Marcelo made an illegal U-turn and pulled up in front of an apartment building whose 1950s-era pink plaster was falling off in large chunks.
“Is it safe to get out here?” asked Rosana, eying the groups of scruffy adults and half-clothed children who were staring at the car.
“Stay there.” Marcelo climbed out and moved their duffle bags and Rosana’s purse to the trunk. Then he slammed and locked the lid.
“Welcome to East LA, ma’am,” he quipped, helping Rosana out of the car.
“Thanks, I think. Do any white people live here?” She smoothed her dress compulsively, looking up and down the street.
“Just stay near me, and you’ll be fine.” Marcelo locked the doors and taking her firmly by the hand, strode into the courtyard of the building. Cat calls pierced the heavy, hot air as they passed. Televisions blared from open doors, and the smell of fried foreign food wafted from open windows. Filth pervaded the grounds and a palpable depression descended on the pair as they made their way past broken stairs and overflowing dumpsters. The voice of a screaming infant mingled with the sound of a heated argument. Marcelo pulled her close and guided them to the other side of the broken cement courtyard.
“I can see why this is a good place to be illegal,” Rosana muttered. “What cop in his right mind would come in here?”
“Only the SWAT team and the priest make it in and out. It’s around back.”
“Your Mom’s apartment?”
“No. She doesn’t have an apartment. She lives in here with a bunch of other Dominicans.” He pulled her quickly around one end of the building to a small plaster house of the same vintage and color as the apartments.
“What, in the Pink Palace?”
Marcelo laughed. “That’s what Carlos and I call it.”
Rosana smoothed her dress, discreetly drying her palms on the fabric.
“Ehh! ‘Celo!” She looked up in time to watch the screen door fly back and hover, it’s spring too old and mis-shapen to pull the door closed again. A torrent of people began to pour out of the house. They flowed around Rosana in a chattering, swirling, staring flood which enveloped and carried her bodily through the door of the dilapidated house.
The room through which the crowd carried her was filled to overflowing with furniture of every variety and style which could possibly be crammed inside. Through a dilapidated kitchen and small living room with grungy carpet the crowd pushed, beaching her in front of an open door. She spun around, hoping to find Marcelo at her heel. Marcelo to go in first. Marcelo to handle his mother.
But Rosana was alone in the crowd, which lapped expectantly on the shores of her mother-in-law’s room.
Soon, a woman of tsunami proportion came from behind and pushed her inside.
Norma, or ‘Dulce,’ as most people called her, had been waiting all day.
“‘Celito was so taken with her beauty,” she told Anna, her hair dresser, a matron from one of the apartments, that morning, “he couldn’t stop until he married her! Not even long enough to bring her to me, first.” Dulce wrung her hands.
“I wouldn’t let my boy run off with a girl like that,” Anna had clucked.
“Oh, my Marcelito has very good taste. And without his Father here, he’s the head of the family, now. I know he chose well. I only wish Eduardo had lived to meet her! He would have taken us all back to our property in the Dominican Republic, and we would live in the house that is waiting for us there.”
“Is she Dominican?” the hairdresser pressed.
“Her name,” said Dulce, pulling in her stomach and flaring her nostrils with pride, “is Rosana.”
“Lemme see a photo,” Anna insisted, un-clipping the colorful plastic cylinders from Dulce’s hair.
“I don’t have one. Marcelito wants to surprise me.”
“Ahhh, that’s not a good sign, Dulce! He’s hiding. Why won’t he send his own Mama a picture of his bride?”
“She’s probably an American girl, and he wants me to be surprised! I always told my boys to cast the net wide in America. You never know what they might catch! What if she’s beautiful and rich?”
“But what if she’s Haitian?”
Both women sighed, and Dulce hobbled home to ponder this possibility.
In one glance, Rosana took in the muu-muu-style dress, plastic crucifix, fraying sateen comforter, and dollar-store fake flower arrangement, still in its protective plastic.
Rosana meets mother-in-law, she thought, eying the short, slight woman with dyed black curls standing slightly bent and supported by a cane.
Dulce, wide-eyed, looked from the leggy redhead in a tight, thigh-length blue mini-dress to Anna, the hairdresser, and all the chattering throng elbowing for a glimpse around Anna’s girth. A smile leaped to her eyes and to her lips
“You are my Rosana! My very own Rose!” Dulce lurched toward her new daughter, arms outstretched.
“Cuidado!” cried Anna in unison with gasps from the onlookers as Dulce’s cane caught on the carpet’s edge and sent her sprawling toward the floor.
But Rosana was quicker than gravity, and leaping across the room, caught Dulce in her arms before her mother-in-law’s outstretched wrists could take any impact.
“Whoa! Omigosh, are you okay?” Rosana knelt on the once-green shag carpet. The older woman lay against her heart weeping and shaking. For a moment, it seemed to Rosana she was holding a frail bird, fallen from the nest and unable to return to the protection of it’s family home.
A sensation she understood. She crooned and rocked, smoothing the woman’s hair from her forehead and wiping the tears on the sleeve of her cardigan.
“Find Marcelo,” Anna commanded, turning to shoo the crowd, and blessedly, closing the door behind her.
A moment passed in which neither woman spoke. Then, making no effort to move, Dulce, calmed, looked up into Rosana’s eyes.
“You are me daughter. Me.” Dulce patted her chest, speaking calmly in heavily accented English, but Rosana understood. She had been claimed. Spoken for. She waited for the disgust and revulsion to well up within her. The wave of physical sickness which always overtook her at moments of interpersonal emotion, but none came. Just a sweet peace, a sense of belonging, and an awareness that in a few short moments, her world had changed.
When Marcelo shoved open the door of his Mother’s room, he expected to find Rosana with the half-sneer she wore whenever she met one of his friends. Her, ‘you’re-not-quite-good-enough-for-me-but-I’ll-tolerate-you-for-a-few-minutes,” look. Or a look of general revulsion at the state of poverty in which his Mama lived.
He did not expect to find her on her knees adjusting his Mother’s shoes.
“‘Celito!” His mother crooned, reaching out to hug him from her seat on the edge of the bed.
“Mama, they said you fell! Are you okay? Do you need to go to a doctor?” He held her at arm’s length, looking her over.
“No, mi amor. La angelita de misericordia came to keep me from fall. Santa Teresita sent me a Rose from heaven. ‘Celo, ‘Celo, Rosana es una tesora.”
“She calls you ‘a treasure,'” he said, helping Rosana to her feet and searching her face. “What happened?”
His wife shrugged. “I dunno. She tripped I guess.” She inspected the room. “This place is too small for a wheelchair, but she needs one. You’d have to widen the door, too. Where’s the bathroom?” Rosana stuck her head into the living room, looking up and down the length of the tiny house her mother-in-law shared with five others.
“You’d better just wait until we stop somewhere,” Marcelo whispered, coming to stand behind her.
“Not me! Your Mother! We have to drive, so she’d better go, right? She’s gonna need help. That foot’s not responding well.”
“‘Sana,” Marcelo pushed her out into the living room and kept his voice low. “There’s no running water here. It’s just a hole outside, ya know?”
“Shhh! Shhh! Don’t embarrass her by asking to use it or take her to it. She wants to stop at the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, anyway. She can go there.”
“What does she do in the middle of the night? Even in the day! She can’t make it up and down those stairs!”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Last time I was here, she was fine. Is she really bad?” His eyes took on their haunted look, and Rosana looked away.
“Please,” she snorted, driving away concern with sarcasm, “it’s just a flare-up. It happens from time to time. She’ll have good days and bad days, but she’s not gonna die tomorrow.”
“How do you know?”
“Look, why do you bother asking me if you’re not going to believe what I say?”
“I just wanna know how you know she’s not…in danger.”
Her thoughts flashed to several of the dozen Multiple Sclerosis websites she had visited prior to their departure, but she said nothing.
“For all we know, she could die tomorrow!” he insisted.
“For all we know, you could die tomorrow, Marcelo. She needs a bathroom, and I’m taking her.” Rosana turned on heel and marched back into the room, where Marcelo heard the two women exchanging words. Soon, she was back, his Mother’s arm firmly intertwined with her own.
“There’s a huge bag on the bed, ‘Celo. Why don’t you take it to the car? I think she has everything she owns in it! We’ll meet you there in a few minutes.
Still, Marcelo hovered, watching his wife and mother make their way slowly out the door and down the stairs. Dazed, he turned back to her room. The bag was there on the bed. He wrinkled his nose. The stench of urine lingered around the bedding, but what rose up to choke him was a deep and overwhelming guilt.
He grabbed the bag and hauled it from the house.