Imelda had just gone into the movie theater to see de la Cruz's first movie. She's in disguise so no one will talk about her. The twins saw something troubling on the poster, and she has finally realized what it is, and she's not happy. (Because this story loops together in the middle of sentences, I'm putting up some of the contextual stuff. What's already been up is underlined, then when the underlining stops, it's new material.)
Instead, she sat down in a shadowy corner and pressed her hands over her face. She didn't know how long she stayed like that. She heard people coming in around her for the matinee, and it was when she was nudged that she finally pretended to wake up.
The movie began.
With Coco's song.
It was bastardized and blustery, but it was Coco's, and Ernesto was singing it, and he was playing…
Ernesto was playing the --
guitar," Imelda said.
"I need a new guitar?" Hector repeated. "But this one is fine. You keep it in such good shape."
She rolled her eyes. "Will you let me give you a wedding present, Hector?"
"You're already giving me the best wedding present." He glanced at her belly, which looked no different than it had two months ago, though of course, what was inside it had changed everything very rapidly. Imelda had been terrified when she realized why she was feeling ill, but Hector had been over the moon. The fact that they were seventeen and eighteen years old seemed not to faze him at all. "I say it in my prayers every day. Thank you."
"I think we gave each other that one, Hector." She bit her lip. "Besides, this is the one I was going to give you anyway, from the first time you asked."
"Last year? You said no then!"
"Well, you had to prove yourself, didn't you?" She smiled. "And I didn't say no. I said ask again later. But I started making this that night." She lifted the case up onto the table in the shack where Hector had, inexplicably brought her tonight for a picnic. It was the old shoemaker's hut, and it still had the pleasant smell of old leather, even though Bautista had gone to war three years ago and never come back. "Take it. I'm certainly not giving it to anyone else, and you'd best not, either."
He feigned a look of horror, then gently touched the handmade leather case. Imelda had made it as well, in a fit of delight at his happiness with their predicament. She didn't work with her hands as much now that she was singing in the theater, but she still enjoyed it and did it well. Sewing had been a good supplement to music, where money was concerned, and she could do it late at night.
"It's a beautiful case," Hector said, running his fingers along the twined hearts she'd put onto it.
"Well, will you open it and look at the guitar?"
"I'm opening it! I just enjoy all of it." He opened the case slowly, reverently, then gasped deeply. "Oh, Imelda… Imelda, it's beautiful…" He touched the fretboard and let his fingers linger on the mother-of-pearl inlays in the head, making the shape of a skull. She'd even splurged on a bit of gold leaf to replicate the gold tooth he'd gotten after he and Ernesto had been beaten up for their earnings one day. Ernesto had paid for it, since his family had money and he'd felt it was his fault. "How did you afford… how could you make…"
"It turns out I'm a good singer, and also very good at saving my money. And I did a bit of mending." This was an understatement, and Hector had to know it -- the mother-of-pearl alone had taken the full price of two gown repairs, six ties, and a full embroidery job on a jacket -- but he had the good grace not to push the subject. Her money was her own. They had agreed on that from the start. She was better at handling it than he was, and unlike most other men of Imelda's acquaintance, he was willing to admit it. "Are you going to play it, or just look at it?"
"Look at it for now. Imelda, I just can't believe… this is really mine? From you? You made it?"
"Do you like it?"
"I love it. I love it more for coming from you, from being your own work. You're amazing. Is there anything you can't do?" He lifted it out of the case, but didn't play yet. He just held it up in the golden sunlight and watched it gleam while his hand ran maddeningly around the curves of its body.
"Will you play it, please?"
He nodded, then pulled himself up to sit on the table, almost fearfully bringing the guitar around to rest on his knee. He ran his fingers lightly over the strings, producing a soft chord, then gently picked out a tune. "This is a perfect guitar," he said, his fingers gaining confidence as he played. "My perfect guitar. It fits me exactly right."
He stopped playing, laying his hand over the strings. "I have a present for you, too. It's not as fancy as this. It doesn't look like anything really. I…" He looked up at the window. "This place is ours."
"I know, I should have asked. We should have looked. But I had a chance, and I was afraid I'd lose it." He got down, laying the guitar tenderly on the table. "I got it for a song. Literally. That stupid Juanita song."
"I don't understand…"
He looked around. "You remember old Santiago? They call him Chicharron?"
"The vagrant?" Imelda asked, frowning.
"He's a good person. But he wasn't a vagrant. Turns out old Bautista was his brother-in-law. He was the only heir. And he got this place. He didn't want it. He's moving on. He likes to be on the move. I asked what I could buy it for… just thinking about it. We need someplace. And he said he would sell it to me for the price of hearing 'Juanita.' Says it reminds him of good times in the cantina, and the lady he wanted to marry."
"Wasn't that song about…"
"A really ugly girl. I don't know if she was ugly or not, but he says it used to make her laugh because her name was Juanita. She died."
"The war, what else?"
Imelda, who had assumed something quite different, chastised herself. "Sorry. I'm… not always a nice person."
Hector made a face. "What makes you say that?"
"Well, I… I assumed…" Imelda shrugged. "You remember Teresa? She came by and said I was a judgmental… well, a not nice word… and a hypocrite to boot for judging her." She had also said that sooner or later "that besotted idiot" would figure it out and move on to warmer climes, but Imelda didn't add that. She knew Hector would deny it and assure her of his undying love, but it would seem much less real when he said it than when he just looked her. When he looked at her, she couldn't doubt. When he spoke, she sometimes remembered that he could be a bit of a charmer. She shook her head. "Anyway, maybe I am a little judgmental."
"Eh, maybe. So what? It's who you are. I love all the things that you are, so I love that, too." He raised his eyebrows. "You haven't said anything about…" He pointed around the room. "Are you angry? That I got it without asking. Because I can sell it, too. He even left Bautista's shoemaking things here, I could probably get money for those, too, and we could find somewhere you like -- "
"No, it's good, Hector." In truth, she hadn't really looked at it yet. The setting sun came through the open door and the wide windows in a very pleasant way, and there was actually a lot of room. There was space beyond the back of the building where they might have a garden, or even build the house out. There was a nice well house out back to give them water and keep things cool. It was a bit run down and dirty, and Imelda could definitely see the piles of old shoemakers' tools in poorly hung cupboards along the back wall, but it wasn't a disaster. "We can paint it something bright, and we'll bring in music, which will make it perfect."
He gave a relieved sigh, and she wondered if he really had been afraid of how she'd react, if she had given him reason to think she would unleash her fury on him. She supposed she had, over the years of their acquaintance, though she couldn't remember ever losing her temper at him in particular. "Good, because I don't know how to shop for a house. Or land. And with the war, who knows who owns what half the time, anyway. They want to redistribute, but I doubt anyone will bother with this land. Nothing to farm, unless it grows shoe leather." He went to the east side of the room and opened a squeaky door. "This is a nice big room, look, the twins could have their own space. Maybe they can even build little houses outside when they get older, but they wouldn't need to live alone. I know you were worried about that." He barely gave Imelda time to poke her head into the long room before happily moving on, caught in a dream now. "And this one," he said, "will be for the baby. Look. It has northern light, so it won't be too bright for her. When she's old enough not to be with us all the time, of course."
"Or he. Either is good, but I want her to be just like you. I'd feel a little silly spoiling a boy with ribbons and pretty dresses."
Imelda grinned. "All right."
"And then…" He bit his lip. "Well, er… for… us." He moved further along the north and opened the door to a room with a grand view of the well, the dusty yard, and the alley that led to Mariachi Plaza. An old bed leaned up against the wall. Neither of them quite looked at it. They had never quite made it to a shared bed, no matter how much else they'd shared. "I can fix that up," he said. "And we'll paint the walls, and put up curtains, and… well, make it a proper room for a lady."
"I can think of a few people who might not call me a lady."
"You are a queen, mi amor." He bowed and kissed her hand, without a trace of irony.
"You're trying to charm me," Imelda said, rolling her eyes.
It didn't even get an answering smile. He held her hand and looked into her eyes. "No, I'm not. I won't let anyone say you're not a lady. Not even you."
Absurdly, Imelda felt like crying. She turned away and swallowed hard a few times, going to the window. "Purple, I think," she said, finally looking back at him. "For the curtains. Like the ones in the theater."
He gave her a skeptical look, then finally grinned. "Yes, they do seem to be good luck for us. And royal, for your highness."
"Now you're charming me again, Hector."
"Are you charmed?"
They spent the next half hour in a pleasant fantasy, doing a bit of cleaning around the shed and talking about all of the things they meant to do here. Hector boxed up the shoemaking tools, with a thought to selling them later, but Imelda said she might like to keep them around. She'd enjoyed working with leather to make the guitar case. Perhaps someday, she would make them dancing shoes. ("Your crazy wishes are my ardent commands, my love.") As the sky turned bright red outside, Hector first reached for his old guitar, then instead picked up the new one. "Shall I introduce it tonight as my wedding present?"
"We haven't had the wedding yet, Hector. I know we're a little mixed up about the order, but I think they may notice that there hasn't been a wedding."
"So, it's an early present. But I won't play it yet if you want me to wait. That is always my rule."
Imelda bit her lip, and felt a wide smile coming up. "Yes, I want you to play it. I can't wait to hear it in the theater. I can't wait to sing tonight."
They left together, hand in hand, the wedding guitar strapped over Hector's back. "What are we going to do when the baby comes?" he asked. "I think you'll want to take time off."
"Well, probably just before she comes, I won't belong on stage. But after? I think she will just come up and sing with us. She will have marvelously strong lungs, especially considering how early she will be born."
"Mm, yes, practically miraculous." He moved closer and slipped his arm around her. "There are many such miracles in Santa Cecilia, Imelda. Don't worry about what people will say. I doubt any of them have a family tree so clean that no one was born early in suspiciously good health."
"True. You and I may have the cleanest family trees in town." She smiled at him.
He smiled back, but this time, he looked a little troubled.
"What is it, Hector?"
"Do you ever wonder what we'll give our children?" He shook his head. "I look at Nesto and the others, and how their families help them out. They're already halfway to having good lives, just because they have someone to give them tables and chairs and stories and rules. It's like we're all on a cliff, only they're halfway up, because they have a ladder, and we're standing there at the bottom."
"Every family starts somewhere," Imelda said firmly. "We will be the start of ours, Hector. Let them have their rickety ladders. We will get out chisels and make stairs in the cliff, so our children will never fall off."
"And we'll let other orphans climb them, too?"
"Of course. It's only fair."
"Good." He shook his head. "Well, that's enough serious talk. Let's start building stairs by making lots of money tonight."
"I hope you don't start worrying more about money than music."
"I don't. But let's be honest, Imelda. We are going to need money."
"Let me worry about money."
"Come on. We're almost there." She broke into a run, and a moment later, Hector followed, catching her and swinging her around in the dying light of the day. They were laughing when they came through the stage door, and the stage manager rolled his eyes at them, as he always did. "Wild children," he called them.
Hector led Imelda out onto the stage. He usually contented himself with a simple, "I am Hector, and this lovely creature is Imelda, and she is going to make you weep for beauty." Tonight, he brought out his new guitar, and introduced it, telling everyone that it was his early wedding present from the queen, who was all things wonderful and amazing, and who made the moon shine and the stars glow, and…
"Oh, stop it, and play," Imelda said, laughing too hard to sing at first.
But of course, she sang. She sang for the money she made, but mostly she sang for the sheer joy of it, for the warm and steady glow the music made around her and Hector and the little stranger they had created between them. She sang because Hector's music called her to sing, because the words he'd written were meant only for her, because it was his heart and his soul, and they were also hers. She sang to the strangers in the seats, but mostly she sang to Hector, her husband (in all but the most technical of senses).