When Tito Loved ClaraA NOVEL
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2011 Jon Michaud
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-56512-949-8
Chapter One Clara
Clara drove across the George Washington Bridge. She was going back to Inwood to pick up her sister, Yunis, and her niece, Deysei. Inwood, where she had learned to be an American; Inwood, where she had first fallen in love and broken someone's heart; Inwood, the neighborhood of parks and bodegas, of rivers and bridges, the forgotten part of Manhattan she could not forget. Clara's husband, Thomas, who'd grown up in the suburbs of Maryland, had once expressed a passing, semiserious desire to live there, to be among the mulattoes, the remains of the Irish and Jewish communities of the last century, to be one of the newly arrived middle-class couples who'd been priced out of Brooklyn and Astoria. But Clara wouldn't hear of it. "Why did I go to college?" she'd asked. "Just so I could live down the street from all the dumbass immigrants I grew up with? I don't think so."
It was nine-thirty, still a little early for her late-sleeping sister and niece, but they'd have to lump it. The traffic on Broadway budged forward indifferently, the rush hour coming to an end. Clara turned left on 204 and found a spot near the corner of Cooper Street. She locked the Odyssey and walked around the corner, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. She never knew who she'd run into when she came back to the neighborhood and she always feared the worst. The first doorway on Cooper was the entrance to the apartment building where Yunis and Deysei lived with Yunis's ex-con boyfriend, Raúl. Raúl was about to become Yunis's ex-ex-con boyfriend, Clara thought. Yunis was moving to the Dominican Republic to live with their mother, who had retired to a rum-softened dotage in a suburb of Santo Domingo. Deysei, who was to be a junior in high school that year, was going to live with Clara and Thomas in New Jersey and finish her secondary education at Millwood High—a prelude, everyone hoped, to college. Clara had no idea what Raúl planned to do now that he was going to be without a girlfriend and a place of residence, and she hadn't lost much sleep over it. Things had been bad between Yunis and Raúl for so long that she was no longer able to recall a time when things were good between them.
In the building's vestibule, she rang the bell and waited for the buzzer. The proportions of the small cement alcove that led from the street to the vestibule corresponded to some sort of golden mean for the capture of stray breezes and the corralling of litter. Sheets of newsprint, candy wrappers, and plastic grocery bags circled the center of the alcove as if riding an invisible carousel. No matter the season or the time of day, the lethargic cyclone spun before the door. In the corner, a Snapple bottle rolled back and forth in the turbulence, as if trying to build up the momentum to join the other garbage in its swirling dance.
Long ago, Clara had dubbed her sister's apartment (and, by extension, her sister's life) the Yuniverse. The Yuniverse was a queendom rife with drama, anxiety, and endless scamming. Its entrance was a brown door on the building's third floor decorated with a bumper sticker that read, VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS. A former boyfriend, an ex-navy man turned gunrunner from Newport News, had put it there. (Clara liked to joke that Yunis wouldn't give you the time of day unless you'd seen the inside of a penal institution. The only boyfriend she'd had who wasn't a convict was Deysei's father, and he was an illegal immigrant now living under a false name in Florida.) It had not always been this way. Her sister had once been a sweet, goofy teenager. It had been her good looks, poor grades, and inept use of contraception that led her to the place where she was now.
Raúl answered the door. "Yo," he said, swinging his arms with primate restlessness. Raúl never seemed to know how to act around her—whether to kiss or fist-bump her. There was something of the beaten animal about him this morning and Clara gave him a quick peck on his cheek, which made him smile. Raúl, tall, muscular, strange, moody. He and Yunis were combustible, Clara thought. One a lit match, the other a can of kerosene.
The apartment, like many in New York, was too hot in the winter and too cold in the summer, but today, for once, the place was at a comfortable temperature and, beyond the faint sour whiff of dust, odor free. A hygienic breeze drifted over Clara as she entered. Raúl led her past the kitchen, where a half-eaten pernil or lasagna usually sat in a dented tinfoil baking sheet on the table. But the kitchen was clean—spotless. Everything had been put away. The metal basin of the sink had been emptied and recently scoured with a Brillo pad. Most bizarre of all was the rubber drainboard without dishes. Not even a teaspoon in the utensil cup. How odd. Clara wanted to stop and admire it, but she sensed that there were more sights to see up ahead. She wasn't disappointed. In the middle of the living room floor, which had formerly been the home of a Formica coffee table heaped with refuse, suitcases were stacked up. The windows were open. For the first time in the years that she had been coming here, Clara could imagine living in these rooms. She pictured a rental agent saying the word potential. Yunis had been trying to sublet the place before clearing out. She aimed to live in the Dominican Republic without working, to exist on a small inheritance she had come into as well as the rental income from illegally subletting the apartment. Keeping the lease in her name, Clara knew, was also a hedge in case things didn't work out as well as she hoped. If nothing else, Yunis had learned from experience to prepare for reversals.
"Wow," said Clara.
"You should have seen the shit we threw out of here," said Raúl, gesturing with his hands as if tossing a medicine ball. "We found newspapers from like four years ago. Busted cell phones, chopsticks, candy with hair stuck to it. Videocassettes. All this stuff, just sitting in here waiting to be thrown away."
"It piles up," said Clara and, for an instant, she had the image of her son, Guillermo, in forty or fifty years, going through her possessions after she and Thomas had died, wondering where it had all come from and why his parents ever kept such things.
"Yeah, man. It does," said Raúl, nodding, as if they'd unveiled some profound truth. The two of them had never found enough common ground for even the simplest conversations. Raúl, despite his time behind bars, his muscled frame, and his homeboy manner, had always struck Clara as oddly touchy and vulnerable. He was likely to overreact to the smallest thing.
Nearby, Yunis's bags were stacked like a vinyl Stonehenge: three collapsible columns of varying size along with a shapeless hold-all made of a multicolored substance that looked like nylon wicker. Next to them were Deysei's two smaller rolling suitcases and a hard plastic case that looked like something you'd use for carrying bait or tools. In the corner rested a green duffel and two black garbage bags that were, doubtless, the vessels for Raúl's possessions. Nowhere to be seen was the array of gray-market contraband that Raúl brought home through his mysterious sources: bootleg DVDs of movies that hadn't even been released, handheld gaming systems, watches, clothes, and jewelry. Raúl worked as a mover and Clara suspected that at least some of it came from the homes of the people he'd helped relocate. A couple of years before, he had even brought home a karaoke machine for Deysei. Clara wondered again what Raúl was going to do with himself now that Yunis was taking her love of convicted men to another country. No doubt there were other women in Washington Heights who would not let a little jail time stand between them and Raúl's affections.
"Why you wearing that? You're going to be too hot. It's summer, remember? Sum-mer! Summer is hot. You don't have to cover yourself up like a fucking nun."
This was Yunis's voice and her comments were addressed to her daughter. Clara could not see either of them, though the door into the apartment's lone bedroom was open.
Raúl gave her an oh, shit look. "Been like this all morning," he said. "Something's going down. I don't know what, but she's been
on Deysei's ass since she woke up."
"Change is hard," said Clara.
"I hear that," said Raúl.
They were interrupted by Yunis's arrival in the room. "Hey, Sis! What's cracking?" she said. Yunis was at her ghetto-fabulous finest this morning in black jeans, pointy-toed shoes, and a pink Baby Phat T-shirt stretched across her breasts, the rounded tops of which were revealed by the scoop neck. Her hair, in ringlets, was a glistening autumnal mélange—russet with strands of yellow and gold and a layer of her natural black underneath. She wore huge rock-star sunglasses, the ones that made her head look like a bug's. Her ability to concoct a powerful sexual magnetism from her genetic gifts and these accessories was a large portion of her livelihood. Yunis had never had a full-time job. Her income was an eternally fluctuating balancing act among state and city subsidies, pocket money from the current beau, whatever loose change she could cajole out of her family members (Clara and Thomas included), and wages from the occasional receptionist or babysitting gig, which never lasted more than a few weeks before Yunis got into a spat with her employer and quit in a state of indignation.
"Everything ready?" Clara asked.
"Everything except my daughter," said Yunis, almost yelling the last word. "You coming?" she bellowed at the bedroom door.
"Give her a minute," said Raúl.
"She's had all fucking morning," said Yunis.
Deysei emerged from the bedroom wearing baggy denim overalls with frayed cuffs and a black hooded sweatshirt—the usual self-conscious teenage getup, like the vestments of an order. What was different was her hair. Normally worn in braids, it had been styled in cornrows that left the upper portion of her head looking like a crop circle. Somehow, the 'do had changed her face. It made her seem older.
"Your hair looks great," said Clara.
"Thanks, Tía," said Deysei.
"We were up late doing that," said Yunis. "It's my farewell gift to her. I know you won't be making her any cornrows." This sounded defensive, and Clara let it go. There was an edge to her sister this morning and she didn't want to provoke her. Likewise, Deysei seemed even more resigned and subdued than normal. Yunis could do that to you. Eventually, everyone she associated with had the same hangdog air of defeatism about them. She'd worn down everyone in Inwood and now she was off to the Dominican Republic to wear down the unsuspecting inhabitants of Santo Domingo and its suburbs. Clara wondered if she might meet her match there.
"Did you get someone to rent the place?" she asked.
"Yeah. Idelcy's cousin, Carmen. I didn't want to rent it to no man. They'd just fuck the place up." This appeared to be aimed at Raúl, who had gone into the bedroom but was still well within earshot. Departures are fraught with anxiety, Clara thought. Best to get this one over with. "Shall we?" she said.
Clara, Yunis, and Deysei had loaded the suitcases into the back of the Odyssey and were just about to get in when Raúl appeared, carrying the karaoke machine on his shoulder. "Yo!" he called. "You forgot this!"
"We didn't forget nothing," said Yunis.
"This belongs to Deysei," said Raúl. "I gave it to her."
"She hasn't played with it in a year," said Yunis.
"Thing cost me two hundred bucks," said Raúl.
Clara opened the side door of the van. "Here, lay it across the backseat. We can put it in the basement."
"You want it?" Raúl said to Deysei. She had her hood over her head now, the white wires of her iPod running from the marsupial pouch. Without taking her hands out of the pocket, she shrugged.
"If she wanted it she would have packed it, wouldn't she?" said Yunis.
"What the fuck am I going to do with it?"
"You could sell it," said Yunis. "And put some money in those empty pockets of yours."
And then Raúl looked at Yunis with a yearning that, for Clara, was easy to read and painful to see. The message on his face said: Please take this. Don't tell me I didn't mean anything to you or your daughter. This is precisely what Clara had wanted to avoid, a scene between Yunis and Raúl. She often wondered how Deysei put up with it, living in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother and her mother's lover, sleeping on the fold-out in the living room while Raúl and Yunis shared the bed next door, listening to them fight, listening to them fuck, inhaling their secondhand smoke, answering the door to their idiotic friends all night, kicking their empty forties across the floor on her way to the bathroom. But, then, Clara reminded herself, hadn't she survived even worse? This empathy for her niece, coupled with her desire for a second child, was the reason she had agreed to take Deysei in.
Staring at Yunis, Raúl set the karaoke machine down on the sidewalk. Clara picked it up and stowed it in the back of the van.
"Come on, baby, say goodbye to Raúl," Yunis prompted her daughter, not breaking the staring contest.
"You be good. Don't let those thugs in Jersey touch you," said Raúl, looking away from Yunis.
"Bye Raúl," said Deysei, and gave him an awkward hug.
"Awright," said Raúl. He swung his arms and watched Deysei climb into the van's side door. Clara kissed him again on the cheek. "Good luck," she said.
"I make my own luck," said Raúl. "Look after her, OK?"
"I will," said Clara. She slid the door closed and walked around to the driver's side to let Raúl and Yunis have some privacy. She started the engine and, unable to help herself, looked in the passengerside rearview mirror. Reflected there was Yunis's triumph. Clara wasn't sure, but it looked like Raúl was crying. His head was bent, his hand was covering his eyes, and he was saying something. She suspected that Raúl was weeping more for his own plight than any heartbreak he felt over Yunis departing his life, but the sight of him—muscles, tattoo, pinpoint beard, and all—was moving nonetheless. She took a quick glance over her shoulder at Deysei, who had her hood on, her face darkened, like a penitent, her headphones securely in place.
The passenger door opened and Yunis got in beside her. "Let's go, Sis," she said, and slapped the dashboard.
Clara pulled out of the parking spot and advanced only a hundred feet or so before stopping at the light on Broadway. The silence in the van was explosive. She turned on the radio: NPR headlines, just winding down. Quickly, she hit the button for the FM dial. Yunis and Clara's cousin Manny borrowed the van from time to time and always changed the presets on the FM dial to hip-hop and R&B stations. It irked Clara, even though she rarely listened to the FM dial. She lived on AM in the car—NPR and 1010 WINS.
"That's my jam!" said Yunis, as one of the hip-hop stations tuned in. "Sis, I didn't know you liked this shit."
The song that was pouring from the Odyssey's system was a current hit. The rapper was promising all the ladies listening that there was more than enough of him to go around. Yunis appeared willing to wait. She did a chair dance, wiggling her shoulders and shaking her head. Better by far than the silence of a moment ago, Clara thought, as she headed for the parkway and the bridge.
The trip back to New Jersey was an uneventful one. Deysei sat with her arms across her chest, looking out the window and listening to her iPod. Yunis, meanwhile, had spent most of the drive talking on her cell to her cohorts in a mixture of Spanish and English, planning some kind of party when she got to Santo Domingo that evening.
Thomas was waiting for them, sitting on the front steps of the house, sipping from a can of Coke. He had been laid off six months before and Clara wasn't sure exactly how he spent his days aside from putting Guillermo on the bus in the morning, meeting him off the bus in the afternoon, watching baseball games on TV, and cooking dinner. He still had a substantial amount of his severance money socked away but money wasn't yet the issue. He had loved his job and had been gutted when they let him go. The company he'd worked for, BiblioFile, had hired him right out of library school—where he and Clara had met—and she remembered how the job had transformed him from a self-effacing and introverted cataloging specialist into a collegial, confident, professional man. They had been dating about a year and a half at that point. Clara always associated Thomas's job with the marriage proposal that came a few months later when he was awarded a small bonus for his contributions to the first project he worked on—a bonus he used to buy her engagement ring.