“Mama. Mama,” Rosana shook Norma’s shoulder gently. She let out the brake and waited while the car rocked back in the driveway. Norma was fast asleep in the passenger seat. Maybe I’ll just leave her while I unload the car, Rosana thought.
She stepped out into the crisp air of a January North Carolina afternoon, a thin layer of snow crunching under her feet. Lisa’s kids were at their window staring at her. Two bouquets of flowers sat in vases by the front door.
Their home. Marcelo’s and hers. Their first, their only home. They left nine days ago a couple, and now Rosana stood staring at their home, a widow. Incomprehensible.
“Not our home. Military housing at Cherry Point. And I have thirty days to be out.” She didn’t plan to hang around even that long. Shifting her purse to the other shoulder, Rosana fingered the house key. What if she just left? Would someone else come and clean out the place? Someone who wouldn’t be assaulted by the memories which lived there? She walked up the drive reluctantly, careful not to look at the flowers, and fit the key into the lock. The lock she had badgered Marcelo to double check before they backed out of the driveway.
“Why? There’s nothing valuable in there!” Marcelo had snorted.
She had given him a smart aleck answer and he had climbed out of the car in the early-morning dark to do her bidding. He had grasped the handle and yanked it firmly. The same handle she was staring at now. Marcelo’s hands had touched it last. Rosana turned the key and wrapping her fingers around the handle, began to cry.
Lisa and Dave came over with an offer of supper and companionship, but Rosana declined.
In the cupboard there were some cans of tuna fish and a jar of mayonnaise to spread on the frozen bread she toasted for their supper.
Norma cried without ceasing.
It was the smell which overwhelmed Rosana. The smell of his clothing in their bedroom as she unpacked his duffle bag. The smell of his shaving cream in the bathroom as she helped Norma through her evening routine. The smell of his cologne, neatly arranged on the dresser as she laid out tomorrow’s medications. She turned all her attention to making Norma comfortable on their bed, and when her mother-in-law settled into a fitful sleep, Rosana curled up in his recliner, wrapped herself in the blanket from the back of the couch, and listened to the neighbors until sleep overcame her.
Every morning that followed, she woke, the eastern light shining in her eyes through the patio slider. Each morning, she lay staring out at the sky, sketching the clouds in her mind until she remembered.
Marcelo is dead.
But I am not alone.
Norma needs me.
And without hesitating, she would rise from the recliner, fold the blanket and lay it over the back of the couch and begin her morning routine in anticipation of Norma’s waking.
Each day was the same. Entertain the chaplain, the officers’ wives, the enlisted men’s wives, the neighbors. Mechanically answer their questions. Thank them for their support. Heat and eat the meals they brought. Help Norma from the bedroom to the living room, where she cried and slept until bedtime. All the while, her mind churned. Where will we live? What will I do for a living? How will we survive?
She ordered a guide book to the Dominican Republic, a Spanish phrase-book, and a Spanish dictionary from Amazon.com. She studied them daily, practicing with Norma.
There were calls to make, bills to pay, stuff to throw out. Rosana tried to sort Marcelo’s things while Norma slept. One pile for give away, one pile for throw away. She only saved pictures, carefully tucking them into Norma’s photo album.
She even called her mother. When the call went straight to voicemail, Rosana message was brief.
“This is Rosana. Marcelo died. I’m taking his mother home. If you have anything to say, I’ll be at this number for two more weeks.”
No one called back.
The doctor who gave Rosana and Norma their physicals had nothing new to say. Rosana’s health was good, with the exception of the infertility, which the doctor declared ‘of undetermined origin.’ Norma’s condition was unchanged. Rosana bought enough medication to last six months.
When the life insurance check arrived, Rosana paid off their credit cards, the car, and bought a wheelchair. There wasn’t much left.
She turned her attention to packing.
Rosana located Azua and Bani in the guidebook – the two cities closest to the coastal town of Palmar de Ocoa where Norma was born and raised. It would be hot, the book said. Bananas, plantains, wheat, onions, and mango grew there for export to the US. Other industries were tourism and fishing.
“I am going to burn like a frying fish,” she muttered to her pale, red-headed reflection in the bathroom mirror. “Can I just buy a sunblock company?”
Instead, she invested in a large sun hat, bandanas, and long sleeved, lightweight shirts. Sunglasses, khaki pants and her floor length broom skirt completed her sun-conscious preparations.
Medical equipment and Norma’s possessions also needed to be pared down to essentials, but most challenging for Rosana were her art supplies. She finally narrowed her choices to a selection of brushes, pencils, papers, erasers, and tubes of paint which could fit into a small backpack.
“Mama, can I get paint thinner and canvas, and things down there?”
Norma shook her head. “I don’ know. Maybe in the Capital?” Rosana hoped so.
The day before their departure, Rosana filled a cardboard box with the remainder of the cleaning supplies and made a last tour of the echoing duplex.
“The pictures, Rosana? Your pictures?” Norma gestured to the wrapped frames leaning against the wall by the front door.
“I’m sending them to my mom’s house. The only one I’m taking is over there.” She pointed to an 8X10 package next to her backpack. Inside was the partially finished oil painting of Marcelo, but Rosana didn’t say so. It would be a surprise for their new house. Wherever that would be.
Aside from the front hall, which contained Marcelo’s military duffle bag filled with his mother’s possessions, Rosana’s clothes duffle, her art backpack, her purse with their money and passports, and the wheelchair, the house was empty. So was the garage and the driveway, since the new owners had come to claim the car. The proceeds had funded their plane tickets, with four hundred dollars left over.
Scribbling her signature at the bottom of the final form on the housing inspector’s clipboard, Rosana called the cab, moved the bags out onto the front walk, helped Norma into her wheelchair, and relinquished the key.
It was done. A great weariness settled over her.