Good fences

Rosa often misses the sound of her own voice. She does not talk much these days, except for polite conversation with the checkout girl at the grocery store, or the waiter at the Chinese restaurant where she never orders anything but tea. Once a week, she gets a telephone call from her daughter-in-law in San Francisco, but those are mostly Abigail talking, telling stories of her two little boys while Rosa hums along and fills the blank spaces with prompting questions. She wants the stories to go on longer. Rosa has stretch marks on her belly and her thighs. As a teenager, she was round and shapely in a way that could make any man in Queens do a double-take, even the yeshiva boys. Sometimes, when she drives by the synagogue on her way home from work, she remembers those boys, the way they would linger on the steps even longer than the boys at the public high school. They always looked so serious in their yarmulkes and pressed dark suits—though her brother, Patricio, assured her that their thoughts were with sex and baseball just like all the other boys in the world. In those days it cost her nothing to be beautiful, but for years now it has required tremendous effort just to maintain average. Her bookshelves are stacked three deep with exercise tapes and low-calorie cookbooks and back issues of Runner’s World, but though she has kept the fat, slovenly old woman of her nightmares at bay, she cannot help looking worn out in a thin-skinned, middle-aged kind of way. Rosa eats a lot of grapes. She takes her time with each one, peeling the skin off with her teeth before she eats the flesh in two or even three tiny bites. She also likes persimmons, which feel to her like surprising tomatoes. She leaves the television on whenever she’s at home so she doesn’t hear the little empty creaks that fill the apartment and make her skin tingle with nerves. One night, she fears, a homeless man will crawl through her bedroom window while she sleeps and kill her with a blunt instrument. When she was nine years old, Rosa’s father leaped across the dinner table and wrapped both his hands around her mother’s throat. The chair toppled backwards as her mother tried to pull away, and after it fell her father pulled himself up onto his knees and slammed her mother’s head against the linoleum twice, hard. After that night, they moved into an apartment with Timothy, her mother’s high school boyfriend, and his partner, Jack, who in those days was still referred to as a roommate. Jack was a construction worker, and Timothy taught algebra at the high school. Rosa started waiting tables when she was 16, and she waited tables all the way through college. The day she cashed her first paycheck, she bought herself a scarf made of paper-thin red silk. She keeps it still, draped over the table in her living room. There is a coffee shop at the end of her block, and a teenage girl with thin hair and sallow skin works behind the bar. Rosa has noticed her boyfriends—always a different one—loitering at the corner table, waiting for her to take a lunch break. She remembers how her girlfriends in high school used to sit nursing Cokes at the counter for hours until she clocked out. She would bring a dress to work with her, folded in her bag, and once her shift had ended she would disappear into the bathroom and strip off her white waitress’s uniform with its smell of french fry grease, and pull something soft and clean-smelling over her head. In those moments, she would feel a terrible tiredness mingling with her excitement. Work made her so tired when she was young. On slow afternoons she would sometimes disappear into the stockroom, just to sit on the floor in the dark and rest her head against the shelves. Rosa worked for an architect once, a manic brilliant woman with tiny hands, and even her most trying projects never made her feel tired in the same way. Still, she suspects she has spent most of her life tired. Rosa got divorced at the age 38, and knew by the time she was 42 that she would probably never be married again. When she was in her 20s, she began to find all food repellant. She would give herself small rewards every time she finished a meal: a cigarette, a nap on the couch. It went on like that for two years, until she got pregnant, at which point she was seized for weeks by a ravenous hunger and seemed determined to eat every bite of food she had ever pushed aside. Her son was born on her father’s birthday. He was a terribly colicky infant. Her ex-husband used to play Jack Benny records for hours a day, and she suspects this is the reason she can no longer stand a silent house. Their son asked to stay with him after the divorce. He got married young, the way Rosa and her husband did. She wore blue to the wedding. Her daughter-in-law cries often, with love and joy as well as sadness, and for this reason Rosa believes their marriage will be happier than her own. Her daughter-in-law has innocent-looking freckles on her nose and the shadow of a lisp. Their oldest son is named after Rosa’s ex-husband. She doubts whether, if the child had been a girl, it would have been named after her. She is not bitter about this. Rosa’s mother loved sunflowers. On weekends, they would have French toast, and Rosa sometimes makes herself French toast when she gets lonely. She keeps a black and white photo from her parents wedding on the table next to her couch. The couch is white. Her apartment is impeccably clean. Once, visiting Patricio in New York, she saw a young black man crying on the subway. He was sitting right across from her, wailing with some cosmic agony. She moved seats. She sometimes thinks Patricio is much better adjusted than her. He is a recovering alcoholic, and she graduated summa cum laude from Occidental, but she still thinks this. She came to Los Angeles when she was 20, to transfer from the city college in Queens. Her future ex-husband worked in a bar on Sunset2, and she got drunk for the first time in her life that Fourth of July. Her friends in those days were all heavy drinkers. The last news she heard of her father came in 1991, when a young-sounding woman called to tell her he was dying in a hospice back in Queens. She hung up without speaking. She has begun thinking in recent years of Joanna, her best friend from second grade, who had big front teeth and always wore a ribbon at the end of her braid. Joanna had seven sisters, and was the youngest of them all. Rosa often wonders whether she could have taken better care of Patricio. She never had the courage to ask, but she wonders also whether he drank beer or whiskey or vodka or gin. Her mother never touched a drop of alcohol, though she sometimes became terribly angry and when that happened she scream curses at her children and throw dishes off the fire escape. This was never enough to compromise the ferocious devotion with which Rosa loved her. When she was very small, she would sometimes steal her mother’s eyeliner pencil and use it to draw a black beauty mark on her upper lip. She wanted to be a painter then. Now she writes technical manuals for a living. She believes she has a sixth sense for knowing when someone is an architect, and goes out of her way to avoid such people. She’s uncertain whether she makes a lot of money, but always seems to have much more than she needs. Her only real indulgences are the moderately overpriced body products for which she has a weakness, and her bathroom counter is crowded with organic face washes, lavender oils, creams made from sheep’s milk. Rosa is sure she has loved people in her life. She is not sure how much she loved them, or how many of them may have loved her back. She remembers the curtain that hung in front of her bedroom door in their first apartment after leaving Jack and Timothy, all purples and reds that bled into each other and trapped light between fibers so fine they barely existed. You could see silhouettes through it. Sometimes in dreams she is 10 years old, wrapping herself up in that curtain. The silk catches on her breath and clothes and the pale hairs on her arms, falls over her hair and covers her face until she is only a silhouette and all the world is a silhouette before her. Her mother hung curtains in front of every door, and Rosa used to think they were alive when they moved in the breeze from the open window.

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