When Aní’s stairwell smelled of burnt garlic and sour milk, overcooked red beans and curdled queso blanco, it was hard to count to three, but three was the number to which Norma always counted as she took the marble slab stairs. Checkered in black and white tile, and looking like the crossword puzzles in the newspaper Aní sometimes brought home from the coffee room at her factory, the staircases were tall, narrow, and always as she took them Norma counted, one, two, three, because to count to four was too much, and she was not a dramatic person. She was not Leticia.
Norma stood a moment, catching her breath on the third floor landing, because Flaco smoked too much and lately it made her wheeze, and then looked down the black and white corridor at the closed doors of apartments 3A to 3F.
“Corre-dor,” her stout, crop-haired teacher Señora Martinez had enunciated years ago from the front of her classroom, as outside the red blossoms of the flamboyán had rustled against the classroom’s shuttered window panes, turning the sunlight pink and her and Tomás Quintana’s starched white shirts the same, as they sat beside one another listening.
“Corre-dor!” the Señora had said again, and then again, as Tomás played with the rough skin exposed above Norma’s left knee sock and Norma counted endlessly under her breath, wondering how high she could get, wondering how many times Señora Martinez might keep saying the foreign word, wondering how long Tomás might go on touching.
Norma had shifted in her seat, pretending not to notice Tomás, though some part of her was always aware of the shape of her hips when he played with her so, and in chorus the class had repeated the word for Señora Martinez, who perked up at the sound of their response, as if she too could feel Tomás’s fumbling fingers.
“Corre-dor,” Señora Martinez had concluded, smiling, her hands clasped together at her waist and her elbows making perfect triangles. “It’s a passage that gets you from one place to another.”
But once Tomás’s fingers had been lost to her and Norma had found herself in New York, she had discovered that the word was not corre-dor, but hallway, and really you could walk them all day, but they would not get you very far. And it was not the only word, she had discovered, that she’d learned incorrectly. The appropriate word was not latrine, but bathroom, or restroom, if you were in a place that demanded respect, people did not offer one another salutations, but greetings, and it was not Santa Cló, but Santa Claus, who came and brought her nieces presents so that the Three Kings no longer needed to bother themselves with it. But just the same, when Norma was counting in threes, plowing up the building stairwell and pulling on its waxed banister, it was always the corre-dor of the third floor in which she paused to catch her breath, and always it offered the same stench: because Francisca Rodriguez in 3C had a lazy husband and too many slovenly children, and often things were left to burn on the stove as havoc ensued in the small one bedroom the family shared, its living room separated into sleeping quarters with nothing more than some sheets hung like curtains with some tack pins; because Don Eladio in 3F was old and allowed his garbage to fester in his can too long before bringing it down to the back alley where it belonged, because his kidneys were no good and on days when he did not go to the clinic for his dialysis, he could not be bothered to concern himself with something as trivial as the trash.
From behind Señora Léon’s door, 3A, were always the sounds of the comics blaring, and always Norma paused and imagined the Señora’s overweight grandson Tito, his eyes glazed in the black and white glare of Señora Leon’s wooden set. Norma had seen him this way once before when Aní had sent her to deliver an electric bill, which had been incorrectly delivered to her apartment 6A, to Señora Léon, and she imagined Tito doing the same now, watching intently the same cartoon mouse lead a fat, orange cat to its certain death again and again, as Señora Léon’s set shook with the treble of their ongoing battle, their pow-pows and whams. Not one of them died. Not the mouse, not the cat, because the cat had nine lives and that was not how the comics worked. But had either cat or mouse met their imaginary fates, Norma was certain that Tito, in the red-checkered shirt he always wore, his long forehead glistening and his hulking frame squeezed into the Señora’s velveteen armchair, would not have noticed. Born hours too late, because his mother Ednita had refused to push in the last minutes of labor, realizing suddenly that the baby she’d let Frankie Rios shoot into her in one heated moment they’d spent pressed against one another in the side alley outside of Frankie’s ground-level apartment in the middle of a block party was going to ruin her life, Tito was left with the mind of a child at thirteen; and sometimes, when he saw Norma, he smiled at her as if he thought she was someone else, though she couldn’t guess who that might be, because she doubted he remembered his mother, who had been gone now for ten years, looking for some work in some other city, Señora Leon had said again and again, though everyone knew Ednita was only drinking her way around New York.
It was important to be nice to Tito, because he was an unfortunate case, unable to even hold the church missalette properly, Norma had realized when she’d last gone to church to confess her sins though she had none and it might’ve served her better if she was allowed to confess Flaco’s to the silver-haired Fr. Patricio instead and find penance in that. She had seen Tito then, unable to hold the plastic bound missalette with the embossed lamb on its cover upright, and when he had looked at her and grunted, mistaking her again for someone she didn’t know, she had smiled at him politely, as silently, she’d counted to three; and that, Aní’d told her later, had been the right thing to do, because Tito meant no harm really, even if he was a little sick in the head.
To be kind to Tito, Aní’d continued, looking then at Carolina and Virginia, as the two girls petted the lace of their white petticoats and starched tulle veils sprawled out on Aní’s sateen comforter, was always the right thing to do.
Carolina had shrugged. The nuns had already told them that they should be polite to Tito, she shrugged, fingering still the beaded hem of her dress.
Aní looked at her daughter pointedly, swiping one finger in the air. They weren’t to believe it because the nuns in their catechism classes said so, but because she, their mother, did. Those nuns were no smarter than anyone else, Aní insisted, her eyes slits, and Norma believed her, because Aní had been the one to name her and make her a real person when at three months old Norma had been still without an identity, their mother dead from some female complication after her labor and their father temporarily helpless. At seven, Aní had walked four miles to the municipal building and told them that Norma existed, and she’d gotten them to put the name she’d given her in a record book too.
Standing beside Aní’s nightstand, Leticia lifted one perfectly plucked eyebrow, because Leticia did those sorts of things whenever she thought Aní was saying too much, or not enough.
“If they aren’t any smarter than anyone else, then why are we always having to listen to them?” Carolina wanted to know. Her arms were crossed, her black hair hanging in a mess down the back of her turquoise coveralls, as her sister Virginia blushed embarrassedly, watching her, and Norma smiled to see the small thing so stubborn, because Carolina belonged to her, having baptized her when she’d first arrived, after Aní had sent her half of the fare for her ticket to New York.
“You aren’t listening to them,” Aní said sharply, her blonde bob hugging her full, rouged cheeks. “You’re listening to me when I tell you to listen to them. You understand?”
Norma nodded, because she certainly did, but Carolina stood still with her scrawny arms crossed, her elbows darkened and almost gray, and if Flaco hadn’t pounded on the door just then, sending the apartment into a whirl, Norma was certain that Aní would’ve struck the girl for insolence, yet another word she had brought with her from across the ocean. It was incorrect too, serving only to embarrass her when Mrs. Stevens on the second floor, 2C, had stared at her with a wrinkled brow, her white hair in pink curlers, because when the old woman had complained that Francisca Rodriguez’s brood upstairs stomped about all day like wild animals, Norma had said they were insolent, and Mrs. Stevens, watching her, had sworn, under her breath, that she’d be damned if she’d ever be able to understand anything one of these people tried to tell her, until finally, she’d looked at Norma as if doing her the favor of being so patient and said, “Oh, you mean those kids misbehave.”
Norma had only nodded.
And Norma had taken in the word misbehave and wondered if it was strong enough to describe Flaco.
He was banging on the door still.
“Well,” Mrs. Stevens had said, “then you should have just gone ahead and said it plainly. You know I don’t speak none of that Spanish.”
“Did you tell him you were coming here, Norma?” Aní asked in a panic, scooping the girls’ communion dresses from her bed in a flutter, as Flaco pounded and Leticia waved Carolina and Virginia forward, instructing them to hide with her in the small bathroom connected to Aní’s bedroom.
Norma stood frozen.
“Well,” Aní demanded. “Did you tell him or not?”
“There’s no telling him anything,” was all Norma could think to say, and Aní flitted down the narrow corridor to the bolted door.
“Flaco, you want to bust it down or you want me to open it for you?” Aní called. “Decide, because we can’t have it both ways.”
“Where is she, Aní?” Flaco shouted from behind the door, his voice tinny and echoing in the stairwell.
Aní sighed. “Where is she always?”
Aní unlocked the door, and suddenly, Flaco, his neck seemingly too long for his body and his untucked shirt covering the burn marks at the front of his trousers, remnants of falling asleep too many nights with his cigarette in his hand and his hand in his lap, was in the apartment. “She’s here?”
Aní nodded, her feathery blonde hair bouncing on her shoulders.
Cocking his hat on his head, Flaco smiled crookedly. “Well, you can’t blame me for worrying,” he wheezed. “You know she’s no better than a child.”
“And you, Flaco?” Aní pressed. “What are you no better than?”
Flaco smiled, his eyes narrow like the corridor that had brought him to them. “I’m no better than anyone and no one is any better than me,” he smirked. And it seemed to Norma, even as she held her breath and counted to three, watching from Aní’s bedroom door, that Flaco meant to tell Aní that he knew what she looked like with her clothes off and he wasn’t impressed.
“Take her home then,” Aní had said quietly. “But for God’s sake, be good to her.”
There had been a time when Flaco was as good as any man had ever been, though Norma could hardly remember it due to its brevity, and sometimes when she was panting and counting to three, trying to climb the stairs to Aní’s, trying to remember what her father had looked like when he’d told Tomás Quintana, with his coarse hair and dark skin, to leave her alone, because his daughter needed better, trying to forget how longingly Tomás had looked at her, how she had felt a scream in her stomach to watch him walk away, though she hadn’t made a sound, she tried to remember too a time when being with Flaco hadn’t hurt, but it was hard; and sometimes, she doubted such a time had ever existed.
When she’d first arrived at the airport with one suitcase and Aní’s letter clutched in her hand, she’d stood in awe of the city’s rush. New York, those coming and going, moved around her in a swirl of color and sound as if only to make her aware of how insignificant she was, and everything said around, or to her, sounded nothing like Señora Martinez’s English. There was only, as the city pulsed about her, the faint remembrance of Tomás, a heartbeat seemingly throbbing in his fingertips, rubbing circles into the dimple of her knee in Señora Martinez’s classroom. With a tickle at the small of her back, an aching in her stomach, she’d stood uncomfortably. The stiff jacket Aní had made her promise to wear was hot at her neck as she tried not to remember saying goodbye to Tomás in the store room of his mother’s hair salon, the cans of hairspray tinkling against one another as he breathed into her mouth.
“I’ll send money as soon as I can, and you’ll get a ticket and come right back to me, and if your father doesn’t like it, he doesn’t have to,” Tomás had whispered, and the promise had sounded flat, like the words of a song without their melody, and she had known as he’d heaved against her, they would never come true; and just then, as she’d shifted her weight from foot to foot, feeling the scratch of the heavy clothes Aní had sent her in advance, because February was a cold month in New York, Norma’d looked up to lock eyes with Flaco.
He had approached her slowly, his suit loose at his hips, but fitting his shoulders squarely, an overcoat, like the skin of a slain animal, thrown over his right arm. Removing his hat to reveal the slick black of his hair, he’d explained that Aní had sent him to collect her, because he could do her the favor of borrowing his brother’s car – as he’d done because Aní and César treated him and his brother like family – because Aní had wished to spare Norma the experience of a subway on her first day in New York. He had taken up her luggage then, nothing more than a thin suitcase, because her father had never bothered to give her what it was he swore Tomás couldn’t, driven her to Aní’s gray stone building, and then escorted her into a party Aní had spent weeks planning in celebration of her arrival, he’d told her quickly in the corridor outside Aní’s apartment door. “Act surprised,” he’d said; and it had seemed funny, because everything, his oversized overcoat, his brother’s leather-seated car, the flashing green and red street lights, the black and white tiles of Aní’s stairwell, all of New York, was surprising just then.
It had seemed she should always enter a room on Flaco’s arm after that, and no other man ever had a chance, no matter how sad Lalo Lopez or Johnny Mencía looked about it. She was Flaco’s girl, and then his wife, in three short months, because she’d been pregnant, and Aní was broken-hearted that she’d turned puta in New York and had insisted that she make it right, when really it was Tomás’s baby she’d brought with her from home. And now, eight years later, Flaco drank too much and locked her in closets and sometimes bathrooms; she’d developed the craft of escaping from almost any confinement, running always back to Aní’s apartment, as she should’ve done on that first day of her arrival, counting as she took the steps in Aní’s black-and-white checkerboard stairwell in threes, padding into Aní’s living room and down her hallway, longing to go from one place to another, until arriving at Carolina and Virginia’s room and slipping into bed between them. Then, she’d crinkle her nose and meow like a cat to make them laugh, and she would get them into a fit, always she would make them giggle, until César would bang on the wall from the other room and tell them to, “Quiet down for God’s sake,” because he’d worked all day and couldn’t be expected to get a bit of rest in a madhouse. And always Aní got upset.
“Do you have to use that word?” she’d snap, but César was too in love with the television to bother loving Aní anymore and he never listened. Carolina and Virginia would quiet, hiccupping in the dark. And, nestled between her nieces, Norma would fall asleep with them, as Flaco roamed the blocks around them, content to leave her there where other men couldn’t get her, as he did what he liked in the street.
But there were plenty of times when Flaco was not happy to find her missing. There was once when he’d kicked Aní’s door down, ruining the hinges so that the Super had complained, and another time when he’d thrown a half-empty bottle of coquito against the corridor wall, causing the neighbors to peek out from behind their doors, which were decorated in wreaths and plastic reindeer for Christmas. The next day, when Norma had paused on the third floor, Señora Léon had opened her door, as if she’d been waiting for Norma all afternoon, as Tito gawked at Norma from behind her, with his eyes glazed and lips wet.
“What noise there was coming from your sister’s place yesterday afternoon,” the Señora had wondered aloud, and Norma had counted silently in threes as if she meant to strike up a dance with an imaginary partner as the old woman spoke, listening to not a word. Occasionally, Tito grunted from behind his grandmother, causing Señora Leon to wince.
“You look well though, Norma,” Señora Léon concluded finally, dissatisfied with Norma’s silence, and with a glassy smile, Norma had thanked her, and then continued up Aní’s steps, the bruises Flaco had given her when he’d gotten her home smarting beneath her clothes.
And when she’d reached Aní’s and Aní’d convinced her to strip down to her slip so she could attend to Flaco’s markings and Norma had seen Carolina and Virginia watching her wide-eyed, as if afraid, she’d licked the long, blistered cut Flaco had given her on the tender inside of her forearm just to make her nieces giggle; and when they had, she’d meowed, and they’d erupted into laughter, as Aní had rubbed her down in alcohol, sniffling and shaking her blonde head.
“Don’t encourage her,” she’d warbled.
It was Leticia’s idea that she be taken to the hospital. Ever since she had been hired to mop the hospital’s floors at night, Leticia thought herself an authority on the human brain and body, and there was no telling her any differently. She had always been a terrible know-it-all, and while it seemed to Norma that most women would have been humbled after having been abandoned by their husbands, Leticia’d become only more impossible. She had registered Santiago with the police, listed him as a missing person, referred to him as such, and spent a month’s salary posting several advertisements in a few different newspapers, offering bogus rewards for any information concerning his whereabouts, although she knew, as everyone else did, that Santiago was only in Queens, living as if married, with a man everyone called Gladys.
It seemed silly that anyone should be bothered by Leticia, that Aní of all people, Aní who was smarter than anyone, should be bothered by Leticia. But when, with the raising of one lined eyebrow and a helpless shrug, Leticia had said, “I’m not so sure I could be as calm as you if they were my children and around such lunacy,” as she’d watched Carolina and Virginia with their Kewpie dolls in the kitchen, Aní had colored and turned from her stove, the smell of fish grease wafting in white puffs from the skillet on the griddle. It was Friday. Friday, Friday, Friday, Norma had thought.
“If for a moment, you think I’m calm, you’re a bigger fool than I suspected,” Aní’d said, her spatula glistening with fish oil in her hand. Leticia, both eyebrows raised, only watched her, until suddenly César was in the apartment. There was a crate full of baby chicks, cheeping like mad, in his arms, and in a moment Carolina and Virginia were on their feet, abandoning their dolls and scrambling to meet him, desperate to see their early Easter presents, and Norma followed, because the sounds of babies, all babies, human or otherwise, always wracked her, ever since she’d bled out Tomás’s baby on her wedding night, and Flaco had found her curled on the bathroom floor of their first apartment, and then left her to get drunk in their kitchen, muttering, “It was all for nothing,” again and then again.
“Be careful, they’re small,” César said, as Carolina lifted a chick from the crate and Virginia only watched; and Norma, leaning forward, petted the head of a small chick, its triangular beak open wide in want, and for a moment, César smiled, until Leticia leaned forward, whispering familiarly in his ear. With a groan, César looked at Leticia, and then at Aní, and said, “For God’s sake, on Mamita’s soul, can’t you two get along?”
There were bones in the fish, but that was fine with Norma, because those you always kept, as her father had taught her, to clean your teeth. Norma sucked the white meat from the paper-thin bones and then piled them neatly beside the empty, silver skin of the fish body as the chicks cheeped from their crate in the living room. Carolina and Virginia ate quickly, shifting constantly in their seats, eager to play with them.
“She’s said nothing we haven’t already spoken of already,” César said, looking squarely at Aní, his fork suspended in mid-air. His jacket was open and hanging from the chair behind him, the sleek inner lining raised at the armholes as if he’d shed it like skin.
“That isn’t the point,” Aní said. “It’s the idea that your sister thinks I’m unaware of what’s going on in my house, that she thinks I’m too stupid to know.”
“She thinks nothing of the sort. She simply has no tact. She doesn’t know how to say a thing in the right way.”
Aní only huffed, watching for a moment as Carolina sucked her fish bone, until with flushed cheeks, her blonde hair wet at her temples, she snapped, “Nena, please, there’s more in the pan.”
Carolina looked at Aní sullenly, certain she’d done nothing wrong, and to make her smile, to let her know there was nothing to be upset about, Norma counted to three and meowed, and Carolina and Virginia giggled like mad at the table.
César dropped his fork and Aní left the table, scooping a baby chick from its crate as she traversed the living room, because Aní had always adopted the baby birds when they were children, and always she’d cried when she’d realized they were eating one of her beloved pets in the middle of a Sunday dinner.
Aní slipped into her bedroom, the door clicking behind her, and César sighed. An unnatural hush fell over the girls, the kind children should never know, and then there was a sudden banging at the door, as Flaco cursed and spit in the corridor.
“Give me the bruja,” he screamed, as the baby chicks in Aní’s living room squawked. “She had no right to do it.”
Norma had only meant to cut the first pair, because it had seemed funny; and then it had turned into a wonderful release and it had been hard to stop, hard because her fingers were sore from picking away at the hinges in the bathroom, her neck sore from trying to lay her cheek flat against the cool tile to see if Flaco’s footsteps shadowed the threshold, to know if it was safe to crawl away. The bowed handle of the scissors had felt good in her fingers as she’d sang of Mary and her little lamb, a treat Señora Martinez had taught her class, because, she’d said, it was what the young people in the states sang, when Norma’d arrived to New York to find the blanquitas cared nothing about the little lamb and instead were crying in the streets because their music had just been drafted, their musician’s hair sleek and perfect over his olive forehead in the same way Flaco’s hair used to look, Flaco who was messing around now with Sandra Ortiz three floors up, Sandra who had a husband and four children, all bearing their father’s name: Antonio Luis, Antonio Miguel, Antonio Jose, Antonio Ramón.
Flaco could do as he liked; it was much better than when he held her down, pressed her against walls, locked the doors with them stuck together on the same side, but it was still no good. And she’d cut the first zipper and then the second and then the third from each of his trousers, because if the zippers were always going to be open, he no longer needed them, she thought.
But Flaco had not appreciated her sense of humor, or her sentiment, it seemed, and he fought to be let into Aní’s, and then fought with César, who stood to block him in the hall, unwilling to let him get anywhere.
“Where is she?” Flaco demanded.
But César said nothing, only grabbed Flaco, and then Flaco fought to be released, whimpered to be set free in a way she never did when he had his hands on her. César pinned Flaco down, smacked him hard twice, one, two, splitting his bottom lip, and demanded he leave them alone, because he was driving everyone crazy, didn’t he see? Not just her, but everyone. He was ruining his family, César almost sobbed, and then he released Flaco, who stumbled into the hall and down the stairwell, as if drunk, as he’d done when she’d bled out his baby too, their second, he’d thought, the one she hadn’t wanted because he’d held her down to put it in her.
It had not been over, because it was never over. She went home to Flaco, even though César told her that if she did, she should never come back, even though he swore that he meant it this time. She descended the stairs, trying to count, thinking of Tomás and how her cousin Maritza had sent her a letter six years ago to tell her that Tomás was married to a woman six months pregnant and some said the baby wasn’t his, to tell her Tomás was never coming for her as she’d always known.
She sprang across the boulevard, passed the fluorescent sign of the coffee shop, mallorcas dusted in powdered sugar, like sweet snow, on display in its window, the phone booth on the corner outside the OTB with the faulty door, the shady bodega Frankie Rios ran as a front, the one with warm refrigerators and dusty boxes of expired cereal. The L train screeched overhead like a hunting bird, making the hair on the back of her neck stand, and she licked the corners of her mouth and counted – one, two, one, two – but she couldn’t get to three.
Tall and red-bricked, her building sat on an empty corner, a one-way sign, black and white and so permanent looking, pointing away, telling her to go back, though she had never listened. She climbed her stairs, counting, one, two, and inside her apartment, found Flaco sprawled in their bed, his body, his arms, his legs, reaching out for all four corners of the room, as if falling and trying to fly.
She crawled over his body, meowing, licking the side of his neck, one, then two, then three times, some part of her awakening as when Tomás used to play with her knee, the small of her back, the tender skin at the top of her thighs, some piece of her feeling flushed as when she was misunderstood, as when she knew the word she meant and no one else did, and Flaco turned his head to look at her, his breath sour, his lip bloodied, the pillow beneath his head stained with what looked like rust.
“What do you want, bruja? To cut the real thing?”
They shared two languages, and yet all words seemed unfitting, neither of them fluent in what they most needed to say, and Norma only meowed. Flaco smiled, his teeth small, almost yellow, and fast they were clawing at one another, their bed shaking, the springs whining with onk, onk. Their apartment cell among the many others, and yet somehow separate, they floated, licking and pawing, scratching, until all was quiet between them, nobody winning because that wasn’t how it worked, and then a lilting voice in the corridor, sounding so faraway, said, “Norma, are you there? Is she with you, Flaco?”
And Flaco, alert, sat up in their bed, the sheets binding Norma’s legs together wrapped about him too. He froze, listening, as if confused as to who might be calling him, and then with a grunt, fell back into their damp pillows, as Norma stretched her limber body, flexing her toes and feeling she should answer though she was too groggy. Licking her lips, she curled up beside him and fell asleep, the lost words purring in her chest.