My father took me to boxing matches when I was a child. I was skinny, knobby kneed with a stern look on my face. We walked side by side on sidewalks with cracked uneven pavement until we reached a temporary ring set up at El Parque de la Soledad. A crowd of men would gather. Some greeted my father yelling, “Badilla!” or “Oscar!” They made wagers, slapped each other on the back and laughed from their stomachs. If rain threatened, the ring was moved inside to a nearby bar, dark, smoky, and smelling of mold.
Papa would place his hands on my bony shoulders as he arranged our position in the first row, within inches of the ring. Some boxers were small-boned with toothpick legs that never stopped moving. Other boxers looked almost fat and moved in slow motion. Papa explained the differences in weight classes, pointing, gesturing. I don’t know if Papa ever boxed aside from barroom brawls, but if he had, he would have been a lightweight.
“Grace, there are usually twelve rounds, and then that man over there judges who won, unless there is a knockout.”
I was delicate. I liked to play theatre and pick flowers, but my eyes were wide the entire match, searching for the fascination that caused my father to cheer or boo or lift his fist into the air as a man’s head jolted back or to the side with droplets of sweat floating in the air, landing on my forehead. Whenever the fights got intense, my father bounced up and down and yelled with the other men, “Dale duro, cabrón!”
Between rounds, trainers wiped sweat and blood off the boxers’ faces, always using the same towel. With each round the towel became darker and moister. They would shake it out, and a heavy stench would flood the air, causing me to cough and want to vomit. When he lost his bets, my father would yell, “Puta, carájo!” But on the days that he won, he would buy me an ice cream cone as we walked home because he thought I was too skinny.
I moved my legs quickly to keep up with Papa’s as we ran errands. Images of hidden treasures in gardens whirred in my mind. We arrived at the Registro Civil and stood in line. When we finally reached the counter, Papa exchanged paperwork with the clerk. I took out a pale, blue kitty cat handkerchief and began to play with it, folding it into a tight little square, unfolding it, letting it fall like a parachute, catching it before it reached the ground. There must have been a gust of wind that blew it out of my reach, and it landed on the floor. I jumped down to pick it up, but my quick gesture created another gust, and it slipped underneath the large counter through a miniscule crack. I looked up at Papa; he was still occupied. Papa had given me the handkerchief, and it was one of my favorite things in the world. I didn’t want him to know I had been careless with it. I got down on my hands and knees on the dusty linoleum and tried prying my stick-like fingers under the crack with no success. My chest swelled with horror. A heat wave of shame overcame my body when I considered asking the clerk to help me, but it was too much to bear, so I grasped my father’s hand as we left the building and said goodbye to my kitty cat handkerchief, hoping that someday it would magically reappear in my life.
Papa made me paranoid when he used to tell me, “Beware of the Hungarians, Grace.” “Cuidado con los Húngaros.” I envisioned hunchbacks lurking in dark alleys reaching out to snatch me. When I found out the meaning of Hungarian, I was disappointed such an expressive word had nothing to do with anything bizarre. To this day I don’t know what Papa meant, perhaps he was joking. But even now, forty years later, I still look over my shoulder whenever I am walking alone and pass a dark alley.
Papa was a telegraph operator. Every time I went with him to the Radiográfica, I was amazed by the knobs and codes he knew how to use. There was much excitement when he acquired a position at the Radio Tropical of the United Fruit Company in Quepos. He had been offered the position not only because he spoke the language of telegraphers but also because he spoke English, a rarity in those days, in Costa Rica. We went from the city life in San Jose of chilly afternoons and stores on every corner to wooden houses on stilts on the Pacific coast. There were also new luxuries just like those of the gringo workers: a telephone and a swimming pool in our back yard. Mama made us bathing suits, but they never got wet because every time we got within an inch of it, Papa would yell, “Cuidado, you’ll drown!”
Suddenly, we owned a washing machine; it was stout and open on top. Whenever we traveled from Quepos back to San Jose, Mama brought the washing machine with us on the plane; I’m not sure why, perhaps to show our old neighbors. Mama still had that washing machine until about a year ago when a tube broke and not a living person was left that knew how to fix it.
In Quepos, Papa would wait at the train station with me early in the morning before the air turned humid. His words were few and I was silent. I felt important taking the train to the United Fruit Company’s American School in Damas. My siblings did not go to my school; my brothers went to the public school in Quepos. Mireya stayed in San Jose for high school and bragged that because of this she was the preferred one. But she didn’t have Papa every morning waiting for the train or at the end of the day with a box of Cracker Jacks from the commissary saying, “Open it, open it, and let’s see what prize you got!”
On Halloween, Papa dropped me off for the evening train. Mama dressed me like a black cat. She painted whiskers on my face and a round nose with her black eyeliner. Papa was excited about my participation in such a traditional gringo event. The train arrived and seemed magical as though it could rise from the tracks and float into the purple night sky. Other children were already on the train, wearing pirate and witch costumes holding lit jack-o-lanterns on their laps. I waved to Papa from the window; he smiled.
Riding the train at night felt very different from the morning; the sounds of the jungle were more intense. Frogs croaked, chicharras and other insects sang loudly and reminded me of a symphony accompanied by a choir. The howler monkeys and their shrieks made me think of a wild party in the trees. We arrived at the school and the teachers greeted us with caramel popcorn balls and candy corn. We played games and bobbed for apples. I was not able to grab an apple because I felt like I was drowning every time I placed my head in the water. I rode home on the train with a bag full of candy. Papa was there to meet me. “What kinds of songs did you sing? What costumes did the American children wear?” At home he led me to bed through the dark while the others slept.
Mireya stayed with the Muñoz sisters in San Jose while the rest of us lived in Quepos. On visits she acted like a princess because it was going to be her Quinceañera. She planned for months. Her dress was beautiful, iridescent. The material turned from purple to pink in the light, tornasol. It was off the shoulder and the skirt puffed out. I dreamed about her dress. But I could have never worn a dress like that because of my chicken legs.
When Mireya’s big day came, it was held in the Muñoz’s house. The Muñoz sisters hid Memito, their brother with down syndrome, because he would sit in the rocking chair, expose himself, masturbate and laugh whenever company came over. There were too many guests in the living room for the Quinceañera, and the wooden floor sank. Mireya never tells that part. She also never tells people that she repeated the tenth grade because she was so preoccupied with her party plans.
I don’t know the exact reason we left Quepos. Mama smiled at Papa when we lived in Quepos; afterward she only frowned. There were rumors in barrio Lujan that Papa was fired from the Tropical Radio. They said he drank too much and sometimes didn’t show up. But I have also heard that Mama made him leave his job because of a local woman in town. Back in San Jose, Mama began selling lunches and washing clothes for people in the neighborhood for extra money. I would come home from school to find strange men and women eating in our kitchen.
Sometimes Mireya cries and says that Mama hit her too much when we were children. But she exaggerates; I only remember one incident. Word got back to Mama that Mireya had been seen in the neighborhood with a boy. When Mireya got home, Mama lit a piece of paper and chased her around the house with the flame.
Mama never hit me. She never saw me. She was too busy wondering what Mireya was doing next. Mama thought I was sickly. She forced me to drink fish oil tonics to open my appetite.
Papa named us all. The first, Oscar, died as an infant from crib death. Mama blamed Papa because he smoked. Mireya is the oldest, but she tells people she is the second. The true second is Fabian, then Raymundo, and then there is me, Grace Elena.
I’m not sure why he chose the name Grace. It sounds awkward in Spanish, a hard G sound, the vowels, the r and the ‘sss’ sound, getting stuck in people’s throats like they are choking on something. In Spanish, it has no meaning. In English it is different. Maybe Papa had some way of knowing that I would marry a gringo and live most of my years in the United States where “Grace” has a lovely meaning, sounding nice and easy to pronounce.
Shortly after me, there had been another girl, Marta, but she died around age four. The story changes, at times I’ve heard leukemia and other times, an infection. I remember her presence like a faded dream: a child’s laugh, chasing each other through a door that led to a patio into the sunshine, jumping rope, the sound of her heartbeat and the rise and fall of her breath in the bed we shared at night.
Samuel Leandro was next; at home we called him just Leandro or Leo, but professionally and around town he is known as Samuel. Sometimes people go on and on, “Samuel this, Samuel that,” and I still don’t realize they’re talking about my brother. A few years ago, Mama told me that Papa had a lover named Samuela.
One day, a woman came to visit Mama. Mama said to me, “You must go in the other room, and do not come near my room at all. I will be meeting with this lady about some curtains.” Hours later I heard a baby scream. Mama was forty. She had always been heavy. They burned the sheets in the backyard. The blood scared me. Papa was not there, but when he came home that evening, he named the new baby Leda Consuelo. I imagine he liked Greek mythology. Leda’s middle name was Papa’s way of having Mama contribute, although even then I don’t think he consulted her.
I am claustrophobic. Sometimes I have nightmares that I am stuck in confined spaces. This is all because Mireya, Raymundo and Fabian locked me up in the closet like a game. Mireya never actually touched me, but she was the ringleader. “She is the prisoner!” she would dictate. “We must execute the punishment! A sock in the mouth!” Fabian and Raymundo followed her orders, balling up the sock, shoving it in my mouth and following it with a second sock.
I overheard Mama once. She was speaking to some neighbors. “Mireya is Oscar’s jewel. She decorates his arm. He walks with her at his side and he is full of pride.” Mama didn’t see me, hovering in the doorway. And she never noticed me walking on my days, with Papa.
Papa sometimes came home drunk at night. Mama would make nasty comments to him, and this would prompt him to chase her. One time I remember that he was holding a kitchen knife. He wasn’t trying to strike her, nor was he moving very quickly, just fast enough to keep her on her toes, screaming. Sometimes I laugh when I remember. Other times, I resent Mama. Lately, I look at Mama, and I nearly lose my balance as I imagine the weight of her experiences, the weight of every loss.
Mireya worked at the gift-wrapping section of a department store during the Christmas season. Mama would carefully wash out a mustard jar, fill it up with hot chocolate, and wrap it in cloth. I would take it and walk several blocks to the department store so that Mireya could drink the hot chocolate during her break. Her face showed her relief to see me; my visits interrupted the constant Christmas carols ringing in her head. I loved my walks back home when I’d look at every window display. At the Lujaneña, I would stare at sets of glasses wrapped in beautiful bright cellophane: orange, green, blue, red, hot pink. I wished I could buy them for Mama. The Lujaneña was a funny place; they had beautiful things imported from Spain at their gift shop, but another section was a pulpería where you could buy a bottle of vanilla extract for Mama’s baking or candy wrapped in brown paper. The other third of the establishment was a bar, and the winos who drank out of paper bags would watch me from their barstools as I knelt by the display cases admiring the gifts. I glanced back at them, at their crooked postures and thought, Hungarians.
Mireya would pay me five colones to do the dishes so that she could go to the movies with her boyfriend. I had to get on a stool to reach the sink; I was happy to receive the shiny coin so that I could go to the store owned by the Tutto sisters and their brother. El Tutto wore a hair piece; it was black, but the rest of his hair was brown. I would buy sheets of chromos; I loved the glossy paper doll cutouts and kept them in a wooden box. My favorites were the Victorian dolls. I would trade them with other girls, but we also competed for them by placing a chromo on the ground as we took turns trying to flip both chromos over by slapping them with the palm of our hands. Whoever flipped them over on their blank side won both pieces. We played until our hands burned. Mireya sometimes gave me some beautiful ones, and I suffered so much when I was feeling smug and wagered one of them and then lost. I also loved to play jacks. I was really good sweeping a dozen jacks into my hand before the rubber ball hit the ground after its first bounce.
Mama didn’t make it past sixth grade. She lived with her great aunt, uncle and cousins in Esparza. Her father was a miner in the Juntas of Avangares. Her mother became very ill from a tropical disease, probably malaria, and died. In Esparza Mama’s relatives treated her like a servant. She met Papa in Puntarenas, not far from Esparza. She was a housekeeper, but she doesn’t call it that; she says she was helping a lady. I found baby Oscar’s birth certificate; he was born three months after Papa and Mama married.
Abuelo reappeared in Mama’s life many years after having left her with her great aunt. He moved in with us for a short while. At that time Abuelo was a house painter. Sometimes he painted with a few drinks in him, and he would fall off the ladder. Neighbors would bring him to the house with a broken arm or a bruised knee.
Papa had tutors as a child. They taught him English literature, mythology, and advanced math. His parents separated when he was a baby or were never married. One day, his father went to his mother’s house, walked right in and walked right out with him. Papa didn’t see his mother again until thirty years later when she spotted him at a store and proclaimed to a woman standing next to her, “Dios mío! That young man right there is my son!” and Abuela Zelmira became part of our lives. Papa even changed his second last name from Hernandez to Molina to honor her.
It embarrasses Leda, but Abuela lived in El Cerrito, a slum near Barrio Lujan. When she got delicate, she moved in with us. She would sit in a chair and light up her cigarettes. She had pale blue eyes. Leda says I look like her and jokingly calls me Zelmira. I don’t appreciate that because the only resemblance between me and Abuela is that we were both skinny. When Abuela became very ill with stomach cancer, she moved to a nursing home run by nuns. She hated the nuns and would sneak out the back door to have her cigarettes.
In 1963 Irazu erupted. For at least a year, it rained ash every day. People’s roofs couldn’t take the weight and collapsed. It was my last year of high school. I was meticulous, so the black ash disturbed me. Even with an umbrella covering my head and a handkerchief covering my mouth, my white starched uniform collar could not escape the dark soot falling from the sky. When I got home, I would shake my hair and release a cloud. Some days were worse than others; the ash would come down at an angle and it stung my cheeks.
I would take my blouse to Mama who was an expert at removing stains; she could make menstrual blood disappear from cloth and droplets of coughed-up blood on a handkerchief erased along with whatever caused them there in the first place. She would rinse my uniform shirt in the pila and stretch and squeeze the muddy water out. With a brush in her large hands and a cakey block of blue soap, she scrubbed the blouse forcefully, up and down following its black and white zebra stripes. She treated the white collar as if it were its own entity. In a plastic yellow palangana, she poured a mixture of bleach and water and carefully placed the collar in it, making sure the other parts of the blouse did not become submerged. I watched her. After a while I began doing it myself.
I learned how to sew in school. I brought home napkins with cross-stitched flowers; I gave them to Mama. She looked at them and nodded. As an adult, I learned from my daughter that Mama didn’t say things to me because she knew I was fastidious and didn’t think I needed supervision. I didn’t talk back, my grades were pristine, and I brought home immaculate pieces of cross-stitch. She still has the napkins. She didn’t say it when I was young, but now she turns them over to show people. “Look at this! Perfect on both sides!”
When Mireya brought home embroidery, Mama reacted, “Look, this is crooked! Why are there two colors of blue?” Mama’s words to Mireya seemed more important, more loving; there was a relationship there.
During secondary school at the Señoritas, I learned how to sew outfits and how to design dress patterns. At the University we did not have a uniform; I was relieved and hated the zebra-striped shirt and the red tie that I wore at Señoritas. If you were poor, you bought the tie with the elastic around the neck, and the richer girls or the boys from El Liceo would pull on them when they walked by you.
Without a uniform, I had to be creative if I wanted to look stylish; I did not have enough money to purchase a wardrobe from a boutique. I only pressed my nose up against the glass and tried to memorize the cuts in the fabric so that I could recreate the outfit. I would visit the Centro Cultural to study, but I would also go to the periodicals section and look at Vogue magazine. Sometimes I would even tear out a page. Some outfits were too complicated, so I’d go to La Gloria department store to purchase the pattern, or I paid a seamstress that lived down the block. I got a lot of compliments and I had to keep my closet locked; otherwise, I would see one of my sisters wearing them. I must confess, I borrowed things from Mireya too and prayed I wouldn’t bump into her.
Mama had a stomachache one day. She complained to Papa, so he walked to the pulpería and came back. He said, “Consuelo, take two of these,” and he handed her a blue packet. She went into the kitchen for a glass of water and put both whole Alka-Seltzers tablets in her mouth and swallowed. She followed them with a gulp of water. Mama came out of the kitchen foaming at the mouth. “For God’s sake Consuelo! You were supposed to put those in water and drink!”
She looked like she was drowning, choking on the bubbles. He sat her down and grabbed a pot from the kitchen. “Spit in here. Keep spitting until it’s all gone.”
Once he knew she was safe, he burst into laughter and didn’t stop.
“I could have died! Choked! You sit here and laugh. You gave them to me! Were you trying to kill me?”
“I thought you knew. Everyone knows you’re supposed to drink Alka-Seltzer.”
Papa was hit by a motorcycle while crossing the street at a corner in broad daylight. There was a blind spot, a tree, and a crowd gathered.
Coma, brain damage, they said. Mama’s face in the hospital read, “Oscar, why have you done this? One more worry, one more concern.” Never mind the driver who did not see him.
Weeks passed. I went to work. I went to my classes. I read Joyce. I practiced moving my mouth into words in the mirror for my English pronunciation exam, “over,” “beach, not bitch,” “sheet, not shit.”
“The tip of the tongue must touch the top of the teeth.”
I wrote words out phonetically on napkins, always tripping on that goddamn schwa.
After class, I would visit the hospital, rundown, dirty. We could not afford privacy; we could not afford hygiene. I became familiar with the hallway, another part of my routine, like laying out my clothes for the next day.
On the third ring, my daughter Alexa stopped underneath the doorframe of her bedroom, the way we do when there are earthquakes. When I answered, she stepped back into her room, shadows dancing, as her body shifted in front of the flickering candles on her nightstand. A phone call when you’re settling into bed is often jarring. Unless it is to announce the birth of a child, but that can always wait until morning.
It was my brother Leandro with word that his son Leonel had been scheduled for a minor surgery and things had taken a drastic turn. I hung up, grabbed my car keys and informed my husband and daughter that I was leaving for the hospital; they stared at my nightgown. The tiled floor of our hallway felt cold on my bare feet.
I drove alone to the hospital, the same one where Papa died. Each traffic light felt cumbersome. I found Leandro pacing in the hallway. Leonel lay in a coma.
Leonel was different from my other nieces and nephews; he ran with varied crowds. If you saw him with his skater friends at night, you might clutch your purse. The last time I saw him was around his 22nd birthday.
“No one remembers January birthdays,” he’d once said, so I made sure that I did and brought a gift.
He opened the door in a tank top and boxer shorts and was immediately embarrassed that I found him that way. For a moment, I wondered if I had caught him with a girl, but he let me come in, and he was alone. I couldn’t help but stare at the tattoos on his arms. “Don’t tell my mother you’ve seen these, Tía Grace. She knows about them, but it would mortify her that you’ve seen them. She always worries about what your side of the family thinks.”
I asked about his high school equivalency exams. He was almost finished, he said. He needed to take two more to receive his adult high school diploma.
He slipped into the coma no more than an hour after arriving for surgery prep. The only thing he had done at the hospital was put on a gown.
“There’s no way of knowing where he picked up the bacteria,” I heard the doctor say. “He could have had it in his system for weeks from drinking polluted water or from any number of places.”
I stared at the floor. It was far from sterile. Papa lasted months in a coma. Leonel barely lasted an hour.
Mama was calm over the phone, but her voice sounded tight, although she was alert, not groggy, despite the midnight hour. My brother Fabian sounded angry at being summoned a “éstas horas de la madrugada.” Such a strange thing to explain: a young man is well, there is a disruption, and then he is gone. His tone thick with shock, Fabian offered space in our family’s plot. As the oldest boy, he had made all of the arrangements and took care of our family’s needs when Papa died. I still tensed at any hint of his scolding, and since then Mama sighs for Fabian, as if remembering a long-lost love.
I left my post by the phone. I couldn’t think of who else to call. I looked in the direction of Alexa’s bedroom where I had left her only hours before. The door was cracked, and I could hear her gulping down tears, her bed shaking.
The funeral home was crowded for the wake. Alexa and I went with Mama, who at eighty-four lived independently, wore high heels, and regularly dyed her hair. She still dressed carefully, kept her posture perfect, and seemed tall despite her four-foot nine-inch stature.
Tissue boxes were strategically placed. We moved through the crowd, giving greeting kisses. When Mama saw Amelia, Leandro’s wife sitting in a sofa, Mama’s shoulders melted and she whimpered, “Mi chiquito!” and I couldn’t tell if she meant Leonel or Leandro or some other little boy.
Nuns entered the room and launched into a decade of the rosary. I welcomed the monotony. I’ve never been someone who can spontaneously pray, like my non-Catholic husband, so the known prayers reverberating always soothes me. Ave Maria llena eres de gracia. I can tell Alexa is uncomfortable; she’s complained before about the tedium of the rosary and instead of reassuring, she finds it eerie.
Just when they were about to start a second decade of the rosary, a woman arrived at the funeral home, it went quiet, all eyes shifted to her. She wore a designer white suit, her blonde hair looked like it had just left the salon chair and her nails were painted pale pink. She came toward us, toward Amelia.
“I am Federico’s mother,” she said.
Amelia smiled, but more tears fell from her eyes. “Federico meant everything to Leonel.”
“I’d like to give my pésame, my sincerest condolences. Leonel was always such a joy. He is Federico’s best friend. I am so sorry we meet this way.”
Leonel’s friendships ranged from body piercing artists to someone like Federico, from one of the wealthiest families in San Jose.
Alexa and I sat in the first pew with Leandro, Amelia, their oldest son Diego, and their youngest Margarita, who we call Rita, during the funeral mass. Alexa and I were handed collection baskets by the priest, with no option to decline; they looked like broomsticks with the bristles lopped off and a basket attached. We moved around the church extending our arms for the collection, not making eye contact with anyone. Alexa should have taken one side of the church, and I the other, each a portion, but we couldn’t separate and did it together, side by side. Young men and women filled the congregation, mostly standing. When we held the baskets in front of them, they looked at us as though we were crazy, clumsily shifting through pockets for change they didn’t have. These young people had not been at the wake; I imagined them instead at someone’s house weeping and toasting to Leonel with beer in cans and plastic cups.
At the end of the service the priest hugged us and left teardrops in our hair. When it came time for the procession, ten young men or more, no older than twenty-five, arose and lifted the casket as if it were weightless. Diego had wanted to help, but there was no room for another pallbearer, so he’d been left aside. He’d had a recent fight with Leandro.
We walked three blocks to the Obrero cemetery in a procession behind the coffin, underneath the burning sun. Marta, my Irish twin, rests in the Obrero, but I don’t know where. I hope it wasn’t in a rented crypt because by now if the payments had not been kept up, she would have been moved to a public grave. Diego ran up to us; he grabbed my hand and Alexa’s. “Madrina, can you believe it, my little brother is not with us. Where is Padrino”
“I’m sorry Diego. Drew doesn’t do well at funerals.”
My husband and I are Diego’s Godparents. Even though Drew is not Catholic, I’m not allowed to take communion because of his first marriage. Diego stayed with us for three months when we lived in Ecuador; he was thirteen. I bought him a G.I. Joe figurine every day. We took him on a hiking tour of Cotopaxi volcano. Drew and I didn’t reach the group’s destination; Drew’s heart was still repairing from his heart attack. Diego and Alexa went ahead, but Alexa got too tired and decided to sit and slide all the way back down. Terrified, Diego chased after her as she laughed the whole way.
He was in the throes of puberty when he stayed with us, and there had been an incident at school that had prompted the stay. There were times when he would grab me or Alexa and kiss us straight on the mouth. He peed with the door open. He made Alexa watch Rambo. He ate constantly and had fits of rage where he would violently punch the walls of our apartment.
We do not bury the dead in Costa Rica; it is too humid. They are entombed, placed in cement crypts, many of them stand tall above the ground. There was a square opening for Leonel’s casket. The cemetery employee lifted the casket up to the opening, but it did not budge. It was an antiquated plot and had not been updated to the modern casket sizes. The lid of the casket was torn off in order to fit. Leonel’s face could be seen through the Plexiglas. His friends tossed their handkerchiefs onto the clear covering to conceal his face; I can’t imagine why they had handkerchiefs in the first place.
On our side of the family, I had been the last to see Leonel. Most of my family had not seen him since he was a little boy. San Jose is so small, yet you can go years without seeing someone.
I looked across the way to Alexa who stood alone, leaning against a nearby crypt, tears streaming down her face. We didn’t think to bring tissues and I don’t carry a handkerchief. Various family members stared at my daughter; I sensed they wanted to shake her and make her stop. They looked at me, puzzled as if asking, “I don’t understand. Why is she in so much pain? Yes, it’s tragic, but none of us saw him much.”
Mireya approached me as people lingered in the cemetery. “Can you believe Amelia’s sister just came up to me and said that as a family we should contribute! After all that we have done!”
“She probably just doesn’t know,” but she wasn’t listening, she was busy scowling.
I looked past Mireya and saw a girl hugging a tree near a footpath leading to the entrance of the Obrero. Her cheek rubbed up against the bark. She had wild, pale brown hair that looked like branches coming out of the tree trunk. Her baggy linen pants dragged in the dust. I looked away for a moment, and when I looked back, the girl was gone.
A week after the funeral we stop by the cemetery. We visit the flower shop across the street from both cemeteries, the Obrero, where Leonel rests, and the General where Papa lies. The cemeteries are separated only by a white wall.
Alexa chooses yellow flowers for Leonel. She says that yellow reminds her of him. “Yellow is a color that knows how to live life right.” I don’t know what that means.
I detest yellow. She chooses orange for Papa. She doesn’t expound on orange, but I sense a certain satisfaction in her. I like orange even less than I like yellow. I believe she knows this.
We look for Papa, but the Cementerio General is large. I have not cried for Papa since his funeral. I didn’t forget. Other things filled up the space.
We cross the street to the offices; they are barren with no décor, and everything is tan.
“How can I help you Señora?”
“Yes, well, I can’t find where my father is buried.”
“Don’t worry. I can help. What year did he die?”
“This is terrible, but I’m not entirely certain, either 1966 or 1967.”
“Don’t worry. That is not uncommon.”
“I never imagined I could forget.”
“It may take a little while for me to locate because I’ll have to go to the older file section. What was his name?”
“Oscar Badilla Molina.”
“Wow, technology certainly has changed. Your name?”
For a moment I don’t know what to say. I find myself explaining to him that my last names are different here than in the U.S. where I have used his last name.
The man smiles at me. “I’ll be with you as soon as I have the information Doña Grace.”
The last name didn’t matter, I realize; he was merely being personable. He leaves the room. We sit in the uncomfortable metal chairs; Alexa fidgets, holding the bouquets of flowers tightly, her knuckles white and red. In the same room, another man speaks to a couple. He takes notes on a clipboard. The couple’s heads hang low, and I realize that they are in the process of purchasing a plot for their recently deceased daughter.
Between the time of death and the funeral, Leandro and Amelia must have sat in a similar office and answered similar questions. I wonder what they answered for Leonel’s occupation. Once, Leda saw Leonel working as a guard in a movie theatre parking lot. Perhaps Amelia and Leandro also answered “student,” after all he was taking those tests.
The man returns. “Good news, Doña Grace, I found it. It wasn’t easy. You gave me a challenge. I think the earliest one I’d looked for recently was 1971.”
He hands me a map he has drawn.
“Thank you for your help.”
“Con mucho gusto.”
We re-enter the cemetery and follow the map. Papa’s plot is next to the wall that divides the Obrero and the General. Leonel’s plot is likely a stone’s throw away.
I stare at the plot; my daughter places the orange bouquet on it. She walks away and stops in from of a statue of a female angel, wings outspread cradling a body in her arms. The plaster on Papa’s plot is peeling, so is the black lettering, the O is almost gone. Thirty years and no one came.
We cross the cemetery and exit through the gates, turn to the left and enter the gates of the Obrero cemetery, which opened after a shoemaker’s union fought for a cemetery for laborers since the General catered to those with more influence. With its history of serving the working class, I’d had a different perception of the Obrero, but it is neatly kept with bits of green landscaping here and there. There are fewer massive mausoleums and marble statues than in the General, but it feels like a garden cared for by a loved one.
Alexa’s pace quickens; she begins ducking between the giant cement crypts, I lose sight of her. I hear that she is running. It reminds me of a maze of mirrors we went through at a carnival when we lived in Miami. Alexa was six and she was excited at first but became frustrated quickly and ran ahead of me. I chased after her only to hear her smack into one of the mirrors thinking it was a passageway. She was stunned; I caught up to her. Together we finally found the exit where there was a room full of mirrors that distorted our bodies. We laughed and she wanted to do it again.
“This isn’t it! I can’t find it!”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“We were here just days ago! How could we lose it?”
I still can’t see her but hear her feet thudding against the ground. “I’ve found it. Thank God!” and I hear her exhale a loud relief, but it is followed by choking sounds as though she is vomiting air and tears. I follow her sounds and find her on her knees. Her tears have formed perfect dark circles in the dust. She swats at the cement with the paper map. There are ants and other bugs crawling all over where the opening for the casket had been. Before entirely sealing it off, the cemetery employee left enough of an opening to throw in the trowel due to ancient Costa Rican superstition. He finished sealing it off with a second trowel, but there were still cracks in the cement and this was where the bugs were coming from.
“It’s natural,” I say.
She stands up and begins stomping on the ground smashing ants into the dirt.
During tea at Mama’s, I tell her, “We went to Papa’s grave.”
“The doctor prohibited me from going on account of my blood pressure.”
Leandro doesn’t visit Mama much. She lectures him and reminds him of the mistakes he’s made. He plays the same lotto number Papa did and wears the same cologne. Mama has porcelain figurines of an old married couple: an old man arriving at his front door holding a bottle of alcohol; on the other side of the door his wife waits, holding a rolling pin positioned to strike him. Leandro laughs at the figurine and says, “Consuelo, is this you, waiting for Papa?”
Leonel visited Mama sporadically. She lectured him the way she lectured Leandro, the way she had lectured Papa, but Leonel didn’t seem to care; he wanted to win her over. Leonel spent the night with her once when he was a little boy. He thought he saw a ghost and ran into her room and curled up into a little ball on the corner of her bed.
“What’s wrong?” Mama asked.
“It’s Grandpa’s ghost, isn’t it? He’s mad that I’m sleeping in his room.”
“Don’t be silly. He’s not here. He didn’t die in this house. He never even saw it. Drew gave me this house.”
Days later we visit Amelia. She sits in the living room. Her eyes are still swollen from crying. My brother is not there. Is he at work or at a bar?
“It was you, wasn’t it? You left the flowers for him.”
We are silent.
“That’s the parrot,” Amelia says. “Years from now I imagine he’ll still say it. It doesn’t bother me. You would think it would, but it’s like having him here.”
Diego comes into the living room. He is still on leave from his teaching job. He wears a shirt my daughter gave Leonel a year ago. She mentions it.
“I was lucky to get it. His friends were taking everything,” he says. “It was one of his favorites.”
“I had to hide his Bob Marley CD, otherwise I would have nothing,” Rita says.
“Oh good, Rita, I’m glad you have it,” Amelia says. “Juan Carlos was asking me for it. He also asked about a Tupac CD? Music, I don’t understand.”
“I have that one too,” Rita answered.
“I was always getting onto Leonel about his room. He had pictures of women, not just semi-naked women, but tattooed. All those posters I hated so much are gone now, and the walls seem empty. I don’t blame his friends for taking things. They are good to me. They make sure I’m not alone. Whenever they drive by, they honk, and it feels like he’s here. Today they spent the day painting the crypt white. They promise to be here for me in ten years, twenty.”
There is a photograph of Leonel on the coffee table. He is on his bicycle. Only one wheel of the bike is on the ground. The other wheel is directly above it; the bike is parallel to a tree, and it looks like he is riding up the tree.
Amelia follows my gaze to the photograph of Leonel on the bike.
“I was always so worried that they were going to bring him to me in little pieces. He was always doing dangerous tricks on his bike and then there was the time that he got dragged by the car on his skateboard. I thought that’s how it would have happened. I was lucky to have him for as long as I did. He was a gift, my companion. He was at home during the day, out at night.”
“We were wondering about the plaque.”
“You know Leandro and how he is about words. He’s having it custom-made with a special inscription by some British writer.”
I’ve never understood the significance of nine days, but it allows for people to pay their respects when they do not make it to the funeral. The novenario mass is full, almost as many people as the funeral. Leandro hands out bookmarks with Leonel’s picture; the same translated quotation by John Donne that will go on the plaque is on the bookmark.
We walk from the church to Leandro’s house for the reception. Many of Leonel’s friends linger on the porch of the house. I notice the girl I had seen at the funeral. She sits on the front steps of the house, and her head rests between her knees. Her light brown curls hang down, nearly touching the ground. She wears a long maxi skirt, the kind I wore in the sixties, and brown sandals. I can see her pink toes. No one else notices her. I want to touch her. She gets up, sighs, glances at me, looks away, her eyes don’t trust me.
He kissed me before leaving for Honduras. My first kiss. 1965. His lips were soft. I couldn’t believe this handsome boy was kissing me. He touched my hand and said, “Grace, I’ll see you when I get back.” For weeks we had been talking, sitting on sidewalk curbs and finally he kissed me. He was a musician and was going to Honduras to accompany a youth ballet production that was raising funds for polio efforts in Tegucigalpa. Except he never made it there or back. The tour bus went over a cliff in Choluteca, eliminating thirty-four of the country’s most talented and promising youth, mostly young girls. Many were from my neighborhood. Eighteen survivors. For months the only thing that left people’s lips was, “The tragedy.”
There were funerals, vigils, rosaries, novenas, prayers, one right after the other, people giving the families their formal pésames. But no one gave me their condolences. No one knew they should have.