It was a hot and dusty day and Carmencita was there in the center of the island, in the little town in the center of the island where the sea is unseen, where the sea never breathes her breath of relief, there in the dusty town, there in the center of the island. Carmencita had just finished her third bath of the day and she felt clean and smooth, a brief feeling she had spent the whole day capturing and recapturing. During her second bath she had taken a forgotten razor left by one of her mother’s many husbands, far back beneath the sink where only a child would dare explore, and had carefully and meticulously scraped away the hair from her legs, all the way up until the fading light glistened against her hairless skin through the bathroom window.
She stood on the porch of her mother’s house, the nicest house in town, purchased with the proceeds from the five husbands who had lined up to marry and die, each one in turn, each preceding the next, each eager, each dying without fanfare at the end of their time. Number two had been Carmencita’s father, as had numbers three and four. Number five, now a year in the field behind the church, she had not liked at all, but his money had tipped the balance enough to buy the nicest house in the center of the town, even if he hadn’t lived to enjoy it.
Carmencita wrapped her arm around a beam and struck a pose. She waited for a light wind to ruffle up her dress a bit, just so, but the wind did not come. She looked down at her bare feet, her hairless toes, her bare ankles and calves, smiling secretly at the bareness beyond. Perhaps Mami would not notice, but so what if she did? Carmencita was a woman now, fifteen, and she had a right to make herself beautiful, touchable, smooth and refined like the San Juan girls she imagined from magazine pictures but who never came to the little town in the center of the island.
It was the time of day of fading light, and the streets were empty. To know that it was evening rather than morning one would had to have lived the day. Around her Carmencita could hear the banging of pots, shouts, summons, and the brief hysterics of children who shriek now and then in the distance for reasons which, once of great import, fade as adulthood approaches. As the light faded the lamps and candles were lit in the houses of the town, and Carmencita felt as if she was in the middle of a luminous honeycomb, adorned by jewels that flicker in the night. The bare bulb above her on the porch, light at the effortless flick of a switch, she declined, preferring instead the blue-grey shrouds of evening light.
The tap tap of a man’s solid walk in solid shoes began to coalesce from the end of the street. Unhurried, the percussion strolled leisurely into Carmencita’s ear. She adjourned herself casually to the porch’s low iron gate where her bare pretty feet would be visible but unobtrusive to passersby. She leaned back against the beam and brushed her black hair, still wet from her bathroom adventure, back behind her ear. Her large brown eyes struck out through the shadows, but her head remained still, her mouth pretty, her skin brown and soft and invitingly inviolate.
Through the neighbor’s hedge she sighted the phantom in outlines. On his head was a cap, on his feet were polished shoes, at his side was a revolver, and on his chest was a badge. So tall! He had moved into the town just a week ago with his wife and children, moved from some other place nearby, just as small, just as still, just as windless and as dusty. He was tall and robust, twirling his nightstick in his hand, so confident, so much a man he would be even without his trim, sophisticated mustache. Carmencita yawned enticingly as he passed by the gate, vocalizing and stretching slightly, making him turn his head languidly towards the utterance the heat makes at the end of the day. He stopped and held her in his eyes, smiling the smile of policemen who understand the thought of misdeed.
“Ai, the heat is very tiring,” said the policeman, still twirling his stick. “Even for those who stand still on their porches.”
“It gets cooler at night,” replied Carmencita, suppressing a giggle.
“Yes, it gets cooler so one can sleep. When it is too hot it is hard to sleep.” He looked the girl over carefully. “You are the daughter of the widow?”
“My name is Carmencita.”
“‘Carmencita’ is how a girl is called. I will call you ‘Carmen.’”
“How will you tell me apart from my mother?” she blushed, scratching her thigh absently.
“Oh, I think I will know the difference.” He pushed his cap back and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “The differences are clear. Good night, Carmen.”
“You are the new policeman, no?” she called out to him, her voice pitched a girlish bit higher than she wanted.
He stopped. “This is something everyone knows, just as everyone knows of the daughter of the widow.”
“No one knows of me.”
“Modesty is an attractive quality in a woman.”
Carmencita looked at her bare feet. “Would you like something to refresh yourself?”
“I would indeed.” He laughed in a way that made Carmencita shiver. “But I must attend to my rounds. There is a town to be saved from itself. Good night….” He paused to think. “Carmen.”
“Good night…” She listened to the beat of his big manly feet recede. She had forgotten to ask him his name. She sighed. She sighed because he was big and handsome, she sighed because of the sound of his voice, she sighed because he was married, she sighed because she was in the center of the dusty town in the center of the island where the sea never breaths her breath of relief, where the sea is unseen.
The next day the policeman did not come past the house at all, but that was all right because Carmencita’s mother did not like for her to loiter around on the porch. There was always something to be cleaned, to be scrubbed, to be polished in the house. Carmencita did not want the big policeman to see her sweaty in clothes fit only to clean in, covered with the dirt of the house and the scrapings of the evening’s meal beneath her fingers, yet she listened for the sounds of his approach in the evening, hoping for a glimpse of him to fuel the fantasies which made the long, dull nights bearable. The schoolboys who teased her, who tried to lift up her dress and whisper dirty words and thoughts into her ear, they did nothing to excite her imagination. She wanted a man who knew already how to touch a woman, and the policeman, she knew, was such a man.
The next day she took the other way home from school by means of the long road that ran out by the edge of the town. She wanted to go for a walk, and if the road ran past the house where the new policeman lived, then perhaps it would not hurt to look and see the woman who enjoyed such a husband. It was not so hot that day. The hint of a coming storm sheltered the crackling earth and those who trod above it. What a beautiful woman she must be to share her bed with the policeman! What white skin she must have, what beautiful long dark hair, what full, shapely legs and tiny feet she must have, just like the San Juan girls who wear lipstick and go to nightclubs to meet rich gringos. How could one compete with such a goddess?
Carmencita slowed her pace as she passed by the house, fanning herself with her free hand as if overcome by some vapor. Perhaps the goddess was not home. Perhaps he was home alone, and perhaps he would see her and invite her inside…. But no, that would not be proper, not a proper thing to do at all, not for a policeman, not for a policeman of the little town. If she were to faint, though, then he would have to take her inside, lift her up and carry her inside in his strong arms, lay her on their bed and put a cool compress on her head to revive her. Do I feel dizzy? Do I feel faint? Her heart pounded, but her treasonous legs still carried her strongly. If only the sun would come out.
As she followed the road around the house she saw a plump and worn-looking washerwoman she did not recognize in the backyard taking clothes from off the line. Shouldn’t his wife be doing his laundry? After all, it was not just any clothing, but his clothing, his shorts and socks and shirts, the blue shirts of a policeman and the white ones he wore underneath. His goddess-wife would have seen him put them on and take them off. As she washed them she would smell his scent rising out of them. As she ironed them and put them away, she would be delighted to know that she would see him put them on and take them off again and again. What a privilege she would have, that woman. But a beautiful San Juan woman does not do her own laundry or the laundry of her husband. To be beautiful should be enough.
Carmencita heard the sound of pots clattering to the floor within the house. The washerwoman stopped and turned and shouted into the doorway:
“If you break something your father will not be happy when he comes home!”
A little girl wobbled out of the house and embraced the woman’s leg.
“Mami, when will Papi come home today?”
“This I never know.” The girl began playing with the clothespins. “Ai, Amelia, go over there and let me finish. Or do you want to go naked?”
Carmencita’s world teetered out of joint. How was it possible that she scrubbed floors for the humorless widow while this dumpy jibara shared a bed with the policeman? How could a man who could have any woman choose this one above the many beautiful ones who had no doubt awaited his proposal? Surely he could not be happy with this kinky-haired jaba. Such handsomeness required the complimentary beauty that Carmencita knew she possessed. It was the way that God had made the world. Adam was handsome and Eve was beautiful, Sampson strong and his Delilah voluptuous, the San Juan girls radiant and their boyfriends debonair. It could be no other way. God made the world for the beautiful, for her and for the policeman too.
At home, in the bath, Carmencita ran a critic’s eye over the naked form that lay in the tepid water. She cupped her breast in her hand, massaging a nipple until it grew hard. Am I beautiful? She traced a finger down to her navel, stuck it inside and wiggled it against her firm, unyielding tummy. How the boys at school would like to see this…. But they do not know a woman from a girl. She combed her fingers through her pubic hair, knuckles rubbing in the tender places. Could I not excite the policeman more than the washerwoman-wife? She ran her hand down her thigh, the resprouting hair pricking her roughly. Soon she would shave it off again.
She lifted her left leg out of the water and extended it, resting her foot against the tile that surrounded the tub. The water ran off of it in a sheet, a curtain parting to reveal the debutante. She shuddered, chilled as the air met the water. What part of a woman excites a man? Hips? Legs? Buttocks? Or did they all yearn for that place it was a sin to name?
She put her right leg up and over the edge of the bathtub, dripping water onto the clean bathroom floor and not caring. This is what the boys at school want to see. This is why they drop their pencils in front of me when I sit down. If I told them they could look they would do anything I say. But what is there to see? They are the ones who have something there. I can see it press against their pants when they whisper their dirty things to me.
That night Carmen had a dream. In the dream the policeman came to her, and he said, “Carmen, it is you I love. The jaba means nothing to me. The children mean nothing because they are not your children. They are not our children. Come with me, Carmen, come with me and be like the San Juan girls, like the girls in the pictures, like the girls who never travel to this dusty town.”
When Carmen awoke, she knew it was the type of dream that would not fade. She knew it was the type of dream that she could carry with her like a memory, the type of dream that must inevitably become reality. So in the afternoon she would bathe, and in the twilight she would stand on her porch, stand on her porch in the evening light in the center of the town, in the center of the town where the sea is unseen, where the sea never breathes her breath of relief, there in the center of the dusty town.
She knew it was only a matter of time before the policeman came around again. The dirty boys who whispered dirty words in her ear returned again and again despite the slaps she administered, so she knew it was only a matter of time before the policeman returned to the porch of the house in the center of the town, the porch of the nicest house in town.
The day the policeman came, she knew that he would be hers. She understood her youth and beauty, she understood that the jaba could not compete with her. Her seduction was as if in a dream, an event isolated from future understanding. Once inside the house from which the widow was absent, the policeman needed no inducement to forget the cold drink which had been Carmencita’s lure. His thirst and hers were slaked in Carmencita’s bedroom with the joyous resignation of those who have accepted their fate. In their moment of most intense union, Carmen knew that the policeman belonged to her.
Her victory was short-lived. After the act was completed, the policeman wordlessly replaced his clothing on his sweaty body and departed, leaving Carmen naked and alone in her bed. She watched him go back to his patrol, back to the jaba, leaving Carmen alone in a still-moist bed with nothing but a lingering pain in her groin and the memory of his touch.
For many evenings she stood on her porch, alone, waiting for the policeman to return. She knew he would return. He must return. She had so much more to offer than his wife. On the first night of waiting, or the second, or the third, she would have greeted him with joy, asked no questions as to his disappearance or return. On the seventh night, however, as he walked up to her as she stood on the porch, her anger made her stiff despite his allure.
“Where have you been?”
“I have responsibilities. I am a married man.”
“Leave her,” ordered Carmen. “You belong with me now.”
“I cannot. We have a home, we have children, we have a life together.”
“How can you prefer that jaba to me?” she said. She looked at him in anger, and then she started to cry.
“Is your mother home?” asked the policeman quickly. Through her tears, Carmen shook her head no. He led her quickly inside. It was not long before she ceased to cry in the comforts of the bed. He was hers again, and she did not need to cry.
Once again, after, he wordlessly put his things on and departed, no doubt fearing the return of her mother and discovery. This time she did not feel alone, nor was she afraid. She knew the policeman would come again. At first it seemed as if he were trying to keep away. He came, in the beginning, but once a week, always when her mother was out, as if he knew already, then he would come to her. They would enter the house together and he would make love to her and depart. Then he surprised her by coming again a few days later. Soon it seemed as if every day he needed to be with her. When her mother was home he would lead her to a bar near the center of the town, not far from the widow’s house, to a back room there that seemed designed for their clandestine encounters. They went on for many months, stronger with each reunion, unknown except to Carmen, the policeman, and the barman.
The morning inevitably came when Carmen leapt from her bed on the crest of a wave of nausea and ran for the bathroom. Not understanding the significance of this, she complained of sickness to her mother and did not dress that day. Her mother suspected but said nothing until the morning sickness was repeated for a third day. Then, through intimidation and discipline, for the widow was a daunting woman, she extracted the shameful knowledge from her daughter that she most feared. A doctor, discreetly consulted in the next town over, confirmed the worst of it.
The policeman was summoned. In fear, he at first denied, but later accepted responsibility for his misdemeanor. Carmen listened to the heated discussion tearfully from her bedroom. She was a child again, not to be consulted in the affair of the adults. She was not to have a voice. In the end, rather than answer formal charges, the policeman would accept paternity of the coming child and provide financial support for the child’s rearing. He would not see young Carmen again.
After the fourth month, when the coming child was too obviously in Carmen’s womb, her mother shut her away in the house, the house in the center of the town from which she was not allowed to emerge. The secret, however, was not long to be kept in a town with only one movie theater. The discomfiture of the policeman, his comings and goings from the house in the center of the town, at first by night and then by day, Carmen’s disappearance…. It all added up to one thing. The rumors crawled across the town’s underbelly of the meetings, which had been held in the infamous room behind the bar. It was not long before word of the affair reached the ears of the policeman’s wife, and the policeman’s wife knew the rumors to be true because they had been true before in another town near the center of the island. It was not long before she appeared at the widow’s door with a kitchen knife in her hand demanding blood and justice. Only with difficulty was she subdued and restrained.
So the widow and policeman devised a new plan. With the cost of the passage in her purse and five twenty-dollar bills sewn into the lining of her dress she would be sent to San Juan, and thence to New York to stay with the widow’s sister, an aunt that Carmencita had never met. In New York she would bear the policeman’s child, and there, under the supervision of the aunt she had never met, she would work until such time as perhaps, one day, she could return to the dusty town in the center of the island.
Three days after her sixteenth birthday, she was loaded without ceremony or tearful goodbyes onto a bus bound for San Juan. Following the explicit directions written down for her, she found her way from the bus terminal to the Port of San Juan, there to take ship for New York in the least expensive of all possible berths. As she walked towards the port she could smell the ocean and hear the cry of gulls that blew up from a breeze from the sea. The sea was the only thing that seemed real to her.
Even though it was not much past noon, she saw the San Juan girls, dressed as if for evening, weaving in and out of the bars that lined the street. She knew that they were happier than she. It was not supposed to be this way.
She did not spend much time in the ship’s tiny compartment with the three older women who shared it. The swelling of her stomach and the nausea, even more profound than that which comes with first time ocean travel, betrayed to them the reason for her journey. In the early part of the voyage she spent most of her time on deck, feeling the breeze and inhaling the salt air, which seemed to cleanse something out of her. As the voyage continued, it grew colder and gradually she spent less and less time on deck. Eventually she was forced permanently within the interior confines of the ship.
By the time the ship reached New York, the outside air was a cold she had never experienced before. Even though she wore two sweaters and her best shoes, it bit into her. How could people live in a place so cold?
New York was a double slap to the face. The cold and the enormity made her want to run and hide in the deepest, darkest, most secret holds of the ship. She wanted to hide under the bunk in her cabin and never come out. It made her want very much to go home, to retreat to a time before the policeman, but she could not.
Once off the boat, Carmen stood under the landmark designated in the set of instructions she had borne with her all the way from the little town in the center of the island. Only the cold and the heaviness in her womb convinced her that she had not gone to the place described by the priest as the consequence of her unmarried love for the policeman.
She shivered and waited for her aunt to arrive. The cold wind that blew up from the harbor bit into her with each gust. New Yorkers, singly, in pairs, or in groups walked by her and gave her a casual look. They did not stare at the young girl without a coat, at the young girl without a ring, at the young girl with her belly swollen. They did not whisper to each other. They did not care.
She waited. She tried to walk back and forth to keep warm, she rubbed her hands together as she had seen people in movies do, but it was to no avail. The cold was consuming her. The cold was eating her from the outside in. Her feet, her hands, her ears, her nose; she was losing them all. She wanted to sit and sleep, but the ground was wet and very dirty and she had on her best dress. She leaned against the cold brick wall and waited.
Finally, after an icy age, a woman with the unmistakable sour expression of her mother appeared before her. The look of the cold, the look of America, was upon her. Her hands were thrust deep into the pockets of the gray coat that looked to Carmen so heavy, so encumbering, and yet so warm. The aunt stood before her and studied her slowly from head to toe and to head again.
“You are Carmencita?”
Carmen’s teeth chattered so much that she could only nod.
“You are early,” the aunt observed critically, “and you have no coat. Let’s go.”
Carmen took up her belongings. The aunt made no move to help her. Struggling through the cold, she followed her aunt a few steps behind, not quite able to keep the pace. They wound through the dirty narrow little streets that were the paths through mountainous buildings, taller than Carmen had ever seen. She paused to look up with awe. The aunt stopped to cluck and beckon to her, and to wait with impatience for her to catch up. Carmen did not know where they were going or how long it would take to get there, but the distance seemed interminable and her burdens leadenly heavy.
After the countless blocks and street crossings, they came to an outdoor stairwell that led into the ground. Carmen watched her aunt begin to descend the stairs, but she hesitated. What lay under the earth, but hell? The aunt paused at the top of the steps and looked at her niece without indulgence.
“What is the matter with you, child? Do you not wish to get out of the cold?” She saw the fear in Carmen’s face and added, “It’s just the subway. Don’t be a fool.”
Carmen slowly approached her aunt. When she came within range, the aunt reached out and grabbed her arm and pulled her onto the stairs with a force sufficient to quell any protest. The smell of urine thawed through Carmen’s cold, numb nose. At the bottom of the steps, the aunt gave Carmen a nickel. Carmen learned by example how to put the nickel into the slot at the top of the turnstile and push her way through to the New York below the ground.
When the train finally came, Carmen was afraid to board, scared by the growling clatter of its approach. Her aunt anticipated this and shoved her roughly onto the train from behind. When the doors slid shut and the train lurched forward, Carmen fell squarely on her behind because she did not know to brace herself for the train’s first forward lurch. The people on the train looked at her and smiled in passing amusement. Carmen became angry, so angry that she cried. Her tears burned trails down her frozen cheeks and she looked up in defiance. The eyes that smiled looked away to other things, all except the aunt, whose eyes bore into her with disapproval.
“Get up! Get up!” she barked. “Don’t behave like a child!”
“But I am a child,” Carmen’s voice wavered through her tears.
“You were a child,” said her aunt, “but not anymore.”