The warmth was a welcome relief.
Although Rosana did not disconnect from the iPod which, like an electronic dam, repulsed any communication between them, she muted the music as she and Marcelo pushed through the narrow airplane aisle and out into the crowded jetway. Crew members slammed in and out of the door atop stairs leading to the open sides of the jet, retrieving strollers and wheelchairs for anxious parents and caregivers. Warm air seeped in. Unconsciously, Rosana inhaled deeply, relaxing the muscles at the base of her neck. The air held diesel fuel and – change. She wasn’t sure what it was, but it was welcome.
“I’m glad I came.”
“What?” Marcelo’s tone was annoyed.
“I said, it doesn’t feel like December, here.”
“It’s cool, for LA.”
“It’s hot for North Carolina, or Washington, DC, which is all I have to compare it to.”
“Compared to the Dominican Republic, it’s cool, too.”
“So, does your Mom speak English?” Rosana tugged out one ear bud and then another, wrapping them around her hand and pushing them into the media pocket of her jacket. Marcelo was moving fast, threading his way through the crowds milling around the gates like sheep waiting to be herded onto a truck. Rosana hiked the backpack higher on her shoulder and jogged to catch him.
“Baggage claim,” she pointed. He grunted and sped along the wall toward the carousel, which began to honk and turn as if on cue. Marcelo halted, dropping his pack to the floor. Rosana puffed to a stop beside him. She let her bag slide down next to his.
“Yeah, she speaks English. Some.”
“Why only some? Hasn’t she been here for, like, a decade?”
“Ten years. You know, it’s hard to learn how to live in a new country. My Mom is really – traditional, and when my Dad died – that’s mine.” Marcelo leaped forward and hauled his olive green military-issue duffle bag from the carousel.
“What? When your Dad died, what?”
Marcelo wrestled the bag to the floor, aligning it precisely with his backpack on the glossy tiles.
“She didn’t have a lot to live on, so she stays with some other Dominicans. They only speak Spanish, so…”
It was Rosana’s turn to grunt.
“If I ever have to move to another country, I’m gonna learn the language, like, instantly. I can’t even imagine going somewhere and not learning how to at least communic — what’s going on?”
Marcelo turned to look where Rosana pointed. At the end of the baggage carousel, a loud cry dominated the noise of the crowds and machinery.
“It looks like a guy in a wheelchair. He’s crying about something. Let them handle it, Rosana. Rosana! Don’t get involved!”
“Stop! Stop!” Rosana rushed at the airport escort behind the wheelchair and shoved the man aside. “Stop! He’s gonna fall! Wrapping one arm protectively around the passenger, who was leaning forward at an awkward angle, Rosana jerked the chair backward and flipped on the brake.
“His foot is dragging, can’t you see that?” She raced around to the front of the chair and bent to adjust the foot holds. “If you let it drag, he’ll flip right out onto the floor! No! Stop! Put down the foot rest and then lift his leg up onto it. Never mind, let me do it.”
Rosana gently raised the man’s foot and set it onto the support. Then she stood and looked into his eyes. His mouth worked and a string of drool rolled toward the towel, tied strategically at his neck.
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “You’re fine. We’ll get you someone competent in just a minute.” She glared at the escort.
“I’ll take it from here,” the escort growled, reaching for the handles.
“Uh uh. I don’t think so. I’m going to see this one though. Where is he going?” The escort pointed to the automatic doors. With a sniff and a practiced flip of her toe, Rosana disengaged the brake and pushed the chair out onto the sidewalk where a van idled, waiting to receive him.
“I thought you didn’t like sick people.”
Rosana looked out the window of the economy-sized rental car and sighed. Alright, it’s true, she admitted to herself, there are some parts poverty that are really annoying. Not being able to rent an SUV with a sunroof, for instance. Having to go pick up one’s mother-in-law and be squished in a teeny car with her for two hours – another instance.
“Sick people smell bad,” she sniffed, flipping down the sun visor in search of a mirror. “This car’s so cheap it doesn’t even have a make-up mirror!” She slammed it up and flounced back into her seat.
“You knew what it was going to be like, ” Marcelo began.
Rosana held up her hand. “Spare me, please.” He was like a skipping CD whenever she complained about money. She was the one who chose to elope. It was her mother who cut her off when she married Marcelo. He gave her fair warning about the salary of a junior enlisted Marine.
And she had eloped with him anyway.
So now, whenever they got to the house where his mother lived, they would have to smell her sickness all the way from LA to Camp Pendleton. Rosana’s stomach twisted.
“How come you jumped so fast to help the handicapped guy?”
“What was I supposed to do? Let him fall on his face?”
“If you really had such a problem with sick people, you would.”
“It was his lucky day.”
“And you looked pretty familiar with a wheelchair.”
“So, I don’t think you hate sick people.” He had the temerity to grin at her.
To her surprise, she grinned back.
“You have a beautiful smile, querida.”
“You just want me for my smile,” she glowered, still smiling. Marcelo reached over and took her hand. For several minutes, they rode in silence, enjoying the companionship. Rosana ran a finger over the back of his muscular hand. Marcelo leaned back in his seat, looking for all the world like a California boy, happy to be home. Rosana watched the rocky dry soil beside the road give way to buildings and then to streets lined with flowering bushes and fruit trees. Marcelo took an exit and maneuvered the car through a commercial zone and onto a residential street.
“You grew up here?” she asked.
“We came here ten years ago. I was fourteen.”
“Why did you come all the way to California? Don’t most Dominicans go to New York, or something?”
“My Dad had a friend who was helping us get to the States. He was in a town called Salinas, so we went to visit him.”
“Salinas is near LA?”
“Uh, uh. No. It’s north.” Marcelo turned right and drove down a road lined with more trash than trees. “The LA River,” he laughed, pointing to a dry cement culvert covered with graffiti.
“Whew. That’s quite a current. Did you do a lot of boating here? Swimming?”
“You know me and water. Carlos and me both had to take swimming lessons to pass the test in the Corps. Let’s just say we didn’t go swimming much.
“Wait. You’re from a Caribbean island, and you can’t swim?”
“Not very good.”
Rosana shook her head. “I went to swim lessons at the Community Center as far back as I can remember. I can’t believe you can’t swim. Please don’t tell me your mother lives in this neighborhood.”
Another turn, and Marcelo was now driving down a cracking street with a weedy median. “Lock your doors,” he muttered, taking his hand from hers and gripping the wheel firmly.
“It’s all cement and graffiti. How depressing. And broken down. Oh geez. I bet people live there! Look at that one! And that one! Oh my gosh, this is worse than Southeast DC!”
“You do whatcha gotta do, ‘Sana. If you poor, if you illegal, this is where you live. Gangland, LA.”
“But your Mom’s not illegal. She’s an American citizen, right?”
Marcelo shook his head, eyes on the road. “She’s Dominican.”
“She’s illegal?” Rosana squeaked, choking on the word. He nodded.
“I’m telling you because you’re gonna see what it’s like when you’re come to a strange country and you have nothing. Maybe then you’ll understand my Mama better.”
“But you’re in the military! You have to be a citizen to be in the military, right? How can she be illegal and you’re not?”
“As far as the recruiter knew, we had a house fire and lost everything. All our documents.”
“Not anymore? What, did you grow a green card? You and Carlos, too?”
“When you marry a citizen, you become a citizen.”
Rosana sat in stunned silence, trying to fit the pieces together in her mind.
“Ohhhhh, now I get it. You married me to become a citizen! Love, justice, and the American way! Nice to know your how much you truly care!”
“Rosana! Stop! Sit down!” Marcelo slammed on the brake and pulled to the curb before she had her seatbelt off, but not before she threw open the door. “If you run here, you won’t get home,” he shouted. “Look! Look at that wall! You see that tag? This is Blood territory. You try to walk out of here in that blue dress and I guarantee you’ll be in a body bag by dinner.”
“Fine.” Rosana threw herself back in the seat and slammed the door, hoping he didn’t see her fear. She casually slid down until her dress was invisible from the street.
“Let’s just say we both had our reasons for getting married,” Marcelo snapped, pulling the car back into the street, “I needed you, you needed me.”
Rosana snorted, recalculating her entire perception of their married life.
No wonder he had agreed to elope, despite substantial pressure from his Mother and Carlos. Even though she wasn’t Catholic, and couldn’t have kids. No wonder he tolerated her… moodiness. How long did a marriage have to last to be considered ‘real?’ Was he going to ask for a divorce as soon as that time was up?
Rosana put on her sunglasses to hide her tears. Not that I care, she insisted to herself.