Shortly after midnight, March spawned the weather for which it is best known. Lusty winds prowled the streets of the city like rowdy adolescents out on a spree, overturning garbage cans and rattling windows.
The gusts howled, a high-pitched maniacal screech that pierced the dreams of uneasy sleepers. Some clutched blankets to their chins and tried to ignore the awful sensation that their building had shivered—if ever so slightly.
At dawn, seemingly exhausted by their Friday night high-jinks, the gusts abandoned their prowl. Docile remnants of the winds now seeped inside city buildings as if looking for places to rest.
Later that morning one gentle current found Alicia seated at the kitchen table. As a final, playful gesture, the breeze stirred the curly tendrils framing her face. When she felt its touch, she smiled, closed her arithmetic book and rested her head in her arms.
Through half opened eyes Alicia watched the gingham curtains puff up and fall against the kitchen window. Imaging the curtains as huge sails, powering a mighty ship on the ocean, her eyes closed.
Just as she relaxed into sleep, Alicia heard voices in the hall outside the apartment. With a guilty start, her eyes flew open. Holding her breath, Alicia listened closely, hoping not to recognize her parents’ voices. Although she had struggled all morning to finish the problems in her arithmetic workbook, the assignment was still undone—her promises to the contrary. Clearly, she needed more time to finish the extra work the teacher had assigned.
The night before, her parents had become angry when reviewing Alicia’s report card. One grade, printed in red ink and circled, had blemished the card—arithmetic. Overlooking all the other, better grades, Antonia had gasped, “This is disgraceful.”
Just when Alicia thought things could not get any worse, her mother unfolded the teacher’s note. Tucked into the envelope with the report card, this latest note from Mrs. Siegel informed Alicia’s parents that if child’s arithmetic grades did not improve, she would not be promoted into the fourth grade.
As usual, Manolo declared that this was the result of pampering the child. Alicia prayed her parents would get into one of their customary arguments and in the heat of the moment forget her report card and the note, but this time they did not argue.
Antonia’s eyes narrowed into slits as she focused on Alicia.
“This is a bad note I have received from your teacher,” she had said. “Very bad. What will people say if you do not get promoted? Think of the shame you bring us.”
The next morning Antonia had greeted her daughter at the breakfast table with exactly the same words and Alicia could think of nothing say in her defense. They ate their breakfast in silence and before her parents left to go to the marketa, Antonia had been very stern in ordering Alicia not to get up from the table until all the extra make-up work was finished.
“But that’s not fair. I want to go to the market.”
“Don’t talk back to your mother, or do you need a lesson in manners?”
“Be quiet! Children should be seen and not heard. Antonia, this child does not know how to respect her elders.”
“Don’t get upset, Manolo.”
“That is it? That is all you are going to say?”
“We have much to do this morning. I will speak with her later.”
“This is why she is the way that she is, Antonia. You should speak with her now while the fault is still fresh in her mind.”
“I said I will do it later.”
“Listen to me, woman—”
Antonia had arched her brow and nodded her head in Alicia’s direction. It was her signal to her husband that the child should not hear their private words.
“You are growing agitated, Manolo and you know that’s not good,” she whispered and glanced at the child to see if she listened.
Pretending not to have heard; Alicia looked over her arithmetic assignment and remained silent.
It had been unusually quiet in the apartment building that Saturday morning. Radio music did not percolate up through the floor; doors did not slam. Until the moment that she had heard the voices coming up the stairs, Alicia had believed she was alone in the building.
When the voices came closer, Alicia recognized them as belonging to neighbors and she lost interest in listening to their words.
Alicia stretched and suppressed a yawn. It was time to get back to work. Her mother would be even angrier than this morning if the workbook pages were undone when she returned from the market.
Knowing she should make better use of her time, Alicia furrowed her brow and glared at the neatly stacked rows of unfinished arithmetic problems. With each passing minute, however, the columsd of numbers disintegrated into a blur and Alicia grew increasingly listless. Her fingers refused to hold the stubby pencil. It fell and rolled into the center of the open book. She made no attempt to retrieve it.
Alicia’s eyes started to close again.
All of a sudden she heard the shouts of neighborhood children playing outside. A surge of energy propelled her into motion. Forgetting her mother’s orders, Alicia slammed the arithmetic book shut and sprang to her feet. She ran from window to window, opened each and craned her neck as far as she dared.
From her vantage point on the third floor, Alicia saw that the streets were crowded. Everyone, it seemed, was outside, enjoying milder temperatures. The puddles that had accumulated during the three-day deluge were now humid stains on the sidewalks. As the sun rose higher in the sky, a thin vapor rose from the cement, carrying with it the sounds and scents of the neighborhood.
Although she had heard their voices clearly, Alicia was unable to find where the children had gathered. She returned to her chair at the kitchen table, punched the arithmetic workbook and nestled her head in her arms. With the hope of hearing the children again, Alicia closed her eyes and concentrated on listening, but the roar of traffic had consumed their voices.
Even if she could not join them, she had wanted to wave and shout cries of encouragement through the open window.
“Everybody, but me is having fun. I have to do homework,” she moaned. “More than anything I hate arithmetic.”
Alicia knew that even if her homework were finished she could not join the other children. Her parents rarely allowed her outside to play. Mami and Papá Manolo always rolled their eyes in disapproval when they saw boys and girls playing tag. They wanted her to sit home, do her chores, study her lessons, play with her dolls and color in coloring books. Running in the street was not ladylike, they insisted.
Leaning back in her chair, Alicia stared at the ceiling and strained to hear the high-pitched voices again, but silence seemed to have blanketed the apartment. She no longer heard the loud ticking of the clock, although the minute hand still marked its steady course. The refrigerator’s rumbling drone had hushed. Alicia got up and opened its door to make certain it still worked.
The refrigerator was empty; her parents had not yet returned from the food market with the week’s provisions. Alicia’s stomach growled, prompting her to reach for the cracker tin. It felt light in her hands and she knew without opening it that it, too, was empty. With nothing else to distract her, Alicia decided to return to her homework to keep her mind from food.
No sooner did she sit down to work than she heard the children’s voices outside. Alicia groaned and decided it was a waste to spend so much time on number problems when there were so many other things she could do—like playing tag. Alicia did not jump to her feet as she had before; instead she closed her eyes and waited until their voices faded, before opening her book.
Although Alicia often asked her parents why they disapproved, all they replied was that it was not proper to run and play tag with boys.
As often as she dared Alicia had objected to their restrictions, but it was always the same.
“Coloring books are stupid and boring,” was what she had told her mother the previous week. “All the American kids play tag,” she added, hoping that would encourage Antonia to relent and allow her to play.
“You are not an American,” her stepfather had replied.
“Of course she is, Manolo, but we are Puerto Rican parents and, Alicia, this is how Puerto Rican parents look out after their little girls. You cannot expect us to change. That would be unthinkable.”
Manolo had nodded with approval, before adding, “Alicia was born in Puerto Rico. Don’t forget that.”
“Forgetting that would also be unthinkable, Manolo. Alicia is just bored. She needs something to occupy her time.”
When Alicia heard her mother’s words, she knew her parents would not fail to buy her more coloring books and crayons and they did. Alicia also knew that although upset over the failing grade in arithmetic, Antonia would bring home yet another coloring book that morning as well.
When Antonia and Manolo returned, it was the first thing her mother pulled from the bag of groceries.
“I know you will like this one,” Mami said. “It has many beautiful princesses and a few angels. You may have it after Papá Manolo has checked your work.”
“I’m too old for coloring books, Mami,” Alicia replied. “I’m going into fifth grade.”
Alicia’s mother smiled and caressed her daughter’s soft, golden-brown curls.
“That is true. You are growing up, Alicia, but if you don’t finish your arithmetic, the teacher will leave you back in the fourth grade.”
“Oh, Mami. That would never happen.”
“Don’t argue with your mother, Alicia. Well, look at this, Antonia. The child’s work is still undone—after all this time.”
“Manolo, we have other things to worry about now.” Antonia pointed to the clock.
He ignored her.
“Young lady, you will sit here until it is finished one hundred percent—even if it takes all day. You had better do a good job, too, because I will check it myself when we return from the marketa.”
“But you just came back from there.”
“We must go back.”
“You’re going to buy more at the marketa? I want to go, too. Please, Mami. I’m sick and tired of arithmetic.”
“No,” Manolo said. “You must finish your work. Work is more important than anything else and it must always be finished before you can enjoy yourself.”
Alicia pretended she had not heard her stepfather’s words.
“I want to go, Mami. Please.”
“Alicia, you heard what your father said. You will stay here and finish your arithmetic problems. When we come home, he will check your work. If you have done a good job, I will take you to Saint Mary’s Park after church tomorrow.”
“I don’t want him to check my work.”
“Well, someone must, Alicia. Your grades are awful.”
“Then you do it, Mami.”
Antonia glanced sideways at her husband. Manolo gave no indication that he had heard. Antonia sucked in the sides of cheeks the way she always did when annoyed.
“I will be busy making dinner,” she said. “Anyhow, your father is better in arithmetic than I.”
Seeing the expression in her mother’s eyes, Alicia decided to remain quiet. As soon as her parents had left the apartment, however, Alicia waved her small fist at the door and shouted, “He is not my father.”
It was the one thing her mother never permitted her to say. Lately, whenever Alicia became angry at her parents, those words were always on the tip of her tongue, but she never said them aloud—unless she was alone.
Alicia had always known Papá Manolo was not her real father, but it was not until a year ago—when she had misplaced her key, that the knowledge began to trouble her. She had even confided in her friends at school and the girls all agreed. Since Manolo was not her real father, Alicia did not have to listen to him, but it was not that simple. Her mother insisted that Alicia obey and respect Manolo because he was the only father she had ever known.
To further confuse things, Papá Manolo was nice—sometimes, most times. Alicia liked him then. Too many other times he was bossy and grouchy and he would not allow Alicia to do many of the things she wanted. His reasons were always the same. He said it was not proper, or that nice little girls in Puerto Rico never did such things—like playing hide and seek, or tag with boys. It infuriated Alicia that her mother always agreed with him. It was a mystery; how could anyone live in a place where playing tag was not proper?
Alicia ruffled the pages of her workbook.
She wondered what her real father was like. All Alicia knew for sure was that his name was Andrés and that she looked like him. Her had mother never told her that. Antonia never talked about him, but Alicia had overheard Papá Manolo say it many times.
Thinking about her real father, Alicia pushed back from the table and went to the bathroom. The light bulb in that small room was dim. Papá Manolo said you did not need to see what you were doing in a bathroom and that it was a waste of money to use bright bulbs.
Alicia looked at her reflection in the cracked mirror and wondered what parts of her face looked like her father. Everyone said she had her mother’s brown, curly hair and eyes. Alicia pushed the tip of her small, straight nose up slightly, then down and side to side. What was his nose like? Were his lips skinny like hers? Did his ears stick out? Was he good in arithmetic?
With a start, Alicia remembered that her parents would be coming home soon and that the workbook was still unfinished. She rushed back to the kitchen table. Once in her chair, she sat up straight, her feet planted firmly on the floor. It was the only way that her teacher, Mrs. Siegel, allowed anyone in her class to sit when working at lessons.
“Remember, boys and girls; correct posture is most important.” She said this daily, the words warbling from her throat with such power that the folds of skin beneath her chin quivered. “Correct posture helps blood flow to the brain and that makes you smarter.”
Mrs. Siegel insisted that the class repeat her words at least three times a day: after the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning, after lunch and before going home in the afternoon.
Feeling that she needed all the help she could get, Alicia sat in the prescribed position, but after ten minutes of work, she found the answers to her problems were not any easier to find.
Alicia stood, stretched and sat down again. She yawned and rested her chin in her hands. The numbers in her workbook seemed to sway back and forth in front of her eyes, but she continued to work, putting down answers and hoping they were right.
Next year she was entering the fifth grade. It was hard to believe that, finally, she was going to be one of the ‘big kids’ in the school. Alicia did not feel big, even though she was tallest girl in her class and taller than many boys, but she felt small—especially when people stared.
It would be wonderful, she thought, if for once she had a dress that the girls would envy. Owning a barrette like Amy’s would be even better. That barrette glowed like real gold in the skinny streams of afternoon sun that slipped into the classroom—in spite of tightly, closed shades.
With a new dress, it would not matter if people stared. A few weeks before, Antonia had promised her daughter a new Easter outfit, if her grades were good. Manolo had overheard Antonia’s promise and objected.
“We do not have any money for a new dress, Antonia. Do not promise the child something we cannot buy.”
Disappointed, Alicia was on the verge of tears.
“Don’t worry, Manolo. I will save for it, or I will pay for the dress on time.”
“So, you would put us more into debt. Woman, what is the matter with you?”
“Alicia needs a new dress.”
“We do not have the money.”
“OK, Manolo, OK.”
Alicia started to sob.
“Oh, for God’s sake.”
Without another word Manolo yanked his coat and hat off the hook and left.
When he was out of the apartment, Antonia hugged her daughter.
“He is right, Alicia. We do not have the money.”
“We never have any money.”
“That is because we are poor.”
“My real father wasn’t poor. Why aren’t we with him?” The words had rushed out before Alicia knew what was happening.
Antonia’s faced drained of color and her hands started to shake. Never in her life had Alicia mentioned her father to Antonia.
“I am sorry, Mami. I am sorry.”
Not knowing what was going to happen next, Alicia, too, started to tremble.
Antonia held Alicia at arms’ length.
“Never say anything like that again. Never. I can forgive you only once, Alicia.”
“I will never say it again, Mami. I promise.”
“Maybe, Manolo is right. I have spoiled you.”
“No, you haven’t spoiled me, Mami.”
“Go to your room, Alicia. I don’t ever want to talk about this again.”
In her room, with her door closed and tears running down her face, Alicia had been sure she would never get a new dress. The next day, however, her mother came home from work with great news.
In the dress factory where Antonia worked, they were just starting work on a beautiful blue and white outfit with lace trim on the collar and the sleeves. Antonia was sure that the foreman would sell her one and it would cost very little. With just few alterations, it would be perfect for Alicia.
Even before the Lenten season most of the girls in Mrs. Siegel’s fourth grade class did nothing but talk about new Easter outfits at lunch. Mildred’s mother had just finished sewing a beautiful pink dress for her daughter and Annie’s mom had cut down one of her own dresses for her. When Alicia told them she was getting a brand new, real grown-up outfit, all the girls had opened their eyes wide with envy. No one in the class could top that—not even stuck-up Emily, whose father owned the grocery store on the corner.
For weeks Alicia had dreamed about showing off that dress, but lately, when she had asked her mother about it, Antonia just smiled, changed the topic and put off her daughter’s questions. Alicia supposed that her mother knew how poorly she was doing in arithmetic, or maybe, Manolo had found out and had forbidden her the purchase of the dress. Alicia hated him sometimes. If she did not get a new Easter dress, it would be Papá Manolo’s fault.
She was still dreaming about her blue and white dress when her parents returned from their second trip to the market. When she turned to greet them, Alicia noticed that they carried no packages. Her parents had told her they were returning to the marketa because they needed more than they could carry in one trip. Thinking it strange that they had returned empty handed, Alicia frowned.
Antonia absentmindedly kissed her daughter and immediately started preparing dinner without asking about the progress of Alicia’s school work. Manolo did not look over her work, either. Although Alicia was glad that he had not checked her number problems, it still puzzled her. Papá Manolo never forgot things, like checking her arithmetic.
When Alicia closed the workbook, she did it softly—so as not to attract attention. She had not finished her work, but she could pretend she had.
Hoping to broach the subject of the Easter outfit, Alicia lingered at the kitchen table, but as it turned out, conversation was impossible. Antonia kept dropping cooking utensils and spilling things. To make matters worse, she kept running into the living room to stare at Manolo, who was sitting quietly in his favorite chair, waiting for dinner. Disgusted, Alicia gave up trying to talk to her mother.
They ate their dinner in silence. Antonia stared at Manolo; he kept his eyes on his plate. Trying to figure out what was going on, Alicia watched both her parents closely. Halfway through the meal, Alicia grew impatient. She knew that something was wrong, and she wanted to ask her mother, but did not dare. Antonia’s expression did not invite question.
After dinner, Alicia again tried talking to her mother about the new Easter outfit. Antonia waved her away with the same distracted gesture that she used to shoo away mosquitoes. Discouraged, Alicia decided to try again in the morning. Palm Sunday was just ten days away.
Feeling restless, Alicia roamed the apartment like a ghost in search of a castle to haunt, finally settling down with her comic books and her dolls in the living room.
Usually, it was fun, sitting in the living room when Manolo listened to the news commentaries on the Spanish station. Each time without fail, he shook his head at the news, and yelled at the commentators. Although she did not understand what the fuss was about, Alicia enjoyed watching Manolo get mad at some voice, whose owner he had never, and would never meet.
That evening, with nothing more exciting to do, Alicia sat and waited expectantly—hoping that what had happened last week would happen again.
She remembered how Manolo had jumped from his chair screaming, “That son of a bitch, Marcantonio. What the hell does he know?”
Immediately after Manolo’s outburst, Antonia had run into the living room and turned off the radio. Alicia had noticed that her cheeks were bright red.
“Manolo. For heaven’s sake. What is the matter with you? Marcantonio is a great man.”
“You are only a woman. What the hell do you know?”
“More than you. Now, watch your mouth. Alicia is listening.”
Manolo had looked down at the floral linoleum of the living room floor—as if ashamed.
“I am only listening to the radio,” he apologized. “Alicia understands. Don’t you, Alicia?”
Alicia nodded her heard vigorously, but her mother ignored her.
“Manolo, for God’s sake. Just remember that the radio isn’t a telephone. They can’t hear you, but we can. Stop cursing like some common tramp.”
Manolo curled his fingers into the palms of his hands and waved his fists above his head.
Remembering what happened next, Alicia giggled into her comic book. It had been so funny.
Manolo had yelled, stomped his foot and winked at Alicia.
“I am the man of the house and I will curse if I want.”
Manolo had ended his statement with a wide, mischievous grin.
“You will not.” Antonia raised her voice, but there was an even wider smile on her face.
That was the way they always started, and Alicia knew to get ready. Without wasting time, she rushed to sit on the chair near the radiator. It was as far as she could get from her parents, and still not leave the room. Like kids in a playground, her parents chased each other around the apartment, laughing and yelling. They always ended up in each others arms.
The people in the apartment below started banging on the radiator pipes. It was how they complained about too much noise coming from the apartment above.
Antonia and Manolo stopped shouting at each other. Each time they heard the clanging of the radiators, they laughed.
Perhaps, the tenants in the apartment downstairs heard their laughter. They pounded their ceiling to show their displeasure.
“This is too much.” Antonia said after a minute of ceiling pounding.
“My God. I will bet there is no plaster left on their ceiling.” Manolo stomped his foot. “Come on, Antonia. Let’s give them reason to be upset.”
Antonia sank into the comfort of the new sofa; she was laughing too hard to stand.
“Manolo, stop it. What would you do if floor opened up and you landed in their living room?”
“Shake the cockroaches off me. That’s where they’re coming from…” Manolo’s foot stomping had escalated into jumping.
“Come on, Alicia,” he shouted. Let’s play jump rope.”
Alicia sprang to her feet. Sometimes her stepfather really knew how to have fun.
“Alicia, sit down. Manolo, stop that. Anyone would think we were a family of crazy people. For heaven’s sake, what will the neighbors say?”
“What they always say: ‘Those crazy spiks are at it again.’ Who cares what they say? They don’t pay the rent.”
“I do, Manolo.”
“What? Pay the rent?”
“No,” she replied. All traces of merriment were gone from her face. “I care what people say. You know that.”
Manolo stopped jumping and sat down beside her. “Yes, Antonia, you’ve always worried about what people say. I’m still waiting for you to outgrow it.”
“After all these years, you know I never will. It’s just the way I am.”
“And I love you anyhow.”
Manolo and Antonia kissed.
Her parents embarrassed her with so much hugging and kissing. Worse than that, they acted as if they had forgotten Alicia was in the room. The child had looked down at her shoes and sighed—before retreating into her room.
This evening was different. And strange.
Although Manolo listened to the radio, he listened quietly. Not once did her stepfather jump to his feet to argue politics with the voice on the radio. No one would complain about too much noise coming out of their apartment that night. Alicia wondered if anyone else noticed the unnatural silence that now filled the tiny rooms. It was so quiet she imagined she could hear the dust stir and fall.
Just once Alicia heard Manolo’s chair creak, and when she looked up, she saw her stepfather lean forward, his hands covering his mouth. The sound of a muffled moan escaped through his fingers, but Alicia heard.
When he noticed Alicia staring, he made an even stranger sound—a cross between a cough and a laugh.
“The rice and beans tonight didn’t agree with me,” he said. “Don’t tell your mother.”
Alicia shrugged her shoulders. The only thing she wanted to discuss with her mother was the Easter outfit. Manolo moaned again.
Suddenly, for no reason, Antonia came into the living room, insisted that Alicia pick up her comics and her dolls, and go to bed.
“But I have been good.” the child protested. “I do not want to go to bed.”
Antonia sighed. “Yes,” she admitted, “you have been very good.” Her lips smiled, but her eyes held on to dark signs of fatigue.
“Tomorrow, I will give you money for the candy store, but now go to bed.”
“Alicia. You have to get up early for school.”
“But, Mami, I never go to bed this early.”
“Alicia. Do as your mother says.” Manolo’s face was paler than before and he was panting as if he had just run a race.
Alicia frowned; he was making faces at her. Sometimes, Manolo made her so mad. He knew how much she hated it when people made fun of her. Deep inside her brain she heard herself say, “I wish he were dead.”
Alicia’s eyes opened wide and she gasped; she had never thought anything so terrible before. Afraid to look up, afraid that mother would see her evil thought written across her face, Alicia kept her head bowed.
“Alicia?” Antonia reached over and cupped the child’s face in her hand.
Alicia pulled away; Mami’s hands felt so cold The apartment was not as cold as her mother’s hands.
“Alicia. Are your listening to me?”
Alicia looked into her mother’s eyes. It took her only a second to realize that Mami had not overheard the awful thought that had flashed through her. The child relaxed. She could forget the thought. It had never happened.
“It’s not fair. It’s too early to go to bed.”
“Do it anyhow,” her mother said. Antonia’s teeth bit off the endings of each of her words.
Alicia knew her mother was losing patience. Complaining under her breath that they were always picking on her, Alicia picked up her things, and stomped to her room.
By the time she got to her room, Alicia was angry enough to throw her favorite dolls on the floor and kick them. Her anger did not subside until, when removing her clothes, she pulled two buttons off her blouse.
Now she did it. Her fingers were shaking as she hid the buttons in the blouse’s pocket and stuffed the garment under her mattress. She jumped into bed and sighed. With luck, she would be able to get Mariana to sew them on for her tomorrow.
Satisfied that her blouse was well hidden, Alicia jumped from her bed and stood close to the bedroom door; there, in a loud voice, she recited her prayers—loud enough for her mother to hear. The child knew that her mother often listened on the other side of the door.
Alicia wanted her mother to think she had gone straight to bed, but she had other plans. Mami might be able to force her to go to bed, but she could never make her go to sleep.
For close to an hour, the child resisted sleep by reading and rereading the comic books she had gotten in trade the week before. Her favorite was Wonder Woman, and she read that one at least three times until, finally, her eyes refused to stay open. Satisfied, that she had stayed up as late as she could, Alicia turned off the light. When the room was dark, she pulled her knees to her chest, and fell asleep.
Alicia always slept well, rarely getting up in the middle of the night—not even to use the bathroom. When a loud noise awakened her that night, the room was still dark. Because no pale light outlined the edges of the shades, Alicia knew that it was not time to get up for school. She pulled the blankets up to her chin and listened in the darkness—wondering what had awakened her.
All she heard was the ticking of her clock. After a few more minutes, she decided that some sound coming up from the street must have wakened her. Just as Alicia felt a gentle wave of sleep begin to wash over her, however, she heard something else. Thinking it was a voice, she sat up, listening to the silence until she was positive it must have been her imagination.
Her eyes would not stay open, but just as she slid down beneath her covers she heard it again. And again. It was more than one voice and, suddenly, she heard a loud noise as if someone had dragged a piece of furniture across the floor.
Awake now, she reached for her robe and ran to her door. Fearing that there were robbers in the apartment, Alicia did not dare leave her room. Instead, she pressed her ear to the door. The sounds grew louder and Alicia heard her mother’s voice.
Mami was crying.
No longer afraid for herself, Alicia yanked open her bedroom door, intending to rescue her mother from the robbers. When she ran into the hallway, however, she was startled to find every light on in the apartment. She had never seen the place so brightly lit.
Something terrible must have happened to her mother. Alicia saw a policeman in the living room and she froze in fear. Policemen never went to someone’s house—unless someone died.
“What is the matter? What is the matter?” Alicia shouted, but the officer paid no attention to her.
She pushed past the patrolman, intending to go find her parents.
At the entrance to their bedroom, which was right off the living room, she saw another policeman, trying to talk to her mother’s best friend, Mariana. Mariana lived in a nearby building. She spoke little English.
Alicia tugged at the woman’s arms. “Tití Mariana. What is happening?” Although they were not related, Alicia had always called her mother’s friend, Tití. It made Mariana happy to be considered family.
Mariana looked down at the child as if she had just remembered Alicia was in the apartment. Her eyes were red and it was clear that she had been weeping.
“Oh, Alicia. We woke you.”
There was more pain in Mariana’s eyes than Alicia had ever seen.
“I heard the noise, Tití.”
“I told them to be quiet, but you know how people are.” Mariana stroked her hair. “I am sorry you were awakened.”
It was the first time that Alicia had ever seen Mariana’s face without a smile, and the tiny golden lights that always danced in her eyes were gone.
“What is it Tití? What is wrong with Mami and Papá Manolo?”
When Mariana failed to answer, Alicia pushed away from her, knocking her off balance. Without the policeman’s supporting arm, Mariana would have fallen to the floor.
“Nena. What are you doing? Don’t go in there.”
Ignoring Mariana, Alicia pushed open the door for the first time in her life without knocking. Before she could enter, however, the policeman pulled Alicia back from the door, and closed it quickly, preventing her from looking inside.
“Let me go. What’s going on? Where are Mami and Papá Manolo?” Her voice grew louder and shriller.
Mariana gently pushed away the policeman’s hand from Alicia’s shoulder. With one hand she cupped the child’s face, and with the other, she held onto Alicia’s arm, tightly.
“Hush. Hush, Alicia. It will be all right.”
“What will be all right? What happened?”
“Who is the kid, lady?” The policeman pulled out a pad and pen.
Mariana looked at Alicia and then at the officer.
“Mariana does not speak much English.”
“Yeah, so it seems. What is your name, girlie?”
He wrote that information down then patted Alicia’s head.
“Do you live here? Are those your parents inside?”
Alicia nodded in response to both questions.
“I want Mami.”
“Well, don’t worry, Alicia. Your mom is OK.”
Alicia pushed his hand away. “I want Mami.”
“She cannot come right now, Alicia. She is busy with Papá Manolo.” Mariana placed her plump finger over her lips. “You really must be quiet, Nena.”
Alicia looked first at the policeman and then at Mariana “I want Mami. Quiero ver a Mami, Tití.”
“Alicia, hush. Manolo is very sick. Your Mami has to stay with him.” Mariana tried to hug the child again, but Alicia pushed her away.
“I want Mami. Let me go inside.”
“No. Look, you are going to make the policeman very angry. See? He is writing your name. You do not want him to take you to jail for being a bad little girl, do you?”
Alicia looked at the officer. Ordinarily, his stern look would have silenced her immediately.
“No, I don’t want to go to jail,” she said, “but I want to go inside.”
“Well, you can’t.”
Mariana tried to match the stern look on the officer’s face and for a moment Alicia hesitated. A few seconds later, however, she heard her mother crying again. Alicia decided to get inside that room, no matter what. To break free of Mariana’s grip, the child stomped her foot twice, aiming for the woman’s toes. She missed both times.
“Stop it, Alicia. Stop it. I do not know what has gotten into the child,” she said in Spanish to the officer. “She is always such a good, good little girl. What can I do with her?”
The policeman did not understand her words, but he seemed to know exactly what she was saying.
“Listen, little girl.” he said, “You can’t go in now. The doctor is in there and you can’t bother them.”
Alicia stopped pushing away from Mariana and looked up at him. For the first time she listened to his words.
“There is a doctor in there?”
“Yes. A doctor.”
Alicia gasped; her parents never called the doctor. When they were sick Antonia cared for them, using teas made of roots and herbs, or they went to the public health clinic—near the park. Doctors cost so much money; everyone knew that. For policemen and a doctor, too, to come to the house, it had to be serious.
Suddenly all Alicia’s strength was gone, even her voice was weak and she could not speak above a whisper.
“A doctor? A doctor is here?” she repeated.
“Yes. A doctor is in there with your parents and you cannot bother him. Do you understand?”
Alicia started to cry. “I understand. I speak good English.”
The officer sighed and knelt so that his small, blue eyes were level with hers.
“That’s not what I meant, Alicia. Do you understand what I mean?”
‘I think so. Is Papá dead?”
Mariana understood the word “dead” and her face grew even paler.
“Officer, you scare Alicia.” she said. With the edge of her bathrobe, Mariana wiped the child’s tears.
“No, Alicia,” she said. Mariana’s voice was soft, melodious and comforting. “Your Papá Manolo isn’t dead, but he’s very sick. Be a good girl and be quiet.”
“I want Mami.”
“Your Mami cannot come. If you are not quiet, both the policeman and the doctor will be mad. Then for sure they will take you to jail.”
“No, they won’t.”
“Come with me to your room, Nena. We’ll wait there.”
Alicia pushed Mariana one more time, and before anyone could stop her, she ran into her parents’ bedroom.
Antonia was sitting on the bed holding Manolo’s hand. Two men stood at the foot of the bed, watching the doctor, who listened to Manolo’s heart with a stethoscope. A stretcher, leaning against the dresser, took up almost all the remaining floor space, leaving hardly any room for her in the small room. Alicia looked at the stretcher and shuddered.
A few months before, a man had been hit by a car and killed on Prospect Avenue. Ambulance workers had been carried him away on a stretcher just like that one. Alicia held onto the bed’s footboard tightly and stared, as if by staring, she could change what she saw.
Manolo lay on the bed, wearing only boxer shorts. Alicia lowered her eyes, out of respect. Her stepfather was a very formal and old-fashioned man. He had never allowed Alicia to see him in his underwear.
“Is Papá Manolo dead? ¿Está muerto?”
Alicia had spoken barely above a whisper, yet Both Mariana and Antonia gasped, hearing that dreaded word.
“No.” Mami pulled Manolo’s hand up to her lips and kissed his palm. “No, for God’s sake do not say such a thing, Alicia.”
Alicia started to cry. “I am sorry, Mami.”
“Don’t cry, Nena. He will get well; I know it.” Antonia crossed herself, and Alicia noticed that her mother’s rosary was wrapped around her hand.
Alicia gulped back her tears and wiped her eyes.
“What is wrong with Papá?”
“It’s his heart, Alicia. Oh my God. It is his heart.” She covered her mouth with her hands, the small Crucifix swinging back and forth.
The doctor looked up and sighed with annoyance.
“Madam, I cannot listen to his heart with you carrying on like this. If you’re not quiet, you’ll have to leave the room. And this is no place for children either.”
He ordered the policeman to remove Alicia from the room; his was a voice accustomed to immediate obedience.
The police officer snapped to attention. “Come on, girlie,” he said. “You heard the doctor.”
The policeman pulled at Alicia’s shoulder. When the child continued to resist, he turned to Mariana for help. The pained look on his face expressed what his words could not.
Mariana knew exactly what she had to do. “Come on, Nena,” she said. “Let’s go. I will stay with you in your room. Everything’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”
But everything was not fine. Minutes later, Manolo was taken to the hospital. Antonia went with him, leaving Alicia in Mariana’s care.
“I will be back soon,” Antonia had said.
It was a promise she could not keep. Alicia’s mother did not return that night at all, nor the next day, either.
Although it was late by the time by the time the doctor, the police and the ambulance workers had left, Mariana made the bed in Antonia and Manolo’s room.
“This way, it will look nice when they return,” she said. “Tomorrow I will clean the rest of the apartment, and you can help me. It’ll be a good surprise for your parents when they come home.”
Alicia nodded her head.
“I can see you are tired, Alicia. Come on. I think you should go to bed now.” She held out her hand.
Mariana’s hand was chapped and rough. She worked hard, cleaning other people’s houses.
“As rough and as hard as her hands are, her heart is tender and sweet.” Antonia always said that whenever anyone mentioned Mariana’s hands.
Before Mariana put Alicia to bed, the two of them knelt to pray for Manolo. When Alicia’s knees touched the cold floor she felt something ugly stir, and well up from somewhere inside her. With a start, she remembered the ugly thought that had flashed in her mind, hours before. When angry with her stepfather, Alicia had wished him dead. Now he was dying. It was all her fault.
The child’s face became pale and her hands were shaking when she grabbed Mariana’s arm. “Tití Mariana. Tití, I have done a terrible thing.”
“No. Hush, now. You are my little angel. You could never do anything bad.”
Mariana hugged and kissed her; Alicia pushed away.
“But I did, Tití. Listen to me.”
“Not now, Alicia. It’s time to finish our prayer and then go to sleep. In the morning everything will be all right. You’ll see.”
“I do not want to pray.”
Mariana sighed and crossed herself. “It’s all right, Alicia. I will pray for both of us. God will understand.”
Mariana tried to hug her again, but Alicia dove under the covers, where her mother’s friend could not see her tears. Maybe it was for the best. If she did not tell Mariana about wishing Manolo dead, then no one would know. It would be her secret. All she had to do, was to take back her wish. In addition, Alicia would wish him alive. Mariana was right. Everything would be fine in the morning.
“Sí, Tití.” Alicia closed her eyes; listening to Mariana recite the Rosary, she fell asleep.
Manolo was in the hospital for three weeks, and Antonia stayed with him, afraid to leave his side. Mariana volunteered to care for Alicia, assuring Antonia that it was no bother. Alicia was like the child she had never had.
Antonia knew how much Mariana loved children, and that her friend would take excellent care of Alicia. She also knew that Mariana had her own house and husband to care for. Alicia’s mother wanted to object and say to her friend, “No, Mariana, you do too much as it is.” Having no other recourse, Antonia thanked her friend and accepted her offer.
Mariana moved in with Alicia. With great difficulty, she convinced her husband, Luis, that it would be easier to sleep on the sofa and care for Alicia in Antonia’s apartment, than to bring the child into their one room apartment. Reluctantly, Luis agreed.
Every day Antonia came to see if everything was all right at home. During each visit, Antonia was extra careful to appear cheerful in front of her daughter. The first day she had come home to find Alicia crying, and Mariana desperately trying to comfort her—to no avail.
That afternoon, without removing her coat and hat, Antonia had taken Alicia into her arms. The child had clung to her mother, unable to speak through her sobs.
“Mariana, what’s wrong? Why is she crying like this?”
“I do not know. She keeps on saying that Manolo is dead and that it’s her fault. I keep telling her it’s not true, but she does not listen to me.
Also on the verge of tears, Mariana wrung her hands and paced the floor.
“You tell her, Antonia. You explain and I will make you some nice soup.”
Without waiting for Antonia to answer, Mariana retreated to the kitchen, where she heated the sancocho she had made that morning. She could not hear what they said to each other in the living room—although she was careful not to make noise. After what seemed to be a long time, Antonia came into the kitchen, alone, and sat at the table. She pushed away the plate that Mariana had placed in front of her.
“I do not know what has gotten into that child,” she whispered.
Quickly, Mariana stopped what she was doing and sat down opposite Antonia. In a small voice, she asked, “What’s wrong, Antonia? Was it something I did wrong?”
Antonia looked at Mariana’s dark, brown eyes and saw hints of tears. She sighed and patted her friend’s hand.
“No, Mariana. Don’t even think anything like that. It was nothing you did. We are so grateful for everything you have done for us.”
“Then it was not me?”
“No. Alicia keeps saying that she is responsible for Manolo getting sick.”
“She said the same thing to me, too.”
“She did. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Mariana shrugged her shoulders. “You already have so much on your mind, Antonia.”
“Did Alicia tell you what she did to make Manolo sick?”
Mariana shook her head slowly and sighed. “No, she would not tell me.”
“She would not tell me, either.”
“Do not worry about it, Antonia. I have heard that sometimes children invent things like that to get attention.”
“Well, it’s true that I have not been able to pay her much attention lately . . .and now, even less.”
“She will get over it; you’ll see.”
Antonia rubbed the side of her forehead with her fingers. “I hope so,” she said.
“Is it one of your headaches?”
“I hope not. I don’t have time for headaches.”
The first week after Manolo’s hospitalization, Mariana had kept Alicia home from school. The following Monday, the truant officer came to the apartment. He informed Mariana that the child had to go to school, or the parents would go to jail. Because Mariana’s English was poor, Alicia translated.
When the child heard the truant officer’s threat, she started to cry and was unable to translate. Seeing Alicia’s distress, Mariana demanded to know what the man had said. When Mariana insisted, Alicia cried harder. Finally, between sobs, Alicia translated what the truant officer had said.
“But,” Mariana protested. “Tell him that your father is in the hospital. How can he expect you to go to school?”
“I do not care where your father is. All children must go to school. That’s the law.”
The truant officer waved a handful of official-looking papers in front of Mariana’s face.
Seeing the rage on his ruddy face, Mariana stepped back. She was certain that written on those papers were all the laws of the land.
“Tell him I did not know.”
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Maybe if you people learned English, you wouldn’t always get in trouble.”
Mariana bowed her head. “Tell him I am sorry.”
How would she tell Antonia? Without meaning to, she had placed the family in danger of going to jail.
“Tell him,” she said to Alicia, “tell him that you will be in school tomorrow.”
* * * * *
Because Antonia was her dearest friend, Mariana felt it was her duty to walk Alicia to school and pick her up every day at three o’clock. When Antonia found out, she smiled and thanked her friend, explaining that it was not necessary. Alicia was old enough to walk alone.
Mariana returned her smile, and nodded her head. Then she thought about all the dangers on the street, and her smile disappeared. Mariana replied that she would never be able to live with herself if something bad happened to Alicia.
“You have to be very careful with girls.” she said. “I care for her as if she were mine.” Mariana threw back her head and squared her shoulders.
“I know you do, Mariana.”
Mariana face glowed with the compliment. Caring for another woman’s child was a heavy responsibility, but Mariana never complained. It was an honor.
Alicia complained. According to her, Mariana was stricter than hr mother.
From the first day that the kids in her class spotted Mariana walking Alicia to school, they teased Alicia, and called her a baby. Everyone else in the fifth grade walked to school alone.
Alicia begged her mother’s friend not to take her to school any more.
“Fifth graders walk to school only with their friends,” Alicia insisted. “The school is only around the block.”
“But what if something happens to you? What will I tell your Mami then? No, honey, you are a young lady, and young ladies always must have someone with them—to keep away the títeres.”
“What do you mean?”
“When your mother comes home, you ask her. Meanwhile, I must walk to school with you. Unless you want Tío Luis to walk with you, instead.”
Alicia gulped; things were going from bad to worse. She was fond of Tío Luis, Mariana’s husband. Each time he came to visit, he always brought a small bag of candies for her—and he told such funny stories. Walking her to school, however, was not a good idea.
Tío Luis was even more old-fashioned than Manolo. He, too, believed that girls had to be protected from everything. To make things worse, Tío Luis had a terrible temper, and the slightest hint of disrespect inflamed his passions. Thinking about what could happen, if the boys in the playground teased her, just once, Alicia shuddered. It was best to keep Mariana’s husband out of the picture entirely.
“No, Tití. Please, with Tío Luis, it would be worse.”
“What a terrible thing to say, Alicia. Tío Luis loves you. He would be proud to walk you to school, before going to work.”
Alicia sighed. “I know, but no one else’s uncle walks them to school, either.”
For three days they argued back and forth until they arrived at a compromise. Mariana would merely follow Alicia to school, and she would walk at a distance—far enough that no one would know they were together.
The other kids were not fooled, however, and they continued to tease Alicia until the day—for the first time in her life—she raised her fist and rammed it into Tony Rossetti’s leering face. Everyone in the playground cheered and whistled.
Horrified at what she had done, Alicia turned her back on Tony Rossetti’s bloody nose and ran to the girls’ room. She washed her hands and face with cold water. For the remainder of recess, she sat on the toilet, wondering what awful punishment she was going to get. She did not know how she was going to explain what happened to her mother, and, of course, to Mariana. Alicia groaned. Mariana might now insist on sitting by her side in class. Alicia held her head and wished she were dead.
When the teacher asked what had happened, no one would tell, not even Tony Rossetti. He insisted he had merely fallen. The kids in the playground continued to tease her, but no one ever got too close again. Alicia, they said, had a mean punch.
At the end of recess, Alicia’s friend Mildred came looking for her.
“What are you doing in here? Recess is over.”
“Go away, Mildred. You’ll get in trouble if Teacher sees you talking to me.”
“Don’t be stupid, Alicia. No one told.”
“This is America, silly. No one wants to be a tattletale. Besides he’s had it coming for a long time. All the girls think you are wonderful. You have to teach me how you did that.”
“Later. Let’s get to class before Mrs. Harrison marks us late.”
“Alicia. You worry too much.”
Alicia laughed. “Yeah. I do, but if we are late, she will keep us in, after school.”
“Come on. Run. We will sneak in through the back door. She will not be able to see us—without her glasses.”
“Where are her glasses?”
“Mary Ellen’s got them. Come on.”
The girls ran quietly down the hallway, and slipped into the open backdoor of the classroom. Mrs. Harrison was busy looking for her glasses on her desk, and she didn’t notice the two girls enter. When Mildred and Alicia were seated Mary Ellen stood.
“I see your glasses, Mrs. Harrison. May I get them?”
“Dear, Mary Ellen. I knew I could count on you. Yes, please fetch them so we can get started.”
Mary Ellen turned winked at the class, pretended to find the glasses under a pile of spelling papers. She handed them to the teacher.
Everyone grinned, but no one laughed aloud. It was against the rules. Mrs. Harrison was strict and often said that laughter had no place in the classroom. The class remained silent until, Mike, with the red hair and freckled face, snickered. The entire class erupted with shrieks.
Too experienced to be unnerved by the sudden and inexplicable bedlam, Mrs. Harrison put on her glasses, pulled out her grade book and stared at the class. Without a word she restored order with a slight tilt of her gray head and barely raised eyebrows. It was a skill any drill sergeant would envy.
Alicia opened her social studies book to page one hundred twelve. Ordinarily, she loved reading about other countries; that afternoon, she could not concentrate—not while she was so happy. This had to be one of the best afternoons in her entire life. Luckily for Alicia, Mrs. Harrison did not call on her once that afternoon. Undisturbed, she was able to daydream, looking out of the sixth-story window at the East River and the boats gliding over it. When the bell announced the end of the school day, Alicia was almost sorry. She gathered her books and went outside.
For the first time since Manolo had been taken to the hospital, Mariana was not waiting for her at the close of school that afternoon. Alicia did not know what to think. It seemed odd that on this one afternoon, suddenly, and without warning, Mariana was not there to follow her home.
Alicia frowned; it was not like Mariana. The child’s first thought was that something might be wrong, but the girls in her class kept distracting her by asking her to stay and play for a while. Because Mariana had forbidden her to walk home alone, Alicia set aside her concern. It was a great opportunity to play after school. The girls even gave her first turn on the swing. Alicia celebrated with a huge smile. This was the perfect ending to a perfect day.
Holding tightly to the long chains, Alicia sat gingerly on the swing. Mary Ellen pushed her to get her started. Suddenly, Alicia felt a strange tickle that started in her throat and ran down between her legs. It felt wonderful.
Alicia made the swing go high, so high she could see over the fence. She threw back her head, stretched out her legs, and allowed the breeze to slide over her body. For once she did not worry about her skirt riding up beyond her knees, or that her hair was tangled, or that Tony Rossetti might steal her books to get even. It was her time just to love the sky. It was so blue, so beautiful.
Above the school, dozens of pigeons rode the breeze up and down—just as she did. Alicia closed her eyes, imagining how it must feel to fly, wing tip to wing tip, in the midst of the flock.
It was easy to lose track of time and Alicia did not worry again about Mariana’s absence until the girls in her class started leaving for home. Their squeals of laughter filtering through the playground gate, they drifted out into the streets radiating from the school. With a huge smile on her face, Alicia picked up her books and went home, alone.
Once out of the playground she began to worry about getting in trouble for staying after school, but it was Mariana’s fault for not coming to fetch her. A sudden frown crossed Alicia’s face; maybe, Mariana had gotten sick, too. Imagining that something terrible must have happened, Alicia ran all the way home.
When she reached the front stoop of their apartment building, she bumped into Mariana, who was rushing out the door. Seeing that she was well, Alicia heaved a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank God that you are safe.” Mariana was out of breath. “I am sorry that I kept you waiting, Alicia. There was so much to do that I lost track of time.”
Alicia grinned. “That’s all right, Tití. I told you I could walk by myself. At first, I waited just like you said, but then I came home—cause it was so late.”
“ Pobrecita. I am so sorry you had to wait all alone. You were a good girl and you did exactly the right thing. I guess you really are growing up.”
Hearing Mariana’s praise, Alicia grinned. What a great afternoon. Her smile grew broader until it hurt to smile, but she could not stop. It had been a perfect day—and she would not even get in trouble for it.
She turned to run up the stairs, but Mariana took hold of Alicia’s arm; her fingers dug in deeply. Suddenly, a frown appeared on the woman’s face.
“Do not go in, not just yet, Alicia.”
Alicia looked at Mariana’s chocolate brown eyes. For the first time, she noticed how Mariana’s thick black lashes gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight. They looked as if they had been buffed and polished with the floor wax that Mariana used so expertly. Alicia giggled at the thought of Mariana polishing her lashes. She looked at them again. It was true; they were shining. They were wet.
Alicia’s grin dropped from her face, and she crossed her fingers to ward off bad luck.
“Why not?” she asked. “It’s late and I have to go to the bathroom, Tití.”
Mariana’s huge breasts rose and fell. Air escaped from her throat, but instead of forming a plaintive sigh, it sounded more like a gargle.
Something was wrong.
“What is the matter, Tití?”
Alicia’s stomach felt queasy as if it had already heard bad news.
“It’s nothing really bad, querida. Come on. Use my bathroom and I will tell you all about it.”
“Tell me now, Tití.” She tried to push away from Mariana, but her mother’s friend held her firmly. For such a small, woman, she was surprisingly strong.
“Why are you so stubborn, Alicia?”
“Tell me.” Alicia twisted in her grasp.
Mariana breathed deeply again. “Manolo is home from the hospital.” she said and relaxed her hold.
“That’s wonderful news, Tití. So, why do you look so sad?” Free of Mariana’s grip, Alicia ran up the stairs two at a time. “He must be all better now.”
Alicia froze. Mariana had never yelled like that.
“Don’t go up yet, Alicia. Your mother is busy, fixing things up for him.”
“Manolo is home, but he is a very sick man, and he is going to need much care.”
Mariana had opened her eyes wide and raised her dark, bushy eyebrows, accenting the words “sick” and “care.” Those exaggerated gestures made it clear to Alicia that things were serious, and they did so in a way that words never could have.
“And, Alicia,” Mariana added, “he does not look so good.”
“Oh.” Alicia felt all the air rush out of her, like a balloon deflating and she felt limp.
“Everyone is praying for him.”
“Praying? Is he dying?”
“Stop asking that.” Mariana grabbed her by her shoulders and shook her, not hard, just enough to make her point. “Every time you ask that question it’s like putting a knife in your mother’s heart.”
Alicia gasped and for a moment she thought she felt her heart stop.
“I did not mean it.” she cried. “I’m sorry, Tití. I did not mean it like that.”
“And I am sorry, too, for raising my voice. I guess I am just tired. Don’t let your mother know what I said.”
Mariana wiped the corners of her eyes. “She wants to tell you herself about your Papá Manolo, but I couldn’t let you go in there not knowing anything at all. He looks so awful.”
Alicia pulled at Mariana arm. “Please, Tití, don’t get mad, but you must tell me. Is he going to die? I have to know.”
Mariana looked down at her shoes; every muscle in her body was tense. “Do not ask me such things.” she replied, forcing the words through her teeth.
“No, Tití Mariana. Tell me. Is he going to die?”
“What is wrong with you, child? Why do you insist like this?” Mariana shook her head. “I do not know if he is going to die.”
“Does Mami know?”
“Only God knows.” Mariana crossed herself. She always did that when God’s name was mentioned. “You ask Him and maybe He will tell you. Don’t ask me that ever again, or your mother either. Do you hear me?”
Alicia bit her lip. “Yes, Tití. I hear you.”
“Come on, Alicia. Be a good girl. Let’s go to my apartment. You can use the bathroom, and you can have milk and cookies, while you wait for your mother to call you.”
“But shouldn’t I go home? Doesn’t Mami need me?”
“Your mother wants you to wait till she is ready. She needs you to be obedient.”
“All right then, I will wait.
Alicia and Mariana walked up to her fifth floor apartment in silence. For the first time in her life, cookies failed to cheer Alicia. Noticing how quiet she had become, Mariana worried that she had been too severe with the child; she kept asking Alicia if she felt well. Each time Alicia nodded her head and looked away. After the fourth time, Alicia pretended she had much homework, so that Mariana would not talk to her so much.
Alicia needed time to think about what Mariana’s news, but no matter how she tried, her mind remained a blank. Holding onto her head, Alicia moaned softly; everything was always so difficult.
It was late, past dinnertime, when Alicia heard her mother’s voice drift in though the open window in Mariana’s kitchen. She slammed her book shut and ran to the window, followed by Mariana, who grabbed the child by her blouse sleeve, preventing her from climbing out on the fire escape.
Antonia stood at her kitchen window, the light from the ceiling fixture, bounced off her soft brown hair, creating a reddish-golden halo.
“I will be right there, Mami.”
“ Está bien, hija.” Once she heard her daughter’s voice, Antonia stopped waving her dish towel and started to close the window against the cool, night air.
From across the backyards, crisscrossed with clotheslines heavy with flapping laundry, one of the neighbors waved a soggy pillowcase.
“ Oye, Antonia.”
Antonia heard her name called. She looked up and saw, Cármen Sánchez. Antonia groaned. Cármen Sánchez was the last person she wanted to talk to at the moment, but, not wanting to be rude, she opened the window wider.
Cármen Sánchez lived on the top floor of the big apartment house on the next street. It was a large and airy apartment, but no one envied the climb to the fifth floor. Cármen Sánchez told everyone that she did not mind the climb. It was good exercise, and besides, she liked the view.
Mariana said the only view that old Cármen Sánchez had, was the insides of all the apartments of all her neighbors. Everyone agreed; living on the top floor allowed Cármen Sánchez to snoop at her leisure. Whenever any one new moved into the neighborhood, Mariana made a point of welcoming the newcomer. When she introduced herself, Mariana, warned the new neighbor to keep the window shades pulled down tight. She explained that a certain, nosy old woman, found out every secret and told every thing she knew. Everyone laughed, but they quickly learned to follow Mariana’s advice.
“ Antonia. ¿Cómo van las cosas?” asked Cármen Sánchez.
It was quiet in the back yard and she did not have to shout to be heard.
Antonia waved her dish cloth at Cármen Sánchez. No matter what Mariana said about the old busybody, Antonia always went out of her way to be pleasant. After all, her husband’s sister was an old friend of Manolo’s family.
“Things are going all right, Doña Cármen. Thanks.”
Before answering, Antonia first checked to see that her daughter was no longer at the window. It was closed. Mariana was probably walking Alicia home at this moment.
Antonia shrugged her shoulder and shook her head. There were things that should not be said out loud.
Cármen Sánchez crossed herself. “ Ay bendito.“
“He will do better at home, Doña Cármen.”
“Sure, he will. I’m going to prepare the best chicken soup he’s ever had. Can we visit tomorrow?”
“Please, wait a few days.”
“But without my asopao, he will not recover as quickly,” the old lady objected.
“He’s not eating much, Doña Cármen. He is weak.”
“All the more reason for me to make my asopao. It’s almost like medicine. I will start cooking now and I will bring it tomorrow. Do not worry; I will not stay. I will just bring you the asopao. Give it to him, and you will see how quickly he will get well.”
“Thank you, Doña Cármen.” There was no arguing with Doña Cármen.
“Por nada, mija. Por nada. I will also bring my famous tea of milk and jenjibre. He will be well in no time. I guarantee it.”
Antonia bit back her protests; Manolo hated that tea.
“And I will pray for him, too. I will get all my friends to pray. We will have a praying party.”
“You are so kind.”
Antonia was grateful for the darkness. It hid her both her dismay and her amusement. She closed the window again, and pulled the shade down, all the way to the bottom, before laughing out loud. “A praying party?” What was the old woman thinking? Well, she meant well, anyhow. Antonia laughed even as she rushed to the bedroom to check on Manolo before Alicia got home, and started asking her many questions.
Usually it was Alicia, who led the way, while Mariana huffed and puffed to keep up the pace. This time, the child trailed her Tití Mariana, listening to her long string of cheerful phrases and flowery reassurances. Her mother’s best friend was too cheerful. It bothered Alicia.
The minute Alicia entered the apartment, she knew something was different; the apartment reeked of disinfectant. The child’s eyes started to tear, and she coughed.
“It is a little strong,” Mariana admitted, “but you’ll get used to it. Careful.’
Alicia had nearly knocked down the water bowl. Her mother always kept a bowl of water by the front door. It was a custom Antonia had brought to New York from Puerto Rico. Fresh water by the front door prevented evil spirits from entering the house. Each time Antonia cleaned the bowl she threw away those evil spirits trapped in the water. In this way she protected her family. The water bowl by the front door was almost as important, Antonia had once said, as the Crucifix above their beds.
“Look. Doesn’t it look beautiful.”
Mariana’s short, chubby fingers skimmed the rim of the bowl. Alicia noticed the small ceramic bowl Antonia always used, had been replaced by a beautiful, clear glass one. It was the one that Antonia usually reserved for holidays. Even in the dim light of the hallway, it glittered like never before.
“We worked hard all morning. When your Papá Manolo came home this afternoon, everything was ready.”
Mariana breathed deeply and smiled. Alicia breathed deeply and coughed again. Every one said that Mariana loved to clean, and that the smell of disinfectant and furniture polish and ammonia were like perfume to her. Mariana’s hands were never empty; if she was not cooking, there was always a dust cloth or a broom in her hands.
“Your mother is a good housekeeper, Alicia, but now the apartment is as clean as any hospital—cleaner,” Mariana added. “And he will get better care at home, too.”
Alicia nodded her head. People always said that it was always better to be sick at home.
“Those nurses did not understand him at all.” Mariana shook her head and frowned.
“What do you mean, Tití? Manolo speaks English.”
Mariana giggled and shook her head. “His English is not much better than mine. You’re the only one who is the expert. You talk almost like a real americanita.”
Alicia smiled. Even her teacher said that her English was just as good as Mary’s, who had been born at Lincoln Hospital.
“Nurses are smart. So, why didn’t they understand him, Tití?”
“I do not know, but they didn’t. Don’t ask so many questions; you make my head spin. Anyhow, their food was going to kill him. He is better at home.”
Mariana’s voice had dropped to a whisper; they were now standing in front of the bedroom.
Alicia squinted her eyes and looked up at Mariana. “Were they trying to poison him?”
Mariana smiled. “No. Nena, you say the strangest things.”
“Well, tell me.”
“Hush. You should not talk so loud near a sick person.”
At that moment Antonia came out of the bedroom with her finger over her lips.
“He is finally sleeping,” she whispered.
“Sleep is the best medicine.” Mariana put her arm over Antonia’s shoulder. “I have to go home. Luis will be home soon from work and he’s always starving when he comes in the door. Do you need anything else?”
“No, you’ve thought of everything, Mariana. I see that you even cooked for us.”
“No, I didn’t. That chicken asopao came from Manolo’s cousin, Lucy. She carried it on the bus all the way from the barrio this afternoon. She must be a good cook; just smelling it, makes me hungry.”
“All the way from 112th Street?”
“Yes. Can you imagine sitting on a bus for all that time with that aroma?”
“No, I can’t. What a wonderful thing to do. Everyone has been so kind. How am I ever going to pay back all that people have done for us? Even the American family downstairs gave me an envelope with some money in it this morning. I didn’t want to take it, but they insisted.”
Mariana made a face. “I am glad you took the money. It makes up for some of their dirty looks.”
“Now, I am not sure if those were mean and dirty looks, or their normal way of looking, Mariana.”
Her friend shrugged her shoulders. “¿Quién sabe? I only wish Luis and I could help with some money, also.”
Antonia took her friend’s hand. “Hush,” she said, “you have done too much for us already.”
Mariana’s face turned red the way it always did when someone thanked her.
“Well, now, he will get better, Antonia. You will see how in no time he will be jumping out of bed to take you to the Casino for a night of dancing. You will see.”
“You’re a good friend, Mariana. There is no way we can thank you for taking care of Alicia, helping me with the house, getting him home and—”
“It was nothing, Antonia. You would do the same for me.”
The two women embraced.
Suddenly, Alicia felt tears slide across her cheeks and down her nose. Tasting their salt with the tip of her tongue, Alicia wiped her eyes with her fingertips, the back of her hands and with her sleeve, but the tears continued. She could not stop them.
“Oh, look. We’ve upset Alicia.” The two women drew Alicia into their embrace before the child could run away.
“It’s going to be fine, Alicia. Don’t cry.”
“I am not crying, Mami.”
“That’s good because everything will be fine.”
Alicia nodded her head, but she suspected that nothing was ever going to be fine again. They had just reassured her too many times.