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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
Before him, of course, others had turned her head. Notably, a few years earlier, a boy named Cristóbal Vega had moved in with his family next door to Carmen Elcira and hers. Cristóbal Vega was not charming, nor intelligent, nor adventurous, nor even particularly funny. In fact, every time Carmen Elcira tried to talk to him, she found him fairly boring. So she satisfied herself with simply staring at him, which was all a boy like that was good for. Her bedroom faced his, so she kept her window open wider than usual to listen for the moment he walked into his room. As soon as she heard his door close, and the chopping blades of his fan start, Carmen Elcira went to her window and stared longingly at Cristóbal. She watched him sit and flip through the thin pages of comic books. She watched him nap on his bed. She watched him nibble his nails. She watched him kick his shoes off into the corner of his closet. She watched him look at more comic books. And every night before bed, Carmen Elcira gazed upon Cristóbal as he took off his undershirt—the way he crossed his arms and drew the cotton over his head, his honey silk skin underneath—and she had to bite the tip of her tongue between her teeth to stop the strangest feelings that buzzed within her until she was calm enough to go to bed herself.
After Cristóbal Vega came Filiberto Berto. The entire class, including Carmen Elcira, broke into riotous laughter on the first day of school when the teacher called roll. “Berto Berto!” one of the boys yelped in hysterics. “Filiberto fucking Berto!” Then a group of boys started chanting “Berto! Berto!” until the teacher quieted them. Carmen Elcira still had a gurgle of laughter in her chest when Filiberto Berto stood and told the class, “You can call me B.B.” Then he held his arm out like a rifle and fired imaginary shots around the room. “Like the gun,” he said, lowering his arm and fixing his gaze on the boys who now looked at him wide-eyed. The laughter that had been worming in Carmen Elcira vanished and was replaced by a vigorous thumping that was most definitely emanating from her heart. She smiled at B.B. when they switched classes that day. She sat beside him in science and in literature. She followed him to his bus after school. Eventually, she gathered the nerve to ask him on a date, but B.B. coughed into his fist and said he already had a girlfriend.
“Who?” Carmen Elcira demanded. “I’ve never seen you with anyone.”
B.B. pointed to Maria Salinas, who was smoking in the far corner of the courtyard.
Carmen Elcira rolled her eyes. “Never mind, then,” she said. “I couldn’t be with someone who evidently has no taste.”
T. S. Ponnalagusamy—Samy for short—landed, seemingly from out of nowhere, in Carmen Elcira’s class. She imagined him dropping straight down from the moon in a parachute until she overheard him say that he was from India. The teacher rolled a globe to the front of the room and asked him to point out India. Samy turned the globe carefully and said, in perfect Spanish, “Here. This is India.”
The teacher invited questions. They sounded more or less like this:
“Is India more than a hundred times bigger than Panama?”
“How do you know Spanish?”
“Why did you come here?”
“Who is the president of India?”
“In India, does everyone know Spanish?”
“Do you like Panama?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
At the last, Samy blushed, a tint that was visible despite his very dark skin. “No,” he said, in his delicate, soft-spoken way.
During lunch, Carmen Elcira went to the library and read everything she could find in the encyclopedia about India. It was raining after school, so she waited under the zinc roof that covered the walkway from the school’s front entrance to the street. She smoothed the front of her uniform and tugged on the straps of her backpack until, finally, Samy walked out. As he neared, Carmen Elcira said, “Happy Independence Day.”
Samy stopped. “Me?”
“Yes. Happy Independence Day to you.”
“It’s Independence Day?”
“No. Not today. It was a few days ago. On August 15. If I had known you on August 15, I would have said it to you then. I’m sorry it has to be a belated wish.”
“August 15 is Panama’s day of independence?”
“No. November 3.”
Samy shook his head, puzzled.
“In India, it’s August 15, no?” Carmen Elcira asked, beginning to panic that she had remembered the wrong date from the encyclopedia.
“Oh, that’s what you were saying.” He smiled. “Yes, that’s right.”
“In 1947,” Carmen Elcira said.
“Exactly. In 1947.”
Carmen Elcira waited.
“Do you know a lot about India?” Samy asked.
Carmen Elcira let a smile play on her lips as she blinked at him. “Not yet,” she said. “But I would like to.”
They spent the next few months getting to know each other—taking walks after school, sharing dulces at the panadería, going to movies, huddling under doorways during rainstorms—and when, after school one day, behind the Panafoto store on Via España, Samy, tasting of honey and mustard seed, kissed her, Carmen Elcira whispered into his cheek, “That was my first kiss. It felt nice.” He took her face in his hands and kissed her again. But when, a few months after that, Carmen Elcira spied Samy kissing Mariana Candelaria at the bus stop in much the same way, she marched up to the two, slapped Samy across the chin, and said, “That was the first time I slapped a man who deserved it, and it felt terrific,” before walking away.
Carmen Elcira was in her third year of university, studying administration. Her ambition was to become a secretary in a bank. She had visions of herself at a desk on the 30th floor of a glass building overlooking the bay, tapping a pen against her teeth as she pressed buttons on a black phone that looked complicated enough to be in the wheelhouse of a ship. That, or she wanted to be a movie star.
She was taking her daily bus to school, bumping over potholed streets in the humid air, holding her breath against the exhaust swimming through the open windows, when suddenly the bus stopped. The bus driver honked his horn and waved his arm out the window; he was only one of many drivers in their own vehicles doing the same thing. Carmen Elcira crossed her arms and slouched in her seat. Earlier in the week, riots had broken out in Panama. Student groups and labor unions, tired of being kept down by the government, gathered in the streets with sticks and signs and megaphones and rocks. They started small fires, assembled human blockades across busy streets, scrawled brazen graffiti. She found it all a bit ridiculous, to tell the truth. She let her head fall against the scratched window and watched a group of young men awkwardly roll a large rock into the middle of the street to disrupt traffic. When they finished, one of the men mounted the rock, yelling and pumping his fists to the sky. The police stood in a line across the street, impassively surveying the protesters. Then Carmen Elcira sat up and squinted. She recognized him. Did she? Maybe. She ran off the bus to the rock and tugged on the man’s pants. He glanced at her and continued chanting. Carmen Elcira tugged harder. The man, looking annoyed, motioned for one of his comrades to take his place on the rock. Then he jumped down and said sharply, “What?”
She waited for him to recognize her.
“You again!” he shouted.
“Still a gentleman, I see.”
“What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
He smiled. His teeth were white as dinner plates. “That’s not an answer.”
“My bus can’t get through. I was on my way to school.”
She watched him steal a glimpse at the marooned bus. Instead of an Afro, his hair was slicked and combed to one side, and he wore mirrored aviator sunglasses. He had a cigarette behind one ear.
“A shame,” he said. “I guess that means you’ll have to stay.” He took her hand, but she shook it free.
“I could walk to school if I wanted,” Carmen Elcira said.
He smiled again. “I believe you could. You’re a headstrong girl. But I think it isn’t what you want.”
“Well, that’s true. What I want is to take my bus to school, but at the moment that’s impossible.”
“That’s really what you want?”
“Yes.” She jutted her chin forward.
“Because you could stay here instead. You could stay here with me.”
“You’re very presumptuous, no?”
“Only a suggestion.”
Carmen Elcira pursed her lips. The sun was pounding, and she felt a bit light-headed. She remembered the sensation she’d had the last time she was near him—that, just for a moment, she was starring in a film. After several seconds, she turned to leave.
He snatched her wrist. “OK, then, I want you to stay,” he said. “With me.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I just don’t want you to leave.”
Carmen Elcira was very aware that he still had his hand around her wrist, his thumb firm against the underside, where her skin was smoothest. “I don’t even know your name,” she said finally.
“If I tell you, will you promise to stay?”
He sighed, but the amusement on his face was plain. “Diego Arosomena. And you?”
“Carmen Elcira Salazar.”
“Carmen,” he repeated.
“No. That’s how people refer to little girls. You … To me, you look like just ‘Carmen.’”
It was a long day in the sun. The fumes of spray paint came in waves, mixed with the smell of saltwater from the bay. Carmen Elcira never left Diego’s side as he bumped more boulders into the middle of traffic and stood on top of them, shouting. She smiled for the television cameras when they came to film the disruption. Later, during a lull, she slipped into a grocery and, in the reflection from the metal meat case, re-pinned her thick black hair and rubbed her teeth with her finger until they shone.
At nightfall, after everyone had gone home because the camera crews would not be back until the next day, Diego took Carmen Elcira to the seawall along the bay. Together, they sat on the weathered stones, gazing out over the water, the moonlight glimmering on the quaking surface like breathing light. Diego lit a cigarette.
“So what are you so angry about?” Carmen Elcira asked.
Without looking at her, Diego exhaled and said, “You’ve heard of Héctor Gallego?”
“The priest who died?”
“Do you know how he died? Or why?”
“He didn’t believe that the campesinos should have to live by the rules of the land barons. He was encouraging them to find their own way. But Torrijos is in with the land barons, you know? He didn’t want anyone trying to disrupt the balance of power.”
“Torrijos killed the priest?”
“Well, he had his men set fire to Gallego’s house. But that didn’t work. So he sent them to take Gallego up in a helicopter in the middle of the night. They pushed him out.”
“How do you know?”
Diego shrugged. “It’s the truth.”
Carmen Elcira watched as Diego held his cigarette over his knee and flicked it, the ashes drifting to the rocks below like sullen confetti. Just for a second, she thought she might cry.
“We’ll be here again tomorrow,” Diego said. “If you want to come back.”
Diego flung his cigarette into the dark. He hopped down onto the sand and held up his arms.
“Jump,” he said.
“I’ll catch you.”
“I’ll always catch you.”
Carmen Elcira smiled.
“Carmen,” he said, “I thought about you for a long time after that party.”
“I couldn’t get you out of my mind.” He wiggled his fingers at her. “Now come on. Jump.”
Carmen Elcira looked at her shoes dangling not more than a meter above him.
“Jump,” he said again, and she did.
For five months, Carmen Elcira traveled throughout Panama with Diego. Los Santos, Chitré, Santiago, David, Cerro Punta, El Valle, Portobelo. She took a semester off from school to pile into a white Toyota minibus with Diego and four of his friends and careen over dusty streets and sweat against vinyl seats and eat grilled chicken at roadside stands. She never joined the protests. She did not hand out leaflets door to door like the rest of the group. She did not stand on church steps in town squares and urge people to pray for Héctor Gallego. She was merely along for support and, when the group raised enough of a ruckus or prompted enough of an assembly, she was the designated spokesperson as the media swarmed in, posing and flashing her toothy smile. Once, when Carmen Elcira called her father from the road, he told her that when he had been running newsprint through the reel, he had seen her photograph. He said, “It was good to see your face again, hija.”
In the evenings, while the rest of the group was camping or sleeping in the minibus, Carmen Elcira and Diego would find a place to lie together. Often, they would talk, murmuring against each other’s ears and faces, whispering into the dark, until the sun rose in the morning. Her favorite of the things he said was that he would never forget her, that no matter what happened to him or to her in this world—because a lot of things could happen—he would always find his way back to her.
They made love out in the open air, too. Carmen Elcira let Diego draw his fingers through her hair and trip them lightly down her neck and smooth his hands over the soft curve of her waist, under her blouse, and straddle his knees on either side of her hips and brush his nose against her cheek and stroke her thighs under her skirt and nuzzle his face into the shallow reef at her clavicle and kiss her chin and kiss her neck and kiss the palm of her hand and suck her fingertips and kiss her stomach and kiss her navel and drag the tip of his tongue along the length of her arm and kiss her round shoulder and grip the back of her head and kiss her mouth and kiss her mouth and kiss her open mouth and unbutton her blouse and unhook her brassiere and cup her breasts and lick her nipples and pull down her skirt and slide off her panties and run his finger along the wetness in between her legs and put himself inside her and hold his hand against the arch at the small of her back and raise her up and raise her up again and again and again and again.
Months ago, on the night she jumped off the seawall and into his arms, Carmen Elcira had let Diego kiss her, but she had stopped him after that. When he had asked why, she said, “I’m waiting for the right man.” He had said, “Maybe I’m it.” Back then, she had told him, “I only learned your name a few hours ago. How could I have possibly learned by now whether you are it? We will have to wait and see.”
At 2:12 a.m. on June 14, 1975, Diego Arosomena and a group of unidentified men planted a bomb at General Omar Torrijos’s living quarters.
This was the line, more or less, that Carmen Elcira read in the newspaper one day after the group arrived back in Panama City and she had returned home. This was the line, more or less, that she kept repeating in her head. She had known nothing of the plan. Diego had never let on.
Carmen Elcira must have read the article 10 times. The words blurred together on the paper. She could make sense only of his name, which seemed to flash at her whenever it appeared, and this: Diego was being exiled to Costa Rica. At the top of the article, she saw a peppery black-and-white image of him, which Carmen Elcira tore out and put in her green satin change purse. At home, she covered both sides of the photo with strips of transparent tape to keep it safe.
She tried calling him, but of course got no answer, so as soon as she had enough money (forgoing her usual salon treatments to save up), Carmen Elcira bought a plane ticket to Costa Rica. She had never been on a plane. She had never been outside Panama. All she knew was that she had to find Diego. It seemed as though her life depended on it.
Her father dropped her at the airport, believing, as she had told him, that the trip was for all the secretarial candidates in her class at university. The plane smelled odd, of dust and fuel and lemon. But when it lifted into the air, Carmen Elcira got the most wonderful feeling in her belly—like a huge quavering bubble blown through a plastic bubble ring, swelling inside her. Her ears plugged up and popped, and her eyes watered and then turned paper-dry. She kept her face centered in the frame of the oval window and, holding her breath in delight, watched as everything she had known receded beneath her.
One hour and 15 minutes later, the plane landed at Juan Santamaría Airport. Carmen Elcira grabbed her colorful plastic woven shopping bag filled with accessories and cosmetics from under the seat in front of her, and a matching bag with all her clothes from the overhead compartment, and walked off the plane, expecting to find a whole new world.
What she found, as she stepped off the giant staircase that had been brought onto the tarmac to meet the plane, was a world that looked remarkably like Panama.
“Excuse me,” she said to a man at the bottom of the staircase, “but where have we landed?”
“Mars,” he said, then laughed. “Where do you think? This is Costa Rica!”
Carmen Elcira nodded and then started to walk away, following the line of other passengers. Before she got too far, she had an idea and doubled back.
“Can you tell me where I might find Diego Arosomena?” she asked the same man.
“Diego Arosomena. He’s Panamanian, about so tall, greased dark hair, parted on the side, thin build, a dimple in his chin.” Carmen Elcira waited for a response. “I believe he’s on a farm somewhere.” She was hesitant to mention the part about Diego being exiled here.
“No idea. You can ask inside. Maybe they can help you.”
But inside was no help either. In the entire country of Panama, most people lived in one city, and most of them had lived there all their lives. Finding someone was reasonably easy. In Costa Rica, though, that was proving not to be the case. Carmen Elcira showed the woman at the information desk Diego’s photo from the newspaper. Nothing. She told the woman everything she could remember from the newspaper article. Nothing. And as the two of them exchanged a long, silent look across the information desk, Carmen Elcira realized she had come to Costa Rica completely ill-prepared for her mission to find Diego. Finally, with the handles of both her bags cutting into her hands, she said to the woman, “When is the next flight back to Panama?”
For the next few weeks, she tried to get in touch with Diego. She contacted all of his friends. She consulted judges in Panama City who she thought might know how to reach exiled citizens. She called the Costa Rican Embassy. She called the police. She spoke with one official who made clear that even if she were to find Diego, she would certainly not be allowed to talk to him (he also suggested that it would be in her best interest, legally speaking, to keep her distance from him and avoid implicating herself in the bombing). Then she took to her bed.
She languished there for days, the wobbly ceiling fan swishing overhead, silent geckos darting along the walls. Then one day her father came in and laid his hand on her ankle. Since going on the road with Diego, she hadn’t seen him much. Even after she returned, she found that he spent almost all of his time at work and at the bars, having grown accustomed to a life without her there. When he did come home—sometimes not until two in the morning—he spent a long time in the bath, the water darkening as the layers of newspaper ink from his job lifted off him, his fingertips and toes wrinkled to raisins by the time he stepped out.
“The trip was bad?” he asked.
Carmen Elcira sniffled.
“Didn’t you like anything about it?”
Carmen Elcira considered this and said, “The plane ride was nice.”
Two days later, after getting lucky on a lottery ticket, Carmen Elcira’s father used his winnings to buy her a plane ticket. “To make you happy again,” he said as he handed her the paper sleeve. It was a Pan Am flight round-trip to Miami, Florida. “You’ll have to stay over one night. But you’ll get to take two more plane rides, see? There and back.”
What was supposed to have been one night in Miami turned into nearly one year, on account of Joseph Grindigger. Joseph played the drums, and sometimes the tambourine, in a band called Fields of Grass. In the late midsummer evening, Carmen Elcira was trying to sleep in the motel room where she was spending her one night in Miami. She was having a terrible time of it, though, because of a very discordant—and very loud—ruckus outside her window. She was used to the noises of a city, of course, but an amateur band hacking away at their instruments was another matter entirely. In a huff, Carmen Elcira slid the rollers out of her hair, pulled on some respectable clothes, and marched across the street with every intention of telling the noisemakers that, for the sake of everyone with ears, they should stop playing, sell their instruments, and find another line of work. Then Carmen Elcira saw Joseph. He was slapping his tambourine against his maroon wide-wale corduroys, a flap of shaggy brown hair lapping at his face, his eyes closed. Four other people were in the band, but under the streetlamps she saw only him. She stood biting her lip, watching, for nearly an hour, until Joseph put his tambourine down and opened his eyes. Green eyes that seemed to burn straight through her.
Carmen Elcira introduced herself to him that night, fumbling with her English, and he, smiling curiously at her, invited her to come out with the band to get a drink.
“We’ve never had a fan before,” he told her, though Carmen Elcira didn’t understand until later that he wasn’t talking about an appliance but about her.
Between the miscommunications, though, something unexpected happened: Carmen Elcira fell for Joseph Grindigger. He bought her a drink—coconut rum and pineapple with a maraschino-cherry garnish—and walked her back to her motel room well after midnight. She invited him in and he slouched in the wooden chair beside the low dresser and talked to her while she sat cross-legged on the bed. The entire evening, Carmen Elcira fought the urge to crawl on top of him. She shivered each time he took his hair between his first and second fingers and flipped it out of his eyes.
Joseph paid for the motel room for another week because he claimed that no one should come to Miami and not see all that the city had to offer. In his green Volvo, he picked Carmen Elcira up from her room after breakfast and took her to the Freedom Tower and to a regatta at Marine Stadium and to Parrot Jungle (“We have parrots like this in Panama!”) and to the estate at Vizcaya and to a Cuban restaurant called Versailles, where the waiters all knew him by name and asked after his father. At home, she had felt in charge of the world, but she found something nice about being here and feeling smaller, receding to the back and having someone else take charge.
Near the end of the week, Joseph drove Carmen Elcira to Coral Gables, down streets lined with the most-opulent homes she had ever seen or even imagined. He asked, “Which house do you like?” and Carmen Elcira, her heart in her throat, stayed quiet, gazing out the window, until she saw one, with stately white columns and a brick-laid driveway and a stone archway at the front, that suited her taste. Joseph idled the car at the curb. “That’s the one?” he asked, squinting at it.
“I like it,” said Carmen Elcira.
Joseph turned to her and took her hands. The radio was humming and the leaves of the banyan trees in the massive front yards swayed in the sun. “We can live in it if you want,” he said. “I’ll buy it and we can get married and we can live in it if you want.”
She looked him straight in his green eyes, his brown hair falling lazily into them. “OK,” she said.
Only two months later, a month after they were married, Carmen Elcira learned she was pregnant. How this could have happened, Carmen Elcira did not know. It wasn’t the mechanics of conception that baffled her, of course, but the fact that one passionless night, when they were both dizzy drunk on champagne from the wedding, had resulted, sure enough, in a baby. The only thing Carmen Elcira could presume was that Joseph’s father—whose primary concern in life, he had made clear, was that his son become a respectable, functioning member of society with a proper wife and house and family and job so that his golf companions would stop snickering about Joseph at the club—had prayed very hard indeed for the family part to start as soon as possible. For though Carmen Elcira found Joseph on the drums, or Joseph rattling a tambourine, or Joseph walking down the street, enough of a turn-on, Joseph in bed was not.
On their wedding night he had taken off his own clothes and, shyly, took off hers as well. He slid his string-bean body under a sheet and waited for her. She climbed in and, turning onto her side, rubbed her knee along his bare thigh, typed her fingertips atop his shoulder, let her dark hair fall across her breast, giggling all the while. When Joseph took her upper arms in his hands and pressed her down on her back, the pleasure of anticipation unfurled the length of her body. But then he got on top of her and, keeping his legs almost straight, his head up somewhere beyond her face, he guided himself, dry as bark, inside her and, as if he were doing a quick set of vigorous push-ups, his arms bent on either side of her, gave a few brief thrusts before he moaned and rolled himself back onto his side of the bed.
“What was that?” Carmen Elcira asked.
Joseph was quiet.
When he turned his face to her, she could see the fear in his eyes. “Was it bad?” he asked quietly. “I’m sorry, Carmen Elcira. I’ve never done it before. A buddy of mine gave me a movie of what it was supposed to look like. I was just trying to do that. Was it bad?” he asked again.
Carmen Elcira swallowed hard to keep herself from crying or from laughing, as both reactions were rising in her and she wasn’t sure which would surface first. Clearly, she would have to teach him a thing or two.
“We’ll try again soon,” she said.
In the hospital, after their baby boy was born, the nurse asked Joseph and Carmen Elcira if they had decided on a name.
“José Carlos,” Joseph said, speaking for them both. “My wife is Panamanian. José is ‘Joseph’—that’s my name—in Spanish. José Carlos Grindigger.” He smiled wide, and Carmen Elcira patted his hand approvingly. He had been so proud of the idea when he came up with it.
But when Joseph’s father arrived and Carmen Elcira, dozing in bed, listened to Joseph tell him the same thing, his father said, “You can’t name him that.”
“He’ll never be president of the United States with a name like that.”
Carmen Elcira raised her hand to protest, but before she could say anything, Joseph’s father urged him into the hall.
By the time they came back, the nurse had returned with the birth certificate to record the name. Joseph pulled the nurse into a corner and muttered something to her.
“But I thought—” the nurse started.
“What’s going on?” Carmen Elcira asked weakly.
“We’re just doing the paperwork,” Joseph said.
It turned out that by “paperwork,” Joseph actually meant he was assigning the baby an entirely different name: Woodrow Wilson Grindigger. When Carmen Elcira found out about it and confronted her husband, Joseph said, “Woodrow Wilson was a great president. Sure, he was a Democrat, but he grew up in Augusta, where my daddy is from.” When Carmen Elcira just stared at him, disbelieving, he went on. “I know what you’re thinking. And yes, it would have made more sense to name him Jimmy, I mean, since President Carter’s got his own Georgia ties.” He shook his head. “But my daddy hates Jimmy Carter.”
That was the moment Carmen Elcira decided she would have to leave. A man who could not get out from under his father’s thumb was no man for her, and he was surely no father for her son.
Two weeks later, Carmen Elcira told Joseph she wanted to take Woodrow to Panama to meet his abuelo. She asked politely if he would pay for a plane ticket. Joseph said he wanted to go, too, but Carmen Elcira insisted it was something she needed to do on her own. In his green Volvo, Joseph dropped Woodrow and her at the airport and wished them both safe travels, cupping his hand gently over the baby’s downy head. “I’m gonna paint the baby’s room while you’re gone,” he said.
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.