He came back when she wasn’t expecting him. There had been a mix-up at work, someone else was covering the shift, and he wasn’t due in till tomorrow.
She must not have heard the key opening the door.
Maybe it was the music.
Curious, leaving his coat draped over the sofa, he peered into the other room, through the open doorway, which seemed to frame her, like a painting, except that she was moving.
It was the sensual rhythm of salsa, which seemed to hold her body captive, strangely upright and rigid, except for the hips that had a kind of magic in them, which could not be overcome.
It was one of those well-structured Puerto Rican songs - romantic salsa - not the wild Afro-Cuban rhythms with the horns screaming like a lover about to climax, or the drums like the heartbeats of someone running away from a plantation.
It was not without brakes, this song, but somehow, something in its self-control was painful, as though there was an emotion, here, that you could not dance into oblivion. Something you had to face, just like Death, when the day is at hand.
The song was dripping with nostalgia, like secret nights you cannot tell anyone about, without revealing their own inadequacy or irrelevance.
At first, he wanted to tell her he was home. Then he thought, why should he?, she was bound to turn around in a minute and see him. Then he thought, if she did, she might be startled by his presence, even frightened for a moment. He thought he should quietly exit the apartment, and call her from the street, to tell her he was on his way back. But then, he simply fell into the trance of watching her dance.
Of course, he knew some Spanish. It was the natural product of an intercultural marriage, between a gringo and a latina. Now he could understand bits and pieces of her Grupo Niche and Jerry Rivera records, and she could say: "Dana, you wanna go play?" Dana was the child of a doctor and a lawyer who she took care of. She looked beautiful standing with the child. (He sometimes watched them playing together in the park.) She was so warm and caring with the kid, that sometimes people thought Dana was her daughter. But she wasn’t. And sometimes he hated that sparkling little kid, for receiving all the beauty and energy of Socorro’s sweet mothering, while her own womb remained silent and closed, like a bud killed by the frost of the world; while her own body’s clock ticked away, and poverty slowly killed the child they had always had in the back of their minds.
"I never promised to take you to Eden," the singer was saying, or something like that. "Only … [something about] … feeling good. But I said if I came back, it would be true love…"
He recognized the singer: Eddie Santiago.
And then, suddenly, something about the song ripped into him, like a slug from a .38. Right into his corazon. "Tu me haces falta - (I miss you) …" Over and over again, a voice smooth, yet somehow able to carry the pain, to feel it and bring it right out of the tape deck into the room. And her body was responding to the touch of his voice, like a woman responding when a man is loving her body, only it was in his embrace of pain that she was writhing. It was subtle, her dancing seemed outwardly the same, maybe it was by the way she moved her head for a moment, like a horse protesting against the reins, as it is being ridden to a place it does not want to go; or the way her body (except for the hips) stiffened, like it had just been given an electric shock. He thought of her cooking, and the way her hands, with the slightest motion, would break open bean pods to let the beans fall out. It was just like that, something almost invisible in her dance seemed to have broken open the place where her heart was hiding, and let it fall out, right in front of his eyes.
"Without you the nights are like a ghost, a punishment… I miss you. I miss you."
Who? he asked himself. What?
Was there some long-lost novio, some long-lost lover or suitor, someone like Michael Furey in Joyce’s story "The Dead"? The boy who died in the pouring rain outside Gretta’s window, before she became entombed in her life with Gabriel?
Or was it her country, her people? Or the dream everyone has, of being more than a beast of burden, more than a slave used to build someone else’s pyramid, and then left to die nameless in the sand?
Of course, she’d come to America to help them. - Her family. To the land of milk and honey. To the streets paved with gold. Planning to get a job, or find somebody, then send back everything she could.
Said one poet, who was criticized when his green card failed to dull the sharpness of his tongue: "No vine porque alla no sabiamos vivir. Vine siguiendo las dulces entran~as de mi pais…" More or less, that meant, "I didn’t come because we (Latins) don’t know how to live in our own land. I came, following the sweet guts of my country."
What did the poet mean?
He didn’t know for sure, but he had once heard that jeans that sold for $130 up here were produced by workers who made as little as 50 cents an hour down there. And he’d heard similar stories regarding bananas, sugar, coffee, and those beautiful blankets the indigenous women sometimes made. Maybe it had something to do with that?
Bewildered, he watched Socorro dancing, he saw the body he had first fallen in love with, when he had been Prince Charming, and given her her green card, which, he didn’t know then, was just like killing her.
"Estoy muy feliz, I’m so happy," she’d said on their wedding day, so long ago, still fresh from her country, before the years of grinding work, the bitter cold winters, the eyes of rejection every day telling her she was nothing, the pain of the neighborhoods that, trying to recreate home, only increased the loneliness, especially when the Christmas lights went up.
Once, he remembered them stopping by a store window in which there was a TV turned on. The late afternoon already seemed like the night, and his hands were in his coat pockets, and her hands were in hers. It was a replay of a boxing match between Roberto Duran and some gringo, and a bunch of Latins were gathered around the window, cheering him on, even though the fight had already taken place months before. "Knock him out! Knock him out!" they were yelling, in Spanish. "Tumbalo! Asi - Manos de Piedra es el rey!"
And he remembered her jumping up and down and cheering with the rest of them, all lit up like it was her birthday. The redemption, the triumph, none of them would ever have.
Once again, Eddie Santiago’s voice broke in with, "I miss you! I miss you!" And it pierced him, now, destroyed him.
"I’ve failed," he thought. "I became a part of this beautiful woman’s illusion. Once she lost the streets paved with gold, there was only me. And I was no more real than them."
Of course, he’d tried. But what good is trying without succeeding? It was his country, and he was the one who should have done something. Or was it his country? Maybe finding her was his way of trying to run away from it. But if that was so, he should have told her from the very beginning. He should never have deceived her, by wanting her so much.
"Without you - the nights are like a ghost, a punishment…"
Quietly, tears streaming down his face, he backed away from the room. Silently, he slipped back into his coat, and headed for the door. It was too painful to be here. Or perhaps just overcrowded. He would give her an hour, then call from the street.
As he began to quietly slip out the door, he heard the song stop for a moment, and paused, thinking maybe he had been discovered. But it was only her pushing the rewind button. In a moment, the song was on again, and the dance was resumed.
The dance he could not answer, or look in the face.
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