“This is a Peruvian restaurant?” Ruth squinted up at the pigtailed woman who came to take her order.
“No, no, no. Not a restaurant. It’s a social club, you might say. Some food, yes. We enjoy friends, music. You are very welcome!”
Ruth smiled. “Just a Pisco Sour, thank you.”
She lifted her shoulders and looked up at the low, cracked ceiling. Peruvian. Of all things. Her thoughts turned once more to Bernardo. It had been one of those days. He would have loved this place.
There was a murmur onstage. One man, then another and then a woman tripped up the steps and took their places behind a piano, bata drums, a microphone, a cajón. The musicians exchanged some words and laughter with a group at the table nearest the stage. Ruth had the sense that she had stumbled into a private party, and this excited her. She had spent her life rendering herself invisible; she liked to tell people that she was a “window person, not a mirror person.” And so she observed the scene, trying to see inside of it. Twang of envy at their youth, their sex. Twang of guilt at not being home with her son. Gabriel would be hunched over his reading lessons with Jacquelyn, a bright young remedial teacher with Polish eyes and an openness and matter-of-factness that made Ruth think of a nurse. Gabriel had recently been diagnosed with what they called a “learning difference.” The diagnosis had been a shock. Ruth had yet to understand it, to figure out, beyond hiring Jacquelyn, what to do about it. Whenever she tried to think about it, fear poured into her brain like cement. She slumped her elbows onto the table and put her head in her hands.
When she looked up, the Pisco Sour was in front of her. She was ashamed to have been caught in a posture so anguished in so warm and happy a place. The drink was milky green-yellow, almost luminous. A single line of Angostura bitters striped the foam like blood from a paper cut. She stirred the sugar cane stick and looked around. The musicians were warming up. Two more couples had walked in and were shedding their winter layers. She considered leaving, but the weather had worsened and the rain, as far as she could tell, had turned to sleet. Perhaps this interlude – a break from her routine – would lift her mood so that later that evening, she could be her best, most generous self for Gabriel. Ruth tasted the drink. The tartness was perfectly cut by egg white. Beneath that, something musky, rotting, delicious. The alcohol warmed first her empty stomach, then her brain, then her calves. She settled in for the show.
On stage, the woman strapped a saxophone across her shoulders as though hoisting up a gun. As she began to breathe into the instrument, a vein lifted up like a seam right down the middle of her forehead. Ruth herself had this same vein, and she touched it now, instinctively, and felt somehow connected to the saxophonist, as though they were sisters.
The saxophonist rested her instrument at her waist and began to sing in a confident alto that to Ruth was the color burgundy. The saxophonist glanced at the other musicians to signal them to join her. Alienta mi alma, they sang. It was a song Ruth knew well. She wished to un-know it, so that she could hear it now for the first time. The power music had over Ruth. It had always shattered like salt crystals the carefully composed measures of her life. She was envious of musicians, envious of their unaxiomatic language. Given the choice, Ruth would choose hearing over sight.
On any other day, she would have felt compelled to document, to make a few photographs to remember the night, to send the best one to the musicians as a gesture of her appreciation. She could already see the angles, the blown-out lights, the halo around the saxophonist. But her camera remained on the seat next to her. She looked down at it and it seemed almost menacing. The thing that she had regarded, throughout her life, as a weapon, a shield, an open door, a paintbrush, a microscope, was now an immobile and dead thing, a cold machine made of titanium and heavy glass. She should retire, but she knew that she never would. She would haul herself to the places that called to her until she could no longer hold a camera to her left eye, a loupe to her right.
The woman stopped singing and played again, the saxophone notes as smooth as a ribbon blowing in wind. The woman’s fingers twitched and the drummer – an African American, leather-capped man – knew to join in. The woman’s wrists flicked, and the trumpeter then began to play, then both guitarists. All musicians now played in unison, eyes closed, as though summoning the orishas on to their humble stage.
Ruth felt suddenly captured by the music: held hostage – the sounds winding themselves around her so that she could not move: not her arms to sip her drink, not her chest to take a breath. Every thought vanished from her mind.
And then, as the music slowed and changed into a minor key, a mottled image of her husband revealed itself to her. She resisted the image, neutralized it. She despised nostalgia – in work, in life, in the twenty-year-old girls who constantly requested coffee meetings with her. In her mind, the present was all there was to grasp, and the future was buried within it. Her photographs captured not so much what was unfolding before her eyes, but what was imminent. The past was something to be negotiated, re-contextualized: never fawned over.
“Viene,” she said out loud, to nobody but herself.
And yet the image of Bernardo persisted until it was fully formed.
They were on a beach. It was 1978, on the eve of the insurrection. He walked out of the water, dripping, to where she lay in the sand. He stepped over her, blocking out the sun. The abrupt shift from bright to dark had chilled her but she cast aside her fear and stared up at her husband. She marveled at the sheer bigness of him, at his wide shoulders, at the water drops like dew on his hairy chest. He said, “It’s so warm, Ruthie, you should swim.”
The vacation had not stood out as unusual or special at the time. She hadn’t thought of it in years. She couldn’t remember if she had taken his advice and swum, or brushed off his invitation. Ruth shook her head and tried to focus on the music. The saxophonist had given the melody over to the trumpeter, a young man who was swaying as he played, as though drunk. The notes ran over Ruth like a pounding waterfall, a hammer-strike on anvil. She drew her arms around her waist.
Earlier that week she had pulled out a book to lend to her old friend Vera, who’d come over for dinner, and a stack of Polaroids had fallen out of the book. The photographs had been taken at various birthday parties and weddings. Ruth was twenty-eight or twenty-nine, slender and smiling hard, with her lips shimmering, her earrings catching the light, thrusting a glass of wine toward the camera. Always with that shiny black bob – her look, even now. Ruth and Vera forgot the book and were instead drawn into the photographs, laughing and reminiscing. Vera and her husband were in many of them, too. The four of them were best friends during those easy years – easy despite their proximity to the death squads, despite Bernardo’s failing theatre, despite Ruth’s struggle to conceive a child. In one photograph, a man who was not Bernardo was mock-devouring Ruth’s neck and she had her eyes and mouth open wide in mock-fear. Bernardo – grimacing, with a thick moustache and shining eyes – had his hands clenched around the man’s neck. They all looked so carefree. The photographs had, as always, been edited by Ruth at one point in time. They depicted lives full of adventure, revolution, friendship, love. All true and all not true at the same time. Why hadn’t she documented the hard parts of her own life, the way she documented the hard parts of the lives of others? Why had she not subjected herself to her own curious gaze? And why had she smiled in all those photographs, when she knew so much better?
Vera said in her pretty lilt, “You and Bernardo were so glamorous back then, flying around the world opening theatres and starting photography schools and getting MacArthur awards.”
The remark annoyed Ruth but she could not tell why. “And then once in a while I would call you and have a nervous breakdown.”
She took a sip of wine and thumbed the piping of the couch. “We never got around to trying therapy. Threatened to, often. Maybe we should have.”
Vera went home. Ruth continued to look at the photographs, searching for clues. In many of them, Bernardo was in the frame alone. He seemed disarmed, squinting into the camera, shy in a way that he never was in real life. For a moment, she felt unmoored. Bernardo dying was not part of the plan; he died too early, during rehearsal. The cast had told her that he dropped dead mid-sentence. It was a massive heart attack. An autopsy revealed that over the years, he had suffered several smaller heart attacks. She marveled at his strength, at his ram’s body battling these storms. He had never mentioned anything. These were not the only secrets he had kept from her.
Bernardo had supported their decision – her decision – to lead such separate lives. He loved her work; he always said that her work, her “compassionate and passionate eye,” he called it, was what drew him to her in the first place, during their Oberlin days. They had met the first week of class and were instantly, ferociously attached to each other. Bernardo claimed for her things she had never dared to imagine for herself: Ruth was an artist, Ruth was brave, Ruth was beautiful. Initially, the ascetic in her had bristled. But in time, she came to almost believe the things he said. She constructed a new identity for herself then followed its rules. The reasons he loved her became the reasons she loved herself.
Leaving Bernardo, divorcing him, was a way of rejecting his easy labels. She was not an artist; she was a photographer. She was not brave; the subjects of her work were brave. She was not beautiful; she was interesting.
And how petty her acts of rebellion now seemed compared to the swell of life contained in music. The trumpet solo had come to an end and the audience was clapping. The saxophonist introduced herself and the band. Her accent was a Venezuelan bridge of sighs.
“Thank you for braving the freezing cold to be with us here tonight,” she said. “Tutuma holds a special place in our hearts. This is not just any gig for us. This is our family. And it will always be our family, no matter what.”
At this, the large group near the stage whooped and one woman whirled an invisible lasso above her head.
“We don’t want to say goodbye, but the forces greater than us have won, despite our fight. We will continue, somewhere else, together. And thank you, Santina, from the bottom of our hearts.”
Everyone looked towards the back of the restaurant and clapped, and Santina fiddled with her pigtails and waved. There was a warmth to the saxophonists’ voice, a humility that reminded Ruth of someone else she once knew, though she could not remember who it was. The band started up again with a jaunty festejo. This time, the guitarists took the lead. The saxophonist sang and held her hands above her head and clapped and looked out at the crowd, smiling, nodding her head to the beat and coaxing everyone into clapping along with her. There were few extra lights on stage, and she must have been able to see the audience clearly. Ruth watched. If Bernardo had been there, he would have stood up to clap; his mestizo blood flowed to these rhythms.
Ruth was not a clapper. She had seldom resented Bernardo’s outbursts: his verve, his unbridled and sometimes inappropriate lust for life had at first amused and then intoxicated her. He did for them both what she would not. He unwound some volute core within her and she had discovered, in the early years of their marriage, his ability to make her laugh with her whole body. He would act out nonsensical skits with whatever was around them. On the beach, it would be shells and sticks. At a restaurant, the white napkin would become a shy girl; the baguette, a bold man asking Ms. Napkin to dance.
The band died down and with only a simple guitar strum as accompaniment, the woman began to sing a folk song. The song told the tale of a plain, poor young girl whose love was unrequited. The lonely young girl spent her days with her head hung down, staring only at the dusty ground. An old woman met her by chance and beseeched her to forget her suffering for just one moment, and to look up at the stars, who have borne witness to all suffering throughout all ages. The stars called out to the young girl, called her by her name, Rosalinda. But Rosalinda refused, saying that her heart could not be healed, and she threw herself into the river. The stars followed her, raining down in mourning. That is why the river sparkles so on a sunny day. At this point in the song, the guitar fell silent, and the woman sang a capella. Then for the chorus, the men’s voices joined together with hers in solemn four-part harmony. It was a dirge.
It was time to go. Ruth took the last sip of her drink. The foam tickled her top lip and she licked it as she scanned the room for Santina, for the check. A few more couples had come in without Ruth noticing, and the tiny room now felt packed with people, and claustrophobic. Gabriel would be finishing up his session with Jacquelyn and would soon be left alone. He would need help with the rest of his homework. He would need dinner. They would order pizza. Ruth strained her neck, scanning the crowd. It was busy; perhaps Santina was in the kitchen or behind the bar. Ruth was about to get up when Santina appeared, bearing a small plate.
“A little something for you, on the house!”
Before Ruth could protest, Santina had swooped away again, lost in the crowd. Ruth looked down at the plate, exasperated. The greasy yuquitas held little appeal. She had not enjoyed eating since Bernardo had died. Bernardo had been obsessive about food. He once spent a month perfecting a dish of fried Greek cheese and would trek out to Astoria on the weekends, returning with ten different kinds of feta. He made the dish ten different ways and forced Ruth to taste each one. The one she liked best he made for their friends at the raucous dinner parties they threw. And so Ruth had never learned to cook. Nowadays, she and Gabriel survived on takeout and toast. Defeated, Ruth speared one of the balls into her mouth. It was cheesy and sweet and hard to swallow. She was trapped.
The musicians started playing again. The rhythm quickened. The drummer was sitting on a cajón, banging so hard that his hands became a blur. The woman held up what looked like the jawbone of an animal – most likely a donkey – and with a stick, banged on the jawbone to create a sharp clattering sound. A man from the large group near the stage lifted up a white handkerchief and stepped up onto the stage, dancing and stomping his feet, waving the dainty handkerchief as though taunting a tiny flying bull. He looked over at Ruth and held up his hands, gesturing as if to say, ‘Do you want to dance?’ Ruth shook her head and waved her palm in front of her, mouthing ‘No.’ He shrugged, an exaggerated clown shrug. A couple got up to dance. The musicians were smiling and nodding at each other as they played. They took turns playing cadenzas. The room was filled with sound, with glorious, untrammeled sound.
Ruth stiffened. You will not weep, she told herself. You will not weep in public. Suddenly their lives – hers and Bernardo’s – unspooled before her. The immensity of it all, the difficulties. Memories came to her, each one a tearsheet. Their baby boy being born too soon. Tiny memories, things that at the time had all felt so important. Sitting in the bathroom crying after hours of fighting and thinking, no, no, no. The separation for some years while they pursued what they thought were their dreams; immersing herself, finally and fully, in her work. Living in the mountains with the compas she came to regard as family. Bernardo starting his theatre. Her finding out about the lovers he had taken in her absence, including his leading lady Olivia, the one she thought was her friend. His leaving Olivia and the camaraderie the two women developed over a shared hatred of him. The trauma of divorce. The softening, a decade later, that came in the months before he died. The tenderness of reuniting and looking forward to growing old together – all this was flung at her, like stale crumbs thrown out for a pigeon.
She could not help crying. She had not cried in years. She had resolved not to feel sorry for herself, not to be permanently bereaved. They had struggled through so much in their lives; this was one more thing they had to endure. She still felt, at times, that she could confide in him wherever he was. She had made peace with his death and scattered his ashes on the purple-sand beach at Big Sur, where they had spent their honeymoon. Still, the canon wound in her heart, in her gut, had not healed and often she felt as though she was walking the streets with her insides exposed, like an operating room escapee. The song was coming to a cacophonous close, and Ruth looked down at her empty glass, stunned and embarrassed. She looked up again to see the saxophonist looking straight at her. She knows, she knows everything, Ruth thought. The saxophonist drew her fingers to her mouth, and slowly blew Ruth a kiss. At the song’s final crescendo, the woman held out her hand across the stage as if asking Ruth to grasp it, to hold hands with her. Ruth closed her eyes, brought her fingertips to her lips and held them there, shivering, unable to return the kiss until finally she released it up, up to the sky.
Ruth wiped her face, blew her nose on a paper napkin and felt suddenly, and for the very first time in her life, very old. She left money on the table, collected her coat and her camera bag, and stumbled up the stairs out onto the sidewalk where she hailed a cab.
“Gabriel.” She kissed him on the head.
He said, “Hi,” but kept his eyes on the screen. He was playing a video game. It entailed building three-dimensional floating bridges and ladders to prevent his avatar – a simple, hand-drawn, sexless person – from falling into the vastness of nothingness.
She was grateful for his ability to focus; her swollen face would have alarmed him.
“How was the movie?” he asked.
“It was okay. A little slow.”
He nodded thoughtfully and then shrugged. He attached another rung to his ladder, then swirled the entire creation around so that it resembled DNA. His avatar jumped through a loop, won another life, then hopped off the screen and into another level of the game. This time, the ladders were suspended over a cauldron of fire.
Ruth ordered pizza. They ate while Gabriel did sums. She watched him, soothing and encouraging him when he got frustrated. He has his father’s strong heart, she thought, a heart that, despite succumbing in the end, had survived several heart attacks. Gabriel’s shoulders were starting to broaden and there was a humility and a gentleness to him that she realized now must have been passed to him from his father even though their time together had been short. She had the feeling that her son was going to grow up to be a kind-hearted man, no matter what other difficulties he might face, and that was the sweetest kind of relief.
She turned her face to the window. Gabriel looked up from his homework and frowned. He put his hand on hers and patted it gently, the way children pet dogs.