Irma Sandovar sits in her padded leather armchair sipping hot black coffee, her brown eyes wandering from the brilliant lights of the New York skyline northward across the bay to the foaming ocean to the east. She remembers watching the calm blue Pacific from the mountainside cottage her family had rented one summer almost thirty years ago. The Atlantic, colder, darker, is nonetheless beautiful in its awesome power and vastness.
Irma wants desperately to understand the emotions she has been feeling. She seems not unhappy, though far from content. Her daughter Luz celebrated her fourth birthday today with seven children from the day care center. Now she sleeps the powerful sleep of innocence. Irma is happy to see her making friends.
About a third of the children at the center are Latino, and the teachers conduct all activities in both Spanish and English. As a result, the native black and white kids are learning to converse in Spanish while the Latinos are developing fluency in American English. Irma wants Luz to be bilingual. They think up little games that require them to use both languages. Sometimes they will speak Spanish while doing housework or shopping but only English at mealtimes. Irma reads a bedtime story each night in one language, and they talk about it later in the other.
Irma feels fortunate to have found a center with a genuine preschool curriculum and a trained staff. It is expensive but she can finally afford it. She does not want her daughter to grow up like so many ignorant North American children she has observed. She herself received a classical education at a Catholic secondary school for girls and possesses a university degree in pharmacy.
Irma has been employed at Riverton Hospital for two years now after a licensing internship at the state medical school. Recently promoted to assistant department chief, she no longer has to change shifts every month. She has managed to do what she would have thought impossible five years ago when, as a bride, her only problem was how quickly she could conceive.
Irma often thinks of returning to Guatemala but knows that cannot happen until the promised reforms are in place. Hector, her husband, was assassinated when he tried to leave the country. Irma, who had left a month earlier to arrange to have the baby in the USA, did not learn of his death until Luz was six weeks old.
Hector had been a professor of economics at the National University. After suspension, he continued to write anti-government articles in the underground press. He agreed to stop only when Irma consented to relocate to the USA where he hoped to plead the cause of moderate reform to his connections at the United Nations. She had been reluctant to give up her position at the government hospital in Antigua, but Hector was no longer safe at home. Now, memories of Hector still pop uninvited into her consciousness from time to time, though his image lacks the frightening clarity it once had. He no longer invades her nighttime dreams.
Irma sets her cup on the walnut coffee table and leans back in her chair, delighting in its soft warm leather. She is happy for Luz and she is happy for her job and for their lovely new home by the sea, even though they are only renting for the present. She knows that within a year she can save enough money for the deposit. But her life is not complete. Despite the tender closeness with Luz, despite her surprising income and the prospect of acquiring real property, despite all her good fortune and solid achievement, she aches with loneliness.
Irma has become friendly with a man, a good man, though unlike Hector in most ways. It was he who dropped off three party guests today, his own son, Charley, along with Leon and Maria. When he picked them up at five, he told Irma that his older daughter would baby-sit tonight so he would be free to visit. This is the first time he is coming to Irma’s home and she feels both nervous and excited about it.
Charles Wright is a widower with two daughters, fourteen and ten, besides Charley. Charles had jokingly introduced himself at the September day care parents’ meeting as the only male in the room. They continued to exchange pleasantries at the meetings every month since. Two weeks ago he jump-started her car in the parking lot after she had left the lights on. His manner with her was so warm and relaxing that she accepted an invitation to lunch the next day.
Five more lunch dates during these past two weeks have left Irma confused and full of doubt. She has enjoyed the luxury of a having a confidente, an adult friend with whom she can discuss ideas and test her thoughts. She has told him many things about her former life in Guatemala, her happy, almost spoiled, childhood, her training and career, her life with Hector, her break with her family over his radical politics, her last four years—the birth of Luz, the simultaneous adjustments to new country, parenthood, widowhood, the learning of English, the relocations, the retraining, the longing to return to the familiarity of her country. She has not told him of her aching loneliness because she has yet to fully admit its existence to herself.
Charles has told Irma about his children, about his career, and about being black in America. He owns a small jewelry store in Riverton three blocks from the hospital and is a past president of the New Jersey Gemologists’ Association. Irma finds him cultured, interesting, and charming, but the unexpected blush on her throat and cheeks each time she imagines him makes her afraid.
This past Thursday, the last time she saw him before today, Charles told Irma about Louise. Walking home one evening a year and a half ago, she had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. Charles sent the children to their grandmother’s for six months while he tried to drink away his anger and grief. “Finally, I listened to my minister’s words,” he told her. “He said Louise would be ashamed of me if she knew I was neglecting the kids, and that the Lord would let her know if I didn’t straighten myself out right away. So I did. I still miss her, of course, but the rest of my life has got to go on.”
Irma responded, “I also have prayed through my darkest hours.” She also felt his warm strength as he took her hands into his and gently kissed her fingers.
When, at eight-thirty, Irma sees Charles’s dark gray Oldsmobile turning into the driveway, a rush of feeling passes through her body. Four years of grief, loneliness, and responsibility have buried those feelings—forever, she had thought—but now she feels them buzz and come to life and frighten her like an overgrown fly caught in a sunny window on a warm winter afternoon. She tiptoes to the bedroom and shuts the door softly, then switches on the overhead lights and dims them. She just manages to open the front door before Charles knocks. She does not want to awaken Luz. “Good night,” she says to him, smiling softly.
“Hey, I just got here,” says Charles, grinning back to see if she understands.
“Oh, yes, I should say ‘Good evening.’ I hardly ever speak with anyone at this time of day.”
“Hola. Como esta?”
“Bien, gracias. And you?”
“Muy bien. I have a date with a beautiful senora. I have brought her a present.” He takes from his overcoat pocket a tiny box and places it in her hands.
“Muchas gracias, senor. I am desirous to see what it is.”
“Then open it.”
“First, please remove your coat and be seated. You are my guest tonight.”
Irma opens the box and discovers a thin silver ring with a single quartz-like stone. “This is very beautiful, Charles.” She turns it in the dim light and notes its iridescence. “This is what we call an ópalo.”
“That’s close enough. In English it’s an opal.”
“But it is not my birthday or a time for presents. It is not yet your Saint Valentine’s Day.”
“Should I tell you why?”
“Yes, please, what is the occasion?”
“I mean why an opal. Of all the semiprecious stones, I think the opal is most like you, Irma. When I first saw you at the day care center and heard your accent, I assumed you were Puerto Rican. Then, in the daylight, you looked too white. In the dim light, the shadows on your cheeks make you look Indian. So you’re just like an opal—you change with the light. But you’re always very beautiful.”
Irma’s heart beats rapidly. She has not thought of herself as beautiful in four years. She knew she was not as pretty as her sisters, but Hector always said she was—to satisfy her youthful vanity. She has always been too short and rounded. “Thank you, Charles. But I cannot accept such a valuable gift from you.” She extends the box toward him as dutifully as a child returning a forbidden coin to a stranger.
Charles smiles and waves his hand, shaking his head in refusal. “Hey, remember? I’m in the business. I’ve owned this stone for so many years, I don’t even remember when I bought it.
Don’t think of it as expensive—think of it as something I created to show you how I see you. If I was a poet, you’d accept a poem I wrote for you, wouldn’t you?”
“Perhaps, but only if it were—proper.”
Charles hesitates, choosing his words. “Do you think it’s improper for a thirty-three-year-old woman to accept a gift from a forty-four-year-old man? Or for a white woman to accept a gift from a black man?”
“Oh, Charles, you have confused me. You have been kinder to me than anyone since . . . my father. I do not think of myself as a white woman, but a ladino, and I do not think of you as a black man. However, I do think of you as a norteamericano.
“Is that so bad?”
“No, but I want to return to my country someday.”
“Someday is a long time from now. But if you do go back, you’ll have this ring to remember your norteamericano amigo, si?”
“You are my best American friend.”
“So at least try it on.”
She reopens the box, removes the ring, and slides it onto her right ring finger. She holds it up to the light again, admiring its simplicity of design and reminding herself how much she has grown to like this kind man. “It is very beautiful. I will wear it this evening to please you, okay?”
“It pleases me. Listen, I’m sorry for what I just said. I don’t really think of you as a white woman, only as a lovely woman that I enjoy being with.”
“Good. Now, may I offer you something to eat or drink? Have you had your dinner?”
“I ate some burgers with the girls earlier.”
“What about Charley?”
“Charley wasn’t very hungry. I think he ate too much cake and ice cream here this afternoon.”
“I am afraid they all did. The cake is gone but there is still some ice cream in the freezer. Would you like some?”
“Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.”
“Just like America. I’d love some.”
Irma laughs slightly at his remark. “Please, come into the kitchen with me, then. I do not want to wake Luz. And tell me, Charles, what Americans are like the strawberry?”
“The red men—you know, the Indians.”
She places a dish of ice cream on the table in front of him, smiling. “But they are not red. In my country there are still many Indians—the Maya—who are light brown in color. I have never met a red one. I am probably part Indian myself, and maybe a little African, like you.”
“Well, actually, I think the European settlers called them ‘redskins’ because they painted their faces red when they went into battle.”
“I don’t believe the Maya painted themselves. I do not know for sure. But they didn’t look anything like the Indians I have seen in your western movies with their tepees and feathers and buffalo hunts.”
“Most of those movies were about the Plains Indians. Did you know that the Plains Indians used to paint themselves black after they had accomplished some heroic feat? That’s why when they saw their first real black man, a fellow by the name of York who was a slave on the Lewis and Clark expedition, they assumed he was the leader.”
“You seem to know a lot about Indians. I thought you were only joking about the strawberry ice cream.”
“I learned a lot about them when I was began studying history twenty years ago.”
“Twenty years ago?” She smiles at him like a mother who has caught her son in a harmless lie. “Are you not too old to have been in school twenty years ago?”
“I said when I began studying history, not memorizing what they teach in the schools. I didn’t learn the truth until I read the real books on my own.”
“You are a very serious man, Charles, though you often seem to be joking.”
“A high percentage of the American cavalry soldiers were black. So were a lot of the cowboys. But you never learned about them in school. And, naturally, you never saw them in the movies they made in those days.”
“I did not know about that.”
“Neither do most Americans—excuse me, norteamericanos.”
“And do you still study history, Charles?”
“Not much anymore. It can be very depressing. Most folks’ ideas about how we all got to be here are too screwed up.”
“I know. I have seen many ‘screwed up’ people since I have been here.”
“For example, those black soldiers I mentioned had either escaped from slavery or been freed by the northern Army during the Civil War. But as soon as they were issued their rifles, they turned around and started killing Indians.”
“Do you mean the Indians were their friends and the white man their real enemy?”
“Not exactly. Indians owned black slaves, too. No race is all good or all bad.”
“But you do not hate white people—for which I am glad.”
Charles laughs. “Oh, I hate some white folks, but in Vietnam I had my life saved three times—twice by white guys. One thing I learned there was that the North Vietnamese looked exactly the same as the South Vietnamese, but that didn’t stop them from killing each other. Being black in this country can be damned frustrating sometimes, even heartbreaking, but I try not to let it get to me. I just keep telling myself that it will be better for my kids than it was for me.”
“Do you have many white customers at your shop?”
“Most of them are white. But see, I can talk like they do, so I don’t frighten them. I wear a tie, I do good work, and my prices are fair. So they think I’m just like them.”
“In some ways, sure, we’re all the same.” Charles stops, abruptly, and looks directly into Irma’s eyes. “You know, Irma, I don’t know how we got off on this subject. That’s not what I wanted to talk about tonight. I hardly ever discuss race. I don’t want to bore you, but I can talk so easily with you. I enjoy being with you very much, and I want to see more of you.”
“You don’t bore me, Charles Wright. You teach me many things about the United States that I would not know otherwise, and I also like to be with you. But”—again, she hesitates, fearful of admitting to herself what might be happening—“would you like more ice cream?”
Charles pats his stomach, which protrudes softly over his belt like an extra segment of body that doesn’t belong but can find no place to hide. “No, thanks. I shouldn’t have eaten this, but I do love ice cream.”
“Is very norteamericano, no?
Tired as she feels, Irma cannot sleep. She rolls from back to front, from left side to right side, bunching up her flannel nightgown with each movement. Her mind tells her to be patient for the time being, to wait and see how this relationship with Charles develops. But the ache that she has felt deep within for so long now seems to throb in every joint and on the palms of her hands. She so longs to touch Charles, to have him right beside her in this bed, that her hands hurt.
He took her in his arms and kissed her just before leaving an hour ago. She can still taste him if she moistens her lips and swallows.
At two o’clock she gets up and walks to the window to raise the shade. Moonlight shines in from high in the southeastern sky, illuminating the room and the ring Charles made for her. Is she really like the opal? Does she look different from other people? She certainly looks different from Charles, his skin is so dark. She wonders if his children could accept her. She will meet the daughters tomorrow—this afternoon—when she and Luz will have dinner at Charles’s house.
They skirted the issue tonight, but she knows he wants to discuss it soon. He needs a wife to help him raise those three children. His daughters especially need a woman. But surely there must be many women who would want to marry him. He is a fine, good man, respected by others, a successful businessman. She has read of the problems faced by black women in America, how there are so many more women than men. She remembers the fierce competition, the complex machinations and never-quite-finalized arrangements so common in the small Guatemalan middle class to ensure that the daughters would marry urban middle class men and not be forced back into rural poverty. What would the women of his family think of her? Would they not resent her, an outsider, a foreigner whom they would see as white?
No, she must not let Charles make a mistake. She should be satisfied with her life and try not to feel like a silly schoolgirl. She has the responsibility to raise Luz, she has her professional life, a very good position where she makes ten times the salary she had made in her country, and she now has a home to maintain. She wants to be friends with her neighbors. She needs women friends for companionship and amusement, not a man to complicate her life. There are five or six other single women living at Island Watch, her own age or slightly older. Yes, she can make herself very happy here. She does not need a man. This is the United States, not Guatemala, and a woman can live independently.
But Charles is such a lovely man and it feels so good to be with him, to touch him and let him touch her. His kiss had melted her, and she knows she wants to—enamorar a el.
“See, it is warm enough to eat out here, no?” Irma asks. “The sun is directly overhead and there is no breeze.” She and Charles are sitting side by side at a picnic table behind the hospital facing the river. A few skaters can be seen near the side, mothers with little children. By three o’clock hundreds of older kids will be scratching and slicing this smooth black January ice.
“I guess I’m more warmblooded than you. I’d rather be in a nice cozy restaurant, to tell you the truth.”
“We are all alone out here, and I wanted to be able to speak clearly to you. Sometimes, when I cannot find the right words, I begin to talk very loudly, and I do not want to embarrass you.” She unwraps a sandwich and takes a bite.
“I think I’d rather be embarrassed than frozen.” He smiles broadly, his white slightly-gapped teeth showing her he’s only joking. “Okay, tell me what you think of my little girls.”
“They are lovely. Monica acted like a perfect young lady, and Jessica was very well behaved also. You must be proud of them.”
Charles shapes his mouth into what Irma has come to recognize as his private smile. His thin white mustache glistens with condensed breath. “I am. But it was mainly Louise who raised them. She gave them their foundation, and I’m just trying to finish building.” His eyes seem to cloud over. “But girls need a mother at their age, especially Monica. It’s tough for a girl starting high school.”
“Yes, that is a difficult age, and I agree it is even more difficult for a girl in this country than for a boy. Boys do not become pregnant.”
Charles looks at her in mock amazement. “You know the right words, don’t kid yourself. I am worried about her.”
“Have you discussed birth control with her?”
“Hey, she’s only fourteen.”
“And one hundred and forty thousand girls under fifteen had babies in the United States last year, Charles.”
“But most of them didn’t know any better.”
“Because no one told them how to prevent pregnancy until it was too late.”
Charles, wincing, removes the lid from his coffee and takes a long drink. “Of course, I know you’re right, but it’s very difficult for a man to discuss sex with his daughters. Do they do that in your country?”
Irma smiles. “No, but neither do men and women who are just friends talk about it. My sisters would never believe that I am sitting here discussing birth control with a man who is the father of a schoolmate of my daughter. At home I could never do this. I would be too embarrassed.” She giggles at the thought.
“Is that all I am—father of a schoolmate of your daughter?”
Now we must finally talk of ourselves, Irma realizes. “I am sorry, Charles. I think you are my best friend, also.”
Charles finishes his coffee. “I want to be more than friends, Irma. I felt there was something special about you the first time I met you four months ago. Now I know I want to be with you all the time.”
“But we have been friends for only two weeks of those four months.”
“Two weeks and three days, during which we’ve had lunch together seven times, counting today, I’ve been to your house and you’ve been to mine, my kids think you’re great, I’m crazy about your little Luz, and twice I kissed you as passionately as a man my age can. Irma, I want you to be my wife.”
Surprised at his directness, Irma realizes it will therefore be easier to explain her feelings and the decision she reached last night. “Charles, you do me a great honor,” she begins.
He looks around to make sure he will not be overheard. “Will you do me the honor of marrying me?”
She begins again, hoping not to hurt this wonderful man, this most wonderful man she has ever met. “You do me great honor to ask me to be your wife, Charles, but I do not believe marriage would be the right thing for us.
Charles seems to shrink before her eyes, as if withdrawing into himself behind an invisible protective shield. He rises. “I think I understand.”
“I do not think so because I have not explained my reasons. I have thought very carefully about this, and I have the obligation to explain. Please let me.”
“Okay, but could we walk. I suddenly feel very cold.”
“Better yet, I could use a drink. There’s a nice quiet bar around the corner from my shop.”
Seated comfortably at a booth in a darkened corner of the bar, Irma sips her Perrier and studies the glass as she begins.
“Please do not think that I am ungrateful or unfeeling, Charles. I respect you for being a good man and a good father. I also felt the passion of your kisses.”
“I’m not just looking for a mother and a housekeeper, you know. A man gets lonely by himself.”
“But your children need a mother, someone who understands their problems, someone who will be there for them when they need her. I am not that person, Charles.”
“But they’re crazy about you.”
“That is because they want to please you. Also, I tried to be pleasant and friendly to them. But I am too inexperienced in the ways of this country. I could not help them because I do not understand their problems. I would marry you immediately if you did not have these children and I did not have Luz. If there were just the two of us, we would, I am sure, be very happy. But as my husband, you would have to spend most of your time helping me understand your country, the problems you face as a black man. I do not know enough of these things to be a good mother to your children. And that is what they need now.”
Charles sniffs his cognac and swirls it around the glass. “I understand what you’re saying, Irma, but I don’t agree. First of all, you know far more about this country and its screwed up people and its second-rate schools than most Americans who were born here. You also have the fine qualities of mothers all over the world. Those qualities are universal. And as far as any special black problems are concerned, I’m still going to be around. You wouldn’t be replacing me, just joining me. And I would also treat Luz as one of my own children. She could use a father, you know.”
“She has done without one so far, but I think you would be good for her.”
“Well, if you yourself want to marry me, and I want to marry you, and you’d think I’d be a good father for Luz, and I think you’d be a good mother for Monica, Jessica, and Charley, then what’s the problem here? It sounds kind of crazy to me.”
“The problem is as I have said. Your children need a mother who can be a true mother to them. I cannot be.”
“That’s loco, Irma.”
“No, I am not crazy, except maybe in my feelings for you.” A tear emerges from her eye and she dabs it with a napkin. “See, I am starting to cry because these things are hard to say. Charles, you must stop seeing me and try to meet other women.”
Charles finishes his brandy. “Even if you were absolutely right, and I don’t think so, I am in love with you, and I’m not about to start looking for another woman. Listen, there are three women from my church who won’t leave me alone. One’s a widow, one’s divorced, and one—a real fine-looking kid in her twenties—has never been married. Irma, these women all seem to think I’m up for grabs, like a piece of meat. The two older ones would probably be great for my kids, and the young chick would be great in bed for me, but I’m not in love with any of them. I’m in love with you.”
“Oh, Charles, you do not know me well enough to be so in love with me so soon.”
“But you just said a few minutes ago that you’d marry me if it weren’t for the kids. Did you mean that?”
Irma’s face flushes but she admits the truth: “Yes, I did mean it.”
“Then you’re in love with me?”
“I am too confused to know for certain. I only know that it is wrong for me to want you for myself when I am not the right person to meet all your needs.”
Charles looks at his watch. “Look, I’m overdue at the shop. Can we get together tonight?”
“No. We should not see each other again.”
“But, Irma, I need to see you.”
“Then you must agree to this. Do not call me or try to see me for a month. Think of what I have said. If, after a month, you still want to see me again, I will meet you. If you do not call, I will understand.”
“I can’t do without you for a month. Make it a week.”
“Look, we must see each other three weeks from tonight at the next parents’ meeting. If you just wave to me but do not speak, I will know that you have agreed with what I have said, and I will be very happy for you.”
The three weeks have passed as slowly for Irma as the lonely weeks before and after the birth of Luz when she waited for word from Hector. She is nervous and does not eat properly. Even Luz senses that something is wrong when she is scolded for not remembering a Spanish word. Irma is, however, more angry with herself than with Luz. She has been feeding those flames of passion by thinking about Charles when she should have smothered them by forcing herself to think only of her duty. When Hector’s death was confirmed four years ago, she vowed to devote her life to her child. Now she is neglecting Luz and selfishly seeking her own pleasure.
Irma washes her hands carefully, replaces the opal ring, and changes into her white silk blouse before leaving the hospital for the parents’ meeting. She arrives ten minutes early and has to make small talk with a woman she hardly knows. Charles appears a half hour late, smiles at her and takes a seat in the back of the room. After the meeting he hands her a sealed envelope, whispering, “Please read this when you get home.”
Crushed by his abruptness, she picks up Luz, rushes home and puts the sleepy child to bed. Finally, she pours herself a glass of wine and opens the letter.
I could not let you go without an explanation. It would not be fair for me to just smile and wave as if those wonderful two weeks and three days never happened. I have not been able to get you out of my mind since we last met. I still want you as my wife, but you may have been right about my children. I asked Monica what she thought about the idea, and she became quite upset. She likes you as a friend but insists that she couldn’t accept a white woman as her stepmother. I’m a little ashamed of her for taking that attitude but I can understand it. Of course, I’m sure she’d get over it once she got to know you better, but right now I realize it would be too much of a burden on both of you. We agreed not to say anything to the other kids, and she promised to think about it. She was very impressed with you for figuring out how she would react, I’d like to add.
Considering everything, I feel I must withdraw my proposal. However, I know that I love you and want to see you again. I’d like to continue to meet as often as you are willing to. I’d also like to try doing some things with all the kids, like go to the museums in New York, or maybe do some biking in the spring and take a little trip next summer. I don’t want to force anything, but just see if there might be a chance to work things out eventually.
I hope that you will agree to this because I love you and want to be with you.
However, I realize it’s not much of an offer, so if you want to end it, I’ll understand. Or, we can be casual friends, close friends, even lovers—whatever you want. After meeting you, I know I’ll never be interested in another woman. I’m willing to wait for you for as long as it takes.
Irma feels relieved of a terrible burden. She no longer must choose between Luz and herself, or Charles and his children. They are both adults. They can wait for marriage but enjoy each other’s friendship now. She can go on working and living independently, and gradually get to know Charles’s children better. And Luz can get to know Charles. It may be possible for them to marry someday, but there is no hurry. They might move to a different place, New York perhaps, or Puerto Rico. But there is no need to rush now. No one must give up anything. It is good to be loved by a man as kind and intelligent as Charles. She must call him at once to let him know. Yes, she smiles, she must call him before losing her nerve.
“Charles?” Irma’s heart races as she covers her naked body with the sheet. She has undressed and climbed into bed before dialing.
“Of course. You knew I’d call, didn’t you?”
“I saw the ring. I’ve been hoping.”
“The ring, the beautiful ring which reminds me of you, is all I am wearing now, Charles. Do you understand me?”
“I’m trying to imagine what you look like.”
“Have you never tried before?” Irma smiles at herself for sounding so impudente.
“Oh, maybe once or twice.”
“I love you, Charles, and I agree to everything you said in your letter.”
“Yes. I too hope that we will marry someday. We began as casual friends and then became close friends. Now it is time for us to be lovers—amantes. Tomorrow, I will come to your shop at
lunchtime. You will have the “Out to lunch” sign in the door. I will join you on the little sofa in your office, wearing only the beautiful ring. Would you like that, mi novio?”
“Si, senora. I would like that very much.”
Asleep at last, Irma dreams of her lover and when the morning sun lifts over the horizon to awaken her, she feels unashamed of her dreams and therefore resolute.