
Even with Manolo’s help in the kitchen and Alicia’s energetic, if not through, cleaning up, Antonia worked harder than ever. Her day started at five in the morning and ended after ten at night. When, at last, she ate her own dinner, she almost always ate alone. Alicia and Manolo usually went to bed early.
Nightly, Antonia yawned so hard that it hurt. After finishing her work in the kitchen, Antonia staggered through the darkness in the hallway. She had barely enough energy to push aside the shadows standing between her and the bed. When finally, she stretched out on her bed, sleep eluded her.
Lack of sleep had never been a problem before, From the time she was a child, Antonia used to brag that she could sleep anywhere, and did—even on the airplane that brought them to New York City. The other passengers had gripped the armrests until their knuckles turned white, but Antonia had slept, as if in her own bed.
Now, it seemed as if she would never sleep peacefully again. Night after night, Antonia lay on the bed, staring at the dark ceiling, and listening to Manolo’s deep, rumbling snore. She had heard people talk about being too tired to sleep, but never believed it could happen to her.
Although she tried every home remedy she knew, nothing helped. Antonia took warm baths and drank warm milk before bedtime. Night after night, she remained wide awake. After a while, she grew impatient with her insomnia, and she decided to make use of the time, by getting a head start on the next day’s work.
In spite of her fatigue, thoughts of complaining never entered her mind. Settling the past due bills meant that for the first time in six months she didn’t have to avoid the super, or his scowling wife. The rent was paid up to date, and she had money stashed away for the following month.
Antonia gave gifts of pasteles to the people who had given her money— because none would accept cash. All their other debts were also paid, and the day she went to pay the last installment on the Consolidated Edison bill, Antonia had skipped down the street like a child. What a good feeling that was.
Serving lunch to the operators was such a success that Antonia was able to start saving again—a few dollars one week, a few quarters the next; the amount didn’t matter. Antonia knew it would grow. Bad times were retreating into memory, and she was happy.
At times, when the pain in her stiff and swollen fingers made it almost impossible to form the little potato dumplings, or roll the dough for the pastelillos, Antonia thought about her savings. Distrustful of banks she hid her money in a black metal lunch box that Alicia had once used. Whenever she opened her closet, Antonia checked the lunch box to make sure the money was still there, covered by her marriage certificate, and Alicia’s registration of birth.
Word of Antonia’s cooking spread. Many operators ordered specialty dishes to take home to their families. Antonia turned no one down. When the orders became too large for her to handle, she pressed her best friend into service. Mariana gladly cooked up whatever Antonia needed and delivered the entire order steaming hot.
The first time that Mariana prepared an order, Antonia insisted that she keep the entire profit on the order. Mariana refused, saying that all she wanted was a percentage—a fifty-fifty split.
“It’s only fair that we do it this way,” Mariana said. “After all, you bring in the business and take the orders. You are management and management always takes a cut. It’s how things are done in America.”
They argued back and forth for almost two hours. Antonia didn’t like Mariana’s proposal. She knew an act of charity when she saw it, and it shamed her to have to accept, even from her best friend.
“You are cheating yourself, Mariana,” she argued. “I would be guilty of cheating you.”
Mariana smiled, took Antonia’s hand and squeezed it.
“You can never be guilty of that, Antonia. How can you even say such a thing? Besides you can’t fool me. I know what is really troubling you.”
Antonia lowered her eyes. “What do you know, Mariana?”
“I know that pride should not stand between friends.”
With a smile on her lips, Mariana reached over and smoothed Antonia’s crinkled collar. “And you are the best friend I have ever had,” she added. “Let me do this for you, Antonia.”
Antonia closed her eyes, put her hands to her ears and shook her head.
“You’ve already done so much, Mariana.”
“Listen to me. It is something you would do for me, if the situation were different. Wouldn’t you, Antonia?”
Antonia dropped her hands and looked at her friend.
“Of course I would, Mariana.”
“Bueno! It’s settled then.”
Mariana was amazing. Although she never raised her voice, Mariana always got her way. Antonia smiled.
“O. K. You win, Mariana. We’ll do it your way, at least for now.”
Each time Mariana delivered a steaming dish, Antonia vowed that someday she would pay back her friend’s generosity. She refused to be counted among those who, in the past, had abused Mariana’s trusting and giving nature.
There were gifts for everyone that Christmas. Manolo had gone out Christmas Eve and bought the biggest tree he could find and spent the entire afternoon decorating it with Alicia’s help. The best decorations, however, were the gifts— a cowgirl’s outfit for Alicia and some new underwear and socks, too. There was also a sweater for Manolo and real, black leather gloves for Antonia.
Christmas was barely over when Alicia went to the playground in the park and found dried pieces of grass that she put in little boxes—food for the Kings’ camels. The Day of the Three Kings was approaching.
“Either you are American, or Puerto Rican, Alicia,” he insisted. “you can’t be both.”
Alicia filled the little box with the grass and placed a small bowl of water near it. “What do you mean?”
“How can you expect the Kings to come when you already got gifts from Santa Claus?”
She looked up at him and grinned. “That’s the best part about being in America. You get both. Mildred and Emily said so.”
Manolo shook his head. “No, Alicia. Mildred and Emily are wrong. You must not be greedy. It is time. You must choose either Santa or the Three Kings.”
Alicia stood; her face was pale. “I don’t want to choose.”
“Antonia, come into the living room and explain to your daughter that she can’t expect both Santa and the Kings to bring her gifts.”
Antonia entered the living room from the kitchen. “Let her be, Manolo,” she said.
“But it’s not right. She should choose between the two. I don’t know any other child who expects so much.”
Antonia took Alicia’s face in her hands. “Every day, you become more and more American, but deep inside, Alicia, you are still Puerto Rican. That’s the way it should be. You are the best parts of each.”
“Antonia, you are too sentimental for your own good, or Alicia’s. Don’t you think it’s time for the girl to grow up?”
“I guess I am sentimental, but this year has been a special one. I think that for this one time Alicia can have both Santa Claus and the Kings.”
Alicia’s eyes opened wide. “Thank you, Mami.”
“Don’t thank me. Make sure you give thanks to God, to the Three Kings and to Santa when you say your prayers.”
“I will. What do you think the Kings will bring me?”
Antonia carressed her daughter’s curls and smiled. “I don’t know, Alicia,” she said. “Something good. I know they’ll bring you something good. Now, go clean your room. The Three Kings must not be offended by a dirty, messy room.”
“It will be perfect.”
“With nothing on the floor?”
“Nothing on the floor except the furniture.” Alicia hugged her mother and ran to her room.
Antonia turned to Manolo and said, “There is still plenty of time for her to grow up.”
With a disgusted look on his face, Manolo turned to leave the room. “You spoil her too much.”
The Three Kings came. Their camels ate the grass and drank the water, and in return, the Kings left a beautiful doll for Alicia. It was the most beautiful doll she had ever seen. Although Alicia secretly felt that she was getting too old for dolls, she kept it on her bed and slept with it at night. She named the doll Milagros because Manolo kept muttering that it was a miracle that the Three Kings came. After a few months, Alicia shortened the doll’s name to Millie.
It was the first day of spring and yet the streets were covered with snow. Eight inches of wet snow had fallen during the night, filling the spaces between cars and garbage cans.
As soon as she awakened that morning, Alicia knew something was different. The valves in the apartment’s radiators wheezed and huffed, yet the temperature in her bedroom felt colder than usual.
Reluctantly, Alicia left her bed. She wrapped her robe tightly around her, before looking out the window, framed with snow. At that moment, fine threads of sunlight appeared, highlighting the window pane with its lacy border of snow crystals. Alicia tried to trace their outlines with her fingers, but the warmth of her hand melted them. She stepped back from the drafty window and watched the crystals reappear. Snow crystals had to be admired from afar.
Down on the streets below, the city’s big plows were having difficulty clearing the snow. The child grinned; for sure there would be no school. Cheering the plow’s lack of progress, Alicia felt a steady stream of cold air seep through the poorly caulked windows. Shivering, she stepped back even further into the warmer center of the room. A few seconds later, she dove back under the blankets, without removing her robe.
Mornings like this were perfect for staying in bed, but the sheets were already cold; she wished she had a hot water bottle like her mother did. Alicia pulled the blankets up over her head and tucked her feet up into the protective hem of the chenille robe; she closed her eyes. The radiator valve whistled and rattled, and from the streets, the groans and moans of the struggling snow plows grew louder. Ordinarily, the noise would have kept her from going back to sleep, but not that morning. In seconds she had rolled over onto her side and started a new dream.
Not everybody was as lucky as Alicia. The night before, the sanitation crews, alerted by the weather service, had pulled on their heavy winter boots, coats and hats and reported for work. Sidewalks and streets had to be cleared and sanded because the city could not stand still. By ten-thirty that morning, mounds of snow filled the gutters and traffic was free to flow.
Sunshine burned away the dark clouds, and snow crystals glittered in the bright light. Workers put down their snow shovels, snow plows returned to their garages, and the city resumed its hustle and bustle, waking Alicia. It was noon, and as usual, Antonia and Mariana were serving lunch. A few of the operators had decided to eat, before reporting late for the afternoon shift.
The women had just taken their places at the table set up in the center of the living room, when the building super pushed open the door. It hit the wall with a loud band. Everyone jumped up as the super stepped inside the apartment. Alicia knew from the look on his face that his visit meant only big trouble. All the kids in the building knew that when the super came to your apartment, it was to give you a dispossess. It was the one thing that everyone feared.
The man’s entrance into the apartment scared both the operators, and Alicia. The moment he appeared, she wanted to run and hide. He was huge, filling the doorway so completely that no light from the hallway window shone past him. His hands were dirty, his hair was matted and he always wore his shirt with the buttons open so that his stained undershirt was visible. The super glared at the women, who quickly lowered their eyes. When he spotted Alicia, he grunted.
“Where’s your father, girlie?”
Alicia tilted her head back to look up at him; she couldn’t answer him at first.
“I asked you a question.”
Alicia took a step backwards. “He’s not here,” she replied.
“Go call your mother.”
“Mami!” she shouted without moving. “Mami!”
The operators all turned to face the hallway that led to the kitchen. They sighed with relief when they saw Antonia rush out of the kitchen. She wiped her hands on her apron.
Antonia saw the super and froze.
“My husband is not here.” She tried to smile.
“When he comes home, you tell him I have to talk with him. Do you understand?”
The super ignored the women seated at the table. They watched him out of the corners of their eyes, and pretended they weren’t listening.
“Yes, I understand English.”
“Good.” The man walked out into the hallway without looking back.
With Alicia close on her heels, Antonia followed him into the hallway. She cleared her throat several times before getting her words out.
“What is the matter? Tell me what you want.”
The warbling, unsteady tone of her mother’s voice scared Alicia even more than the super did; she put her arm around Antonia’s waist.
“I only talk to the man of the house, Missus. You just tell him to come down to my place as soon as he gets in. That’s all.”
Without thinking, Antonia reached for the super’s arm, as if she could force him to stop and talk to her. He continued on his way, ignoring her slight touch. Antonia dropped her arms to her side and lowered her head.
“I will tell my husband.” Her voice was very soft.
“You do that, Missus. It’s important.” His voice echoed in the stairwell; he was already on the floor below.
Antonia closed the door to the apartment and leaned against its frame as if she needed support.
Alicia looked up at her mother. “Don’t worry, Mami,” she said. “It’ll be all right.”
“Sure, it will. After all, the rent is paid.”
“And if the rent is paid, he can’t throw us out. Isn’t that so, Mami?” Alicia smiled brightly.
“That’s right. So we have nothing to worry about.”
“Are you sure? Really, really sure?”
“Nena, in this life, we can never be sure of anything except death. What’s the matter? Why are you asking such things? You were happy a few minutes ago and now you’re frowning.”
“I don’t ever want to leave here, Mami. I don’t want to leave my friends and everything. And I don’t want to go back to Puerto Rico like Papi Manolo wants. I like it here better.”
“Alicia, you were only a baby when we came. You know almost nothing about Puerto Rico. I tell you that it’s beautiful there, and it’s always warm— not like here today. People smile all the time and they are good to each other.”
“So, why did we leave if it was so great?”
“You are too young to understand, Alicia”
“I’m always too young to understand, when you don’t want to tell me something.”
“That’s not true, Alicia.”
“Come on, let’s go inside. It’s cold and drafty here.”
Alicia started to open the door for her mother, and stopped suddenly— blocking the way. “Mami, do you want to go back?”
Antonia groaned. “Go back where, Alicia?”
“To Puerto Rico.”
“It’s the place where we were born.”
“So what, Mami. Here, everyone is born someplace else, and other people don’t go back. Don’t you like it here, even though it’s cold, and people never smile at each other?”
Antonia closed her eyes and smiled. “Yes, I like it here. I don’t know why, or what it is about this place, but I do like it here.”
Alicia’s wide smile froze when her mother added, “We can never forget that Puerto Rico is our real home. Someday, I guess, we’ll go back.”
“I don’t want to go there,” Alicia cried out. “I never want to go there.”
“Alicia, but why not?”
“Everyone laughs at how I speak Spanish.”
“Who laughs at you? Who?”
“Sarita and José—even their stupid cousin, Pedro.”
Antonia shook her head. “Oh, Alicia. What do they know? They’re only Cubans, who are just jealous because you speak English so good. That’s all. Now, what else?”
“I have all my friends here, too.”
Mariana opened the apartment door, startling them.
“Is anything wrong out here?” she asked. “You’re taking so long.”
“No. It’s nothing, Mariana. Go back inside.”
“I was worried. That man looks like a murderer.”
“No one was killed today, Mariana. Go back inside; I’ll be right in.”
“Well, hurry up. I can’t serve lunch alone.”
“I said I’ll be right in.”
Antonia waited until Mariana had closed the door before cupping Alicia’s face in her hand. The child looked up at her mother.
“Don’t look so serious, Nena,” Antonia said. “You’ll get wrinkles before your time.”
Antonia smiled. Alicia knew that her mother expected her to smile back, but she didn’t. The child grabbed her mother’s hands and held onto them, instead. Antonia’s hands were cold.
“I don’t care about wrinkles,” Alicia said. “I don’t want to ever leave here. Please, Mami.”
“Alicia, why are saying these things? Who said anything about moving? Where do you think we are going to go? We don’t have any money to go anywhere.”
“Puerto Rico. Are we going to go back to Puerto Rico?”
“Alicia, please stop. You’re giving me a headache.” Antonia freed her hands from Alicia’s grasp and wiped the lone tear on the child’s face. “No one said we were going back. What gave you that idea anyhow?”
“Papi Manolo says it all the time.”
Antonia shook her head. “He only says that when he’s upset.”
“Then he’s upset all the time.”
Antonia wiped another tear from her daughter’s cheek.
“Life isn’t easy here, Alicia. Your Papi Manolo can’t find a real job, just work for a few hours. If he’s really lucky the job lasts for a few days. Some weeks he gets nothing.”
Alicia bit her lip and looked down at her black, freshly polished shoes.
Mariana opened the door again and stuck her head out of the doorway. “Antonia, for God’s sake. I need help!”
Antonia stamped her foot. “I’ll be right in, Mariana.”
“That’s what you said ten minutes ago, but I need help now. The food’s getting cold and the girls have to go to work. This isn’t Puerto Rico, where lunch takes all afternoon. Hurry up.”
“I said I would be right in.”
“Just remember, Antonia, that not even in America can the food serve itself.”
Mariana returned to work, this time leaving the apartment door open—to insure Antonia’s speedy return.
The thought of food marching from the stove to the plate made Antonia smile, momentarily. Alicia, on the other hand, maintained a tragic expression on her face.
“Children shouldn’t have to worry about such things.” Antonia said.
Alicia remained silent. There were times when Antonia spoke to no one in particular.
“Alicia, I have to go back inside now.”
Antonia put her arms around her daughter and felt the child gulp down her unhappiness. “I have to work, Nena.”
“I can get a job, too, so that we won’t have to go back.”
“No. No, Alicia.”
“Yes. Papá Manolo said that at my age you were already working. I’ll get a job. I want to be just like you.”
“No, Alicia. Not like me. You can do better than me.”
Antonia held Alicia at arms’ length, studying her face as if she seeing it for the first time. She saw the sadness, the anxiety and the fear.
“It’s no good when children grow up too quickly,” she whispered.
Seconds later, Antonia smoothed away all the frown lines on Alicia’s face.
“Don’t frown so much,” she said. “You know your Mami wants you to be happy, and you are much too young to get a job. You already have a job.”
“What’s that, Mami?”
“To study and to learn. Maybe someday, you’ll be a teacher, living in a pretty house. You’ll have a maid to clean, a cook to prepare your meals, and a laundress to scrub your clothes.”
“Look, I have an idea. Why don’t you go out to play in the snow with your friends?”
The expression on Alicia’s face changed instantly from extreme sadness to surprise and seconds later, delight.
“Play outside in the snow? Isn’t it too cold for me?”
Antonia closed her eyes and took a deep breath, holding it for a few seconds, before she released it—slowly.
“All American children play in the snow,” she said. “Don’t you want to play outside like them?”
Alicia clapped her hands and jumped up and down.
“Yes.” she said. “But you always say it’s too cold and I’ll get pneumonia.” “You never ever let me play in the snow.”
Antonia opened her eyes. Seeing Alicia’s shining eyes and excited expression, she giggled. “This time you may play in the snow all you want.”
The child’s enthusiasm was contagious.
“Forget pneumonia for today,” Antonia added. “You have a very warm coat and leggings and gloves, too. Most important of all, you’re young. I don’t think children ever feel the cold when they play.”
“I have the new, wool hat Mariana gave me, too.”
“Yes, I know you’ll be very warm. Go outside and make a snowman. It’s the last snowfall—your last chance to make a snowman.”
“I’ll get Mildred to help me.”
Antonia smiled. “That’s good. And, Alicia?”
“Make sure you sit in the snow at least one time.”
Alicia looked up at her mother in delighted disbelief.
“Sit in the snow? That’s crazy, Mami. Why do you want me to do that?”
“It doesn’t matter why, Alicia. Just do it. It will be fun. I see all the other children, sitting in the snow, and also lying in the snow—to make angels. You do that, too, Alicia—like the other children.”
“Gosh, Mami, are you feeling O. K.?”
“I’m feeling fine, Nena, don’t worry. Look! See how pretty it is, so white and new. It’s only new for such a short while.”
Both Alicia and Antonia turned to look out the hallway window. The snow in the alleyway was untouched, and piled high on the window ledges. In the shadows between the buildings, the snow would last, blue-white and pristine.
“If I could, I’d go outside with you to play and sit in the snow. I have to stay inside to work. That saint is doing my work right now. It is not fair to burden her like that.”
“You can come play in the snow, after you finish with lunch.”
Antonia shook her head. “It’ll be too late then,” she said. “The snow will have melted. Look, how bright the sun is already—so brilliant that it makes my eyes water just to look outside. No, I can’t go with you, but I don’t want you to miss your one chance. Go get dressed, child. Hurry! You must sit in the snow, Alicia!”