by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa
By the time the plane landed at Idlewild International Airport in New York City, the children had fallen asleep out of pure exhaustion and Elena was totally drained. As hard as she had tried to arrive at their new home in their best clothes and brightest smiles, a six-hour flight with a fretting baby and an airsick toddler had left her feeling rumpled and tired. Thank God Marcelina and her husband, Fonso, would take them to a warm and comfortable home. She knew she could drop all her baggage at Marci’s door until she could get on her feet.
But she wasn’t ready for the scene that met her in the terminal. It was a huge space filled with masses of people. They rushed in all directions, intent on their destinations. Elena stood dumbfounded. They spoke a rapid-fire English that bore no resemblance to what she had learned in school. Carisa pulled at her skirt. The child needed a bathroom. Elena reached out to a uniformed woman who had trouble understanding her. Finally, the woman led her to the bathroom door.
After she had cleaned up as much as possible, Elena found her way back to the gate, praying she hadn’t missed Marcelina. She looked around. This place seemed so alien. There were no colors here—no dancing reds or bouncing yellows or singing greens. People wore moribund black, sleepy browns, tired grays, as if a malevolent spirit had drained all the color out of their clothes. How could this place ever feel like home?
Elena searched the room. Her eyes darted up and down the gate area. Marcelina, where are you? Where could she possibly be? Cálmate. She’ll be here in a minute, ¡paciencia! She looked down at her children and thanked God for them, the only familiar sight in this place. She tried to calm her fears by caressing their small bodies. The one thing she wanted most was to look up and find herself surrounded by the known, Marcelina’s brown face and warm smile welcoming them. But the time passed, and still no Marci.
The passengers from her flight were long gone. Relatives claimed the arriving passengers and went on their way. The arrivals area slowly emptied out. Even the staff at the gate had packed up their papers and gone on their way. An hour later, Elena was still sitting by the gate. Marcelina couldn’t possibly have forgotten. Elena started toward the telephone only to remember that she had packed her address book in her luggage. The luggage!
The only thing more frightening than the mass of rushing people was the silence of the empty baggage area. She looked at the many signs and finally found the one she thought she understood. Relieved, she spotted her luggage neatly piled in the center of a small room. Four suitcases and three cardboard boxes with their ropes and wrappers more or less intact. She let herself down heavily on the largest of the suitcases and put her baby down on her lap. Danilo’s round legs dangled. Carisa climbed onto another suitcase, leaned her head on her mother’s thighs and closed her eyes, her thick braids now crooked in their wilted bows.
Elena caught a glimpse of herself in a nearby mirror: a too-thin young woman, her white linen suit now stained and wrinkled, her hat askew on her head, her lipstick smudged, traces of makeup here and there. Thick ladders ran up her stockings where they had snagged hours before. Zenobia’s voice came back to her. She’s too proud. Always wants to be better than everyone else. She’ll learn her lesson. I only hope I’m alive to see it. The woman in the mirror now sat with her suitcases and her sleeping children, and two long trails of tears sliding down her smudged makeup.
“¡Mírala, allí! Elena, Elena, aquí, aquí vengo.” Marcelina’s voice cut through her misery. When Elena looked up and saw her friend’s round face under her flower-trimmed red hat, she felt the sun come back into her world.
* * *
Elena watched her children in the blue moonlight shining through their bedroom window. Marcelina had given them a room for themselves. Their little bodies huddled together under the quilt. She slid in and they immediately molded themselves around her body. She needed their warmth as much as they needed her protection. When their breathing had returned to the rhythm of sleep and the apartment was quiet, she opened the door to guilt and let out the voices she had been holding at bay for days.
Are you crazy?…You can’t do that!…Did you think about this carefully? What do you know about New York?… How good is your English?… I’m warning you…You’ve got a good job… How are you going to make do with two kids and no husband?… What will people say?…You know how she’ll end up!… There are no morals up there…Go with God…I envy you, mujer. She’ll find herself another man in no time. That’s what this is all about. Just wait and see! They all do…. So stubborn…so vain…so proud…always thought she was too good for us…just has to go up north!…My advice is…a good wife endures…think it over again…are you ready for the cold?…Where will you work? Reconsider…You’ll be back! …You don’t fool me!…You’ll fail…you’ll fail…you’ll fail….
A wail grew in the distance. It kept growing and growing until it filled her head and snatched her away from the voices.
“Nooo!” She sat up in the strange dark room, her children still tucked into the blankets beside her. She was thankful her cry hadn’t awoken them.
At first light, Elena slipped out from under the quilt and went to the window. White crystals had formed on the edges of the panes. Icicles, like transparent knives, hung from the iron railings that ran down the side of the building. Fire escapes, they called them. She dug in her bag and pulled out the diary she hadn’t touched in years. She needed an old friend and she found it in the pages of her journal.
¿Qué hago yo aquí? No husband, no home, shivering in someone else’s box of a home, high in the sky over a refrigerator of a city. Sleep finally shut off the look of confusion playing just beneath the trust in their eyes. Mami, the woman who’s supposed to protect them, is now the woman who has taken them away from their Papi. They trust me but “the cold itches me, Mami. Make it stop.” They love me but, “Mami, when are we going home?” and “Mami, where’s Papi?” and “Why are we here?” Good questions. A better one would be, will we ever have a home again? And where?
I had to leave. Is it all selfishness? Is it only about me, my own needs, my own unhappiness? Unhappy wife, unhappy mother…or is the only consideration happy children? Which heart do I follow? Come here and rob them of their father? Stay there and let their mother die a slow death? That’s what it would be. It would be killing the person I am and ultimately losing my children to her as well. No! Zenobia wants Pedro? She can have him. But she can’t have me and she can’t have my children! I won’t let her…I’ll freeze here first.
* * *
Everything seemed backward here. The bathtub sat in the kitchen, a big white boat of a thing on claw feet. It was the first thing you saw as you came in the door. There was a long metal sheet that fit over it when it wasn’t in use. Marci covered it with a nice throw and used it as a table but there was really no way to camouflage it.
The toilet was down the hallway that ran along the outside of the apartment. It was shared by all four families on the floor. You had to listen for the flushes and then rush in carrying everything you needed with you, because when you actually got in there, there was never any toilet paper and usually no lightbulb, either. Somebody on the floor kept stealing it and the super was refusing to replace it. So they carried their own bulb or did their business in the dark. Elena made sure Carisa didn’t drink anything after dinner because those late-night trips down the hall were scary even for a grown woman. One night there was a strange man waiting as Elena came out of the bathroom. He refused to move aside. In fact, he made sure he was close enough to smell her as she pushed past him. She was terrified, and when she found that no one of that description lived on the floor, she vowed never to go out there after dark again. She improvised an emergency bedpan for herself and the children. Who would’ve believed she had left her comfortable home for this?
When Elena watched the children, arms around each other, gently snoring, she envied them their closeness. In spite of all the scenes, of the many arguments that had forced her to flee that house, she still loved Pedro and longed for his warmth.
Elena remembered that last, long walk to the car—with every step she prayed he would come after her and promise that they would have their own lives. She wanted him to turn to Zenobia and tell her that he chose his wife and children; that she, Zenobia, would have to find a life of her own because she couldn’t have theirs. Every step she took toward the car was a plea, a hope, a prayer for that. But then there was the car door and the loaded suitcases. That had been the longest walk, and the loneliest. The truth was, he had been willing to let her go.
Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City. She is a product of the Puerto Rican communities on the island and in the South Bronx. As a child she was sent to live with her grandparents in Puerto Rico where she was introduced to the culture of rural Puerto Rico, including the storytelling that came naturally to the women in her family, especially the older women. Much of her work is based on her experiences during this time. Llanos-Figueroa taught creative writing, language and literature in the New York City school system before becoming a young-adult librarian and writer. The hardcover edition of Daughters of the Stone was shortlisted as a 2010 Finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and literary magazines such as Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2012, Growing Up Girl, Afro-Hispanic Review, Pleaides, Latino Book Review, Label Me Latina/o, and Kweli Journal. She lives in New York City. (Photo Credit: Matvey Zabbi)