Set in sunny Mexico, Diego’s Place, is a good story for this time of year. It’s basically an epilogue to my novel Come Saturday, Come Sunday which you can find on this site under Other Books.
Oye, Pilar. I know you’re here. Well, I feel you around, anyhow. Can’t help it. I come out in the garden for a coffee and I face that gorgeous bougainvillea…purple flowers all up the wall and over the top. Diego didn’t plant it. Face it, he’s no gardener. But then, you know that don’t you? I’m the one just catching on. Fixing the house. That’s what he’s good at. You should see the place…or maybe not. Might be annoying. You spend fifty years in a house and as soon as you’re gone he puts in a new floor with pretty stones all between the tiles and re-does the kitchen you’ve been asking him to fix since you moved in. Or maybe, where you’re at, you don’t care about any of that stuff anymore.
Hmm. I didn’t think when I got back with Diego that I would get his wife too. But, it’s nice, sharing him with you. Like a sister I never had. Pilar. May you rest in peace. Ha! How did you get any rest sleeping with that man? He tosses and flops like a tornado all night. We never spent the night together…back then. So, I didn’t know. And chiles give him gas. And he’s always putting my stuff away before I’m even done. And then I can’t find it. But, I’m not telling you anything new, am I?
Speaking about knowing things, did you know that my Ramon was his son? You probably guessed a long time ago. Your Miguel and him are so alike. Or maybe Diego told you. Stop me if you know all this. Or even if you do, it’s fun to share it with you anyhow. And if heaven’s the way we think it is, you got a lot of time, right?
Speaking of Diego…him sliding his fingers on the back of my neck when he walks by…scares the hell out of me sometimes. I forget I’m not alone. But it’s not like when we were young. You know? Like water for chocolate. Simmering all the time. Do you still remember that feeling? It’s different now. Not so much drama. But, nice. Still, I need to be alone once in a while. Like this. Catch my breath.
I like to watch him napping. He’s so much like a little boy, like Ramon was, running, running, busy, busy, until he suddenly stops and drops, exhausted. And when he curls in his hammock like a baby in the womb, I think to him like I did with my Ramon before he came out. My baby. I used to tell him all about what he was going to find when he saw the light, and all the nice things he would learn and know and love. But with Diego, it’s just the opposite. While he sleeps, I remember all the things I went through and endured before he came back into my life. He wouldn’t want to hear them. The hard things. The bad times. It would make him feel so helpless because he couldn’t change what happened; make it better. So, I don’t really tell him. Like what?
Like when I found out I was pregnant. I didn’t tell him. What could he do? What could we do? We were so young. Where would we live? Work? Manny was home from the States. He had a job. He liked me. It would hurt Diego that I took up with his buddy. But it would be best for my baby. Do you know what it’s like to make love to a man you don’t love? Over and over? Year after year? He wasn’t a bad man, Manny. He took care of me. He was good to Ramon. He thought it was my fault that we never had a baby. I had to live with many secrets. But then Manny convinced Diego to bring you and Miguel to Fennville to work at his factory. Can you imagine what I thought? I tried to tell him, “No, Manny. Don’t do it. Don’t make him come here.” But he insisted. I had to be nice to you. I had to pretend that Diego and I were just old friends from home. I had to watch the hurt in his eyes every time I looked up and saw him staring at me. And you, I could see that you noticed…something between us. I couldn’t say anything. You know? Or was I just imagining all that? Guilty conscience?
Then, one day, we all went to the Little League game to watch Ramon and Miguel play. They were on the same team. Remember? Best Bet Charters. Big blue fish on the back of their shirts. They won their game and after, when they came toward us in the stands, Miguel had his arm over Ramon’s shoulder and Manny says, all innocent, “They could be brothers, they look so much alike.” I froze. On one side of me, I could see Diego, smile. “Yeah, those guys.” I glanced the other way, and there was you, eyes going back and forth between the boys. Me, I just sort of smiled. That was hard. It wasn’t long after that that you guys went back to Zihuatenejo. So much confusion. So much heartache.
Do I want to bring all that up with him? Why? What good would it do? It happened so long ago it would be like reading a story about someone else. And anyhow, he would remember some things and not others. And sometimes I think we should just keep the past in the past. Don’t pick on the scab. There’s only bad blood underneath. Oops. Wait a second. Diego’s waking up.
“Consuela, I was just thinking about that year when I came to the States. Do you remember how much fun we had…going to the kid’s ball games, and that time we all went out on the charter boat. The one that sponsored the boy’s team? Caught our limit of Chinook.”
Leave it be, huh, Pilar?
“I’m going for a walk.”
“Get me a pack of Marlboros, okay?”
She smokes. You never smoked, Pilar. Well, at least it gives me an excuse to get out of the house, to go sit in the cemetery where I met you. It’s so peaceful there, especially that little hill behind my father’s grave. That’s where I first noticed you coming every day with flowers for your mother’s grave. It took me a long time to be interested in you. I was so mad at Consuela for running off to the States. I didn’t know who I hated more, Manny or her. Then you saw me and came over to sit by me.
You know, I never told you that that hill in the cemetery was where me and Consuela used to go, at night. Now that I think about it, where we made Ramon. I never told you that. But then, why would I? Our secret place. I hope you don’t mind… now that you know everything. Right? No more secrets up there. Doesn’t matter anymore. But I guess I still feel bad that I never told you about Consuela and me. And then, come to find out, Consuela never told me stuff. Secrets. Separate parts of our lives.
And you know, sometimes I wonder if I didn’t love you as much as I should, like I was still wishing I was with Consuela instead. Now I’ve got Consuela and she’s not what I remembered. What I imagined. And all that time, night after night in bed, I’m comparing you to her. And now…
Well, she’s fine, actually. She’s a little more stressful than you. She tells me what she thinks and wants and sometimes she does stuff without letting me know.
Damn, don’t let me forget her cigarettes—talking to you like this.
Aw, I don’t know, I just feel I cheated you a little. Like you never got all you deserved. Sorry. It’s just…like I said…unfair, maybe, what I did.
There’s a woman at the door. Our eyes are even.
She says, “Hello. Do you speak English?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do? J’ou selling Bibles or suthin’?”
“No, no. Nothing like that. I’m looking for Pilar Cruz. I think she lives here.”
I check her out. Nice black eyes. Only a couple winkles on the edges. Nice teeth. A little bit of gray over her ears. I say, “She don’t live here anymore.” The lady’s face droops. She sighs. Looks worn out. “Come in,” I say. “Sit down.” Then I yell to Diego who’s in the bathroom fixing the toilet, again, all the time. “Diego, someone to see you.”
He comes out wiping his hands on a dirty rag. Even like that, he looks good. You know. The man fixing things. Knows what he’s doing. He smiles and his lips reach the grooves in his cheeks like they been knowing the way there for a long time.
“You look American,” He says. “I speak a little. What you want?”
“Uhm. My name is Marianne Webster. I’m a teacher in Minnesota. I came here looking for Pilar Cruz.”
“She die. Two years now,” Diego says.
“Oh,” the lady half moans.
“Can I get j’ou some coffee or suthin’” I ask.
“I. I don’t…” The lady half-falls, half-sits on the couch.
I feel bad for her and try to be nice. I sit next to her and hold her hand. “Why do you want to see Pilar?”
“She is…was my mother.”
Diego and I stare at each other. I need to think. He needs to think.
“I was marry to Pilar,” Diego says, “but I am not your father.”
The lady gets out her hanky and blows her nose like she means it. Not like some of those church ladies that couldn’t blow a hole in a Kleenex.
Diego opens his hands toward her. “So how you get here?”
“I have a brother and a sister. I‘m the oldest. They have blond hair and blue eyes and always made fun of me. Nice fun. Not mean. Last year, they even teased my mother, asking her if I was the mailman’s daughter. So, I said I was going to get one of those DNA kits for all three of us. Then we would see.”
“What’s that?” Diego asked.
“You send a saliva sample to this company and they can tell what part of the world your ancestors came from.”
Diego looks at me, his eyebrows high, like, who knew?
The lady continues, “But when I looked at my mom, she was shaking her head. So, I knew there was more to the story.”
I roll my hands, to say like, keep going.
“Turns out I was adopted when my parents couldn’t have kids and then, as sometimes happens, they had two of their own. So, I talked with my mom and contacted the adoption agency. And Pilar Cruz was my biological mother. That’s why I’m here.”
That’s when she starts to cry real hard and honks a couple of times. I feel a little sad myself.
Diego goes, “When you were born?”
Diego looks at me. “That’s when we…when you go away, verdad?” I nod. “And a year after when I first see Pilar in the cemetery. We talk…”
“Behind your father’s grave?” I ask.
Diego holds up his hands, “Si.”
“Our place? You got no imagination, you know that?”
Marianne asks, “Were you married to my mother for fifty-one years?”
“J’es,” Diego mumbles.
“Tell me about her.”
I say that I am going to get the coffee and I take a long time. I don’t need to hear all this.
When I come back in the room, Diego is saying, “And, yes, she was a lovely woman and you remind me of her.” He gets up to give her a hug. I go back to the kitchen and take another long time to find some dolces.
Marianne looks at me when I sit down. “Did you know my mother as well?”
“Not so good. She stayed by us In Fennville for a year. How long ago Diego?”
He shrugs. “Long time.”
“And what about the two of you?”
This is when I look at her under my eyebrows. “Now, j’ou getting’ nosey,” I say. “Let’s just say I have known Diego before j’ou were born.”
“Well, I don’t mean to pry but it seems if you both were married to different people, you’re so fortunate to find each other at this point in your lives. You loved other people and now you love each other.”
Diego, he looks at the floor.
I don’t know where to look.
The Marianne lady smiles and says, “So this is where my mother lived all those years. Could you show me around Mr…?”
“Ramirez. Diego Ramirez.”
Me. I don’t know where to go. I sit on the couch and have a cigarette. I can hear him telling her how the house didn’t always look this good. That he fixed it after Pilar died. But this was the original sink and tub and stove and, and, and.
Finally, they come in from the garden and I hear her ask for something to remember her mother. Would you believe the only thing he can find is a worn out old wooden spoon from the kitchen drawer. “She always used this to stir the molle sauce.”
The lady smells it and smiles. Then she says goodbye and leaves.
Me and Diego, we look at each other. He goes. “I can’t live here anymore.”
“What about me?’
Diego just shakes his head and goes out.
So, I’m back in the garden, Pilar. You and me again. Ha! You got caught too. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Who knows, maybe some guy forced you. Or maybe you really did love some sweet boy like I loved Diego. See that? I said loved, like it was one time but not now. I wonder if I love him now, when he walks out and leaves me alone. Maybe you can’t keep love in a bottle like a butterfly and expect it to fly around when you open it fifty years later.
Us women we got power—the power to keep a man guessing, wondering if our child is his child. That’s why they make all those laws and sins and rings and wedding gowns—so they can be sure. But we know and they know—they can’t ever be 100% sure. That’s a load to carry. All that power weighs a lot. You carried your secret. I carried my secret. We tried different ways to keep that bag of beans from spilling all over the floor. You stayed. I left. Went to the States for many years. Now I’m back. I barely get here and Miguel and his family and Ramon, they all go to the States. And if Diego, decides to join them…I’m alone. Again. But, this time I got a nice house not that crappy trailer. I got sunshine all winter. A banana tree in my back yard. Beautiful flowers and you.
Someone said we’re born alone and die alone. Sounds dumb when you hear it. There’s at least your mother there, when you’re born, right? And maybe there’s people around when you die? But alone? Yeah. It’s true. It’s only happening to you, right then. You’re the one. No one else is being born. No one else is dying. Just you. And sometimes, alone happens between the beginning and the ending. Like me. Alone with my secret. Like you, with yours. Power. Yeah, we got power. But we have to be strong to carry that bag of beans because if we drop it people are going to get hurt walking on them or forever walking around them. If I had a daughter, Pilar, I’d tell her to be real careful with her bag.
So, I wonder what will happen when Diego walks back in here. I guess we upset him. Two women he loved kept secrets from him—not that he’d have been better off if we told him. But, okay. Decision time. Is he going to want us to move somewhere else in town? If there’s going to be an us anymore. Or will he want to move in with his son in Michigan? Will he ask me to go with him? Or, how about this? Do I even want to go back to Michigan? Ha! As if we were even married. And anyhow, I’m used to living alone…in my head…in bed. I hear him in the house. You know him better than I do, Pilar. What’s he going to do next?
There goes the phone. She must be out in the garden again. Just like you, Pilar, soaking up the sun along with your flowers. Wish I could be like that. I’m more like a bee—always moving, busy, buzzing around. Ha! Come to find out, another bee got to one of my flowers first.
“Oh, hi Miguel. What’s up?”
“Help you fix your place? That could take like a month, man.”
“Uh-huh. Okay. Let me think about it. I’ll get back to you.”
I’ll give her two minutes before she’s in here asking who was on the phone. Less than that. Here she comes.
“Who was that, Diego?”
“My son. He says he needs me to help him with his house. He’ll even pay for me to come.”
She gives me that look, like, ‘how convenient’. Well, with all these women and kids busting in and out of my life, I need some time to think.
“When will you be going and for how long?” she asks.
I look back at her. It’s hard to see the girl I loved when we were both kids. But still…there’s something about her.
“Right away and as long as it takes to get him settled.”
“Is it him or you that needs to get settled?”
See, Pilar? That’s pure Consuela—like a lady with a fly swatter, half asleep, smiling, then, BAM! She nails you. Scary. But good-scary, know what I mean? Keeps you honest.
She nods, “Vaya, pues. I’ll be here. Me and Pilar.”
He runs away. Needs his space. Did he do that with you, Pilar, when things got tough? You and me, we couldn’t do that when we got pregnant. Where can you hide when the problem’s inside you, part of you? No choice. No way. We had to go through with it. Sometimes I wonder if Diego would have stayed by me if I told him when I first knew. It takes a while to know that about a man, whether he’s got the cojones to stand right next to you, to be there. Okay, maybe you give him a minute to get used to the idea, but then is he willing to look over the cliff with you. Was Diego a stayer, Pilar? Well, I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
Right now, I picture him at Miguel’s rubbing noses and wagging tails, tangled in family like Christmas Eve. And here’s me, at home with myself. Sometimes I think I could be a nun in a cold, stone convent, content to come out of my cell to pray every so often. I like people okay, but I don’t need to all the time touch and smile and talk. But Diego, he’s different. Now that I’ve lived with him for a while, I can tell he needs a woman around. Not to do things for him. He knows how to fry an egg. But, I bet if he didn’t have you or me, he would get a dog. He needs something alive and breathing, to notice him, to hear him talk, to like how he loves them. Which isn’t all that bad to be around, I got to say.
Okay, put it this way, I could get used to having a live-in chef making all my meals but I don’t really need it, ache for it. I’m okay with my own cooking. I’m like that about a man in my life—nice but not necessary. Of course, Diego’s not just any man. But you know that.
“Consuela, how you doing down there?”
“Fine. It’s been a quiet couple weeks. Just me and Pilar.”
“Uh-huh. Well, it’s not so quiet around here. Luz keeps running in and out from soccer and school and her girlfriends and boyfriend. And Marisabel shouting at her to learn to cook. And Miguel in his workshop. And me, I just saw and pound and sand drywall.”
“Sounds like you miss boring old Zihuatenejo.”
Damn. She always puts her finger right on the sore spot. Yeah, I do miss my city and guys playing dominoes and the Tuesday market and juicy mangoes. But I really miss her. “You could say that. Are you getting any avocados from our tree?”
“Is that why you called? For a farm report?
Pilar never zinged like that. Like an electric shock. But, okay. I can play her game, too. “No, I called to see if you’re checking out any of my old buddies while I was away.”
“And that would bother you?”
“Well, only because you got it for old farts…like me.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah, I seen you chatting up Carlos down the block…got all his hair and most of his teeth.” She laughs. Good I got her laughing. “I’m trying to picture you in that nice dress I got you…”
“You don’t need to picture nothing. Tell Luz to get you on Face Time and you’d see me in my old flannel shirt that I wore back in Michigan when I was happy enough to just live by myself. Me and my warm, soft shirt just a little worn around the edges.”
See how she teases? She gets to me. Makes me ask what I want from her. What I want with her. All at once I’m tired of living in Miguel’s house. It’s his house. His family. I don’t have to live here. And now that I think about it, I don’t want to live here. I raised my family. I can cheer from the sidelines. I don’t need to be in the huddle. In fact, the quiet behind Consuela sounds real nice about now.
“Are you still there?”
“Yes, Consuela, I’m still here. But I want to be with you.”
“Yes. You could come up here and I could find us a place. Fix it up nice. All our own.”
“What if I don’t want to go back to the States? Been there for fifty-five years.”
“Well, I don’t want to live in my old house.”
“There’s a lot of houses in Zihuat, mi amor.”
Now see, Pilar? That’s the kind of woman who can be tough until she’s soft. So hard to resist. I liked that in you, too.