En el campo (in the country).
He was always going snorkeling, hiking, or, his latest craze, rappelling into limestone caves. Luckily, he didn't expect Victoria to participate in all these adventures, but about a month after their anniversary he did urge her to go hiking with him to Coca Falls in El Yunque. She begged off, reminding him how she hated creepy crawlies. Victoria wasn't keen on insects and spiders, but the sight of lizards scuttling and slithering about really gave her the shivers. Besides, the rainforest was dark and menacing, with all those vines winding themselves around their host trees in loving embrace before strangling them in the struggle to reach the light.
When Miguel returned home from the hike he greeted his wife with a kiss.
"Hola, belleza. You look good enough to eat."
He dropped the duffel bag with his bathing suit and hiking boots on the floor, and held her at arm's length.
"I had my hair done."
Miguel gave her a look. At dinner he didn't talk much, except for brief responses to her questions about the hike to the falls.
"Gina and Maritere went with us," he told her.
"I guess I should have gone, too," Victoria replied, realizing that he must have felt the odd man out because the wives of his buddies had gone.
But it wasn't okay, because while undressing for bed he said, "Strange how a feminist like you goes to the beauty parlor so often."
Victoria could have pointed out that her feminist phase at the University of Puerto Rico had lasted all of three months, or that Miguel liked her to look good, but she knew her hair wasn't the real issue.
"I'll go hiking next time," she assured him.
"You'll probably be too far along by then," he replied, climbing into bed.
Victoria lay down beside him, not sure whether to cuddle up. He rolled over, pulled her to him and stroked her belly, which was only slightly rounder at this early stage of pregnancy. "Don't get me wrong," he said. "I'm glad you're not like those American feminists, ugly women with no makeup."
"That was in the sixties. They're not like that anymore."
"Give me a boricua beauty anytime," he said, giving her a kiss.
The next day Victoria's stepmother Iris phoned. They hadn't spoken for eight years. She congratulated her stepdaughter on her marriage, mentioned that Victoria's father had recently retired, and invited the young couple to come visit them in the country for a late lunch the following Sunday. Her tone was friendly, almost casual, as though they had just spoken a week before.
Struggling to keep her voice steady, Victoria accepted the invitation with a minimum of chitchat, and said goodbye. The receiver clattered to the floor when she tried to replace it. Miguel retrieved it and put his arms round his sobbing wife.
"What's wrong? Who was that?"
When she told him, he interpreted her tears as joy at the possibility of reconciliation. A perfectly logical deduction for a man from a family of five brothers and sisters, countless cousins, aunts and uncles, a whole tribe of Sotos, all of them good-natured and affectionate. Victoria didn't try to explain how she really felt. Her parents' overture was gratifying after all those years, but the prospect of seeing them again was something else altogether.
By the time Sunday rolled around, Victoria had decided not to go. While Miguel was out playing early morning tennis, she started to dial their number, but stopped. It would be easier to simply not show up. An hour later, confronted with her husband's enthusiasm for going to the country to meet her parents, she wavered, reluctant to disappoint him so soon after her refusal to go to El Yunque had almost caused a quarrel.
Emerging from the shower with a towel round his waist, Miguel called out, "Negra, what should I wear?"
"Mahones will be fine," Victoria answered with a smile.
Her mother-in-law, convinced that Victoria had rescued her son from a bohemian existence, was always telling Miguel to listen to his wife if he wanted to dress for success.
"If jeans are fine, what are you doing in white pants?" asked Miguel, pulling a T-shirt over his head.
"Capris are cooler," she replied, grabbing the first excuse that came into her head.
She buttoned her loosely flowing but fashionable black and white blouse. The Gucci watch Miguel had given her stared up at her through the clear plastic top of its box on the dresser, neatly curled in its place. Victoria had not forgotten that her father and stepmother believed that North American consumerism is a plague destroying Puerto Rican culture. She put on the watch.
On the morning of Victoria's visit, Iris got up early to start cooking. It had been her idea to invite the young couple to dinner. Her husband Andres had pointed out that their telephone number was still the same if Victoria had wanted to get in touch, but eventually he came round to his wife's view that they should take the first step. Now he scoffed when his wife expressed doubts that his daughter and her husband would show up.
"They accepted the invitation. ?Si o no?"
"Si. But if Vicki didn't have something against us, she would have let us know she was getting married," Iris replied, not concealing the lingering hurt.
Andres gave no sign of noticing the tremor in his wife's voice. "To my mind she was going through typical adolescent rebellion. Now she's grown out of it."
Iris went back to cooking. She hummed while she worked, dicing fresh vegetables from her own garden, cilantro, ajies dulces, onions, and garlic to make the sofrito. The chicken was from Don Paco's, a local farmer who let his chickens range in the open.
Iris had just turned the pollo criollo down to simmer, when it struck her that she was equally worried about how things would go if the young couple did show up. Andres had become more set in his ways, more convinced than ever that his beloved island was on the road to perdition. What if Victoria's husband was one of those upwardly mobile young men full of optimism about the new Puerto Rico? Andres despised the newly rich blanquitos working in banks and advertising firms, who drive through red lights invented for lesser mortals who don't own a BMW or a Mercedes Benz.
Iris went over the brief phone conversation in her mind, remembering how difficult it had been to keep her voice normal. Victoria had said her husband worked for a public relations firm, but had also mentioned his love for the country. Maybe everything would be fine. Victoria had been cordial, though clearly not anxious to prolong the conversation.
After testing the pollo criollo to be sure it was done, Iris turned off the burner. She wandered into the living room and put the newspaper her husband had been reading back in the magazine rack. Everything was ready. But what if they wanted a tour of the house? She went into the room that had been Victoria's, smoothed the bedcover, and opened the closet door. Andres had urged her to give the clothes away once it was clear that his daughter had left for good, but Iris never got around to it. She recognized an old pair of white sandals that had once been hers at the back of the closet, half hidden under the long dresses. Victoria was tall and slim, and Iris was short and round, but they wore the same shoe size. When her stepdaughter first asked whether she could borrow a pair, Iris told Andres that this was a good omen. His quizzical look made her shy away from explaining it could mean that Victoria no longer harbored resentment against the woman who had replaced her mother.
After they began sharing shoes and accessories, Iris took Victoria shopping for a new dress for a school party without a word to Andres. Iris was the one she consulted about problems with her schoolwork rather than her father. They discovered a shared passion for the poetry of Gabriela Mistral.
Iris closed the closet door and opened the bottom drawer of the bureau. There in a plastic zip-lock bag was Blackie the bear. Iris buried her face in the bear's fur, which still conserved a faint suggestion of the scent of its young owner. She placed the bear between the two pillows, his floppy head resting on his forepaws.
After eight years, Victoria found that the drive to the inland town of Morovis had changed drastically. With the new extension of the Expressway, it was now possible to continue many miles past the coastal town of Dorado, and turn off at the new Highway 142, a much wider and straighter road into the hills. After they crossed the little mountain town of Corozal, a couple of miles from her father's house, the road narrowed and looked more familiar, with torturous turns and a canopy of flamboyan trees.
Early on in their relationship, Miguel must have noted her reluctance to talk about her family, because he stopped asking questions. As they drew near the house of her childhood, Victoria made an effort to fill him in. Her father's family originally came from mountainous Utuado, and he was the first to graduate from the University of Puerto Rico.
"So he moved to Morovis to get back to his jibaro roots?" asked Miguel.
"Something like that. My mother hated it."
Miguel nodded, absorbing this background information on the divorce. "And how about you, did you like the campo?"
Victoria hesitated. "When I was little I loved it."
"You weren't scared of lizards then?"
"A little bit, but the real phobia came later. My stepmother shares my father's love of the country."
"They sound great. The sort of people with the courage to live by their own values," Miguel replied.
Victoria knew this was a high compliment from her husband. He was happy being a graphic advertising artist, but regretted not having time to devote to painting landscapes. Victoria had no such ambivalent feelings about her job. She loved being a buyer for Cachet, a boutique in San Juan.
"That's the driveway," she said, pointing to the right. Miguel braked just in time, expertly turning the car to go up a steep incline.
Instead of the waist-high hibiscus that Victoria remembered bordering the driveway, the bushes now towered over their car, their delicate pink and red blossoms fluttering in the wind. The car took a sharp turn and almost bumped into a Jeep Cherokee. The house atop a hill looked smaller than she remembered, but maybe it was because the trees were bigger. Her father, a sack on his back, stopped in front of the steps leading to the front porch.
"Iris, ya llegaron," he called, placing the sack of grapefruits on the ground before rushing over to greet them. He looked much the same, dressed head to foot in denim overalls, his blue eyes as sharp as ever in a tanned face framed with white hair. Victoria could see the crow's feet around his eyes, but he stood erect and strong like a much younger man. He held her close for a long time, and then, clearing his throat to mask his emotion, turned to greet Miguel.
Iris was not far behind. She wore identical overalls. Her short curly hair had more salt than pepper now, but her smile was as warm as ever. She hugged and kissed them both.
"Vicki, I can't believe you're really here," she said, "looking more beautiful than ever. Doesn't she Andres?"
Once they had climbed the steps to the front porch, Victoria's father commanded them to look back at the view. Carefully tended flower gardens gave way to valleys and rolling hills, stretching as far as the eye could see. In the distance, on the shore of the Atlantic they could see the tall buildings of San Juan, like a distant mirage. When Victoria was little she called it the City of Oz, although it wasn't green, but gleaming white like polished alabaster.
"Don Andres, is that San Juan?" asked Miguel.
"Hard to believe," replied her father. "The concrete jungle. You can't see the slums, the traffic, and the garbage from here. Distance creates an illusion of beauty."
"Breathtaking view," said Miguel. "And your gardens look great."
Victoria's father acknowledged the compliment with a broad smile. He wanted to take them right away to explore the flower beds and fruit trees, but her stepmother reminded him that it was a long drive from San Juan, and they must be thirsty.
Victoria admired the new porch, constructed on the side of the house with the best view. Once they had been seated in the living room, her father launched into a long description of getting rid of an incompetent construction firm from San Juan in order to hire local craftsmen. While her stepmother served lemonade and freshly fried bacalaitos, he told them that people who say wooden houses are more vulnerable to hurricanes don't know what they're talking about. This house didn't suffer a scratch from Hugo or Georges, he explained to Miguel. The trick is solid old-fashioned construction.
A welcome breeze entered, and the house grew darker and cooler. The sun must have gone under a cloud. Don Andres insisted they should see the gardens before the afternoon showers. Miguel rose immediately.
Victoria got up slowly and said, "You guys go. I'll stay and help Iris in the kitchen."
"It's all under control," Iris assured her.
"But I'd like you to show me the changes in the house," Victoria countered.
Her father didn't seem put out. He beckoned to Miguel to follow. As they rounded the side of the house together, Victoria could hear them talking about growing plants in a tropical climate without pesticides.
Her stepmother showed her the extension they had made to the house in the back. It was a study for her father, now that he was retired from teaching biology at the University. What surprised Victoria was her old room. Nothing was changed. Her black bear was lying on the lavender bedspread, as if she had only been gone for a weekend.
"We use it as a guestroom now," said Iris.
Victoria's throat felt tight. She turned away.
Everything was going better than Iris could have dreamed. Andres obviously liked Miguel, and Victoria, visibly tense during the first awkward moments, appeared relaxed and happy at the dining table. Miguel complimented Iris on the excellent pollo criollo and arroz con gandules. Iris explained that the trick was using fresh herbs and vegetables from their own garden.
"Oye," said Don Andres, "the cook gets all the praise. How about the guy who works all day in the sun to produce the fresh ingredients?"
"You both deserve credit," said Miguel. "This is even better than Ajili-mojili,"
Iris looked inquiringly at him. "We don't go to restaurants much," she said.
"Nouvelle Caribbean cuisine," Victoria explained. "De moda en el area metropolitana. Lighter and healthier."
"Oh, yes, that's exactly what I aim for, a good taste with less fat to protect your father's heart."
Afterwards, Iris served the men coffee in the living room. She told Victoria to take her cup and join them, she could manage the clean-up, but Victoria insisted on helping her in the kitchen. They worked together smoothly, reestablishing the routine shared long ago.
Victoria interrupted a momentary silence by asking, "How's your job at the Health Services Center?"
"Good. The new director introduced innovations to make our outreach programs more effective. But I'm thinking of retiring next December."
"The long drive to San Juan must be hard on your back," said Victoria.
"The drive's not so bad now that they put in the new highway. Of course, your father hates it." Iris said, her voice lightly mocking yet affectionate, the tone women use to describe a husband beloved in spite of his idiosyncrasies. "He sees the new road as a long tentacle of concrete radiating out of San Juan."
"Sounds just like him," replied Victoria, her voice neutral. "He only went in twice a week to give classes so the drive wouldn't have affected him."
"Actually my back's better," said Iris, with a bright smile. "I had therapy six months ago."
"Did you know my mother had to be operated for a slipped disc?" said Victoria.
Iris was turning off the kitchen faucet with her back toward her stepdaughter. In the five years she lived with them, Victoria had rarely talked about her mother. Iris turned to see her expression, but couldn't read it.
"No. Your father never mentioned it," she said carefully.
"He thought she was faking," said Victoria, curling her lips into a mirthless smile. "I remember him saying that he saw through her ruses to get him to go back to San Juan."
Iris kept quiet, uncertain what to say.
"Or course, when we moved to San Juan, the doctors took an MRI and operated. Then within a year she was diagnosed with cancer."
"I'm sorry," said Iris. "Victoria, it's hard for me to say this. I met your father after your parents separated."
Victoria shrugged. "The way they fought it was pretty clear they didn't need a third party to come between them."
Iris felt the need to talk more, clear up any misconceptions Victoria might have, but Andres chose this moment to bellow out that the women should forget the dishes and join them. "Just a sec," Iris called out drying her hands on the dishtowel. She took out the flan from the fridge.
Victoria was not sorry that her father had interrupted. Relieved not to talk further about her mother, she picked out dessert plates and forks to serve the flan and followed Iris out to the living room.
Andres got up from the cane and thatch rocking chair made by a local craftsman to offer it to his daughter.
"It was always her favorite," he told Miguel, settling himself down next to Iris on the sofa.
While Iris sliced the flan on the coffee table, passing the plates to Victoria to serve to the men, Miguel resumed talking about the hikes he had taken with his buddies. Andres responded enthusiastically, recounting the adventures of his youth, exploring those same caves without all the modern rappelling equipment.
Victoria rocked in what had once been her special chair, and listened to the men's conversation rising and falling against the background of the coquis, whose chanting had grown louder once the afternoon turned cloudy. Her father had really taken to Miguel. She had been wrong to be apprehensive about the visit.
"Do you ever get Victoria to go hiking with you?" her father was asking his son-in-law.
Miguel shook his head. "It's hard to even get her to walk to La Coca Falls at El Yunque."
"I could never instill in her a love of the country," said Andres.
"I liked the country when I was little," Victoria interjected, putting her foot down to slow the rocking of her chair.
Iris placed her hand on her husband's arm. He didn't look at her.
"You never liked the country," he said bluntly to Victoria. "Your stupid lizard phobia blinded you to the beauty of nature and there was nothing I could do about it."
"Andres," Iris said quickly. "A phobia by definition is something the person can't control. Maybe something happened that neither you nor Victoria even remembers. It's not her fault."
"I didn't say it was her fault."
"It's okay, Papi," said Victoria. "Let's talk about something else."
"Good idea," said Miguel, shifting uncomfortably in his chair.
"No," said Andres. "Iris said I was blaming you, Vicki. I've got to set things straight."
Victoria didn't look at her father. Her gaze was fixed on something outside the window, her eyes moist. Her father had not lost the knack of reducing her to tears with a few choice words. But she was no longer a child, and she wouldn't let him. She swallowed hard.
"It's okay, Don Andres," said Miguel. "You don't have to explain. Victoria understands you don't blame her."
Victoria lifted her chin and sat up straight. "No, I'm not sure I do." Her voice was calm and steady.
"I don't blame you for hating the country," her father told her, "because that's what you were taught." He turned to Miguel. "All her mother ever thought about was her hair and nails."
Her stepmother's remonstrance could barely be heard. "Andres, please."
Victoria had stopped her chair from rocking, but the room was still swaying, reminding her of a small earthquake long ago, the one she alone had felt, although her parents read about it the next day in the paper. She looked at the ceiling fan. The blades were still. Her body was doing the trembling.
"It's easy to blame the dead," she said, looking straight at her father, aware of the tremor in her own voice. "They can't tell their side of the story."
His steely blue eyes didn't waver.
"Don't tell me your years at the University have made you a postmodernist," he said, "one of those people that don't believe in objective truth, only different sides of the story. The truth is that your mother despised nature and passed on her narrow-minded prejudices to you." He paused. "Her death doesn't alter that truth."
"My mother had nothing to do with it," Victoria said, in a loud voice, highpitched to her own ear. "Iris is wrong. I have a very clear memory of the childhood trauma that sparked my so-called lizard phobia. So do you, Papi."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I told you about it."
"Oh that," said her father with a shrug.
Her stepmother looked from one to the other. "What are you talking about, Vicki?"
"Iris," said her father, a note of warning in his voice.
"Of course, if you'd rather not talk about it," said Iris, addressing her stepdaughter.
"I'm not the one who doesn't want to talk about it," Victoria replied.
Miguel looked at his watch and stood up. "Vicki, mi amor, we have to get back." He turned to Iris. "It was a lovely meal. We had a great time."
Victoria rose, too. Part of her wanted to take the escape route offered. But when her father also rose and extended his hand to Miguel, she gagged, a bitter taste invading her mouth. She took a deep breath and sat down again.
"Wait just a moment, mi amor," she said to her husband. "Iris wants to know the source of my childhood trauma. It won't take but five minutes to explain."
"Querida, are you sure you want to talk about it?" said Miguel, looking at her with concern.
Miguel sank back into his chair, and her parents followed suit, all three waiting in silence while Victoria struggled to find the right words.
"There weren't as many houses around in those days," she told them, her voice low but clear. "Don Cheo, his wife Dona Ines and their six children, later seven, were our closest neighbors. My special friend was Wanda, their oldest girl. She had an older half-brother. He stayed with them off and on, whenever Don Cheo's first wife was in drug rehab."
She was aware that her voice sounded flat. Her father's call for objective truth inhibited her from shaping into words those subtle memories of sensation and emotion. Don Cheo was a farmer who did odd jobs for others who had more money, a gaunt man of few words. Their house was small and dark with a musty odor mixed with the rich smells of asopao cooking on the stove. His wife Dona Ines had a deeply lined face at the age of forty, but she had a ready smile, and always welcomed Victoria to her home. Awake before dawn, she was never idle, her house scrupulously neat and clean in spite of the constant flow of children and relatives.
Victoria's family was invited every year for Thanksgiving. Her own father refused to celebrate a holiday that he considered a cultural imposition from the States, but Don Cheo and Dona Ines prepared a true boricua feast, complete with roasted pig and batata. The first time she saw the pig's head revolving on the spit, when she was still little, Victoria began to cry. She never lived down her reputation for being a wimp. Wanda told the story every Thanksgiving. Victoria didn't try to explain that it was not just sympathy for the pig, but guilt because the sweet smell of the meat made her feel hungry at the same time.
Victoria couldn't put all this into words. It was painful enough to lay out the bare bones of the story. Fixing her eyes first on Miguel and then on Iris, she continued.
"Wanda's half-brother's name was Juan Carlos--Juanky, for short. He was about two years older than Wanda and me. I was afraid of him and his friends. They played rough. But I didn't have any other friends, so I spent a lot of time at Wanda's house. One day they wanted to play truth or dare. If you didn't answer a question truthfully, you had to take off an item of clothing. Wanda took off her blouse."
Victoria remembered how her friend had giggled. It was Victoria's turn next. The question was whether she had ever felt herself down there. She made a face and said no. Juanky laughed and called her a liar. Everybody does it. Feeling the heat rise from below her belly up to her cheeks, Victoria refused to admit it. The others began to chant, "Liar, liar, take it off, take it off."
"I wouldn't do it," she told her parents and Miguel. "They said I was a spoilsport. Then Juanky told his friends to hold me down. I don't know what would have happened if Dona Ines, who was pregnant again, hadn't come back from the clinic sooner than expected."
"Did you tell your parents?" asked Miguel.
"I told my mother. She went over and talked to Dona Ines who told her that Don Cheo had given them what they deserved. Papi never talked to Don Cheo."
"Don Cheo is an honorable man," said Andres, who had been looking out the window until this moment. "I trusted him to do the right thing."
Victoria shrugged. "But it got worse afterwards. Juanky blamed me for the beating, and didn't lose a chance to get even. He and his friends threw stones at me, followed me, threatened to come get me in the dark. It got so bad that my mother took me out of public school in the country and put me in Maria Reina for girls, not too far from her work in San Juan."
Victoria paused and turned to her stepmother. "Papi's a great believer in public education. Only stuck up people like my mother, people who think they're too good for simple country folk, put their children in private school."
"I never said that," her father objected.
"Please let me finish."
"Mira, there are bullies in public school and bullies in private school. I wanted you to learn to stand up to them."
Victoria turned to her husband. "Vamonos, mi amor. They don't want to hear the rest of the story. The truth is not welcome here."
"I do want to hear. Very much," said Iris.
Her father said nothing.
Victoria gripped both arms of her chair, her fingernails digging into the wood, and continued.
"After coming home from school, I never went anywhere. It was safer to stay inside the house. Wanda came over one afternoon and asked me to go swimming with her, but I claimed to have too much homework. Then Wanda told me Juanky had left for San Juan to rejoin his mother who had just gotten out of Hogares Crea rehab."
Victoria paused. No use going into her premonition that something was fishy. Not that it mattered, because she had ignored her instincts. It was a hot day in April and she was lonely. Her mother was busy getting some paperwork for her job done, and her father who generally found some reason to absent himself from home, had gone to get some new seedlings. She got into a bathing suit and went down the country road, hand in hand with Wanda. There was only one cottage on the way, owned by city people from San Juan, who only came on holidays. The kind of people her father said were responsible for running up the prices of real estate in rural areas, making it difficult for local people to buy their own homes. Their car wasn't in the driveway.
The road faded into a path that led down to a gully with a brook that was the favorite swim hole for local kids. The two girls walked down the path through a meadow with high grass on either side. Victoria could hear the occasional roar of a car passing on the main road above, but as they descended through the long grass there was only the chirping of crickets and the buzzing of bees. Soon they were in the woods at a small creek. Because of the April drought, the water was too low to really swim, but they splashed about in the shallows, giggling and having a good time. Victoria submerged her head to see a big fish lurking under the rocks. When she lifted her face out of the water to call Wanda over, she saw him.
Victoria was called back to the present by her stepmother's voice. "And then what happened?"
"We went swimming. Juanky and his two friends showed up. Maybe Wanda lied to me or maybe she didn't know he had come back. The boys started skipping stones in the water, always in our direction. One hit me in the head. I got out of the water when another one hit me on the cheek. Then they started hunting lizards, the little green ones that puff out their throats. They put them on their ears. Wanda thought this was hilarious and let them put the lizards on her ears. I said no, but they didn't listen."
Victoria stopped. What happened next was a jumble of images and sensations that she didn't want to remember, much less put into words. The boys were holding Victoria down and putting the lizards' mouths onto her ears. She was screaming, her body writhing. Wanda told them to leave her alone. They let her up. She must have looked ridiculous jumping up and down trying to shake the lizards off, not daring to touch them with her hands. The three boys rolled on the ground in laughter. Finally, Juanky took them off her. She started to run up the path, her legs buckling beneath her as she tripped on the root of a tree.
The three boys and Wanda were right behind. Juanky came over, and gracefully extended his hand to help her up, a lord coming to the rescue of a lady. Victoria said thanks. He smiled, and said he didn't know she was so scared of lizards. Relieved to be back on her feet, she told him that it was okay. But he replied that it wasn't okay. She needed to get over it.
Fear made a prickle travel up the nape of her neck. From the deep shade of the woods, she could see an opening to the sunny meadow just a few yards above. But what was the use of making a dash for it when the only house near enough to hear her shouts was empty?
Victoria's father got up from his chair.
"He's going to the bathroom," said her stepmother, her tone apologetic.
They waited in silence for Don Andres. In spite of the cool breezes coming in through the window, Victoria could feel the sweat dripping down her back.
After a few minutes her father returned and settled back down in his chair. He drained the last drops from his coffee cup, and then sat still, not looking at his daughter, gently rubbing his finger on the rim of the cup. He had said nothing since defending his position on public school education.
Victoria finished her story quickly.
"Juanky pulled out a knife, and said he was going to help me get over my fear of lizards. He grabbed a big one, the kind that looks like a small iguana with blue stripes down its sides, and told me to slit open its belly. I refused. Then he grabbed me and told me to do it or he would cut my wrist. We'll see whether your blood is the same color, he told me. Make her cut off its head, said one of his friends. Wanda told me to go ahead, giving me a look that said I had better go along. It's nothing, she said. I did it and the lizard kept walking without its head. That's all. I screamed for a while. They laughed and let me go home."
Iris had been listening intently. It was clear to her that the story was a crucial part of the past, something she had to understand about Victoria. Whenever her stepdaughter paused, overcome with emotion, Iris had gently prodded with questions about what happened next. She winced when Victoria got to the climax of the tale, and then looked over at her husband for his reaction. When Iris realized that her husband wasn't going to say anything, she got up and put her arms around her stepdaughter.
"Not much of a story," said Victoria.
"It certainly explains your lizard phobia," Iris replied.
"No, it doesn't. The lizard didn't do anything."
"Oh Victoria, I wish I could have done something."
"It has nothing to do with you," Victoria replied, looking her stepmother in the eye. "You weren't even in the picture then."
Iris nodded, her eyes filled with tears.
"Juan Carlos got into more trouble as a teenager," said her father to no one in particular. "But he turned out well in the end. He's an electrician now. Just got married, had a baby."
"Wasn't he accused of rape about two years ago?" Iris asked.
"He got off. Claimed it was consensual."
Miguel hurriedly interrupted to ask whether Victoria was feeling okay and remind her they really had to go. Andres rose from his chair and took leave of Miguel, shaking hands warmly. Victoria stood up, but made no move to say goodbye. Iris held her close for a long moment and said how happy she was to see her after so many years. Andres saw them to the door, urging them to come back soon, but he didn't accompany Iris to the car with the young couple.
Just as Miguel was starting the car, Iris remembered the pack of fruits and vegetables she had saved for them to take home. Telling them to wait one moment, she rushed back into the house, and returned with a large bag. Her eyes moistening, she passed the fresh produce to Victoria through the car window.
Iris waved as the car disappeared down the driveway, and then walked back to the house and stood on the balcony for a long time. The late afternoon breezes felt cool on her cheeks wet with tears.
Fifteen minutes must have passed before Iris dried her face with her hand and went back inside. Andres was sitting on the sofa in the same position. She took the coffee cups and dessert plates to the kitchen.
When she came back into the living room and sat down on the rocking chair, Andres looked up and said, "You were silly to think they wouldn't come. The visit went pretty well, don't you think?"
Iris looked at him, not quite believing what she heard. His face was expressionless.
"Vicki seemed horribly upset about what happened with Juanky," she said.
"Yeah, but what child doesn't have at least one run in with a bully? It's part of the territory."
"Vicki seemed to think it was our fault."
"Couldn't have been your fault, mi amor. As she said, you weren't yet in the picture. I'll tell you what the real point of the story was. I'm the bad parent and her mother was the good parent who took her to the city. Of course, her mother just used the incident with Juanky as an excuse to leave. She had been working up to it for quite some time."
"You never told me about Juanky."'
"Mi amor, it wasn't such a big thing as Victoria is making out. My daughter is a drama queen like her mother."'
"She was traumatized," said Iris.
"Maybe you're right, mi amor. Childhood can be rough."'
"The divorce must have been hard for her."
"Yeah, but she survived just fine. I like her husband. He's a good guy, don't you think?"
"Better than she deserves," said Andres with a laugh that Iris didn't think quite succeeded in taking the sting out of the remark.
Victoria had not noticed the tears in her stepmother's eyes when she handed the bag of fruits and vegetables through the car window just before they drove away. Barely glancing at Iris, she took the bag, and murmured thank you. Miguel waved as they exited the driveway, but Victoria didn't turn around. She closed her eyes when they passed Don Cheo's house on the left, clenching the bag of fresh produce with both hands.
They drove a while in silence. When they emerged from the narrow snaky country road onto a wider well-paved highway, Miguel said, "Now I understand why you weren't all that keen on visiting."'
"Your father's a strange guy. The way he talked about your mother was unpardonable."
"He said a lot worse when she was alive."'
"I really liked him at first. He seemed like such an intense guy, so passionate about growing things, preserving the natural habitat. But then he didn't react to what you were telling him. No effect. Went catatonic."
"That's the way he is."'
"Your stepmother seemed genuinely upset. I couldn't help liking her."'
"I used to like her, too."
"Of course, at the beginning I resented her for taking my mother's place, but she's basically a good person, or would be if she weren't married to him."'
"She doesn't have any children of her own?"'
"Your father said she loved you like her own daughter."
"When did my father come up with this talk about love?"
"While he was showing me the garden."
"What else did he say?"
"He said Iris cried for weeks after you left them to stay with your aunt."
So her father hadn't wasted time to get Miguel on their side, tell him that his heartless daughter had left without a word. No wonder her father wasn't upset when she didn't go with them to the garden. He probably had it all planned with Iris. She showed me my bedroom with Blackie the bear still on my pillow while he worked on Miguel. And I'm supposed to feel guilty because my stepmother cried for three weeks. As though either of them cared about what happened to me.
"Pull over," she told Miguel.
Miguel pulled over as soon as there was enough shoulder to park the car safely. She got out, walked a little ways down the road and knelt down to throw up the pollo criollo, gandules and flan. Miguel followed her, propped up her forehead with his hand, and went to get a thermos for her to rinse her mouth when she was done.
Victoria finally stood up and walked back to the car, but instead of getting in, she grabbed the bag of fresh produce. Of course it was paper not plastic. Her father and stepmother were serious crusaders to save the planet. She hurled the entire contents on the ground, the grapefruits, cabbage and sweet peppers first, and then the tomatoes, one by one, taking pleasure as they splattered against the gravel. When there was nothing left to throw, she looked at the red pulp scattered around and repeated, "Goddamn crocodile tears," over and over again, until her husband gently persuaded her to get back in the car.
Once her sobs subsided, Miguel told her, "As far as I'm concerned, we don't have to go to Morovis ever again. It's not good for you to get so upset."
Iris had watched Miguel and Victoria's car disappear down the driveway, convinced she would never see her stepdaughter again. But as the weeks went by she began to feel a jolt of hope each time the telephone rang. Time assuaged her own perception of the visit as a disaster and made her receptive to her husband's more positive view. Telling the lizard story might have served as a catharsis for Victoria, a removal of old baggage to clear the path for a new adult relationship with her parents. After six weeks went by with no word, Iris told Andres they should give a follow up call to see how the young couple was doing. Her husband was vehemently opposed. The ball is in their park, he told Iris, and refused to discuss it further.
Iris waited a few days before bringing up the topic again. They had taken their customary early evening walk down the country road and back, and were seated on their front porch to watch the finale of the sunset together. The last tinges of pink in the sky were giving way to twilight, the approaching darkness alive with the sounds of coquis and crickets. This was her husband's favorite time of day.
While they drank glasses of juice squeezed from their own oranges, Iris said, "Victoria put on weight, but it becomes her."
"Most women fill out in their twenties," agreed her husband. "Look over there, that dark cloud still has a rose lining."
Iris took a deep breath. "It crossed my mind that she might be pregnant."
"I didn't notice a belly," Andres replied bluntly, retiring his gaze from the heavens to look at his wife.
"It wouldn't show at first."
Andres shrugged, "Well, I'm sure you know more about it."
Iris decided to make her move. "That's why I really think we should call them again."
Andres was silent for a long moment, while she waited, remembering how he had once said that what bothered him most about the estrangement from his only daughter was that he would never see his grandchildren.
"Lo que tu quieras, mi amor," he said. "I trust your judgment."
Iris dialed Victoria's number when Andres wasn't home. Miguel picked up the phone and spoke warmly about how much he had enjoyed meeting them. Victoria's voice was much colder when she came on the line, so frigid that Iris barely managed to stammer out an invitation to lunch. There was an awkward silence.
"Just the two of us," said Iris, conscious of the pleading in her voice.
Victoria accepted and suggested they meet at La Patisserie in Plaza las Americas shopping mall. There's plenty of parking, now that they built the multistory lot on Roosevelt Avenue, she assured her stepmother.
Iris told her husband about the luncheon date. Andres wanted to know who had invited whom. Iris surprised herself by telling a lie that it was Victoria who had suggested having lunch together.
"And where are you ladies going to lunch?"
"La Patisserie at Plaza."
"No me sorprende. On her turf."
Iris arrived fifteen minutes early and parked in the new multistory lot as Victoria had suggested. She walked slowly, marveling at the remodeling and expansion of Plaza las Americas, advertised as the largest mall in the Caribbean. The restaurant was furnished in an eclectic modernistic style with glass and chrome mixed with wood and rustic tiles. She asked for a table for two, and sat down next to a large picture window facing a major corridor of the mall.
Iris had almost lost hope when she saw Victoria, elegantly dressed in heels, not too high, but enough to set off her long legs to advantage. She wore a loose fitting blouse, but her pregnancy was unmistakable. Iris waved until she caught her stepdaughter's attention.
Once they had exchanged the ritual kiss of greeting, Iris exclaimed, "You know, I suspected you were pregnant when you came to the country, but I wasn't sure."
"The tests weren't conclusive yet," said Victoria.
"I can't believe my eyes. I'm so glad. Your father will be so excited when he hears."
The waitress came to take their order, making it unnecessary for Victoria to respond.
A jumble of thoughts made it hard for Iris to concentrate on the menu. Had Victoria known she was pregnant and elected not to tell them? If she was telling the truth about not being sure, what prevented her from calling once the pregnancy was confirmed?
Iris asked Victoria to please order for her. They settled on crab salad and baguettes. To fill in a long silence, Iris asked which store would be best to look for a good shirt for Andres. "Not too expensive, you know how your father dislikes extravagance." After a pause, Victoria said both Penney's and Macy's have good sales.
Iris turned the conversation back to her stepdaughter's pregnancy, asking for all the details including the due date. It wasn't until the waitress brought their coffees and chocolate eclairs that she ventured to touch upon what she had come to say.
"Victoria, I hope Miguel wasn't offended," she began, taking a sip of coffee.
"I mean at our house."
"Why should Miguel be offended?"
"Your father said things ... that he shouldn't have."
Victoria put down the eclair and finished chewing, very properly with her mouth securely closed. She was gazing at Iris as though they were strangers, with the same blank expression she had on her face while accepting the bag of fresh produce, as though a master ceramist had applied a hard glaze to make a portrait bust polished and impenetrable.
Victoria raised her finely arched eyebrows, and said, "What Papi said wasn't about Miguel was it?"
"No," Iris conceded.
"It was about Mami and about me."
Iris blinked back tears. "You're right. I'm making a mess of this."
Victoria didn't respond. She was stirring a packet of sugar into her coffee, making no gesture to help Iris say what was on her mind.
"Victoria, I'm sorry your father said those awful things. And I'm sorry if I did anything wrong. I'm not talking about when you and Miguel came to lunch. What I really want to know is what I did wrong before. Why did you run away to your aunt, never even saying goodbye?"
"Miguel doesn't think I should talk about things that upset me while I'm pregnant."
"Of course, I just meant that I'd like to talk about it when you're ready."
'If we're going to talk, let's be honest," said Victoria abruptly. "You know perfectly well why I left."
"Victoria, creeme, I don't know."
"Well, if you really don't, ask my father."
"Believe me. He is as mystified as I am," Iris replied, conscious of her stepdaughter's incredulous expression. "All your father told me is that love cannot be forced. If Victoria prefers to live with her mother's sister, that's her choice."
"Goddamn bastard," said Victoria, her voice barely above a whisper. "Fucking liar."
Iris drew back. Her stepdaughter had never picked up the contemporary habit of easy swearing, which only made the words more caustic. She had to keep calm, and find out what was behind them.
"Vicki, does this have something to do with Juanky?"
"How did you guess?" replied her stepdaughter, a hint of mockery in her voice.
"It is just a guess," Iris protested.
"I didn't want to go over there for the birthday party, but your beloved husband made me go."
Iris remembered. Andres had insisted that Victoria accompany them over to Don Cheo's place for his wife's birthday celebration. It became a battle royal when Victoria refused to go. Iris was puzzled, because her stepdaughter had always been fond of Dona Ines. Andres accused her of thinking she was superior to country folk, betraying the jibaro blood from which she came. Did she think that fancy hairdos and clothes make a lady? Dona Ines was more of a lady than Victoria would ever be. She had worked herself to the bone caring for seven kids and one stepson, and every single one was getting an education. Una dama genuina con un alma de oro. Victoria was yelled into submission. Her eyes still looked red when they walked over, but she kept her head up and greeted Dona Ines with a warm embrace.
"I knew Juanky would be there. Papi made me go and you did nothing."
"I didn't understand what was going on."
Victoria shrugged and adjusted her blouse over her full stomach. Iris recalled how she had been at sixteen, tall and willowy, with high fashion good looks, alabaster skin and dark eyes. Victoria had blushed scarlet when Dona Ines told her she had turned into a beautiful young lady.
Iris also remembered how Juan Carlos had looked that night. It had been over two years since she last saw him. He had become a man, tall and solidly built, with green eyes that were striking against his tawny skin. Andres had teased him about the number of girls that must be after him. Iris had liked his answer. "Don Andres, I'm looking not for any girl, but for that special one." Then he had gone outside where the younger crowd was hanging out. Victoria had lingered until Dona Ines told her to go on out, saying she must be bored indoors with the old folks.
"Papi knew what Juanky did to me when I was little," said Victoria.
"Did something happen that night?"
"Yeah. He asked me to dance. Just like that. Like the stones he'd thrown at me and the knife never existed. I said no. Then he said I was a stuck up blanquita. Accused me of thinking I was better than they were. What are you so stuck up, about? Look, fat Paco's got more boobs than you do. You're not even pretty."
Iris had received her share of teasing as a teenager for her chubby build and plain looks. It had never occurred to her that her stepdaughter, a beauty in her eyes, could have suffered the same adolescent angst. Of course, at age sixteen every girl is vulnerable.
"You seemed depressed when we got home," said Iris, "but I thought it was because of the fight with your father. Didn't he get annoyed with you again?"
"Yeah. You two were leaving for Cuba for some conference the next morning, and he was angry because he thought I wasn't listening to his instructions about exactly how each plant was to be watered."
"The April drought had already begun."
Victoria shrugged. "Not that he would have been less insistent at some other time of year. Plants are more important than people."
In other circumstances, Iris would have protested that her stepdaughter's remark was unfair, but she kept quiet.
"He was wrong about me," said Victoria. "I took my responsibility to water and fertilize the plants very seriously, too seriously."
Iris knew her stepdaughter was close to tears, if only because her voice was so carefully modulated to betray no emotion. The glaze that kept her face smooth and impenetrable did not crack. Iris reached out to touch her arm. "Miguel's right. You shouldn't get upset."
"I survived what happened, so I guess I'll survive talking about it."
Iris wished she hadn't finished the crab salad. The restaurant might be chic, but the main ingredient of the sauce had tasted suspiciously like ordinary mayonnaise. No wonder it felt heavy on her stomach. Or maybe it was because after eight long years wondering what had gone wrong, she no longer wanted to know.
"You and my father left for the airport at dawn," said Victoria. We had all gone to bed late the night before. You told me not to get up, you would lock the front door."
Iris nodded though she didn't remember.
"By the time I woke up," Victoria continued, "it was a hot day, deep blue sky with a couple of puffy clouds. Exactly the type of scorcher that would kill the young seedlings. My instructions were to wait until after five in the afternoon, when the sun was low in the sky. I unwound the long hose and started at the bottom, soaking each plant thoroughly, as I worked my way up the hill toward the house. The sun must have gone behind a cloud. While I was watering the newly planted citruses, I felt a sudden chill, you know a tingle at the nape of the neck, like a warning. I looked up. He was there, standing tall about ten feet above me, watching. Our house was behind him, silhouetted against the sky, the door wide open as I had left it."
Victoria stopped. There were no tears in her eyes, but between the strange choking sounds from her throat she got out the words, "I guess you know what happened next."
Iris got up and held her close, but Victoria disengaged herself.
"I called my aunt. It took me hours to work up the courage. I thought he would come back and kill me. Now you know."
Victoria wiped her eyes roughly with her napkin as though annoyed with herself for not maintaining control. Iris wanted to reach out and gently wipe away the smudge of mascara under one eye, but was afraid to touch her.
"I'm so sorry. It's my fault for being so stupid, so insensitive to what was going on. Dios mio, Don Cheo's brother took us to the airport."
"I guess that's how Juanky knew I would be alone."
"Dime, Vicki, do you want me to tell your father?"
"He already knows."
"Are you sure?"
"My aunt told him. To let him know it was no use going to court to get me back. My aunt said she would counter sue for child neglect and reckless endangerment."
Iris sat very still. "This can't be true," she said. "He never told me. He lied to me. Oh my God. Your life was ruined, but I was blind, I didn't see, didn't suspect."
Victoria shrugged. "I got over it. My aunt took me to a psychiatrist. Then I joined a feminist group at the university. They were the ones that convinced me that it's still rape even if you're too terrified to resist much. I'm okay."
"If the three of us are to have any future, be a family again, I have to tell your father what I know."
"I'm not sure I want a future," said Victoria.
"What do you mean?"
"What I said. Besides, you won't tell him."
"I have to."
"That's what you say now. But when you get home, you won't tell him that he lied to you. It would make him unhappy. You've always been the good wife. Not like that evil bitch."
"What bitch? What are you talking about?"
"My mother. Isn't that what he calls her?"
Iris didn't answer. She held Victoria's eyes for a brief moment before her stepdaughter looked away. Victoria paid the bill, rejecting her stepmother's protests that it was her treat. The next moment they were outside the restaurant, in the midst of a stream of shoppers. Victoria gave her a hasty peck on the cheek and said she had to go.
Iris clutched her arm and asked her to please call when the baby comes.
"If you like, I'll call you," said Victoria. "But I don't want my father at the hospital."
Iris let go of her stepdaughter's arm. "I can't secretly visit you and the baby behind his back," she said, choking back tears.
"I'm sorry," said Victoria.
She leaned forward, kissed Iris on the cheek once more, and turned away, walking rapidly toward Macy's.
Iris stood and watched, sobbing openly now. Some shoppers looked at her curiously, but most passed by without a glance. She stood still until Victoria took the escalator and disappeared into the store.
The drive home to Morovis seemed longer than usual. Andres came out to greet Iris when she drove up the driveway. She told him Victoria was expecting. There was no use concealing the truth. If she didn't give him the news, someone else would.
"That's wonderful," said Andres. "Does she know the sex yet?"
"It's a boy."
Andres smiled. "I can just see him now. A little billy goat, jumping around the hills here on the farm."
Iris sighed. "That's the good news. The bad news is that Vicki doesn't want us in her life."
"She made you go all the way to San Juan to tell you that? What a little bitch. Just like her mother."
Iris said nothing.
Andres turned on his heel and went back into the house. Iris lingered a while outside, picturing Victoria watering the lemon tree, ten yards below the house. It had been a small sapling then, recently planted, a couple of feet high. In eight years it had become a full grown tree, its main trunk bent over to the ground by hurricane Georges.
She walked down and stood next to the tree, facing the house. A man stared down at her, his feet planted apart, his biceps bulging under his T-shirt, positioned midway between her and the open door. She screamed no, no, no, her hands clutching her head, pulling at the roots of her hair, but the film reel inside her head wouldn't stop until she curled her hand around a branch of the lemon tree, pressing down while the spines bored into her skin and the blood flowed.
When she got inside the house, she ran cold water over the cuts, applied a disinfectant, and put on a bandage. Andres was nowhere to be seen. He didn't emerge from his study until she called him for supper.
Andres didn't comment on her bandaged hand. After they had eaten in silence, he said, "Negra, don't be sad. You did your best. There's nothing more we can do. Children grow up different from what you expect. Believe me, being with you here on our farm is enough for me--it always has been and always will be."
Iris nodded, not trusting herself to answer. Her husband went to bed as usual at nine o'clock to get an early morning start. When he called her to come to bed, she pleaded a headache. She would have to stay up until the two Tylenols had kicked in.
Iris picked up a magazine from the coffee table, but the words made no sense to her. She walked to the hallway and paused in the doorway of the bedroom, listening to her husband's steady snore. Then she turned away and tiptoed into the guest room that had once been her stepdaughter's. Blackie the Bear was still lying between the two pillows, but his fur no longer smelled of Victoria.