Adela stared out the window, fascinated by the frost and the pattern it made on the glass. She touched the surface of the pane. The pattern reminded her of the lace that edged the neckline of her wedding dress, tiny, perfect, and delicate. That was only a few months ago, yet it felt like another lifetime. She wasn’t prepared for life here in the Bronx. How could you be prepared for something you had no conception of? Santo Domingo might as well be on another planet. She wouldn’t feel its warmth anytime soon.
“Mama.” Rosa tugged at her dress.
“Do you have my notebook?”
Adela paused. She had told Rosa to speak to her in English. No more Spanish. She had to learn. Do you have my notebook? Tienes . . . ? she translated in her head. She looked at Rosa. “Lo siento, mija, notebook?”
“Ay sí, aquí, I say here, notebook, libreta.” She repeated. “This Inglés, she is killing me.”
“No, Mama,” replied Rosa, “you are doing good!”
Adela turned to find her mother-in-law waiting in the hallway. She handed Adela a shopping list, then addressed her in Spanish: “Pick these things up on your way home please. I can’t go out today—too much cold and snow.”
“Por supuesto, Mama,” Adela said to her as she pulled Rosa’s arms through the stiff, heavy winter jacket Javier had bought for her. It was too big. He had said she would grow into it. They couldn’t afford a new coat every year.
Javier, she chuckled to herself. She loved him but she hated him all the same. He brought her here but where was he now? There was no work for him here in the winter. He went back to Santo Domingo to make what money he could and send it to her. Meanwhile she struggled with the cold and the language and the loneliness.
“Vamos,” Rosa said. “I don’t want to be late for school. Where is my notebook, Mama?”
“Caramba,” Adela said. She walked back into the kitchen and took the thin writing book from the counter and placed it into the pink Barbie knapsack already slung across Rosa’s back. “Besa tú abuela,” she said.
“Inglés,” her mother-in-law said as she bent and kissed Rosa on the forehead.
“Jes,” replied Adela. She couldn’t understand why it was so important to her mother-in-law that she learn English. Javier’s mother had been in New York thirty years and barely spoke a word herself.
With one hand, Adela took Rosa’s hand, and with the other she opened the front door of the house. The cold blast of air smacked her in the face. She bent over and slipped Rosa’s scarf over her nose and mouth. Rosa immediately pulled it down under her chin.
“No,” Rosa chided Adela, “I can’t breathe like that,”
“Mija, is too cold.” She pulled the scarf up again. This time Rosa left it.
Outside, they climbed over the mounds of snow that had turned to ice and began the walk up West Tremont Avenue to the school at the corner of University. The merciless cold cut through Adela’s coat. Javier had begged her. They had fought in the store. He wanted her to have a down coat. It was the warmest. She wouldn’t spend the money; it was too much. She had picked out this one, not understanding how cold it could get. He gave in because she was so stubborn.
She remembered the first time she asked Javier about the cold. They had been together about a year. He had just come back from New York, and they lay together naked in his bed in his house. It was so hot. They had just finished making love, and she only wanted to be cool. “What does it feel like,” she asked him.
He couldn’t really explain it. He took her hand and pulled her up from the bed. He led her into the kitchen and opened the door to the new freezer. They stood there naked in front of it. “Put your arm inside,” he said.
She laughed. “No.” She covered herself with her arms to protect herself from the cold that crept out of the open freezer door.
“Put your arm in there and stand there for five minutes, then you will understand.”
She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him. He picked her up and carried her back to the bedroom and made love to her again. That was the morning they made Rosa. She felt the warmth of him between her legs as she walked up the cold frozen hill that was West Tremont Avenue, Rosa’s little hand in its mitten in her hand wrapped in a glove that did little to keep out the cold.
At the front door of the old school building, Adela knelt down and hugged Rosa, kissing her on the cheek. “Estudia bien,” she said, then stopped and slowly repeated, “Study good.” Rosa hugged her back and ran inside.
The walk to the subway on Jerome Avenue was equally brutal. The streets were slicked with ice. Adela wore sneakers almost all the time now. Despite them, she slipped more than once. She missed her old shoes. Fashion wasn’t a consideration anymore.
She checked her watch, already late. She had work as a housekeeper, filling in for Javier’s various relatives when they went back to Santo Domingo or to Disney World for vacation. Though she hated it, she was lucky to have the work. It was impossible to find anything suitable because she didn’t speak Inglés.
Adela wrapped her coat more tightly as she waited for the elevated train. The wind whipped around her. She closed her eyes. Javier’s voice was in her head.
I want to marry you, bring you and Rosa to New York.
Had she really heard that? They had been together for many years. He never brought it up. She was afraid to ask. Rosa was already five years old.
“She can’t get an education here,” he said. “I want my daughter to be something. There’s no future for her in this country.”
Adela was elated but her heart sank at the same time. It was about Rosa, not her. He wanted to guarantee his daughter’s chance in life, not hers. He knew she would never let Rosa go without her. Rosa was her whole life. She would never let him take Rosa without her. This, she believed, was the reason he married her. What was he doing now, alone in Santo Domingo? Was he alone there?
He had a reputation. She knew that, but she loved him anyway and had from the first moment she’d seen him. In the end, after all the tears and the doubts and the accusations and the other women she was so sure he had, she was here and she was his wife.
The subway doors opened. She pushed into the car and squeezed into a seat, unable to lean back all the way. But she needed to sit down. She had been up for hours, with so much to do in the house before she went to work—laundry and cooking and cleaning. Now she would go to someone else’s house and work, laundry and cooking and cleaning.
At 161st Street the woman next to her got up. Adela slid back into the seat and closed her eyes. The warm air from the heater flowed down on her. Laundry and cooking and cleaning, it wasn’t what she had trained for.
She had wanted to be something. Her father was dead. Her mother had nothing. Her brother had sent money from the United States, but her sisters needed the help first. They had babies and husbands who didn’t or couldn’t find work. She had been accepted to the university and she asked Javier to help her. He said, Of course. He paid for school. She earned a degree in business accounting.
She had grown up in the slums. She barely got an education there but she was determined to go to college. She loved school. She studied for her entrance exams at night while she worked at a pizza restaurant near the Malecon during the day. For two years she went to university every day, happy to be there. She didn’t know exactly why, but she liked the orderliness of accounting, everything in its place, sort of like cleaning. She hated cleaning.
In the afternoon after her classes, she would stroll down by the Malecon with her friends, the warm breeze caressing them as they joked with each other. Many of the boys asked her for a date, but she always said no. She had Javier and she was happy.
The subway doors opened at 86th street. Adela pulled herself up and shuffled off the train, shoulder-to-shoulder with the other passengers. She filed up the stairs to the upper level, and then up the next flight to the street. She pulled her hat down a little tighter over her head as the cold struck her in the face again. She checked the address on the small piece of white paper that Javier’s aunt Maria had left for her the week before. Second Avenue at 84th Street. She hurried. At least here the streets were clean. The snow and ice had been removed. This was a white neighborhood and a rich one at that.
The doorman sent her up in the service elevator. She walked down the hallway to the end, as Maria had told her to do, and knocked on apartment 32A.
“One moment.” The door opened. A well-dressed woman of about forty stood in front of her. She extended one hand as she fidgeted with her earring with the other. “I’m Alice Waldstone.”
Adela smiled and took the woman’s hand. “Nice to mee you, Misse Wall—” she stumbled.
“Oh, just call me Alice,” the woman said, then added very slowly, “You speak English?”
“Jes,” Adela lied.
“Come in, then. Let’s go over a few things quickly. I have to leave. I’ll be back in about three hours.”
“OK,” Adela said, following the woman deeper into the apartment. She marveled at the size of the rooms and the view. The furniture was beautiful, different from anything she had ever seen before. Simple and straightforward with clean sharp lines. Not like the tortured dark wood her mother-in-law favored.
She followed Alice into the kitchen. Alice spoke continuously, instructing Adela as to what she wanted done and how. Adela nodded her head and smiled, repeating, “Yes,” at appropriate intervals, but catching only about every third word of what Alice was saying.
Tia Maria had warned Adela about this before her first day cleaning. “These women are very particular about what they want done and how they want it,” she said. “You just simply smile and say yes, then do whatever you would do otherwise. They rarely stay in the house while you are working and never notice what you do anyway.”
Alice turned and walked toward a small room off the kitchen. Adela followed her. It was the laundry room. Alice pointed to several piles of clothing and gave specific instructions for each. “You understand?”
“Jes,” Adela said, though she didn’t.
“OK. I’ve got to run. I’m late already.”
“Bye,” Adela said. She began loading the laundry. The machine was much larger than any she had used in Santo Domingo and any she had seen here. The little pile of cloths barely filled the tub halfway. She could save herself time if she combined it with another small pile, one less load to do. She looked at the various dials and buttons. Nothing made sense. For a moment she became very tense. How would she turn on the machine? Were the settings correct? She looked at the little pictures next to the various buttons and sighed. They still didn’t make any sense. She had to learn English. She closed her eyes and pushed what she thought might be the start button. The machine jumped a little, the sound of water flowing into the tub evident. “OK,” she mumbled.
Adela walked back into the kitchen and took the large carryall with the cleaning supplies to the main bathroom off the hallway by the bedrooms. Cleaning the bathrooms was the worst part of the job, on your knees on the cold hard tile floor. And there were three bathrooms here. She sprayed the tub, sink, and toilet and began scrubbing. Dripping with sweat after only a few minutes, she stood up and grabbed glass cleaner from the carryall and sprayed the mirror over the sink. As she wiped it off, she saw herself—sweaty, disheveled, her blue uniform wet with residue from the cleaning products. She closed her eyes for a moment and remembered her first day at work at her job in Santo Domingo.
It was so exciting. She dressed in the same flowered-print wrap she had bought for her graduation and put on her red heels. She walked the path down to the street from La Augustina and waited for the guagua. She paid her fifty pesos and took the forty-minute ride downtown to the business district.
Señor Martinez welcomed her at the door. “Señorita Guzman, bienvenidos. Let me show you where you will sit.” He walked her to her cubicle complete with a desk, a computer, and a file cabinet. She took out the small, framed photograph of herself with Javier and placed it on the desk.
“Tu esposo?” Martinez asked.
“Mi novio,” she answered. She brushed her hand over the edge of the padded back of the desk chair. Martinez introduced her to her coworkers. She sat down and read the employee manual. Martinez came back a little later with her first assignment. She poured over it. She was educated. She had skills and a degree and a profession. She was someone.
Adela had finished most of her work by the time Alice returned some six hours later. She had only to vacuum the floors in the bedrooms and empty the dryer and fold the wash and she would be done. The woman smiled and waved at her when she came in. A moment later Adela heard her scream. A moment after that, Alice was in the bedroom with Adela, screaming even louder.
Adela didn’t understand and couldn’t remember everything the woman had said but she did remember one word for sure: idiot, idiota. That hurt. Adela was poor, and she didn’t speak the language, but she wasn’t an idiota.
The woman waved laundry at her while she screamed, “No dryer, no dryer. Do you know how much this blouse cost? You’ve ruined it!”
Adela didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know where to put herself. “Lo siento, I sorry,” she repeated over and over.
“Out, out!” the woman screamed.
This much Adela understood. She grabbed her coat and walked toward the front door.
“Out!” Alice screamed again.
Adela took a deep breath. She stopped at the door for a moment. “Money?” she asked finally.
“Money? No money,” the woman screamed even louder. “Out!”
Adela didn’t know what to do. She was so embarrassed. She walked out of the apartment, the door slamming behind her. The journey home was punctuated by tears and sobbing. More than once on the subway, women asked her what was wrong. Almost always they asked in Spanish. They were women like her, Latino women adrift in this foreign world where more than just the weather was cold.
Adela trudged down the hill on West Tremont Avenue. Her tears were still flowing, her face stinging from the cold wind. She didn’t think she could continue. Coming to New York had sounded like a good idea, but it had turned out bad. When she was in Santo Domingo, she wanted only to come here, for Javier to marry her and bring her and Rosa to America. Now she was here, she was no one, she was alone, no mother or sisters to help her, and Javier was in Santo Domingo without her. She would go back. She would take Rosa back. She didn’t want her daughter living here with people like this who had no heart.
Adela stopped in front of her mother-in-law’s house and wiped her face with her scarf. She didn’t want her mother-in-law and Rosa to see her crying. They would know soon enough what had happened. She turned the key in the door.
“Mama, Mama,” Rosa called out to her from the kitchen.
“Si, ’toy yo,” she called out as she took off her coat. She rubbed her arms to warm herself then turned the corner from the foyer into the kitchen. Rosa sat at the table with Adela’s sister-in-law and mother-in-law. Rosa’s notebook was open in front of her. On the top of the page was the letter A with two gold stars.
“Mira,” her sister-in-law said. “She got the top grade in her English lesson.”
Adela sat down at the table. She wiped her eyes again. Rosa hugged her and sat in her lap.
“We know what happened,” Adela’s mother-in-law said. “Maria called from Santo Domingo. Those white women, they don’t waste no time. She had Maria’s cell number.”
Adela started to cry again. “I sorry,” she said in English. She kissed Rosa. “I so proud of you.”
“I’m proud of you too, Mama.”
Adela looked at the notebook. She touched the two gold stars. She was filled with joy and sorrow at the same time. Three moments flashed before her: her graduation, Rosa’s birth, her wedding. They faded away in an instant. She knew what she had to do.
AJ Sidransky is a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. Born in the Bronx, he currently resides in Washington Heights with his wife. He is the author of the award-winning novel Forgiving Maximo Rothman (Berwick Court, 2013), selected by the National Jewish Book Awards as a finalist in Outstanding Debut Fiction for 2013. He hopes to release volume 2 of the Forgiving series, Forgiving Mariela Comacho, a romantic thriller, in 2015. His second novel, Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon (Berwick Court, 2014), is a comedic satire about an art heist set in NYC. For more information go to www.ajsidransky.com.