I wanted to wish all of you Merry Christmas, the happiest of holidays, and a healthy, lucky, sexy, and loving New Year’s! I was going to write about how special you have made 2013 for me, by following Thirty Nights from its very first chapter to its current journey through publishing houses. I wanted to thank you for all your faith, support, and thousands and thousands of messages, comments, reviews, cards, and notes you have sent me. But if I did that, I would go on forever. So instead, I will say simply a BIG THANK YOU and give you what you like! Some more writing. 🙂 Over the last several months, so many of you have asked for this scene. It is set before Thirty Nights starts, and I thought it was the most appropriate to post today, on Christmas Eve. Not only to use it as a scene for hope and love for all of you, but also in a moment of self-indulgence because this scene is very close to my heart. Some of you know that Javier was partly inspired by my own brother. Well, this last week, I learned that the American Embassy didn’t give my brother a visa to come spend Christmas with me. So, this is for the apple of my eye, “Andrew,” as well as for all you who have been my muses in this process. Oh, and don’t panic. Aiden POV will return soon, too. I’m just trying to upgrade the website to include more of his chapters. THANK YOU EVERYONE!! HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND SEE YOU IN THE NEW YEAR (my hubby is dragging me to Seattle for a family get-together). All my love, xoxo, Ani
NEUVO DIA, NEUVA VIDA
Christmas Eve, 2008
“Javier, hijo, ándale, ándale, neuvo dia, neuva vida!”
My mother, Maria, has been waking me up this way since July 2, 1994. New day, new life, she said. I remember her with a four-year old’s eyes. Tall, even though she is only five foot two. Plump, because she was wearing three wool sweaters—yes, in July. Happy, because she was smiling. Strong, because she was carrying two black, duffel bags full of our clothes. And right, because she was my mother. New day, new life, she said. She put me in three sweaters, too, and a coat. She gave me my Optimus Prime transformer that my father had sent me all the way from Oregon, America, and took my hand. Vamos a ver a tu papá. Vamos a América, she smiled. I followed her with a four-year old’s steps. Small, quick, and trusting—rushing to keep up with the rest of the world.
“Javier, ándale,” her voice drifts from our tiny, American kitchen, with the same urgency, the same faith as it held fourteen years ago. But unlike fourteen years ago, I am already awake, even though it’s only 4:30 a.m. Still, I let her believe she is waking me up because she likes that. My mother is nothing if she is not the first face her children see in the morning and the last they see at night.
“Okay, okay, I’m up,” I say, my voice still thick from sleep. The house is quiet except Maria’s soft footsteps on the linoleum floor. My father, Antonio, already left for work to build The Nines Hotel downtown Portland. My sisters are asleep. I look at the small Christmas tree in the corner, covered in tinsel and pink lights. No presents there yet. But the stockings hanging on the coat rack are stuffed, most likely with Maria’s knitted socks and gloves. I bet mine will be navy again this year.
I get out of our couch—that’s my bed. No, no, don’t feel bad for me. This sleeping arrangement is by choice because I have converted my bedroom into a painting studio. More about that later. I fold my comforter and sheets, and stuff them in the matchbox closet in our hallway where they will stay until around ten tonight, when I get back from work. Why 10:00 p.m.? Because my boss is letting me out early. Merry Christmas Eve, America!
I shuffle down the hall to the bathroom, stepping on two dolls and a pacifier, and nearly breaking my neck over a soccer ball. My sisters’ toys. Four sisters now. Anamelia just joined us two months ago. It was almost fun until I realized where babies come from. Then I went through a phase of throwing up in my mouth every time I saw my mother pregnant. But I grew out of it. Now, I just blame the five of us on my parents’ love for each other—the love that conquered time, distance, and illegal immigration—but I also know there is a little bit of good ole’ Catholicism in there, too. As faithful Mexican immigrants, we go forth and multiply, filling America’s schools, streets, buses, and homes with American citizens. So they can have the life that we came here to find. The American dream could be an ad for aphrodisiacs. Save an oyster, find America! Neuvo dia, nueva vida.
In the bathroom, I curse my stubble to the deepest pits of Mexico. It grows like fungus after rain. The painter in me wants to grow it out Van Gogh style but Antonio believes in three rules that make a man: a clean-shaven face, a good woman, and a back-breaking job. I am two out of three. I’ve been growing a beard since I was eleven. I’ve been working not one, but two, back-breaking jobs since I was fifteen. As for the good woman . . . well, I’ll just paint her. See, it puts a real damper on dating style when you are eighteen and living with your parents.
Hello Miss American Pie, my name is Harvey Sellers. No, not really, but I can’t tell you my real name because I am a criminal by your laws. In fact, your peeps call me illegal. I’d like to take you out to dinner somewhere on a hilltop, if my Honda Civic makes it that far. But it has to be around eleven because that’s when I get out of work. Is that too late for dinner? I promise to pack my mother’s carnitas . . . or salad, whichever you prefer. Once there, we can dance. Do you tango? Vertical? Horizontal? And at the end of the date, I’ll drop you off. I won’t give you my phone number because you may know Immigration and Customs Enforcement police . . . you know, ICE men. So how about that date, Miss?
And that is why I, Javier Solis, do not have a girlfriend.
I slap my newly-shaved face, now softer than Anamelia’s bottom after a new diaper, and start putting on my work clothes. We’re supposed to get an ice storm today. Lucky for me as a landscaper, ice storms are rare in Portland, Oregon. But when they come, they turn the world upside down. See, Portlanders have no fucking clue what to do with snow. They usually walk around like dingbats, calling off school and public transportation, wearing sleeping bags with holes for legs and arms, and discussing the merits of global warming. As a native Mexican with the word Sun for a last name, I would join them wholeheartedly. But Boss pays extra on ice storms, which means they’re better than sunny days.
I put on my long underwear—sexy. Then jeans—hot. Then my work coveralls—even sexier. Repeat the process with three layers up top. Steel toed boots? Check. A man needs toes. Ear muffs? For sure. A man needs ears, too. Coat? Two, please. They’re out in the foyer. Actually, foyer is what Maria calls it. In reality, it’s a two-by-two space cluttered with the girls’ shoes.
I come out of the bathroom, sweating bullets. I can smell Maria’s fried eggs and potatoes so I sprint to the kitchen. She smiles when she sees me, her chocolate eyes twinkling like the Christmas tree. In five seconds, she will hug me, bless me, and ask about my work schedule even though it’s the same every day. Five, four, three, two, one.
“Bendito, hijo, bendito,” she says, marking a cross over my forehead. Then she slides three eggs and a mountain of hash browns on a plate with reindeers—one dollar, ninety-nine cents at TJ Maxx, a present from Antonio two Christmases ago. I sit at the kitchen table and dig in. Maria pats my cheek.
“You growing. You need new jeans, hijo.” She smiles but in her voice, I sense the hesitation of math. She is adding up the dollars in our checking account.
“Not really. You know me, I’m a kilt guy,” I say because that will make her laugh. She does and for a moment, I sense an echo of the four-year old boy. That boy is long gone but there are some moments—rare, Christmas-Eve moments—when Maria’s laughter turns back time to Optimus Prime transformers, hot July days, trips to America, and a mother’s guiding hand. Nuevo dia, nueva vida.
“So what is Boss having you do today?” Maria asks in English. She always asks this question in English, as though to emphasize its importance.
“Going over to Reed College. Gotta treat the rhododendrons around campus. Then off to Feign Art. Someone ordered a replica of that Pursuit of Happiness series I did last year and I have to finish it by January third.”
“Oh, that’s nice, that’s nice,” Maria says, patting my arm. I know her pats by now. On the cheek to say hello or I love you, on the head to say behave, and on the arm to say maybe later. She reserves this latter pat for my “art talks.” She and Antonio know that if we really want to talk American dreams, mine would be to have my own gallery, paint the land I see versus the land I want, and of course, collect money from it. And they think that’s as impractical as a man can get. Pointless concern because as an illegal, I could never own or operate a gallery. So instead, I settle for ghost-painting for Brett Feign who sells my work under his name and gives me about a fiftieth of what he makes. Fair? No. Acceptable? Yes. It puts food on the table and I get to do what I love. Not many have that luxury. Not even Americans.
“How much is Feign paying for the paintings this time?” Maria asks.
“Same as always. Two hundred bucks a pop. There’re five of them though so that’s good.”
Her face softens and she pats my cheek. “Buen hijo,” she says. A good son. “Someday, you will not have to work so much.”
She speaks the words with a far-away look, as though that is the only aspiration, the holy promise. Because it is. She pats my cheek again, takes my plate, and walks over to the sink.
I watch her straight back. It breaks too, under loads of laundry, bending to clean, wipe, sweep, and mop Portland’s hotels. Still, on any given day, life is better here. Or if not life, the dream of life. Somehow it feels closer, graspable, or at least more vivid on this side of the border. I suppose, in the end, a vivid dream is better than a blurry dream, even if it never becomes reality.
I still have a few minutes before six o’ clock, but suddenly, the promise of Nuevo dia, nueva vida, rings both loud and mute. I stand to leave. Maria turns around and wipes her hands with a kitchen towel, covered with snowmen. Two dollars, ninety nine cents at Crate and Barrel. A present from me four Christmases ago. Maria is nuts about Crate and Barrel. Which is why this year, I’m getting her stocking-shaped mugs, in addition to a painting of her and Antonio.
“You leaving already? You still have a few minutes,” she looks at the cuckoo clock on the kitchen wall.
“I know. I want to drive slow. Ice and all.”
She blanches at the word ICE.
“I meant real ice, Mom. It’s okay.”
I walk over to her and give her a hug. The word ICE in our house is the same as the word muerte. It is never said unless it happens. Damn the genius who named immigration police ICE. What the hell are we supposed to call real ice without causing heart attacks for our parents?
“How about we call it Aspirin from now on?” I say.
Maria’s color returns. Almost. “Aspirin?” she smiles.
“Sure. Aspirin is supposed to prevent heart attacks.”
She laughs and pats my cheek. “Ah, sí. Okay. Aspirin.”
“I love you,” I say, and kiss her hair.
“I love you, too,” she answers in English.
I put on my two coats, pick up my packed lunch, and go out to brave the Portland Aspirin storm.
By 11:30 a.m., I have snowballs instead of testicles. Reed College has more rhododendrons than ICE has cops on the Mexico border. Why the fuck does any college need so many rhododendrons? Oh right, the college that gave us Steve Jobs, Wikipedia, the CD, and who knows what else. I usually keep my eyes on the ground and away from the brainiacs that attend this school but the truth is I have crashed a couple of their art lectures while pretending to take out the trash. I even wrote down their syllabus and have been saving for the books. At my rate, I will have a better chance at buying them one chapter at a time . . . and should have them all when I turn sixty. Awesome! I continue covering the rhododendrons with plastic bags and spraying them with anti-freeze, whistling Johnny Cash’s “One Piece At A Time.”
“Umm… hello?” A soft voice, almost a windy whisper, interrupts me right at “you’ll know it’s me when I come through your town.” I look up. And man though I am, I gasp. Airless, I have a sudden urge to cross myself.
A few steps from me, is a . . . girl. I think. But the word does not fit her. She is almost transparent, as though she lacks substance, not form. She is tiny, no taller than five foot four. Her skin is pale, almost like onion skin. It stretches over her prominent cheeks and upturned nose like the edges of her bones are about to break through the delicate film. Her lips are white, chapped, and slightly parted as though she is barely drawing breath. Her hair is long, past her waist, and almost black. It is thin, and I suppose at some point, it must have been wavy. It blows in the wind behind her like a sigil—dark and ominous as the flag death would carry if it were in the habit of announcing itself.
Standing out above and beyond the haunting sight, are the girl’s eyes. They are an astonishing color. A deep orchid purple, almost indigo blue. I have studied human eyes and colors for my art but I have never seen eyes like this. They are large, too big for her drawn face. Long, black lashes frame them but she blinks very little. The lashes flutter in the wind, too, like feathers. I watch her eyes closely, wondering if she is wearing lenses. She is not. Her eyes are real. Yet despite their vibrancy, they remind me of a hearth after the fire has gone out. No embers glowing, no warmth. Only ash. Like her hair, her eyes must have had some life in them but whatever specter has hollowed her, has extinguished them, too.
I tear my eyes from her face and look at the rest of her. She is wearing a man’s coat, too large for her. It’s a dark brown tweed, the sleeves rolled a few times to expose her frail hands, locked together. The coat falls to her shins. She has a dark green man’s scarf wrapped around her neck. Under the coat, she is wearing a pair of black slacks. On her feet, some black pumps that look like they belong on a mother, not on a teenage girl. Her feet shift on the frozen lawn. It’s not until I see that slight movement that I realize why the word girl does not fit her. She is not a girl. She is a ghost.
I look back at her face. She swallows once and flinches as if the act caused her pain. She looks at the anti-freeze spray bottle and then back at me. Her shoulders are hunched and another word pops in my head. Waif. She has that aura of an abandoned child, even though she is probably about eighteen years old. I try to say something —anything—but cannot. There was beauty in this girl once. The kind of beauty you paint, immortalize. A beauty underneath, between reality and imagination. A painter knows a pretty woman at first sight, and a beautiful woman at the thousandth. The Mona Lisa’s, the Simonetta’s, the Dora Maar’s. The muses. What could destroy that type of beauty with such vengeance? Why?
“I . . . I can help . . . help you with the rhododendrons?” she whispers again. Now I realize that, in fact, she is not whispering; she is talking. Whatever evil drained her beauty, muted her voice, too. But quiet though her words are, I notice a British accent in them.
She waits with an empty dread in her eyes, like she is afraid I am going to say no. Maybe she is crazy. As in true mental illness. I watch her under this new theory. She blinks once and looks at the rhododendrons again like they may hold the answer on how to weird out innocent landscapers. Yes, ill. Ill describes her. But not dangerous, no. Just . . . hurting. I open and close my mouth a few times, blink for the both of us, and find some words.
“Hey, there. Ah, you don’t need to help me. I got this. Uh, is there anything I can help you with?” Some food maybe? Or gloves? Or rocks in your pockets so you don’t blow away in the wind?
The moment she hears my “no” she flinches again and her chest rises as if she is trying to breathe. “Umm . . . you can help me if you let me help you,” she whispers.
What the hell does that mean? Oh, that if I let her help me, it will in turn help her? How on Oregon’s green forests will that happen? This girl needs to be in bed, hooked up to some IV or something. Not out in an Aspirin storm, treating shrubbery.
I shake my head. “Honestly, I think you should go home. It’s getting bad out here. Just go be warm or eat or something. I’m almost finished here.”
At the word home, she closes her eyes briefly, then opens them, looking at the rhododendrons in panic. “But . . . but . . . But if you cover their roots with leaves, it will be better for them. And the spray you are using is not effective. It doesn’t have a surfactant ingredient listed on the bottle, and it won’t help. If you want, I can show you how to make one that will help,” she whispers urgently. “Please?”
Okay. Either this girl has some serious, tree hugger kind of obsession with rhododendrons, or she invents anti-freeze and is trying to dupe me into buying some, or she is downright nuts. Besides, I know what I am doing with the shrubs.
“Look, ah . . . what’s your name?”
“Elisa. Elisa Snow,” her whisper drops so low that I have to lean in to catch her words. She almost mouths her last name as if her vocal chords cannot support the sound.
“Right. Okay, Elisa. My name is Harvey. Are you feeling . . . you know, okay and all?”
She nods slowly in a way that could mean only “no.” Some strange current starts to crawl and zap in my chest the same way it does when Maria is crying or one of the girls gets picked on at school.
“You don’t seem okay,” I push.
She steps back, looks at the rhododendrons one last time, inclines her head at me once, and turns to leave. Maybe she accepted defeat with the stupid shrubs, or perhaps gave it up in exchange for her silence to my question. Before I know what I am doing, I run after her.
“Hey, hey! Elisa?” I call, but she tries to walk faster. I catch up to her in about three steps and a half. “Hey, don’t run. I thought you wanted to help me out?” I say, keeping my voice casual like I do when I tease my sisters. Maybe this way, she will tell me what’s wrong with her. I don’t know why it’s suddenly so important for me to know, but it is.
She looks at me, and blinks twice—a record for her. “You’d let me help you?” she asks.
“Well, yeah, sure. As long as you tell me why you’re so upset.” I meant to make it sound like a negotiation but instead, it came out as a question.
She dissects my face, with a thinker’s look. A flash of intelligence gleams in her empty eyes. “And you will let me help you until you are all done?”
She looks around. What could be so momentous about telling someone why she’s upset. Oh shit, maybe it’s a crime? No, she doesn’t look like a criminal. No, this is something painful. I know that. That’s why I’m standing here like a dude’s Christmas tree: stiff, dead from the root up, and with a pair of snowballs.
“So, what do you say? A secret in exchange for hard labor?” I offer. I hoped to make her smile but she doesn’t. Perhaps she does not remember how. Or maybe my joke was not that funny. Still, for some nutjob reason, I keep going.
“I promise to make the labor really hard if that helps? You can do all the rhodies by yourself even. And you can show me what the deal is with anti-freeze and the surf-whatever.”
She looks up at me. For an instant, a shadow of life flits in her eyes, almost like recognition or trust. To my utter astonishment, she nods only once.
“Yeah? Deal?” I ask, unsure that a nod really is a nod with this girl.
“Deal,” she whispers.
I smile and wait in what I think is a very nice-guy, encouraging stance. Elisa locks her hands together tightly, as if she is looking for something to grip. Yes, my chest is definitely acting up. She is so fragile and the pain in her eyes so acute that, of its own volition, my hand extends toward her.
“You can hold on to me, if you want,” I say. If any dude anywhere has had a weirder conversation with a woman, I’ll give ICE my real name.
She stares at my open hand in that blinkless way of hers. I am about to withdraw it when her fingers relax a fraction. I hold my palm closer to her, like one might when offering a hazelnut to a wounded, trembling squirrel.
She extends her hand to me slowly. It shakes like the last leaves on Reed’s oaks. The weird crawl in my chest creeps up in my throat, changing into an ache I have never felt about a stranger. Something about her trust is transformative, like that right ray of light that makes the canvass a window, not a frame.
At last, her small hand rests on mine. Her fingers are icicles, brittle and frail. I wrap my hand around hers gently, afraid that if I shake it, it will shatter into a million crystals. She closes her fingers around mine. They are weightless, almost a caress, not a grip. Still, the touch must do something for her because she looks up at me.
“Thank you,” she mouths.
“Sure. See? Not that hard. Now, all this shrubbery is yours for the treating, just tell me what’s wrong.”
Her fingers tighten slightly on mine. I wait for a long time. At least a long time by an hourly worker’s standards. “You know, those rhodies will freeze by the time we’re done here.”
That does it. Yep, definitely a rhododendron hugger. Her lips move slowly as if she is testing the words in her mind first. Is it possible she has never said them? Then she looks up at me.
“Do you have parents, Harvey?” she whispers, as if she just took her last breath.
I repeat her words in my head, trying to make sense of the riddle. Why is she asking about my parents? My eyes flit to her clothes. A man’s clothes. An older man’s clothes. A father’s. And the shoes. A mom’s shoes, just as I thought earlier. I suck in a sharp, icy breath as it finally hits me. She is asking about my parents because she has lost hers.
I don’t usually have time to study my insides but there are some changes, body and blood changes, that even the most practical, overworked, meat-and-potatoes, full-beard-by-lunchtime man notices. That’s where I am right now. A strange, thick burn— like I’m inhaling paint thinner on fire—blisters in my throat. Without thought or plan, I try to pull her slowly to me. She doesn’t move.
“Will you settle for a brother on loan?” I say. As the words leave my mouth though, I feel like I have signed and sealed some summons from above. Like her parents hailed me to this frozen lawn, on this Christmas Eve, with the missive of angels. And even though I offer her brotherhood, to Elisa, I will always be whatever is written in that missive. Brother, family, or whatever the skies have in order.
She looks at our joined hands, and then in my eyes. She nods, but the motion is more fluid, somehow. Not as stiff. She doesn’t smile but that flicker of life flashes in her eyes. “Can I help now?”
I pat her small hand as I realize what she is asking. She wants something to make Christmas Eve livable. Something she can breathe through. The bite of frost, the prickle of shrubs, perhaps even the idea of protecting something —a life form as simple as a plant—from the end.
I swallow to make sure my voice is not frozen. It is, but her purple eyes melt it into the only words she needs.
“Yeah, you can help me. For as long as you want.”
“Thank you,” she says with so much feeling that I am not certain whether she is thanking me for the rhododendrons or for something else. Her voice is a little clearer as if she put all her strength behind it.
I smile. “Sure. But if I’m a brother on loan, you should probably know my real name. It’s Javier. Javier Solis.”
She doesn’t ask me why I lied. In fact, she doesn’t look surprised. “My . . . parents,” she swallows as she says the word. “They called me Isa.”
“Well, Merry Christmas Eve, Isa.”
She looks at me for a long moment. A few wisps of snow fall over us. “Merry Christmas Eve, Javier,” her fingers tighten weakly on mine. Then, she lets go off my hand and picks up the bottle of anti-freeze. She walks to the next rhododendron in line and starts covering the base and upper roots with all the leaves she can find. Her hair gets stuck in the branches but she doesn’t care. She pats down the layers of leaves with an odd energy. Almost dedication. She starts to fold sleeves of plastic and tucks the branches in with a motherly edge to her delicate face. At length, a faint, almost invisible pink tints her cheeks.
The Mona Lisa’s, the Simonetta’s, the Dora Maar’s. And the Elisa’s.
I look up at the sky that sent me a missive, realizing it was not a commandment; it was a gift. Every painter has a painting, every painting has some art, every art has a maker, but not every maker is an artist. An artist exists only if he has a muse.
Snowflakes fall on Elisa’s hair. Merry Christmas to me.
Thirty Nights and all related materials © 2013 Ani Surnois