Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
A Diamond as Big as the Palladium
Blanca’s aunt Vera seemed born with money. Her gestures, her voice, her social graces had been so well studied and cultivated that she could have fooled anyone who wasn’t familiar with her past. With her light skin, semi-blond hair, pale seagull blue eyes, she could easily pass herself off as something other than a woman born and raised in East Harlem. She spoke as if she had spent her formative years in some boarding school, walking around with a big lettered sweater tied around her shoulders.
Actually, Vera had barely graduated from Norman Thomas High School and hadn’t set foot in a building of higher education. Yet, she had successfully sold the notion to her circle of friends in Miami that she was a Barnard girl. Although she had told her friends in Miami she was coming to New York City because she had done the “trendy” thing of donating money to an inner city school, she really didn’t know how the donation was made. She assumed that her accountant must have donated it for her in order to get a tax break. What did she care? But she had to come alone otherwise her friends would discover her true origins.
She was coming back to her old neighborhood to gloat, to show her family what she had made of herself. Vera had reinvented herself, but unlike William Carlos Irizzary, now Willie Bodega, Veronica Linda Saldivia didn’t want to be considered Puerto Rican, hence the name, Vera.
Vera had married into a rich Cuban family in Miami who still kept all the pink slips of their nationalized lands in Cuba, along with the high hopes of reclaiming them once Castro was ousted or when he finally, finally would die. Vera was no longer a Saldivia but a Vidal. With that misleading last name she could easily pass herself off as some middle-aged Anglo woman who had a taste for shopping on Fifth Avenue, threw dinner parties, and loved big, expensive jewelry.
I’m not a person who likes to judge why people fall madly in love with some types of people because I don’t believe such things can be explained. It’s like chemistry, some elements are attracted to each other and it doesn’t matter that they can explode, it’s just the way it works.
So that day, I did as Bodega pleaded. I walked over to Vera who was outside talking with some teacher. Her posture was straight, her back formed a perfect right angle with the horizontal ground. When she talked, it was a prim and proper voice of someone who knew secrets about horses and country homes. And when you’d say something she thought was silly, she would laugh this phony laugh as if she was doing you a favor. She would repeat this laugh when someone else said something that she felt deserved her laugh.
“Julio?” Nazario said my name as if it was a question. As if he was surprised to see me. He appeared out of nowhere and stopped me just as I was about to introduce myself to Vera. He saved me the honor.
“This is Julio Mercado. He’s in college now and I’m hoping to get him to like law enough to maybe go to law school,” Nazario told Vera. Closer, I could see Vera’s face, it had a strong resonance of a once highly-prized beauty. Years ago the entire neighborhood must have gone mad for her. Even now, as she entered middle age she looked elegant and her earrings glorious. I thought of Blanca, and it made me happy. I had always believed that Blanca would become even more beautiful when she got older. Something about her features, eyes, hair, cheekbones, her entire body after having traveled for years would settle down like some quiet, transparent stream. She would be lovelier with age and I would be there with her, no matter what the pictures of her when young would tell me, I’d still love her and never trade the history we had together.
“It’s a pleasure,” I said, “actually we’re related,” and she made the gesture of someone who instead of saying thanks when being served by a waiter, only slightly moves the eyes slowly up and down, as if the attention is deserved.
“Are we?” Her delicate voice sounded like crystal.
“Yes, I’m married to Marisol’s daughter, Nancy.”
“That’s wonderful! Isn’t that wonderful.” She exclaimed, “Marisol’s daughter all grown up and married.” She drew near me and gave me a weak hug.
“Actually there is someone—” but I was interrupted by a teacher who wanted to shake Vera’s hand. It was recess, the children started streaming out to go play in the school yard, crowding the entrance to P.S. 72. I saw Nazario leave to speak with a heavy-set woman who looked like the principal. Then Nazario broke off his conversation and walked back towards us. After excusing himself, he asked Vera if she needed a cab back to her hotel. I knew this was my cue to usher Vera to the limo where Bodega waited.
“Actually there is someone that will drive you to your hotel,” I said.
“Oh no, no I’ll just find a cab. Don’t bother yourself on—” and then her face went white and I looked behind me to see what had alarmed her.
“William?” she whispered to herself. Bodega had gotten out of the car and was walking straight towards us.
“Veronica.” He looked miserable. His hands were in his pockets and his shirt collar was drenched with sweat. His face looked as if he was dying. Vera swallowed hard then drew herself up to her full height and regained her dignified composure.
“Well it’s absolutely wonderful to see you, William. How, how, how are the Lords?” I was happy to see her stumble. Nazario had just vanished as if he was a ghost and the three of us were left standing among school children.
“The wha?” Bodega got closer to her, cupping his ear as if he was deaf.
“The Lords, your friends, the Lords?” she said artificially, as if she had gone back to the data banks of her memory and could only come up with that reference. Bodega nervously lifted his head as if he now understood.
“Oh yeah, the Lords, yes, yes,” he said without really answering her. For a few seconds no one said anything.
“Let’s take a ride,” I said to break the horrible tension and to ease the way they kept avoiding looking at each other.
“Yes, yes let’s go around the city,” Bodega quickly agreed and Vera just followed him. When she saw the car her eyebrows shot up.
“It’s not rented,” Bodega blurted out, trying his best to complete his words. Making sure his pronunciations and endings were his best.
“I … I don’t use it much, you know. I still walk almost everywhere.”
“Is this really your automobile, William?” She seemed excited and Bodega took her approval as a triumph. His chest was a peacock. Vera turned her face towards me, “we haven’t seen each other for over twenty years.”
“21 years, three months, 14 days,” Bodega said and Vera laughed that laugh, but it made Bodega happy. The driver ushered us all into the car. When the doors were shut the coolness of the air-conditioned limo was a relief, but the stillness and silence made it possible for me to imagine Bodega’s heartbeat.
“I have something to show you.” His voice shook.
“I’m more than happy to see it,” she said.
“It’s not Miami, Veronica, but … “
She laughed that laugh again. “I really hate Miami, William. Despise it with a passion. Everything is so pink and blue.” Bodega smiled as if he had won another small battle. He must have believed that if he kept winning these tiny skirmishes, victory would eventually be his. After that, there was a long silence, so I thought I’d fill it in.
“I didn’t like Miami either,” I said. “I went to visit friends of mine, Ariel and Naomi, and man, that place was a mall wasteland. There was nothing else to do.” That wasn’t true. I had actually had a good time in Miami. Then the car pulled in front of my apartment building over on 111th between Lexington and Park. Bodega pressed a button and the tinted window slid robotically down to frame the five newly renovated tenements.
“I own those and others like those, all around the neighborhood. ” He saw her eyes tell him she didn’t understand what he meant by this.
“I’m in real estate.”
“Are those really yours?” She moved her body towards the window to take in the entire view. Her face glowed. “And you have others, you say?” She drew her body back to the seat and then looked at me for confirmation.
“He’s my landlord,” I said.
“No, they are not mine,” Bodega interrupted. “Veronica, they are for you. They’ve always been for you. Since you left I knew you’d come back someday and I wanted you to come back to something different.” She stared at him blankly and at that minute the chauffeur opened the door. He extended his hand to Vera who had to take her eyes off Bodega’s eyes long enough to get out of the car. Vera stepped out and we followed. Bodega looked around and took a deep breath as if he was smelling a rose rather than Spanish Harlem air.
“I have something to show you.” Bodega led us to a nearby newly renovated brownstone. We went inside. An art gallery was on the first floor and the three of us stepped in.
“You like art, right Veronica?”
“I saw a special on Channel 13 on that big museum in Moscow.”
“You still watch public television, William?” She laughed and drew out her hand for Bodega, who took it like a drowning man would a life saver. He felt a bit embarrassed about his television habits.
“Well, it helped me learn to read when I was a little kid. I remember you watched some of those shows too,” he said, smiling and pointing a finger at her as if he knew something she had forgotten.
“Yes, I’m afraid I did,” she confessed, nodding and smiling back at Bodega.
“Anyway, I saw a special on that big museum in Moscow,” returning to what he was going to tell her earlier.
“Which one?” Vera asked.
“The big one,” he said.
“You mean The Hermitage?”
“Yeah, that one.” He snapped his fingers and said “yeah, that one,” because he was embarrassed of his pronunciation and didn’t want to repeat the name.
“Yeah, the same exact one. Anyway, I learned that during the Russian Revolution, Lenin sent soldiers to look after the museum so that looters wouldn’t rob the place. That was something. He didn’t care about the Czar’s palace, looters were like all over the palace stealing silverware and stuff but he didn’t want the Russian people to lose their art. Wasn’t that something?” he asked her and she just shook her head and continued to be amazed.
“The second, third and fourth floors is where the artists live, ” he said to her.
“William, you, a patron? That’s … That’s …” She couldn’t find the words to describe her disbelief.
“That’s right,” he said, liking the sound of it. “I’m a patron. This gallery is for painters from the neighborhood. It’s the neighborhood’s art. I got the idea from Taller Boricua,” he said proudly.
“You’re still the same, William. Still the idealist, huh?” Still holding hands they began to swing them together, slowly side to side and not saying anything.
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” I said, thinking it was better to leave them alone. “I’ll tell Nancy that you’re in town. Maybe the two of you could see each other before you leave.”
“Yes, I would like that very much. I held her once when she was a child.” She extended her free hand towards me. Her shake was weak and delicate. Her blue eyes held mine for a second. Then I extended my hand for Bodega who all of a sudden had a worried look. He shook it in disbelief that I was leaving. I knew he wanted to tell me something but couldn’t. I waited a few seconds to see if he was going to tell me, and when he didn’t utter a sound, I walked out.
“Wait, I have to speak with you!” Letting go of Vera’s hand with no apologies he followed me outside. For the first time Bodega had acknowledged my existence. All this time he hadn’t taken his eyes off Vera and talked right through me as if I was a dust particle. I hadn’t really cared much about it only in that it was bad manners. Then without even excusing himself, Bodega just trailed out to get me.
“Where you going?” he whispered to me as if he didn’t want Vera to hear him, which was impossible because she was inside.
“I live right there.” I pointed.
“You can’t just leave me, that’s not cool.” He was now sweating again, like a prisoner in a chain gang.
“What’s not cool is you leaving Vera all alone in the art gallery. That’s what’s not cool and you know wha—”
“Don’t talk so loud,” he interrupted me.
“Look man, Vera, she is as nervous as you. I could hear her heart beating inside the car,” I lied.
“Her heartbeat? You heard her heartbeat? You sure?”
“Nah pana, she’s just as nervous as you. So just go back inside there and tell her exactly what you always wanted to.”
He didn’t say anything to me. He looked down at the cement, shook my hand in agreement and walked back to the gallery, back to Vera.
I went inside my building and took the elevator up. When I got to my apartment, I took off my suit and fell asleep. I don’t know when it happened, how long I was out, but a loud knock interrupted my sleep. At first I thought I was dreaming. But when my eyes opened and I saw the ceiling, I knew for sure I was awake. I went to open the door.
“Happy New Year, Julio!” Vera yelled all silly and sloppy, it all being attributed to the champagne bottle she had in her hand.
“You’re being drafted. Here.” Bodega pushed a Dom Perignon to my chest. “It’s a new year. It’s a new life.”
“Oh let’s go to Central Park, Izzy. I miss Central Park. You will join us, won’t you, Julio?”
“Well I have a class later tonight and was hoping to get some sleep—”
“Nah, you coming with us.” Bodega interrupted. “You’ll get enough sleep when yo’r dead.”
“I guess things went well,” I muttered to myself.
“Is my niece home? I would like to meet her, beside there’s enough champagne for all the Saldivias, isn’t there Izzy?” She gulped some down her throat so fast that a stream of champagne came running down the side of her mouth. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t a Saldivia, I was a Mercado and that Blanca was now a Mercado, too, but then I thought that was silly and just pure stupid pride, so I stayed quiet.
“Champagne for all the Saldivias, right Izzy?” She laughed. Bodega laughed with her.
“A warehouse full, Veronica.” Then to me, “Pana, when are you going to open that bottle?”
“I don’t know,” I said tilting the bottle a bit, pretending to be studying the label. Not that I would know what I was reading, all bottles of champagne are the same to me.
“Um, Nancy is at work and she is expecting so I shouldn’t—”
“Expecting! My niece is expecting, now that calls for more champagne. You have to tell her I must see her. Dying to see her.” She leaned against the wall, pushed her head back, lifted her bottle and served herself a few streams. “Dying to see her,” she gasped just like a person who exaggerates small things.
“Come on, Chino,” Bodega goaded me. His tie was loose and his shirt was wrinkled. Vera’s dress was in worse shape. Her mascara had smeared completely, as if she had been crying a lot.
“Chino?” She laughed that laugh again. “They call you Chino? My niece is married to a Chino? Que bonito Y pronto van a tener un Chinito.” She laughed hysterically as if she had just told a good joke. “Un chinito, que lindo. Get it?” It had been the first time I had heard her speak Spanish. It sounded good and natural, just like her English. As if she were two people.
“Come with us bro!” Bodega placed his arms around my shoulder.
“Yes, please do come,” Vera interjected.
“Where you guys going again, Central Park?” I didn’t want to go but had no way of getting rid of them. I wanted to ask them how old they were, just out of spite. But I then thought that people in love should act however they want. Especially Bodega and Vera, who I realized just then were from a different time. A time when young people believed the world could never defeat them and that they could bring change.
I pictured Bodega back in those days so young, flying with invisible wings. Thinking that freeing an island from US control could be done with passion and intellect. I pictured Bodega gazing into the eyes of a teenage Veronica and telling her that nothing could be better than the two of them just lying in the Central Park grass, holding each other and merely existing. I pictured Veronica going home to meet her friends on the stoops to talk about her liberator, this Izzy. Her liberator who was first going to free her from her mother, then free Puerto Rico and later, they would both sail back to America like conquistadors in reverse roles. They would arrive in New York Harbor and Latinos from all the five boroughs would be there to greet them. I pictured her telling all this to her friends until they were so sick and tired of it that Veronica herself began to question her liberator, until the day arrived when she gave Bodega the ultimatum, the Young Lords or her.
“Yes, Central Park sounds good and then maybe to the Palladium later tonight, Izzy?” She whispered the last part.
“Wherever you want to go,” Bodega told her and then took a swig. “Just imagine it and I will take you there.”
Vera was right. Bodega was still the same, believing in dreams. Believing that he could recapture what had been lost, stolen, or denied to him and his people. As if the past was recyclable and all he had to do was collect enough cans to make a fortune and pay for a rewind. When they arrived at my place all smashed and plastered, I felt happy for them. Especially for Bodega. His cellular phone, which must have been tucked somewhere in his blazer, kept ringing but he never heard it. He was living in a universe of two. Feeling invulnerable as if he had never been that young before.
“I hope you guys know that the Palladium doesn’t exist anymore. They tore it down.” I have no idea why I said that to them because it was a stupid thing to say, and considering I was the only sober one I should have been the one with insight.
“Oh pooh,” she said and then got happy again, “Let’s just go, go, go anywhere and do silly things and drink a little more and I want you to teach me how to smoke a joint. You never wanted to teach me how to smoke a joint, Izzy. You said you were going to teach me how to roll and smoke but you’d always put if off.”
“I’m sorry I was stupid back then, I thought that women shouldn’t smoke joints.” When he said this her eyes lit up.
“Do you have guns, Izzy?” A spark of mischievousness lifted her eyebrow.
“Guns?” Bodega was lost. “Why guns?”
“I want to learn how to fire a gun,” she said.
“I always wanted to . Like wanting to roll a joint.” Bodega smiled as if this had been a part of Vera’s street heritage that had been denied to her. A piece of her being that had been dormant all these years, and it would be he who would tenderly kiss it and make it come alive again.
“I always wanted to,” she repeated. “And now I’m back.”
“Yes, now you’re back,” he said, and for the first time they stopped talking loudly and just stared at each other.
“Yes, now I’m back,” she said softly and she took off her wedding ring. A big beautiful rock that forced you to wear shades when looking at it. A glare that blinded you and brought dreams of sunsets and golden sands. Like her earrings, it too was glorious.
“Keep it, ” she said handing it to me. My heart jumped.
“I can’t take this,” I said to her, knowing full well I could. The ring was still warm from the heat of her hand. All I knew was I had never held anything that expensive in my life.
“I don’t want it. I never did,” she said turning her face away from me and towards Bodega.
“Take it!” Bodega said to me. “I will buy her one bigger than that. One with a diamond as big as the Palladium.”
Then they faced each other and for a second I thought they had reached that stage of intoxication where silliness gives way to melancholy and self pity. When everything and nothing brings you sadness. They embraced and I thought that they would sob any minute. But then they broke apart and started to walk away from me as if I had never been there. They walked down the stairs holding hands, taking gulps of champagne and singing, “En mi casa toman Bustelo! En mi casa toman Bustelo!” They sang, drank, laughed, and laughed some more.
—Ernesto Quiñonez was raised in Spanish Harlem. He is a graduate of the City College of New York where he studied under Walter Mosely and Frederic Tuten. He was the recipient of the Jerome Lowell Dejur award and the Irwin Stark Award for fiction and was chosen as one of the “Writers On the Verge” by the Village Voice. His novel, La Bodega Sold Dreams, will be published by Vintage in March of 2000.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.