Understanding the Family: A Guide for Clinicians
Lisette and Gabe’s father went missing when they were nine and seven and never came back or called. Lisette remembered him like this: a stocky figure in a white undershirt, exhaling smoke, watching wrestling on TV and winking down at her where she sat on the carpet. Reading the paper with glasses on. Cutting a callus off the ball of his foot. Gradually they and their mother began talking about him as though he was dead.
Their mother gradually faded herself out of his side of the family. She told Lisette she found being around them too painful. “But don’t lose them,” she said. “That’s your family. Especially your abuela.” So once Lisette and Gabe were old enough, they started driving down for summer visits that slowly became more frequent. In that era of constant baby showers—like 2006, right?—they went to Miami nearly every other month.
And every time they descended the peninsula from their sleepy Gulf Coast rat-town for some family celebration or other, they and their cousins celebrated by getting wasted. They drank around the world, expensive or cheap, depending who was buying: Puerto Rican rum, Brazilian cachaça, Irish whiskey, Dominican beer, Colombian aguardiente. They got disgusting hangovers.
One hot night they all stood in Uncle Ruben’s driveway talking and guzzling sweaty Presidentes. A plastic bottle of vodka went around. They were all buzzing about some stupid summer blockbuster Lisette was privately boycotting. Everyone else wanted to see it. One cousin threatened to tell everyone how it ended and people shouted at him to stop. Pretended to put their fingers in their ears, the girls trying to cover his mouth with their hands. They screamed, “No spoilers! No spoilers!”
He laughed and pushed everyone’s arms away with his free hand, the other hand gripping a beer. The arms kept flying back. “The guy gets a gun and shoots himself!” he yelled. The cousin laughed so hard he was almost crying. “The guy commits suicide!”
Natalie put her hands over his face, tripping drunkenly over her own feet and sloshing her drink on her short shorts. “Like Uncle Berto!” she gasped. “Riiiight?”
Someone kicked her. People stopped laughing and the driveway went hush. Natalie clapped her hand to her mouth and stared at her feet. Everyone pretended to look away--and then Lisette and Gabe knew it was true.
Their buzzes wore off a little as their uncle talked. Their dad’s younger brother had overheard the commotion and shepherded them inside the house. Now they sat at the round table in his yellow kitchen. The overhead lamp looked like an upside down white salad bowl and it illuminated Uncle Ruben’s hands as he spoke.
He told them that their dad had turned up in Port St. Lucie over a year ago. They’d given up looking for him by then. He’d been living in a rented duplex with a girlfriend. She’d called, frantic––she’d gone into the bathroom to find incredible pools of blood around Berto, who lay on sheets of plastic over tile and the gun laying beside him.
It turned out that all this time, everyone else (their uncle, the cousins, even their mother) had known about it. Gabe was angry at all of them. He wanted to know why? Why did younger cousins know? They’d all been there the night the woman called, explained Ruben, but they’d been ordered to keep their mouths shut. So ugly. How could they tell them? Ruben especially thought it best not to tell Mima, their grandmother. His mother, their dad’s mother.
“But now you know,” said Uncle Ruben, “and Mima still doesn’t. And your mother and I think it’s better if she doesn’t. To protect her.”
“Okay,” said Gabe, holding his head in his hands, his elbows on the table.
Lisette nodded and didn’t say anything. Her uncle put a hand over hers but Lisette took it away and put it in her lap. She looked from her plump hands to Gabe’s bony ones, to Ruben’s hairy ones. Later, when she remembered sitting at that table, it seemed time had grunted to a pause, and that if there was a before and after in her life, the place where it folded in two had yellow light, a round white table, and foreheads and arms and hands lit up underneath it.
Lisette worried about future phone conversations with Mima. She spoke often of her son in a hopeful voice. Between her own bad Spanish and her complete absence of hope Lisette already had a hard time piecing together good responses.
“You know what I’d say if your father knocks on my door tomorrow?” Mima would say. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you call? No! I wouldn’t say nothing like that. I’d say, Son! Come in. Sit down. Have you eaten anything? Sit down, son. Let me bring you something to eat.”
That night after everyone had gone to sleep, Gabe swiped a half-empty bottle of Bacardi and two cans of Coke left over from the party. They got in Lisette’s car and began the slow escape from Uncle Ruben’s subdivision, a labyrinth of tile-roofed villas lined up five feet apart. Gabe sat in the passenger seat pouring rum into his Coke can.
“Don’t do that while we’re driving,” Lisette said.
“Why not?” said Gabe.
“Because it’s against the law. And you’re getting Bacardi all over my car.”
“It’s going to stink.”
“Rum doesn’t stink.” Gabe looked at Lisette while he drank rum straight from the bottle.
“Can you just stop? Can you wait? What if we get stopped by police?”
“This is Miami. We just found out our father killed himself. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
“Don’t be a dick.”
“I’m not being a dick.”
Once on Kendall Drive Lisette drove until she ended up in the empty asphalt moat around a Bed Bath and Beyond. They parked in the moat.
Gabe handed her a can of Coke and the bottle of rum. Lisette opened the can and drank to open up space. Then she poured in some rum. She drank and poured, drank and poured.
“I can’t stop wondering what he had,” Lisette said finally.
Gabe looked away from her and out into the parking lot. “Demons. The man must have had demons.”
“Demons.” Lisette sloshed her Coke can around. By this time her jaw felt loose in her face. “Not demons. Please. Like what was his diagnosis? People who kill themselves are ill. They’re called, you know, the things they have are called names.” That loose jaw again. “What did he have?”
Gabe put his hand out to get the rum back. “Yeah. I get you.”
“Disorders,” said Lisette. “They have disorders.”
Then they didn’t talk for a long time.
Finally Gabe said, “He’s imaginary to me. I can’t even remember like touching him or hugging him or anything. But that shit is real. Like that could be hereditary.”
“I worry about that too.”
Gabe nodded gravely and patted her upper arm. “I know it. I know it. We have to look out for each other, man.”
“Oh, Gabe,” Lisette said, shrugging off his hand. She had no desire to play along, furrow her eyebrows, nod gravely or any of those things. She felt claustrophobic.
He looked hurt. “We’re the only ones we have left.”
“No, we have Mom. Hello?” Her head felt too slushy inside to keep up the argument. A swarm of aunts and cousins had sat around Uncle Ruben’s living room pretending not to hear what was happening in the kitchen. Gabe gazed into the parking lot.
Her hands were sticky. She came up with an idea.
“Isn’t alcohol sterile?” she asked.
“Because this,” and Lisette opened her car door so she could pour rum over her hands.
“What are you doing?” her brother asked.
“I’m sanitizing.” Lisette rubbed her fingers together under the rum stream. It spattered her microbes all over the asphalt. A part of her, here in Bed Bath and Beyond’s parking lot. “You can use alcohol as hand sanitizer.”
“No you can’t! Stupid! You’re just wasting it.”
Lisette wiped her hands on her skirt and noted they didn’t feel clean at all. “See?” said Gabe. But she hadn’t remembered speaking out loud.
Lisette and Gabe each got copies of Dad’s suicide note. Uncle Ruben mailed them after their conversation, addressed in his feminine handwriting. This note bore a large black blob in one corner. Lisette realized it was a reproduction of their father’s blood. It obscured his writing. Had Uncle Ruben taken the original to a copy place? Had he walked in with an actual blood-soaked and dried suicide note and put money in the copier and set it down on the glass like it was a copy of his lease or tax return or something? It was something he would do, him and his crisp yellow shirts and cabbie hat and hairy knuckles.
Back home, Lisette and Gabe confronted their mother—who wept, and said she was sorry, and that she could barely handle it herself, much less tell them—before beginning to avoid her and each other completely. They stayed busy sleeping, or working, or drinking beer in parking lots. Still, they had friends in common. Lisette knew her brother had shown around his copy of the note. Probably he assumed it made his life seem lurid and important. She’d folded hers up in a Ziploc bag and stored it in an old notebook.
Eventually they ended up getting jobs at the same strip mall. Sometimes they’d meet at the Starbucks there and talk about the things they had always liked to talk about: books and bands and people from high school. For the next couple of years they did not go to Miami at all.
By the time Lisette and Gabe made their way back down I-75, for a cousin’s wedding, it felt as though much time had passed.
Gabe was twenty-two now, majoring in Philosophy at State College, and always wore a black leather jacket, even in the heat. He had bought it from a dishwasher at Tomato Pete’s, one of the many chain restaurants he’d worked. Lisette knew the dishwasher only as My Boy Al because Gabe always called him that. Gabe kept a dollar in each of the jacket’s many zippered pockets. Thus he always carried on his body twenty-six dollars in tip money. He was tall, lank, and acted younger than his age. He had a hard time getting into bars.
At twenty-four Lisette was round, plump, fleshy. Her whole body was shaped like a Valentine’s heart, rounded shapes curving down to points. She had heavy black hair that hung in her eyes.
She worked at the public library part-time as a Page and also at a daycare, corralling toddlers around tiny tables. Lisette always wore thrift store sweaters that smelled like the daycare: stale graham crackers and Lysol. She was finishing a degree in Psychology at USF and secretly evaluated each child according to Jean Piaget’s theories of cognitive development. She read voraciously, working her way through the recommendations on a handout she’d found at the university library, “25 Best Novels for Psychology Buffs,” and re-reading “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories over and over again. She spoke little and slept less. She shared a small apartment with a girl she never saw and often heard vacuuming the shabby carpet late at night. Lisette rarely cleaned.
Uncle Ruben had urged them to come down, not just because his daughter was getting married, but because “your abuela is old and she won’t be around much longer.” Lisette worried about all of it, but asked her abuela if the two of them could stay with her anyway. “Oh, yes!” Mima had said on the phone, sounding excited and not deathly old. “Gabriel can sleep on the sofa and you can sleep on the pin-pan-pun.”
When they pulled up to Mima’s blue stucco building in North Beach, she was blatantly alive, shunting herself back and forth in the parking lot, craning her neck to look for them and chatting with the security guard. She lived on the top floor of a four-story building. Oak trees with whitewashed trunks shaded the entrance.
Mima’s apartment had been the same for so long that it was like a memory to them, even while they were in it. It was spare, tidy, and overwhelmingly pink: the walls; the vertical blinds; the ceramic floor tiles; the leatherette sofa, its armrests run with fine cracks; the lacquered formica end tables; the crocheted tablecloth.
They hugged Mima and put their bags down, wandered the apartment, touching and looking at all the familiar objects. Two little chickens made of coquina shells atop the big TV. A large photograph of their grandfather, dead since a stroke eight years ago. Next to it, an 8 x 10 of their father, in the yellow light of the late seventies, his arm around someone who’d been cropped from the photo. A framed color copy of Mima and Abuelo’s wedding picture, Mima slender with big eyes and elaborate black hairdo.
One thing had changed. For many years Mima’s had been one of those lucky old buildings with an oceanfront view. High-rise condos and resorts stretched to the left and right across Collins. But now a new hotel was going up across the street. The construction site groaned and buzzed from dawn to dusk and the building’s scaffolded understructure rose like a bar graph going up in front of them.
“This sucks,” said Gabe.
“You’re losing your view,” said Lisette. She realized afterwards that in Spanish she’d said, “You’re losing your sight,” by mistake. But Mima knew what she meant.
“You can still see it a little bit,” she said. She pointed to a thin right-hand margin of glittery blue.
They ate lunch on the crocheted tablecloth and afterwards Lisette helped her grandmother clean up. Her poor Mima, such a big old woman on such tiny feet doing so much work. Lisette noticed that her grandmother always held something---a Cuban mop, a rag, an iron, a glass one of them had carelessly left on the coffee table. All spills, crumbs, heel tracks were immediately disappeared.
Oh, thought Lisette. This is why he used the plastic.
She felt exhausted. At home she let her own room fill with paper and dishes. Everywhere books and stains.
Gabe slumped on the leatherette couch watching TV. Lisette insisted on washing the dishes.
Then she tried to help sweep the floor.
“Stop that, boba,” said Mima.
They passed damp chamois cloths over the pink tile. “Deja eso, boba,” said Mima. “Leave it.”
Then Gabe left to buy cigarettes and Mima cornered her in the kitchen with Cuban coffee. Gabe got out of things by vanishing at the right times. Lisette didn’t like cafe cubano. She sipped at it dutifully.
Everything in the tiny kitchen gleamed with years of use and scrubbing. Everything had its own place. Basket of bananas and picket fence napkin dispenser. White formica dinette set. Lisette sat there now.
It was so clean you wouldn’t think anyone ever stepped here, as though inhabited only by tiny fairies with duster wings, but Mima was the opposite, a mountain of woman, stacks of doughy flesh piling up out of plump sandaled feet with a dainty French pedicure. She swiveled this body across the tiny kitchen in one step, wiped down the counters in a flurry, left the sink a dull gleam of aluminum.
“Don’t you ever get a manicure?” asked Mima.
“I can take you. I have a lady. She does my hands and my feet.”
“Que cosa mas grande,” sighed Mima, moving on. “Que cosa mas grande.” Mima started talking about Gladys, her next door neighbor.
“Her daughter committed suicide,” she said, suddenly, lowering her voice and looking at the wall above the stove, as if by doing so she could see through the wall and into her friend’s living room. Mima leaned forward. “Can you imagine?”
Lisette shook her head and pursed her lips. What else to do with her face? They must have brought suicide in with the dust on their feet. Their anxious brains beamed it through the drywall into the neighbor’s living room where it bounced like a mirror off her daughter’s suicide. Too much coincidence to be real.
Mima looked at Lisette’s knees, visible where her skirt rode up, and crinkled her nose. She heaved up and shuffled to the sink again.
“Was there a note?” Lisette said.
“A note,” said Mima.
“Did she leave a note? Some people leave a note. When they do things like that.”
“No,” said Mima, making a dramatic cutting motion with her hands in mid-air. “Nothing. She left nothing.”
On Mima’s refrigerator were a calendar and magnets that had been there ever since Lisette could remember. Mima marked off the days of the week with a pen she kept in a wooden cup by the fridge. Every night she drew a shaky slash through the day she had just lived.
“That is just the worst thing for a parent.” She fanned herself with an FPL envelope.
“Can you imagine?” Mima said again. “But what are you going to do? She has to move on. She has to keep going. She has a dog. She went and got a dog. And it’s so precious, that dog. You know? She can’t just be crying all day, putting up llanto y llanto y llanto.”
Lisette couldn’t believe this conversation. The daughter, the dog. There must be a way to explain the psychology of it. In her Cognitions of Intimacy class they watched Understanding the Family: A Guide for Clinicians, a documentary series hosted by an expert named Dr. Ellory. She imagined him to be single and childless. Every episode began with a graphic of his head rotating like a planet. What would he have to say about this? She imagined a hole between Mima’s kitchen and Gladys’s. If the two women could see each other through it, they’d know. They could sit together and clutch each others’ hands and wipe their eyes. Yeah, right.
For the past two years Lisette had recurring images of her father, as she remembered him at age nine, but covered in blood. She often cursed her vivid imagination, its lurid curiosity. Where had he shot himself? The head? The face? Could they even tell it was him by looking? That much blood gets sticky. Had she read that? And the placement of that note. Did the blood seep onto it or spatter? She shuddered away images of her father calmly shopping for plastic sheeting at Home Depot.
Before Lisette had pitied the myopic scope of Mima’s life. The last July she’d visited, every cafeteria TV blared the news: Fidel Castro so sick and old he’d handed over the reins to Raul. People flocked to La Carreta to bang cazuelas. And Mima barely seemed to register any of it—or much of anything happening in the outside world, for that matter.
Lisette hoped her abuela’s imagination was as clean and orderly as her apartment. On the phone Mima had often speculated: maybe her son had set off to make his fortune, vowing to return only when he could share the wealth. Maybe he had started another family. Had she allowed herself to imagine a worse end for him? Lisette often pleaded the black blood and the plastic sheets out of her imagination. She willed them not to invade her grandma’s.
Now Mima got up and placed her cup and plate in the sink. She glanced at her calendar on the fridge. “Tomorrow is Saturday,” she said, more to herself than to Lisette. “But tomorrow is the wedding. So I have to change and iron the tablecloth today.” Lisette watched her open a drawer and pull out an alternate tablecloth, linen embroidered with roses, and put it on one of the lacquered pink dining chairs. Then she folded the edges of the crocheted lace tablecloth into its center, then folded it in half to contain the crumbs, and carried it to the laundry basket. “Yo no paro,” she sighed. Because Lisette had watched this protective ritual before, she knew that Mima would spend the next hour carefully starching and ironing the alternate tablecloth while watching Primer Impacto.
Gabe and Lisette felt stir-crazy the next morning and walked to the beach across the street. Gabe had insisted on wearing his leather jacket even though both Lisette and Mima implored him not to. He wore it now, open, over his bare chest, along with his bathing suit.
The new hotel threatened to hog the public areas.
At the beach Lisette lay on her stomach on a towel that was too small. Her legs stuck out into white sand punctuated by cigarette butts and bottle caps. Gabe lay on a faded pink twin sheet with holes in the corners, listening to music, his jacket rolled up into a leather pillow under his head. Lisette was reading Go Ask Alice. She had found it in Mima’s closet. She must have left it there when she had read it in middle school––a long time ago now. It seemed very silly this time around. She took a curious pleasure in re-reading it knowing that it was written by a psychologist and not a real girl.
They’d been there nearly an hour when Gabe took out his earbuds.
“I saw something on TV once,” he said. “On the Maury Povich show. The daughter had disappeared just like Dad and she had died and they were hiding it from the mom. The mom didn’t know anything. And so her other daughter brought her on the show.”
Lisette felt a swell of anger in her belly and put the book face down. “Where are you going with this?”
Gabe leaned back on his bony elbows and squinted out at the invisible line where water met air.
“They were like, ‘Are you ready to find out what happened to your daughter?’ And she was all freaked out but she was like, ‘Yes.’ And Maury Povich sat down next to her and held her hand. And then they told her.”
Lisette peered at the back cover of Go Ask Alice. The definitive book on the horrors of addiction, it said.
Gabe looked into her face for a reaction. “But Lisette, dude, it worked out! She fell on her knees and cried and like, exploded with sadness, but then you know what? She was relieved. And at the end they were all hugging each other. And—”
He drew himself up and sat cross-legged on the sheet and held his arms as if he was sitting in a chair with armrests. He adjusted his face as if to channel the Maury Povich woman. “—and she was like, ‘I am glad to finally—finally—know the truth about what happened to my daughter. Now I can heal and move on. Now I finally have closure.”
Lisette rolled her eyes.
He picked up Lisette’s wrist and swung it back and forth. “That’s what I want you and me to do,” he said. “I want to tell Mima about Dad. You and me, Lisette. We’ll sit down on the couch on either side of her. We’ll be like her support. I’ll hold one hand and you hold the other. And we’ll tell her really gently.”
“I think that’s a terrible idea.” Lisette withdrew her wrist and sat up. She folded the bottom two corners of the towel over her lap. Gabe watched her, looking uncomfortable.
“This isn’t TV,” she said, finally. “TV is fake.”
“I know that, obviously,” said Gabe, and scowled. “But dude—I can’t take it anymore. I have a feeling in my stomach about this every single day.” He wrapped his arms around his knees. “You don’t have to get all...” He stuck out his lower jaw and furrowed his brows, as if to imitate Lisette scolding.
“Her neighbor’s daughter killed herself, too.”
Gabe swiveled around. “Gladys’s daughter committed suicide?”
“How does she know?”
“Well, I guess she told her about it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she told me.”
“Yesterday, when you were gone at Publix.”
“What did you say?”
“Why? Why didn’t you tell her then? That would have been perfect!”
“Because it’s wrong. We can’t just do that. I’ve talked to my therapist about it,” said Lisette.
“Whatever that means,” Gabe said. “Isn’t your therapist the same age we are?”
“No,” said Lisette. “She’s a doctoral student.”
Now Gabe rolled his eyes, but Lisette felt too tired to keep arguing.
On the way back from the beach they stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts. They got iced coffee drinks with whipped cream tops. Lisette kept making accidental eye contact with a man sitting in one of the orange plastic booths. She was aware of the deep arrow of cleavage pointing down into the top of her bathing suit. She was also aware that the skin on her chest and shoulders was flaming hot, sunburnt, and that Gabe’s was, too, except for some odd streaks on his neck where he had applied sunscreen. She found herself straightening her back and looking for the man’s gaze on purpose. He looked Cuban, maybe in his fifties. She knew certain older men liked big girls like her. Their standards were lower or something.
Natalie’s wedding reception was at the Tuscany Room at Signature Gardens, a hall with vaulted ceilings, two mammoth chandeliers like incandescent, upside-down boobs, and an army of round tables ringed by white-sheathed chairs. Everyone cooed over Gabe in his suit (no leather jacket tonight, and he did look handsome) and Lisette in a sleeveless pink dress and updo. Mima had talked her into going to the hair salon at the last minute. She kept squeezing her arm approvingly and saying, “See how pretty you are when you fix yourself?” Lisette wasn’t used to the shellacked feeling of her hairdo. She kept reaching up to knock on it gently with her knuckles.
“How much do you think all of this cost?” asked Gabe. They had grown up in the more country part of Florida that favored small town weddings at the Kiwanis Hall. Balloons and paper streamers.
“I don’t know,” said Lisette, “and I don’t think we should ask.”
“You sound like Mom. I wasn’t going to. Anyway, I feel like I’m at Epcot.”
“So do I!” she said. “It’s freaking me out. Can you get me another vodka and orange juice?” Gabe and Lisette had been placed at a big round table with the cousins, right under one of the chandelier boobs. Gabe drank whiskey from the open bar and talked booty bass with their cousin Abdiel, a budding record producer. Lisette had worried all afternoon, hoping her brother would keep his mouth shut.
Now she and her cousin Jackie gazed tipsy at the dance floor. They sipped their drinks, watching him and Mima dance to “No le pegue a la negra.” He spun her in a circle, tripped and swayed on gangly legs. He mimed the song by shaking his finger NO. Jackie said, “Your brother is a trip.”
Lisette watched her grandmother sway her big hips and open her mouth wide in a lipsticked laugh. And thought maybe they were safe. But she felt the open bar hard now. She was cold, full of liquor and dinner rolls, squirming under such a heavy feeling of doom that she wanted out of her sunburnt skin. Lisette needed to think about something else. So she allowed her gleaming black hairdo to send out signals or hormones or beams of light and attract the gaze of the DJ, a handsome forty-something man with light eyes and a black polo shirt.
Three quick vodka and juices later, in the pretend Venetian courtyard beyond the Tuscany Room, behind a ficus, the DJ pushed his mouth over Lisette’s. Such a wet, bad, long kiss. Not surprising, though, and Lisette only fluttered her eyes shut once. She opened them and perceived a figure approaching them, a shadow growing lighter.
It was Gabe. By then she’d gone mostly numb. She watched him watch her, just for a flash, his face masked by ficus leaves, before he disappeared back into the dark.
Signature Gardens made everyone leave by a certain time. Women in sweat-damp ball gowns filed out, up-dos undone, dangling their dance-scuffed heels on two fingers. Men walked to cars carrying their little girls crinolined and sleeping on their shoulders. Jackie had said, “Everyone is going to,” and then the name of some chain bar and grill Lisette couldn’t remember, “you guys should come.” Lisette found an aunt who could drive Mima home. “Will you be okay?” she asked her, patting her huge paleta de puerco arm.
“Si,” said Mima, exaggerated, magnanimous. Which meant she also did not approve, but Lisette pretended not to notice. “Enjoy yourselves. Drive carefully!”
“Of course,” said Gabe, bowing. For some reason.
Afterwards Lisette could only remember wedging her pink gown between other bodies, pressing up against the bar to do Jäger shots. Jackie grinning with lipstick on her teeth. Abdiel’s arm around her shoulders. Fluorescent light in the restaurant bathroom, the chipped mirror, her makeup sweated off and her shellacked hair half down. A dare that had Gabe and Abdiel smashing a car window at the edge of the parking lot, running, Lissette and Jackie somehow barefoot in the backseat. Not even sure whose backseat. Then sitting on the floor in Uncle Ruben’s living room. Watching The Real Housewives of...somewhere. More cousins, somehow a lot more people knew about the DJ.
“We saw you,” sing-songing. “Is that how they do it in Tampa?”
Lisette too wasted to cringe, or say that she didn’t even live in Tampa.
Gabe drove them back to Mima’s because Lisette could not keep her eyes open. She flickered in and out of sleep, aware only of Gabe's bony knuckles on the steering wheel, streetlights sending pink-gold slices of light rolling over the dashboard, a sudden silent panic that he might point the car right and drive them off the 836.
By miracle they made it from Kendall to North Beach. They stumbled around Mima’s spotless living room, left sweaty wedding clothes on the floor. At almost-dawn the construction site was about to wake. Lisette passed out on the couch.
She opened her eyes because she heard a jackhammer from across the street. Gabe had slept on the pin-pan-pun and got up first. His and Mima’s voices carried from the kitchen.
Lisette still felt drunk. She awoke under a pink sheet wearing only a T-shirt and underwear. She found a robe in Mima’s closet, pulled the pink terry sash tight around her waist, padded down the hall and peeked in the kitchen. Mima sat with her back to the doorway, her coiffed copper hair pillow-flattened at the back. Gabe sat across from her. Lisette could tell that he had seen her but would not look at her. He had one hand out as if to grasp Mima’s. In the other hand he held his copy of the suicide note.
Why did he have a copy of it with him anyway? How long had he been planning this? Why wouldn’t he just check with someone first, someone who knew about the human mind? From what Lisette could tell, Mima was just looking at it without saying anything.
Lisette tried to see Mima’s expression and made a desperate, questioning face at Gabe, stepping into his line of sight. She telegraphed: What are you thinking? Gabe made another face back, his mouth set, eyes weary with feigned responsibility. But underneath that he looked terrified––and still drunk.
Now Mima seemed to be gazing at the patch in the wall they had both looked at the day before last. Where a hole might reveal another mother of a suicide.
And then a car horn went off downstairs. It insisted in a flat, urgent rhythm. All three of them looked toward the doorway.
Mima hustled up from her chair, her flowered bata de casa rustling over the mountain of her body, and swept up her car keys in a flash of salmon-polished fingernails. Just like that she hurried out, leaving the door open.
Lisette looked at Gabe. He looked cut off, like he had not been able to have his orgasm. She immediately felt gross for thinking this. Dr. Ellory videos did not describe any of this. It was not the fundamental attribution error.
“Follow her,” she said, and they did. What could Mima be thinking now? The hallway smelled of damp air conditioning, café cubano cooling on stovetops, Jean Naté on freshly-showered old people, and bleach water on tile floors. The parking lot smelled of tar and Lisette felt nauseous. The construction site was wide awake.
“What did you say?” Lisette hissed. But Gabe had already bounded off ahead of her.
“Apaga eso,” Mima was shouting over the honking car. “Turn that off and just take my car.” She held out the keys in front of her and jangled them, moving her wrist up and down. Lisette looked at the spots on her grandma’s arm, noticed that you could see the wristbone outlined gently in the silky, creased flesh. Then she watched her face again, anxious.
Mima crinkled her nose the way she always did when she was irritated. The car honked and honked and honked. Lisette recognized the security guard. He grimaced and rattled a mechanism under the steering wheel. “It’s doing it again,” he said. He spoke to Mima with an everyday familiarity, as though they’d had this conversation many times. “Ya tu sabes. Until I don’t turn off the car…”
“Ya,” said Mima, “it won’t stop honking. I know. Enough. Go. Didn’t you say you had to go somewhere?” She jingled her keys again. “Knock on my door when you come back.”
The guard turned off the car. The beeping silenced and the parking lot returned to normal. Cars whisking by, people shouting in the distance. Clanging from the construction site. Mima turned and glared at it. “Quiet,” she said. “I’m so tired today. I just want it quiet.”
“Pobrecita,” said the guard. “Thanks, Beatríz.” It was odd to hear someone call Mima by her real name.
Mima nodded. Again, what registered on her face was not grief. Had she pretended not to hear Gabe? She hefted herself back around and trudged toward the building. Gabe still held the suicide note, but when he saw Lisette looking down at it he folded it in half and shoved it under his arm. Mima’s bata de casa was already fluttering over by the elevator. She nodded and waved to a slender older woman with a dog—Gladys. Lisette and Gabe jogged across the parking lot to catch up.
They all got into the elevator. It was too warm and too slow, and smelled of old tires and rose-scented air freshener. Lisette felt hot and nauseous and gravely in need of a bathroom.
An empty beer bottle had gotten stuck between the fluorescent lights overhead and the plastic grid covering them. It rolled back and forth making the light flicker.
Lisette watched Mima’s face during the slow lurch from the first to second floor. She seemed to be gazing at the elevator buttons. Only light and shadow changed on her face.
Lisette couldn’t bear it anymore. In her half-drunk logic she felt a great urgency to repair what Gabe had done.
“He wanted to tell you,” she blurted in Spanish. “He thought you should know.”
Her grandmother shifted her gaze from the buttons to the children.
Gabe looked at Lisette and shook his head.
Their grandmother’s face went slack. She hadn't put on makeup yet today, looked gray and blank under the fluorescents. She looked from one grandchild to the other.
“We found out after everyone else did too,” said Lisette. “At least we knew for sure Papi was dead.” In Spanish she had no grace. Could only be blunt. Especially half-sober. “But I never thought he would have killed himself!”
“Lisette, no!” said Gabe.
Lisette glared at him. “Mira, Mima, there are places where you can go and talk to like, groups of people.” When she said this in Spanish Lisette said como like, as if she were talking to her cousins. “Other people who went through the same thing. I went. That helped.”
Mima’s head shook with a very slight tremor.
Gabe grabbed Lisette’s arm and spoke to her in English. “Lisette. I couldn’t figure out how to tell her the right way in Spanish so when that car alarm went off I was like, I shouldn’t be doing this when I’m drunk.”
When Lisette and Gabe were small, they’d poked a lizard with a wooden stick until white goo oozed out and it dropped off the fence. Lisette’s heart thumped startled, guilty, fascinated, ashamed.
This time they both looked at their grandmother and waited for her face to change. Lisette prepared to see Mima’s face wilt, to sink in like a baked apple, but it didn’t. She moved toward her. What a slow elevator this was, and how badly she needed to go to the bathroom. She opened her arms to embrace her grandmother, but Mima put up her hand and pushed Lisette back.
“I don’t know what you’re telling me,” said Mima. Her chin trembled. “Yo no voy a esos lugares. I would never in my life go to a place like that.”
“And I don’t know what you’re telling me,” she said again, “but one doesn’t speak of those things. Here,” she said, “in a public place. In an elevator.”
Gabe had stood frozen in place while Mima talked but he suddenly began speaking in his terrible Spanish. As though he could scribble over what they’d said.
“She’s drunk. It’s okay, Mima. She didn’t mean it. I’m sorry. I’m drunk too. I’m sorry we’re drunk. It’s my fault.”
As he spoke Lisette felt cold sweat down her back and her insides spasm. She willed her stomach to stop heaving but it would not. Everything she’d eaten or drank for the past ten hours lurched out of her. Gabe and Mima gasped and pressed themselves to the sides of the elevator, trying to stay out of the way.
What Lisette remembered later was that the elevator doors opened and Mima let loose a torrent of words.
She couldn’t remember what she said exactly. Just phrases, like
Esto es un asco.
You stay out who knows where and I can’t sleep for the worrying.
She remembered Mima livid, so livid with both of them but especially her. She remembered herself furious with Gabe for putting her in this position. The terrible stench of the vomit and the elevator. Mima’s bedroom door shut and her inside. Silence in the pink apartment.
Gabe apologized over and over and over again. Lisette made it to the bathroom while he held the elevator door open. She found cleaner clothes and a mop. She later remembered the great effort of mopping the hot elevator nauseous and fatigued. Why couldn’t elevators have drains?
Quiet in the hallway. Silence from the neighbors. Noise from the construction site.
Lisette sobered up, and by next year Mima would talk to her again, and the completed hotel across the street fully obscured Mima’s view of the ocean, and years went by, and still Lisette worried over what happened. She’d call up the memory—or it would visit her, sparked by a smell or a glimpse of fluorescent light—and she’d angle it back and forth.
At first the elevator scene unfolded in her mind as though through her own field of vision. But this began to change; Lisette finished school and went on to live a less solitary life. Eventually she began to see her own clients. And sometimes she saw herself as though perched on that fluorescent light: as one of the figures in the scene.
Gradually, Lisette came to believe that Mima had to have known for a long time, with her heart’s radar, that her son was dead. Gone from a different death, though, a more ordinary one. Something, like so much of Mima’s life, that she could bear as long as no one said it aloud and she kept her momentum. As long as she could cluck and shake her head for Gladys, and keep her apartment nítida, cleaning it until the tiles’ gleam staved off any nightmare that threatened her precarious peace.
Although Lisette spent her working hours with people who wanted to excavate their secrets and talk them into submission, and she and Gabe dissected the elevator episode many times, even in Uncle Ruben’s driveway once, with the cousins, older, with beers, but no vodka—she and Mima never spoke of it again.
While the three of them had stood under those stale lights, and even much later, when Mima finally went to the assisted living facility near Blue Lagoon, and they packed up her pink apartment in brown boxes, Lisette remembered a yellow light, arms and hands lit up underneath it. Here then, she’d thought that day in the elevator, before she could even put words on it, is where Mima’s life would fold in two: a before and an after. Smelling of sweat and alcohol. Where it made a crease that would not come out even if you ironed and ironed and sprayed it with starch and smoothed it carefully, even if you did it while watching a whole night of Sabado Gigante, even if you held the fabric tight with the side of one hand and used the other to pass the iron over the cloth in a smooth, practiced sweep.
Denise Delgado’s fiction and critical work have appeared in The Southeast Review, Inch, Hinchas de Poesía, Jai-Alai Magazine, 2040 Review, Fiction Writers Review, the anthology Florida Flash, and various contemporary art publications. As a writer and multidisciplinary artist, Denise has received grants from New England Foundation for the Arts, Alternate ROOTS/The Ford Foundation, and Tigertail Productions’ Artist Access Program. Delgado received an MA in Media Studies from The New School and an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. She is the Executive Director of Egleston Square Main Street and is also currently at work on a collection of linked short stories set in Miami and Cuba.