Ida’s seven children delivered a theatrical speech and then waited for the ensuing applause. It was a circus performance. Later, they clamoured amongst each other, attempting to monopolise the conversation, scowling until it was their turn to speak. The room smelled of colliding odours: alcohol, food and too much cologne. Ida’s oldest daughter Alba had covered most surfaces with streamers and balloons, but Ida could only think of how she would be the one to clean it up later.
Alba had put together a photo album of Ida and Sancho’s forty-five years. She must have planned this for months, retrieving photographs of Ida and Sancho in the same class, then in group photos with their friends when they were university students. Ida recognised herself but felt separate from the woman in the photos: solemn, grave and slender. Her dark gaze and deep under-eyes meeting the camera, withholding emotion. Sancho at the other end of the frame, nestled between his friends. He had always been most comfortable surrounded by others. He looked like another person entirely—she felt cheated, realising he had been good-looking at the time because of his thick beard and hair like a forest of moss. Virility.
In a moment of solitude, Ida turned the pages. She should have felt lavished with attention, but her family had spoken to one another for much of the afternoon. Sancho sat to her right, his legs splayed out, belly rising and falling, a glass of tequila in one hand. He was droning on the history of the generator.
‘Sorry I’m late!’
A burst of light—their eldest grandson, Ivan, came into focus as he shut the door behind him.
He looked so much like Sancho at the same age, hairline creeping into his forehead. A narrow nose. Thinning nostrils flaring at the rims.
‘Hola, mi amor,’ she replied.
Ivan spoke little. He came in rushes and floods, overpowering her with the smell of clean laundry as he bent down to kiss her cheek. He walked delicately, lifting a heel fully off the ground before taking the next step, back unnaturally straight. He dragged a stool next to her.
‘Your mother made this photo album for us.’
‘Muestrame.’ He wrapped his arm around Ida’s and leaned against her, tilting his neck while she turned the pages.
‘Acaso no tienes mama?’
Ida and Ivan looked up, matching face to voice. Across the room, Alba’s face was contorted in displeasure, lips pursed.
Ida’s hands lay limp above the album spread on her lap. She watched Ivan sit down next to his mother, lower his head.
Alba spoke in a low voice, in tugs, with quick, urgent stares at Ivan’s father, Hector.
Through the window, the Guayacan tree stood behind him like an upside-down pitchfork.
Alba bullied Ivan; Ida knew that much. She was a housewife; in Hector’s eyes, his wife’s success depended on that of their children. Hector was a military commander and had dreamed of a son to follow in his steps. Ivan lacked the boldness, the strong temperament and male success required. Alba nagged at Ivan to join sports clubs, insisted on buying him clothes he never wore, interrupting him to say, ‘I can’t understand a thing you’re saying. VOCALIZE.’
Ida never knew what to say to Ivan. She greeted him with the same affection she gave the cat, to distinguish him from the rest of the family, a love that did not depend on the choices he made. When their neighbours asked about him, she could only say, ‘He’s still thinking about what he wants to do.’
Even she could not bear the tut-tuts and pitiful prayers of the others.
Ida had married Sancho because it had seemed like the reasonable thing to do. Now a sort of disgust permeated her, as though she had eaten something bad and couldn’t get rid of the aftertaste.
He filled rooms with his smell, with his plaintive voice, always expecting her to comply, accommodate, restructure time, yield to him and rearrange the world to his liking. Now that he was ill, the hatred was tighter, pressed close between her ribs. His infirmity replaced his authority; her own health was her weakness.
Sancho colonised everything. He smelled of soap and old man, slightly rancid, decaying, staining their sheets, their curtains, even her clothes. His odour lingered on her sleeves and the sides of her pants. He had first rights to everything in their home. He left trails of himself everywhere—peeling off his socks and discarding them any time he felt too hot. He gave his opinion upon taking the first bite of a meal she had prepared as if its success depended on his approval. Always the risk that he would refuse to eat. Everything he did reflected a framework of exclusion. Marriage should be two people walking, left foot first, right foot second, hips and arms swinging in sync.
She watched other couples their age file into church and settle into the pews ahead. They shared a complicity, bodies moving at the same tempo, pausing at the same moments, like two violin players, each with an unspoken knowledge of the other. After church, when they went for coffee in the town plaza at 11am, they ran into the same couples. Sometimes she listened in on their conversations. A gentle affection between them, a shared concern for the other’s needs.
‘Should we head home now?’
‘No; let’s stay a while longer.’
Sancho asked similar questions, though inflicted with impatience. She knew exactly what was on his mind. He spoke as though giving her a choice, when in reality, he held his breath and edged his words as threats, knowing she would do as he wanted.
She hated herself in his presence; shrunken, something to be crumpled in his fist. Just because he had longer legs in their relationship and walked an even road while she had struggled uphill for the forty-five years.
She knew he had begun to detect changes in her the way one detects the first signs of food going bad. He did nothing, waiting for it to pass on its own or for the symptoms to worsen, become definitive, to give him grounds to retaliate.
She had grown uglier in the last three years. Thin wrists and skin more like crumpled tissue paper, doing away with her long hair and leaving it in stiff grey spikes. He resented her for this, her brusqueness, the irritation creeping into her voice and the silence between egg beating and window opening while she made breakfast. There had been a final yank away from him as a person. He sensed pronounced dislike, even disgust, though she never said anything when he left globs of toothpaste in the sink or coughed theatrically. He now tested her, punishing her for the change, something prodding him to do what he knew he should not.
She knew that he could not unsee the changes in her. Everything was laced with subtle hatred. Her impatience infuriated him. Whenever he belched or asked her to turn the lights off, there was a pause, and she would do as he bid. It was the absence of any marital cushioning, the absence of any fillers in conversation. She did not comment on any strange sounds the house made or while the radio chattered. She did not voice her thoughts. When she handed him his medication, it was with a silence punctuated by the setting down of the glass on the table, the silent enclosing of the pills in his palm. It was the attitude of the resentful domestic, the sullen house girl, unable to speak her feelings but making them known nevertheless.
In June, Ivan came out as gay.
The Guayacan tree burst into a mass of yellow. For four months, it rained mustard, the colour of life materialising. Flowers as thick as leather carpeted their lawn.
Later, Ida would divide the month into two versions, unable to combine the blooming of the Guayacan tree and the dismantling of their family. The blooming of the Guayacan tree stood apart in memory, untarnished and separate from the realisation that the empire she gave birth to was no longer hers.
On Monday the 14th, their daughter Alba called.
‘Pass me Dad,’ she said.
Ida listened to their conversation from afar. The low voice hardened as the story progressed.
‘He has thrown away everything we have done for him. Do me a favour—don’t answer the door if he comes. Tell him you want nothing to do with him.’
Ida realised that her daughter had not called to unburden herself. She had called to seal off an escape for Ivan. But what would Ida say? There was no one to tell. Sancho wouldn’t care; the conversation excluded her out from the outset.
Sancho hung up the phone and said nothing. He had the story’s details; she did not. This was a fact between them, something he could hold over her. Easing into his seat, he punched the button on the remote, and the sound of the TV filled the silence between them, as though he had hit ‘play’ on their lives again, resuming as if nothing had happened. Each gripped the arms of their separate chair, staring resolutely ahead, withholding as always. Ida knew she could do nothing to protect Ivan.
Sancho kept his eyes fixed on the TV. Ida pinpointed the knot of anger lying low in her chest. His face revealed nothing. There would be no discussion about their grandson’s sexuality or what this meant for their family.
Inhale the anger. Shut off the doors and windows of the mind; seal off the exit points. Say little but not nothing—act dismissive; be casual. They sat, chocking the arms of their chairs and waited for the tipping point.
White bread rolls—the cheap kind, the best kind. Coffee beans, apricot marmalade and strawberry marmalade. Eggs, milk. Sancho and Ida agreed on the big things—what constituted breakfast. For snacks, their tastes differed. Sancho had his bag of peanuts, the Mentos he sucked aggressively all hours of the day.
For Ida, there were guava sweets and spiral-shaped wafers. She was not a woman to swear off sugar; she was a woman of moderation, someone who had eaten the candies of her childhood almost religiously her entire life. Her appetite suggested a firm will, no hesitating, listening to her hunger cues. She needed one jar of each of her treats every fortnight. Sancho needed three rolls of Mentos to last him one week.
Hurrying to keep the line moving, Ida didn’t look up until she placed the last item on the conveyor belt. She looked up and saw her grandson.
Ivan was wearing the BARRIO SUPERETTE uniform, punching the monitor’s keys. He had dyed streaks into his hair, the mustard yellow of the guayacan tree. He wasn’t slouching; she noticed that immediately. His lips were pressed together and suggested a resoluteness. And yet fear, a ginger-ness in the way his fingers hung over the monitor.
She turned around. Sancho stood by the magazines at the end of the checkout. He tilted his chin, motioned impatiently towards the door, as one summons a dog.
‘No tenemos nada que decirle.’
But she had so much to say.
If she looked up at Ivan, she would be unable to go with Sancho. She looked up. Ivan met her gaze. His watery brown eyes, the long lashes brushing against his skin. A muscle jumped in his cheek—he clenched his jaw; he looked frightened, suddenly a boy. She realised she held power over him, the last person who could clip him away from the child he had been his whole life. She could shut out the side of him she loved most. She could return to a life of overly flowered curtains, of dark room to dark room, Sancho a stamp on her every thought. Without family, the world was free to imprint itself on Ivan.
‘No. Yo me quedo.’
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