By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: The story “Hermanas” (sisters) is narrated by an American woman living temporarily in Mexico. Lolita, a Mexican woman, visits the American Senora and asks for employment for herself and her daughter Graciela, who is almost eighteen, a beautiful girl, well educated, and deserving the opportunity of living in a good home, which Lolita, now a widow, cannot give her. After some hesitation, the American Senora agrees to help Graciela with her education and in finding employment. Lolita and Graciela go with the Senora to the L.D.S. Church, and Graciela is introduced to Jim Flores, studying to be a doctor.
Jim and Graciela might have stood there forever in the intense sunlight, I do not know. Just then John signalled me he was ready. I saw Lolita with the twins already in the car. I did the obvious thing.
“Dr. Flores, won’t you come home with us this afternoon? It is Amporo’s day off, and we do not serve a Sunday dinner, as such, but we’ll be glad to have you join us.” I linked my arm with Graciela’s. “Graciela is with us for the afternoon.”
“You are a saving angel,” he said to me, his eyes on the girl. “This is one of my rare free Sundays. I was going to spend a lonely afternoon sightseeing.”
I have never underrated coincidence. Had it been the Sunday before or the Sunday after, they might never have met.
In the corridor we parted company with Lolita, who had barely time to serve her meal. In our wing of the house, Graciela helped me with lunch, a simple one of queso colonia, that desirable cheese from our colonies in Chihuahua, and Mexican ambrosia, my own term for a heavenly concoction of tropical fruits: papaya, fresh pineapple, oranges, limes, and the exotic, golden mango. These, with the whole-wheat rolls I bought on Avenida Madero, and avocados and tomatoes, were our fare.
“I could do battle with the people who disparage Mexican food,” Jim said, resting contentedly in his chair.
“You forget the American assembly line,” said my husband dryly from the head of the table.
Not once were Jim and Graciela alone that afternoon. Such liberty was unknown to her; yet before the afternoon was gone they knew each other as only lovers can. It gave them pleasure to speak of their childhoods in Mexico.
“I can still remember,” I heard Jim say as I put away the dishes while he and Graciela washed them under the cold water tap, “when I was six years old, I was walking with mother early in the evening and I jumped over a pool of water left by the rain. As I jumped a gate opened in the wall and I could see honeysuckle and roses in the garden. I’ll never forget how sweet they smelled after the rain. There was a tiled stairway that led to a beautifully carved door. I used to think of that garden and the scent, years after we went back to the United States. I think everyone was kind to Mother, and she tried to be happy, but she couldn’t put Mexico out of her heart. Dad used to tell her that California was just like Mexico, only better, but she never forgot. She used to put me to sleep telling me stories of the village she had lived in when she was a little girl. I must have known even then that I was coming back.”
He scrubbed a plate hard with Amporo’s sponge-like dishcloth, holding the plate aloft to inspect it. “She died before I was grown. My first year in college Dad and I came here for a vacation. I didn’t tell dad, but I knew I was coming back.”
“Why did you choose this time?” Her soft brown eyes adored him as she wiped a plate that had long been dry.
“Oh, I’ve always intended to be a doctor. When we came back I kept seeing those brown babies with skinny legs and swollen stomachs, wrapped in rebozas. I’d think of the ones with the runny eyes, the crippled legs, and the sad faces …”
“I know it, too,” she broke in, her voice sad for all neglected and malnourished children. “In the villages where the boys’ faces look as if they were forever done with hope, and the girls, their eyes so big, they seem to say, ‘I know all the sorrow of the world, but something good is awaiting me.’ I have felt that. Did you feel the same way?”
“Why, that’s exactly the way I felt when we used to stop our car in the dusty road and the children would crowd close to us, so silent I felt they were reproaching me for something. I’ve never been able to put it in words before.” His eyes were warm with admiration.
Quickly Graciela stacked the plates for me. “You were saying, Jaime, about the children.” She called him that for the first time.
“It sounds sort of presumptuous, but I thought that someday I’d do something for them. I guess that started me on the research that eventually brought me here.” He leaned against the sink, his face serious. “I have this chance at research. It means it will take me two years to finish instead of one, and then I want to take two years interning. When I get through I’m not going to bemoan the fact that I have to serve my apprenticeship in a remote village. It’s where I want to be. Living so cheaply here I’ll be able to start out with my own laboratory.” He washed another plate, a faraway look in his eyes.
“This morning when you talked to the Senora I could not understand, why did you come … now?” Graciela’s emphasis on the word was no more than the touch of a rose petal.
He was polishing the sink vigorously. “The war, I suppose. I wanted to get in, like any other man, but this foot,” he held up the right one clad in Scotch grain, “I had an accident when I was a kid. It’s bothered me a little from time to time, nothing serious, and I didn’t think it would keep me out, but it did.”
Reflecting for a moment, he said, “When Dad died a year ago, he left me a sum, not much, but enough for me to give in to my dream. I’d heard of the research they were doing here, and I got busy with letters and references, and here I am. Now that’s my life story.” With a flourish of his wrist he tossed a plate into the air. “It’s your turn. Why are you back in Mexico at this particular moment?”
The shadow of a blush darkened her face. They had moved to the dining room, where she was folding the tablecloth. The afternoon sunlight, hot and strong, filtered through the leaded panes of the Gothic windows. I waited in the doorway. Would she tell him why, thus revealing her story, or would she satisfy him with a smile and a shrug of her slender shoulders? I had yet to know her character well.
“It’s a long story, Jaime.” Her face brightened and she looked at me. “Could we all go into the patio where there is shade and a breeze?”
John and I checked on the children, now asleep, and followed the couple into the front patio with the fountain. There she told Jim much the same story Lolita had told me, ending with, “I am to become a woman independent and unafraid, and my dear friend,” her small hand was warm on my arm, “is helping me to find the way.”
Within the week Graciela enrolled at the secretarial school. She wasted no time, even working at her shorthand on the plunging orange bus from San Angel. Six days of the week she spent two hours with Marita and Judy. I augmented her lessons with dictation in English.
Jim’s free hours from the hospital and study miraculously coincided with Graciela’s afternoons with us. In Mexico, summer is the heavy school season, classes are held at night; so the two had few carefree hours. Not once were they entirely alone. The living room, all glass doors and windows, was never safe from the sharp eyes of the de Vargas servants who passed through the corridors on their errands. Amporo was ceaselessly back and forth on her way to answer the telephone or to rush to the garden gate to admit callers.
Sometimes Graciela coached Jim for his tests. In turn, he gave her dictation and answered her questions about all things Mormon. He was a third generation Latter-day Saint; his grandparents, paternal side, had been converted on their California ranch by a Utah missionary in the eighties.
On the rare occasions when Graciela had time for mere talk, she mended our clothes so expertly that I have ever since been in ill repute as a mender. A few times they took the children to Lindberg Park, strolling along, each holding the hand of a four-year-old girl with light brown curls.
It was our agreement with a reluctant Lolita, that she was to use the telephone booth on the street each evening and phone me if Graciela was not home at the appointed hour. This gave the girl her first taste of independence and some pleasant evenings with us when Jim was free. The two of them would play chess or accompany us to an American movie. A few times the four of us rode through Chapultepec Park after the day’s rain was over.
Of this I am sure, Lolita knew each time that Jim came. We seldom saw her, for her hours as nursemaid and her duties at home filled her days. There was another Sunday when we were able to take her to Church. When Jim could, he managed free Sundays and took them to Church on the buses, long, tiring rides that occupied a good part of the day.
In spite of her busy days, Graciela’s thin frame filled out a little, and her face radiated love. It was another storybook summer for me, just to watch her as the days passed in swift succession. There were the fair, cool mornings, the afternoon deluges, and the young lovers looking as if life would go on forever, smooth and full of hope with no day of reckoning.
Then came a day in early August. The rain had come in mid-morning, leaving everything freshly washed and sparkling. Even the palaces on Avenida Madero, old these many centuries, had some of the fresh splendor of their beginnings.
Such a little thing had brought us to the Avenida. John had come home early with the unexpected bonus of a free afternoon. Work at the Stadium had been stopped by one of the inexplicable orders from the government.
“Let’s have dinner in town.” He was poised for a rush up the stairs and a freshening shower. “I haven’t taken you anywhere in weeks.”
Happily I dressed, pausing only long enough to leave orders with Amporo for the children’s dinner. We hailed a libre on Insurgentes and were deposited near one of the city’s most elegant restaurants.
“If we order creamed raviolas and no dessert, we can afford it,” I whispered, as we stood indecisive on the narrow sidewalk of Madero.
Then we saw Graciela walking towards us with two girls from the secretarial school. Like the other two, her blue-black hair was rolled in a pompadour on top and coiled in a figure eight at her neck. In her light jacket and dark skirt she was as like the other girls as if they had been together all their lives. When Graciela saw us, she gave a little shout of joy and rushed towards us.
“We are going to Sanborn’s for lunch.” Graciela hugged my arm.
“It is so exciting,” chirped one of the girls. “We want to see the American senoritas, the summer school students. They crowd there each meal.”
“My mother,” warbled the dark-eyed senorita on the other side, “says Sanborn’s is like a garden now with the girls so golden haired in their summer dresses.”
“I am lucky, no? I found money hidden in my purse,” Graciela whispered. “On this day I will be extravagant, for I have never been inside the tile palace.”
“We’re celebrating for no reason at all,” I said, my spirits as high as hers. “Why don’t you ask the girls to excuse you and come with us. We’ll take you to Sanborn’s another time.”
If I had only kept still and let the girl go with her friends! We were no more than seated in the deep-cushioned chairs, though too near the kitchen door, I must confess, when our second coincidence came. It was one that shattered the calm of the summer days and changed the lives of the two young people who met under my roof. In the days to come I was to deplore bitterly my invitation of that day.
A waiter had just brought us a set of the glossy menus, when a party of men entered, exuding vitality and wealth. They were impeccably tailored and walked with gay confidence towards a private dining room. One of them, a tall, heavy-set man with graying hair and large features, saw us and came to our table, his hands outstretched in warm greeting.
“Senora,” he said, bowing over my hand, “it is I who have been the loser. Now that we have at last met, you must be my guests at dinner.”
Miguel Munoz was a very rich man, indeed a powerful man, and he had been kind to my husband his first days in Mexico. The Senor, old enough to have fought in the revolution, was young enough to enjoy his power and wealth. While he came from the middle classes he had married, like so many of his kind, a wife from the upper classes. She had died when their first child, a daughter, was born. His household was since ruled by his mother-in-law, the Senora Valades. Little as I knew about the intimate life of the capital, I had heard stories of Senor Munoz’s friendships with actresses and dancers. Until this moment I had not met him.
Within a few minutes the four of us were seated at a larger table, far from the clatter of dishes. Three waiters hovered over us and a bus boy with a large pitcher of ice water. The Senor was profuse in his apologies. The rest of the summer, he assured me, would be spent in making amends. As he spoke, his eyes lingered briefly on the wide-eyed Graciela.
Nothing but the specialties of the house were ordered, and a few known only to Senor Munoz and the head waiter. Under the Senor’s charm we relaxed, our tongues grew witty.
“You have been to my summer home in Cuernavaca, no? Of course you have not, all because of our lazy Mexican way of tomorrow.” We were lingering over the crepe suzettes. “You, senorita,” he turned his thick-lidded eyes on Graciela, “would you like to come also?” His eyes held hers, waiting for an answer.
Graciela was confused. Would the Senor extend the invitation, if he knew the whole truth? In all propriety he would not. She lowered her eyes, her dark lashes casting a shadow on her creamy cheek. After a demure pause she raised her eyes to me, asking help. I smiled. ‘Of course you want to see the Senor’s house. Cuernavaca is a lovely place.”
“Then it’s settled.” The Senor put his fork down decisively. “You are all to come Saturday.”
We assured him that Saturday was just right – if we could come after John had finished his work.
“It is a pity you cannot come earlier, mornings are the best. One of my chauffeurs will call for you. You are to enjoy our scenery, not spoil the day by having to glue your eyes to the road.”
Outside, his chauffeur-driven car was waiting. “Today, I take a little respite from business,” he said. “We take a drive somewhere, any place you desire, then I shall take you home and wait for Saturday.” To John he said, “Sit in front and relax while someone else pilots you through our crazy traffic. I will sit with the ladies.”
We drove to San Juan Teotihuacan, city of the ancient gods. To me Mexico City is a city of mystery, where the past walks with the present, sometimes overshadowing it. In the streets I see the sandaled feet of the Aztec, treading on the bloodstains of the conquerors. And a flash of light that might have been the plumage of the emperor’s headdress.
Nowhere, to me, does the past press so hard upon the present as at Teotihuacan. Our ride was through a green valley, accented with maguey. We came first to the giant pyramid of the sun. Behind us, rising high through an opening in the clouds, was the white summit of Popocatepetl, floating in mist. We watched the clouds swirl and cover the snowy peak, then we turned and began our steep climb, all of us quiet before the mystery of the pyramid.
A third of the way up the first raindrops fell. At Senor Munoz’s suggestion we retraced our steps and ran to the waiting car, just in time to escape the deluge. It was intimate inside the luxurious car, safe from the storm. The green fields were blacked out by the rain, our world was a private one of soft, sheltered seats. Senor Munoz was reminded of the rain in Paris, and Graciela told him of a time when she had been a child in Paris, coming from school, frightened by the rain. Lulled by the steady rhythm of the rain and smooth hum of the tires. I half dozed, aware of what the two were saying, but having no part in it.