The first time was when he bought the used car which he would drive for the next decade, at nineteen. As soon as he arrived at his house after having finalized the transaction and showed it to his family, and as soon as his grandmother had gone back to her telenovela after congratulating him, and his brother back to the phone, stuck talking to his girlfriend, Bimbo went into his room, put a bathing suit on under his jeans, threw two towels into his backpack, got into the car, and descended, alone, from the mountains of Caguas, where three generations of his family still lived. He went alone in his new-but-old Toyota Corolla without air conditioning and with the windows down and the radio tuned to the only English music station that reached them up there. He felt nervous. It was 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.
“Could you take a picture?” the girls ask, and I jump up from the bench outside the candy store and check they are all here, all thirteen. I am pleased they want a picture together, considering their history, which is fraught and filled with ugliness.
This is their Senior Trip. We’ve only been off the ferry for two hours, and the girls have spent most of that time weaving in and out of the gift shops on Main Street, finally emerging with a concerning excess of commemorative merchandise.
For the picture, they dress in their loot, rummaging through shopping bags to pull off tags and tug new items over their regular clothes—ball caps and sweatshirts and long-sleeved T’s, Put-in-Bay scrawled over the front in block letters or cursive or cartoon fonts, accompanied by graphics of anchors and lifesavers and compasses, in theme with this Lake Eerie Island off the coast of Sandusky, Ohio. The clothing is boxy and not particularly attractive, but the girls sell it because they are masters at posing. “Smile!” I say, and they throw up their arms and jut out their shoulders and squeeze at their waists. They embrace. They grin with their whole faces, which are fresh and round with youth. Posing, they look happy, and this makes me happy. I tell myself that I am seeing their true selves. “Another one!” I say. “Another!”
The hole is behind the headboard. We opened it some time ago. I couldn’t say exactly when we became aware of the weariness lurking around us, maybe eight years ago. It lasted for hours, sometimes for days. Then it disappeared. During those anxious periods, we didn’t know what to do. It’s a horrible feeling. You can’t stand being with that person any longer. It’s not boredom in the strict sense of the word. Intolerance, perhaps. Everything annoys you. The way they click their tongue, the unexpected smile, the wrong word said at the wrong time, the obsequious caress. Even the things that you thought were funny before seem unbearable now. It may be the cumulative effect, a friend said. A sort of allergy—you stuff yourself on your favorite food until one day your body says: Enough! You break out in red spots, itching and sweating, which only makes it worse. Just like that. Too much of a good thing, I say. One day we looked at each other and we couldn’t take it anymore—I was fed up with him, and he with me—and we searched for a solution.
The sunlight filtered through the window of our cafe. Golden sweet, it wove around the trees, the garden, over the stage, through the window and onto the railroad tie floor. I didn’t mind sweeping, because I got to dip my feet in it.
There was music on, and in the late spring air, it sounded perfect. Gram Parson’s Brass Buttons. Like it was made for right there right then, even though we all knew it was made a long time ago, back when parents were young and happy and we were only a microscopic part of them.
I walk along the sidewalk, my little dog tugging at her leash. The snow has begun to melt; water gathers in puddles and darkens the leather of my boots. The sun breaks over the roofs of houses across the street and the wet tree branches gleam. A sun too hot for January, but beautiful. The neighborhood is quiet and empty. I sniff the air.
I went out the back door, across the marble terrace and down into the garden, as I had done so many times before. I looked up at the two windows I had calculated as belonging to the locked room. There was nothing to see. As always, they were covered with blackout paper. Nothing had changed. Walking back and forth, I studied all of the protrusions on the back wall: window frames, downpipes. I couldn’t see any way of climbing up without a ladder. It wasn’t even possible to reach them from the window of another room.
My wife pointed out the willow tree on move-in day. The branches draped over a hill as round as my wife’s belly at seven months. We’d traded a West Coast high-rise for an East Coast village where the only thing to wake our baby would be other babies. We came to the city in our youth. And we left for our youth.
The sea had depressed Huda ever since she was a schoolgirl, bent eagerly over a drawing of a Phoenician princess walking with her prince beside the sea, while their dog played with a shell. The creature that lived in the shell had dyed the dog’s mouth a purple color that clashed with the blue sea. She had written below the picture, ‘The color purple was discovered in the city of Tyre. Tyre is a Phoenician city situated on the Mediterranean Sea, like Beirut.’ Then she took her crayons and gave the prince and princess the most beautiful clothes, and colored the world around them like rainbows mingling with the blue of the sea, but instead of being happy that she had finished her homework, she felt a pain, different from when she had a toothache or grazed her knee: it began in her throat and descended into her belly, because the world and the colors she had drawn on the sheet of paper were what she longed for, unlike her house, empty of color and pictures and music. The pain attacked her throat and she felt as if she was suffocating because she would never walk by the sea like this prince and princess and their dog, never set eyes on its blueness or the lovely colors of the prince and princess’s clothes except in her dreams, and only then if she dreamt in color and not in black and white as usual.
Regardless of how it turned out, the situation certainly demanded a courageous decision. I could no longer bear the chaos that had spread to all areas of my life—a life that I was constantly striving to keep in the best possible state of order.