Guadalupe Chavez moved though our house like a breeze on the Yucatan Peninsula. I sat with my ankles crossed, chain-smoking V-slims while watching her from a leather chair, which stuck to my skin in the heat. I think I hated her then. She vacuumed under my feet, trying not to focus on the bandages wrapped tightly around my black wrists.
She wants to go back home.
Guadalupe switched off the vacuum, the silence reminding my ears of secrets. Of commiserating whispers.
She winds the cord between her palm and her elbow; her brown eyes focused on the table where a list that my husband left for her sits only half done. I exhale rings of smoke, wishing that they would wrap around her neck, tighten like twine and twist around her young, willowy neck. She leans over to pick up the list, her breasts pulled forward, looking like golden apples. I tell myself that her perfume smells of a wet horse, but the truth was that it left me feeling dizzy. I watched her hair trail behind her as she swayed from one room to another. A chocolate wave ...
My husband Sydney says her name like his reoccurring 'Hail Mary's' or like the prayer 'Oracion Al Sagrado corazon De Maria.'
"Oh, Guadalupe, please. Guadalupe, oh won't you please and por favor?" I sit in corners, in shadows, dormant, listening to him purr. His deep ebony tone makes me shudder, and I picture his twenty-four Karat eyes, the soft pink of his palms pressed against her bare shoulder. Guadalupe never responds to him with anything but timid roughly spoken yes' and no's. She ties her apron tighter, she threads misplaced hair back into her bun; she mops like she's rowing a boat.
At night Sydney sips mescal. He swallows, tightens his face, and then relaxes. I know he is comparing it to the Cabernet Sauvignon that we used to have in our wine cellar when we lived in Manhattan. We could afford the best then. Now he is forced to choke down corn liquor, getting quickly bit off its savage poison. He sits hunched over his brief case, picking up pieces of his old job, cutting and pasting together a new one. He is drenched in the light from a desk lamp. I watch him with my one eye closed and the one against the pillow open. He moves nervously. I see him tremble and perspire in the heat of the evening, thinking perhaps of Guadalupe and her essence of citrus forenoon's.
"Sydney?" I ask rolling back the covers so that I can see him better. The bed screams as I turn onto my side. At first he gives no clue that he can hear me. Then he says, "go to sleep Nina. Just sleep, honey."
Even though the night stands still in Playa del Carmen, I feel something cold roll over my body, leaving black goose bumps across my flesh. I close my eyes to him, letting my dreams fill me like an empty cup, then spill me over New York. I am home again.
She just wants to go home...
I hear Sydney on the phone, most likely talking to his sister. He is whispering and I hear the tones of sympathy more then his exact words. I slip closer to the doorway, straining to hear. A pillow of smoke comes from the open doorway, greeting me and delivering my husbands whispered words on pale vapors. "I let her down. I lost my job. Nina just hates it here. But I love it." Sydney is quiet for a moment. I think about walking away, but don't. "She is lonely here in Mexico. That's why she tried to...you know. Suicide. She thinks only of home. She says, 'New York this, and Manhattan that'. I say, 'Nina, we can't afford it. My job is here now, you know'. Yeah. Nostalgia. She thinks only of the past."
I look at the bandages that badly contrast against my African skin.
When I awake my day is filled with Guadalupe. She rides my hours, slipping through door frames, mending Armani pants (because we can't afford new ones) pressing handkerchiefs (the ones that I cry into). She folds my underwear into origami flowers, placing them into a cedar drawer like silk and nylon bouquets. I unfold them, each one, inhaling the perfume of her wrists, which touch my garments and leave them with the fragrance of orchids. I hate her, I decide.
For dinner Guadalupe made Pico de Gallo, fresh tortillas and chili con carne. She let her hair down completely, draping over her thin shoulders, all the way down to the red tie on her apron. Sydney watches her rear end, swaying from one hot pan to the other, the carmine fringe on her skirt curving around her legs. Her bare toes spread against the linoleum. Sydney is tracing over her body with his eyes like she is a maze.
"Won't you stay with us for dinner, Guadalupe?" Sydney asks.
She shakes her head. "Mi padre. He is waiting for me."
Sydney watches her without break. "I insist, please. Join us." Guadalupe sat in my chair. The one I always use. Sydney tosses me a glance. I don't say a word.
Guadalupe ate the red chili peppers raw. She pushed the piquant food between her scarlet lips, chewing without hesitation. She stared at me. She unstrung me and made me hateful. She looked over my skin, dark and thick, tired and temporarily wrinkled in the corners. She let her eyes cascading over my short braids, and finally focusing on my bandages. I put my hands under the table.
"Please excuse me," I said, leaving the kitchen.
Back in my room I tried to dream of New York, but the laughter from the dining room kept me thinking of Guadalupe.
When Sydney left Mexico on a plane heading towards a possible business venture in California, he had more to say to Ms. Chavez than to me. She had shaven his head only the night before, and he was looking more handsome than I had remembered him to be, dressed in a black Dior suit. I could see the vague stitches Guadalupe had made in the pant hems.
I watched him as he stood outside beneath the fig tree, looking through his briefcase for the list he had prepared for her. Shadows moved across Sydney's lips as he read off the instructions.
"You know that gray suit upstairs? There is a hole in the jacket. I left dinero on the counter for shopping. Don't let Nina buy more cigarettes. We have no money for habits. Also, enjoy yourself, Guadalupe. The pool is cool when the day is not." Sydney smiled at her and tugged on the end of her yellow shawl.
I closed the window I had been watching them from. I sat on the bed, waiting for Sydney to come upstairs. Waiting for him to tell me goodbye in his own way; a dry kiss against my ashy cheek. Perhaps he would offer me some pesos along with an invitation to 'do something nice'. I always expected him to say, "please dear, don't try to take your own life again."
When he finally came upstairs the lock on his briefcase had already been set and he was ready to go. "Kisses," he commanded, offering me his pursed mouth. "Keep those bandages on at least until I get home. Be nice to Guadalupe. She is here to help."
*Guadalupe moved through our house like fish through the Gulf of Mexico. Sleek in her manner, effortless in her ways, her sweat glistened skin caught breezes from the open windows that she cleaned. She would finish her chores with such impeccability that I could not find reasons to complain. Then, when she stuck the chore list against the refrigerator with the red word 'done' printed on it she would turn up the music and dance. Lord would she dance. She would tie up her long, black cotton dress, knot it in the front and shake her hips like she was mixing a margarita and grenadine. Her arms would spread and fold, extend and pull. Her fingers would close over her face in dramatic postures. All the while her perfume would intoxicate my senses, her skirt fringe would fan the essence of tropical flowers into the air, leaving me too dizzy to feel the rhythm.
Many of the nights I spent without Sydney were scented with white sand and chipping paint and especially of heat. A wind rolled through our bedroom, carrying sounds of street brawls and fiestas. Music would come rising from between the walls, up through the tortilla thin ceilings, and into my bedroom where I would awaken to a guitar and a woman singing, "Escuchadme" and "Ya lo Creo!" I laid in bed for half an hour, listening to the maracas and the trumpets. It was Guadalupe.
I envied her fiesta of one.
I chain smoked in bed, puffing away on hand rolled cigarettes. Those were all I had, besides my piquant rancor, cheap tobacco and early evenings filled with the rumba and the cha-cha.
Without Sydney, I wanted to stay in bed all day. Sometimes the only reason I would roll out of bed and put on clothes was to watch Guadalupe. She would be dancing in the living room, and I would settle into my chair and stare at her.
"Would you like to dance?" Guadalupe asked me one afternoon. I had finished my last cigarette the day before. I sat before her merely a shadow with cravings. I wanted to spat at her as she offered me her palms upwards, poised before me with one bare foot in front of the other. She had just finished dancing a merengue and a drop of perspiration held on to her tan brow. I shook my head, my slovenly braids scratching at the back of my neck. I felt so nappy, too hot, excessively fatigued. I simply wanted another cigarette, but Guadalupe had spent our last few pesos on flour and oil.
"No," I said, turning my face away from her. "I'm not good at it," I sniffed. Guadalupe reached up and looped her hair around her arm, tying it against her scalp. Again she reached out for me. "Come now. You have two feet...you can dance. I see you watch. You like it. Come dance. I'll show you."
I looked at my bandages, slightly soiled with red dirt and cigarette ash and water stains. Though her perfume swathed around my mind, and the music began...the drums clapping for an encore of her motion. She lifted me by my hand, placing my right hand down at waist level and my left on the round of her hip. She became a beacon to my feet, telling me to follow hers. She dipped me back, spun me to the side, then let go of my hand and separated our bodies in climactic stances.
"Shake, shake, shake!" She yells, reclining her head in laughter, showing me her fingers stretched apart, waving them and gripping them within a fist, wrapping her entire arm around her torso and then wiggling free of it.
We danced like that, reckless in the heat of the late afternoon until the music and her aroma of wilting bouquets set me apart from the uniform dolor. Until the maraca's replaced the sound of whispers.
After dancing, Guadalupe and I laid nude underneath the heat of three O'clock. We were victims of fatigue caused by "viento fuego," or fire wind from the edge of Playa del Carmen. Her body made curves along the grass, like brown sand dunes, smooth and caramelized, glistening like the carbonation in our root beer mugs. I looked down at my black toes, let them wriggle, and then, completely exhausted, I plopped my head against the grass. We laughed simultaneously.
Guadalupe rolled onto her side. She looked at me for a few moments before she said, "I think that before we danced you hated me."
I couldn't look at her now. My eyes focused on two clouds, one like a feather, the other almost resembling the shape of New York. "No. I like you," I said.
She sat up, pulled her knees into her chest. Guadalupe adjusted her head to watch the clouds as well. She hesitated before saying, "You think your esposo cares for me." She looked at me, cautious of my reaction. I was placid, too tired to be angry. Especially when she let her eyes soften against me and she looked at me like just maybe she thought I was beautiful.
"He does. He loves you, Guadalupe. You are everything that I used to be...more even." I pulled up a chunk of grass and let each blade fall through my fist. "Can you blame him? You are ravishing."
She shook her head. "You are beautiful. He loves you." She held up her hair atop her head to let the wind lick and dry her neck. "Men. They see what is red; they see what moves and what dances. They do not see what sours in corners. You love him. So dance! Be red!"
I let myself laugh a little. I had though all this time that she hadn't noticed me slinking through shadows and glaring from corners, the rings of smoke my only physical contact to the outside world. The world that laughed and danced salsa around me. I shrugged my shoulders. "I own no red. I am from a place where being seen in gray means you're taking a chance. I like black suits, my brown Trianii heels."
Guadalupe smiles. "Now you're in a place where wearing gray means you drowned in a cenote. Come." She lifted herself from the ground, shedding stray pieces of grass that clung to her skin. "We'll make you a dress. Un vestido rojo."
In the attic of her house Guadalupe found four yards of ruby colored cotton, a yard and a quarter of red silk, and lots and lots of black gossamer. She put some music on and danced around me with her hands full of needles and spools of thread. Pinking shears and measuring tape. "Stand still," she begged. I could hardly keep my hips from rising beneath the yards of red fabric encompassing my dark, lean frame. "My fingers will be more red than your dress if you don't hold still!"
We laughed while she fed me quesadillas because I couldn't move my arms. By midnight she was finished, and I felt the snap as she pulled the last thread. She let the string fall to the floor. "Esta rojo," she said, presenting me to a mirror. I looked at my reflection. I was a flame, an ocean of scarlet waves. My wrists were still wrapped, but now they were buried within the thick pleats. I was the pistil encircled within red, silken petals. Now I was the flower. I realized suddenly that I had been holding my breath. I let it out with a giggle. "I love it, Guadalupe," I said. Then I realized that her name did sound like a prayer.
*When Sydney came home late the following Sunday I didn't even notice him standing in the doorway with his mouth agape, and his face twisted in a combination of persuasion and curiosity. "What's going on?" he asked. But the music did not stop at the command of his voice. I turned my chin over my shoulder, shaking my red rump at him...a Spanish greeting.
I began shimmying down in that red dress until it rode down the slope of my bosom. Guadalupe took my hand and lead me around her. Beneath the music she asked, "Nina, don't you think he sees you now?" I moved closer to her, wrapping her round with my arm. "Go to him," she tells me.
"I will go to him when I am through with you," I said as we began to perform her version of the paso doble. Sydney watched from the door, his eyes glued to me. Smiling.
Suddenly I realized the music was so loud that the whispers had begun to fade.