FROM NO APOLOGIES: AN AUTOMORTOGRAPHY
by Ernesto de la Cruz
Perhaps the world is different now, but when we were young, a man sought a woman who would be his helpmeet, not his keeper. She would take care of his home, while he sought a living—as the old saying was, ‘Men in the street, women at home.’ That may or may not have been right, but it was the way things were. Imelda never would have accepted this, so she found the most unassuming boy she knew, a boy known for being kind-hearted and generous, and began a relentless campaign to keep him under her thumb. I tried to warn him, but by the time he was fifteen, she’d convinced him that he couldn’t live without her…
HÉCTOR RIVERA CANCELS APPEARANCES
from Más Alla, October 29, 2027
After the disturbance in Craftsmen’s Park, composer Héctor Rivera canceled his planned appearances at Plaza de la Música, citing a need to search for his wife, shoemaker Imelda Rivera, who vanished from the park yesterday afternoon. Asked if he planned to reschedule, he responded, “You will ask my wife that question when I bring her home.”
It took Maribel two full days to get back.
Unlike the family, Teresa didn’t pretend that she wasn’t trying to keep Imelda prisoner in the apartment. “I have one job—keep you in reach until Día de Muertos. You are going to be good and do what I say. Do you understand?”
Imelda had frowned as impressively as she could, but she’d obeyed. She’d even smiled as soon as Teresa had turned her back… she’d once said nearly the same thing to a thirteen year old girl who wanted to walk the streets in a dress cut down nearly to her navel, and had been subjected to epic adolescent tantrum on the subject.
That first night, they hadn’t bothered sleeping. It wasn’t necessary anymore, and Teresa was worried about sleepwalking. So, once Imelda had finished playing her repertoire (which was pitifully small), they had settled in to a game of conquian, which became several games. Imelda wasn’t sure how many they had played when Teresa asked, “Have you read Ernesto’s book?”
“No. I’ve read about it, but no.”
“It’s insane. I have a copy.”
“You bought a copy?”
“I found it.”
“What does it have about you?”
She snorted. “Nothing. I may as well have not existed. I don’t even know if he remembers that I…” She stopped and surveyed her cards. “I don’t think he remembers me. It’s mostly about you. It pretends to be about Héctor, but it’s about you.”
“He shouldn’t dare write Héctor’s name. Or say it. Or think it. Does he claim that Héctor was just asking for it?”
“Oh, no. He’s much better at this game than that. If I hadn’t been there, if I didn’t know the truth, I wouldn’t know how utterly crazy it is.” She shrugged and put down her cards. “He’s not stupid. He knows he has to start where people are. They love Héctor. So we start with little San Héctor of Santa Cecilia. All alone, delicate, naïve, abandoned by Ceci…”
“Ceci makes an appearance?”
“Oh, yes. The second woman to abandon poor, innocent Héctor. He could hardly have said much about the first.”
“The tale could actually be told that way,” Imelda admitted grudgingly. Ceci had lost her sewing studio and her home, and her new landlord hadn’t allowed her to keep the seven-year-old of unknown origin that she’d taken in as an infant. She had taken him to the orphanage when he’d first appeared, apparently—that was why he’d been given the name Rivera—but in the end, she hadn’t been willing to let him go. But she hadn’t been young, and her grown sons had an antipathy to the little stranger who was “eating her out of house and home,” and when the order had come down, she hadn’t particularly fought it. Héctor had told her he could sleep in a bin in Mariachi Plaza and listen to the musicians all night—the mariachis, even the less-than-kind ones, had always doted on him—and all she had done was tell him to make sure he stopped by if he needed to eat. Why she hadn’t marched him straight up to the orphanage was as much a mystery to Imelda now as it ever had been. (Héctor, after she had faded six years ago, said that it had been his choice, but what sort of woman allowed a seven-year-old to make a choice like that?) Still, she had continued to help him over the years, and she’d given Imelda her first sewing jobs, so…
Teresa waited for Imelda to work through all of this, watching with a rather bemused expression. Then she said, “Of course the tale could be told that way. That’s the whole point. Reading it… it’s like looking at people you know from some strange angle, like you’re hanging upside down from a lamppost and looking at them from right under their noses. You know who they are, but—”
“—but you’re more or less looking at caked snot?”
“That sums it up elegantly. I can tell you’ve been married to a poet for a century.”
“Anyway, this poor, beleaguered child had one friend, one boy who was a bit more fortunate, who guided him along and even very generously taught him to read and write.”
“Don’t tell me… he also taught him the guitar.”
“Oh, no. You don’t understand this game at all.”
“Explain it to me.”
Teresa took a deep breath. “Héctor was a prodigy, you see. A creature of almost supernatural talent. The sort of person who should never have been held back by anyone, whose talent should have been a beacon of light to the world, except…”
“Ah. Except that the evil witch cast a spell on him and tried to trap him in Santa Cecilia.”
“Now you’re getting it.”
“And he murdered him as what? An act of true love?”
“It skates up to the edge of saying that.”
“Are you kidding?”
“No. I’m not. You see, Héctor was brainwashed. Only Ernesto knew how badly. He had to do something to keep him from throwing his life away, and it was just tragic that he miscalculated the last dose.”
“And the people swallow this?”
Teresa shrugged. “He wraps it in other things, to explain why his judgment was so poor. His father was cruel, you know—”
“If by ‘cruel,’ you mean ‘occasionally tried to discipline his son’…”
“He could be cruel. That’s not exactly a lie, either. We could find people even now who would remember the belt.”
“So, naturally, that led to poisoning my husband to save him from a life of marriage and fatherhood.”
“Of course. Poor Ernesto was so unloved that he would resort to anything to save the one person on Earth who truly cared about him.”
“Including killing that person, stealing his property, and never mentioning his name again.”
“That would have been too painful. Why, the very fact that he never spoke Héctor’s name again ought to prove how pure his motives were.”
“He did speak Héctor’s name. He slandered it to my face.”
“Which is why people who knew him in Santa Cecilia know the whole thing is completely loco. But not many people are left who knew him in Santa Cecilia, at least well enough to judge it.”
“You know. Why haven’t you said anything?”
Teresa looked down. “I… I’ve always talked too much.”
“They would believe you. You’re a…” Imelda gestured at the habit.
“I’ve said a lot of things over the years, Imelda, and you know better than anyone that what I say doesn’t always lead where I think it will.”
Imelda shook her head. “Don’t you dare tell me that you said something nasty to Ernesto and that’s why he’s on your little shame shrine outside.”
“Not to Ernesto, no.”
And, although Imelda pressed her on it for most of that first night, she hadn’t said whatever it was she thought she’d done.
The second day—three days before Día de Muertos—Imelda stayed in the apartment while Teresa went out to do service in the city. What kind of service it was, Imelda didn’t know—the city provided everything—but she was out for three hours, during which Imelda cleaned everything stem to stern, repaired a spare pair of shoes as well as she could without her tools, and positively did not read de la Cruz’s book, though she found it on the shelf and came very close to being bored enough to open it.
Teresa stopped inside the door as soon as she came in and said, “Imelda! I didn’t invite you to be a maidservant.”
“It seemed more interesting than counting my foot bones.”
“And these were your choices?”
“Well, I did investigate your bookshelf.”
“And found a single book to not read?” Teresa sat down. “Why don’t you relax? I have good ones here, too. The new Elizondo is very exciting.”
“I don’t read much fiction.”
“You should—Oh! Checo!”
Imelda looked over her shoulder in time to see the little alebrije flutter through the window, carrying an envelope. Teresa took it and read the note inside it quickly, then handed it to Imelda.
“No. But I think you should read it.”
Holy sister, Maribel had written, Héctor insists on coming with me. He is a good and decent man, which makes it very difficult to tell him when he’s doing something foolish, so I will just do as well as I can to mitigate the foolishness. I will guide as well as I can, but many roads may open between here and there, and we may need to travel some of them. I told him this. He said he would walk all the miles of this endless city for his wife. I will try to avoid detours, but we both know that there are paths that must be walked. You know, for the first time in many years, I wonder if there is a song in that. Tell his lady to be safe when we arrive. Her family is worried, but well.
Imelda read it again. He said he would walk all the miles of this endless city.
“So, you’ll stay put?” Teresa said. “No matter how stir crazy?”
She nodded. “What does she mean about paths?”
“I can’t speak of it, but you seem to know. There are paths that they must eventually walk together. I doubt she’ll go looking for them right now, though.”
Imelda set the note down. Checo fluttered over and sat on her knee and she stroked his head. “I don’t suppose you’ve run across anyone who… might need to walk a path with me?”
Teresa shook her head. “I tried for a while to find my parents. For all I know, they were alive and well and I saw them every day.”
“I doubt it. You can’t look at your child with no expression at all.”
“That’s a lovely thought. But it’s not true.”
“Mine are probably having tea with de la Cruz in Odiados,” Imelda said. “You don’t get burned out of your house… your children don’t need to be saved from shooting by their niñera… if you’re beloved.”
“I was just left with the sisters. Like old clothes that someone didn’t want anymore.”
“We were all cast-offs, Teresa,” Imelda said. “You, me, Héctor, the twins. All of us.”
“Your parents didn’t decide to leave you.”
“No, but their employees decided to shoot me.” She reached across and squeezed Teresa’s hand. “We did all right, though. We made it.”
“Because you kept things together for us.” She sat down. “Stupid as it sounds, I think my happiest times were in that drafty old manse. We should have been miserable.”
“Well, I’ve never been good at doing what I should.”
Imelda spent the evening practicing on her guitar, thinking of Miguel and wondering if he could feel her playing it. She was getting more comfortable with it—for one thing, there was no longer any need to build up callouses to press the strings—but she was still frustrated. Singing had always come easily to her, but, while she’d enjoyed playing the guitar, it had always been real work, and now, she felt like she was starting all over again.
After a while, Teresa decided to risk sitting outside on a tiny balcony at the front of the apartment—“It’s too stuffy in here”—and they drank coffee and looked out over busy, but strangely subdued square surrounding a giant version of Teresa’s Magdalena statue. Checo nuzzled against Teresa’s breastbone, and they spoke of old times and old friends.
Imelda finally decided to try and sleep—Teresa promised to watch over her and make sure she didn’t wander off—and, an hour later, fell into a light dream, in which she and Teresa were girls again.
They had never been the sorts to fall into a friendship naturally, but by strange happenstance, they were the only girls even close to of an age at the orphanage. At thirteen, Teresa had been boy-crazy for two years already, and Imelda had heard a running commentary on which of the local ones were handsome, and which strong, and which simply too amazing to stand in the presence of. She had also had a running list of the ones who were just “not there yet.” These conversations could go on for hours, with Imelda only contributing an occasional eye roll or instruction to get back to the day’s sewing. But on the day she was kicked out of the luthier’s shop, she asked—as unobtrusively as she could—where “that little guitar boy” fit into the scheme of things.
“You and the guitars. That’s not going anywhere. You should worry about something else.”
“Well… I am. I’m worried about that boy. That’s all I’m asking. Is he… does he need help?”
“Which one? Santa Cecilia is crawling with guitar boys.”
“You know… the one who came into the shop all the time. Just to practice, because he didn’t have one. I don’t where he lives. Or his name.”
“Oh. He’s one of us. Héctor. Rivera, of course. I think they call him Esposito, because his mother left him out in the square to die. But he doesn’t want to live here. He’s fine with the mariachis, and Ceci Lopez feeds him.”
“You know him, then?”
She nodded and sighed. “He sings with Ernesto de la Cruz sometimes. Ernesto takes care of him, too. He even taught him to read. He gives Héctor a whole third of the money he makes.”
“A whole… third?”
“Ernesto is so generous. And sometimes, he sings songs Héctor wrote and gives him some of the money, even if he wasn’t even in the show.”
“Oh.” Imelda considered carefully whether or not to ask the question that really burned in her mind—whether or not someone like Teresa, who knew boys, thought he was a good one—but in the end, she just said, “I only wondered. He scolded the mariachis for making fun of me.”
Teresa laughed. “Right. Don Quixote de Santa Cecilia. I think he’s still playing at knights and dragons. Are you Dulcinea now?”
“No,” Imelda said. “Don’t be stupid. Get back to work.”
Teresa started sewing again, or maybe she was darning—in the dream, her hands were fuzzy, and Imelda couldn’t tell—but she stopped suddenly and leaned forward. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You’re not Dulcinea! You’re Doña Quixote! You want to slay him a dragon, don’t you?”
“What? No. I’m not… I don’t believe in dragons.”
“To ride into glorious battle with a bit of his shirt tied around your lance…”
“To rescue him and sweep him off his feet…”
Teresa stopped talking, but the laughter kept bubbling up out of her.
“What is it?” Imelda finally demanded.
“It’s just funny. It’s like wanting to go to war for the court jester.”
Imelda glowered at her. “I don’t want to go to war for anyone. There’s enough war going on right now. Finish your sewing. Señora Delgado will be by to pick that up tomorrow.”
Imelda no longer remembered whether or not Teresa had finished her sewing that night—it had been hit or miss with her, because she allowed herself to get distracted so easily—but the laughter had certainly continued. It had been good-natured then; the spiteful laughter didn’t come until several years later. While Teresa had never stopped considering Imelda’s growing relationship with Héctor anything but the height of hilarity—stern and unforgiving Imelda going soft-eyed for a boy who thought it the height of sophisticated entertainment to put shoes on his hands and walk across the square upside down—she had also always treated their friendship as worthy and important, and had never made a peep when Héctor started bunking in with the boys at the orphanage after he and Imelda spent most of the night on the steps out front, singing and talking and laughing together. She’d just found him an extra blanket and built him a nest between Oscar and a boy named…
What had that boy’s name been? Imelda woke up with that, of all questions, burning in her mind. Had it been Bernardo, like the boy in the musical? Or Rico? She couldn’t even think what it was close to. Maybe Josemi, or Suso. She frowned, scolding herself as she stared across at the wall. It could have been Mickey Mouse for all she remembered, and what did it really matter?
She could hear Teresa moving around in the apartment’s small kitchen, and she could just turn around and ask (Teresa would remember; she was good at names), but the thought of starting another “remember when” session was suddenly deeply oppressive. She didn’t want to remember when. Instead, she wanted to be when. She wanted to be young again, to have Teresa laughing at her crush, to talk to Héctor as the moon set, until he was so tired that he practically collapsed onto the pile of blankets beside whoever-it-was, but she was so elated that she felt like she could fly around the world before she was truly worn out for the day. She wanted to go back to that place, and be in that moment, and smell fresh, warm earth and growing things. She wanted to hold Héctor’s hand, to feel the texture of his skin. His hands had always been a little dry, rough with callouses from the guitar and from other accidents of life on the street, but the roughness had been shallow somehow, like he’d pulled on a very thin glove to mask the softness of his touch. His hands often had a kind of wooden scent from holding the guitar all day, and his nails were always in some state of disrepair, no matter how short he tried to keep them. His fingers were warm when they’d twined through her own, and she could feel his pulse beating beside hers, and even now that they had one another again, neither of them had any warmth to give the other in anything other than a figurative sense, and she didn’t want figurative warmth, she wanted…
The knock was quiet, but it felt loud.
Imelda sat up on her cot while Teresa opened the door.
Héctor started to ask, “Where is—” but then Imelda stood up, and he saw her, and he was across the room in two steps, his ribs crushing against hers, his finger bones burying themselves in her hair. He didn’t kiss her. He just pressed her head against his shoulder and whispered her name over and over. They stayed that way for a long time. If Teresa and Maribel were discomfited by it, neither made a sound about it.
When he finally took a step back (he put his hands on her face and looked at her for a long time), she could see that the other women had gone into the kitchen, busying themselves. Héctor finally said, “You look good. Are you all right?”
She nodded. “A little warm,” she said.
He let his hand fall, then took hers, and turned around. “Thank you, Teresa,” he said. “I… thank you. I’m sorry we took so long.” He frowned at Maribel, and Imelda wondered how much he was seeing. “We ended up wandering through an old revolutionary camp. I didn’t even know it was there. It’s like they’re still at war. Forever. I don’t know why.”
“The same reason the journalists write, and the lawyers have trials and the musicians sing,” Maribel said. “It was their life. I doubt they remember whatever pretext they were fighting for anymore. I barely do.”
“We had to sneak around behind the lines,” Héctor said. “Maribel is very good at it, but… it took too much time. I’m sorry, Imelda.”
“You didn’t need to come,” Teresa said. “I’d have brought her to you.”
“I’m not sure about this plan. The magic of the bridge… I tried to fool it for a century, Imelda. I don’t know if it will work. And even it does, I’m not going to chain you up in the workshop. You know that won’t work, anyway.”
“I hadn’t really entertained that idea.”
“I was about to go back to that lawyer Ruiz and make him tell me how to get to Odiados. I couldn’t find the way I took before. I was afraid you were there. And if you were, I’d go there with you. I will. If we can’t fix this, I’ll go wherever the roads take you.”
“Let’s not worry about that. We can still fix this.”
He nodded. “Before we left, I sent Dante to Miguel. I had to ask Pepita to carry him. He’s flying again, but not very much.”
“Miguel doesn’t need to do anything. This isn’t his fault.”
“No. But I think he can help, if he’s willing.”
Imelda didn’t like putting any of this on Miguel, who would probably decide it was his fault if it turned out there was anything he could be doing about it. But she didn’t say anything. If the problem was coming from the living, then someone in the living world would need to fix it. Instead, she sighed and said, “How is Pepita going to carry Dante after she turns back into a cat?”