Outside the Window.
Claridad. Fragments of her Spanish keep elbowing in, jarring her thoughts. Not many things are clear and so she has to focus on the few that are. Basta. She closes her eyes. She is drawing up lists again, knowing it often leads to the loss of the first two or three on the list as she moves to number four. The first one, then. It is Margaret. Claro.
Claro is what Spaniards say when they agree with you. That she can recall, effortlessly. Claro. She has said it herself so many times. In Sevilla. To Sevillanos in the shops, in the narrow streets of the barrio de Juderia, up on her roof terrace, the one overlooking La Plaza de Dona Elvira. The terrace where Maribel, their servant, hung the laundry on a blue cord, two wooden pins in her mouth, fastening a shirt against the wind. A blue shirt, Robert's, and that tower looming behind Maribel, the Cathedral tower. La Giralda, it was, something about a turning, the bronze statue on top, turning in the same breeze that pushed the blue shirt into Maribel's face. And then?
Margaret is first. But what is second on the list? She narrows her eyes. The second one: each week in this place, watching the Venetian blinds slicing the afternoon sun into parallel bars that creep slowly up the walls, and hearing the thrashing of Canada geese taking off from Watkin's Pond behind the building, she is growing smaller. This place. Where cars and geese send into her room flickerings of bird life, of the hidden lives of strangers driving by in their Hondas. The most stolen car in the U.S., she read somewhere, probably in Reader's Digest, Large Print. Perhaps some of these strangers riding in their widely-coveted machines are distracted, thinking of the struggles of their pre-teen in middle school. Call her Molly, say, or of their next paycheck. They glance at the building on the right, then look away, not caring to reflect even for a few seconds on what might be in there. Inside the beige brick walls with windows that don't let in enough light. Her window, for instance. And so the stranger behind the wheel looks away, drives forward while grimacing at the projected cost of Molly's upcoming orthodontia program. Claro.
She is losing the thread again. It is unwise to enter the lives of strangers, she knows. Especially when these lives are based on the distant droning of automobiles. There is no Molly, she has to remind herself, and so how could there be a problem with Molly's teeth?
This she does know. Each hour in her bed a thin hand silently pulls her skin a little tighter. Invisible tucks are sewn in her cheeks while she sleeps. And here it is again, the thought she is trying to hold onto. She is getting smaller.
Her arms already are a bit shorter than when she first came. Now these same arms, once sinewy and strong and tennis-tanned by the suns of three different continents, are more willing to rest at her side, fingertips pointed up, wrists relaxed. Her breathing a quiet suspiration. Less of her in the bed, she thinks. But more of something. Something she can't put her finger on, perhaps more of these glimpses from her past waiting for her to rummage through, as if from an old shoe box in a dusty attic.
Sevilla again. She is young, twenty-six, impossibly young. Striding past the Cathedral on a Sunday morning, the pigeons suddenly erupting from the Cathedral's Patio de los Naranjos to fly in circles around its great Moorish tower. When the bells up there start to ring she can hear them anywhere in the city, even over the click-click of her high heels on the small round stones of the sidewalk. She passes again clusters of men, their shirts open at the throat, leaning against white-washed walls, smoking. They hiss at her for attention, murmuring, mejor sin pantalones. Better without pants.
She smiles back brightly, her Spanish clear, but of an origin not theirs. Your cojones are dried grapes. Their eyes blink, narrow to slits of malice. She rides the clicks of her heels away from them, and she hears the bells again. The tolling bells are dark birds that alight on the red-tiled rooftops. Sprays of purple weeds thrive in the cracks of the tiles. The white walls of the barrio de Juderia are stained with streaks of wet soil from the flower pots on the window sills. She is standing on her terrace once more, overlooking the Alcazar, the walled gardens beyond. Tourists are already lining up at the wrought iron gate of La Puerta del Leon. Her hands grip the railing as she looks toward the brown hills to the south. The hills hide the olive groves behind them, which stretch all the way to Cadiz, to the blue Golfo de Cadiz. She looks up to see tiny figures parachuting from a circling plane. Paracaidistas. It must be some army exercise, and this is the army of General Franco, who is still alive, scarcely believable, the old dictator has to be eighty. Shrunken, a tiny mummy, but still in Madrid, lording over Spain forever. Or so it seems to their friends Julio and Adriana, who are waiting for Franco to die and for something new to happen to Spain. Something good for a change. But they are not optimistic.
Julio. He is not on her list of items to remember. Not at all. But there he is, watching with her the paracaidistas spiraling gently down to the green and brown hills beyond the Maria Luisa Park. Count them, Julio says. He points at the single airplane pulling its droning away from them, toward the sun. She shades her eyes with her left hand. With her right she points. Cinco, seis, siete, ocho... No mas, she says. Julio nods. She knows her Spanish is better than his English, but he wants to practice.
So high they are, she says. What can they see? Cadiz? The Sea?
Julio squints, lines up the English words first. Then says, They look at their boots. At the ground coming up. Between their boots the pine trees grow big.
Can they smell the orange trees?
Julio takes her left hand away from her forehead and places it around his waist and kisses her just over her eye and then on her face and lips. She knows all this is unwise because she likes Adriana and often goes shopping with her in the mercado, selecting the pork chops in the meat section. Where the old woman they keep returning to cuts the chops with a cleaver and lays them out on the marble slab stained with dried blood. She tries not to notice the flies on the meat, pays for the chops and vows to overcook them that night. Let them simmer slowly until they shrink into tiny chunks of browned flesh you could hardly identify as pig.
And Robert likes them that way, and tells her he always prefers her cooking to Maribel's, who is on loan from one of Robert's colleagues in the Consulate down by the brown water of the Guadalquivir. Strange to have a servant. Her fellow Americans are uncomfortable with servants but soon resign themselves when they see the washing machines in the rented apartments of the barrio, so small they resemble a child's toy. Her own washer can take only a few shirts at a time, some underwear, and then it clanks and revolves slowly. The wet mass Maribel carries in a wicker basket to the roof terrace, hangs up on a blue cord, squinting against the glare of the sun. But the sun dries them quickly. There is always sun in Sevilla, and up on this same roof terrace, with Robert's underwear pinned to the lines and snapping in the breeze, is where Julio first kisses her, and then asks her to step down to his own apartamiento. Adriana is not at home, Julio says. She is visiting her sister across the Guadalquivir in Los Remedios.
Claro, she says, and walks down the stairs past the green door of her and Robert's apartment, to the one below, and then into Julio and Adriana's bedroom, the walls lined with photographs of his parents. His father wears an army uniform and seems to scowl at her. The uniform of the Blue Legion, Julio whispers. Franco's gift to Hitler. His father never returned from the Russian Front. Nunca. Julio guides her away from his father's eyes, gestures to the bed. She lies down. Is it Adriana's side of the bed? Julio steps out of his gray slacks and maroon sweater and lies down beside her and they can hear Robert's footsteps on the floor above them so Julio moves quickly and she pulls at the tense muscles bunched along his lower spine forcing him into her and then it is over. Claro.
They have rearranged certain things, forced a new clarity on their lives, four lives, really. And on Sevilla. A city she will remember just this way, with the sound of children playing in the streets below, and their mothers calling to them from balconies, and the bells from La Giralda leaking in the open window, past the terra cotta pots of geraniums on the sill, past Julio's dresser and Adriana's ebony armoire. Into their bed where Julio, unsatiated still, pushes his black mustache back and forth across her groin while she listens to Robert's footsteps overhead move to the kitchen, perhaps to check on the dinner she has started. To poke at the pork chops with her favorite fork, the one with the scorched wooden handle. To see if they are browning in just the right, slow way.
And now the odor of meat enters her nose, her room too close, really, to the kitchen. She must remember to request a change. It couldn't be too much trouble for the staff. For Ms. Pickett, with her half-moon glasses and her way of pretending to look you in the eye while her mind races off down the corridor to other residents, other problems. And here is where Robert had been so good to her, rich in advice he rarely took. Robert told her that you must be assertive or you will be taken advantage of by all kinds of people, many of them well meaning. Such people, Robert implied, were the most insidious because they could make you feel guilty for your polite requests, your mild demeanor. Ah, such a lady you are! Robert would say in their apartment, nuzzling her neck, the apartment that pleased him so with its tiled floor, its balcony leaning over the street below. She smiled and pressed her cheek against his ear and thought of Julio who once lived downstairs, but moved with Adriana to Madrid the year before, transferred to the main office of Danone. To preside over truckloads of yogurt from Madrid instead of from Sevilla. And Robert never knew of her visits downstairs, her furtive steps past the face of the dead father in his tight uniform, waiting for her with his scowl. Past Adriana's dresser lined with her silver-covered brushes, combs, and into the bed with the lumps and hollows in the mattress that her own hips never made.
Adriana knew, though. Months after she and Julio moved to Madrid a package arrived, no return address, no note. A yellow cardboard box. Perhaps it once held a scarf, a mantilla. But now, in Sevilla, she opens the yellow box and a silver anklet spills into her hand, the tiny links broken. And this is her own anklet, the one she had lost in Julio's bed and missed too late, lost in the sheets with Julio's naked feet, his face stern, his narrowed eyes looking at her face below him, his dark eyebrows just meeting above his nose. Again his swift release, his eyes glazing but mouth tight, jawbones pushing against the tight blue shadow of his skin. His moment of pleasure is almost soundless, the glazed tile walls of the room a stone container for their breaths. Her moans are muffled by the Cathedral bells coming in over the balcony, always like birds.
Claro. But these are not the thoughts on her list, there is something else, a visitor perhaps, someone to prepare herself for. Of course, it is her daughter, her Margaret, born in Istanbul. Margaret with Robert's nose, his ears. A tiny Margaret wrapped in towels. Brought into the world by Muslim doctors who spoke to the nurses in guttural Turkish, while the nurses wiped up the blood with blue cloths. She can still see the pile of blue cloths stacked next to a birthing table that could tilt. Was it made of wood?
I was thinking of you.
I thought you were asleep.
Do you remember any Turkish words?
Turkish. Let me think. Meribah. Hello. That's about it. Who did your hair?
Rosa, I think. One of them. They like it when I say something in Spanish.
You're the queen here.
I'm forgetting words. I keep saying claro.
I forget words too. Do you want an update on Mary?
Mary. Yes. How is she?
OK. Confused. Backtalk, secrets from school.
It's normal for her age.
Her father calls her. Always at night, when she should be studying. Long talks, whispers. She thinks I listen in on the kitchen phone.
At least he calls. Some just disappear.
Margaret nods, but frowns. The honking of the geese comes through the open window. Margaret crosses her legs, eyes her pocketbook, which she has propped against a stack of Reader's Digest issues.
You want to smoke.
I could use one, Margaret says.
Why doesn't Mary come see me?
She says she smells pee. Not in your room, I mean. In the corridor. Of course, there's no smell. The place is clean. But once she gets something into her thick head.
It's all right. Does she read my notes?
She opens them in her room. Don't expect any sharing on that point.
She must be taller now. Jack was tall. Good genes he gave, at least.
That's about all. I'd like to see some big bucks along with those genes.
Try not to be bitter. It can poison you. You have a good nature.
The real Margaret. You were so tiny in Turkey. Do you remember anything?
I remember blue water, big ships with rust on them, anchored close to land. I remember narrow streets and Dad walking me up steps. Men bowing on rugs, in rows.
He probably took you to the Blue Mosque. Or the Suleymaniye. The biggest. Fewer tourists there.
Whatever. Religion didn't rub off on me.
Well, that was Islam. You have to hear it in the streets to feel it. The call for evening prayers. Stunning, even to me. The streets become silent. No one talks. You sense something beyond us. All these silent faces around you. Human faces, like us. Something we all hope for but won't admit. And then the voice stops. The chatter of the streets returns, car horns beep. But we're changed somehow. Something like this ought to be in our lives, don't you think?
You always said so. You ought to hear what Mary brings home from school about religion. They're all phonies, bigots, and so on. Motormouth. She knows it all.
I'd like to see her.
I'll work on it.
I think I'm smaller.
You keep saying that. You've lost some weight. That's all. It's natural. Maybe good. Less to carry around.
I don't do much carrying.
You do the exercises. They tell me you're good, one of the best. And your hearing is still sharp.
I hear the geese. What are they doing?
Margaret goes to the window, takes in the pond, the geese strutting on the grass, nipping at clumps. The sound of traffic beyond the pond. She watches a few cars slowing for a red light. The brakes light up the dusk.
There're about fifteen of them, walking around, Margaret says. No one's in the water. Now a biggie is chasing one, sticking his neck out. A scrapper.
I hear them in the morning. They're up first, before people.
They're here for good. The hell with migrating. Dirty birds. Hanging out on the golf courses, eating grass. Crapping on the greens.
The revenge of the grass widows.
That's good. But you were never a grass widow.
Your father didn't like golf, true. Just the horses. He'd tell me what he was going to bet, but when he left for the window I knew he'd bet twice that. You could see it in his eyes.
He couldn't hide things. He never liked Jack. Saw through him, maybe. You're looking tired.
You have to go?
I should be back.
Say hello to Mary.
I'll get her here somehow.
Short of at gun-point, I hope.
Short of that.
The geese are honking. She closes her eyes and sees one sticking out its neck, hissing. Do they have tongues? They must. A good question, but one she won't have an opportunity to answer, unless she remembers to ask Margaret. Put it on the list? The geese are quieting down. And now Robert comes back, his seersucker suit wrinkled, racing tickets in hand. Pimlico, it was. A stroke, waiting on line for the Trifecta. While she, his binoculars clamped to her face to hide her boredom, scanned the horses being led to the gate. The stately walk of the horses, their heads shrouded in silk. Pink, chartreuse. The ice-blue of Robert's eyes. But Robert is not on the list. Not now, Robert.
She sorts through the list, trying to find number one. Claro. What was it she had said to Margaret about the need for something greater than ourselves. Did she believe that?
She did once. Certainly in Spain, on those days before Easter when the men carried rival statues of the Virgin through the streets of Seville, the bands playing, the army officers stiff-backed. The soldiers were teenagers with acne, draftees. Uniforms rumpled, their footsteps out of synch. And so many Virgins, all dressed in gowns sewn with pearls. The Virgin of Esperanza, her favorite. Que bella! The Sevillanos from the barrio of the Macarena would shout out, wail like Arabs. Bella, bella\ The Virgin of Esperanza weeps tears of translucent enamel on her cheeks as she mourns for her lost Son, her head tipped forward in permanent grief. Inconsolable grief.
Robert, Julio, and she stand in the dark streets, waiting for the Virgin of Esperanza to pass by, hearing the band getting louder. Julio describes the workers who bear on their shoulders the weight of the great float's silver candlesticks, baroque urns, embossed shields. Made from silver extracted from Mexican mines four centuries before. The workers lift the float at three commands called out by their leader who walks backward, eyes on the float following him. The float rises, shudders. The Virgin's rosary beads sway in small arcs from her outstretched fingers. The trumpets blow their harsh notes high above the crowded balconies. Only the feet of the workers, encased in worn jogging shoes, are visible beneath the float.
Around the corner comes the Virgin, and Julio presses his hip against hers. Robert's face looks left at the Virgin and she feels Julio's lips against her right ear, here in the crowded streets. But she does nothing. She keeps looking at Robert's turned-away face, the street lit up by the hundreds of candles mounted on the float, the silver surfaces gleaming in the night. She watches Robert's neatly trimmed nape, the blue collar she ironed herself two days before. The wisps of brown hair above his ear caught in the candle light.
The Virgin rides her float past them and only then does Julio pull back from her neck and gaze up at the silken canopy over the Virgin's head just inching itself under a stone arch. Que bella, he whispers, his eyes on the Virgin's brocade-covered shoulders, his back now to Robert. Julio crosses himself.
What is it that she did believe, then, in Sevilla? Hard to tell now, with the geese honking below the window. This she knows. She had a secret life. She used to walk through the streets, duck into one of the churches, slide across the polished wood of a pew and watch the candles flicker in the darkness. A woman's religion. Everyone there was a woman, black-shawled, head bowed, fingering a rosary. Some cleaned the marble steps of the altar on their knees, some polished the silver candlesticks as high as their heads. But most prayed, eyes on the Virgin, whom they saw was like them. Sad-eyed, grieving, bearing a sense of disappointment in men, their recklessness, their gestures of anger, the way they roared for blood in the Maestranza bullring next to the Guadalquivir. Perhaps their men drank too much rioja, displaying their discouragement for all to see by slumping against the poster-covered walls of the barrio, heads down, their fingers stained with tobacco. The Virgin understands the loneliness of women, never fails to forgive their despair.
Or at least that is what she thought inside the churches in the afternoons, when Robert was still in his office at the Consulate, and her fingertips caressed the edge of the pew in small circles. Behind her closed eyelids these same fingertips moved through the curled hairs of Julio's wrist.
When you sleep you move your fingers. Do you know that?
What day is it?
Friday. School's out. Guess who's here?
She opens her eyes, smiles. Mary is leafing through a magazine, flipping the pages. She has pushed her chair against the wall, under the window. Too much lipstick.
So nice to see you, Mary.
Mary looks up at her grandmother, glances back at the magazine.
I'm supposed to be going out tonight. To the movies.
There's plenty of time, Margaret says.
And what are they teaching you now? You're in seventh grade, right?
A bunch of stuff. I'm good in math, I think. The rest is a waste.
I know you didn't get math genes from your grandmother.
Count me out as well, Margaret says.
We're doing these projects in religions. Some kids have to dress up like shepherds. They read speeches.
The idea is to teach tolerance, Margaret says. Something we could all use a bit of. She nods at Mary, who frowns.
Like they're all the same. Religions and stuff, Mary says, turning a page in her magazine. Her grandmother lifts herself off the pillow, leans on her left elbow.
Ah, but they're not all the same, Mary. They're very different. So they can appeal to different people, maybe.
Margaret is watching the geese. She turns to look at her mother, who is recalling the early mornings in Istanbul. The sound of mullahs crying out for prayers. The minarets sticking up like knitting needles over the rooftops, against the line of blue water that begins the Sea of Marmara.
Do you remember the mosques? She looks at Margaret.
Not Turkey again. I was only four or so.
Margaret glances at Mary, who continues to turn pages.
Well, when we came back once, from Tunisia, you were six. My father died when I was six. I can still see his face. It no longer upsets me to see him. It's nice to see him in the nights here, before the sun comes up. I think when I can't see him I'll know I'm gone.
Do they show you movies here? They should, Mary says, lowering her magazine, which has pictures on the cover of hair styles, braids of blonde hair as delicate as a finch's nest.
She eases herself back on the pillow, folds her arms under the sheet, inhales deeply. She looks at her daughter, then her granddaughter. Mary's hair is not magazine-blonde but black, like her father's. Like a Turk's. She thinks of the Turkish men who filled the tables on the narrow streets outside restaurants. Eating meatballs of lamb, their wives at home with the children. No women at the tables except herself, facing Robert. No women walking in the streets at night. But Robert would walk with her, and the dark eyes of the men at the tables would note their passing, nod with respect for the foreigner. But if she were to walk alone through the same streets, what would the dark eyes think?
She can smell meat. Now she hears the clinking of water glasses on moving carts.
Looks like they want to serve supper, Margaret says. Mary stands up, still holding her magazine. She stretches, looks at her grandmother on the bed.
When you see your dad, Mary says, what does he look like?
I thought you wanted to go to the movies, Margaret says.
When I see him, he has a mustache, and there are wrinkles around his eyes, just here.
She puts her finger next to her eye, tracing a line to her temple.
Does your father speak? Mine does, but sometimes I can't see his face in my head. Like when he's on the phone.
No, my father doesn't speak. It's enough to see him.
The smell of food is stronger, but she is not hungry. Margaret is putting on her raincoat, Mary casts aside the magazine of hair styles.
Remember to eat, Margaret says. I'll see you Sunday.
Yes, she smiles. To keep up the strength. And Mary.
Mary turns back at the door.
Don't let them tell you they're all the same. Mary waves at her, disappears behind the closing door.
Because they aren't, she thinks, and closes her eyes and she is on that street in Istanbul, the one winding past their favorite restaurant, where the men, eating falafel in small groups, always nod to Robert, who is known to be connected to the American Consulate. Robert whispers to her that he is more respected around these tables than at his office. It is dark. She walks with Robert, holding his arm and scanning the wet cobblestones for cracks wide enough to catch one of her heels. She glances up at the dome of the Blue Mosque and feels for the first time her betrayal of this mild and harmless man whose arm she clings to to avoid damaging her new shoes. The street seems endless, but she knows it will pass no silent churches with Virgins and silver candles, only a small mosque where a few men touch their foreheads to prayer mats, one or two electric bulbs hanging over them. No place for her to hide. She closes her eyes, tightens her grip on Robert's arm. Lets her feet flow without direction. She vows that the child she is carrying, which she knows to be Robert's, she will raise as a wall against memories of Julio, so distant in Madrid, sleeping next to Adriana, her old shopping friend, who once found a silver anklet. Poor Robert never guessed. His bafflement at being passed over once more for promotion dulled his alertness to her moods, her strange haunting of churches in the hot Sevilla afternoons when most napped indoors. Robert, who urged firmness on her, but could not muster enough for himself. In time only the surge of a race horse toward the finish line would arouse Robert's passion, brighten his blue eyes. He would place his redemption in the hands of chance. Not for Robert was the cunning betrayal of a colleague, the mask of a smile to present at Consulate gatherings. The necessary calculations of who needs to be pleased, and who can be spurned with impunity.
And Adriana. She will keep her silence. She will not confront her husband, holding up for his closer view a silver anklet dangling between her thumb and forefinger. Perhaps this last renunciation by Adriana is what she prayed for to the Virgin of Esperanza in the church in Macarena, the same Virgin who herself had not stopped weeping in four hundred years. If this was her prayer then the Virgin has answered it, her enameled tears flowing afresh. The Virgin's voice is just outside her room, not far, speaking in the tongues of geese. Claro. Her hearing is still good. She smiles, the list is complete.
She will eat. To keep up the strength. When Mary returns she will ask her about the movie she saw. Then she will ask Mary what her father says to her late at night on the phone. What advice he gives, what worries he shares with Mary in those phone calls while her mother, Margaret, inhales cigarette smoke downstairs in the kitchen and blows circles at the ceiling.
It is time to let Robert come in. Robert will be waiting outside the room, distracted, pacing, while his thoughts turn to stables, the dark recesses of horse stalls where hints from grooms can be gleaned. Robert drinks in the scent of manure, of sweat-stained saddles mounted in rows. His polished shoes are at home in the matted straw beneath him. He scribbles numbers on a pad sealed in embossed Tunisian leather. A gift, in fact, from her. But he has forgotten this. His suit is wrinkled, his bow tie tilted below the plane of his shoulders. She sees his blue eyes widen with surprise at her call. Robert. Robert.
And now the odor of cooked meat approaches the polished chrome railing of her bed like a visitor.