“What, did he try to find someone as opposite from me as possible?” Rosana held the photo near her nose and squinted.
“George Washington, ‘Celo. Who d’ya think I’m talking about? Yes, Carlos, and this woman.”
“Her name is Olinda.”
“Whatever. She’s short, and fat.” Rosana waved the photo, accusingly.
“And black. Is that what you have a problem with? You sound like your mother.”
“Aren’t you kind, Mr. Semper Fi. I am only saying that she is way darker than Carlos.”
“And you’re way lighter than me.”
“That’s different. I chose you. She just wants Carlos to get her out of the ghetto.”
“You chose me? Like I had nothing to do with it?”
“Please.” Rosana snorted. “You wanted me. I chose to have you.”
“And you didn’t choose Carlos, and now you don’t get to choose his fiancé. Was he supposed to get your advice first? You haven’t done much to make him like you, Rosana.”
“Your brother’s jealous, Marcelo. So now he’s hanging around with this chick who is my polar opposite. He’s trying to prove something. Did you hear one intelligent thing in this whole email? ‘Come to our wedding at Camp Pendleton the day after Christmas,’ ” she mimicked in a sing-song voice. “Not!”
Marcelo pulled the car into the driveway of the duplex, turned off the engine, and shoved open the door. Two snow flakes drifted down to his camouflaged leg. He watched the melt into the fabric.
“Well, take bag of groceries in with you.”
“I’m going to California.”
“To their wedding? You gotta be kidding.”
“That’s my brother. I’d go anywhere if he needed me.”
“How special. He’ll need you at the divorce hearing, too, ’cause this chick’ll be around long enough to divorce him and collect a sweet little alimony check. He’s her ticket out of the LA ghetto that spawned her.”
“‘Sana, if Olinda wants out of her neighborhood, and Carlos wants to marry her, how is that different from you marrying me to get away from your Mom?”
“That’s not the only reason I married you.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s right. I forgot the other reason. You married a Domincan to make her really mad, too. An enlisted man, not even an officer. But now you’re stuck, because you’re an enlisted Dominican’s wife.”
“Be quiet. Lisa’s listening. I can see the curtain in their living room moving. How high-ranking do you have to be before we get a house? This duplex thing is killing me.”
Marcelo let out his breath noisily and climbed out of the car.
Their side of the two-bedroom duplex was furnished in what Rosana described as “late-American Garage Sale” style. Furniture left behind by a family sent overseas. Dishes and curtains from the Base-wide flea market. K-Mart bedding.
In contrast, the framed art hanging from the thin walls was museum-quality. Oils, mostly, in a classic, realistic style. Still lives, landscapes. A portrait in the bathroom. “My father,” Rosana had explained to Marcelo the day she moved in, “there’s only one thing I’d like to be doing when I look at him.”
Rosana kicked off her heels and padded barefoot into their bedroom. The street lamps shone through the window, illuminating her easel and a mess of paints, papers, jars of soaking brushes, and a half-finished portrait. “My little hubby-man,” she murmured as she picked her way passed it to the window. For a moment before drawing the shade, Rosana watched the TV show in a duplex opposite theirs, then turned on a fan to block the noise of Lisa and Jerry’s video game clearly audible through the wall at the head of their bed.
She flopped down, one leg dangling over the edge of the bed, kicking at nothing with her toe. From the kitchen, she could hear Marcelo washing the pots from last night’s spaghetti. He had the game on the kitchen TV.
Four months after eloping, they had settled into an uneasy routine. He left before dawn. She slept until Noon. He worked all day at whatever it was he did in that cute little uniform which got more of his attention than she did. Some nights he had duty and was gone all night “standing watch.” Whatever that was. Whatever.
She sat up suddenly and looked at herself in the mirror over the dresser. The poverty wasn’t a problem. She had roughed it before at summer camp every year, and this was no different. She was just – restless.
“I need a little excitement, here,” she muttered. For a moment she considered going out to talk with Marcelo in the kitchen, but they would just fight and she didn’t want to see him looking unhappy.
“In spite of what you think,” she told his imaginary reflection in the mirror next to hers, “I
do care about you.”
She stood and ran a finger over his brush, perfectly aligned on the dresser top next to three books, a fingernail clipper, and a bottle of cologne. Everything arranged by height.
The telephone rang. Rosana flipped on the light and with her toe, cleared a path to the easel. ‘Celo would get the phone. It would be for him anyway, since none of her acquaintances were still in touch since her somewhat precipitous wedding and move from Washington, DC, to Cherry Point Marine Air Base in North Carolina. She picked up the unfinished portrait. He was cute. But incompatible. He had wanted a Church wedding, she wanted to elope. She wanted to stay away from all family relationships. He constantly needed to check in with Carlos or his mother.
She pursed her lips. Ridiculous. Obviously, he hadn’t figured out that there are things you just don’t share with family. They didn’t need to know every detail of your life. And Carlos, who thought he had a right to be up in her face telling her how to be a wife to Marcelo, was totally out of line.
She flung the portrait onto their bed. A landscape. That’s what she’d paint.
“I’ll do something warm. Tropical. Something out of a cruise advertisement.”
Rosana shuffled through a pile of canvas, paper, and boards, finally holding up a thick, stiff paper. She rotated it back and forth until the picture in her mind fit onto it best. Clipping it to the easel, she fished a black charcoal pencil from a box on the floor.
After sketching for ten minutes, the major elements were in place, and serious consideration about the shade of the water was underway. As the picture came to life on the paper, the late-November gray sky and the old military housing complex disappeared, replaced by fresh air, white pebbly sand, “and two seagulls, right about here.”
“And a little stream coming out of the grasslands over heeeeere – ”
“Rosana.” Marcelo’s voice had an edge. She smelled him, standing too close, telephone in hand.
“Arrrrrghh! WHAT??? What do you want? I’m working!”
“You’re not working. You’re drawing.”
Rosana spun away from the easel to face him, flinging the pencil across the room. It bounced off the wall and clattered to the floor, leaving a black smudge above their bed.
“This is my work, Marcelo! Just because I don’t fix engines or shine stupid shoes all day doesn’t mean I don’t work!”
“When your drawing brings in some money – no, when your drawing even pays for itself, I’ll call it work.”
Rosana picked up a grubby gum eraser and drew back her hand to heave it when he caught her wrist.
“Stop it and listen to me! Put that thing down!” He squeezed until the pressure was unbearable on her lightly-framed arm. She opened her fingers reluctantly and let the eraser drop. Marcelo released her roughly and turned away, pounding his fist on the door frame.
At the same moment they both remembered the thin wall between their bedroom and the neighbors.
“Listen to me,” Marcelo hissed, turning to stride back to her, wagging the telephone like a pointer. “My mother is sick, and we are going to California to see her.”
Rosana opened her mouth to mock him, but a memory checked her. She was fixing a peanut butter and blueberry sandwich at the granite counter of her Mother’s kitchen, dropping the berries by twos and threes into their thick brown bed. The swinging door rocked on it’s hinges, and she looked up to see her wide-eyed parent, phone in hand.
“It’s cancer,” her mother breathed, dropping the phone and bracing her arms on either side of the sink. “Jamesey has brain cancer.” Then she vomited.
“Forget it, Marcelo” she whispered. “I don’t do sick people.”
“You will this time. We’ve been married four months and you won’t even go meet her! You should have some respect for your mother-in-law!”
“I didn’t ask for a mother-in-law, and I’m not flying out to meet her when she’s sick! What does she have anyway?”
“Multiple Scarosis.” Marcelo forgot to whisper, and the diagnosis fell flat in the air between them.
“Sclerosis,” Rosana corrected.
“What is it?”
Rosana turned away from those eyes. Round. Frightened. So much like her Mother’s, hovering over Jamesey’s bed. Round and wide like the windows in the hospice room. Round and open like Jamesey’s mouth, dead.
“It’s a degenerative disease. It takes a little at a time.”
“So she’s gonna die.”
“Please,” she snorted, shoving through the solemnity toward the door, eyes averted. “She’s a mother-in-law. She’ll probably outlive you.