You belong to your husband, your master; not me;
I belong to nobody, or all…
You in yourself have no say; everyone governs you;
your husband, your parents, your family,
the priest, the dressmaker…
… in me only my heart governs,
only my thought; who governs in me is me.
–Julia de Burgos
She still waits, they joked—men sitting around a bar who, perhaps, never had to wait for anything, and who saw women as handkerchiefs they carried in their back pockets, their initials stenciled into the fine lace. When Lola made her appearances outside of the house, they did not wait until she passed to erupt. She was the observed of their keen eyes because her waiting was more legendary than their love affairs.
Í Í Í Í Í
She didn’t fall from the sky, but tía Lola was the woman on the ground. Her wailing outside of my window pulled me out of my sleep, eclipsing the clanging of the cowbells—the sound I had become used to over the past fourteen years. Looking down at tía Lola, my first thought was that something must’ve happened with tío Carlos. Perhaps he was dead, or worse, the letter the whole town had been waiting for, the one stating he would never return, had finally arrived.
My feet slapped against the kitchen floor, and I had to hold on to the door knob as I slipped rushing outside. I didn’t feel the concrete of our porch or the cold grass on my feet or the morning’s dew seeping into my nightgown when I fell to my kneecaps.
She clutched nothing new in her hands. No letter. No photo. No fresh accoutrement of hope or rejection. Only the old yellowed letters. And the way her body undulated, I knew it was all the memories.
“Tía, what is it?” I asked.
Not even glancing at me, tía Lola mumbled about how she met tío Carlos at her quinceañera and repeated things about her and him that I already knew. “Did you ever think he would come back?” she asked. She said this all as if she were talking to another Lola—one above her. I stroked her hair to assure her of my presence, and I held back my tears so hers could flow.
My back stiffened when I heard the door open and realized how I must look without a robe on to any passerby in the street. My long nightgown immediately felt too short, too sheer.
“Noelia, go inside and get dressed. I’ll take care of Lola,” my mother said.
Thankfully, that was all she said. The closer to my quinceañera, the more my mother stood over me, huge wings spreading in a small nest. My mother feared that tía Lola’s misfortune would somehow rub off on me, and my mother couldn’t, wouldn’t imagine another woman without a husband in this house.
I quickly whispered in my aunt’s ear, “Don’t worry tía, he’ll come back.”
Í Í Í Í Í
He said he would come back. It was a common practice. Nothing for her to worry about. They drove all the way to San Juan because that was the only airport then. Lola cried, laughed, held his hand, kissed it and said, “Te espero. Para siempre.” She touched her stomach and corrected herself, “We’ll wait.” It was a year after Lola and Carlos had married. He left to make a better life for them in the United States and before he boarded the plane with a flurry of kisses, waves and promises he said, “Bella, I’ll make you proud. By the time I come back, your father won’t have anything to say about me, about us.” But for seven years, the letters had come and every time one arrived, Lola held it up as a beacon of his love. She ignored the tales of those who returned, without finding their fortune, of Carlos’ life over there. She told herself that it was okay that he couldn’t make it for their son Julio’s birth and death, that she must live with her sister, that the neighbors weaved tales behind her back, and that he promised and promised but never kept, because in the world Lola configured, her waiting ceased.
When she sat on the verandah and saw the dapper young men court her neighbor Celi, when she saw the Plymouth Roadking Carlos once dreamed of owning, or when she saw the high class ladies with their pearls, she thought of Carlos.
2,555 days stacked. Finding movement everywhere. Lola could see him, re-envision him from a smell, a touch. Carlos, so memorable in his absence.
Í Í Í Í Í
The letters normally bound, in order by date, by year, were scattered on the floor. They had inhabited a white box overlaid with gold. It’s cover always slightly askew. Wrapped around the cluster of letters, a loving ribbon for each year. The red ribbon was for year two. Pink ribbon for year five. Year three: blue.
In tía Lola’s room, sheer curtains were normally tied back, so you could get the smolder of the moon or the sun—there was always something from the outside that could be captured in this room—something always welcomed. She had a decorative mosquito net, interlocking swans embraced, that she had sewn herself. Perfumes that looked like they were contained in hand-made bottles lined her dresser. The room, as I will always remember it, was candlelit for moments ready to be captured and memorialized. But the center piece was always that box—with accumulated letters spilling out.
Tía Lola sat in her window seat. Already she seemed different than she had that morning. She looked like she wailed out each hurt, each tear. Her hair was neatly down, and she had a dress she had often been pictured in—a white halter dress tied at her waist.
I tip-toed to tía Lola’s bed, near the strewn letters. “I was worried about you all day,” I whispered. “How…do you feel? Did you hear something new?”
Just yesterday, I had been so excited because we had been able to bring my quinceañera dress home. My dress was what I had imagined it to be for the past three years.
She shook her head. “There was nothing new to hear,” she mumbled. She wrapped her arms around her legs and put her head on her knees.
When everyone went to sleep the night before, I sat with it, touching the glimmering rhinestones on the full-bodied tulle skirt. Slipping it on, I practiced the dance I would do in a few weeks. The material making a musical swish-swish sound while I counted my steps and held out my arms to an imaginary man.
Her dress was pulled up, so I saw her legs. She used to tell me that she had the most beautiful legs—that was her asset, besides her pretty face. But tonight, they looked thin. I saw the wear on them—like they had walked too long. She absent-mindedly rubbed her legs while we talked.
“Doña Alicia’s husband came back,” I chirped.
Tia Lola gave me a faint smile, “And what was he like after all those years?”
In the novela Lo Que Diran that we had watched every afternoon for the past few months, Santa Serrano was like tía Lola—she waited and waited. And just today, Mateo Serrano returned, smile broader than their distance. He had been in Cuba though.
I picked up the most worn letter near my feet and filled the heavy air with his words. “Cariño, the world moves so fast here. The factory job Ignacio helped me get has been long and tiring. But I save money from each paycheck. As exhausting as it is, I wish I could get two jobs so I could come home faster to you. I won’t let you down. What you’ve heard isn’t true, I don’t have time to do much besides have one drink a week. I work and sleep. We’ll have the great life we should have. I’m sorry this is what this second year of marriage looks like. I would rather be home kissing your face. I have to cut this letter short. I’m exhausted from all this work. Tomorrow, I said I would fix the furnace for the landlord. He said he would give me a discount on the rent. Let’s count the months and maybe next time this year, this will all seem like a long ago memory.”
“You’ve both worked hard in different ways. He never loves you less,” I said as I placed the letters with the others.
I imagined she had lain on those letters to surround herself with his love, even today. “The letter from the early years—those are my favorite,” I said.
On the surface, the memories acted themselves out in this very room. Always whiffs of perfumes, scents of last meals, laughter over love letters. The room, pregnant, was always ready to burst.
“Mine too,” she said.
Í Í Í Í Í
The first time she fully immersed herself in her suffering was right after Julio came into the world stillborn. Carlos said that he would be there for months and weeks in their correspondence. And when Lola’s water broke, she tried to hold it in, to give him more time to get there and right before she went into labor, it flickered through her mind that he would not come.
The day after she was released from the hospital, she marched over to Carlos’ parent’s house and since then she has not suffered in silence. Passersby heard her screams and that was the first day that the townsmen began their snickering. And it was the last day that the women she had come to love—the ones waiting for husbands too—grieved with her. They promulgated and led the worst jeers about tía Lola.
Since then, they had not stopped, but for Lola that did not matter, has never mattered, the only thing that mattered was Carlos’ return.
Í Í Í Í Í
To not explain about tía Lola, my mother declined from going to church and sent me and my father along because after the services, we would rehearse with the priest the quinceañera mass. At least at the church, there would be a sense of tranquility. No threats. I had woken up eleven days to the noise of tía Lola, and then of my mother.
It was rare for my father and me to spend such time alone together, but during the previous few months, we had continually rehearsed our waltz for the quinceañera reception. Because of that, I had come to see the man that my mother must see. Perpetually elegant—his hair, was normally parted and coiffed to the side; all his suits bought from the capital in the same stores the Americans shopped; wealth shimmering off of him.
I would invariably take a step in the wrong the direction. “Don’t worry, Noelia, you’ll dance beautifully soon enough.” A man with a calming presence. Without him, my mother would have been more upset about tía Lola’s wailing. For the first time, I felt like his daughter. His. In our house, he had always been someone who stood behind my mother and my mother only. Not because he was a weak man, but because she was his wife, first and foremost. My mother had always had my father, and I had always had tía Lola.
Doña Olga, Ricardo’s mother, was the first person we saw when my father and I got to the mass. Ricardo was my partner in my quinceañera and hopefully soon, in life. My father quickly acknowledged her presence. Though I stood behind my father, I peeked at Doña Olga’s face to determine if she had heard about tía Lola’s wailing. She asked about my mother. Then she simply smiled at me, and I knew I had been dismissed. Doña Olga had never been kind to me, nor had she been outright cruel. My mother suspected that she found me unsuitable for Ricardo because of tía Lola, but because we were an established family, she tolerated me. I had even overheard my mother talking about Don Andres, Ricardo’s father, being in financial trouble because of drinking and gambling, so sometimes my mother thought she had the upper hand, sometimes she thought Ricardo’s family did.
As soon as the mass was over, I rushed over to the damas. All of us girls sat clumped together and while we carried on a conversation, what we were really doing was talking so we could look, now and then, at all the boys who sat in the pews across from us. Even if they had never met before we started preparing for this quinceañera, each girl had taken to fantasizing about her partner. Alisa gazed at Jose; Rebecca dreamed of Luis; Yvette pouted at Pedro…. All fifteen of us girls took turns dreaming.
Ricardo. Each time, I was struck by his beauty—dark wavy hair and dimples. Broad-shouldered and a self-satisfied smile. Other girls said he reminded them so much of the new American movie star Marlon Brando. I had even caught older women flirting or gaping at my Ricardo. All our lives we had lived across from each other, and all my life I had known that one day we would be here. If all these girls in my quinceañera could change escorts, they would choose him because he was the handsomest.
I slowly smiled at him, lowered my eyes, and looked away.
Lola, he mouthed when I looked at him again. The silent volatility of the word. The way he stretched out the name matched with the look in his eyes. That face—beautiful one moment, the next: rigid eyes, blazing nostrils, coiled lip. I’d seen that look before—when he’s grabbed my arm at school, turning my skin red under his fingers.
I closed my eyes tightly and imagined my quinceañera; Ricardo holding me in his arms, our bodies touching. He was the one dancing with me my confirmation dance instead of my father. Regardless of the ceremony, it was he, not my father who would make me a woman. And after the quinceañera, that was the day I would most looked forward to.
I opened my hands at him, turning my palms face up. I shook my head at him. Even my mother can’t control Lola.
The priest called us forward and we began the rehearsal. I watched the damas go down the aisle with their partners. And I anxiously awaited my turn.
Í Í Í Í Í
I hovered next to the living room cordoned off for adults, where everything always remained the same. Tiny doll statuettes my mother collected lined an oversized bookcase. She dusted them herself to ensure they remained pristine. The dominos sets my father loved were displayed on the coffee table. And regardless of what was happening, my father sipped his coffee in a cherry wood rocking chair his grandfather made before he started his furniture business fifty-two years ago. I would peek in on them when they were in this room. It’s like they became different people in here.
When my mother, small and stern, came downstairs, her perpetually frozen face was red and her hands shook. Tía Lola had scratched her—a brutal and engorged slash across my mother’s right cheek. Droplets of blood dried on her face. I stepped back, melted into the wall. Tía Lola had never harmed anyone—only herself.
¿Que paso? my father asked in an even tone that still conveyed his concern.
My mother’s silent anger was screaming, but I could no longer hear tía Lola wail. For once, I was thankful. In the same way that tía Lola had spent seven years dreaming about tío Carlos’s return, I had spent those years waiting for this day to become a woman.
“I can’t deal with her anymore. She makes a spectacle of herself and I’m trying to help her,” my mother said.
I thought I heard a gasp of tears in her throat.
My father held her, “Ya, ya, ya,” he said as he stroked her hair.
I’m always amazed to see the softness of her under his touch—all that magic contained in his hands.
“My father would die all over again to see all this—a world where men leave women and never come back. Nobody says anything about Carlos. If not for him, none of this would have happened. Then everyone just stands around and laughs at her. But where are the jeers for him? He’s the one who left her and she suffers for it all. She would never have done this before Carlos.”
“Good thing you picked me,” he said as he kissed her on the shoulder.
They are different people together. People I don’t know or have access to. Layers of people that you would never see otherwise.
“Don’t worry. It’s nothing. She’s done this before,” my father said.
“Yes, but not this bad and not for so long. And I’m the one who has to answer for her. I’m the one who has to endure the whispers about her,” she said and squelched any traces of fury in her voice. And then she turned to me, impatience grew on her face, “Stop talking to her. Stop encouraging her. Stay away from Lola until after the quinceañera. No communication. None.”
I stood small in front of her. “Yes, Mami.” As always, her wishes would be followed.
Í Í Í Í Í
It’s all I could hear—the clinking of their laughter. Rebecca kept her hand on my arm and said silly and mean things about Estefania. Called her Estefeania. Said she’s like the Americanas we see in movies—the easy Marilyns. Girls who unfastened their legs for boys without thought to futures, to reputations, to family names.
Unabashed, I blasted simmering looks at Ricardo and Estefania. I raised the peanut butter sandwich the Americans brought to our school menu to my mouth, but that’s where it stayed. The smell choked me. The sun, it boiled our wooden table.
The unwritten rules of the courtship entailed breaking the rules of propriety and meeting in secret. We would meet after school for a few minutes before I rushed home. And we played this game. Ricardo, he would push me up against the school walls. I only let him kiss me, though. He would whisper that I was loca like my aunt. And when he talked to other girls, I cornered him in the same hallways where he whispered his desire for me. I would beat on his chest and fold into a handkerchief of grief.
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When Lola met Carlos at her quinceañera, it was because she had disobeyed the rules, not followed them. Her partner, a boy her father had chosen, a boy from a good family, one who would never have to leave the island and go work in the United States, that, that was who her father chose. Carlos was merely an attendee, not even one of the caballeros. What her parents wished for at her quinceañera was never what Lola wanted. She didn’t know who or what she wanted until she met Carlos, and even though he was poor—you could tell that—there was something about him that could be re-done, re-fashioned, and he could easily be made into the man Lola wanted. And it was that moment that barricaded her future.
A constant picture of that stolen dance she had with him when she touched his face playfully in front of everyone. That was the way she saw her love—in snippets, in highlights of the best moments. How they eclipsed the rules and the townspeople. Even though much could had happened in seven years, turning back to those moments she remained. Because who could have supposed the happiness, the freedom, felt on that day could lead to this?
Í Í Í Í Í
I came home and found them in the living room. Doña Olga turned to look at me, and the highlights of my life washed away from shore. She was as formidable as my mother, two bulls in one ring. My mother’s pale skin was matched by Doña Olga’s dark skin. My mother’s thinness to Doña Olga’s thickness. Each was equal.
All the times I had watched tía Lola cry and wail, I had never seen how it permeates the community, how others were affected by it. I had seen the laughter but that was just an amusement for all the townspeople. Nobody had really cared.
Now, Doña Olga was here because she cared very much.
I wanted to cry, but I knew I must not do that in front of Doña Olga. But as I walked into the room to give my regards to her, I saw my mother break out into a little smile, and Doña Olga even gave a short laugh. I looked at my mother and was grateful to her that she had steadied Doña Olga.
As soon as she saw Doña Olga had safely made it back to her home, my mother ran upstairs. She instantly became fierce, yelling and screaming at tía Lola. My mother projected the future; tía Lola negated it.
“Doña Olga just left. She said that if you don’t stop, the courtship between Noelia and Ricardo will end. And if he decides after the quinceañera that he does not want to marry her, then who will want to come near her with a crazy aunt in the same house? Everyone will think this craziness runs in the family.”
“No, no, no…,” tía Lola repeated, and I imagined her dissolving on her bedroom floor.
Í Í Í Í Í
I know you feel terrible, but not only has Doña Olga come over, but Ricardo has been aloof with me. This should be one of the happiest times in my life. And it’s marred. Please tía, I urge you to think about the joy that you felt during your quinceañera. Surely, it was one of the most spectacular times in your life. Andlistening all those years to those stories about tío Carlos, well, I couldn’t wait until it was my turn. But my time has come and there has been so much angst about your grief. I say this respectfully, tía. Just as you enjoyed your quinceañera, I wish to have the same happy memories that you did. I have always listened to you and championed your love. I wish you to do the same. This is not how I want to remember my quinceañera.
All week I had watched my mother fight with tía Lola, forbid her to go outside and wail and each morning, tía Lola was out there nonetheless. Tía Lola was the only person my mother could not control.
I quietly slid the letter under her door. Even though tía Lola was nine years older than me, I had always been closer to her; she had wiped my tears when my mother was the cause of them; she plaited my hair and fashioned it as she always had, two French braids down her back. “When he comes back, you can even have your own room in our house,” she would say to me before kissing me on the cheek.
For a moment, I envisioned myself just walking into her room, lying in her bed and admitting my weaknesses to her. And that image gratified me for a moment, especially in thinking I could relieve her suffering for a few minutes—that that was something I had the power to alleviate. I stepped toward her door, putting my hand on the door, wondering and hoping that she could hear my breathing outside.
But then I heard a muffled sound—like one of her wails in the morning. The tightness in my chest inflamed again. I imitated my mother’s stern face and stance before stomping away.
Í Í Í Í Í
Knowing she couldn’t see me, I stared at her fiercely. But, she lied on her back, eyes in the direction of the sky, wailing, wailing.
“Tía!” I snapped.
“Loca.” I heard almost at the same time. One of the townsmen, Paolo, was snickering at our gate. He said it again, louder.
The front door shrieked open and he quickly moved on as my father stepped outside. Dressed for work, my father stood there for a few minutes with a cup of coffee in his hands. He too looked at the sky, but it was clear that he and tía Lola weren’t looking at the same thing. It looked like he was enjoying the sunshine, the morning. Like he couldn’t hear her, see her.
When he went back inside, my mother came out and stood over her sister.
“Get up,” she said to her as if she were talking to me.
Tía Lola paid her no heed and kept on. She did not see my mother, the townsman at the gate, me or my father.
But I saw her. Her sullied nightgown, the wet grass, the stillness of her body, except for hands clutching and clawing at her throat. In spite of all this, the sun—it sheathed her with its brightness.
Stripped for so many years, tía Lola’s gathering of memories was feeding her.
Í Í Í Í Í
When I got home from school later in the day, I found a note from tía Lola. She wrote that she wanted me to come to her room as soon as possible that it was urgent she speak to me. In Lo Que Diran, Santa Serrano’s love was strong because it could cross borders, it could hold on. There—the community members respected her. They kept vigil with her. Not like here—where they make fun.
I took the note and splayed it open in front of my mother. “Please make her stop,” I was shaking. “Why can’t we send her to cousin Anna’s house?
When tía Lola married tío Carlos, her father was outraged, sputtered at her, pulled her by her hair, beat her even. This was all deeply cruel for tía Lola, but at the end of it, she had tío Carlos and that remedied much. But she blamed her father for tío Carlos leaving. Her father refused to support her, and when he died a year later, he had followed through on his promise to cut her out of his will. And he left all his money to my mother. And now tía Lola was a woman without her own house, without her husband, and without fortune. My mother was older and while she took care of tía Lola, there was no familial ease between them. Tía Lola sat at our table every day knowing that all she had in the world was because my mother thought that the rumors would be far worse if tía Lola was uncontained, loose in the streets
They once were close, so tía Lola told me, but when her father turned his back on tía Lola, so did my mother. And there I stood, with the people I thought had been the most vicious to tía Lola.
Í Í Í Í Í
The clanging of the cowbells. I jumped out of bed to look out my window, and tía Lola was not there. Jubilant, I rushed out of my room, and for the first time in weeks, there was no anger or distress lingering in the air.
My mother sitting at the kitchen table, relaxed and smiling, said, “One more week.”
Stepping onto the grass, I squinted up at the sky trying to see what tía Lola had seen. I watched the cows jiggling in the distance before I sat down. I could smell the mango and coconut trees, the morning air. I lied on the warm ground where Lola should have been and involuntarily moaned as I felt the sun on my face, the blades of grass under me. The heat of the sun, the morning rising to possibilities, the noise and the silence. This moment, this space, was a place to dream.
All this life around me. I wondered if tía Lola saw it or if her wailing just tuned it out. But maybe that’s why she came out here. To be born again.
Í Í Í Í Í
Her need for him had made me wait for him too. I also lit candles wanting tío Carlos to come back. I knew all their anniversaries. When he first kissed her, when he bought her the string of pearls that still chokes her neck and the number of days from the last day that he wrote. I looked at his picture almost as much as tía Lola did. Tía Lola always described him as the most beautiful man in Puerto Rico—said he was a descendant of el cacique Arasibo, the Arawak our town was named after. She said she could imagine him on the beach before they came and we became a different people. He was fair-skinned, though, with dark curls, not at all the man tía Lola envisioned. I didn’t see him on the beach, a descendant of Arasibo, but as the one who was coming on the beach to claim this land as his own.
Nonetheless, he was a man to me. I believed in him as she did, and I fulfilled his promises to her. I imagined for her what their life could have been, should have been if he were still here or came back. I could envision the house they would live in, a house like ours, spacious, white and clean. I could hear their laughter as tío Carlos chased tía Lola around the house and these were the moments when her heart could just stop because she loved him so much, and she was so happy that he was here and hers. These were the moments when she would shut her house to visitors in the daytime, would close all the doors, lock them even, pull down the window shutters and lay in bed next to tío Carlos, hold his hand under the pale-ivory silk sheet, and she would wish for a hurricane to come and blow them away right at that moment or submerge them in the tropical waters of Puerto Rico because then the last thing that she would ever knew was this happiness, this everlasting happiness with tío Carlos.
Í Í Í Í Í
She shook me awake, and I suppressed a yelp. Her brown hair was no longer pinned, but messily fell along her shoulders. And she wore a thin, white nightgown. I thought she was coming back tomorrow. The last week of silence had been so luxurious I thought I would cry hearing the cowbells every morning. In the semi-darkness of the night, only half of tía Lola’s body was visible, so she looked like a mere girl.
Then I remembered how she scratched my mother’s face. I pulled my sheet up to my hammering heart. “Please don’t be mad. Mamí forbade me to come and see you before the quinceañera. She didn’t want to upset you more than you already were.”
She continued to stare at me with her intense brown eyes and took a few seconds before responding. And in those few seconds, I thought about everything she had ever done for me. How she had always been there to comfort me, and how she, more so than anyone else, had made me feel loved all my life.
She reached for my hand and said softly, “You’re young, Noelia. I know you must do what your mother tells you to do.” She got up and stood by my mirror, in front of my dress. “Tell me. Tell me what you think is to come,” she asked me. “What do you hope for?” she asked in a small, sweet voice. The voice she used to have when Carlos first left.
She held my white quince dress in front of her. We both looked at her preening in the mirror and laughed. I shushed us—these were the kind of noises I would learn later my mother envied about us. The sounds of joy and promise that would be muffled in any other room. It’s the other sound I would associate with tía Lola. The laughter of teenage girls. Laughter that tingles, comes with vast smiles, and can overtake a room. It says there is hope, wonder, and so much ahead, so much to come. I felt like this tía Lola was not in pain, or the one who waited for love with such anguish.
She pressed her body against my dress and had me hold her hair up.
“We should be engaged by next year,” I smiled widely. I instantly lit up and felt like all the times I had been in her room and she had told me about tío Carlos, and I had been waiting for this day. To offer her a story of my own. And because I would be a woman hours from now, I could offer something real, not just a schoolgirl’s fantasies.
I leaned forward, telling her my innermost dreams and secrets. Probably the same as she or maybe tío Carlos had. Ricardo and I kissing while watching novelas. Me always getting up and meeting him at the door. I see his smile. Imagine our kids—a boy and a girl singing around the house. I always imagine myself looking at him. And I look at him with this simple happiness.
Lola nodded her head. I saw the sadness, the wail come back to her eyes. “I thought that too,” she said.
I turned away from her. I had spent so many hours dreaming about Ricardo’s and my future. My body tingled at the prospect that I would be new the next day. And I wondered what it would be like to be born a woman. Would I see changes in my face? In my body? Would I be recognizable in the streets?
Í Í Í Í Í
Nobody saw how different she was, but Lola knew. She was on the other side. A glass firmly between them. Maybe even lives. She had gone to face herself. To see if all the love and adoration of a girl of fifteen could bring it back. Lola remembered. Felt the warmth of the dream. Sniffed it, inhaled that youthful joy that seemed so long ago. She wanted to bottle it and spread it into the future years of her life. How she had hoped to go back, find that spark and start it all over again. How distant she really felt. She wanted to tell Noelia to remember it. Remember the moment. That feeling. That vision. That simple happiness. How she couldn’t really reconcile who she had been and now was. How beautiful and tragic the dream all seemed now. How she knew what was about to come.
Í Í Í Í Í
The damas gathered around me at the church. They asked me if I had seen Ricardo. That he looked handsome. They swirled around me in their pink dresses and told me that I looked beautiful in my white one. When it was time for the ceremony to begin, I looked around. Tía Lola had not arrived. When I woke up in the morning, I at first thought her coming to my room the night before was all a dream.
The damas lined up with the caballeros, and they all proceeded down the aisle in line. I watched each of them and it was like each couple was a second in a minute, and each of their steps brought me closer to my destiny. Then it was my turn. My father in his fine black suit linked arms with me on my right side and my mother on the left. She wore a purple satin dress that brought sunshine to her face. Her bare arm felt warm against mine. In slow, even paces, we walked down the aisle together. I looked straight ahead to make sure the look on my face remained modest, though I was smiling brightly inside.
We stood to the right of the priest and he said, “Congregation, today, it was with great honor that I conduct this quinceañera mass. Noelia Nuñez and her family have long been faithful members of this congregation. It is with the sincerest of pleasures that I preside over this mass to usher Noelia into the rites of womanhood.” He then paused, and my parents presented me with the typical quinceañera gifts. They both smiled triumphantly. My father stepped behind me and placed a gold necklace around my neck. The necklace symbolized my faith in God, myself, and the world, and in my head I added that the necklace also symbolized my faith in love, in what it meant to be a woman, and in marriage. My mother placed in my hands the red rose I would place in the bouquet beneath the altar of the Virgin Mary. After I added my rose to the bouquet, my mother then placed in my hands my own new bible and a pink rosary. The three of us then participated in the Eucharist. This was just the beginning of the many rites of the day. Dancing with my father would be the last thing I did as a little girl. Then, I would dance with Ricardo, and that would be my first thing I did as a woman.
I made my entrance into the reception hall on Ricardo’s arm, and I got an opportunity to see how many people were actually there. Aunts, uncles, cousins, people who knew me when I was first born and whom I had not seen since then had traveled to be with me on my special day. I smiled at Ricardo. All the difficulties of the past weeks had boiled down to this. And it was how I always imagined it. In that moment, I got a glimpse of how tía Lola must have felt—to be perpetually caught in a beautiful moment. And for once, I could clearly understand why it was difficult to let go of such instances. It was a day I could easily lament the loss of and could easily play over and over again in my head. Ricardo led me to the middle of the reception hall, to my special chair, woven and with a back that fanned out around and above me. The hall was filled with balloons, flowers, and on the wall across from my chair there was a sign that said “Happy Birthday, Noelia.” The music stopped and that was the cue for my father and the commencement of the next rite. My mother came toward me. She carried a white satin pillow with my high heels on top of it. My father knelt in front of me and raised my skirt a decent amount only. He took off my flat shoes, one at a time, and replaced them with the high-heeled shoes. Everybody clapped and he took my hand to dance. My father placed his hand on my waist and I placed my hand on his shoulders. As we started to move, I saw Ricardo standing in the sidelines, waiting to dance with me next. Even though, I could not wait for my time with Ricardo, time slowed for me as I wanted it to because I knew this was the last thing in this world that I would do as a little girl. And I wanted to take it all in, every second. Every aspect of my body was in tune with this moment. Every part of my body smiled as I counted down the time. My father twirled me around the room, and in the last spin of our dance, over his shoulder, I saw tía Lola walk in.
I stared at her for interminable seconds.
It was a simple ivory silk dress. The dress she wore was the very same one she wore on her wedding day.
Her hair was the same. One braid, wrapped into a bun on the left side of her head.
Everything down to the shine on her shoes was the same.
The merriment was silenced.
Everyone stared. Even my mother was immobilized. No one even laughed like they normally did in tía Lola’s presence.
She walked across the dance floor, and the tapping of her heels roared in my head.
Tía Lola came over and easily pulled my father towards her and took my confirmation dance away.
I stood there facing my father. I was standing there.
My father, not sure if he should play along, moved for a beat or two with tía Lola. Then he looked at me in my white dress and finally let his arms drop, and he stepped away from tía Lola. I looked around the room at all the faces that had come to be with me. Everyone caught in that moment. How they just stood there. They all blurred, and it was not my tears. The last faces easily came into focus, though. It was Doña Olga and Ricardo. She desperately whispered in his ear, and he effortlessly nodded his head.
I wanted to reach for Ricardo, but I knew he was swimming away from me.
Í Í Í Í Í
Lola walked up the stairs, moving her hips back and forth as if she were wearing heels and a man she loved was watching her at the bottom of the steps. Lola knew it was different this time—the wailing. It came from some place different. No longer that yearning for Carlos. For the past several weeks, since she had been wailing outside, she had come to her room afterwards, barely eaten anything and barely spoken to anyone, and she had read them, one by one. And there were many. More than one would expect for a woman who had surely been abandoned. And in each one she had tried to recapture that pain in the heart, that beautiful pain that had defined her as a woman in love, given her a place in this town’s history as a woman who had been left behind. She knew she would go down in stories, and there was nothing more fascinating to her than to be a woman not forgotten.
She read those letters to resurrect her heart. What beautiful words he wrote.
She traced his words and remembered the loops of his “l’s” and the caress’ of his “e’s,” but the words now laid flat on the page. She could not conjure up anything; whatever he said began and ended on those pages. All her senses were dead. There was no longer anything in those letters that could jump start her heart. No more sweet fantasies during her afternoons on the verandah. Perhaps that was the greatest tragedy of all. The end of the dream seemed much more intolerable than the past seven years. Her love for Carlos, her yearning: gone. Now she would have no one or nothing to love.
Í Í Í Í Í
I unfurled long, cruel, deeply held screams on my mother, “You promised everything would be ok if I just stayed away from Lola. You promised. You did nothing. Nothing. You stood there!” I felt like a statue cracking.
My mother, taken aback at first, stood up straight and slapped me across the face. “Young ladies do not speak to their mothers like that.” With that, she started to leave the room, and my father was right behind her with his hand on her back.
I didn’t stop. Nothing could have stopped me. “That is always your response,” I yell at her retreating back. “You betrayed me.”
She came back in the room, “This was my fault, you think? My fault? I did everything I could to make sure your quinceañera would happen. No, no, Noelia, you were the one who betrayed me. Every day, behind your aunt, and I told you all your life, all your life how to behave, yet it was only this year, the most important year of your life that you came my way. Let me tell you as I have always been the one to steer you on the right path, that it was your aunt, your beloved tía Lola that you should be having this conversation with. She is the one who has taken your beloved dream and crumpled it with such ease. She is the one, not me. I have always been here to facilitate your dreams. Me. Not her. And you have the audacity to stand here and berate me. Sin vergüenza.”
“Why did you do it? How could you?” I screeched.
Tía Lola sat at her vanity and did not turn around. “I didn’t want you to be a woman. It is a terrible thing being a woman. One day, you will thank me.”
I threw one of my high heels at her head. I missed, and the vanity mirror cracked and crumbled.
But Lola remained unfazed, she did not flinch nor turn around. “Trust me Noelia, trust me.”
Í Í Í Í Í
I walk by the bar and am now the woman the men talk about. Ricardo stands among them. Smugness in his eyes as he stands in the doorway. Who will marry her? they guffaw.
The night after tía Lola stole my dance, I walked out by the cows. I looked back at the house before Ricardo came. Everyone was in their place like if nothing had happened. I undressed and lied down on the ground and waited for him.
Upon his arrival, I was mute, looking at the stars, and lying on the ground. And when he entered me, I felt shipwrecked. I imagined myself as the one coming onto the stunningly sunny beaches of Puerto Rico and there was Arasibo. He welcomed me. Not knowing what I would bring.