guest-edited by Jennine Capó Crucet
“It takes so damn long to get anywhere in Florida,” Lidia said then bit her lip and saw that her boyfriend, mouth hung open, was sleeping, in the passenger’s seat. She stepped on the gas, revving the RPM gauge on the Swedish sedan up to six thousand revolutions. Even before the halfway point on Alligator Alley, all the decent radio stations started scratching static so she shut it off; in the quiet and desolation she could appreciate the engine’s steady hum. Manolo had fallen asleep as soon as they’d left Dade County and it was getting dark. She still had to finish her talk for the conference in the morning but there were three hours driving at 85 mph left to get to Tampa, and she could feel cramps twist in her abdomen. Why not? Just bleed, Lidia, what else could you possibly expect? She’d had an abortion recently, at the ridiculous age of twenty-nine for God’s sake, because the absurd diaphragm was too big or too small or out of place. That was in the spring, when she started seeing Manolo and Lidia didn’t even know if it was his or her ex-husband Sergio’s. Pissed and pregnant, she never told either one and went by herself, just like she did when she was seventeen. That time she had lied to the nurse, saying her ride was waiting, not even telling her best friend Gladys because, well, Gladys was frigid. This time no one asked. Lidia was now speeding past slower cars, returning to the right-hand lane once it was clear because the redneck troopers always nab the stupid ones in the left lane; her eyes shifted from the shoulders of the road to the rear view mirror.
Manolo’s speed radar (it was Manolo’s car) flashed steady green—clear. Long, monstrous trucks thundered past in groups of twos or threes. Lidia drove, one slender manicured hand on the stick shift, the other fingering the leather-wrapped steering wheel. The day projected itself onto the road, the hood, and the windshield. It was another crazy day with the crazies at the hospital. She had told Manolo she would drive, feeling sorry for his being “dead-tired” but so was she. Even though her supervisor, Stan, let her leave early, she still had to rush to the manicurist’s then rush home to the house where she lived with her mother since the divorce, shower, change, and pick up her bags. She had even packed a bathing suit, wishfully thinking there’d be time for St. Petersburg’s lovely beach, but the damn paper, the shitty conference (she had yet to break into the national conference scene), the burning and twisting cramps and the radar now beeping red conspired to keep her from the calm, salty waters of the Gulf. She took her foot off the accelerator, causing their heads to rear and the too-close car behind to screech. Manolo shot up in the seat.
“Qué pasa?” His mouth still open.
“Nothing.” She nodded toward two highway patrol cars in the low-lying grassy median.
“Mmm, good girl.” He had checked to see if her foot was on the brake. “Got an asshole behind you, eh?”
“Yea. Go back to sleep.” She looked at his wide set, half-opened eyes.
“Have I been sleeping long?” He put his rough hand over hers on the gearshift.
“Since, I don’t know, I guess a coupla hours. Do you want to stop soon?”
“Do we need gas?” He yawned widely, switching the radio on at the same time then turning the knob left then right trying to find a station that wasn’t country.
“No, we’ve got three quarters of a tank.”
“I gotta pee, babe,” he said grabbing his crotch.
Lidia wanted to see the day again. The tire screeching and slowing motion of the car had interrupted the recasting. She wanted to understand the events that had blurred by without her analyzing them; after all, her business was analyzing.
“Babe, for real, tell me if you want me to drive,” he said, caressing her thigh. She looked at him again, not half as handsome as her ex but not such a jerk either.
“No, I’m fine. It’s okay; I’ll stop at the next rest area.” They leaned together to kiss. He adjusted himself back in the seat. His heavy lids closed over the bright whites of his eyes and he was asleep within a minute.
Her mother hated Manolo—a lowly sub-contractor, who laid tiles for Christ’s sake—dating her daughter, the doctor, big shit psychologist. Manolo made at least thirty bucks an hour, was his own boss and hardly paid any taxes, she reminded herself. Her county salary of $55,000 dwindled to $46,000 after taxes. After her divorce there was no way she was going to stay in her “married” house and no way to buy out her ex. She lived with her mother now, helping with the mortgage so as to not lose the house they bought when her father was alive. Manolo let Lidia drive his nicest car, the “spare” that was once his ex’s. Lidia’s cute little red Italian sports car, her father’s last gift to her, was perpetually breaking down; she had parked it, indefinitely, out in the driveway since there was no room in the packed garage (her brother’s motorcycle, sports equipment, and trophies took up one side while the other was cluttered with the clothes and shoes her father left behind—things her mother couldn’t bear to part with).
Before, the house was a hub of excitement, representing her family’s happy climb into the middle class. Now it felt sterile to Lidia. She passed quite a few nights alone lying in bed staring at the hems of the cream lace curtains swaying over and across the French door threshold in her room, thinking about her old life. The room was not the one she grew up in because, as a family, when they were still a normal family with a mother, father, brother and sister and a dog and a cat and four nice cars, before her father left them, even before he died, before her mother started getting depressed, before her brother moved in with an older woman, and before the dog died and the cat went blind, when their father’s business made a ton of money in a couple of years, they had moved into a big custom built house in a trendy subdivision in South Dade. Lidia and her mother had had a blast shopping for the new house. They’d combed through and heavily thumbed the pages of Architectural Digest and Beautiful Homes looking for ideas. Special attention was paid to every detail—more sophisticated lighting fixtures, better cabinets, marble counters, Italian ceramic tile throughout, shiny tables and carved chairs inlaid with ivory, an English crystal chandelier for the foyer, a deep Indian rug that made you want to get down on your hands and knees in order to better feel it; there was a spa for six built into the patio, a fountain in the courtyard, skylights in the upstairs bathrooms, oh, and the Jacuzzi tub in her parents’ bathroom. And it was a beautiful house. The envy of all her old friends from the private girls’ high school because they lived in old houses in the Gables, houses with weathered red barrel tile roofs, wide arched doorways and old Cuban tiles in vaulted ceilinged rooms. Lidia’s house had a sound system built into its walls, was zone- and climate-controlled and had windows with discreet reflective glass. Though most houses in her cul-de-sac looked exactly alike from the outside, even down to the impeccably landscaped plots in front, their house, the Duval home—her father’s family had French ancestry—was very different inside, different to the tune of an additional hundred thousand in decorating and furnishings. The house itself cost almost a quarter of a million at a time when most three-bedroom homes were a third of that, but they were flush with cash back then. For what their old family home had sold, they could almost pay for the annual upkeep, alarm system, taxes and homeowners’ dues in the new house.
Lidia made it a point to leave work at work, preferring to think of her old life. She wondered how was it that she had so much to look back upon at so young an age. Her doomed marriage—short and long at the same time because they were engaged for so many years but then wedded only two—still perplexed her. She and Sergio had met at one of the small Catholic colleges in Miami, in a humanities class; their immediate and mutual attraction led to what she naively believed to be exclusive dating followed by a lengthy engagement lasting the duration of her grad school up north and culminated in a no-holds-barred wedding at the Biltmore that her semi-estranged father refused to pay for because her mother had raised all kinds of hell about his desire to bring his new love to the wedding. For her part, Lidia would have relished the opportunity to confront the gold-digger Colombian hussy, but as it turned out, the boon money dried up and her father had a massive heart attack two months before the wedding. At the eleventh hour, when the caterers needed the balance of the deposit, when the bridal shop would not release her designer gown and trousseau until the last installment was turned in, and when the hotel’s bill required being paid in advance in full, Sergio’s parents gave them a check for $45,000 that, with Sergio’s blessing, she promptly deposited in her super negative-balance bank account. Lidia immediately cut checks to cover all the bills standing in the way of her dream wedding. Lidia’s mother and her brother Guillermo Jr. walked her up the aisle, all three them crying and causing much of the bride’s side of the church to tear up or sniffle sympathetically as they passed by. Sensing rather than knowing that it would be last time she, her mother, and brother would be together, Lidia sighed deeply at the altar in delicious anticipation of her shiny new life with Sergio, oh-so-ready to begin once and for all.
She took her foot off the accelerator again, flipped the right indicator on, and veered the car to the exit lane towards the service plaza.
“You want me to drive now?” Manolo flipped the button on the side of the seat to sit upright again.
“Didn’t you want to pee?” She pulled into an empty spot close to the entrance and jerked the emergency brake up. “Think I’m getting my period.”
“Oh, baby, hurry; go, go to the bathroom.” He opened his door and then rushed over to get hers too.
“I need some change.” She took the single and quarters he offered her and headed for the women’s toilets. She did get her period, bright red blood flowing from an aching, bloated abdomen and belly she was determined to keep childless for the foreseeable future.
Lidia had never expressed much desire to cook but had a great interest in trendy, new places to eat and so they went out almost every night. Her ex had enjoying cooking but mostly on weekends so she brought home take-out during the week. The most that Lidia thought of the kitchen was that it had to be stylish, impeccably clean, and outfitted with the best appliances.
“Why do you need a freaking cappuccino machine when we get coffee every morning, Lidia?” Sergio had grabbed the unopened box and slid it across their polished Italian granite counter in their neatly appointed kitchen in the newest gated community stretching ever more southwest of Miami. Sergio’s lawyer father was in real estate and had gotten them the upgraded modern home. Lidia had enjoyed his family’s favor for years while she dated then married their smart but somewhat lazy son. A corner of her mouth turned up in a smile now remembering how they thought she would be able to turn him around. But she couldn’t change him; hell, she couldn’t even see that he was sliding lower and lower while the blow kept him as witty and upbeat as usual. About a year into their marriage they stopped going to his parents’ Spanish style mansion in the Gables for Sunday brunch when Sergio’s seven-years younger sister had identical twin boys—the first grandchildren; Sergio had wanted kids right away but Lidia, only two years out of grad school and fresh from an internship in a Pompano rehab for addicted teens, had just started working full time.
On one of those Sundays rife with awkwardness, Lidia had been invited to help feed one of the twins but no matter how she politely refused, she was handed Julian, a burp rag, and a plastic bottle holding a sleeve of formula, the nipple a dark, flat rubber circle topping a squat punctured cylinder.
“It’s not so hard,” Chela coaxed while Lidia nervously held the squirming child. “Just hold his head like this,” she showed her with Joaquin who greedily sucked away.
Lidia knew she was being carefully observed, making her and the baby even more agitated; she couldn’t get Julian’s head held correctly so he gurgled, spit up, and required frequent burping, a process that freaked the hell out of her because she wasn’t sure how hard to pat the baby’s back and so he never completely expelled the offending air. Julian whimpered miserably then let out a wail that caused her mother-in-law to snatch him away and Sergio to shake his head. After that Lidia begged off the family Sunday brunches because of “required extra time at work” and Sergio bitterly agreed it was the best thing. Her once attentive mother-in-law stopped calling. By then Sergio’s business was failing. He was getting home late and leaving early in the mornings such as the day he remarked upon the new coffee machine.
“We can use it on the weekends,” she pointed out but he was already waving his hand as he turned away. “Don’t be a dick, Sergio. You like cappuccino.”
Lidia had bought one of the first machines stocked at Burdines, fascinated by the levers and steaming apparatus as the product demonstrator worked his seduction. Soon after their wedding, she used all the cash gifts and checks to buy the twelve setting Limoges china she had coveted. Never used, it was now stored in cushioned, zippered vinyl cases, along with the remaining detritus of her marriage, in a storage unit she was two months behind owing. Lidia had brought a total of $205,000 of debt into the marriage, $115,000 of it from grad school loans; the rest built up in less than two years after graduation in a frenzy of entitled spending she justified because of her sacrifice of living away from Miami for three years and the remaining were pre-wedding costs. Sergio forgave her for the student loans, paying them off as his groom’s gift, but the rest of her debt had doubled by their first anniversary—a whole new wardrobe of working-professional clothes, weekly mani-pedis, salon-colored and cut hair, waxing of brows, chin, and bikini-line: “Beauty costs a lot,” she often told him. He agreed. But she didn’t know that Sergio had his own mounting debt, owe-able to his dealer, an old high school druggie-friend of his who kept him well stocked with packets of the finest powder.
Lidia drove the rest of the way because, she told Manolo, it calmed her, let her think and it did. They made it to Tampa before one in the morning. Manolo fell into bed in the too cold room and rolled to one side for her. She tossed and turned, missing the swaying, dancing Belgium lace curtains.
On recent sleepless nights, the unbearably wearisome nights when she’d open the sliding glass door and let the air conditioning breathe into the dark dampness, Lidia would try to discover the origin of her mother’s hatred of Manolo. It couldn’t just be class, after all her mother was herself of working class stock, her grandfather a dairy farmer. Was it that Manolo was ordinary; wasn’t her seamstress grandmother just ordinary? To top it off there was her mother’s implicit disapproval of his dark skin while Lidia found his naturally trigueño looks to be sexy. She figured that her mother made a minimum of three derogatory comments about Manolo each time they spoke (which wasn’t often these days) and he didn’t even have to be the topic of conversation.
Of course, her mother had adored Sergio, a lawyer, a “good” son of a rich old Miami-Cuban family. She blamed Lidia for his getting into drugs, his practice being shot to hell, his falling out with his family—the Lópezes of Coral Gables.
“If you had been a better wife,” mother had said.
Lidia slid spit between her teeth before saying, “He’s a grown man and did exactly what he wanted to do.”
“But you should have known,” her mother said almost whining.
“You should have known about daddy,” Lidia said, cocking her head. Talking of their spouses led only to spiteful, stinging words with no resolution. Now she avoided her mother as much as possible; one passing glance from her—what with her long jaw and sidelong looks—always put Lidia’s nerves on edge. She reminded her of a kind of pathetic-looking dog but she couldn’t think of the breed’s name. Sometimes, Lidia just wanted to kick her, but naturally she couldn’t because her mother was pushing sixty and a widow and starting to drink a lot in the evenings. They couldn’t even have a cafecito together without bickering so Lidia skipped it; on the rare occasion when they did absolutely anything together—shopping, once their favorite pastime for instance—it was marked by a stifling tension that caused the bleached blonde hairs on her arm stand on end.
In the morning Manolo dropped her off and returned to the hotel to sun by the pool. Lidia had not been able to sleep very much so she got up and re-worked her paper while absently watching Snows of Kilimanjaro with a handsome young Gregory Peck. She thought about how lovely it would be to be able to go on a photo-safari in Africa. Trouble would be bad food, unhygienic facilities, and no air conditioning or maybe not even screens, and the danger, of course, but on the other hand, it probably would be very exciting, exotic; something so adventurous none of the Coral Gables crowd would probably ever venture to try. At around 4:00 a.m., she shuffled her paper together and returned to bed, where Manolo was alternately snoring and wheezing. When the sun shone in the room, Manolo woke her gently, tracing a finger along her shoulder. His benevolent gaze broke a smile onto her lips and for a moment they were very still. Lidia’s eyes were attracted to the blinking digital clock, 7:18, and she jerked the covers away.
“Shit, I’m going to be late!”
Lidia was miserable for most of the day; cramps grinding in her bloated gut and interminable talks where no one looked up from the podium except briefly when they had finished going on and on. She had marked sessions of interest in every time-slot, hoping to gain some insight about effectively treating the criminally insane, but the presenters’ droning voices lulled her into a stupor. Five cups of watery complimentary coffee and two 500 milligram painkillers later, she needed to go outside and bum a cigarette to perk up. There was a cold chicken-cordon bleu with a side of mushy vegetables lunch—she had been seated at a table with a trio of grad school buddies (not hers) and two older men: one white and with a full head of white fluffy hair, and the other a striking bald black man with round frameless glasses. They were polite but disinterested in chatting with her so she fixed her eyes on the cherry-topped cheesecake and reviewed the conference program for afternoon sessions she could ditch. She wanted to be collegial, to be taken seriously, but she knew that by the time of her session on Sunday morning, most people would be sleeping in or would’ve left the conference altogether.
More weak coffee was making the rounds as the keynote speaker was being introduced. Lidia had wanted to come to the conference because of her, a distinguished professor who edited a journal in which she desperately wanted to be published. Lidia had submitted three essays, each rejected after a six-month wait. She took out a pen and opened to the blank pages at the back of the program, ready to copy any wisdom or guidance she might ascertain. Lidia’s scrutiny might reveal the key to getting published or even getting onto a national panel. She tried hard to understand what made this woman’s new research, and now these off the cuff remarks, so special. After fifteen painstaking minutes, Lidia was bored and began mentally tearing apart the cheap, ill-fitting suit and horrible low-heeled pumps the frumpy, famed scholar was wearing—her up-do had scraggly hairs coming out at weird angles and she wore not a single drop of makeup, not even lip gloss.
The next morning they got up and ate big breakfasts of eggs, ham, grits, and biscuits with gravy, drank large cups of decent coffee at a diner far from the conference/convention center. Lidia had slept heavily and late thanks to half a bottle of merlot, not caring about what she’d missed. Manolo reminded her of the book exhibit she’d wanted to see, so she arrived in time for the free, insipid lunch then spent time browsing the books, reading introductions, tables of contents and especially biographies of contributors—noting where they’d gone to school or previous publications. She worked herself up into the bitchiest of states by 3:30 and called Manolo to rescue her in time for them to catch a happy hour in a beach-front bar in Clearwater.
The afternoon heat had dissipated after a sudden, intense thunderstorm and the beach was mostly empty but for a few Latin American tourists.
“So, you’re not too into the conference stuff, eh?” Manolo handed her a double margarita on the rocks with too much salt as he set his own beer down on the high round cocktail table.
“It’s a big shit,” she licked the glass rim and took a big gulp. “I don’t know why I bother,” she sighed then blew out raspberries.
“Aw, babe, don’t say that. You were looking forward to this,” Manolo stroked her forearm. Her French manicured nails gleamed in one of the bar’s haphazardly arranged spotlights. She stretched out both hands to admire them. She remembered how happy she had been with the big rock Sergio had given her—three and a half carat pear-shaped diamond set in platinum designed by a Palm Beach jeweler. That’s when Lidia had started getting acrylics to better show her prize. But she had had to sell the ring to bail Sergio out the first time he got arrested. There was so much promise radiant in that ring, their marriage, so much to look forward to. Right up until then.
Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés was born in New Jersey to Cuban parents. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Literary Mama, The Bilingual Review/La revista bilingüe, Letras Femeninas, Iguana Dreams: New Latino Fiction and The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Her 2009 collection of stories, Marielitos, Balseros, and Other Exiles, was released by Ig Publishers followed by Everyday Chica, winner of the 2010 Longleaf Press Poetry Prize and Everyday Chica, Music and More, a spoken word CD (2011). Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You, a new collection of stories, is forthcoming from Ig Publishers in spring 2015. She teaches writing and literature at the University of Central Florida in Orlando where she lives with her family.