You Are a Strange Imitation of a Woman
The AC broke overnight, so me and Dolores are sharing a fan between our attached desks. We’re also sharing a bunch data entry, so that we can make Tuesday Happy Hour at Bruno’s, although I’m not feeling super up to it, because they weighed me at the gyno this morning, and I wanted to die. Going to the gynecologist always makes me wonder why anybody would want to fuck me, which is what I tell Dolores.
“Frances,” she says, from behind her computer. “You said that very loudly.” Then she points at Carrie the office manager who’s flirting with the CEO by the soda machine.
I lean across our attached desks. I tell her, “Listen. Dolores. Who cares?”
“I care,” she says and then, just like that, turns back to her computer and starts typing.
“You care too much.”
Every night Dolores cleans her desk with a wet wipey, then tilts the keypad towards the floor so she can spray the crumbs away with a can of air – this for a bunch of people who don’t even look at her when they walk into the room. Don’t even say good morning, which is what I’ve been trying to explain to Dolores, without sounding ungrateful, because she got me this job two months ago, and I don’t want her to think I hate it. Even though I do.
But I will not let Dolores be duped. It is important that she discover the truth.
“How long have you been working here?” I ask.
“A long time, Frances,” she says, not bothering to look up, her plastic nails click clacking on the keyboard.
“But how long?”
Dolores stops typing and then counts. “Since before Adam,” she says – Adam who is her son in kindergarten.
“And how much do you make?” I ask her, which is a dangerous question I admit, nonetheless necessary.
“I thought you cared. You’re the one that cares. Aren’t you?”
“It’s none of your business,” she says, even though already we’ve discussed her salary various times.
“I’m trying to make a point,” I tell her.
Now, whenever Dolores gets sarcastic, it makes me feel like the both of us are not very close at all. So, I type loud and slow in order to make her laugh, but she doesn’t. “Dolores, how old are we?”
She sits there quiet, and I slam my fist on our attached desks, making our shared cubicle
tremble. “Thirty-seven, woman.” I count from 1999 to 2010 on my fingers. “You’ve been working here eleven years, and you make about three thousand more dollars than what you did when you started. That bitch,” I point to Carrie, “is twenty-six, just started last year and makes fifteen thousand dollars more than you.”
This is Carrie who doesn’t know how to use the fax machine or how to turn a document into a PDF or how to scan the invoices into the computer or even how to call the building manager so that we can use the freight elevator for deliveries. Although this woman is manager of the office, she does not actually know anything about managing the office, and everything she does not know, she makes me and Dolores do.
“If you are so dissatisfied, Frances, you should consider finding a new job.”
“You find me a new job,” I tell her.
“I’m going to find you a husband.”
“Find yourself a husband.”
“I’ll find us both husbands,” she says.
“I don’t want one.” And for a moment, underneath the fluorescent light, I can’t see Dolores’s eyes behind her glasses. “You know what I’ve been thinking about lately?”
Dolores peeks at me from behind her computer. “What?”
“You and my brother Carlos,” I say, because it’s a thought I’ve been having for a long time – to hook up the two greatest people in my life and make the whole bunch of us family.
“Absolutely not,” Dolores says.
“You could name that baby after me!” In my head I smash Carlos’s and Dolores’s faces together. I try to picture her long nose above his fat chin and them calling that poor girl Frances. “Frances, the Second.”
“Lord no,” Dolores says. “Stop it.” But she’s smiling and you can tell she’s sort of considering it.
“Think about it – that’s all I’m saying,” I tell her.
Then she emails me an old invoice just to upset me, on purpose. “You formatted it wrong.” Dolores points to the soda machine. “Carrie will be furious.”
“Most likely,” I say. “It doesn’t take much.”
Then I staple something loudly.
At Bruno’s, Dolores will not go outside with me to smoke a cigarette. Because Adam has asthma, she says. She thinks the smoke will cling to her blouse. She thinks Adam will smell it tonight when Adam’s father Ralphy drives up to the apartment and transfers Adam’s sleeping body into her arms. She’s scared Adam will wake up and start coughing. She’s also trying to teach me a lesson. “You’re too old to be acting like we’re sixteen,” she says. “Besides, it’s hot.”
So, outside I smoke alone.
And as a result this is what happens next: I’m standing there. minding my own business, and the skinny Dominican who works at the front desk at the building next to ours comes up to me and says, “What you doing out here alone…beautiful?” Which is the part that really upsets me – the way he says beautiful sort of as an afterthought.
Now, Tuesday happy hours are the only time Dolores can get Adam’s father to take care of him for the night. Then after work, we can hobble to Bruno’s to sit down, relax and drink one three-dollar martini after another in order to understand the reality of things, how we really feel, aka the world. As a result, I’m not trying to hear nobody’s bullshit – which is basically what it is, this guy coming up to me. I’m wearing a pair of size ten JCPenny slacks from 2004, and I haven’t even buttoned them. Because I can’t. I’m a size 14.
So I tell the Dominican who’s got a face like a pit bull’s, narrow eyes and a wide mouth, “I know what I look like.” Then I go inside and sit next to Dolores, who’s texting Adam’s father fiercely.
“Ralphy left Adam with his mother, instead of taking care of him his goddamn self,” she says, then bangs the table with the cell phone.
Now, this is a common problem that Dolores has. Even if somebody else is taking care of Adam, all she can think about is Adam. And I’ve known Adam’s father Ralphy since all three of us were kids, smoking on top of Dolores’s roof, looking at the rest of Brooklyn. And Ralphy’s mother is a nice old Puerto Rican lady, who feeds you and feeds you and feeds you – much more reliable than Ralphy, who’s thirty-six and smokes weed like he’s still fourteen. So, to me, the grandmother’s a much better babysitter.
But I don’t tell Dolores this, because I understand that when you got a son and you take care of him with every inch of your day, and the father don’t do shit, you have a right to be upset, even if those things don’t make sense to be upset about.
“From the very beginning.” Dolores stabs the table with her pointer finger. “The very beginning.”
I shrug and nod at the same time. “Every year it gets harder for me to love somebody new!”
Dolores shakes her head as if I don’t get it. “Me, I’m simple. I’ve loved the same people I’ve loved my whole life.”
Back home at the apartment, I throw my purse on the floor and run through the hallway to Carlos’s room, quietly. Very quietly, I open the door. At this time of night, he’s only a crumpled mountain of blue sheet snoring. A soft, fuzzy blanket of man. Behind the bed, through the window you can see cars splash through the wet street, filling the room with the sound of cars braking and then beginning again.
“Carlos,” I say until he sits up and raises a fist in the air as if he were about to fight off an intruder.
“Jesus, you,” I say. “Jesus, Jesus!” I punch the air, then run to the bed and try to grab his fat face, but Carlos pushes me away.
“Go,” he says, pointing to the door.
“I want to talk to you. I have an idea,” I say.
But then he springs up from the bed and manhandles me out the room, sort of like Bam! Fuck Frances. Just like that. A game of push my old ass out the door. I smack him on the back of his gleaming head, my poor little brother, thirty-four-years old, already going bald. “What’s the matter with you?”
He rubs the part of his head that I struck to show me how much it hurts.
“See,” I say, “that’s what you get.”
“Out, Frances. Out.” He blocks the door.
“Little brother,” I tell him. “I am not a dog. I am not some puppy. You cannot just shoo me away.”
I shove him so I can get back into the room, but Carlos has always been so much stronger than me. Even when we were little kids. That boy was born big. The doctors had to pry his big cranium from between my mom’s legs. So when Carlos pushes me, I slide out of the room, which makes it necessary for me to strategize. I know if I put my arm against the doorframe, he won’t close the door on it because we’re both grown-ups, and we haven’t seriously hit each other since we were kids.
“Please, Frances. I’m really tired and you’re really drunk,” he says, which hurts.
“I’m trying to make a point.”
Carlos sighs and opens the door so I can come in. He turns on the light and points to an old wicker chair from the Salvation Army, a heavy-ass chair that I dragged home down Bay Street for him last year, all by myself. “Go ahead.”
So I sit. I touch a part of my leg where the pants feel like they’re about to rip. Through the slacks I can feel some new piece of cellulite growing beneath the skin. Carlos is sitting on the bed, his hands sliding down his forehead, his eyes, his chin, leaving a trail of fingerprints where blood has rushed to the surface.
“I’ve been thinking about you and Dolores. I was thinking maybe you call her and ask her out for a drink.”
“As a personal favor to me, your only oldest sister,” I say.
Carlos lies down and turns his back to me, but I can tell he’s sort of considering it, the same way that Dolores was sort of considering it at the office. “Can I go to sleep now? Can I go to sleep now, Frances?”
“Sure!” I tell him.
Then Carlos calls out suddenly from the bed, “Frances, you took your meds, right?”
“How kind it is little brother for you to think about my health.” This kid!
Carlos sits up in bed now angrily, even though two seconds ago he was so tired. Now, the man is animated. “Frances!”
“I don’t respond to shouting.”
“Did you take your meds?”
“Yes. I took them. Of course,” I tell him, even though it’s not true, because that stuff turns you brain into a sponge, and the pills are more fattening than a box of donuts. And this year, I don’t care, I’m going to lose twenty-five pounds – fuck lithium. I get up from the chair and try to make a quick exit out the room. “Dream about her,” I tell him.
“Dream about Dolores.”
To convince Carlos is easy. Dolores is the one who’s going to be the pain in the ass. In the morning, I look at her, this woman I’ve known all my life, trying to figure out how to convince her to fall in love with Carlos.
Dolores has always been about status. Even if it was just some boys in middle school and the whole bunch of us were broke, she’d look at them like: whoever was the loudest or whoever could fuck someone up the most that was the kid she loved. Even looking at Ralphy, you can sort of see it – the same pattern. After all, he was the funniest kid in school, and nobody was ever able to put him down without Ralphy verbally laying that kid out. In any case, Dolores likes her guys to be really good at something. No matter what it is.
“Carlos was almost a doctor,” I say, because in college, before he dropped out, he’d been pre-med.
“Carlos is a cop,” Dolores says, munching on something orange and delicious looking packaged in a loud crinkly bag.
“Yes, Dolores. Carlos is a cop. But he was almost going to be a doctor.”
“Then why didn’t he become a doctor?”
“That’s not the point,” I say.
“What is the point?”
Then Carrie passes by, and we become mum, like female robots, which Dolores is the best at. You should see that woman frowning while she examines a receipt. When Carrie disappears into the elevator, me and Dolores simultaneously put down whatever paperwork we were staring at. Then it’s back to the point which was: “Carlos is a smart guy, and he’s got a lot to offer.”
Dolores says nothing, as the fan hiccups and rotates between us.
“Can I have one of your potato chips? Are those potato chips?” I ask.
“Can I please have a piece of that orange poison, Dolores?”
She places the bag neatly on my desk. The print says Gourmet.
“These are expensive chips, Dolores. Where’d you get money like that for these pricey potatoes?”
She says nothing.
So, I tell her, “I can see that I am getting nowhere with this conversation, which is unfortunate for you, because I am telling you right now that my brother is a catch.” Then I look at her from behind my computer and stick out my tongue.
Because I am on a diet, for lunch I only smoke four cigarettes outside our building. I watch all the other secretaries and lawyers and bankers and big bosses sweat in Times Square. On the fourth cigarette, the Dominican from the bar last night comes up to me and asks if he can bum one. He’s wearing a uniform, a blue blazer with too-long sleeves and a little gold badge that says Miguel.
“This is my lunch,” I say, lifting the pack of Newports.
"Give me a cigarette, and I’ll buy you lunch,” he says.
“Take that lunch money, and buy yourself a pack of cigarettes.”
“Can I talk to you? I can’t talk to you?” He looks at my dangling ID card. “I can’t talk to you, Frances?”
“You can talk.”
“Let me take you out somewhere nice,” he says. “I know a nice place you’d really like.”
My fourth cigarette is done, so I throw it on the sidewalk. A man in a blue suit holding yellow flowers runs up to Miguel’s building. Immediately Miguel straightens his back, smiles at the man and opens the door, letting the air conditioner blast between us. Once the guy is gone, Miguel slumps and shoves his hands into his pockets, looking from side to side as if itchy with a joke, the way boys used to do when they were young in a crowd, thinking of a way to make everyone laugh.
“So?” he says.
“So, what?” I tell him. “So, nothing.”
“Think about it. That’s all I’m saying.”
Before I run across the street, back to work, I tell the Domincan no.
But you can sort of tell I’m considering it.
Further uptown, there’s this fancy supermarket that Dolores likes to go to after work, because nothing in that store is ever rotten, and the cashiers there treat you with respect. I’m in the vegetable aisle looking at a box of expensive peppers, and skinny old Dolores is bent over the tomatoes frowning. She’s got the Gucci purse she bought thirty-three percent off at Macy’s dangling between her forearm and elbow, and she’s sniffing the vegetables like a daschund.
“Smile at the tomato, Dolores. You’re getting permanent wrinkles.”
“Fuck you,” she says, bending over the tomatoes again, as new veins bulge from the back of her knees like green fingers.
Outside, me and Dolores have to sprint in the rain to the subway, before we go our separate ways. Then it’s half an hour until she gets to Brooklyn. And at least an hour for me to reach the Island.
In the terminal, I keep away from the crazies camped out by the bathroom, where there’s this meth head named Pam who likes to scream in the morning on the platform for the R train to “fucking come.” Sometimes she’ll sit next to random people in the terminal and introduce herself. “Hi, my name is Pam,” she’ll say, then slide down the bench to whoever-it-is, until she’s practically sitting on top of them.
She’s standing by the bathroom now, asking people for cigarettes as everybody else crowds by the glass doors waiting for the boat to dock. When the doors slide open, we trample onto the boat like a herd and wait as the ferry glides across the Hudson.
At home, the apartment is humid and empty. It is a Wednesday, which means no Carlos till two in the morning. But there is evidence of him all around the kitchen. Dishes are drying on a piece of towel paper. Cereal boxes have been put away. He’s tried again for the fifth time this week to scrub a round stain of wine from the table. The sponge he used and the stain are still damp.
In the living room, I balance a plate of day-old Chinese food on my lap while looking at the TV. Just looking at it. Never turning it on, I feel an overwhelming urge to talk. Maybe call Dolores. Though I have nothing to say. Besides it’s midnight, I think. Her and the kid are probably knocked out in bed. I’d wake them.
I wash the plate. Then I walk around the table until I get the idea to fall asleep.
In bed, I spend two hours blinking.
Turns out I should have called Dolores. She’d been awake all night taking care of Adam till one in the morning because of his asthma. When the inhaler didn’t help, she called Ralphy, who was stuck working till three in the morning. She took a cab to Woodhull Hospital and waited two hours in the lobby with Adam, who’d fallen asleep on her lap, by the time the doctor called her. “Pues, what the fuck. Why did I even come, you know? Ten dollars on a cab for nothing. That’s why I hate the ER,” she tells me on the phone, as she runs to the train.
She’s an hour late, and I’m typing up some of her invoices so she doesn’t fall behind. But I have to hang up on her mid-sentence because Carrie comes by just then, clicking to our desks, then stops and stares at Dolores’s empty seat.
“You need something?” I ask.
“Where’s Dolores?” Carrie says, straightening her back, trying to sound authoritative in a way that almost makes me feel sorry for her. Like when I see her in the break room, sitting at one of the round tables alone, eating her yogurt quickly and staring at her phone, while all the other secretaries crowd in the corner and laugh at each other’s jokes.
“In the bathroom,” I tell her. “You need something?”
Then Carrie lifts her chin and walks away.
Twenty minutes later, it’s Dolores running into the office.
“You were in the bathroom,” I tell Dolores.
“Right.” She untangles her purse from a Century 21 bag full of paperwork. “Boy. That Dominican loves you. He practically followed me upstairs.” She wipes the sweat on her neck away with a Kleenex. “He was smoking outside when I came in, and then he was like, Hey, your Frances’s friend right? I said, Listen, guy, I’m late. Then he opens the door for me and goes, Tell Frances I miss her.”
“He’s not bad looking.” She wrestles with the computer to turn the modem on, then nods at Carrie’s office. “What did I miss?”
“Nothing. She walked around the desk a couple of times and farted.”
Dolores raises one hyper-arched eyebrow at the computer screen as it beeps ON. “I had to go all the way to Flatbush to drop Adam off with Ralphy’s mom.”
“Good choice,” I say.
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“Better Ralphy’s Mom – than Ralphy.”
Dolores adjusts the fan.
“I gave the Dominican your number,” she says, obviously just to piss me off.
“Because he likes you. What’s wrong? If he was an asshole, you’d love him,” she says,
which is true. I’ll give her that. I’ve always been like that with assholes: Look. Here I am. Love me, I’d say, since I was fourteen-years-old.
All of a sudden, Carrie pokes her head out of her office shouting, “Dolores!” Real loud, in front of everyone to embarrass her, on purpose. The other secretaries turn their heads towards our cubicle, ready for a show.
“Coming,” Dolores says and then cringes. She’s smoothing her skirt and wiping sweat away from the back her neck.
“You were in the bathroom,” I remind her.
But it’s no use. Dolores does not know how to lie. So, I stand up and tell Carrie, very professionally, “Listen. She was in the bathroom. Okay?”
Then Carrie gives me this look like, Who the fuck are you? So that I’m thinking, Wait, who am I, lady? Who am I? Who are you? Then little Miss Dolores, turns around and looks at me sharply, putting her finger on her mouth and tells me to shush. As if I wasn’t the one defending her. As if I was the one who was wrong.
Outside, during lunch, I am accosted by the Dominican, who wordlessly offers me a cigarette.
“Great. I no longer own the privacy of my own lunch breaks,” I say.
“You know, soon you’re not going to be able to smoke out here. Bloomberg’s going to ban smoking in public places.”
“Fuck if I care.”
“Oh, well. How are you today?” he asks, as a string of cars honk behind him in unison.
“I heard my friend gave you my number. Stop accosting my friends,” I shout over the noise.
“See, even your friend thinks we’re a good idea.”
“She has poor judgment. You should see the types of guys she thinks are good ideas.”
Miguel squeezes out a thin line of smoke between his lips and begins to whistle an old Spanish song that sounds so familiar it feels like I’ve known it my whole life, except I can’t remember what it’s exactly about, only that some parts are about love and the rest of it is just some old sound I can’t put words to.
When he stops whistling, I clap, like a good audience. “What else can you do?”
“Poems. Ballads. Sonnets,” he says.
“Really.” He lifts his right hand. “I swear.”
“Let’s hear it then.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think you’re ready for it.”
Then Miguel straightens his shoulders. “Ahem…. Fuck does Bloomberg care/About my public health and/ Not when cops beat me.” He grins. He bows.
“You like that?”
“Ridiculous,” I say. “Stop bowing. It’s embarrassing.”
“That’s a haiku,” he says. “A haiku for Frances.”
Upstairs, I tell Dolores that fine, she’s won. I’m going out with the Dominican Saturday, to which she says, “Don’t wear that shirt with the gold sequins.”
On my way home, sitting outside on the boat, I inventory the piles of clothes in my closet: a couple of bridesmaid dresses, work pants, an old uniform from my former job at the pharmacy. Crazy Pam comes out just then, fighting as usual with this guy I nicknamed Skeletar once because his face looks like it’s dripping away from his skull.
“I will eliminate you,” he says to Pam. “I will shove you in to the water. The flora and fauna will eat your brain.”
One of the ferry workers, a skinny 20-year-old red faced kid, follows them, as he radios the cops. Pam poises herself over the rail. “Do it. I dare you,” she says.
The pitch in Skeletar’s voice rises to that of a woman’s now, and Pam is imitating him, as one of the ferry cops coaxes her off the rail. I stay looking at them, through a pair of sunglasses, so that they can’t tell.
Sometimes I just like to hear the both of them scream.
Saturday, Carlos pokes his nosy head in my room. “What’s happening in here, viejita. You moving out? Why you got clothes all over the floor?”
“I’ve got a date,” I tell him.
“Hohoho,” Carlos says.
“Is it that hard for you to believe little brother that I am a desirable woman?”
He sits on my bed, holding a whole bag of barbecue chips and puts a two-liter bottle of soda on the floor. “Not at all.”
In the mirror, my chichos bloom over the top of my jeans. From the back of the closet I pull out a blouse with all these gold sequins.
“Oh, dear,” Carlos says.
“That shirt just gave me a headache.”
“This?” I tell him. “This is nice. Your problem is you have no taste.”
“Please.” He stretches out on the bed. “You got that shit twenty-percent off at Bang Bang,” he says, crunching a handful of chips.
“Can you go?” I tell him. “You can’t go? You’re stinking up my room and I need to concentrate on tweezing my eyebrows.”
“Hohoho,” says Carlos. “Excuse me, Miss Thang.” On purpose, he stands and swipes the crumbs off his sweats onto the bed.
“I could hurt you.”
“Just not too much make-up,” he says.
I lower the tweezer and look at his reflection in the mirror, “What do you mean not too much make up?”
“You just have a habit of putting on too much make up, and then it makes your whole face look, you know, kind of crummy.”
“Crummy?” I tell him. “You need to get your fat ass out my room. That’s what you need to do.”
“Like a peacock,” he says as he exits. “A forty year old peacock.”
“I’m thirty-seven,” I shout, as Carlos bangs the door shut.
On my way to meet Miguel, there’s this European family on the ferry. We’re all sitting on the deck, and the father’s giving the kids bread so they can feed the seagulls. One aggressive bird keeps swooping down, almost biting the three-year-old. And the mother’s saying something angry to the father in some type of Scandinavian language that sounds like, “What the fuck – you let the three-year-old feed the seagulls?”
I’m sitting there watching the woman curse her husband out when, all of a sudden, I hear, “Hey. Thanks for saving this seat for me.” The voice crackling like a crumpled paper bag.
I look up, and it’s Pam, wearing twenty different types of plastic bracelets, like she’s fifteen-years-old going to a rave. So, I pick my purse up, then shuffle along the bench closer to the tourists, hoping that she’ll bother them instead of me. I even sort of point at the father and wink at her.
Instead, Pam slides down the bench until her thighs touch mine. “Let me tell you something, lady.” She leans over and touches the sequins of my shirt as if she were petting a snake. “You are a strange imitation of a woman.” One of her nails snags briefly on the edge of the blouse.
“Don’t touch me,” I say, moving down again, a few feet.
“So, you’re too good to sit next to me, huh?” she says.
“Not at all. I just wanted to give you a little room.”
Pam stands up and walks over. “I didn’t ask for no room.”
Which puts me at a predicament, because I can no longer ignore her.
“You deaf?” she says, startling the family of tourists feeding the seagulls. The mother pulls one of her babies towards her.
Then Pam grabs my hand, pushing her thumb into the forearm, squeezing. I stand up and tell her: “Bitch, you want to box?”
Then she lunges forward.
But I push her, just in time, so that she falls on this man, spilling his coffee all over the floor. I tell her, “I’m fifteen types of crazy, lady. Just try me.”
Pam stands up and grins, her face lit like a white jack-o-lantern. “Do it again.”
Everyone on the boat is watching us now, and not one of them is a cop, which is real fucking convenient. Black kid from the Bronx leaves his apartment at night, there’s five cops waiting to check to see if he has his ID, what he’s doing on such and such block, if it is true, in fact, that he has weed in his pocket. Methhead jumps me on the boat, and not a single one of them is around.
“Stay away from me.” I put my hand out. “Pam. I’m serious.”
“You wait till we get off this boat,” she says.
“I’m serious,” I tell her, walking backwards slowly, till she turns away.
Outside, I sit on the other side of the boat and watch the beginning of Manhattan, the different dark pieces of Battery Park. Every now and then, when someone opens the door to sit outside, I can hear Pam still talking to herself about the things she wants to do to me.
The last time a guy took me out was a year ago – Frank from Brooklyn, this half-Lebanese, half-Italian guy from Bensonhurst, who I’d been seeing for a couple of months until his wife Nicole called me on his cell phone, asking if I knew that he was married.
“Yes, Nicole, I know that Frank is married,” I said. I was using the house phone in the living room, so Carlos heard me. When he poked his head out from the kitchen, I put Nicole on speaker. “So that you can better hear, Mr. Nosy.”
Then the lady went crazy, telling me about what she was going to do, if she ever found me talking to him again and about how Frank was hers, she said. “He belongs to me!”
“Nobody belongs to anybody,” I said, and then I hung up.
Still, that night I went to bed feeling fucked up, and in the morning I called Frank and I told him, “I don’t think I want to see you anymore.”
For a little bit, I was proud of myself. I quit smoking. I bought everything diet. Me and Carlos started going on walks at night sometimes before he started the late shift, and he would tell me all about the other guys at work and then about a girl they picked up off the street for selling herself. Afterwards, they drove her back to the precinct, where she called her father crying, asking him if he would let her come home. But the father said no.
These things hurt my brother too deeply.
Walking with Carlos along Bay Street, seeing all the dead buildings blend in with the trees, hearing about that girl at the precinct, I told him, “You’re a good person.” And I went to bed thinking I am becoming the woman that other people want me to be. But when Saturday came along, and I didn’t have anyone to be with, I couldn’t help thinking about Frank, how he would always have a woman on the side, and how his wife would always be angry and hurt. So really I had done nothing to rectify the situation. Nothing had been changed. And if Frank was still going to see other women, and if Nicole was still always going to be unhappy, then I might as well have stayed with Frank, instead of sitting in my living room all alone on the weekend.
So, I called him. I left a message, and when he didn’t call me back the next day, I dialed over and over again, twice an hour until eight o’clock.
But he never picked up.
The menu has no prices. It is a restaurant on the West Side, and when I go inside Miguel is sitting at the table looking very pleased with himself, like: Here. I told you I knew a good spot. It’s a restaurant I could imagine Carrie going to, sipping wine while sending passive aggressive emails to the bunch of us on her Blackberry. At the table next to us, a woman speaks loudly about her daughter’s “adventures” at Princeton and then laughs as if she were singing opera. The waitress is slow to take our order, and Miguel pretends not to notice when she ignores him after he opens his mouth to stop her.
We talk about other things, where he lives in the Bronx and where I live on the Island and each of our long commutes. The One train. The Six. Walking home at night. I say things about the boat.
“You live alone?” he asks.
“I live with my brother.”
“Older or younger?”
“Younger. Only a few years though.”
“You don’t get tired of that?”
“Never,” I tell him. “We’ve always taken care of each other. When we were growing up my father would try to kick my ass, and Carlos would get elaborate about distracting him. My dad would be like: What the fuck? Where have you been, Frances? And Carlos would be like, Look, Dad. A comet!”
“I could see you being a bad girl,” he says.
And this makes me cringe. Here I am saying something about my brother. Here I am saying something about myself. And there he is being slightly repulsive and corny.
“I hate this restaurant.”
“This is one of the best restaurants in New York. What? You didn’t know?”
“It’s expensive for no reason.”
“It’s not expensive at all.”
“They must pay you a lot to open doors,” I say.
And for a second he looks like he might toss his very empty glass at me, and I think, Go ahead. Let’s get to the bottom of what this will finally be about. But instead he’s like, “Cool, so you’ll understand if we split the check?”
“You better get ready to wash some dishes.”
“Why are you fighting me?” he says. “Why are you fighting me? Relax.”
“I am relaxed,” I say as the woman next to us ha ha’s even louder. “Though I really don’t even know why I’m here.”
Miguel stands up, tossing his napkin, like he’s the leading chick in a novella. “Fine, then. Let’s go,” he says, so that the woman stops laughing now and looks at him, as if he were about to snatch her pearls.
When we pass by the waitress who never gave us water, I say, so that all the other customers hear it, “How come a nice fancy place like this has roaches?”
Outside, I turn left on Broadway toward the One train.
Miguel catches up with me and asks, “Where are you going, huh?”
I point to the subway, but he blocks me.
“No,” he says. “Come.”
The whole time on the D train, I can smell myself sweat. I remember doing things like this as a teenager, following men I barely knew just because they said, “Come.”
Miguel has us get off at East Tremont Park. “When I was a kid, we used to go here all the time,” he says pointing to a bunch of trees. “Once, when I was seven my moms took me here for my birthday, and these women just surrounded us and stepped to my mom. Then I started to cry like a little bitch. But the funny part was my mom was just chilling. And when they went in to try to fuck with her, my mom in her limited English was like, Oh yeah? She digs in her purse and the women run away because they think she’s going to pull a glock, but she pulls out her lipstick instead.”
I laugh at that, trying to picture a miniature Miguelito and his crazy Dominican mother. Had he been a chubby kid? Sneaking platanos from the plate before dinner? Or had he always been tall and thin?
Not too far away, we end up at a cheap Mexican restaurant, where I order a neon pink margarita the size of my head. I order one after another. Then we walk to Miguel’s building, which is all fucked up inside, bright green, and orange and blue, like a rubik’s cubic. Walking up a set of peeling stairs, I predict his apartment will be equally hideous. But when he opens the door, all you can see are pictures: huge, black and white photographs of trees, sparkling gray bodies of water, giant happy wrinkled faces, black and silver rainbows. “I took these,” he says.
On one wall, there is a series of long windows with glossy plants sitting on their sills, some buried in large red pots, some hanging on hooks from the ceiling. He moves to the kitchen and turns on the faucet. “You want some water?”
I reach into my purse and throw one receipt after another on the floor, until I find my phone to text Carlos. I let him know I’m going to stay in the Bronx, so that he won’t worry when he comes home in the morning and doesn’t see me around. And do you know what that knucklehead has the nerve to write back?
Ha Ha. Old woman. Have fun.
Monday afternoon Dolores is delighted. “Love,” she says, “is a good thing.”
“I can see that,” I tell her, polishing my screen and tweezing the crumbs out from the keyboard. “Which is also why I think you should talk to my brother.”
“Imagine,” I say. “You two get married. Combine your finances. Move into a nice little townhouse in Tottenville. Your kids grow up talking like guidos.”
“Christmases you decorate the windows with those little easy-to-peel-off decorations of snowmen and reindeer. Carlos is in the kitchen, burning the ham. Probably, sneaking pieces of it into his chubby, chubby mouth. You know the way your mom makes the ham with the pineapple. You’re pregnant and screaming at me for smoking, while me and Adam laugh, because you’re too slow and fat to spank Adam.”
“I love Ralphy.”
“You have two cars. Carlos makes you quit this stupid job, and you stay home and crochet and watch TV all day, rubbing your belly like a hungry, hungry hippo.”
“I love him,” she says, which is the truth, I guess, but that does not mean I have to like it.
Carrie walks by then and flicks a stack of invoices on my desk. “You formatted them wrong,” she says, tapping a finger on my computer screen. “So?” Tap. Tap.
There are many things I would like to tell this woman, like for example if this were any other place, if this were not an office, if I weren’t broke and if she hadn’t managed to be my boss, and if she was just some little piece of shit blancita riding the train in her overpriced outfit, I bet she wouldn’t talk to me like that. I bet she wouldn’t say shit. But instead I pick up the invoices gently and put them beside the computer. I try to focus on some concrete action, which will make me look professional and calm. For example, I think about the list of emails I have to send out today. Then I think, Just look at the bitch, Frances. Smile.
“I’m talking to you,” Carrie says.
“And I don’t appreciate the way you’re talking to me,” I say right back, which upsets Dolores, of course.
She stands up between us, with one hand out. “Frances.”
“What?” I tell her.
“Yes, that is my name.”
Then Carrie, twisting her face in six different directions, has the nerve to turn around and tells me, “Go home. Now.” Just like that.
So, fine. I go home.
But before I leave, I tell Carrie to go fuck herself, so that all the other secretaries turn around. Poor old Dolores is so nervous that she is meaninglessly moving stacks of papers back and forth on her desk, from the stapler to the computer, back to the stapler again. And Carrie is trying to dial security before I leave the office, so that they’ll escort me out the building.
But I’ve beat her out the front glass doors, before she’s even hung up. And I can hear her, now, telling one of the secretaries: “What are you looking at?” And I’m pressing the button to the elevator, before security comes up. I’m pressing the button, so that the doors will open. When inside the elevator, finally, I can feel my body humming some loud, quick song.
Outside a man clips the edge of a cab with his bike and beats the car’s roof with his hand, as steam lifts away from the street and circles his bare legs. I push through the rotating doors of Miguel’s building and ask the bald Italian guard at the front desk, “Where’s Miguel?”
“He doesn’t work today,” the guard says, looking up briefly from his paper, then looking back down.
Outside, I dial Miguel’s number, over and over again, but he doesn’t pick up.
First, I go to Bruno’s and drink a couple of beers. I tell the bartender, pointing to a couple of characters slumped at the end of the bar, “Nobody better sit next to me. None of them.”
Then on the way back to the apartment, I lose my keys, and I have to bang on the door until Carlos hears me. He answers it shirtless, because of the heat, with his stomach hanging out, over his jeans.
“How come every time I open the door, you’re drunk?” he says.
“Don’t be mean to me tonight.”
Inside the kitchen, he gives me half the meatball hero he ordered, as a piece of cheese dangles from his lip. “So, what happened?”
“They fired me.”
And though Carlos tries to hide it, I know that he’s thinking about the rent and how I’ve gotten fired from my last two jobs and all of our numerous combined debts. “What happened, Frances?” he says, gently, still trying to be on my side.
“They fired me, Carlos,” I say, a little bit nastily. I know he’s trying to be patient, but I hate how he automatically assumes it’s my fault.
“I got into a fight with the office manager. She threw some shit on my desk, so I blew up a little bit. And that’s it. She told me to go the fuck home.”
Carlos opens a cabinet door then slams it. “Jesus,” he says. He walks to the living room and turns on the TV. Then turns it off. “Jesus, Frances.”
I squeeze both parts of the hero together so that the meatball and sauce splatter on the plate. “It wasn’t my fault.” I had tried. I had wanted things to work out.
Carlos walks back into the kitchen and starts washing the pile of dishes I left there from this morning. “How are we going to make rent?”
“I’ll find another job. It’s not that big of a deal,” I tell him. And then playfully, “Stop having a titty attack, okay?” When he turns around, I point at his chest. “See when you get upset your boobs tremble.”
“How the fuck are you going to get a job?” he says. “Dolores was the one that got you that job.”
Which is truly offensive, but I understand that Carlos is mad and that he needs to say these things, so I stay quiet, before I say something I don’t mean.
“All I ask is you help out with the rent. Shit, all I ask is for you to pay the electricity. And then it’s like you don’t even care. I’m busting my ass. I work all night this shit job and you decide to mouth off and get fired.” He opens the cabinet again and pulls out my pills. “You haven’t been taking them and don’t say that you are because I know you’re not.” Carlos opens the bottle and places a pill on the table. “Take it,” he says, which was the way my dad used to do growing up, except the words and the movement are comical coming from Carlos.
I stand up to make my way out the kitchen, but he blocks the entrance. “No,” I say.
“I said, fucking no, Carlos. You don’t tell me what to do.” And then I laugh at him, because at this moment he deserves to be laughed at. “You know nothing.”
“I know nothing,” he says.
“You know nothing.”
“I know nothing,” he says, quietly. “I’m the one who’s always taking care of your ass, and I’m the one that knows nothing.”
All me feels shrill, like a box of broken glass. “I took care of you, Carlos. Since I was thirteen-years-old. Who got up in the morning and fed your ass? Who walked you to school? And who the fuck are you? You loser. You obese slob with your shit job to judge me?” I push him.
Then Carlos grabs my face and drags me to the table. I keep punching him on the side of his cheek, until he gets hold of my hair, twisting it with one fist. Both my hands spring to my head. Maybe Carlos gets scared. Maybe Carlos feels bad because suddenly his fist becomes hesitant. The fingers loosen, and I turn around and swing at him until he fully lets go.
Free now, I swipe all of the fucking dishes on the floor. Then Carlos comes behind me and squeezes my face again with one hand, and the other arm wrapped around my middle. We pause here, stuck like this, unable to move, sweating, until his fingers grope across the table to pick up one of the pills, which he shoves between my lips. “I swear to God, Frances. Swallow.”
At first the pill feels like nothing on my tongue, small and tasteless. But I know already the deceitfulness of its size. “No,” I tell him. It makes me feel dumb. It makes me feel fat.
When I spit the pill out, Carlos catches it and forces it back in my mouth, so that I’m looking at my baby brother who is no longer my baby brother, but a grown man, who’s pinching my nose, so that it has begun to bleed.
I bite the pill.
I tell myself as I do it that it does not make me a weaker person because I swallow. There is no other choice. And if there’s no other choice, I cannot be held responsible for this that has nothing to do with me or who I am. Once the pill’s gone, Carlos lets go of my face and bends down to pick up all of the dishes I have broken.
The naked fat slope of his young back makes my heart wrinkle like a blanket.
What has turned Carlos into this new ugly person? My beautiful brother. If I am the reason why, then maybe I have denied him many beautiful lives, ones in which he does not work from ten at night to six in the morning, ones in which he does not drag his sister by the hair into the kitchen.
At night, once Carlos leaves for work, I begin to pack some things. I fold all of my blouses neatly. Such organization is necessary for a new start. Then I wait outside for the bus and make my way to the ferry. Two in the morning, on the boat, I drag my suitcase onto the deck, where I’m the only one there, except for Pam who’s leaning against the railing, whispering to herself through her crumbling teeth, as the Island shrinks behind us.
We don’t bother each other. She looks out at the water. I look out at the water. We watch the whole sparkling thing repeat itself, until we reach the city.