Paisaje Urbano, Rafael Escamilla.
“Isabel! Isabel! Open the door!” Rubí yells from outside the apartment building, waving her hand at her cousin Isabel who presses her head out the window as far as the black vertical bars will allow her.
“¡Ah, you’re already here! Wait for me.” Isabel runs out the studio apartment, and down the stairs to open the apartment building’s main door for Rubí.
“Hi, how are you, when did you return?” Isabel opens the front black iron door. She is wearing purple shorts and a red T-shirt that proclaims CRABMAN-SANTA MONICA SEA.
“I got back three days ago. Didn’t my brothers tell you?”
The small woman walks in front of Rubí, leading her up to her apartment. “I am sorry for the urine smell. These drunk men do it wherever they feel like it.”
Both Isabel and Rubí walk into the semi-darkened stairway, covered with dirty orange-brown carpet up to the second-floor apartment.
“Come in. It’s a small room, but we have this chair and a big bed to talk.” Isabel says this while pulling out a chair from a small circular table for Rubí. Isabel plops herself at the center of the bed, legs folded into a lotus position, her arms resting on her lap. She readies herself for the recounting of her cousin Rubí’s news from El Salvador.
Isabel’s partner, Ticho, (Rubí cannot say whether he is husband or boyfriend, because she never knows who he was for Isabel either back home or here.) is seated on another small chair in the room. Ticho is silently resting his elbows on a desk where he has been doing English homework from night school. “Hi, how are you?” Rubí greets him, takes two steps to where he sits. Ticho crosses his arms, leans back a little bit, eases into the upright part of the chair, and finally gives a short laugh, saying, “Here I am...studying the verb ‘to be’ and looking at the pigeons eating in the parking lot.”
“¡Ah Yes, he inspires himself studying English through that window!” Isabel says laughing. Rubí notices the bed, the also-big stereo, and the 46-inch wide TV screen. Just these things take up almost all the space in the square little room. Rubí doesn’t like big furniture, or big electronic things like TVs.
“It is just luck that we have this window close to the street. At least we can see beyond the bars,” Ticho says getting up and heads toward the stereo. “Look, we only take two steps. Everything is close.” He smiles and squats, pulls out a CD, puts it in the CD player, and suddenly a catchy percussive cumbia begins to play.
“I brought some pictures of your children,” Rubí takes out an envelope from her bag. It reads COSTCO WHOLESALE GLOSSY PRINTS KODAK.
“¡Ah, you took pictures of them! How are they doing?” She adjusts herself more comfortably on the big bed, her buttocks resting right on the head of the peacock designed into the huge blanket, feathers in shades of blue, red and green. The rest of the blanket is a weave of red roses. Isabel grabs the envelope. Eyes widen with enthusiastic curiosity as she opens it. Rubí moves closer to her, sits on the bed ready to provide narration for the pictures.
“¿Ay, who is this?” Isabel holds a photo of a young man with a beard close to her face.
“You don’t know who that is?” Rubí looks at her.
Isabel stares at the picture hard and says, “¡Ay, I am getting blind!”
Rubí says, “Kevin, your son. It’s been eleven years since you last saw him.”
“¡Ay, but he has changed…!” She wears a thin smile, and her reddening eyes fight back tears. Isabel moves on to other pictures. She stops at each one for a minute, tries to transport herself to her house in El Salvador. Rubí intends to console her, by pulling out another bigger package from her big, red, white and black hand-woven Salvadoran handbag. From a clear plastic bag, Rubí hands her a small package wrapped in beige paper, taped so heavily that either scissors or a knife are required to open it. Isabel recognizes her mother’s wrapping. “¿Ah, and they send me this?” Scissors are already opening the package. Eyes are wandering around as thoughts and feelings rush through her.
“I think they have sent you three pounds of red beans, and some hard cheese, too. My aunt Matilde says that you asked for that.” Rubí is smiling.
“Ah, poor Mom, in reality I have been missing them,” Isabel says, pounding on the clear plastic bag of red beans.
“Which… the beans or the family?” Rubí asks eyebrows raised for teasing.
“Both,” she says, “I miss my mother, and I am tired of the big cans of red beans I sometimes get for free in a place where they give away food. “I walk every Wednesday to Normandy and Pico Boulevard. I get up early, six o’clock in the morning to pick up the free food. Look, I have about ten cans of those beans in there. I do not like it, but it’s food, but my tongue and my stomach have different tastes.” Nervously patting the bag of beans she continues talking, “ I also buy beans here at Jon’s market. With the shopping cart I go to pick up food, and I do the laundry. So I use the shopping cart to load food and clothing.” Isabel ends with a thin smile surrounded new Salvadoran items.
Through the window Rubí notices at least a hundred pigeons have flown down onto the hot cement parking lot. “¡Ay, look, it’s twelve o’clock! The old Filipino man is feeding the pigeons,” Ticho Says. Isabel shifts her posture on the bed, stretches her neck to look through the window from where she sits. Ticho moves in front of the window, casting the room into semi-darkness. “Move away from there! I cannot see the pictures well!” Isabel commands him. “So, you don’t even recognize them anymore,” he says sitting back down on his chair, returning to his ESL books.
“Is this Karina? Ah, my daughter, I left her so little.” Isabel talks to herself and to Rubí pointing to a small, framed photograph of her daughter getting married. “She told me she was going to get married at the evangelical church---my daughter getting married? I couldn’t even send her any money, because I was not working.” Rubí just listens to her talk. “I remember when I left my three children. Karina was seven years old, Marlon, eleven, and Kevin, nine. But one leaves one’s country to prosper, and to help the family. There I just got paid a hundred dollars a month and with that I had to help my mother, and sometimes my sisters, too.” Isabel is waving her right arm backwards, thereby conveying that the past is physically behind her. But physically behind her are two enlarged photos of her father and mother hanging side by side on the wall. Next to them are smaller framed photos of her children, and one of her when she was fifteen. “Look, these pictures of my children, my Mom sent them about seven years ago. They are still little there.” She has to stand on her bed to reach them, to show the photos to Rubí.
“And this one?” Rubí asks in a humorous tone as she points to a photograph of Isabel posing flirtatiously in front of big sign of a McDonalds. Next to it, Isabel has a big-framed picture of a naked Madonna. “Ay. It is me. I have only a month in LA when my sister-in-law took the picture, when she brought me to MacDonalds for a hamburger. And that…Ticho brought for my birthday.” Isabel finishes her thought by pointing to the singer Madonna.
Rubí realizes the time has gone fast. The morning is gone and the little single apartment is getting hot. Rubí asks the couple, “Are you going out this afternoon?” Ticho speaks. “We have to do laundry, buy some food, do the homework, and think where we can go find a job tomorrow. We never go out on Sundays. Sometimes on Saturdays we go all over to look around at the shopping centers, the malls, but we never buy anything...too expensive. Isabel likes to go see the mannequins in the store windows. It’s the only place she sees white people, besides the ones she sees when she sometimes cleans their houses, or at least the mannequins remind her of white people.” Ticho responds with a serious dedicated student tone.
Isabel gets up from the bed and adjusts her shorts, pulls her shirt down to cover her slightly bulging belly. She goes into a closet and brings out her backpack and pulls out her bus pass to show she goes to school. Then, she continues the conversation. “We go quite far sometimes. You see, we have the bus pass. The school gives it to us cheap. That’s why we go twelve hours a week to school.” Ticho adds, “We visit all the big swap meets... in Torrance, Long Beach. Nothing stops us.” Ticho ends his conversation without looking at Rubí. He returns to his book.
Rubí suggests, “If you want, we can....”
“Come here. I want to show you something.” Isabel calls Rubí to the door of what is obviously a closet. Expecting to see clothes on hangers, Rubí is surprised to see Isabel disappear into the space she has converted into a room. “My sanctuary of photos, my history, since I came here.” Over almost every square inch of the freshly colored walls of the walk-in closet, a constant collage of photos of their family and friends greets them from the walls. Rubí’s intention to invite them out to eat is forgotten within Isabel’s sanctuary.
“This is you in El Salvador with all the family!” Rubí is in awe of this other world, tenderly pointing to an old photograph of Isabel with her children. “Yes, that picture is from the day before I was going to go out of the country.” Even as Rubí turns with tremendous interest in all directions to scan the dozens and dozens of photos, Isabel’s sad expression hits Rubí like a wave of hidden experience of déjà vu... to the time when she went into exile alone in Canada with her own family’s photos always nearby. Rubí wonders in a fraction of a moment, “Am I experiencing her feelings or are my own memories jumping from her sadness, pulling me back to a different place, time, and a similar situation in my life? Rubí moves quickly to Isabel’s side letting go this parallel experience.
She changes the subject, “I have never asked you this before. How did you get to Los Angeles?” Rubí’s curiosity grows as she formulates the question, looking across at her cousin, Isabel, in front of another picture of herself in front of MacDonalds. “It is a long story.” Isabel exits the closet. “Did you pay a coyote?” Rubí asks, standing in the closet doorway. Isabel moves back to her big nest, the bed. “No. I was lucky to have come here without a coyote. My sister-in-law and me, we decided to end our misery back home. We went to see a brujo, and he purified us to pass all the borders without trouble. My sister-in-law is a very strong-willed woman. She just said, ‘Tomorrow we go ahead to Guatemala.” From the middle of her bed, Isabel tells this as the beginning of another episode in the story of her life.
Laughing, she looks out the window, repeats something about Ticho’s and her plans for the immediate future, and she says clearly, “I came to prosper here. That’s why we left our children there.” She accentuates this, by holding up the picture of her only daughter, the youngest of her three children. “This is the way things go,” she mutters. She rejects the present moment and her immediate circumstances in favor of the fragmenting commitment she made in the past. “I came here to prosper.” Isabel repeats.
Rubí looks around the small place, and the word ‘prosper’ spins in her mind. Isabel defends her attitude, saying, “Marlón, my older son , he already has water at his home. I also sent money to put in the phone, because they had to walk so far to my Aunt to call me here.” Isabel rests her arms on her lap. “Prosper,” Rubí echoes, thinking back to her cousins’ half brick-walled shacks with dirt floors, places she had visited just a few weeks before. She can still see in her mind’s eye the framed photo of Isabel’s dead father, and the commercial art pictures from magazines and calendars tacked with rusty nails to the interior walls of the house in which Isabel’s family lives in El Salvador. She still recalls the plastic white pigeons hanging from the roof, all the saints lined up on a shelf, El Corazón de Jesús, and still no telephone. Rubí has never believed in the word ‘prosper.’
“I am quite happy to be here. I am lucky because I can work,” Isabel gets up from her bed and walks into the closet, her sanctum sanctorum. She comes back out with a picture of the factory where she worked. “Look, these are the machines I operated in the factory, we made woodsticks?, palitos para los Chinos, o Koreans...I don’t know which they are, they use it to eat...chapsticks, you know, those sticks, chopsticks, that Chinese use. I worked packing them, too. That was another part-time job. It was very hard, because the Korean wanted everything so fast, and she was always going around pushing you, especially since I was new. That Korean woman went around, demanding ‘Go, go, go, Isabel, purá, pura.” Isabel mimics with her hands and face the Korean woman’s gestures. Then she climbs back onto the big bed. “That’s how we prosper, tolerating these people. I remember a few weeks later I quit the job. I was so much in a hurry, proving to her my work that my finger got stuck in the machine and it was peeling off all my skin. I stopped the machine and started crying, because I thought I lost my index finger. But no, it was only bleeding, and the Korean or Chinese woman, she kept demanding, ‘Work, work!’ I screamed at esa vieja de China...that old witch, ‘Calm down, relax don’t you see I am hurt?’ and the Chinawoman responded, ‘Wha hapen?’ and she keeps saying, ‘No home, no home, because no money, honey!’ I went to the bathroom to clean up myself, and my brother-in-law, who I brought there to work, because he couldn’t find a job, he was mean to me, telling me in the bathroom, ‘You getting old! You are not careful!’ ‘Shut up, I brought you here, I have been here for four years, I know the work. The Koreans or Chinese put you as manager only because you know a little English, so you can dominate all the Salvadorans working here!’”
“Can you imagine? My brother-in-law was only working there two months and is already manager, and me four years operating those machines….” Isabel ends in high pitch looking at Ticho. “But your own people fuck you up!” Isabel gazes again at Ticho transferring her hostile attitude to him, whether he deserves it or not.
“La China or Korean did not pay me that week, although I came back with my finger hurt the next day. So I left the job.”
Rubí sits quietly on the chair, still wondering about Isabel’s use of the word “prosper” to describe their respective situations. For a while, as Isabel talks, Rubí’s mind travels back in time to fifteen years earlier, when she too left her country. She is wondering whether the word prosperity echoes properly for her situation, too. It was the word her family told her before she left. Rubí is not really surprised about Isabel’s work experience, because the same kinds of things happened to her. She had worked in custodial cleaning, in factories, and in childcare. However, Rubí thinks that in Isabel’s case, she had so little education, having hardly finished third grade in their country. At least, I was at university. I had that dream to fulfill. It was hard, but I have a university diploma now. And I work at an organization as a social worker and educator helping women like Isabel to continue studying. But I do not know how to engage Isabel. She has come to USA to “prosper” but what does that mean? Acquire things? To go to school? All these thoughts spin in Rubí’s mind, while listening to her older cousin. She is observing her cousin’s face, exploring her smooth, strong skin. Isabel is fifty-three, but has no wrinkles on her face at all. Rubí pushes her own hair back with her fingers, and realizes she has been staring at the tiny woman with the thick black hair on the bed. Isabel’s shy eyes let Rubí know that she knows her cousin has been studying her. The sounds of flapping pigeon wings outside the window draw her thoughts back to the present. “Where did you get all those Power Ranger stickers?” Rubí asks getting up, walking to the stickers stuck to Isabel’s headboard. Ruby sits on the bed, too.
“Ah! I worked for a movie company. I used to pack the movies. It was a good job, but a Mexican manager came, and he fired all the Salvadorans working there.” Isabel says this while looking out the window again, her eyes reaching for the pigeons eating the old Filipino’s food scraps on the hot cement parking lot. “Well, that’s the way we have been bouncing around,” Isabel says.
“Have you ever worked in a house?” Rubí asks Isabel teasing her, because she knows Isabel never liked to stay home in her country. “No, my first job was in a fish market. I cleaned up the fish’s eggs. I lasted for a few months. We do everything here, with false documents we are nothing. We’re worthless.” Isabel laughs as she remembers her experience with the fish eggs. She prepares to answer Rubí’s question about working at houses. “Actually, one day I was so desperate to get a job, I went to an agency called ‘Happy Days’ Happy Maid’s in Van Nuys, where they placed me in a house in Palos Verdes to stay in, for cooking, and to take care of a little girl. I stayed for a week. I only lasted a week, because it was the most lonely and sad time in my life. It was a big house, beautiful rooms, but at night I couldn’t stop thinking about my daughter. I felt I was betraying my little Karina, just by taking care the little girl of these rich people.” Isabel gets up from the bed to go to the kitchen alcove to drink water, leaving me alone on the bed. She finishes her story about her experience in the house there. “On Friday I got up early, quite early. I packed my clothes and left. I did it before the woman was up to tell me what to do.” Isabel comes back stretching her body, smiling a little bit as she says, “Tan feo esos lugares. Those are ugly places. They are so quiet and not a soul on the streets. You don’t see people outside. Besides you have to have a car. From the bus stop I had to walk a long way. I was lucky to run into un señor méxicano, a gardener, a good soul, a person. When he saw me walking to the bus stop in the very early morning in those green deserts, he gave me a ride to the bus stop. I would never again work in houses. I would rather work with las Chinas.” Rubí smiles realizing that Isabel has not made up her mind yet about the Asian bosses, still unsure or indifferent as to whether they are Chinese or Koreans.
The big black plastic Made-in-Korea clock with gold gilded edging strikes one o’clock in the afternoon. Some pigeons have moved up to the roof. They can hear their cooing. Twenty or so of them perch on electric wires above the street, “like uniformed nuns in gray. They are all in a row shitting on my car, thought Ruby. “The pigeons shit on you car. It looks like you just washed it, too. ¡Palomas babosas! Full of shit! Why not go shit somewhere else? Last time they shit on my head. Pigeons shit all over us here. They like to be here around, Pico and Union, shitting on the heads of poor people. But also they remind me that I can fly away like them.” Isabel says this walking back into her photograph sanctuary, to place the new pictures Rubí has brought on the walls inside.
Rubí gets up and moves to the window to see her guano-covered car. Instead she sees a small, stocky brown-skinned woman wearing Guatemalan indigenous clothes pushing a supermarket cart filled with a black plastic bag full of laundry, her two boys walk alongside the cart, one clutching a box of laundry soap in both arms, the other carrying a bleach bottle. The boys are dressed in jeans and in T-shirts that read across them Old Navy. “It is a hot day, and we are not even in summer yet. The boys look like they are hot, and tired, come and look Isabel.” Rubí points out the two boys with their mother pushing the cart.
“Ah! Van con la indita. That’s the way I go with the shopping cart when I do my laundry,” says Isabel walking again to her bed with a photograph in her hand. Rubí walks closely behind Isabel to catch a peek at the picture and she deliberates whether to say something about Isabel’s pejorative use of the word indita, but Rubí lets it go. “This is Karina when she was little. I had this picture with me all the time on the way to United States.” She hands the picture to Rubí. “She is with my Aunts and my Mom.” “We are all inditas,” Rubí says, but Isabel disregards Rubí’s tone as playful sarcasm, and continues talking in her melancholic afternoon tone. Rubí thinks, “What must a mother do just to find a piece of prosperity? Must she leave her children behind, hoping to see them alive one more time?” Isabel keeps talking as Rubí studies the picture. “Do you remember Geiser, my mother’s god-daughter? She came here to see me here in the apartment with her mother a month ago. I think her mother has been here in Los Angeles already a long time. Geiser left her daughter, only four months old. She and her husband couldn’t find work in El Salvador.”
“I remember her.” Rubí answers and the image of the classified ads from the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Grafica comes to her mind. She remembers when she herself highlighted jobs she would not apply for. It was a game for her. She knew it was a joke to look for work at the country’s national newspaper.
Isabel continues, “She is doing the same thing her mother did to her. Poor girl, she suffered a lot. But it’s the only way you can prosper, and we came here to prosper here.” Isabel stretches her soul to maintain a heroic tone over her sadness that is still evident in her voice.
A sudden knock at the door startles Ticho, Isabel, and Rubí. “Who is it?” Rubí asks, as Ticho’s and Isabel’s faces change, as Isabel whispers, “Sh, sh, it’s the manager. He wants the other half of the rent. We do not have it.” Isabel and Ticho remain static. Several knocks follow on the door, and then suddenly stop. “He’s gone. I do not have a job now, and it’s my half of the rent that is missing. Ticho paid his already. He does not pay mine or help my kids back home because my children are not his. I am going to start next week to work in cleaning. I am lucky that the janitors are on strike, because I can take their work for a while. I know they are struggling to get a raise, but I need the money to survive, and those jobs are not easy to get either.” Isabel says this as she chooses which sandals to wear. Rubí hands her back the picture of her daughter, Isabel returns it to her sanctuary.
Rubí picks up her red, white and black handbag, seeing the couple prepare for their afternoon errands, ready to leave. She says to Isabel, “Be careful that the janitors do not see you. They will be angry.” Rubí says good-bye to Ticho. “Ah, I sneak quickly so they can’t see me. I need the money for my children and my mother, so they can continue building the house there.” Isabel sighs deeply and then offers to Rubí, “Do you want something to drink before you go?” “No thank you, but I will take a pear.” Rubí takes a pear from a light pink plastic bowl of fruit on the table.
“We come here just to prosper, and that’s why we leave our children...to change our lives.” Isabel accompanies Rubí to the apartment door, “Thank you for the frijoles , el queso y las fotos,” Isabels says this with hands folded, as if praying. “You are welcome, Isabel, if you need help with the rent or work call me. I will tell my brothers and see whether we can help you,” Rubí responds with a warm smile and and hug. Isabel keeps talking holding the door open to see Rubí go, “We miss our family, but we came here to prosper!” Isabel’s talking trails off as she closes the door quickly, so the urine smell will not sneak into her space.
Rubí exits the dark brown building with its echoes of prosperity, with Isabel’s voice fresh in her mind’s ears. Rubí says to herself, “We came here to prosper,” with the same intonations Isabel used a few seconds ago. She recognizes is a mantra that Isabel repeats. Then, for a moment, she wonders whether Isabel’s meaning is much narrower than she had first understood. For Isabel, does “we” mean all immigrants, or does she mean only Salvadorans who have come here to prosper, or is she thinking of just her own situation, or just our family’s?
She gets into her car, and starts the motor. A fresh dropping of guano splatters the windshield, as the pigeons leap in unison away from this cement island of abandonment.
Carolina Rivera Escamilla is an educator, writer, performer, and filmmaker. She completed her undergraduate degree in English Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing at University of California, Los Angeles. She is a Fellow in the Pen Center USA Rosenthal Foundation Emerging Voices Program. She has been published variously online and in anthologies, Journals. Her first book of short stories tentatively entitled …after… is in the process of publication for next year.
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