–Excerpt from Another Way Home
Janir and I walk side by side down the chapel’s carpeted aisle. The room is silent and richly appointed, the walls a pale rose. Janir is handsome in his blazer, white shirt and tie, but he moves as stiffly as I do and his face looks the way I feel: cautious, intent, dismayed. His mother lies in a shallow box on a gurney in front of us. We pause to let the others catch up, then approach the box and peer in. It’s Clarisa, but I hardly recognize her. One side of her face has been covered with a white cloth, and on the other side her flesh is dense and dark. Five days ago she fell from the fire escape of her hotel here in San Francisco. She may have jumped, no one knows for sure. She was forty-seven.
She has no expression. Her mouth seems firm, as if someone has closed it for her. The funeral home brought her directly from the morgue this morning, and she may still be cold. She looks it. Though admonished not to by the funeral director, I want to touch her.
Her mother must have the same idea. Paquita fusses with the white cloth, twitching it back and forth, minutely rearranging its folds. As she does so the back of her hand grazes her daughter’s hair.
When I finally step back Janir does too. For a while we stand to one side, then sit down in the second row of benches. The dark wood is so burnished it’s slippery. We have a whole pew to ourselves, but sit with our arms and shoulders touching as if huddled in a tight space. Janir is twenty-three. He’s had his muscled arms and broad shoulders for years–yet they still surprise me. For ten minutes we don’t say anything. With Clarisa’s death our world has shifted on an axis so deep, so hidden, we’ve forgotten how much our lives still revolve around her.
Paquita sits down on the bench in front of us, flanked by her son Victor and Janir’s half brother John Leslie. He’s a handsome kid with slicked-back hair, five years younger than Janir. The two of them met as adults only yesterday, and so far have spoken little about their mother. I think Janir resembles her more, with his dark skin, curly hair and strong features.
From our pews we stare at the carton she lies in. No one has said anything about it. A second white cloth is draped over most of it, but no one can ignore that the box is made of corrugated paper.
Planning Clarisa’s funeral from out of state, none of us thought we should install her in an elaborate casket for this one-hour viewing before her cremation. But I never imagined they would move her around in a cardboard box. I didn’t think it through, I must have seen her just lying on a table. Now I feel delinquent and ashamed. I search for something to say, something to refute this vision of a bargain service and a broken body.
“She was so brave,” I tell Janir. I want to explain, in the few words I can manage, how unafraid his mother had been, especially with him. “When she had you she was completely devoted. Her best year was right after you were born. That was the happiest I ever saw her.”
That’s so sad I break into tears. Janir wraps his arms around me, puts his face next to mine and holds me tight until I calm down. Even then he doesn’t let go.
“I cried already,” he says.
This almost makes me start again. “You don’t have to cry,” I tell him. “You don’t have to do anything.”
He leans against me.
After the viewing, Clarisa’s mother, her brother, her two sons and I–the five who were closest to her–drive downtown to Turk Street and the Winston Arms, the hotel where she died. We park the car in a commercial lot and walk the last couple of blocks past streets smelling of fry oil and urine. Winos hang out on stoops, and the homeless, dressed in coats and sweaters in the September heat, push shopping carts piled high with plastic bags, clothes and water jugs. I never imagined Clarisa living in such a rundown neighborhood. For years she had stayed in orderly halfway houses or sheltered hotels, closer to the part of town she liked most, the Haight and Golden Gate Park. Every month the state sent her a Supplemental Security Income check, and she roamed the city on her transit pass, visiting the Presidio, Point Lobos and Ocean Beach.
Over the years Victor, Paquita and I all gave her money. Once I sent her an emergency thousand dollars, along with some hopeful advice on how to make it last. She used it to put a new engine into a twenty-year-old station wagon, and two weeks later bumped the car into a light pole. She got into a hassle with the police, and when I next heard from her she didn’t know where the car was. Maybe they’d towed it. It was gone.
The sidewalks on Turk Street are greasy and discolored. We stand in front of the Winston Arms, staring up at the fire escape, then back at the sidewalk. Is this where she landed? After a morning fog the day has grown warm and I’m starting to sweat. People shuffle past, giving us a wide berth. Dressed for church, we are outsiders here among the shabby buildings and alcoholic faces. Even in the bright sunlight the air feels thick and soiled. What friends could Clarisa have had here?
I watch Janir. I want to protect him, but I can’t. He stands apart, unmoving, his white collar tight around his neck. An unshaven old man in a stained jacket comes to a stop beside him. He studies the fire escape and the sidewalk, then turns to the two boys, almost as if he knows who they are.
“A beautiful girl fell to her death here last Sunday,” he says, then shuffles away down the sidewalk.
“Qué dijo?” Paquita asks. What did he say?
I repeat it to her in Spanish. Though she gives the old man a suspicious look, I’m filled with a strange gratitude, for he has said exactly what I feel. It is not my tired and embattled ex-wife who has died here, but the Clarisa I knew years ago: the smiling young woman who pulled me headlong into life and decided to have a child with me.
Paquita has been here before, and leads us into the lobby. One of the ceiling lights is buzzing, the walls are battleship gray and the only piece of furniture is a crumbling sofa.
They haven’t touched Clarisa’s room, the manager explains. He’s young, Malaysian, neatly dressed in a pressed shirt, slacks, white socks and rubber thongs. He’s been waiting, he tells us, for someone to come for her things. We follow him up the carpeted stairs to the third floor, and with every step my alarm grows. I don’t want to see this room. Half way down the corridor he unlocks a door, pushes it open and turns on the light.
We take a couple of steps inside. The bed is unmade, the mattress bare and filthy. The lone window, half covered by a blanket, faces a brick wall only four feet off. There’s a small television, no magazines or books. Piles of damp clothes lie on the floor next to old pairs of shoes, empty vodka bottles and scraps of paper. The air is stale and acrid, and a cluster of black flies hovers over the bed.
Victor looks stiff and formal. He folds his arms over his chest and appraises the chaos. All morning he has seemed to be in complete control–but I know from his wife that after his sister’s death he came home from the office, lay down on his bed and wept for hours.
Paquita goes to work. She finds a paper shopping bag and folds some clothes into it. She moves erratically, picking up and dropping things, and her choice of articles seems random: a blouse, a flowered towel, a pair of slacks. Though she cried all through the mass this morning, and again at the viewing, I’ve never seen Paquita fall apart.
Janir probes. He opens a dresser drawer and picks out a cheap hairbrush, then a pharmacy bottle containing a single capsule of Prozac. He inspects them. He picks up an empty can of hair spray, shakes it, then holds it stiffly in front of him as if it might explode. His face, his whole body looks tight.
I look in the closet. I push aside the clothes that have fallen to the floor and pick up a lone moccasin. I get down on my hands and knees and peer under the bed. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I have to see everything. I have to crush myself with the worst details. I step into the tiny bathroom. There’s nothing on the cabinet shelves, not even a toothbrush, but on the floor may be a reason for the flies. Even after decades in the U.S. Clarisa has dealt with toilet paper the Latin-American way. In El Salvador, so as not to clog the plumbing, you put it in a basket and someone cleans it up. Here she has dropped the used paper into an overflowing black plastic bag, and no one has cleaned up anything.
Slowly we come to a stop. There is nothing more to examine.
Paquita’s shopping bag is full. “Cayó en una depresión enorme,” she says. Clarisa fell into an enormous depression. “She wouldn’t eat anything. She gave up hope. She wouldn’t clean up or take care of herself.” Paquita’s arms hang limp beside her. “I didn’t know what to do.”
I’m convinced now that she jumped.
Could I have done anything myself? If I’d heard how Clarisa was doing would I have come and tried to help? Probably not. We were divorced almost twenty years ago, and I’d grown used to her tumultuous life. I could never have imagined a room like this. Clarisa had always had mood swings, but I’d never seen her suffer from the kind of depression embodied here.
Underlying my remorse is a bitter truth: I haven’t seen Clarisa in five years. When Janir went off to college I moved as well and didn’t tell her where. I was tired of her five A.M. phone calls and unannounced visits. I wanted to keep her at a distance.
Janir looks hurt and puzzled. I step over some clothes and stand beside him as his eyes settle on the demeaning mattress. “I thought she was doing better,” he says.
She was. For most of the last six months she had seemed to be on an upswing. She’d asked him for my address and sent me several coherent letters–the best in a decade–and only ten days ago I sent her a newsy letter about Janir. I had begun to dream, for the first time in years, that he might wind up with a mother he could talk to.
“She wrote me at work,” he says. His eyes shift from the bed to the dresser and back. “She told me she had a job.”
Victor knows about this. “She answered the phone in her old hotel,” he says. “It was just two afternoons a week.”
“It was something,” Janir says.
I hear the pain in his voice, the deception, even anger. I’m starting to feel it myself. The dead always let us down. Janir stares out the window at the sooty brick wall.
I edge closer to him. For the last twenty years I’ve loved him better and taken better care of him than I ever did his mother. We don’t say anything, we just stand beside each other with our arms touching.