A return to Panama and a life left behind
By Cristina Henríquez
February 1, 2011
Melli hadn’t been back to Panama in six years. But when her mother died in April, it was time. Her brother Jaime had texted her early in the week: “Mami’s in the hospital. She has dengue.” Melli had written back: “What is dengue?” Jaime said: “I had it last year. A blood thing. Don’t worry. She’ll be fine.” And then, later in the week, a beep from her phone on her bedside table woke Melli up in the middle of the night. It was April, and already a robust heat clumped in the air. She was wearing a tank top and cotton underwear, and the blades from the ceiling fan she had installed herself swirled overhead like octopus arms, fluttering one corner of the bedsheet. Groggily, she cradled the phone in her hand. “1 message received.” She clicked. It was from Jaime. It said: “Mami’s gone.”
Everything looked different when she arrived. The airport was bright and new, with duty-free shops selling perfumes and large bottles of alcohol and glittering watches. There were highways where before there had been only pitted roads. Buildings she used to recognize had been torn down to make way for the skeletons of new buildings that promised to be taller and more extravagant and more vapid. Even the people looked different, she thought, as she watched them from the backseat of Jaime’s car. The women wore fashionable scarves and carried diminutive designer handbags, and the men sported cotton piqué polos and driving mocs instead of linen guayaberas and oxblood loafers.
“That’s my building,” Alfonso, her oldest brother, said, gesturing toward a towering bank building with green glass windows. “I work on the tenth floor.”
“And what’s that?” Melli asked about the broad white structure next to it, reaching her arm over his shoulder so he could see where she was pointing.
“That’s Multicentro. The mall. We have another one, too. Multiplaza. Multiplaza is the one everyone goes to now. It has better stores. Louis Vuitton, Adidas, Ben Betesh.”
Melli nodded, amazed and dumbfounded, and watched it all go by.
When they got to the house, even it looked different. The mint green paint over its façade had faded until it was nearly white. The potted plants that had once lined the perimeter of the patio, their stems and branches supported by wooden sticks and twine, were gone. The furniture inside was the same as it had always been, but there was less of it now, it seemed, and the house felt larger because of it. Jaime carried Melli’s suitcase to his bedroom, where she would sleep in his bed while he took the couch.
“Your room is out of the question,” he said, opening the door to her former bedroom to reveal a space crammed from floor to ceiling with boxes and baskets and a plastic hamper and folded table linens and patio chairs and bags of hangers and a television set and piles upon piles of their mother’s clothes that she had long ago outgrown but had refused to part with.
“You’ve been using it as a closet,” Melli said.
“It’s just all the stuff we never use,” Jaime said.
“Why didn’t you get rid of it?”
Jaime shrugged. “I guess we thought one day we might need it again.”
After receiving Jaime’s text, Melli called Paul and asked him to come over. She had met him two months earlier, in a bar, when he impressed her by asking her to dance. Melli hated dancing, but she liked being asked, so they engaged in some sort of salsa-foxtrot-mambo while Paul told her that he had taken lessons the year before because of a girlfriend who had been obsessed with Dancing With the Stars. “A dance studio’s not usually my scene,” he said, as he spun her, “but I’ll basically do anything athletic. I love sports.” Melli had not wanted to admit her lack of interest in sports, so without a word she kept dancing. After another minute Paul said, “Hey, you’re pretty good at this. I think we’re a pair.” He had a nice smile and at the time Melli had thought, Maybe we are.
Melli perched herself on the edge of her bed and waited in her underwear for Paul’s knock at the door. Six years earlier she had left Panamá and come to Rice University in Texas on a fellowship that covered her tuition and provided a small stipend for living expenses. She never had enough money to fly back to Panamá, and neither of her brothers nor her mother ever had enough money to come her way. Even phone calls were expensive, and gradually they became more infrequent—first, every Sunday, then every other, then one Sunday a month, then sporadic and uncommon. Melli emailed Alfonso at work once, but he hadn’t written her back, and weeks later, during the next phone call, he explained that he wasn’t allowed to send or receive personal emails at work and that his bosses were very strict about it and so could she please not do it again because he didn’t want to be fired. He said it in a scolding tone and, on the other end of the line, Melli had felt hot-faced with embarrassment and said she was sorry. Jaime, who had always been kinder, was an actor at a small theater company off Transistmica, so he didn’t have email, but he suggested she text him once in a while. If she wanted, he said. And she did. But like the phone calls, those too dwindled over time. Melli didn’t like their brevity, which felt like a cheap way of keeping in touch, and found it preferable often not to send anything at all. Jaime only sent her messages now when it was something important.
At the sound of the knock, Melli walked with bare feet to the front door of her studio apartment and peered through the peephole. Paul was standing in the carpeted hallway wearing a T-shirt, plaid pajama bottoms, and sneakers. He was panting.
“I ran over,” he said when he saw her.
“You ran four miles?”
“No buses at this time of night,” he explained, and Melli felt stunned by his dedication.
“Well, thanks for coming,” she said.
“I can’t believe this happened,” Paul said. He walked in, took her by the elbows and stared into her eyes.
Melli said nothing.
“You don’t want to talk? It’s cool. You don’t have to talk about it.”
He closed the door behind them, bolted it shut, slid the chain through its track. “I booked you a ticket,” he said. “Like you asked.”
“I’ll pay you back soon,” Melli said.
“Whenever,” Paul said.
Then he made a sad face and enveloped her in a bear hug, shaking her from side to side. “Ooooooh,” he said as he squeezed. “You’ll be okay.”
He smelled of sweat, and Melli held her breath until he let go.
After she unpacked and scrubbed a wet, rough washcloth over her face, Melli walked into the dining room, where Jaime was drinking a bottle of beer and, evidently, waiting for her.
“Do you want one?” he asked.
“Sure,” Melli said. “Where’s Alfonso?” she asked.
“He went to the bakery to get some rolls for us for tomorrow morning.”
“So,” Jaime said. “You’re here.”
Melli forced a smile. “It’s been a while.”
Lace doily placemats were stacked in the center of the table and, on top of them, a plastic blue vase filled with artificial flowers. Outside, the air jingled with the constant reverberation of vehicles driving past the house and the steady barking of dogs. Jaime had turned on a fan in the corner that oscillated and churned air at them.
“How have you been?” Jaime asked.
He was trying, and for that Melli was grateful, but both of them were stiff as trees, shy and unaccustomed to each other after so long.
“Good. I’m almost finished with my dissertation. I think I only need one more year on it.”
“What’s it about?”
“The cultural dynamics and iconography of the Kuna Indians. Like about how the Kuna derive meaning from symbolic artifacts and how they use those to define the relationships among the members of their tribe and how they use them to negotiate their position in Panamá at large … ” Melli trailed off. It sounded irritatingly bookish, even to her.
“Well, your Spanish is still good,” Jaime said.
“How’s the theater?”
“We’re doing a García Lorca play right now—Bodas de Sangre. It opens in two weeks, so we’re all getting excited.”
“Are you in it?”
“I’m the lead. Leonardo!” Jaime said with a flourish. “I get to die at the end.”
“So you’ve gotten good since the last time I saw you?” Melli smiled teasingly.
“My love,” Jaime said, “I was always good. It just took everyone else a long time to realize it.”
Jaime finished the rest of his beer and opened another. This time he didn’t sit down again. “The funeral is on Friday at four,” he said, standing near her. “I’m going to pick up the recordatorios tomorrow morning and Alfonso already submitted an obituary to La Prensa. We have to decide if we want to have people back to the house after the service, too.”
“Well, then we’ll also have to decide where to get food from. I told Alfonso I thought we should order chicken from the parrillada down the street, since Mami always liked it so much.”
“That’s still there?”
“Can you believe it? That place is going to outlast all of us! But since it will be a Friday and it’s Lent, we have to choose something other than meat.”
Melli twisted her beer bottle between her fingers and watched droplets of condensation running down its long neck and hunched shoulders and sides—such a funny shape, she thought. If it could have heard the two of them—brother and sister—would it laugh at their discomfort, their strained conversation?
Alfonso walked in after another minute and dropped a plastic bag full of rolls on the table. He took off his sunglasses and looked at the two of them. “Did you tell her about the money?” he asked Jaime.
“Mami left us money,” Alfonso told Melli.
“Mami didn’t have any money.”
Alfonso untied the plastic bag and pulled out a roll. “Apparently she did. She had a savings bond. And she left some of it to us. The bank will be sending you a check for $3,000.” He bit off a corner of the roll and chewed vigorously, satisfied to have delivered the news.
“$3,000?” It was a quarter of Melli’s living expenses for an entire year.
“Sííííííí,” Alfonso called as he walked toward his bedroom.
“$3,000, Jaime!” Melli said.
Jaime shifted his weight awkwardly and smiled. Then he lay his hand on the crown of her head and ruffled her hair a little. “Glad you’re here,” he said.
In Houston, Melli was often alone. She would walk around campus by herself, hurrying from one class to the next with her backpack high on her back like a turtle’s shell. She strode briskly to give herself an air of purpose and to keep herself out of the gaze of other students, who she feared would try to talk to her if she remained in one place long enough to give them a chance. It was a paradox: she yearned to meet people and to make friends, yet she was so self-conscious about her rickety English that she couldn’t bear the thought of going up to anyone and introducing herself. Or, as she sometimes wondered, was language merely an excuse?
After a few semesters, though, her English improved and Melli gained confidence—first, enough to answer questions during class, and then, to speak more freely with the employees in the dining hall, bookstore, and student center. Eventually, she started lingering after class, talking to other students, spending time with them on weekends. She started dating, a few men right in a row. She felt as if she had found a home, a new place in which to carve out her life, and that even though she had hacked away at it crudely for a time, she had cleared the debris and could settle down and feel respectable and happy.
Still, Melli lived with the sensation that people were oil slicked and that even when they collided, they slid right past each other, perhaps lifting one thin layer off the surface upon contact, but never exposing to anyone what lay beneath. It was different from what she had experienced at home, where she had felt affronted by her family’s rough edges and pointed elbows. There, Alfonso, Jaime, Melli, and their mother had constantly been in each other’s space – physically and emotionally – and yet, even under the blanketing of them, Melli had often felt alone. People surrounded her, yet she felt isolated, as if no one understood her nor she anyone else. Her mother used to read her the story of the princess and the pea once in a while before bed, if Melli begged for it enough. She would listen, rapt, to the tale of one mattress after another being stacked up and the princess climbing to the top to sleep. In the illustrations, the princess was very pretty, but even as a child, Melli had always associated herself with the pea, buried and ever more distant.
Melli wanted the details, and Jaime obliged. She steeled herself to hear them and then told herself that the armor was unnecessary because, after all, she and her mother had never been close. Melli’s brothers had always been her mother’s favorites, and her mother had made no point to pretend otherwise. A girl was less desirable, and a girl who believed she could go gallivanting off to the United States and enroll in school and study hard and make a life that looked nothing like her mother’s life and everything like a rejection of it, a girl like that was disgraceful.
“She woke up with a headache one morning,” Jaime told Melli. “She didn’t want to get out of bed, so I brought her an aspirin. But that didn’t seem to help. If anything, it made her head worse. And she complained that she felt achy. But you know how Mami is.”
They had always known their mother to have hypochondriacal tendencies. She regularly complained about some ailment or another and frequently believed she was on the precipice of death, about to slip silently into some black fog. When they were younger, they’d once cut short a vacation because their mother had been stung by a jellyfish and feared she would not recover, and another time because she ate food that had tasted rotten and would probably do her in. Last summer, Jaime told Melli, she had spent an entire day wailing from her bed, saying things like, “The Lord is coming to get me! It’s my time. ¡Dios!” and had ordered Jaime and Alfonso to send everyone she knew to the house to say their goodbyes. She had taken visitors for days, a stream of them, everyone stepping reverently into her room with concerned looks on their faces and wadded tissues in their hands. Now worried, Jaime convinced her to see a doctor. He and Alfonso drove her to a Social Security hospital half an hour from the house. When they’d arrived, she claimed she was too weak to walk across the parking lot and insisted on having an orderly bring a wheelchair to the car. In the waiting room, she sat slumped over, her hand covering her eyes, and wept. Finally, they saw the doctor. He ran test after test, each one agitating her more than the last. When the diagnosis was ready, he brought the three of them into his office. Jaime kept his arm around his mother’s shoulders while she crossed herself over and over. Then the doctor spoke. “You have gas, Sra. Azuelo,” he said. “You need to stop drinking so much coffee.”
“Gas!” Melli said. “That was all?”
Jaime nodded. “Ridiculous. But you can see why I didn’t take the headache that seriously at first. It wasn’t until she started running a fever that I told Alfonso we should take her to the hospital.”
“And then what?”
“I thought they had her stabilized. That’s when I sent you a message. But then she got a rash all over her legs and on her chest, and she kept saying how weak she felt. And then she went into shock. She was coughing up blood, and she collapsed, and there was nothing anyone could do.”
“You were there?”
“I was at the hospital, but I wasn’t in the room. That’s how the doctor explained it to
“Where was Alfonso?”
“At work.” Jaime spread his fingers out against the table where they sat across from one another.
“So that’s it,” Melli said.
“And what now?”
“I don’t know, Mellita. Now we’re orphans.”
Before Paul, there had been Kevin, and before Kevin, Christian. Christian was the one she might have loved, although she never told him. She had been waiting to say it until she was sure he felt the same, but she kept waiting and was never sure. If Melli were a mountain climber, hurrying up to the peak with conviction and enthusiasm, Christian was the one scaling up after her: every day she peered over the edge of the rocks, and every day he seemed to get closer, but for some reason unknown to Melli, he couldn’t muster the energy to reach her. After a point, he simply looked up and waved and then started his descent, rappelling as fast as he could, leaving Melli on the peak very much alone.
It had taken her months to scale back down that mountain. And when she had, Kevin was waiting at the bottom. Meaning, she ran into him in the dining hall the first day she was able to bring herself to leave her small apartment for a meal and eat something other than dry cereal and Oreos. He was standing at the stir-fry bar, his arms crossed over his chest, his jeans slouching around his hips. Melli was craving vegetables and grains—actual sustenance—and was waiting at the stir-fry bar, too, to place her order with the cook. A line several people deep stretched in front of them, and when the cook said something to the person at the head, that person turned and made an announcement to the girl behind him, and then the girl turned and said something that Melli didn’t catch. She tapped Kevin. “What did she say?”
He looked at her. “No rice. They’re all out of rice.”
“But this is the stir-fry bar.”
“I think they still have noodles.” He smiled magnificently. “Noodles aren’t the worst thing in the world.”
But Melli was disappointed, and she started scanning the other stations in the dining hall for something else to eat.
Kevin turned around again. “We could make a song about it,” he said, “to help ourselves feel better. Noodle-oh, noodle-eye, noodle in my stir fry,” he crooned.
Melli felt her face crack into a smile. She was amused, if not quite charmed.
They sat together in the dining hall over their noodle stir-fries, and Kevin told her he was getting his MBA but that he dreamed of writing children’s songs and selling them to Nickelodeon and Disney.
“But it’s one of those things,” he said, “where I can never tell if I’m really onto something or if it’s just completely doomed.”
“I know what you mean,” Melli said. “I kind of feel that way about my whole life.”
And Kevin had roared with laughter, as if it was the most hilarious thing he had ever heard. Melli was thrilled and astonished that someone would find her funny. Growing up, she had always been the boring one, lost in the shadows of Jaime’s histrionics and Alfonso’s achievements.
They walked to class together that day, and when they saw each other in the dining hall again the next, they shared a table for a second time and talked and Kevin laughed at Melli’s dour assessments of life, not understanding perhaps, she thought, that she wasn’t joking when she delivered them. But she didn’t correct him, either. So they went on, getting to know each other better, sharing meals, catching late movies. Until at some point, Kevin caught on that Melli wasn’t joking, and he told her that the two of them weren’t a good fit and that she was dragging him down. Melli didn’t protest. She knew he was right. Although Kevin tried his best to buoy her, he was a balloon and she was a brick, and a balloon stands no lasting chance against a brick.
The morning of the funeral, the three of them, in the new silence of that house where their mother had hummed while she cleaned and where the oil in the pan had popped when she cooked, where in the mornings their mother had dried her hair under the roar of the blower, where she had listened every day to the news on the small countertop radio, where she had called out to them in the mornings and in the evenings, where she had rustled the ice in the freezer and run the water over the dirty dishes, where many, many years earlier, when Melli was only five, their father’s death had similarly left the house infected with the silence of absence—in that house, the three of them got dressed in their mourning clothes.
In the car on the way to the church, Alfonso was the first to speak, and when he did it was to ask Melli whether any of her old friends were coming to the service.
“I don’t know,” Melli said, her legs crossed in the back seat.
“Haven’t you called any of them since you’ve been here?” Alfonso asked.
“Are you kidding me? You’ve been here two days. Did you even try to call them?”
“Who am I going to call? It’s been so long, I don’t know anyone’s phone numbers anymore.”
Alfonso whipped his head around to face her. “Don’t you keep in touch with any of them from … from … Jaime, what’s the name of where Melli lives again?”
“Don’t be an ass,” Jaime said.
“No, I don’t think that’s it.” Alfonso feigned puzzlement.
“You know where I live,” Melli said.
“Houston!” Alfonso snapped his fingers.
“Come on,” Jaime said, flicking Alfonso’s thigh.
Melli pushed her tongue against the back of her teeth and stared out the window. She wished she had remembered to wear her sunglasses, so that Alfonso couldn’t see if she started to cry. She felt that she might. She was on the verge. She pushed her tongue harder, until the muscles of her mouth hurt.
Before the church, they stopped at the crematorium, where they picked up a small marble box filled with their mother’s ashes. Jaime and Alfonso had seen her in the morgue before her body had been burned, but Melli had arrived too late for that. So Jaime handed her the box and told her to take a minute, to say goodbye, and that he and Alfonso would wait in the car. They walked out the door before Melli could object.
In the air-conditioned front room, narrow and carpeted, with a metal desk and a photocopier and a framed picture of Jesus on the wall, she held her mother in her arms. An employee—a woman with hooded eyes and rolls of fat around her middle—sat at the desk, thumbing through a newspaper.
Standing there, holding the heavy, cold box, Melli felt brittle, smarting still from Alfonso’s remarks in the car. He hadn’t said anything more, but his point had been clear enough—she was isolated, she had isolated herself—and the truth of it pained her.
Melli tried to remember the last time she and her mother had talked, and what they had said. It must have been at Christmas. Melli had made a pot of coffee on Christmas morning, watched a parade on television, and then phoned. Jaime had answered and said that Mami was still in bed. They had attended midnight Mass the night before. Melli had wished Jaime Merry Christmas and kept up idle conversation until their mother got on the phone and sleepily said Merry Christmas. She complained about the length of the Mass and said pointedly after a heavy sigh, “I’m sure you’re not planning on going to church, are you?” Another disappointment. Always a disappointment. And Melli had lied that, actually, she was thinking about going later that day.
Now, in the slender front room of the crematorium, Melli adjusted the box in her arms and patted the top. “Hi, Mami,” she said.
The woman at the desk glanced up.
“I came to Panamá for a few days to see you. But—” Melli forced a laugh—“I guess I was too late.”
The woman kept staring. Melli tried to ignore her.
“Alfonso and Jaime picked me up from the airport. Jaime still drives too slow. Remember when he was learning and we would sit for 20 minutes sometimes waiting for him to make a left turn onto Tumba Muerte because he never had the courage to gun it? Everyone would be lined up behind us, honking like it was a parade. He’s still the same. Mami? Do you hear me?”
Melli stopped and gazed at the box. The corners of it were digging into the flesh of her forearms.
“There was one thing I wanted to tell you. I finally tried that recipe you gave me for sancocho de gallina. I found a Mexican grocery store in Houston that had most of the ingredients. It came out pretty well. Not as good as yours. But pretty good. I meant to tell you that next time we talked.
“Anyway, I hope you like your new accommodations. I know the box isn’t very big, but there wasn’t much we could do about that. Of course. But I imagine it’s nice and cool in there at least, which must feel good. Or is it stuffy? I can also see how it might be stuffy. Wouldn’t it be funny if we could make a miniature window for you, so you could get some fresh air? Jaime probably knows some set designers who could make you a nice one.” Melli felt herself laugh again, though she was lightheaded suddenly. “Although …” She caught her breath against some sort of wave rushing up through her. “Maybe it’s a bad idea, an open window. In your state, the slightest breeze might blow you away …” She was breathing too fast now, and she tried to pace her inhalations and exhalations, but she couldn’t stop imagining her mother’s ashes assembled into a corporeal being the size of a toy doll, knocking on a tiny, permanently closed window, and of herself, huge, crouching down until her face, or maybe only one small area of her face, was pressed against the other side of the glass. It wasn’t until the woman at the desk handed her a tissue that Melli realized she was crying. She turned away from the woman to wipe her face and nose and cheeks. Then she drew a deep breath and carried the box out to the car.
After the ceremony, they stopped at Sorrento to pick up lasagna—it had been Alfonso’s idea—and drove back to the house. They had slid their mother into a crypt next to their father in the basement beneath the church. For over an hour, Melli had hugged people she barely knew or didn’t remember or couldn’t see through blurry eyes. She had watched her brothers talk intimately with people she didn’t recognize. She had stood around as they introduced her to their friends—many of whom had taken off work to be there—and to old family friends who seemed surprised to see her there at all. One of them had jokingly said, “I almost forgot your mother had a third child!” and though Alfonso had chuckled, Melli had winced.
“I need to change my shoes,” Melli said when they got to the house. “Then I’ll come out and help set everything up.”
In Jaime’s room, she sat on the edge of his bed with her hands on her knees and tried to breathe steadily. Outside, the heat of the day radiated in ever-tightening bands around the city. Birds squawked in the lemon tree behind the house. The emotion of the day had charged at Melli unexpectedly, and she needed to get her bearings. She had sobbed throughout the ceremony—all the way through Alfonso’s infuriatingly polished eulogy and through Jaime’s startlingly somber one—and had moved numbly through the proceedings afterward. She kept thinking of her mother inside the box and she outside of it, the two of them staring at each other, each unable to touch or hear the other. And whose fault was it? Was it her mother’s for always showing such disdain for Melli? Or was it Melli’s for having left? And why had she left? A long time ago, the choice had seemed clear. She had earned a fellowship doing the thing she loved. It was a chance to live somewhere new, to expand her horizons in the way that people were forever encouraging other people to do, to reinvent herself. She had never given much thought to what she had been leaving behind because, it had always seemed to her, there wasn’t much. She’d lived in Panamá all her life without gaining any close friends, and her family—the thing that in every Latin American country was supposed to be a person’s immutable saving grace—never had much use for her. In little ways, they had made that clear again and again. They left her out of conversations. They told her she wasn’t pretty and that she should try harder to make herself so. They made plans according to their own interests, never according to hers. No, she had thought back then, there wasn’t much. Only now she wasn’t so sure. Perhaps there could have been more. Perhaps if she had stayed, there might have been more by now. Perhaps they could have accumulated something in the last six years. And therein was the sadness: not mourning the loss of all that had been, but mourning the fact that there wasn’t more to miss.
Melli stayed seated on Jaime’s bed, twisting her fingers together. And now what, she wondered. She imagined herself walking through the airport in Houston, meeting Paul at baggage claim. She imagined him waiting with a bouquet of flowers wrapped in cellophane, which he had stopped to buy on the way there—it would have been just like him. She imagined herself sick at the sight of those flowers and how pitiful he would seem to her and how wrong. Paul was not the one for her. Would she tell him that? Could she explain this feeling, so clear to her now, that she wasn’t doing it right. How would that sound? I don’t think I’m doing life right, Paul. I thought I was. I thought I was okay and that I wasn’t hurting anyone, but I think I’ve just been wasting time, and I don’t want to do it anymore. I need to make some changes. He would try to talk her out of it. He would try to hand her the flowers. But she would stand her ground. She was sure. Life was short and already so much of it had passed her by without leaving an impression. Her father had died in a car accident when she was so young that even the memory of him eluded her now. And now her mother was gone, and for years they hadn’t seen each other. Melli didn’t even know what her mother’s face had looked like recently, or what jewelry she wore day to day, or how she styled her hair, or what her skin smelled like. She didn’t know anyone in her family, and as the years wore on she knew them less and less. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. She didn’t know anyone really. Not a single other person in a world of more than six and a half billion people. And why not? For no reason she could think of. It struck her as tragic all of a sudden. And totally ludicrous.
After the well-wishers and family friends had all come and gone, Alfonso opened the door to the tiny bedroom that had once been Melli’s and announced that the three of them needed to start going through the things.
“Do we have to do this today?” Jaime complained.
“Melli’s leaving tomorrow, so that doesn’t give us a lot of time,” Alfonso said.
“We can do it after she leaves,” Jaime said, throwing himself down on the couch. “I’m too exhausted right now.”
“Let’s do a little bit,” Melli said. “I want to.”
“Why?” Alfonso asked, arching an eyebrow. “Are you looking for something in particular? Some little treasure of Mami’s you’ve always wanted to get your hands on?”
Melli felt the same sting she had experienced earlier in the car, but she was determined this time not to let Alfonso get the better of her. “I just want to help, okay?”
“Ha! Since when?”
Melli took a breath. She tried to keep her voice even. “Alfonso? Seriously? What is your problem with me?”
Alfonso sat on the arm of the couch and loosened his tie. “No problem.”
Melli waited, feeling the seconds gather around her like ball bearings swarming toward a magnet.
“Okay, though, if you really want to know. I’m just trying to figure out what you’re doing here. I mean, we know you came for Mami’s funeral—”
“Don’t say ‘we,’” Jaime instructed from the couch. “Don’t involve me in what you’re about to say.”
“You don’t even know what I’m about to say.”
“I don’t like the sound of it, whatever it is.”
“You didn’t want me to come?” Melli asked.
“I’m just surprised you did,” Alfonso said. “I mean, I know. It was Mami’s funeral, so of course … But why didn’t you ever come before? When Mami was alive? When it actually would have mattered?”
“I’m in school, Alfonso.”
“You don’t get breaks?”
“I don’t have money, either.”
“You had money this time.”
“I had to borrow it,” Melli said, though she didn’t mention from whom. “I don’t know what you want me to say, Alfonso. I came for Mami’s funeral.”
“Alfonso is not saying what he means,” Jaime said. “What he really wants to know is not why you came back, but why you left in the first place.”
Melli shook her head. “You both know the answer to that. I left to go to school. A good school, where they gave me a fellowship. What was I supposed to do?”
Neither Jaime nor Alfonso said anything.
“What was I supposed to do?” Melli asked again, feeling the heat rise in her face.
“What do you think?” Alfonso roared. “You were supposed to stay! You were supposed to stay here with your family. But no! And all this time you’ve been acting like you don’t want us in your life, but now here you are, returning like nothing happened. This isn’t your house anymore, Melli. You haven’t lived here for six years. Jaime and I are the ones who kept Mami company all that time. Jaime and I are the ones who took care of her and of the house. Jaime and I are the ones who stayed.”
Melli gazed at them both incredulously. “I left this house because no one wanted me here,” she said at last.
“I’m sure you’re not serious,” Jaime said.
“Of course I am. Mami was only ever interested in you two. Anyone could see that.”
“Why are you saying that?” Alfonso asked. “Is it because of the money? Because she only left you $3,000?”
Melli’s stomach dropped. “What do you mean ‘only’?”
“It was a $15,000 savings bond,” Alfonso said. “She left Jaime and me $6,000 each.”
Melli glanced at Jaime, who stared back with a horrified and apologetic expression on his face. Suddenly, she felt nauseated. The afternoon heat pulsed as she tried to absorb this latest blow, as she tried to stand without toppling.
Then, there was a dull thud outside, a sound Melli recognized as soon as she heard it—a mango falling from the tree alongside the house and landing in the dirt. Growing up, the sound had been a nuisance, waking her on occasion in the middle of the night, or interrupting her studies. When it rained, often a few would fall in quick succession. Thump, thump, thump, thump. But now, the timing of it, delivered like perfect punctuation, made her laugh out loud. You were unequally loved! You were right all along! Thump. Ha! It was little more than fact, unassailable and true. Now her mother was gone and nothing could be done to change it. And now Melli was in Panama, and still she could distinguish without a doubt the sound of the mango; and still Alfonso was a jerk, but he was a lonely jerk, and besides, he was like that with everyone; and still Jaime was Jaime, who earlier had ruffled her hair and told her he was glad she was here; and still maybe the distance between them had been her fault; and still maybe it had been theirs, but it was a day for goodbyes, Melli thought. A day to move forward from this moment on. The weight of the mango dropping inexorably to the ground, surrendering at last. Thump.
“Why are you laughing?” Alfonso asked.
“Alfonso,” Melli said, straightening her spine, “I didn’t tell you about my dissertation.”
“It’s about the Kuna,” Jaime said.
“The Kuna in Panamá?” Alfonso asked. “That’s what you’re writing about?”
Melli nodded. Outside, the birds skittered and called to one another. The heat in the small room, which only a few minutes earlier had felt stifling now felt a little bit like an embrace. Melli thought of one more year in Houston and then, of the wide open space to be filled with whatever might come next.
“I didn’t know you were writing about Panamá,” Alfonso said. He made a small noise of astonishment and, Melli believed, of approval.
“Of course,” Melli said. “Panamá is my home.”
Cristina Henríquez is the author of The Book of Unknown Americans, The World In Half, and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection.
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