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Farewell in Madrid

She was working the LA Times crossword puzzle nestled in the classifieds section of the paper, when it hit her like the proverbial ton of bricks. Of course, she had never been hit by a ton of bricks, but that's how it must feel, she thought, like the wind is being sucked out of you and you are wrung pretty nearly dry and then there's a whoosh and you are so full you explode. That's when the tears started and wouldn't stop even after she diligently filled in "ADIOS" in clean sharp capitals with her favorite black ink, fine point Papermate Flexigrip. "Farewell in Madrid"--now after almost twenty years that she would still react like that surprised her; must be menopause or life. She had never been dramatic or exagerada but here she was the tears streaming into her decaf--strong and black and sweet, like she liked it, and the thought crossed her mind, will the tears change the taste?

The image came back with the force of those darn bricks, it's Barajas airport and she is saying goodbye. The word "Farewell" lingers in her mind while the word "adios" fights a stronger impulse, as if she could say the word itself and it would physically hurt. It had been difficult, this love affair, and easy too, too easy, knowing it would end and knowing that there would be exactly this scene at the airport. His small apple-green Seat, now empty, parked at the curb waiting like a quiet obedient pet. The tiny car had been so stuffed with boxes, she had barely fit in the front seat. María José, the friend she had met at Luis Cano's Wednesday night tertulia and who taught Portuguese for Berlitz, had come in a cab with the other boxes and was now waiting inside, giving them a little privacy. They stood quietly looking into each other's eyes. She had a backpack slung on her shoulder, her carry-on suitcase by her side; he held a green plant –a philodendron she had given him, it looked odd in his hands; she carried a bunch of blood red carnations. There were no tears left. They hugged and kissed, and she saw him get in the car and leave; they had agreed it would be better this way; after seeing that all her luggage, her boxes of books, her few treasures, were checked and safe, he would leave. Go back to the apartment. He was working on a project and was already late. It was a job for a magazine, outside of his job as graphic designer, he did odd jobs, bragged about how they wanted him, he was so good at what he did. And she had been skeptical until one time at the opera during an intermission, a distinguished looking older man had approached them and had told him that he had a job for him for a new magazine they were launching. She had been impressed.

The tears had already been shed, the acrimonious angry words that would make the parting easier, had already been unleashed and hurtful, hurting the sweet lovemaking that shadowed her imminent departure. Just a few days ago, he had come down with a summer cold, his way of dealing with her leaving. And she had nursed him sporadically as she packed the piso she had shared with roommates for a year; she was the last to leave and it fell to her to turn in the keys, to see that the cleaning lady was thorough and that everything was done as it should be done. There had been several farewells in Madrid the last few weeks as each one of her colleagues went back to the States, each student, each researcher, each artist, each professor left. The group had gathered at favorite eateries and bars, and she went to all of them, all the farewell gatherings, and she had not shed a single tear. I'm being strong she told herself, not like in elementary school when she would cry for days after school was over and she had said goodbye to friends and teachers.

The hardest, of course, is this one, she mused as she went into airport security at the TWA gate. It didn't help that even as the plane taxied for take off there was a delay and they had had to deplane. Everyone nervous and scared. And she already forming the memory into words, had found a public phone and called him, had left a message on his machine –wanting for her voice, her memory, to be there for him when he returned home even as he was already leaving her in his past. Waiting for his message to end so she could leave hers, she fingered the earrings María José had given her --a pair of tiny, delicately shaped roses made of bread dough –María José had suddenly taken them off and handed them to her as they sat chatting and promising to keep in touch. She remembered the beloved earrings, and how she had cried when she lost one of them. She still kept the other one in an old jewelry box with other singles, earrings that had lost their partners and which she would sometimes mix and match on a whim, or wear alone, just for fun and to see how people reacted.

Now, here she was under a California sun filling in a crossword puzzle and crying. She sighed as her son came in and poured himself a cup of decaf and asked, "What do you want for breakfast? Mariachis de papa con huevo? Or pancakes?" "Lo que sea, I'm not really hungry." On television, Katie Curic was interviewing someone about the President's indiscretions. "Texas city, six letters, third letter is 'r,'" she said.
"Laredo," he piped up happily.
And they continued the morning ritual they'd only begun this last summer before he left for college, as they got ready to start their day. It pleased her so that he enjoyed puzzles the way she did, and that he was old enough now to know words like "ethos" and to fill in in areas she drew a blank: he knew the name of the dog in Frasier, while she knew the name of the dog in The Thin Man; he knew useless trivia about sports and rock singers; she knew all the literary questions. He often surprised her with his knowledge of science, too. Pretty soon, he would be her equal and would be able to do the New York Times puzzle, always a greater challenge, on his own.
Whoever got up first had to bring in the paper and got to start the puzzle; the other one made breakfast. That was their deal. She had ended up cooking more often than not, preferring to spend as much time in bed as possible and he, an early riser would have a try at the puzzle before she got up. This quiet early September morning she had awakened with a dream that she couldn't quite recall. And this morning, she thought to herself, when the past has violently interceded into my morning ritual I am bracing myself for yet another farewell. And, with the thought her heart felt hollow, as if it had been squeezed of all its blood. All summer she had felt that there was a tiny hole that was growing bigger and bigger every day. She knew that now it was closer to the time for him to go, to say goodbye; the hole was as large as her heart. There had been fights, he'd been sullen, often quiet as a rock. And there had been arguments over minor things, her losing the keys in the car while the car was running when she went to the store, his forgetting to turn off the hose one night and finding the yard flooded the next morning. She'd been rude to one of his friends, a perceived slight. His wanting to major in art, or not go to school at all and just paint, and finally wanting to go to San Diego to school instead of applying closer to home in L.A. or Santa Barbara. This went on for about a month after graduation, until they declared a truce.

These last couple of months they'd decided not to fight and to monitor their feelings and to talk about them so he said "Mom, que te pasa? You're strange this morning, y parece que you've been crying, are you okay?"
"Yea, I guess I'm just missing you already, I'm saying goodbye, saying farewell in L.A." And she sang a couple of lines of the goodbye song from the Sound of Music the way she used to when he was a kid. The tears came back.

He smiled. But he wasn't convinced and didn't know why. At eighteen he'd learned to read her moods, and he knew she would only tell him when she was ready and proceeded to chop the cilantro and tomatoes, cube the potatoes for the papa con huevo. He pulled out the frozen tortillas and stared to put them in the microwave. When she said "Let me make you some real ones, not these plastic ones. Remember when you told grandma that I fed you plastic tortillas, not real ones like hers?" And they shared a laugh remembering the old family story.
"It'll take too long, Mom, I'm in a hurry."
"N'ombre, it takes me 15–20 minutes, max. Ya veras, by the time the papas con huevo are done so will the tortillas." And she jumped up and began preparing the dough.

They worked quietly for few minutes to the morning talk show where folks were being wished happy birthday on national tv because they were 100 and even older. Finally, she rolled out the tortillas and he cooked them. The tears came once more.
"What's wrong, Mom?"
"Nothing, it's okay, really."
"Did I do something?"
"No, m'ijo, nada, it's just me and my memories. I'm starting to sound like your grandma, no?"
"Aw, Mom, you're not that old."
And she could tell he was uncomfortable and skittish, "No, no, it's okay, see? I'm okay. Making tortillas has always been therapeutic for me," and he rolled his eyes heavenward, a signal that he didn't want to hear the story that he knew was coming of how tortilla-making had saved her, literally kept her sane, when she was a grad student in Ann Arbor and he was a tiny baby and they were so poor and it was a long cold winter. Or how in Europe while on a research fellowship, she had made tortillas when she got too homesick.
"Aw, Mom," he said and she smiled.
Then she motioned with her head toward the table and the newspaper with the puzzle waiting to be completed, saying, "Ándale, or we won't finish it."
He picked up the pen and said out loud, "Three letter word for 'anger,'" and gave the answer, "irk."
"Or 'ire,' she said.
"It ends in 'k'."
"Okay, but give me the complete info."
"Six letter word for "sire," ends in 'r.'"
"Father," she said.
" Yes, it fits," he answered.

Santa Barbara, California, november 1998

Norma E. Cantú, Laredo, Texas

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