You Never Know
Translated by: Patricia Dubrava
Artwork by Lisa Steinweder
You never know that one day you’ll go to bed and when you wake, Dad, nervous and unshaven, will put the cereal on the table, your sisters will talk in lowered voices and no one will say Mom isn’t here. You’ll go to school thinking you’ll see her when you get home, but it will be Trini who opens the apartment door, serves the noodle soup and grumbles because from then on it will be up to her to be the lady of the house. You would think someone would let something slip—a groan, a question, a plate—because a mother can’t just leave like that. Instead, your sisters pat you on the head, and Dad comes home at night and asks about school and soccer with forced interest. Seated on the edge of your bed, he doesn’t notice you didn’t brush your teeth and looks as though he is about to explain something, but his eyes stray to the shelves of toy cars and he heaves a hurried “goodnight.” You never know that silence will be the explanation, that everyone will go on as if your absent mother’s voice were smoke, as if on Sundays there had always been four at the table, as if they sold socks with holes and it were normal that Trini was the one who took you to the doctor in a taxi. And you go to school with eyes like saucers, shock gluing your eyelashes to your eyelids because no one has dared to cry or kick the doors, because the only noticeable change is that the photos have been removed. One black and white photo where the two of them are happy, seated on a bench, remains on your father’s desk. Vestiges of your mother in the room you seldom set foot in, because you would rather not be made a castaway on a bed that size, on the extra-large pillows, or behind the closet doors. You don’t even know if her dresses are still hanging there because your sisters have taken it upon themselves to lock things, and they are the ones who go to your school events, sign your report cards, talk to your teachers. Your silent father moves around the house like a backdrop; you guess it must be the only way to accept that there was no goodbye kiss.
You grow and become accustomed to Trini’s foul moods, to your sisters in the dark living room with boyfriends, the gatherings with grandparents, the casual references to certain maternal features passed on to the children, like the wipe of a cloth removing dust from the furniture. You learn to avoid Grandma Nona because all she talks about is Dad and his thick-headedness, and because your sisters don’t protest when she comes up with reasons why her grandchildren are orphans. You don’t want to be in other people’s houses that remind you of a mother whose features have been erased. The years pass and you begin to look at women’s legs, to imagine kissing them and caressing them and you’d give anything to put your arm around a tiny waist and inhale a sweet breath, and you kiss and embrace them in the dark of the movie theatre, and masturbate thinking of them, and when you begin to want more than their bodies, their presence and tenderness, you leave without saying goodbye.
And that’s why you can go one day without any explanation. You’ve caught a furtive conversation between your father and his sister-in-law; someone saw her in New York, she’s a waitress in a café on Second Avenue. You think such a destiny is full of fryer grease. And your anger stirs. You are 21 and have a student job in your lawyer uncle’s office; you’ve gotten the money together to spend a month in that city. So you tell your father that you’re taking a trip and don’t tell him when or where. One day you board the plane, traveling light. Cafés on that long avenue are legion; you eliminate Chinese restaurants, pizzerias, bars, but a huge number of possibilities remains. You book a cheap hotel room at 32nd and 8th Avenue. You plan to cover both sides of Second Avenue from the Lower East Side to Spanish Harlem. You’re sure you’ll hit the mark. You have the whole day, the money to consume tea, soda and donuts, because it’s not enough to just look from the street, you have to go in and sit down. You ought to recognize her thirteen years after the last memory you have of her face, no longer the one in the photo on your father’s desk.
You wear runners and a heavy jacket because at the end of April it could just as easily snow as drizzle. You don’t talk to anyone, and it isn’t hard to do. Two weeks go by; you’ve spent them peering through the condensation on greasy café windows where the waitresses call you “dear” and also across the delicate white tableware of hotel cafés. You have gone to the same place morning and afternoon because who knows what shift a waitress may work in a city that never stops. Before leaving the hotel, you scrawl the route on your map and, like a regular at the racetrack, you place your bets: go back to Ruby’s, cover 40th to 60th. You navigate between calculation and hunch. That’s why, at three weeks, without your hopes having waned or resentments built up during the nights, you walk into the café on the corner of Madison and 98th folding the map and putting it in your pocket, and you know you’ve found her. You saw her setting plates on the next table, leaning over in her beige uniform, and it’s the way she handles the plates that gives her away. Sudden flashback to your dining room table. You thought it would be her look, her long neck, or perhaps her aquiline nose that would give her away, not this gesture that was once domestic and today is just part of the job. You want to watch her like this, from a distance, but she notices that a customer is waiting. You hide behind the menu, knowing you’ll soon hear her voice. You glimpse her legs, her flat rubber-soled shoes.
“Good morning, are you ready to order?” she asks in accented English.
You stare at her, disconcerted, because you want to study her like a photo: her hair dyed ash blond, her aquiline nose, forced smile. She prompts you with another question: “What are we up to this morning?”
You don’t know what to do when your mother speaks to you in English at the same time as she pours reheated coffee into a faded cup. Before she can leave to serve another table because the customer hasn’t decided, you order some hot cakes to keep her there. You notice everyone calls her, she serves, and they leave change for her on the table. You don’t know what to do with a mother who displays no interest in the customer who is a piece of herself, a mother who doesn’t look at you any more intently than at the worker at the next table, or the women at the table after that.
When she brings the steaming hot cakes, your “thank you” reveals your foreignness.
“Visiting?” she asks.
“Looking for work,” you say curtly while you spread the pats of butter over the hot cakes, watching how the heat melts them. You take great pains to cut the round cakes into even slices. You don’t know what will happen next, you chew and swallow with difficulty, anxious to get out of that café as soon as possible. You gesture to your mother: “The check.”
The waitress, used to people in a hurry, leaves the check beside the syrup-coated plate.
You leave the café to walk, disoriented. You reach the corner and retreat a few steps, cross the street, wander aimlessly. You find the map in your pocket, crumple it and throw it into the first trash bin you pass. You go back the next morning. How could you squander this precious find? The night has given you clarity. But you didn’t think that she might not be working that day. A black waitress comes to take your order. You ask for Olivia. That’s her name, if she hasn’t changed it. The waitress says she’ll be back tomorrow. A day seems like years, the sum of all the years since Trini served the noodle soup and the three of you ate all alone. Your fury grows while your pocket empties. There’s no time to lose.
The next day you return and see her right there in the large picture window. You pause a while to look at her pinned-up hair and aquiline nose. You sit at the same table, and Olivia—her name is written on the laminated tag—asks with a smile if you want hot cakes again.
“I looked for you yesterday, Olivia.”
Why beat around the bush.
“I had the day off. Did you find work?”
“I’d like to talk to you about that. Could you have a drink with me tonight?”
Olivia hesitates while she straightens the paper tablecloth, pours coffee into the cup.
“I don’t like coffee,” you say.
She continues filling your cup.
“At five, at the Mayfair, two streets down,” she answers.
“How much is it?” you ask, getting up.
“But you haven’t ordered.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
You leave a dollar on the table and go.
From late afternoon on you drink in the Mayfair bar. Olivia walks toward you; dressed in high heels she is taller. She wears a long, navy blue jacket, her hair down, bangs falling over her forehead.
“I’ve never had a drink with someone so young.”
“Nor I with a waitress in New York,” you respond. “Are you Mexican?”
“You can tell? And you?”
“From El Salvador, but I studied in Mexico,” you lie.
They serve you vodka tonic, and you want to talk as little as possible. You try to avoid hearing about her life, but Olivia tells you that she fell in love with a man and left everything in Mexico for him. Although you can see she would like to tell the outcome, you don’t ask what happened. But she goes on, says she left it all for nothing, and to stifle her voice you caress her legs. She falls silent. You leave your hands on her thighs that are protected by the wool skirt, to be certain you’re capable of being close to that woman’s skin. She doesn’t speak, and you look at her. You can’t resist her familiar eyes. You grip the glass to prevent yourself from smashing it on the floor. You order another round and sense she’s making a concession when she accepts. The two of you leave without any further conversation, you take her by the hand and go quickly down the street, she feels light as a feather. You remember other bodies close to you and the feeling bewilders you. Barely inside the room, you take off her blue jacket and push her onto her back; her hair spreads across the white, worn-out sheet. You hurry as you unbutton your fly, Olivia takes off her stockings and panties, anxious. You enter her without difficulty. You watch her flushed face, her closed eyes, for which you are thankful. Then you think that you have entered the same conduit that opened up for you to be born. You feel a lecherous repulsion and forget the words you meant to spill. You fall exhausted onto her breast; Olivia wriggles up to reach for cigarettes from her purse on the nightstand. Your head remains on those naked thighs near the pubis. You don’t want to look at her, don’t want to leave her warm lap.
Olivia caresses your head with one hand while she lifts a cigarette to her lips with the other.
“I hope this is a smoking room.” She laughs.
You stay there with your eyelids closed tight, with the silence of the truth frozen in your throat, in your vanquished sex.
“You also have an aquiline nose,” says Olivia tenderly. “Are you O.K.?”
You can’t do it. You don’t say: “Olivia Suárez, I’m your son.” You hide your nose, plaster it uselessly against the woman’s leg. You go to sleep hugging yourself and wake up alone. Then you seek the smell of your mother on the pillow and find the butt in the ashtray. You shower to go for hot cakes, find a vacant table in Olivia’s section. When she sees you, she comes to serve coffee.
“I told you I don’t like coffee.” You cover the cup with your hand. “Why did you leave?”
“I didn’t want to stay until the morning, then you’d see that I’m 49.”
You eat hot cakes hurriedly and drop all the money that you have left on the table. That night you fly home. From the window you watch the illuminated web of the city that you’re leaving behind, then the profile of your nose reflected in the glass. All you know is that it’s better to leave without saying goodbye.
Mónica Lavín, México City, 1955, is the author of several novels and a dozen story collections. Pasarse de la raya, 2010, a selection of previously published stories, includes “Uno no sabe.” Lavín has won numerous awards, including the Gilberto Owen National Prize for Literature and the Colima Prize for Fiction.