A Wake Part 3: Awake

by: Jonathan Marcantoni

From the pages of Traveler’s Rest comes part 3 of a 3 part series, exploring the harsh reality of a life spent in wait….

Occasionally, the sun wet the bellies of the clouds, but for the most part the days were silver and blue. When it was sunny, Evelyn laid her head out the window, eyes closed, absorbing the warmth. When fog swept the streets, she walked for hours, noting the hollow colors shifting as the sun journeyed across the sky. The Eighties were ending, the fourth decade of her life nearing its mid-point. She remembered a call from her mother upon her forty-fourth birthday. The desperation behind the smiling voice, how she spoke of all that she had wanted to do and never did. How bitter was the nostalgia that came from that tongue. How lost. That was the word that came to mind whenever her mother entered it. A woman so strong in youth, so wise in the ways of the world, yet so alone.

She had once asked her mother what she wanted in life, and all her mother could say was the happiness of her children. “Children,” she would repeat, the pain of that day when the soldier came to her door to give the news of her two boys lost flooding her vision, and her stare deepening until it became a mirror for the banana plant in front her. When she composed herself, she would smile as though the sadness had vanished, and say, “I want you to be happy.”

“But, what about yourself, mamì?”

“What about me? I’ve lived my life. I raised you, that is why God put me on this earth.”

Evelyn immersed herself in hobbies. She swam every day, read all the books she could buy, watched movies every week, went hiking, made friends, learned to dance—all in an attempt to not look in her children’s’ faces one day and tell them that her only happiness was their happiness. Osvaldo, her son, would never ask that question, though, he was too busy riding the Euro-rail to call home let alone ask his mother such lonely questions.

He was in France now, probably waking up next to his sweetheart, Maricarmen, while his mother lit candles for his abuela’s journey to heaven. The news came early. The horizon was a faint red when the phone rang, waking her from a dream of Cuba, of the last day she was there, gazing at Castro’s picture as her mother packed their bags. She always believed that in some way the government understood that their departure was not political, but that the stench of death was too potent in the motherland. They did not escape to the US, which her mother always said was evil for what they had done to Gustavo.

“Gustavo, Isabela’s first husband,” Papì used to tease her mother. But Evelyn knew her mother loved Papì with the weight of her heart. He had Evelyn’s life; Gustavo had her dreams. So, she lit candles for these men, one on each side of her mother’s candle, so that they may be her guides. She inhaled the incense to stifle the tears before kneeling at the foot of Christ, sobbing.

The three women who permanently occupied the back of the church paid Evelyn no mind as she left, too immersed in meditation to welcome another pained soul into lifelong prayers. The morning wind whipped her hair over her eyes, blinding her from the vendor lazily passing her by. She stopped inches before running him over, brushing the hair from her eyes, a faint smile breaking across the vendor’s wrinkled cheeks. “Buenos dìas,” he said, and she returned the formality before continuing her walk through the windy streets, indifferent to the unnamed sins that haunted her on the journey home.

The city was waking up. Some women beat their rugs on the porch while others leaned over the railing and talked, their coffee cups dangling, the hot liquid reaching for the edge. Men sat under the temperamental sun, reading the paper and smoking. Children were beginning to run out onto the streets to meet and organize games for the day. Evelyn’s mother picked a Sunday to die. Perhaps, she thought God would be more merciful today. Isabela was not a sinful woman, but she rarely went to church, and on occasion would blaspheme the Lord for her losses.

Still, she raised Evelyn in the church, though her daughter had ignored it in her later years as fervently as her mother had, especially when she had started writing. It was vogue in the artistic community, even in Ciudad de Mexico where they had relocated, to hold a grudge against God. Yet, none of them could point out a single offense that God alone was responsible for. No matter how much they railed against Him, in the end they could only blame people. So, Evelyn came to trust in God, who was greater than the people she did not trust, and there were so many counted among those she did not, could not, and would never trust.

Today, Evelyn’s memories wept. How our parents fill them. Even when we have left the house and make our own families, the stamp of our parents remain. Every wonderful moment of her life, from her birth to her graduations from high school and college to her marriage to Osvaldo’s birth, and every sad moment in between, her brother’s deaths, her father’s death, the death of her marriage, the seven months of divorce, the relationships afterward that went sour because Osvaldo never approved of any of the men. He did not even approve of his own father. How glad she was when Osvaldo left the house, since she worried he had grown too close to her, creating a sort of emotional incest, and how she could not stop smiling when he met Maricarmen and they fell in love.

All this and more Evelyn related to Isabela. These streets even bore her mother’s scent, that bitter perfume, like old flowers, carried in the assaulting wind. She had visited once every year for eighteen years. Two months before she had come, frail yet still carrying her burdened smile, Evelyn had asked her if she was happy for the thousandth time. Isabela patted her leg and said, “In life you find that happiness is in the living.”

She did not want this burden. This weight she carried every day. The weight of death. The smell of it. The presence of it. The sound of it. She never wrote a character that died. When death seemed to be on the horizon, she would find a way out. For a time, she wrote children’s books, and when a writer friend asked her one day if she would write a book helping children cope with death, she wrote an adult novel about a love affair aboard a ship, then continued the series until one of the characters had a baby, and it ended. The series was so popular her friend never asked about the children’s book again. Yet, death followed her every day. When she slept, she prayed to Saint Michael to watch over her sleep. When she was in a vehicle or driving, she prayed to Saint Anthony to protect her while she traveled. Even associations with death she feared: being crippled, for it was the death of mobility, being blind, for it was the death of sight, menopause, for it was the death of fertility.

Writing had always been an escape from these horrible fears, and yet, what Evelyn feared most was losing that detachment, and for death to seep its way into her writing, because then where would she escape to? These were the issues most prevalent in her mind, as she yearned for her lover, the Muse, to inspire words of comfort, so she may write a proper eulogy for Isabela, focusing on her life, of course, and nothing else.

Evelyn would not write of her brothers or father. She would not write of Gustavo. She would write of her mother’s wisdom, of her strength in raising her, and the eloquence with which she spoke, the poetry of her laugh, the softness of her touch, the bouncing joy of her eyes when she saw Osvaldo for the first time.

Oh mamì, where will you be at Osvaldo’s wedding? she thought. Where will you be when his children are born? Where will you be when I am old, and sick, and need someone to reassure me that when I close my eyes for the last time I will not fall into an endless darkness, but be lifted up, welcomed by warmth and light and all those who I have missed all these years? Where will you be now in my pain? When I can hardly breathe? Ay mamì, was I a good daughter? Did I really make you happy? Were you disappointed that we moved to Spain? He was my husband, what was I supposed to do? You cannot help who you love. Just be glad it wasn’t an American. 

Were you disappointed that he slept around and left me? Was I so unlovable as to drive him to that other woman? What could I have done different? He was an impossible man, always demanding more attention, more love, and I gave him all I could. Why wasn’t that enough? And Osvaldo, wasn’t his love enough to keep him? What did that child do to deserve being walked out on like that? You were never to blame, mamì. You have no control over death, but I would like to believe we can have some control over the heart. 

When the door to her apartment closed, the collision echoed and silenced her thoughts. For a moment, she felt a deep worry that stopped the tears and caused her left thigh to tremble. All she heard was her breath, and then it subsided and she heard the distant slicing of the wind against her building, and then her downstairs neighbor opening her door and talking to someone in the hallway.

And then the phone shook, a crashing ring cracking her skull. She grabbed it and for a moment, the headache subsided. It was Osvaldo, and she broke down immediately. He was on the verge of tears listening to his mother’s grief, worried something was wrong with her health, but she assured him, “No, I am not the one to worry about. Your abuelita is dead, hijo. We must go to Ciudad de Mexico tomorrow.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“I could barely lift my arms, mijo.”

“I’ll be home tonight.” She hung up without a goodbye, all words escaping her mind. Her thoughts were a jumble of sounds, all roaring, grumbling, creaking and screaming all at once.

We are the sum total of our parents. Nestor, her father, had been a warm, giving man who always had a hug and a smile waiting to be used. In contrast, Isabela had been introverted, yet witty when the moment was right. Her smile was radiant but rarely used. She loved to laugh, and it resounded in the air for miles; however, Evelyn could only recall a few times when she actually laughed that hard. More often than not, there was a chuckle or a giggle. Most of the memories of this glorious laugh included Nestor, who loved to tease and tell jokes. Her brothers were too serious for their own good, and instead of comforting their mother in her new state as a widow, they clung to her in sadness. And, that sadness often turned to anger, cheapening their memories of the past.

Evelyn was jovial, even as a baby, and tried hard to please her mother. For the last forty-plus years, she had bent over backwards to live a life that would make her mother smile, projecting a personality that would make her mother laugh, the way she had with Papì. Even during her divorce, she would tell jokes to avoid talking about how she felt. All her tears fell into her pillow, or on Lydia’s shoulder, but never in front of her mother or Osvaldo. The telephone call this morning had been the first time Osvaldo had heard his mother cry. If Evelyn did cry in front of her mother, they were joyful tears: Osvaldo’s birth, baptism, first communion, and the night before her wedding, when she shared with Isabela all her hopes for the years to come.

Evelyn believed it then, that life would work itself out. That, while there may be sadness here and there, her existence would mostly be fulfilling and joyful. She believed this for the first ten years of her marriage, until the day she realized it had been two years since her husband had kissed her the way he used to, with a firm grip around her waist and lips pressed deep, bordering on sucking. And that, when they made love, he rarely looked at her; that, in fact, his eyes were closed most of the time, which was unusual since they had always gazed deeply into each other during sex. They had derived great joy from watching the other aroused, their eyes bulging, their pupils rolling.

She began to notice he ate every meal too quickly, as if he were anxious to get away. And, when he played with Osvaldo, he would get frustrated easily, often yelling at him for not kicking the ball hard enough or not focusing, but it was he who was not focusing. He always had his eyes elsewhere, on the clock or the door. On that day, she began to feel numb, and her eyes became heavier, and it was harder to speak without forgetting what the subject was. On that day, she began to breathe harder, sleep less, write less. She would sit on her couch, staring at the television, waiting for something to happen, more often than not being content with watching the light slowly fill and then fade from the room.

Waiting. It was the crux of her life: waiting for Osvaldo to come home, waiting for her husband to say “I love you,” waiting for her editor to call, waiting for the night to become late enough that she could sleep without feeling like a pathetic old maid. The only action Evelyn took was to finish her books. Worse…for the longest time, she could not remember when her writing had been personal. She wrote of adventurers in jungles and women falling in love on boats or in Venice. She wrote of politics in France and trashed Cuba’s critics. She wrote of great passions, yet all she was concerned with were proper syntax and narrative flow. Worst…if the pacing was off, she would scrap the whole thing. Her passion was in the words themselves, how perfectly she could construct a sentence. How the structure of a sentence could be inherently beautiful!

Yet, for all the passion these characters evoked, she could not adequately describe who they were. She did not recall her characters after she was finished writing them. They had no personal histories or tastes. They were grammatically, structurally, and traditionally correct, yet nothing more than a vacuous simulation of human experience.

Isabela was not a literary figure. Isabela breathed, laughed, cried, spoke. There is no archetype for a human being, and knowing this, Evelyn was furious that all of the sentences she could construct about her mother fit nothing more than some shallow character pitch: the strong-willed widow, the indomitable spirit, the wise mother, the hard luck woman with a good soul, the woman who longs for her lost love, the good mother. But, why was she a good mother? What makes a good mother? She loved me, and I loved her. But why? Because she birthed me? Because she put me through school? She supported my dreams? All of the above? Am I good writer? Was I good daughter? What makes one or the other? How do I put this in words? I need some air.

She opened the glass door and stepped out on the balcony. The clouds lulled above the rooftops that stretched to an undetermined horizon. She rested her hands on the railing, each arm forming an isosceles triangle. Her silhouette floated, just above the ground, the tension ready to snap, the scream aching at the back of her throat. An immense pain wrapped its thick fingers about her. The silhouette shook, but only slightly: registering as more of a shiver than turmoil. This pain was ancient. This pain was neglected. This pain was raw, festering atop a bleeding wound, eating away at flesh that imprisoned it for years. This pain clogged her throat, stifled her bowels. Her heart punched against this pain. Her chest was sore from the rabid pounding of the ceaseless organ. Her lungs burned.

She couldn’t stand the day. She couldn’t stand another moment of the day. On this day, she was raw. On this day, she was festering. On this day, the accumulation of forty years of anguish, a swarm of buzzing, filled her ears. Around the edges of the buzzing people could be heard: laughing, talking, shouting. Cars honked their horns, water splashed under tires. The wind swirled the buzzing, the sound swooping in and out of consciousness.

She marched inside and grabbed a knife from the kitchen and slashed her face, her stomach, her wrists, her thighs, the blood pausing for an instant before it flowed, shocked to be let free from the body. Then, she stabbed the typewriter, viciously avenging the thousands of hours trapped in its keys. She punctured the walls in the living room to release the life imprisoned. Her screams started and sputtered, and then wailed, the tears unable to keep up with the pain vomiting throughout the house.

She dropped the knife and ripped the books off their shelves, picking them up and pummeling them at her glass door until it shattered. She picked the knife back up, stumbled to her bedroom, stabbing the bed before hurling the knife at the dresser mirror. Throwing herself into the bathroom, she swung at the mirror, cracking it into a web, the glass tearing at her hands. She kicked her tub and the snap of her foot connecting to something solid knocked her on her ass, the screaming directly aimed at this new pain.

When the sobbing ended, and the screams had finally escaped, there were a series of knocks at her door, but she was unable and unwilling to answer. The neighbors had heard and wanted in on the juicy gossip. The word in the hallways was that a new man had left her. To hell with them, she thought.

When she pulled herself up along the wall, she was able to glimpse the destruction she had brought upon her body. In the random slivers of glass, she saw a blood stained arm and shirt. She hobbled over to the sink, her big toe skimming the tile, and observed the patch of blood on her cheek, and the thin red line across her forehead. There was a lot of blood, but not as much as she thought there would be. Even on her wrists, the cuts were haphazard and mostly superficial. Her body was stiff from the blood, but not drenched in it. Dying was not the point anyway.

She soaked in a bath for nearly an hour, mesmerized by the misty red water. Her mind cleared, save for a dull worry about what Osvaldo would think when he saw the mess. The worry did not bother her, in fact, it made her laugh.

Ay mijo, your mother is a crazy woman. 

She threw a towel around her and limped to the living room, hardly noticing the carnage. She rested in the chair by her desk. Miraculously, it had not been turned over. She maneuvered it toward the balcony. The sounds of the street drifted into the apartment, and she smiled as the warmth of human voices reached her ears. The church bells rang in the distance.

I should call Lydia. I should call the airlines. The tickets are going to be so expensive. I should call somebody. 

As the sounds of life rang upon her eardrums, a thought occurred to her that opened her heart and brought a smile to her face. She chuckled and covered her face with her hand, laughing uncontrollably. Yes, yes, that’s it, she thought. That’s what it’s all about.

The next day, she boarded a plane bound for Ciudad de México. ((The photographers used in this piece are the work of the astonishingly talented photographer, Christian Hopkins.))

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