Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Halsey Street, An Excerpt from a Novel

This excerpt from my novel-in-progress Halsey Street was selected as a winner of the Margaret Lamb/Writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize for Fiction in April 2012. View the original publication in The Fordham Observer.

Mirella could not rest. It was too quiet in the residence, too far from the road. She heard only the humming of the generator downstairs, the crickets tuning up their legs. Her lover breathed hard beside her, his hands on the back of his head as he slept, facedown. He slept this way every night, and every night Mirella thought he looked ridiculous. Was he under arrest? Was he blocking out the sound of nothing? Of their seclusion here in the residence, where there was no one but other expats, Mirella, and the watching-man at the gate?
They had been to the beach that day, running through the surf as if they were half their age. They drank limoncello then stretched out on their stomachs to eat pasta. Mirella picked the oregano from her garden that morning in short shorts and her bathing suit top, while Marcello complained in her kitchen that Dominican beef was too tough for ragù.
He was badly sunburned now, his skin bright red and peeling. Tomorrow Mirella would cut a spear of aloe from the yard to rub over his back. For nearly a year this had been their routine: trips to the beach, quiet dinners with cold wine, sex, sunburns, and sleeping in Mirella’s bed. She refused to sleep in his house after having paid so much for her own house, her own bed: a four-post caoba frame sent from the capital. She still had family in Santiago, a few distant cousins and great aunts, but she had moved far enough that none of them would visit her. She stayed in their apartments when she first left her husband Ralph in New York and had nowhere to live in the Dominican Republic. When she finally found a house, she rented a truck, packed it with her belongings, and drove across the island. She left her cousins a small bundle of U.S. dollars tied up in a handkerchief. It was her good-bye.
Mirella slipped out of bed, and Marcello didn’t stir. She walked down the stairs to the kitchen and sat at the counter. All of her appliances—copper pots, the bamboo cutting board, and Mr. Coffee Machine—were wedding gifts from Ralph’s friends. It was as if they expected her to spend her married life cooking in a stuffy Brooklyn kitchen. When she found herself back in DR, forty-five, and cooking for just one, she wasn’t sure what she liked to make for herself. Most nights she wanted only a glass of wine and dark chocolate from the German bakery down the road. She laughed to herself during these dinners and thought that if her mother, Ramona, weren’t dead, she would be horrified at how she was eating— a little piece of chocolate, like a beggar, and a glass of liquor, like a puta.
Marcello didn’t know that Mirella’s mother had lived in the mountains in the south of the country, in a village where the red earth stuck to your legs and your hair. He assumed she was from Santiago like her cousins. He didn’t question why she had chosen to live in the residence full of European ex-pats: a few Germans, an Englishman, and another Italian like himself. They had all come to DR for the same reason. Here, they could live like the people they had envied in their own countries. They had pools and Jeeps, servants, time.
Mirella was the only resident without a staff. She worked all day in the garden, checked the fuses in the generator, and climbed onto the roof if one of the skylights was leaking. “Why don’t you hire someone to clean for you?” Marcello was always asking. “Your house is enormous.” Mirella hadn’t told him she spent years cleaning much larger houses in New York: brick townhouses with cream-colored carpets, lofts with what seemed like miles of windows.
The Dominican woman who cleaned for Marcello was a slender Santiaguera named Ariane. Mirella often invited her for coffee, but she never accepted. They spoke over the gate around Mirella’s house, and Mirella cherished their short conversations, the relief of Ariane’s husky, melodic voice, from Marcello’s flippant Italianate Spanish. Ariane must have been at least twenty years younger than Mirella; she was Penelope’s age.
Mirella and Penelope had spoken English for so many years in the house on Halsey Street that Mirella couldn’t remember the sound of Spanish in her daughter’s mouth. As a child, Penelope had been fluent, until Ralph ordered her to speak English at home so he could understand what they were always chattering about. Soon, the only times Mirella heard from her daughter in Spanish was in cards for her birthday and Mother’s Day. When Penelope was a teenager, they fought in English, and Mirella always said the wrong thing. In English, Penelope had the upper hand, so Mirella yelled and threw things to keep up. Maybe that had been their problem. English was for Ralph and Brooklyn and the rich ladies whose houses she cleaned; it was never meant for her daughter.

Mirella reached into one of the cabinets underneath the counter. She felt the rim of an old, chipped cup, and set it on the counter. Inside the cup was a folded-up card. She unfolded the postcard and saw the smudges from all the erasing she had done, her handwriting in the faint gray of pencil lead.
Hija, she had written, then a few lines, and her signature. When she first arrived in DR, Mirella had thought, briefly, that maybe her daughter would visit her. Maybe things would be better in this big house in the north of the island than they ever were in Brooklyn or in the mountains where they spent summers when Ramona was still alive, and Ralph was too consumed with the store to miss them.
Mirella had never mailed the postcard because she didn’t know Penelope’s address in Pittsburgh, and she didn’t want to mail it to Ralph to forward. They hadn’t spoken since she had left him, after the closing of the store and his accident. She had been threatening to leave for weeks, while she washed his back with a sponge, or pushed him down the street in his wheelchair to pick up a prescription. He cried every day, whether over his spine or the store, Mirella was never sure. He had never cried over her or the years they had spent silently maneuvering around each other, as if they were both simply features of the house, a wobbly table or a fragile vase that should be avoided. When he cried and wanted her to take care of him, Mirella felt herself suddenly able to speak aloud the thoughts that had been circling her mind for decades: This is not why I got married, and This is not why I came here.
When she started shipping the boxes to DR, Ralph asked her if she would really go and abandon their life together. She stayed for two weeks after the boxes were gone, just long enough for them to arrive in DR. While Ralph was asleep one night, Mirella put on a scarf and gloves, not bothering to take her wool coat, and slipped out of the house on Halsey with her suitcase. She hated to leave her plants behind, but there wasn’t any way to ship them. She walked to Bedford Avenue and hailed a cab to the airport.
She had thought of Penelope as she drove away from the neighborhood she had moved to when she was a girl, eighteen and fresh from the red-earth campo, looking for life. How will my daughter find me? she had thought as the taxi plunged farther into Brooklyn, and then she remembered that Penelope hadn’t been looking.
Mirella put the clip, the porcelain pieces, and the folded-up postcard back inside the cup and in the cabinet. She walked back to the living room, unlatched the gate and opened one of the sliding doors onto the patio.
It was warm in the garden, the air damp and clean. Mirella felt as if someone had thrown a shawl over her in the dark. She stepped off the breezeway, and the earth gave under her feet. The crickets were louder outside.
Mirella loved her days here in the garden, tending to the banana trees and vegetable patch, picking the avocado and papaya and lemons that fell in the breeze, uprooting weeds and killing snakes that had slipped through the barbed wire around the perimeter of her land. She loved her birds of paradise: the magenta beak of the buds, the yellow and blue petals like a crown of feathers, the slender green stalks. She could have never grown flowers that bright and intricate in Brooklyn.
You would like it here, hija, she thought. Penélope.

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