So there I sat under the pink tree, crying and writing poetry. Eighteen and not a clue what to do with my life following one virginal walk down that dark Catholic aisle an ill-fated Friday night in January.
I remember waking up the next morning, looking at my finger and praying it was all a dream. But there was the ring that told me in no uncertain terms that I was to dance no more.
A housewife at 18. Ring around the collar, my new prescribed concern. Married to someone I barely knew because I didn’t want to hurt him by saying no to his unexpected proposal, breaking my parents’ hearts in the process. Who would believe that? It sounds incomprehensible to me.
Work? Not an option, given my young bridegroom’s traditional values and strict definition of “head of house”. He was threatened by my parents’ “spoiling” me with an occasional dinner or a nightgown from Zody’s, reminding me that we “do for ourselves”.
I listened to a lot of Dylan back in the day. Queen Jane approximately was my favorite really cynical song. Once (I swear) I made myself a construction paper crown, sat in full lotus in the den & played that song over and over and over. I was a bit of a mystery to my young curmudgeon.
Every once in a while, I would get an unexpected surge of estrogen and make parfaits or something. But mostly I cried and wrote poetry.
Feeling abandoned by God when I learned at nineteen that it was unlikely I would ever get pregnant. Scar tissue in the fallopian tubes. Having been a virgin, it never made sense to me.
It thrust my Catholicism and any sense of a loving, benevolent God into a tailspin. After my husband went to work, I would eat potato chips and watch Lucy coyly telling Ricky that she was “expecting”, crying inconsolably. I felt less than a woman. Less than nothing.
I made the decision to be “a really good person without God”. Seriously, that’s what I did.
I remember sitting over ham and hashbrowns at Don’s on Glenoaks when I looked my husband square in the eye and said with a completely straight face (because I was too weird to know how weird it would sound) that I was going to be “a really good person without God”. I’d show Him all right.
Not only was that bizarre, blasphemous and incredibly narcissistic, but profoundly geeky. I mean, who makes a decision like that? But decide I did.
Trying to find meaning in life, I called for a list of volunteer opportunities. I was allowed to work as long as I didn’t get paid. I hoped that working with children would help assuage the pain of that pesky “barren” thing.
So I chose a program called Head Start. It was set in the heart of the ‘barrio’ in Van Nuys. My secret hope, looking back, was that children would not be able to detect how horribly flawed I was. How incomplete. How empty. How invisible.
Not so. Children are much more adept at that than practically anyone else (except, perhaps, the mentally ill). But, gratefully, they took to me (as do the mentally ill).
Every morning, I would arrive in my 1970 Volkswagen the color of cafe au lait. And thirty kids would screech with delight and adhere themselves to my body as I opened the gate.
I acquired the Spanish vocabulary of a four year old (actually, it was what is now known as ‘Spanglish’). Phrases like, “Pusha me” (while they looked pleadingly at me from the swings with beautiful dark eyes) were music to my childless ears.
I felt seen, wanted, almost happy when I was there. Tirelessly, I patted tortillas out of Playdough. I served juice & cookies. I even swept the courtyard (brooms were not my strong suit). I felt like I belonged somewhere and it was not that house that held me captive or the family that couldn’t understand why I would ever want to do something so stupid as to give my time for free.
There was a whole new cast of characters to fill the void I called my life. There was “Teacher Lorraine”, a big boned, confident Jewish lady with a broad smile and no make up (I was too insecure to go to the 7–11 without at least eyeliner).
There was “Teacher Margarita”, who had come from Cuba when Castro took over. She would tell me colorful stories so vivid that I could feel the tropical breeze on my skin.
Then there was “Teacher Ofelia”, a woman of a certain age with the eyes of a saint. Clear and penetrating. She was from Mexico.
I felt part of a family that cared to actually know me. That recognized me as one of their own.
One summer day, like any other, I was sitting at a small metal table, surrounded by chattering kids. I was busy producing various animals out of the pastel dough to the delight and astonishment of all.
Suddenly there was a shadow momentarily blocking the sun. I looked up to see him silhouetted against the light. I squinted as he came into focus.
There are pivotal moments in life when everything could easily go one way or the other. Moments that can never be retracted. Moments after which we are never the same.
Moments that quite possibly alter and define the rest of our lives. Moments when secret decisions are made inside and we do not even know of them.
Moments in which we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the eyes of another and do not recognize the person that we see but only know that we want desperately to be the person that we see. And this was such a moment.
“I know what you are capable of,” Jose delivered ever-so-casually, looking intently at a place in my soul that had never been seen, as if it were just a penny on the sidewalk.
He was what would have been known in an earlier day as a ‘cad’. He didn’t so much walk as swagger. He had a shock of black hair sweeping across his wide brow, a thick black mustache grazing full lips and black, black eyes that could expose and cultivate an underlying wantonness otherwise dormant for a lifetime.
He was Mexican and Lebanese, everything about him exotic. Shamelessly he bragged about his “womans”. One of his “womans”, Pat, he had married several times. Legend had it she had tried to crush him against a chain link fence with her car. Burned his hand with a spoon. She was the mother of his two girls, Elvira and Elisabeth. She would follow him and show up unexpectedly everywhere. His watch was engraved, “Mi Vida” (My Life), a gift from her.
He was a self-professed Marxist, but not an atheist. Once I asked if he believed in God. “Yes, my dear, but we are not His priority”. Nothing was sacred, especially my baby heart. I would lock my ’70 VW Bug outside Head Start. “We don’t want your lousy car”, he would remind me. “We” being the collective marginalized masses he presumed to speak for, “la raza unida” (the people united).
I lived to be in his presence, even from afar. I would stand on the classroom steps pretending to sweep, waiting like Cinderella to be invited along on one of his ‘social worker runs’. Maybe once every twentieth time, he would motion for me to join him and life was everything it had ever been cracked up to be.
I enrolled in Conversational Spansih, but he mocked my efforts to communicate. “Hola, que tal?,” I would say with my Gringa accent and he would laugh that deep lusty laugh that made me at once ashamed and exhilarated.
Once while riding in his old white Mercedes, he suddenly screeched to a halt and jumped out. A woman came running up to him, grabbed him by the front of his shirt and shouted in Spanish right in his face. Since it was clearly not “que tal?”, I had no idea of what he was being accused.
He always wore these thin pastel shirts, a pack of Lucky Strikes and a twenty or on a good day a fifty showing through the pocket. The Head Start kids loved him. He would paint handlebar mustaches even on the girls.
We would trail behind him on the way to Smart & Final, where he would buy everyone watermelon candies. He did magic tricks like pulling coins out of the kids’ ears. They were mesmerized.
Once, gently holding the translucent orange tail, he breathed life back into a dying goldfish and I discovered that I loved him.
If love meant that you could see the very atoms waltzing in the air. If love meant that every breath was laced with helium. If love was a secret that animated every random thought.
If love was less like pulling an elephant uphill and more like fireflies swooping in sultry circles on an Indian summer night. If love was being seen for what we are capable of, not for what is expected of us.
From the moment I saw him, there at Head Start, that he eclipsed even the August sun. Every poem I wrote was for him. And he would read them all and I could tell that he was pleased.
We would sit across from one another in a blue booth at IHOP. He would order me a Sweety Pie (apple a la mode) and for an hour, I was a poet.
One day I happened to bring a small piece of driftwood I had found at the ocean. He took it, varnished it and gave it back to me. For years, we would exchange it from time to time, an unspoken pact between us.
I wanted him to love me but he would say, “I care for you. I am not your husband or your father or your brother, but I care for you”. And, looking back, I believe he did. One day, bold and frustrated, I told him, “Sometimes I feel like taking off my ring and coming to you”. He laughingly reminded me that, if I were coming to him, I’d better bring the ring.
But I never went to him. I would simply lie in the grass on my front yard waiting for my husband to pull in the driveway, looking at the cloudless sky and marveling that the very same sky covered Jose. And time, as it will, passed.