Montserrat de la Rosa walks down the hallway, her chin high. She’s dressed for piano practice, though something at the back of her mind worries this thought, turning it over and over like a slippery log. Has she forgotten her sheets of music? Her notebook? Her sharpened pencil? Has she spent the week before practicing? She’s put on her grey wool skirt, her blue sweater set. Around her neck are the pearls that her husband Esteban gave her long ago.
As she walks down the hall toward the center’s common room, she rubs her fingertips together, trying to feel for the memory of keys. But Montserrat can’t find the music on her own skin, her fingers smooth and soft, unplayed, as though she hadn’t practiced for hours and hours for weeks on end, year after year. But no matter. The metronome already clicks away in her head, just like her leather shoes. She likes the way her heels sound on the clean linoleum, the clack, clack of hard sole on hard floor, something that reminds her of her childhood, but she’s not sure why.
“Morning,” a nurse says, a girl whose name Montserrat can feel in her mouth but not remember right now, a powdery light sound, something with ash and wind in it.
“Good morning,” Montserrat says, adding the morning to show the girl how it’s done. None of them here know how it’s done.
“Aren’t you going to breakfast?” the girl asks, but Montserrat keeps walking past other guest rooms. She focuses straight ahead, not wanting to catch a glimpse of something untoward: an aging male body lurching into a pair of pants or shirt, a quick, clumpy hug in a doorjamb, finished off with a slobbery kiss (probably Sam and Florence), a nurse carrying a full bedpan or a loaded syringe.
Montserrat shivers, breathes in sharply, moves her body like an instrument.
“Allégro,” her ballet master used to say. “Allégro.”
And she is still brisk, still lively, her arms swinging lightly and with control at her sides. Maybe it isn’t her music lesson she’s late for but ballet class, though now she will have to go back and change, retrieve her slippers but from where?
She’ll just have to make do. She can kick off her shoes, though the good lord only knows how dirty that floor is. People just don’t clean like they used to, her mother’s servants mopping the kitchen, dining room, and parlor floors until they shined like topaz.
But for the dance, Montserrat will still do anything, even if it means cookie crumbs under her toes.
Montserrat’s eyes are alert, her head up, as if any moment, her cavalier will come from stage left, pas marché, take her in his arms for a grand pas de deux. He will take her by the hand and turn her where she needs to go. She stops, looks with feeling down at her right hand, seeing it as the treasure for him to catch, just as she was always told.
“Montserrat?” a voice says and she looks up, holding her confusion inside, knowing not to would be her biggest mistake.
“Good morning,” Montserrat says, breathing out, the dance over.
“Don’t you know it’s time for breakfast?” The woman gently takes Montserrat’s shoulder, turns her, a dance step Montserrat remembers. What is it? The gentle turn? Soutenu.
Montserrat wants to break free and turn and turn all the way down this hallway, but the woman’s grasp is firm, like a parent’s.
“Of course,” Montserrat says. “I was just going.”
Avant, Montserrat thinks as they walk forward, away from her piano lessons or ballet class. But no matter. She will come back. She will play. Later, she will dance.
Montserrat hasn’t told anyone. Not a word. Not Mrs. Ryan, the center director or that nice girl who arranges their activities. Montserrat has not said a peep to the nurses or Florence, who is the town crier as well as Sam’s girlfriend. But the dark truth is there anyway.
She’s forgetting things.
Right now, for instance, as she looks at the shiny silver objects in front of her, she can feel the tang of the tip, the prong things, the metal on her tongue, a feeling she knows from all the days of her life. What is it called? She can imagine the way it presses on soft skin, she can remember wanting to stab someone—who?—with one once, threatening—but it was a joke, a charade, wasn’t it?
“Don’t you like your French toast?” Sam calls out. “Montserrat! It’s your favorite.”
“No, Sam,” Montserrat says. “I do not like soggy French toast.”
“It’s not soggy,” Florence says. “It’s saturated with butter. And that’s a soggy I can handle.”
The other old people—because that’s who surrounds Montserrat—laugh, and she breathes in, lifts her body erect, feels her partner’s hands on her back, a one, two, three, lift, and she’s flying.
“Goodness,” Florence says. “I told them about this and they didn’t believe me. She’s doing it again.”
Another nurse is suddenly in front of Montserrat, talking, saying things that Montserrat is too busy to listen to though she pretends to listen even as she drifts back to something she almost remembers. Who was that boy she danced with so long ago? The one who lifted her so high? Jim? James? Jonah?
“If you don’t eat well in the cafeteria,” the nurse says, “You’ll have to eat in the ward. And I know how you like to socialize.”
But I don’t, Montserrat thinks, dropping her arms to her sides, staring down at her toast which seems to be a map of some place important, yellow deserts, dead, brown hills, the food smashed and sugary and vulgar, flattened and unnavigable and lonely.
Besides, she hates sitting with strangers, doing something as intimate as eating. She despises the sounds they make as they chew, the smack smack of their wet, slightly open lips, the flagging swallows of their old throats, the way she can hear the lurch and churn of the food heading toward their stomachs. All this desire to keep on living when the living part is almost over. They bite, they chew, they swallow out of habit, living something they are used to but not very good at anymore.
But no matter. Montserrat has energy and so many things to accomplish today, so she has to be vigilant. She has an idea and she needs to be very careful lest the nurses discover her secret and send her to the second floor from which no one has ever returned. Not the man who walked around in his underwear or the woman who sat in the corner calling for her daughter. Not the woman in the sack dress and ghastly plastic sandals or the man with wild eyebrow hairs as long as dog hair.
Montserrat needs her strength. She picks up the metal object, and it strikes her like divine inspiration, as though she walked through the nave of her hometown church and stared up at the swirl of mosaic ceiling to find Jesu Cristo at the center: fork.
She holds its steel throat in her hand and brings it down on the table hard, the sound dull and sharp all at once.
Take that, she thinks as the old faces at the table stare at her as the sound echoes in the room, eyes and mouths round and stupid as summer plums. Tines.
Later, as the rest of them watch television in the common room, Montserrat sits in her chair and plans. She had another vision today, just after the Girl Scouts left with their handcrafts and soft skin.
She’s going to leave, and today she discovered who would help her: the bus driver, the young man with the sad face. Sometimes, he talks with her. A few weeks ago, he smiled as she stepped onboard with her Trader Joe’s bag. He knew she’d bought the guacamole, and he didn’t tell the activities girl about her sly purchases at the store. Montserrat could trust him, all long bones and big smile.
Esteban, her husband, had been just like the young man, loping toward her across the campus quad, smiling, his books in his arms. How white his teeth had been, how green his eyes. She’d barely been able to answer his questions: What’s your name? What dorm do you live in? Where are you from? Are you a dancer? You walk like a dancer.
All she wanted to do was sit down on a bench and stare at him, breathing in the bright, clean tang of his soap, something herbal, like green tea. But she managed to answer him, and they’d walked together that day to class, and the next day, and then that weekend, they’d gone to dinner. They met in the library to study together. Later, despite baby Jesus and dying-on-the-cross Jesus and her parents’ warning words that rang in her head like a constant church bell, they snuck into Montserrat’s dorm and lay together in her tiny twin bed and kissed, first with their clothes on and then under the blankets, naked and moving.
“She’s acting nutty,” someone says.
“What’s wrong, Montserrat?” a same nurse asks. “You doing okay?”
Yes, she is okay, was always okay in Esteban’s arms, at least during the good times. After college, they moved to Boston so he could go to med school and she could try to have the babies they never had. There were those gray years, the ones where she learned to say the word barren and all the words related to it: empty, useless, broken, bad. She learned to count her happiness by the days past her period that she didn’t bleed. One, two, three, maybe ten, twelve, and then a gush of blood and stab of cramp.
Esteban tried to cajole her out of her sadness, then ignored it, and then yelled in the language of both their parents. But finally they came to a truce about the truth, and one morning, Montserrat walked down to elementary school on the corner and was hired as the secretary. With every move—Boston, Madison, San Francisco—she worked in schools, ending her career over twenty years ago now at one of the best high schools in the country. Even when Esteban was named dean of the medical school, she kept working because that’s what she’d been given instead of children.
Just weeks after they both retired, Esteban opened the front window drapes in the living room, turned to her smiling—that same white toothed smile—and then fell down dead on the brand new carpet.
“You seem real tired,” the nurse says. “Let me take you to your room.”
Montserrat gets up, feels her face, wet and cold, and she follows along, seeing Esteban’s body on the floor, nothing in him moving, no blood, no heart, no heat. She wants to rush to him, to shake him awake, to breathe into his body until he opens his eyes and looks up at her, whispering, “Mi amor.” After that, he lives and stays with her, escorting her down this hall right now.
But she failed him. She was a doctor’s wife for almost forty years and taught first aid classes at several schools, but she couldn’t save her own husband, the college boy who ran up to her all those years ago and asked her the right questions. She could do nothing. Her hands and mouth were worthless. She’d barely been able to speak into the phone, crying out in a whisper for them—all of them, everyone—to help. All she could do was wait in the room for them to arrive.
“Help,” she says. “My husband needs help.”
“Sweetheart,” the nurse says. “Your husband passed. You know that”
Montserrat bites down on her molars. She can still feel the fork, hear the tines.
In her room after the nurse leaves, Montserrat remembers what she almost forgot and pulls out her shopping bags, the crinkling plastic ones the activities girl insisted they all buy.
“Not like years past and all those paper bags. So much better for the environment!”
Montserrat hated that they made them all live the same way, eating the same bland, tasteless food and using the same shopping bags. She didn’t hate the girl, but Montserrat backed away when she bustled past, all wayward hair and odd, dark purple smell, like the underside of a curl of cinnamon bark. So bossy, telling them what to do. So like some kind of farm animal, Montserrat waited in the express line and purchased four of the bags, filling up maybe half of one on her shopping expeditions, all her favorite items being taken from her and put in the communal kitchen, where Sam or sometimes Florence ate them.
Now, though, she isn’t thinking about guacamole or salsa or grapefruit juice. She thinks about real life, out in the open, the wide world she used to understand. Once, she and Esteban owned a house with a large garden, lawn, roses, an annual flower patch. She shooed away those men Esteban hired to “mow and blow,” keeping them away from her seasonal flowers, marigolds and alyssum and zinnias. How had she done all that? And that was just the garden. She had rooms and rooms to organize and clean. And what about work? How many students had been at her last school? Thirteen hundred, all of them at one time or another trooping into the office, upset, angry, needy, confused, hopeful. Students, teachers, parents. Montserrat knew them all.
But now she knows she’s forgetting something important, even as she finds the money she tucked away for safekeeping. A chocolate bar. Keys to some place—she can’t remember where. A comb. Her lipstick. A library card. Somewhere in the center are more important things—papers she had to hand over when she came to live here, things a lawyer signed—but she’ll have to do without them.
Montserrat tucks everything into the bottoms of the bags and then puts the bags in the corner of her room. Sometime soon, maybe tomorrow, they will go shopping and she will buy what she needs.
In the morning, she is ready before anyone else, standing still and straight at the front door, waiting for the center’s bus driver to pull up, anticipating the deep sound of the engine. She spent extra time on her hair today, pulling it back tight, just the way her dance teacher wants it. Under her plaid skirt, she’s wearing her best hose, rolling up her second best pair into the bottom of one of the bags, all four of which she clutches tight. It’s raining outside, and she’s glad because it means no one will question her rain coat, the pockets stuffed with underwear, her coral necklace, her toothbrush.
Behind her, Sam and Florence are canoodling, making disgusting kissing sounds that are so loud, Montserrat can hear the lush slurp and gurgle of their combined salvia. Another woman is in the hall urging everyone to “hurry up now,” and if the bus weren’t her escape out of here, Montserrat would be tempted to tell her to hush herself quiet. But no matter because there’s the bus, its windshield wipers on, Esteban behind the wheel. Montserrat’s heart jumps a little, stutters, slows to normal. She stares out the glass of the sliding front door. After all this time, she and Esteban are so close, so close, and yet glass and weather and a whole bus are between them.
“Okay, people!” the woman with the dark smell and big hair says. “We are just going to stores today. No park due to the weather.”
There is grumbling, a stamping of old feet against the linoleum. But Montserrat is glad because the ride between the two stores is shorter, and she might not be missed until after the second outing.
“You seem raring to go,” Sam says. “I know how you feel. I can taste those little snacks already. What are they called? Those crisp shiny ones? Sort of remind me of soy sauce. Those little bowls of it at the Chinese restaurants. You know?”
Montserrat nods but doesn’t answer because the bus door opens and she pulls up her raincoat hood and walks out of the center, quickly taking the five strides and walking up the bus stairs. Not a drop of water hits her.
Esteban knows what is up, and he pretends to not recognize her beyond what he should, as the bus driver, not her accomplice husband. Smiling, Montserrat takes her seat, clutches her bags, smiles and looks up at Esteban’s rearview mirror. He nods, ready to take action.
For the first time in many outings, the drive to the first stop isn’t painful. Montserrat can ignore the talk and grumblings, flatulence and the dry, stiff smell of the center that follows them, hovering in the bus like a nightmare. All the way to Trader Joe’s, she imagines what it will feel like to walk out the door, turning right instead of left. She will slip down the sidewalk, heading past the post office and the all those other shops she’s never been allowed into. She will cross the parking lot, wait for the light, and then cross the street, and walk straight ahead until she arrives at the BART station. She has a round, gold token in one of the shopping bags, though something about this bothers her. But no matter. Once she’s at BART, she can figure it out. Then she’ll take the train to the city where Esteban will be waiting for her. This thought makes her look at her hands folded in her lap. She tries to swallow, wondering why she feels light of breath.
“Do you have a shopping list?” the girl asks her.
Montserrat jerks up, stares at the girl’s chin, nods curtly.
“Wonderful,” the girl says, sitting back in her seat, leaving Montserrat to go back to her house.
She wonders how her roses are doing, if the men have been tending them as she asked. Whatever the condition of her garden, Montserrat will have things to rights in no time, Esteban once telling her, “You spend more time with the plants than with me.”
But how is it that she’s looking at Esteban’s back, the deft way his body moves as he turns the big steering wheel? How can he be waiting for her at home, when he’s here? Something must be wrong, but then they are bumping and rolling into the parking lot.
“Okay, folks,” the girl says, standing up and facing the group. Her hair bounces around her head like a rain dance. “We have an hour here. Nick will be at the door if you have any questions.”
Esteban turns around and smiles right at her, and Montserrat sees how he’s playing along. Nick, indeed. Any moment, he’ll wink, just like he used to a dinner parties or sometimes at mass. That’s why he’s here: to help her. She nods at him, smiles, lifts her chin.
She skirts the flower stand, heads up past rows of cans and jars on one side and boxes on the other, and stops just next to the refrigerated salsa shelves. She knows which tub she’ll grab. Montserrat left one of the bags empty just so she could carry the salsa with her, all the way to San Francisco. She used to make a salsa from scratch, but now she can’t remember how or with what. Tomatoes or those little green ones with the papery skins? Some kind of chile for certain, but which? Whatever it was made from, Esteban adored it.
Letting time pass before she makes her move, Montserrat leans against the shelving. Why did Esteban put her in here? How could he have driven her away from home, through the tunnel, out where it was so hot in the summer, Montserrat preferred to stay inside, swathed in air conditioning. For some reason, she can’t remember that day, the one where he left her at the center. There were other people with her, two women who looked familiar, but she can’t place them now and they haven’t come back to see her. Maybe the only way Esteban could get back to her was by accepting the bus driving job. The women had kept him away, but he found his way back, just as she always knew he would.
“I love those olives!” Florence says as she pushes her basket past Montserrat. “When I was little, I’d stick them on my fingers and eat them one by one!”
Montserrat practices the magic she’s learned at the center, the way of ignoring someone so hard they disappear. She stares straight ahead, focusing on the dairy shelves, feeling the hum of the refrigeration on her shoulder. Milk, half and half, cream, butter, cottage cheese.
“Oh, my,” Florence says, pushing by, her cart clattering. “Sam?”
Montserrat has to move now, so she slips around the aisle away from Florence, grabs a salsa, and heads down the next aisle, clutching her bags and keeping her gaze first on the floor and then on Esteban who stands by the front door.
Her heart is beating into her ears, but she forces herself to act natural. She breathes in, smiles at Esteban, who looks down at her with his kind eyes that have changed color, going from green to a dark brown. But no matter. There’s no time to worry.
“I’m going to buy it,” Montserrat says, knowing that Esteban will understand her hidden meaning. All those years, he always knew what she was feeling even if she didn’t say it. He knew when she wanted to leave a party or hated the main course at a restaurant. He knew when she was tired or happy or needed a cup of tea. He knew to leave her alone for the months of her sadness, and he knew, she thinks in a jagged line, when to die before it all came to this.
Montserrat holds her breath in her throat, blinking into something she can’t see. What? she wonders. What?
But then she remembers. Esteban is not dead. He’s staring down at her with his sad eyes.
“I’m going to the cash register.”
Esteban nods, and she walks pas marché to the front of the store, talking to the strange girl with many steel objects gashing her face. Montserrat can’t look at the piercings or she will stare, something her mother taught her was rude.
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” the girl says, but Montserrat rounds the register and heads toward the swoosh of the automatic doors. In just seconds, she’s going to find her life just where she left it. Holding her salsa tight, she can see her house, right there on Bayview Drive, all white, three stories, black shutters.
“Can I talk to you about Xanadu Youth Facility?” a wet, hooded man asks, and Montserrat stops, clutching something tight. It moves in her grasp, and her hands are wet and she smells something tangy and red. “Kids need good homes. I hope you can spare some dollars for them.”
He shakes something square, walks toward her with two quick strides. Montserrat drops her bags, puts a hand at her throat, the world nothing but this man, all his sounds loud. She lurches, knocks into a hard square with her hip, grabbing onto it but almost toppling.
“Whoa,” the man says. “Hey! Lady, you are squeezing the shit out of that.”
Montserrat looks down and sees that she’s bleeding, her hand wrecked and ruined, bloody and black speckled, but it doesn’t hurt even as it drips.
“Oh, my,” she says, backing away, not knowing how to tend her wound. There’s so much blood, and she has never been able to save anyone.
“She stole that salsa,” the gashed girl from inside the place says, pointing at Montserrat. “She’s got to pay for that.”
“Jesus,” the man says. “You people out here are all the same. What she done to you? She’s a damn old lady.”
Did she steal? Montserrat drops her hand, and it falls to the ground, blood splattering everywhere. She’s going to die, just like Esteban, but outside in this strange place, alone, without anyone she cares about to stand over her dead body.
“Wait, lady,” the man says, and she starts to run. She knows she had a plan, but what? The sidewalk is slick and blood runs down her legs. Her shoes are perfect for dancing, but now she slides and skids toward everything that isn’t what she has now. She wants to be back in the time before it was ruined, maybe all the way back in college before she was broken, before she knew that her life would be unfinished. She wants to save someone, maybe herself, but she doesn’t know where she is or how to move. She wants to go to the living room window and kneel down on the carpeted floor next to Esteban and press her body up to his, putting her arm around his waist. Montserrat wants to hold him tight and forgive them both everything. She wants to sleep like two things that can be together without space between them, both tucked into the drawer of their former life.
“Just stop her,” someone calls out and Montserrat blinks, finds her balance, clutches something metal and cold, barely able to keep her feet under her. Now is the time. Now. Her partner will come and take her by the hand, pulling her to center stage.
“Here I am,” a man says.
Allégro, she thinks, imagining her shiny front door, the way Esteban will open it, his green eyes wide and happy, just as they had been the first time she saw him. She can feel the rain on her forehead, and behind her, she hears something that worries her a bit. But no matter because she’s home already. Esteban is here, his hands on her shoulders, turning her once, twice, motion between them, something exciting and new. And at the moment he touches her, she closes her eyes, smelling her flower bed, the wet grass from the morning sprinklers, the newspaper rolled up and secured with a rubber band. She turns to look back at the house, and Esteban pulls her close, walks her up their front path, leads her inside and closes the door behind them.
|© Jessica Barksdale Inclán, 2014