Esperanza dug her toes deep into a mud patch at the edge of her backyard and the action made me want to crawl to her, lick her toes and soles, kiss her calf then her knee, pull the print dress out from in between her pinched, closed thighs, and bury myself into that other patch that was rough and lovely and engaged my daydreams there in the bushes where I hid nearly every day at noon. I shuddered from behind the chain-link fence that separated us, wishing myself dead.
Her husband, Aaron, was from Israel, Esperanza from Mexico. He spent days and nights at the university working to complete his doctorate in physics. She spent her time at home with her two daughters. According to Aaron, they’d met when he was a delivery boy for a market in Hollywood where she cashiered, both new to America. Neither of them had any blood family in the country. He loved her the moment he saw her -- for her, it took convincing. He liked to talk about how hard a time she gave him, how he won her over with his charm, with his persistence. But things lately…well, she wanted to go home, he said, and he couldn't fathom such a thing.
“The United States have streets of gold," Aaron told me one afternoon, "opportunity shines down on everyone. Science matters!”
“But she’s not a scientist, man.”
“She is married to one, Liam -- there is no difference.”
I thought Aaron’s obliviousness to his wife's wants was funny, something to mock, until I met Esperanza at the lab, until I started to watch her. Watching was easy as they lived next door to me. She was beautiful –- could be in the movies -– physically I was reminded of Sophia Loren, but the loneliness which emanated off of her reminded me of craggy trees in a dark wood tearing at skirts and sleeves and skin and hair and hearts.
Something caught her attention at her feet and she bent way down, showing the roundness of her rump. Her blue cotton dress, a plain one, lifted and revealed the backs of her knees. A toe nail had broken. She studied the remnant a moment before flicking it away. Turning, she watched her girls swing on swings that butted up against the porch of the Pasadena house. The corner of her mouth twitched into what was perhaps a smile at the play or a smirk at something private or an ironic laugh at being stuck in this house in a Californian, 1974, suburban forest.
I tried to retreat, to go back to my chore of cutting down the dead orange tree for the owner of the cottage I lived in, but I didn’t want to leave.
“Let’s have lunch!”
Sara, the older girl, had jumped off the swings, yelling her request, and Esperanza smiled more openly from her newfound relaxed position on the grass. She didn’t seem to want to move, looking lazy, but she had no choice with her daughter tugging her hand, urging her up. Esperanza was quiet, saying little. She trudged across grass littered with weeds, especially dandelions sprouting in between white, puffy seed heads. Long-time neighbors looked down their noses at the unkempt yard –- my landlord had mentioned it in passing -– but I liked them growing wild that way. Isa, the younger girl, was playing in the sandbox now, and Esperanza stopped a moment to offer lunch. A concrete sculpture of mushrooms and shells stood in the center of the sandbox. Nonsensical. Hours of play for the girls.
When they were gone, I leaned back against the fence and closed my eyes. I had work to do, pages and pages to type, responsibilities. Esperanza had her life to lead and babies to raise and a husband to love and support and the more I thought on it, the more I knew that I had to stop.
I moved towards the tree and lifted the axe, focusing on its weight as it swung through the air and split the bark, splinters flying.
Liam moved away from the fence, thinking I had not seen him, thinking perhaps the poor, uneducated Mexicana was too busy or too unaware or too dumb maybe to know he watched her whenever he wandered into the backyard of his rented cottage. Sometimes I posed for my watcher, bending over or opening my blouse and shaking the front flaps to air my heavy breasts. Sometimes I ignored him by not putting on make-up, or leaving my hair a mess, or wearing a stained apron.
I hadn’t made up my mind yet as to why he did it –- whether he hid in the bushes with dirty thoughts or whether he was shy like a schoolboy. Or both. Not that it mattered. I enjoyed knowing his secret and keeping it from Aaron. Why not? Aaron kept so much from me.
With the two girls trailing me, I walked onto the cement patio of the house we rented from the university. I opened the back door, taking one last glance at the yard, at the still-swaying swings, before closing out Liam. I breathed in the coolness of the bookish air. Our house was a curious blend of furniture used by generations of students, sophisticated walnut paneling, fantastical European castle turrets, and the smallness of 1920's housing. Our personal things were stuffed onto stark, metal bookshelves, squeezed into corners, and hidden in cupboards which needed paint. The back door opened onto a living room which opened straight away into a dining room we rarely used. To the left of the dining area were the bedrooms. To the right was the kitchen connected to a round breakfast room, windows running the periphery. It was from that circular room that I often watched the street and imagined the route back home, to Tijuana, where I once lived with my mother and sisters. Where my aunt Rita still lived.
Outside, I saw Liam trudging back to school, lugging a bag full of books and papers, his head bearing a downward cast. The girls had settled at the table in this round room, coloring, patient about lunch. I looked at the seams of my dress and my bare feet. I thought about his peering eyes. Walking into the kitchen, I hummed the tune of a corrido I remembered from my teenage years, a matter-of-fact tale about a bandido stealing the heart of woman, killing the husband dead in the cobbled main street of a puebla.
The chicken I'd made sat in a skillet drowning in a sauce of fresh tomatoes, oil and herbs. I scooped up a breast onto a plate, cut it into small pieces, and divided the bits into two smaller plates.
Only when the girls started eating did I think about him again. I wondered whether I should reveal to Liam the most private part of myself: my knowledge of him. Perhaps I could reveal this by an offer of lunch, or a smile directly at him, or maybe I should simply walk to the fence and say, “What do you want? What do you have…for me?”
No, not yet. I liked my secret far too much. I liked that Liam left his work to come watch me unlike Aaron who stayed and toiled and worked, hoping to uncoil the secrets of the universe. So admirable, so brilliant, so...above me, up with the stars and endlessness and God. This thing with my watcher was of the earth, real, current, dirty. My own secret was one Aaron made no effort to study.
“Look at my picture, Mama.”
Isa pushed aside her dish and grabbed the drawing she had made earlier, pushing it back and forth, a rainbow paper, swishing it across the lace tablecloth. A fish tank gurgled and two eyes of a pinkish kissing fish met my gaze.
“I see such beautiful colors,” I said to Isa as I cut too big a piece of the chicken filet into smaller pieces for Sarah who kicked her feet back and forth, making her body pop up and down in the seat. Her black hair fell silkily about her shoulders. When I finished, I touched the top of her head and kissed the center part in her hair, so warm against my lips. Glancing at Isa, I smiled at her hungry joy of cut tomatoes with a splash of lemon.
The phone rang and it was Aaron being kind and speaking in gentle tones dirty wishes in broken Spanish. I knew he was calling to tell me he couldn’t come home right now, perhaps not at all today. I told him the right way of saying what he wanted without any humor. I touched the glass of the fish tank, watched the kissing fish adhere to each other. Outside, cars drove by too fast and an ambulance screamed in the distance. The afternoon darkened, clouds drifting across the sun. I shivered suddenly.
Aaron said, “I won’t be there for lunch today, okay?” As I had predicted.
“I have food for you as you wanted,” I said, revealing only mild impatience. “You asked for it this morning. You wanted the chicken and cooked tomatoes especially.”
“I know but I’m doing some excellent work today. I don’t want to stop, I can't. Esperanza, this work is very important to me.”
“Yes, of course. I will see you later.”
“Kiss the girls. Tell them I love them. Bye.”
I said, “Bye,” long after he hung up. Replacing the telephone on its cradle, I considered calling my aunt in Tijuana, imagining for a moment the kitchen there, the scent of mangos in a basket waiting to be splayed open and eaten, the sweet juice covering my cheeks. No -- we didn’t have the money for purposeless phone calls. There had to be reason for it. I retreated into the kitchen.
A clock ticked on the countertop and I washed the pan, staring through the window at birds of paradise which poked upwards from their green spread of tropical leaves. When I first moved to Pasadena with Aaron from our small apartment in Hollywood, I was surprised to see this flower growing like the dandelions did in the yard –- free, commonplace, and often planted without consideration –- the plant cramped tiny side yards, overstuffed the ends of planters, blocked the front windows of houses. Left wild, they grew into ugly, massive spreads. The flowers took my breath away, though, the orange and blue petals bursting out of their green sheaths, so anxious to show themselves off. They lasted, too, weeks they preened before dying, mottled and ruined.
A dish slid across the countertop and Isa ran away, the door to the porch slamming shut. Sarah took careful steps towards me. Asked, “Are we going to the park today?”
“We have to go to the market. We will walk there and we will have fun.”
She smiled with a kind of knowing in her eyes. Much like Aaron. Sometimes I felt as if I was peering into the face of an equal rather than that of my young daughter.
“I’ll tell Isa,” she said softly before leaving.
When I finished cleaning, after picking the remains off the girls’ dishes with my fingers, after scooping the chopped, cooked tomatoes out of the serving dish and eating it all, I allowed myself to think of Liam. Wondered what sort of meal I could prepare for the hiding schoolboy. Wondered if he was studying in the college laboratory or adrift in wrongful thought. Standing over the sink, grasping the edge of the countertop, I practiced saying, “Would you like to eat a lunch with me?” Three times I said it.
Taking a breath, I blew at an imaginary dandelion and turned to see my reflection in the bathroom mirror, nearby. The woman there was tall with long, dark hair pulled into a tight pony tail. Her eyes were cat-like, her cheeks high. Her curves created a perfect eight in shadows.
Like Snow White, I thought, you are lost in a forest unfamiliar, waiting for something magic to take away the fear. Perhaps it’s not a schoolboy in the bushes but a hunter waiting to tear her heart out or a Prince. I knew the story well, having read it to the girls, having gone a tour of the story at Disneyland. I had careened through the make-believe cave, holding onto little Sarah, horrified. How could such a fright be a child’s movie, a child’s entertainment?
At that moment, I thought of a menu. Yes, we’d have albondigas, soup with meatballs and vegetable, secrets out in the open, lying against an eager tongue. The kind of lunch you would want when finally reaching a cottage after a terrible panic, clean and safe and familiar.