As soon as Lelo fell asleep we went out to the balcony for lunch. Lela made mariquitas and black beans, and I cut an avocado for the salad, then dressed it with olive oil and vinegar. We each served ourselves and took the plates outside to eat.
Neither one of us spoke while we devoured our food. Once I had finished I gazed at the sea for a few minutes; the water was blue and green and old. When I was younger, we would go down to the coast and swim for hours while Lela sat on the rocks and watched. Enrique was always the first to get out of the water because he hated being the only boy. Soon after, my grandmother would ask us all to get out; the rocks always smelled like excrement and trash. Then she would wrap us up in towels and take us inside and we would drink hot chocolate and eat the tamales she had made for dinner the night before, even though I never liked tamales. When my cousins moved to Miami, we stopped swimming as often, and on the days that we did go down to the coast, Enrique only ever put his feet in the water, and I was always too cold to swim for more than fifteen or twenty minutes.
A fly hovered over my food and I waved my arm to shoo it away.
“Are you going to eat anymore?”
“No Lela, I’m full. You always serve me too much.”
“You’re a growing child. You need food.” I opened my mouth to take another bite but she stopped me. “But don’t eat anymore if you don’t want to. I’ll take it to Pepita.”
We went inside and while I prepared the café, she scraped our leftovers into a plastic bowl and headed downstairs. From the kitchen window, I heard her calling Pepita and watched as she nudged the bowl towards the black neighborhood cat, who accepted it, unmoved by her effort. By the time she was back upstairs, the coffee maker was ringing. I poured some into two cups and added a spoonful of sugar and a pinch of salt to each. She took her cup and we went back out to the balcony.
Once we sat down, I tried a sip, but the drink burned my tongue and I set it down on the floor so that it would cool down before I had any more.
“How long are you here for this summer, mi amor?” she asked me.
“Probably until the end of August. I might have to leave a few weeks earlier than usual to finish my summer homework before school starts.” I had another sip, but the café was still hot. “I wish Mami would let me come more during the year.”
“Do you wish she let you so that you could see more of your abuela, or so that you can hang out with your friends in the neighborhood?” She laughed and drank. “Finish your café. I want to eat dessert. I bought more casquitos from Juana.”
I smiled and drained the rest of my café.
“Go get them. They are in a jar next to the condensed milk,” she said, once I had finished. I took the cups in and served the sweet fruit into two bowls. Before bringing them out, I asked her if there was any cheese.
“I tried to get some this morning but there was none at the bodega. They said it finished yesterday and they don’t know when they’ll get more.”
We ate quickly, although disappointed that there was no cheese with the dessert. Afterward, she took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the pocket of her dress, then lit a cigarette and took a drag.
“Can I have a taste?”
She paused. “Why?”
“Because I want to try it.”
“Why not? I’ll tell Mami that you're smoking and she won’t let me come here anymore.”
She laughed like fire and I smelled her tobacco breath in the air. “Ay, mi cielo, you know it’s not good for you.”
“It’s not good for you either.”
“It’s too late for that, mi amor. Stopping now won’t change anything for me. Besides, you know I save them for special occasions.” She took another drag. “Go ask one of your friends. They’ll have some. And don’t tell me when you do.”
“One cigarette won’t kill me.”
She pulled another out of the box and handed it to me. I placed it between my teeth and failed to light it, so she snatched the lighter from my hands and did it herself.
“Just don’t. How is it?”
The taste tingled in my tongue and I watched the smoke rush out of my mouth until it disappeared in the air. “I like it.”
“No, you don’t. It’s stale.”
“I like it.”
She rolled her eyes and held the cigarette between her fingers. I copied her.
“Don’t tell your mother that I let you.”
“Don’t tell her that I asked.”
“All right.” She slapped her thighs together twice. “You had to try it anyway. Everyone should. But,” and she looked me in the eye, “never again.”
We sat in silence for a while, enjoying our cigarettes and looking at the white foam caps of the waves as they folded over the water. The sun echoed in the sky and the clouds moved aside for the light.
“How did you meet Lelo?”
“How? Ay mija. Why would I tell you that.”
“I won’t say anything.”
“Well, my friend set us up on a blind date while we were in college. I had never been on a blind date before and was relieved when I found him at that park; I had heard horrifying stories before of other blind dates. He was handsome and sitting on the bench and looking at the children playing. About a year later we got married and that’s that.”
“How long has he been sick?”
She held her cigarette and stared at the horizon while smoke came out of her mouth. “He's been rather depressed for years, you know, from your uncles and everything, but he really started to degrade when your aunt died. And then depression just kind of turned into old age and illness, and now I don’t even know if he feels anything anymore.”
“I’m sure he does.”
“Yes, well, if he does then he never shows it. The one thing I can assure you is that he likes it when you and your brother visit. I think he likes that energy in the house.” I shivered as the wind picked up, and the balcony smelled like dead fish and seaweed. Suddenly the telephone rang and she stood, hurrying to get it before the sound woke Lelo. She chatted for a few seconds and then called me in. It was Mami, calling to see how I was. She asked me if the trip was long and if I had seen any friends yet, and then we hung up.
I went back out.
“It really would be nice if I could come more often, not just in the summer. Besides, I know the only real reason why she lets us come is because she has to work, and she doesn’t want us hanging around the house all day.”
“Don’t blame your mother.” She glanced over at Lelo, who had begun to stir a little. She was so old and beautiful, the way she dyed her hair every week and painted her lips in the morning and fixed her nails when they were dirty.
“How do you do it?”
“Do what, mi vida?”
“How can you take care of Lelo, and Tío Alberto and Tío Miguel and still be all right?”
“Why? You mean because they are blind?”
“Oh, mi amor. It really is just what I have been given, you know? Either way, what can I say about Tío Alberto? At least he can’t be fully aware, with the mental disability… and your grandfather, well, he needs me. Men need us, even if they can’t admit it. As for Tío Miguel, I barely ever have to take care of him since he left Cuba. It’s much easier when I only see him on holidays. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. I have to call him today, now that I think about it. Today is Sunday, right?” She frowned and played with her hair a little.
“But how do you do it? You used to go all the time to the theatre and now you don’t. I know you miss it. You love the theatre, the Gran Teatro. You used to go all the time. You need someone here to help you. You have your savings. It would be easier. I will come more often if you don’t want to hire someone. I'll talk to Mami. I’ll stay here with Lelo and you can go to the theatre more often, just like you used to.”
“Ay mija,” she chuckled, “you know it can’t be that way. And besides, my savings won’t pay for the help. But don’t worry about me. I’ve been to the theatre plenty. I have my ways. I take it all step by step. Today’s problem is today’s problem and tomorrow’s is tomorrow’s. And that’s how I do it, really, corazón. That’s how I do it. At least, that’s how I’ve done it until now.”
“Ay Lela.” A cloud overshadowed the sun and then the water was gray and not blue. We both took another drag, but I pulled in a little too much smoke and started coughing.
“But sometimes I wonder,” she went on while I coughed, “if that was ever the right way to do it.”
“I just wonder if maybe there was a better way, better than just taking it day by day." She smiled sadly. "But either way, I should go see if your grandfather needs anything. I think the phone woke him up.” Lela killed the cigarette in the ashtray and went inside.
I stayed on the balcony for a while. A plane murmured in the sky and I hummed with it, pretending the Earth was speaking to me. The sea crashed against the rocks of the coast and watched as I finished my cigarette.