Carmen Elcira’s father died in late August. She had risen in the morning to prepare him a pork chop—his favorite—for breakfast, and after she slid it onto a plate and poured him a cup of coffee to go with it, she went into his bedroom to find him lying as still as a statue under his sheet. Carmen Elcira had seen lately how old age had taken its bite out of him, and she had thought often that he was nearing the end, but even so, she felt unprepared when she found him like that. She sat on his bed with her hand on his chest and wept.
On her way out of the church after the funeral, Woodrow’s arm linked through hers, one of the newspaper men with whom her father had worked put his hand out to help steady Carmen Elcira as she walked down the stone steps into the humid midday air. She took it, and when she got to the bottom of the steps, he didn’t let go. She let him walk her all the way to the taxi that was waiting.
“Carmen Elcira,” he said. “I remember you from when I worked with your father. Guillermo,” he said, patting his chest.
She didn’t recognize him, but she nodded courteously before stepping into the taxi.
Later that afternoon, as Carmen Elcira sat in the rocking chair at home, a sheer black scarf over her head like a hood, her hands knotted in her lap, Guillermo stopped by with a steaming bowl of sancocho. He was still wearing the navy polyester suit and wide tie he had donned for the funeral.
“Soup that soothes a grieving soul,” he said. He placed the foil-covered bowl on a dish towel on the dining table. “Can I get you anything else?”
He appeared younger than her father, but older than she—bushy gray eyebrows that hung like tiny ledges over his small eyes; a simple, good-natured face; his jacket sloping a bit over his belly.
Carmen Elcira didn’t know why, but she felt tears race to her eyes.
Guillermo put his arm around her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
She let her head fall against his chest.
“I’ll stay as long as you need,” he said.
He stayed for another two years.
Guillermo took care of her, like a lifelong companion at the end of shared years. He knew that officially she was still married, and asked nothing of her. “Do you know that the first time I saw you was at a party in Punta Paitilla?” he told her once. “You were wearing a yellow dress. All of us old men told your father how lovely you were. ‘A real spitfire,’ your father said.” Guillermo smiled. “You may not be quite that anymore. But you are still very lovely.”
But while Carmen Elcira grieved and Guillermo attended to her, she continued to be consumed by thoughts of Diego. She had not seen him for 26 years. She still checked the paper every day for mention of him. She kept that old taped-together photograph of him in her apron pocket during the day while she baked, and slept with it on her bedside table at night. She concocted daydreams in which the two of them were together in the mountains of Panama, hiding from the world, making love in the grass. She remembered how he had touched her, and trembled at the thought. On four separate occasions, she burned herself on the stove when she let herself get wrapped up in thoughts of him. She wondered what he was doing while she waited for the oil to heat up in the pan or for the rice to fluff in the paila. She blushed remembering how he had called her Carmen. She thought to herself, It has always been him. And she believed, because she wanted nothing more than to believe, that eventually they would be reunited, that all of those times he had promised he would find his way back to her no matter what were full of intention and will, and not just empty words. It’s only a matter of time, she thought. She only had to wait.
So Carmen Elcira went on with Guillermo, playing card games with him at night on the patio while they swatted at flies, watching game shows with him on the television, waiting at the kitchen table while he cooked her meals, smiling graciously at his jokes while she looked through the window over his shoulder for anyone else who might be coming up the walk.
And then one day, just after she had finished her monthly application of hair dye to cover the niggling strands of gray, after she had used the blower to style it into a small bouffant, someone knocked at the door. Guillermo was reading the newspaper in the kitchen. Woodrow was at his morning university classes. And Carmen Elcira knew. She stole one more glimpse of herself in the mirror, her heart fluttering like hummingbird wings in the cave of her chest, and walked to the door. She had been waiting for years. But when Carmen Elcira opened the door, she was shocked to find that the man standing in front of her was not Diego. It was Joseph. He said, “I finished painting the baby’s room. I thought you might want to see it.”
Joseph had landed in Panama earlier that day. “Can’t believe how easy it was to find you,” he told Carmen Elcira, sitting now on her love seat. “I said your name in a bakery around here, and they knew just who you were.” He held up his hand. “Wait. Let me try it again in Spanish.” He repeated the whole thing in an imperfect but understandable translation. He smiled proudly. “I’ve been taking lessons for a few years now, preparing myself to come here and find you.”
His hair was shorter, cleaned up, and he wore silver wire-framed glasses that only magnified his bright green eyes. He was just as thin as always.
“Can I offer you a drink?” Guillermo asked.
Guillermo nodded and excused himself.
Joseph drummed his hands on his knees for a minute, then took a deep breath and said, “So you got remarried?”
Carmen Elcira shook her head numbly. She felt a little fuzzy at the edges of herself, disconnected from the world. She was still trying to make sense of the fact that it had been Joseph, not Diego, at the door.
“Just a friend, then?”
“He’s my father’s friend. He’s been staying here, keeping me company since my father died.”
“Your father died?”
“Two years ago.”
“I’m sorry, Carmen Elcira. Wow, it feels funny to say your name out loud after so long. I mean, I’ve been saying it in my head for years, but … And Woodrow? How is he?”
“He’s fine. He’s at school right now. The Technological University of Panama. He’s getting his master’s degree in engineering.”
Joseph nodded and looked around the room. “I always wondered where you both were. Where he was growing up. It was here?”
“Are you mad at me, Joseph?”
Joseph clasped his hands and let them hang loosely between his knees. “No. I was once, I guess. It took me a very long time to get over what you did. I wanted to see my son grow up. I loved you back then, you know. I’m not sure if I said that to you even once. You made everything seem different, lit up. You made me think my whole life could be different.” He smiled. “I was slow figuring that out. I mean, I felt it, stirring somewhere inside me. Change, you know? But you didn’t know that yet. I didn’t have the words to tell you about it then. I know that’s why you left. Because you thought I was weak. But what you didn’t know was that you were the person who was going to make me strong.”
Carmen Elcira lowered her gaze.
“I think I still love you,” Joseph said, after a time.
Carmen Elcira stared at her small brown shoes with the sensible heels. She was getting older now—almost 50—and life, she supposed she should have learned by now, never offered what she expected.
“You want us to come back with you, to Miami?”
“I don’t know how it would work exactly. But we can figure it out.”
Guillermo walked out of his bedroom at the back of the house with his suitcase in one hand and a plastic grocery bag in the other.
“Where are you going?” Carmen Elcira asked.
“I don’t think you need me anymore,” Guillermo said.
Joseph stood. “You don’t have to leave because of me.”
“I told her I would stay as long as she needed. I think it’s time for me to go.” Guillermo smiled and leaned down to kiss Carmen Elcira’s cheek. She whispered, “Thank you for everything,” before he walked out the door.
Life changed after that, but it didn’t turn out anything like Carmen Elcira had long believed it would. Joseph stayed with Carmen Elcira in Panama, never looking back, until one month later his own father died and he flew to the United States for the funeral. The burial took place at the Magnolia Cemetery in Augusta, Georgia. Joseph called Carmen Elcira every day he was there. He told her about the weather and how much he missed her and how uncomfortable his bed was in his hotel. Once, standing in the cemetery, he said, “You wouldn’t believe the trees out here. I saw a crape myrtle that’s supposed to be the oldest tree in the state. Besides you, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” And when he returned to Panama after putting his father in the ground, Joseph said, “I think we should call Woodrow ‘José’ from now on. If he would like that. ‘Woodrow’ isn’t a proper name for a boy. And you, well, ‘Carmen Elcira’ has always been a mouthful for me. Would you mind if I called you ‘Carmen’? You seem like a ‘Carmen’ to me anyhow.”
For the rest of her life, Carmen Elcira lived with Joseph in the house where she had grown up and where she would grow old. Every so often, because there are tender spots in every human heart that never disappear, no matter if the tenderness is caused by bruising or by love or if, as is often the case, the two are indistinguishable, she would wonder about Diego. She had always believed that he would find her. Diego, her one true love. And on those occasions, she would weep in her room with the curtains drawn until she heard Joseph’s voice calling her from the kitchen or until she heard her son’s car easing into the driveway when he came home to visit, and she would pull herself together and rise from the bed and walk out the bedroom door into a life more ordinary but no less true.