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Authors: Demetria Martinez

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BOOK: Mother Tongue
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P.S.: Take it from one who survived the ’60s. Assume the phone is tapped until proved otherwise

P.S. #2: And don’t go falling in love

A clairvoyant moment doesn’t make moving into the future any easier. If anything, it is a burden because one must forget what one has seen and move on, vulnerable as anyone. As we drove away from the airport in my blue pickup truck, shyness ground words to dust in my mouth. All that kept me from choking on silence was a sweet downpour of notes from a wood flute, a Cambodian wedding song on the university radio station. He was not a North American—nothing in his manner indicated awkwardness about silence. As I recall, he looked straight
ahead, watched the city break in two as we cut through it, driving very fast on the freeway. My Spanish was like an old car, parts missing or held together with clothes hanger wire, but it got me where I wanted to go. Scraping together some words at last, I asked this man who had fled his country, did the airline serve you peanuts or a meal? He said, both, but I couldn’t eat. He said, the movement of the plane made me nauseated, almost as sick to my stomach as the time I breathed tear gas at the funeral of a priest that death squads shot and killed as he lifted the communion host.

I’m not sure, twenty years later, that he used the words tear gas. I didn’t then know its Spanish translation and I don’t know it now. But for the sake of the story, tear gas will have to do. You see, I am good at filling in blanks, at seeing meaning where there may have been none at all. In this way I get very close to the truth. Or closer still to illusion.

Soledad died many years ago, but I have her letters. He, too, is dead, but I have a tape
recording of a speech he gave, the newspaper accounts of it, some love poems. El Salvador is rising from the dead, but my folder of newspaper clippings tells the story of the years when union members disappeared and nuns were ordered off buses at gunpoint, a country with its hands tied behind its back, crying,
stop, stop
. These and a few journal entries are all I have left to fasten my story to reality. Everything else is remembering. Or dismembering. Either way, I am ready to go back. To create a man out of blanks that can never wound me.

I said, we have to pick a name for you, one that you would answer to in your sleep. On the plane ticket you’re identified simply as A. Romero. I said that, or something like it, in Soledad’s kitchen where Zapata, Cuba, and Nicaragua libre posters stuck to her cabinets, postage stamps mailing her house through the twentieth century. The kitchen always smelled of Guatemalan coffee beans ground with almonds. Or sometimes the air was spiked with lime, tomatillo, and
cilantro that women mashed in a molcajete made of porous volcanic rock. Nameless women who appeared at night and rose with the heaving of garbage trucks to cook, to make themselves strong before North Americans bundled them off to other houses, further north. A. Romero and I sat at an oval oak table where newspaper articles that Soledad had clipped leaked out of manila folders. All the wars that passed through her house ended in a fragile cease-fire at this table, where plates of black beans and rice steamed as refugees rolled corn tortillas like cigarettes. This is where A. Romero and I lifted blue pottery mugs of hot coffee to our lips like communion chalices.

He said, Roberto, Juan, any name will do. I said, why not Neftalí, or Octavio? I wondered, why not pan for gold, for something weightier than the silt of ordinary names like Robert and John. He said, in my country names turn up on lists. Or in the mouths of army officers at U.S. embassy parties. A few drinks later, someone, somewhere disappears. Pick an ordinary name.

His eyes wandered away from me and into the living room on the other side of a white adobe arch encrusted with arabesque tiles. The house was a forest of flea market furniture that Soledad had coaxed to a sheen with strips of flannel nightgown. A tape player and cassettes of Gregorian chants were set on top of a black baby grand piano, its keys shining like the whites of eyes. A bay window of beveled glass framed the yard—elms, fresh stubble of Bermuda grass, roses flaring like skirts of flamenco dancers. Soledad lived in the Valley in a house made of terrones, blocks of earth cut a century before from the banks of the Rio Grande. Shadows of cottonwood leaves twitched on an adobe wall that marked off her quarter acre. The house looked like it had been cut out and assembled from pictures in architecture books Soledad piled on her coffee table—Islamic, Pueblo revival, Territorial, things made to last, solidities refugees could only dream of.

He said, any name you pick will do. I said, it’s not my place to decide. I believe I told him a
story then, a story I’d heard on the university radio station on the way to the airport. A Spanish expedition comes upon some Mayan Indians. The Spaniards ask, what is this place called? The Maya answer, uic athan, we do not understand your words. The Spaniards believe they have been told the place is Yucatán so they impose that name on the place, inflict it. Like Adam, they think God has given them the right to name a world. And the world never recovers.

He smiled, crescent moon, then pressed his mug to his lips as if to mold them back into proper form. Maybe I’m imagining things, maybe more time passed before we smiled back and forth. But everything happened very quickly, this is the amazing thing. From day one I looked for ways to graft a piece of myself onto him, to become indispensable. My gestures were perfectly timed, touching his hand, twisting my hair, excusing myself to touch up my lipstick—ordinary actions that would reverse the tides of my life as in the theories of physicists who say the dance of a butterfly can cause volcanoes to erupt.

Love at first sight, this is how I explained the urgency that would later shed its skin and reveal pure desperation. Some women fall in love in advance of knowing a man because it is much easier to love a mystery. And I needed a mystery—someone outside of ordinary time who could rescue me from an ordinary life, from my name, Mary, a blessing name that had become my curse. At age nineteen, I was looking for a man to tear apart the dry rind of that name so I could see what fruit fermented inside.

This is what happened back then to women who didn’t marry or have babies, who quit going to Mass. They begged to differ. They questioned their own names.

He picked the name José Luis.

Twenty years later, his name is a lens that allows me to see him as if for the first time. Five feet, five inches tall. Hair black as a pueblo pot. A scar above his right eyebrow, a seam sealing some old wound. His almond eyes were welcoming as windows open to spring, no screen, white curtain
fluttering. But the rest of his face, with its hard jaw and serious mouth, was boarded up like a house whose owner knows what strangers can do when they get inside. Alert and polite, he always looked for ways to be of help. Before long he would be making coffee, taping grocery lists to the refrigerator, feeding the cats. But attention to detail was also a spiritual exercise to divert demons of exhaustion, I’m sure of this now. He had the hands of a man who had picked coffee or cut sugarcane for forty years. I’m not sure when he told me he was twenty-nine years old. By then it was too late. I had already counted the tree rings around his eyes and fallen in love with a much older man.

We must have gone down to Soledad’s basement, must have heard steps creak as our soles adjusted the lower vertebrae of the house. But it is the smell I recall most clearly, the odor of damp earth, adobe walls maybe, or else just laundry swishing in the machine or hanging from a line that drooped above us like an eyelid. Red
chile ristras hung from a rib cage of pipes over the door to José Luis’s room. Dusty sunlight from an above-ground window touched down and lit up the objects in the room in a kind of still life: a bed with a blue Mexican blanket, chest of drawers, night table with lamp shade over a yolk of light, and a black pot blooming with dried chamisa.

He said, I don’t need much space, all I have are poems and a Bible. He pulled these out of a shoulder bag, put them on the chest of drawers. His face suddenly grave, he surveyed the bed as if he feared someone might be hiding beneath it. Soledad had left running pants and a Harvard T-shirt on the pillow with a note, “For Our Guest.” I translated it for him, only dimly sensing the depths of the conspiracy I was entering into, a pact to make him into someone else entirely. We were to shield him from the authorities by way of a fiction, a story that would obscure the truth rather than clarify it. It’s amazing, looking back, to think that a few miles away a law library had books that were filled with words like aiding,
abetting, transporting. Surely I knew the dangers. Yet surely wrongdoing was at the root of the thrill for a Catholic girl who had indulged in sex for the first time the year before, who had learned that breaking the law is a pleasure more poignant than sex itself.

Yes, from the very beginning I wanted him. In that time of my life, men were mirrors that allowed me to see myself at different angles. Outside this function, they did not exist. It was a supreme selfishness, the kind that feeds on men’s attentions, a void flourishing in a void. José Luis would have none of it. When desire flickered across my face, he extinguished it with talk about El Salvador, the civil war, death squads, landowners. His struggles were too large and unwieldy to be folded up and dropped into my palm like alms. In the end, I had no choice but to love him. Desire was not good enough. Love would ripen in the light of time we spent together, like an arranged marriage. Except that I was doing the arranging. And calling it fate.

Weeks or months after his arrival, he asked
me, do you want to know my real name? I said no. No. I feared the authorities. But even greater than fear was my need for him to remain a stranger, his made-up name dark glasses he must never take off. Because making love with a stranger is always good. Even if you’ve known that stranger for a very long time.

July, 1982

Let me be
the bridge,
those troubled
his eyes,
Let me be

He’s the most wonderful man I’ve ever met (and gorgeous too), this José Luis Romero. I swear to God the moment I laid eyes on him I knew he was The One. And it can’t be a coincidence—that he arrived on the scene just as I was
asking the universe whether or not there was more to life than just holding down boring jobs. I’d been so depressed. Now everything has changed. Still, I know I should slow these feelings down. Or else I’ll want to act on them—which always ruins everything. I’ve got to remember I can’t “make” anything happen beyond doing the footwork for some greater purpose that may be trying to manifest here. Maybe I’m supposed to just be his friend. Anyway, I don’t know anything about that awful war he fled. Maybe it’s better. He needs a friend who can just make him forget.

As for me, since he got here last week I have gotten up every morning feeling overjoyed. The usual guilt that bombards me whenever I wake up and try and enjoy my coffee while reading the classified ads has disappeared. I don’t care anymore—not about getting a job or setting a schedule. In the mornings I
actually enjoy choosing my clothes and putting on my makeup before driving to Soledad’s. This morning a volunteer has taken him to meet with a lawyer and so I’m just sitting here listening to Gregorian chants and writing in this blank book I bought yesterday. It’s like I’m going for longer and longer periods of time forgetting I’m depressed. Which maybe is a definition of happiness.

Unexpected things are happening to me. Like yesterday—I loaded up my truck with cans and wine and beer bottles, then went looking for the recycler’s on North Edith. I stopped to get gas. And for some reason the smell of gasoline brought back memories of springs past. On KALB they were playing every bad but beautiful ’70s love song you could imagine. Before I knew what was happening I got back in the truck and drove to Kmart on Candelaria. I had maybe five dollars in my jeans
pocket, but I couldn’t stop myself—I bought a black bra. The man hasn’t even kissed me yet. It was on sale. The blue light special. The store siren went off and I and all the other nuts pushing shopping carts attacked boxes full of bras that flapped around like crows as we grabbed them and held them up for size. I even bought nail polish (Aztec Red, 69 cents)—and this notebook.

Peace. Joy. Openness to the future. How else can I describe what I’m feeling except for the big “L” word, which I don’t dare say out loud. Because it’s like yelling fire in a theater. Men flee and my girlfriends say to me, you fool.

Postcard of Old Town, Albuquerque: eighteenth-century adobe plaza, shops with red chile ristras on doorposts like Passover blood, Native Americans selling jewelry under the portal in front of the cantina. The picture must have been taken after rain. The stucco surfaces of San
Rafael Catholic Church are the color of a bruised peach. The church is formidable, a battleship of adobe buttresses, dense walls and beams jutting around the top like cannons. A century ago an ancestor, Bernadina de Salas y Trujillo, helped make a soup of straw and mud to coat the church’s outer walls. This fact seemed important to remember whenever I began to fall in love. When the spinning began and desperation set in, I reminded myself I am the descendant of women who did something useful with their hands, who knew what really mattered was to help shape something that would outlast their lives and their loves.

I rented a 100-year-old house with mud walls dark as a wasp’s nest. It was across from the church, a few doors down from the cantina. Its walls were thick; I could sit in the low window frames of the living room or bedroom and watch the throngs of tourists. They were always taking pictures, an activity that reminded me of people who steal rocks from Indian ruins. I wondered if I would wake up one day and discover that Old
Town had disappeared. Before José Luis arrived, I often spent afternoons reading the Upanishads or the Tao Te Ching at the cantina, where a friendly bartender added wine to my orange juice at no extra cost. Like a homeopathic remedy, the dose acted on me in a way that was all out of proportion to its size. In a gesture of rebellion I mistook for dissent, I declared to myself that God could be found not just in a church but in a bar. I was nineteen, young enough to believe I had outgrown the walls of San Rafael Church. North American to the core, a consumer, I saw religion as a bazaar from which I could pick and choose. At the same time, I envied the women I watched leave morning and evening Mass, their faces wrinkled as ancient decrees. I wanted their faith, a massive doorway to stand under during life’s earthquakes.

BOOK: Mother Tongue
9.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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