Fiction Fiction 2008

Carmen Elcira: A (Love) Life

“You left because you thought I was weak,” Joseph said. “What you didn’t know was that you were the person who was going to make me strong.”

Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

Carmen Elcira was 16 years old, sitting in a laundry room in Punta Paitilla, and drinking her fifth Shirley Temple of the evening. Outside the laundry room, a party was in full swing. “It’s for all the newspaper employees,” her father had explained when he invited her. “Even us.” By which he meant even the men who spent their days rolling sheets of newsprint through an enormous machine in the production room. She could tell that he was a bit dumbfounded, as well as uncomfortable, at the idea that he had been asked to attend a gathering with the men who worked above him, and in such a wealthy section of Panama City at that, but to her it sounded glamorous, so she had said she would go.

1969
AUDIO:
Listen to author Cristina Henríquez read this story

After hobnobbing with the adults for a time, though, Carmen Elcira had grown bored and retreated to the laundry room. It was as expansive as all the other rooms in the sprawling apartment—spacious enough for a washing machine, two tubs, an ironing table, and two folding tables—and she nibbled on the cherries sunk in the bottom of her glass while she sat, disappointed that the party had not been as exciting as those in the movies.

After a few minutes, the laundry room door opened, and a man walked in. He sat at a different table, apparently without noticing her. Carmen Elcira coughed. In the dim light squeezing through the door, she watched him startle.

“Hello?” he said.

“Yes.”

“I didn’t know someone else was in here.”

“Well, someone is.”

He didn’t move, as she had expected he would upon hearing this information. From what she could make out, he was older than she, although he couldn’t have been much older than 20.

“What are you doing in here?” she asked.

“What are you doing in here?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Just couldn’t deal with the scene out there. It’s not really my style. And you?”

“I’m here with my father.”

“He’s one of them?”

“He works in the production room.”

“Good.”

“What do you mean, ‘good’?”

“It’s good that he’s not one of them.”

“Aren’t you one of them? Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“No way.” He snorted. “They did a story on me once, a whole feature article that won the reporter some big award, so they figured they owed me or something and invited me to this thing.”

“Why would they write a story about you?” Carmen Elcira asked. He was handsome, certainly, and something about him was strangely compelling, but on their own, those were not qualities that warranted a feature article.

“I don’t know.”

“You must know.”

“You’re very demanding,” he said.

Carmen Elcira narrowed her eyes and studied his face. He was wearing the plainest of clothes, with sunglasses propped on his head. She wondered if he could see her just as well, the yellow seersucker dress with ruffles around the armholes and her deceased mother’s straw hat that she had chosen to wear. And then, she didn’t know why, the thought occurred to her that he had probably seen her walking around the party earlier and, liking what he saw, had followed her into the laundry room where he could be alone with her. That was the sort of thing that always happened to attractive girls in the movies, after all.

“You are a disgusting man,” she told him.

“What did I do?”

“It’s what you wanted to do.”

“Hey, all I wanted was to take a break from the party for a minute. It’s not my fault you were in here already.”

“Well, I was trying to be alone.”

“So was I.”

“But I was trying to be alone first.”

Carmen Elcira heard him sigh, but she saw, also, that he was amused. He stood and walked to her. Close up, she could see his chiseled face, a small cleft in his chin. His hair was styled into a small Afro. “Are you sure that’s what you want?” he asked.

“I’m sure.”

He let his gaze linger. Carmen Elcira was determined not to be the first to look away. “Then, by all means, don’t let me stop you,” he finally said, and started to back away.

“Thank you,” she said.

He bowed in sarcastic deference.

“A real gentleman,” Carmen Elcira said as he continued his retreat.

The man stopped and smiled. “At last, we agree on something,” he said, before he walked through the door.

That night in bed, Carmen Elcira couldn’t help but think about him for some time—the two of them talking in the dark amid the scent of detergent, the way he had approached her, leaning so close to her face before he left. She smiled into her pillow.

Presented by

Cristina Henríquez

Cristina Henríquez is the author of Come Together, Fall Apart (2006), a collection of eight stories and a novella all set in Panama. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Glimmer Train. Her first novel, The World in Half, will be published next year by Riverhead Books. She lives in Chicago.

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