A Crack in the Window
№ 8 in a series of stories on their way to a novel.
“He doesn’t care,” Blanca said aloud. She pretended she was talking to little María Amalia, whose big black eyes stared at her through the bars of her crib, but even when the crib was empty, after the Nanny carried the girl off to her playroom — out of sight, out of mind, Blanca spoke to it.
“He doesn’t,” she repeated. She repeated nearly everything she said, for emphasis or to fill the void. Alfonso said that it was because she used to teach toddlers, that schoolteachers always repeat things at least twice so their little charges would be able to bend their minds around the unfamiliar words. “Like talking to pets,” he said.
She tried to stop doing it because it annoyed him, but stopping would be like yanking out flowers instead of weeds. She prayed to the Virgin to help her stop, but as usual, the Virgin was mute. “Anyway, mother repeats everything and no one tells her to stop. No one tells her. Anyway, let him be annoyed.”
She adjusted the new wave in her hair in the kitchen mirror. “Thank God I had time to go to the Beauty, nena, with the girls coming over later. Thank God for small miracles.” She polished the already gleaming surface of her Italian espresso machine, pouting at her reflection. She reached for her Hermes handbag, extracted lipstick and retouched her already perfectly painted lips.
“Look, nena, look at that ugly crack in the window. Look at that crack, isn’t it ugly! I’m going to have to call someone myself, and get it fixed. I’ll call someone. Your papa won’t do it. He doesn’t care. He says he has no time, but how much time can a supermarket take? It’s not as if there weren’t all those boys running around shuffling cans and bags around. He has time, alright, but it just isn’t time for us. That crack will be the death of me. Imagine Mia and Flora sitting right over there at the table and seeing that crack, right next to my new kitchen curtains. I have to seat them with their backs to it, but they will notice. They won’t say anything, of course, but they will notice and they will talk about it for weeks. They will talk about it for weeks, how our house is falling apart. They have perfect houses and perfect husbands and I have a house falling apart and your papa, who doesn’t care.”
Blanca filled a glass with ice from the door of the refrigerator, surveyed the liquor in the cupboard and chose a squat bottle of cognac. She poured a hefty shot into the glass and topped it off with cola. “Must be 5:00 p.m. somewhere in the world,” she thought, putting the bottle away.
The baby plopped down and let out a soft cry. “Are you pipi, María Amalia. Are you pipi or caca? Where is Nanny? Can you wait for Nanny?” The baby reached up.
“Por favor, amorcita, Nanny will be here any minute and she will change you and give you your bath. Can’t you wait a few more minutes? You know I can’t bear smelling your awful poo. I can’t bear it. You’re supposed to smell of baby powder, not caca. I really can’t bear it. Can’t you wait, dear?” The baby threw herself back and started crying in earnest, as the kitchen door opened and Doña Fernando, the Dominican nanny, strode in, ignored Blanca, scooped up the child and carried her off.
“I don’t trust that woman,” Blanca thought. “I’m sure she tells Dona Amalia everything. About the house falling apart. About her precious Alfonso not sleeping with me. She cleaned enough of his shit when he was a baby. The woman should retire. I never should have let them foist her on us. They have money, but no class.”
Not like her, she mused. Not much money but plenty of class. Everyone at the U.P. said so. When she entered a classroom, everyone knew something special was happening. The way she dressed. The way she always had the highest heels, the nicest shoes. The way she held herself, upright, elegant, precise. The way she pronounced every syllable, every vowel. She never dropped a “d” or said “Usté” instead of “Usted.” She always used the formal form of address, even to her friends. It was an affectation, of course, but she decided that the informal “tu” was vulgar and the last thing she wanted to be was vulgar.
At first they tried to make fun of her, especially the caserío types. They had no ambitions, no goals but to get a government job, an assistant to an assistant at the Autoridad, the state-run electric utility or Acueductos, the water and sewer company. Sure they made ten times what other government workers made, but they were funcionarios, digits in a dead-end sinecure. She had higher aspirations. She was gente. She married money. Money that was sitting in her humanities class. Miguel Alfonso Villanueva Mendoza. A little electric current had traveled from her heart to her thighs every time Dr. Almodóvar had called the roll.
He was, as the gringa exchange students said, a hunk. Hot. Curley dark hair, movie star features. Slim, muscular. She admired the way his biceps pushed out the short sleeves of the shirt that he never tucked it in. And that smile that never seemed to leave his face. Gleaming white teeth… and his father was Don Miguel, hugely rich, owner of an entire mountain in Cayey — his house could be in Architectural Digest.
The teasing stopped after she made friends with Salvi, the caserío boy who sat next to her in class. Her bookends, she called them: Alfonso — he preferred to be called Alfonso — on one side and Salvi on the other. She called them bookends but they were really books. Both men seem to absorb everything they read and everything the prof said. Soaked everything up like those paper towels in the commercials, while she had to read and re-read and listen and question until even then she forgot half of what she thought she knew.
She knew one thing, for certain. Both boys were handsome. She would shove her pupitre slightly back so she could look them over during the lecture. The bright light from the wall of windows behind Alfonso made it hard to see him clearly. It added a magical quality to him — besides his signature tight plaid shirt and snug fitting trousers, and that package in his pants, a halo formed around his head, making his hair sparkle but obscuring his face. She suspected that he would look at her when she was not surveying him, but because of the sunlight, she couldn’t be sure.
Salvi, on her right, might just as well have been sitting in a spotlight. She admired his perfect complexion, thinking why is it that some men have such flawless skin while women need makeup — the gringas called it ‘foundation” — to smooth theirs out. Blanca wouldn’t be seen dead without makeup and bright red lipstick.
Salvi’s hair was almost the exact same color as Alfonso’s, but it was straight and he wore it slightly long. She assumed it was the style in the projects where she knew he lived. Her friends warned: “He’s trouble,” they’d said, meaning poor, low class. She had no intention of getting mixed up with someone like him. The purpose of life was to aspire to greater things and Alfonso was the greatest she could imagine.
But Salvi couldn’t be very poor. He wore Air Jordans and a decent gold chain over a tight black t-shirt. She had no idea what his baggy black shorts concealed, but the way he walked and held himself contrasted with the aristocratic Alfonso. He didn’t hide his interest in her, often looking straight at her — sometimes she thought he could look straight through her — until she blushed and had to look away. He always had something to say, punctuated with profanity. He was cool, but she had to keep him off her radar.
Until that day they bonded in the student center. Salvi spotted her, pulled out a chair beside her and plopped down to devour his lunch. Alfonso sidled up carrying his tray and asked permission to join them — a true gentleman, Blanca thought. There she was with her bookends, hoping her makeup was perfect and her hair — oh why didn’t she go for a recomb this morning — looked good. She wished she hadn’t made the rare decision to wear slacks and flats. She tugged at her blouse to reveal a little more cleavage.
Blanca rode in the front of Alfonso’s sports car while Salvi straddled the back seat, the wind doing wild things to his hair. She hesitated before accepting their crazy invitation to cut class and explore a special spot Salvi knew of in the rain forest. She could hear herself explaining to her mother: “We were just college students having fun — and I was never alone with one of them. You told me never to be seen alone with a man and I was not. We were never alone.” Her mother didn’t seem too convinced, but Blanca didn’t care. She had to keep her goal in sight.
The road through the rainforest had barely enough room for two cars to pass, but people rarely visited this side of the mountain, and never early on a Monday afternoon, so there was no traffic. Following Salvi’s directions, Alfonso parked in a small clearing next to a narrow concrete bridge. The jungle growth had nearly covered the trailhead, but Salvi found it in a moment. Blanca looked at it askance. It was steep, rocky but climbable.
“Consider this a biology field trip. Think about this,” Alfonso said, “El Yunque is here because our Spanish ruler, King Alfonso, had the good sense to set this land aside as a preserve. Before them, the Taínos worshipped it as the home of the god Huracán. We are climbing in the footsteps of great caciques, conquistadores and kings to sit on the throne of Yuquiyú.”
Salvi chimed in. “And before the Taínos were the coquis and after the Spaniards annililated the Taínos were the African slaves, plucked from their huts on the dark continent to serve the fucking conquistadores, plant their crops, and work their mines. They called this mountain Furidí, which sounds to me like they were justifiably furious. But they were poets not fighters and Furidí means ‘mountain in white clouds’ in their language.”
Blanca looked at both boys in wonder. “How do you know all this stuff?”
“We read a lot,” they said nearly in unison and laughed.
They started up the trail, Salvi ahead, Blanca in the middle and Alfonso behind, ready to help her if she slipped.
“And we also have to thank the americanos for this forest preserve,” Salvi shouted back. “Your Spanish king set the land aside all right — but as his private property. He didn’t want his greedy countrymen stealing his timber to build their haciendas. He wanted it for the ‘crown,’ so he could sell it for the highest price. The americanos made it a National Forest, a public park. Then they went and cleared nearly every inch of the rest of the island. First it was sugarcane and now it is Levittown.”
The trail widened and evened out as it followed a noisy stream for a few hundred yards. Alfonso moved to the front. “So the gringo invaders are to be thanked for saving El Yunque and then bombing Culebra and Vieques?”
“Así es,” Salvi said. “And don’t forget Utuado. They — or their minions — bombed Utuado, too. Had to wipe out a half dozen nationalist cucarachas before they infected the whole colony. American citizens bombing American citizens. Another moment in history to be proud of.”
“Is any of this true?” Blanca asked.
“All of it. None of it. History is written by the survivors. If there were such a thing, what do you think a history of Puerto Rico would have been if it had been written by Taínos?”
“Very short,” Salvi said. “Genocide didn’t take long.”
“I’ve never met a Taíno,” Blanca said.
“My point, exactly.” Salvi said.
They came to a steep rock climb. Salvi once again took the lead and Alfonso gallantly helped Blanca when she conveniently slipped. The group was mute at the sight of a sliver of a spectacular waterfall, its steady roar and cool wind rushing through tree ferns and Sierra palms to greet them. They ran the last ten yards and gathered around a pool of crystal clear water that stretched back to the unseen bottom of the waterfall, nestled in a long narrow canyon carved from the rock.
As if on cue, they sat, pulled off their shoes and dipped their feet into the cold water. Blanca reached out and held the hands of the boys on either side of her. They sat in silence until Alfonso spoke.
“We have so much beauty on this island and so much ugliness. We have the beauty of nature and of our race and the ugliness of half a millennium of colonial subjugation. The slaves freed themselves of their yoke and their ultimate descendent, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, tried to free us all. But we smothered pride at La Princesa prison and mortgaged freedom for MacDonald’s milkshakes.”
“And don’t forget the fucking coquís,” Salvi said, getting on his feet and taking off his shirt. His friends watched him carefully. He was perfectly proportioned, his chest hairless, light bronze skin shimmered off his six-pack gleaming in the sunlight. Blanca caught her breath.
Yes, Señorita Blanca, the coquís. No one has written the history of our tiny tree frogs and they were here before any of the invading hordes of Caribs, Arawaks, Taínos, Spaniards, Africans or MacDonalds. I will write it. I will be the first Puerto Rican amphibiologist specializing in coquís. I will solve the mystery of their origin, their social order, their sex lives, their suicidal tendencies, etc. etc. etc. But in the meantime, I am going to swim.” He dropped his shorts, waded nude into the pond, and screamed. “Fucking cold!”
“Válgame, Diós,” Blanca said, pretending to avert her eyes. Alfonso contemplated his classmate, took Blanca’s hand and helped her stand up. “Do you want to go in? He asked.
“But I have no suit,” she said.
“You have a birthday suit,” Salvi yelled.
‘Blanca is a lady and she is not going to go in if she does not want to. There is such a thing as modesty,” Alfonso said.
“She’s a woman and she doesn’t have anything our sisters don’t have. Let her be free. I don’t think she’s a prude. I won’t look with lust. I have five sisters, I’m immune.“
“Do you mind if I go in?’ Alfonso asked.
“Do I mind?,” Blanca thought. “This is an answered prayer!” She shook her head. In an instant Alfonso had shed his clothing and stood in the sunlight, contemplating the cold water as Blanca and Salvi contemplated him. He was a magnificent specimen, Michelangelo would have been dismayed if he had seen him, knowing that Alfonso would have been a better model for his David — and he was better endowed than the famous statue. He screamed as he hit the cold water and Salvi screamed in imitation, both of them laughing. Salvi playfully attacked him; they played like kids in the water splashing each other, knocking each other down. They decided to explore the channel leading to the foot of the falls, their slender bodies radiating light as they disappeared into the chasm.
Blanca stretched out on the flat rock. The sun was now much warmer, sweat beaded on her breasts and ran down into her bra. She pulled off her top. She was no prude but she wasn’t about to let Alfonso know that. A women sunning in a bra is no different than one in a two-piece bathing suit, she reasoned, weighing the effect on her boys of seeing her like that when they returned. She would not take off her slacks, she decided. Showing panties would be too brazen. Anyway, her breasts were her best asset. The breeze from the falls cooled her. If the boys were still yelling, she could not hear them above its steady roar.
When she awoke the boys were sitting near her, dressed and ready to go. White clouds coasted across the mountain, obscuring the sun. They were no longer playful or talkative; they were uncharacteristically serious: tired, she assumed. The trip down the trail and back to San Juan was quiet. She sat in the back, giving Salvi a turn next to Alfonso. From time to time Alfonso stole glances at her through the visor mirror. She smiled back. She knew she had him.
Blanca placed the cognac bottle, a clean crystal tumbler, a bowl of ice and several cans of Coke on a tray and headed for the sunroom. She paused between the double stairs that mimicked in more modest scale their majestic model in the Ponce Museum of Art. Her eyes scanned the paintings that lined the wall high above the staircases behind the hall that led to the east and west wings of the house. She thought she heard what could have been the baby’s laughter and the Nanny rummaging about in the nursery, but she couldn’t be sure. She also didn’t care.
The sunroom was a welcome sight. Floor to ceiling windows encased it. Except for the plants, everything was white: white walls, white furniture, white marble floor, white curtains that diffused the sunlight.
The air conditioning hummed almost imperceptibly. Vague green shadows from the gardens did a slow dance behind the soft undulating fabric. Blanca loved it, even if her mother-in-law insisted on Valbuena as the decorator. Blanca was proud that she was able to stop her sister-in-law Victoria from tossing in her horrid floral cushions.
A few flawless ferns and perfect palms gave just the right feeling. The plants were her own contribution to the decor, of course. She gloried in injecting her own personality into the Villanueva’s fancy world. OK, so the first ferns died and the palms turned a sallow shade of yellow. The silk and plastic replacements were perfect, and no one had to water them. She cuddled her second drink of the morning between her trembling hands.
“Perfect,” she thought. “A perfect room. A perfect house. A perfect car. Even the pool was perfect. Why couldn’t people be perfect? She thought Alfonso was perfect the day she began pursuing him in that classroom at the university. They had perfect times together, she and Alfonso and Salvi. In that first year, before the wedding, we were inseparable. Salvi made us laugh. Salvi intoxicated us, not only with rum — he insisted on our drinking Puerto Rican rum, that we were traitors to our race if we drank anything else. After Salvi was gone, Alfonso drank Scotch, single malt. He rated bars on the quality of the whiskey they had on their shelves and kept in special cabinets for him.
“And now I drink this,” she thought holding up her empty glass. Her hands trembled less. She placed some ice into her glass with silver tongs, poured Courvoisier into it, splashed in some Coke and drank.
“People aren’t perfect, of course. If they were perfect, they wouldn’t have to eat or drink and if they didn’t eat or drink, they wouldn’t need bathrooms. Well, they would need bathrooms to bathe… or would they? If they were perfect there would be no B.O. Santo Cristo, I must be losing my mind. Heaven must be like that, perfect houses with no kitchens and no bathrooms. No plumbing, no sewers. Perfect windows and perfect people with no cracks.”
It had been a long time since she thought about Salvi, crazy Salvi. He and Alfonso had been such close friends, so different but so alike. It is all for the best that he was no longer around. It wasn’t good for them to be seen together. What would people think? Thank God he only saw him on Social Fridays and never brought him into their home — or God forgive — into Don Miguel’s or Victoria’s. I thank the Virgin and San Alejo for that.
She liked that Alfonso kept Salvi a secret and included her in the confidence. Who wanted people to know her husband was hanging out with a hood? Even a hood as witty, gritty and — she had to admit it — as sexy. She refreshed her drink. “I’ll have just one more, a daycap.”
Alfonso found her asleep on the white divan, her lacy white bra visible through the thin material of her blouse. It reminded him of that day in El Verde just three years before. She was a vision, asleep in front of that infernal waterfalls, immune to the drama that transpired in the canyon pool. She was like a fairy queen, who would wake up and wave her magic wand to make him a man.
Of course, Salvi had tried to seduce him. He half expected it, half desired it. He made it seem natural, beautiful, like a movie romance. An idyllic setting, water crashing behind them, cool waters rushing below, only a sliver of blue sky as a witness. A kiss and a promise. A trick and a trap.
“A mouth has no sex,” Salvi said. “Mine is a masterpiece. Just close your eyes and think about Blanca.”
Alfonso looked at her again. “Blanca and Salvi, my Ying and Yang, the two poles of my soul; one masculine and mad, dark and dangerous; the other feminine and fearful, light and loving. Salvi sucked me dry.”
Blanca stirred. “Oh, you’re home, amor. I was just dreaming about… never mind. Remember that terrible crack in the kitchen window? I hope you remember to get it fixed. It is such an embarrassment. You know, the crack in the window? I do think the whole place is falling apart. A house needs to be maintained. A house that is neglected can simply fall apart. It’s called atrophy or algeny or something like that. I read about it in Imagen…or was it in Buena Vida? Did you know that they don’t sell Cosmopolitan in Spanish any more. Not at Walgreen’s or at CVS, anyway. We can’t have cracks. A house that is neglected will simply fall apart,” she said.
Note: This is one of a series of stories about my fictional character Kenneth Houser and the people he knows, loves or kills. Each story focuses on one character and (hopefully) eventually, they will all come together to form a single narrative.
1. Angels and Monsters (Introduces Kenneth, Salvi and Tito).
2. Graves and Graven Images (Kenneth’s Story; Introduces Victoria.)
3. Mineral Memories ( How Kenneth and Victoria Meet; Introduces Alfonso.)
4. Knowledge and Respect (Introduces Don Miguel, Victoria’s Father.)
5. Jesús, María y José (Alfonso and Kenneth bond)
6. Remember the Sabbath (Alfonso and Salvi’s Story)
7. Bearing False Witness (Renza, Kenneth and Tito interact)
8. A Crack in the Window (Blanca’s story; how she met Alfonso and Salvi)
Links will be added as stories are posted: More to come!
Please comment in private message or public: I appreciate feedback to improve this serial fiction as it (hopefully) develops into a novel.