“Well, it took you long enough,” his mother managed to say between wheezes. “I’ve been sitting in this bed with absolutely nothing to do and no one to talk to.”
“They say plants grow faster if you sing to them,” he smirked nodding at the dying cactus in the corner. “Why don’t you try that?”
“Just like your father,” she grumbled.
Mario chuckled, though he knew that comment was meant to sting. His mother grunted in return. Leaning over her bed, Mario put the back of his hand to her forehead. It was still burning up. He dipped a cloth into the bucket of ice water next to the bed, wrung it out, and lay it across her forehead. Fighting the fever was fruitless; all he could do was keep it low enough so she wouldn’t be miserable. He felt helpless; he had never been good at making his mother happy. He had failed at it most of his life.
First, he had left for America when he was eighteen, hoping to make enough money working in the strawberry fields and grape vineyards to send home and support her. Instead of being grateful, she had accused him of abandoning her in her time of need. It was always, Mario knew now, his mother’s “time of need.” Then, when he failed to come home as a doctor or ‘something useful’, as she put it, his mother only shook her head and said, “Should have known you’d come back empty-handed. Well, I hope you don’t expect to stay here.” But, of course, he had expected to stay there, and he had. What other choice did he have? Besides, she needed someone to take care of the house and, whether she wanted to admit it or not, she’d missed him.
“How about some TV?” he asked her now, trying to push the unpleasant memories from his mind. He hoped a little TV would distract them both, taking her mind off her pain and his off Maria’s letter. “Are you hungry?”
“No. You couldn’t cook if I asked you to make toast. And there’s nothing on TV anyway. It’s the middle of the night.” she snapped, squirming restlessly in the bed, trying in vain to make herself more comfortable.
Mario had a knack for staying calm and being patient, something he remembered Maria loving about him too. “It’s almost noon, Mami.” he corrected her gently. He got up and pushed the curtains to the side a bit so more light fell into the room. His mother squinted against the sudden light and grunted.
“Are you trying to blind me on top of everything else?” she screamed.
“A little sunshine never killed anybody. Unless you’re a vampire. Oh, I forgot, let me close it,” he smirked starting to close the curtain.
“Can’t a mother have a little respect in her dying hours?” she asked. “Well, find anything interesting out there in that shed? Took you long enough,” she asked.
“Oh … I … no,” he lied.
Maria wasn’t someone he could discuss with his mother. He could never really talk about relationships with her. She had always been far too caught up in the misery of her own failed relationship to offer any words of encouragement or untainted advice. Besides, he knew how much she’d always hated Maria; someone she’d never met and had no reason to hate except that she was the one person who could take her only son away.
“No?” she questioned as if she knew better.
No, he wouldn’t do this to himself. He had enough to deal with. He pushed his troubled feelings down again, stuffed them into the box he’d reserved in his heart for the past, and sealed it shut. “Just some old papers, found your mother’s doll and a letter and a-”
She cut him off. “Letter?” she said, as if she had cherry-picked that word despite his attempt to bury it in a long list of objects.
He shrugged. Maybe if he acted like he didn’t care, he could convince her.
“From whom?” she asked, her old grammar school ways perking right up. She’d always taught him to speak properly. “Just because you’re from the barrio, doesn’t mean you have to sound like you are,” she’d tell him in her strictest school teacher voice.
“Just…you probably don’t even remember her anyway. It was a letter from Maria,” he said. He hurried to turn the TV on. He needed a topic change and fast. “Betty la Fea is on. How about that?”
“Remember her? I’m old, not senile. Of course, I remember her. How is she?”
Years ago, his mother had forbidden him to speak Maria’s name in her house. But now she asked like she was really interested, which surprised Mario. Her eyes bore into the back of his head until he was forced to turn around and face her.
“I don’t know. The letter was pretty old.” he said, not really wanting to talk about it.
“Well, haven’t you written her back?” she asked.
“Mami, that was ten years ago. Like you said back then, if it was meant to be, it would have worked out.”
“I never said such a thing. That’s nonsense,” she said defensively.
He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. The words were probably better left unspoken. He didn’t want to argue with her, not with her in the condition she was in. But the fact that she denied saying something that had had such a profound effect on his life and cut him so deeply at the time, made his blood boil.
“It was a long time ago,” he said softly, looking at his shoes. He fiddled a thread that was unraveling from the hem of his shirt. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
“Well, from what I remember, you and she were pretty hot and heavy,” she quipped.
Reducing their true deep love; something that happens only once in a lifetime to “hot and heavy” disrespected it but he wasn’t about to take this conversation any further than it needed to be.
“We were young. It was a teenage love affair,” he said, managing to grin as he flipped through the channels.
“Age is just a number. Love is love. Your father and I met when we were just 15,” she said, as if comparing his relationship to hers was a badge of honor. What she didn’t say was that Mario’s father had left her when he was 17 and only ever came back for Christmas and Mario’s birthday—to eat, to make the headboards quake and then leave her alone again.
“I don’t really want to talk about it, Mami,” he said, sitting down at the end of the bed.
“And why not?” she demanded.
Her ignorance was making his temperature rise again. It was her favorite pastime to push his buttons, but he wasn’t going to give in to her and lose this battle of will. “How about I make you some tortillas with beans that should help your stomach a little,” he said, getting up and starting to walk out.
“You’ll only burn it,” she said, and continued pushing the subject. “I don’t understand if you love someone that much, why you didn’t keep loving her and marry her, or whatever it is you young people do nowadays.”
“Because you needed me!” Mario exploded, the boom in his voice ricocheted off the walls surprising both him and his mother. As much as they had argued in the past, he had never raised his voice at his mother before. Instantly, he knew it was a mistake. But it was too late. The lid had popped off. Her denials of what she put him through all those years, of how she tried to drive them apart, of her ruining his one and only chance to finally run away together with Maria and now, pretending that nothing happened, only brought back the years of pent of frustration and volcano of anger. He felt all of the turmoil boiling inside of him and put his hand on his chest, sure he would be able to feel the heat on the outside.
His mother’s eyes, wide with shock at first, now narrowed in anger. “Now, you listen to me,” she said in a growl. “I’m still your mother.”
“How could I forget?” he said. He tried to swallow down his anger, forget the rest of the words he wanted to shout at her, but now that they’d pushed their way out it was hard to make them go away again. He had been repressing his feelings for Maria, trying not to feel, for years now. But he’d only been fooling himself.
“Mario, I’m not dead yet. If you want to take that tone with your mother, you can at least wait until the coffin is nailed,” she said. “Sit down.” Her voice resumed its usual bite.
Even though Mario was a grown man, he knew not to disobey his mother. He’d already crossed the line. He may have been over six foot tall and she as small as a bird, but she had a commanding presence and a temper that everyone in their village knew not to cross. He sat back down, his nostrils flaring, staring at the floor.
Deep breaths, he told himself. In. Out. He counted his breaths until the anger started to subside.
“Look at me,” she told him and he reluctantly did so. His anger was still dangerously close to the surface. “Now, we all make choices in our lives and I haven’t always made the best ones. Things were different back then. Times have changed and I … well, I just don’t want you to miss out on something that could be good for you.”
Mario was speechless. That was as close to an apology as he’d ever heard from his mother. For as long as he could remember, he hadn’t heard her say she wanted anything good for anyone but herself. She could dish out criticism far and wide, but this angle was a new one. He looked at her skeptically and wondered what her ulterior motive was. She was a master of manipulation. He waited, wondering if this kind speech was yet another insult in disguise. He couldn’t ever let his guard down with her.
“Now, listen up,” she said. Her wheezing was starting to get the best of her and a cough erupted. He leaned forward, concerned. No matter how angry he was, she was still sick, and seeing her like this tore him apart.
“Mami, I’m sorry. Are you alright?” he said reaching for her.
“I’m dying, what do you think?” she cut in. “Don’t interrupt. Now, you love that … that Maria of yours, you gotta write her back. Tell her how you feel.”
“Mami, I keep telling you. That was ten years ago. She … she’s moved on.” Saying the words burned him like a fire consuming him.
His mother looked at him, raising her eyebrow, “She …?” his mother said emphasizing the word, with a smirk on her face. It made something in Mario jump, and his body felt cold all over. Did she know?
“If you love her like you say you do, and if she loves you like you always said she did, time won’t mean a thing. Now, I want you to go over to my nightstand and pull out a pen and pad. You’re going to write that letter, young man, and you’re going to read it to me before you send it. Lord knows I’m not going to have you mess up yet another thing before I die.”
For a minute, Mario just stared at her, shocked at her words. Then, he went to the nightstand and began rummaging around for the pen and pad. Evidently, he took too long to do what he was told, because she barked, “Well, do I have to write it myself?”
“No, mother,” he said, sitting back down. The pen was heavy in his hands and the pad felt foreign in his lap. Strange how something so part of his everyday life could feel alien to him in the moment. It’d been years since he’d written anything. Something that was such a big part of him, a part of him died with the last letter to Maria.
“Now, sit back down and you write your heart out. You always were good at that writing thing, don’t know why you stopped doing it.”
Perhaps because you told me it was a hobby and a waste of time, he thought to himself, but he didn’t dare say that out loud. He had his temper in control again and he didn’t want to risk it.
“Not sure how to start,” he said, toying with the pen in his hand.
“What do you mean ‘Don’t know how to start’? How about ‘Dear Maria’ for starters—or whatever the name is…”
That comment seemed to be weighed with meaning, as if she indeed did know something—a secret she’d toy and tease him with, like you’d tease a kitten with a piece of string, until he confessed. He ignored it.
She can’t know, he told himself. How would she possibly have found out? He’d been so good at hiding it all these years, he’d almost believed the lie himself. He swallowed hard, cleared his throat and leaned over the pad on his lap to start the letter. He began to write, laboring over each word.
“Read it to me,” she demanded. Why was she suddenly so concerned?
“But I’ve only written…” he started to say in his deep voice.
“Read it to me, dammit,” she said, coughing and reaching for her glass of water.
“Dear Maria, how are you? You’ll never guess what I found in the garage…” he started to say. It sounded silly even to his own ears, but then again, it was obviously hard writing a letter to your long-lost love with your mother practically hanging over your shoulder.
The only reason their love affair had worked out in the first place was because they’d been so far away from anyone Mario knew. There had been no way for anyone there to stop him from following his heart, other than Maria’s family. Not like now, when he was here in his childhood home, face-to-face with a woman who had made it her lifetime mission to condemn him no matter where he went.
“Is that how you’re going to begin it?” she asked, “Lord, so glad we didn’t waste any money sending you to university. Son, if you’re going to write someone you love, someone you haven’t spoken to in over ten years, then you have to write from the heart, you have to pour your soul out on the paper like you mean it. And if you’ve fucked up like you fucked up…”
“Mother!” He was shocked at her language.
“Let’s face it, you fucked up royally,” she said matter-of-factly, “So you’ve got to say it. You’ve got to say you did exactly that. Do it over again and toss that kaka you call a letter away.”
He smiled and shook his head. His mother had certainly never had a problem speaking what was on her mind, but this time he had to admit she was right. So, instead of writing what was in his head, he began writing what was in his heart:
Ten years. Ten years is a long time not to be with the one you love. Not to be with the one you swore your life to, not to hear their voice, or feel their skin against yours, not to taste their lips or see your future in their eyes. That’s what I think of when I think of you.
Maybe I’m coming on too strong, maybe it’s too much to say to someone who probably doesn’t even remember you, from someone who hurt you so deeply the only cure was to forget them, bury the past and move on.
They say destiny rules all and I must have been a very bad man in a past life for destiny to play such a nasty trick on me, to keep your last words to me hidden all these years. Had fate not intervened, had I not seen your letter buried under those boxes in the shed, I never would have had the pleasure to reach out to you. I would never have been reminded not only of how we were painfully separated but of how much I loved you, how much I still love you.
Maria, I know it’s been a long time and if you’re still angry with me or hurt, you have every right to be, but please, hear me out. If you are still reading this, know that not a day has gone by the last ten years that I haven’t thought of you.
It was only now that I saw your letter. Had I seen it before, so much would be different now. Know there hasn’t been a time when someone has uttered the word partner, savior, lover or soul mate that your image doesn’t cross my mind. Know that if I could turn back the hands of time and take back what I said, just for one more moment with you, I’d do it.
There is so much to tell you, so much that has transpired the last ten years that I want share with you under the moonlight in the barn or at creek in our place, just like we used to do when I’d read you my poetry. You were always so encouraging. Know that you are and have been in my prayers at night, know that you’re in my bloodstream, a part of me, and know most of all that I love you and always will.
If you’ll have me, my dear Maria, if you’ll have me, I’d love another chance just to see your beautiful face one more time.
The words he had written broke his heart as he read them aloud to his mother. He hadn’t wanted to dig so deep, to reach for everything he resolved; he had worked so hard for so long to keep himself callous, to keep himself from feeling. But in the last few hours, his walls had disintegrated into dust. He was defenseless, he was vulnerable before those memories and the fear and the possibility of what could come.
He braced himself for his mother’s usual caustic criticisms. They would sting even more this time because he was so raw inside, raw from years of keeping the anger and hurt from eating him alive, raw from the memories he’d crammed in his brain and raw because for the first time in a long time, he’s picked up a pen and written something, a dream of his that had died when he wrote that last letter to Maria.
Slowly, he raised his head to look at his mother. She was clearing her throat—not because of her illness, not because she’d caught something in her throat, but because she was touched by the letter. She dabbed her eyes with a corner of the bed sheet and said, “Terrible allergies in this room.”
“Are you alright, Mami?” he asked, trying to hide a smile. Usually, he was the one crying because of her, macho as he was, even if it were in secret where no one especially her could see. He’d never seen his mother touched emotionally by anything, not even a movie, and in this moment, he felt incredibly moved.
“Open the window and get some air in here,” she demanded.
“I thought you said it was too much sunlight, Madame Vampire,” he teased.
“I said open the Goddamn windows,” she repeated.
He got up and yanked on the curtains and unfastened the windows, letting the fresh breeze come in.
“Terrible, terrible allergies,” she said, dabbing her eyes. “So, when are you going to send it?”
“Do you think it’s all right?” he asked. He felt unsure now, lost at sea, a little boat bobbing on the waves. He could deal with love, he could deal with loss. He could deal with anything that was certain. But now that the tides had changed and the response was uncertain, he felt like he wasn’t anchored to anything.
“Better than nothing. It’ll have to do,” she said. That was high praise coming from his mother. “There’s a roll of stamps in the kitchen cabinet next to the refrigerator,” she continued. “Be sure to send it out right away before the mailman comes today or you’ll have to wait another day.”
“All right. I’ll take care of it a bit later,” he said. He wasn’t going to admit it, but the idea of actually sending the letter scared him. “Are you thirsty-?”
“Now, dammit. Do it now,” she demanded.
Why did she care so much? It wasn’t like her. His mother could be moody and had become even more so as she got older, but she seemed to be anxious about this whole thing. He didn’t know if he should be concerned or flattered that she was finally taking an interest. For so many years, he’d longed to have a relationship with his mother where he could speak to her about anything, especially his love life, but she’d made it pretty damn clear from the beginning that if he didn’t end up with someone she approved of, she’d make sure that person never felt welcomed. She’d stuck to her word, and when she heard about Maria, she never let him off the hook for it.
After that, he had stopped talking to her about his life. When he saw how his friends leaned on their mothers, depended on them, confided in them, he always felt jealous. Even his friends, who were embarrassed to talk about their love lives with their mothers, could still count on them when things went wrong. Mario had always craved that kind of support system.
Heading into the kitchen, he yanked open the cabinet where the stamps and envelopes were, still suspicious of his mother’s motives, still wondering what game she was trying to play. Why was she pushing him to fix something from the past that was probably unfixable? Why had she never shown this type of love and support for his relationship with Maria when it had actually had a chance? What did she imagine would happen if Maria got the letter?
As little hope as Mario had, he realized that his strong-willed mother was dying, and he had better do what she said. He folded and refolded the letter until it fit neatly in the envelope. He found himself creasing the envelope before licking it, wanting everything to be perfect. He knew very well that even if Maria did somehow get the letter, there was little or no chance of her answering, not after this long. But he realized that obeying his mother’s orders wasn’t his only motivation in sending it. He had to know. He’d give Maria an ultimatum—the same ultimatum she had given him in that lost letter: one month. If I don’t hear back from her in that time, then I know her answer, he decided, scribbling his address and Maria’s on the envelope and sticking the stamp on it before he could change his mind.
The letter felt heavy in his hands. It carried the weight of ten years with it after all. Mario ran his fingers along the smooth edges of the envelope, felt the smooth paper underneath his fingers. This one small thing, this single sheet of paper, had the potential to save his life. After this, he would either be the happiest man alive, travelling to a new life, or a ruined soul, tumbling into the depths of despair. One little square sheet of paper had the power to decide his fate.
His heart pounded with every step on the long, hot walk to the mailbox. He shoved the letter inside and slammed it shut. When he returned to the kitchen, he found himself lingering at window, watching for the mailman. He always came promptly at 2:15 and always had for as long as he remembered.
His mother screamed and yelled from the bedroom, asking him what he was doing, but Mario stayed in the kitchen until the ancient mail truck with its little putt-putt engine coughed and rattled its way up the street. The mailman was ancient, too—it was the same wizened, bent-over old man who had delivered the last letter he’d received from Maria so many years ago. As the mailman trudged up to the mailbox, whistling, and began stuffing the contents in his sack, Mario had a sudden urge to run out, to stop him, to snatch the letter away from him and tear it into a hundred pieces. But he stopped himself, and when the mailman was back in the truck and the truck was chugging away into the distance, Mario actually felt a sense of relief. It was out of his hands now. Fate would answer with a yes or a no.
Each day was more excruciating than the last. The weather got hotter and hotter. Summer in Mexico was never a joke, but this time, it felt like the rays sought Mario out and scorched him on purpose, as if punishing him for reaching out in the past and trying to change something that was supposed to have been settled long ago.
He was drained of energy. And it wasn’t just his duties around the house—caring for his mother, who seemed to be getting nominally better with his cousin’s occasional help—nor the endless nights working a double-shift as a janitor to make up for the second job he’d lost. His exhaustion came from a new daily routine that had been established. Every day, at 2:15pm, like clockwork, the ancient mail truck chugged up the road to deliver the mail. And every day, the minute the truck pulled away, Mario would rush outdoors to check on the box, with hope and expectation mounting inside him, daring to imagine that he would find an envelope addressed in Maria’s loopy scrawl.
But, every day, his hopes were dashed. The only mail that ever came was junk mail—catalogs, bills. Mario just stacked all of it on the kitchen table, knowing that his mother would never look at it.
For weeks, Mario ignored the stack of mail, hating the sight of it because it contained no answer from Maria. But finally, he realized he had to take care of the bills, so he sat down at the kitchen table and began opening the envelopes and writing checks. As he went about the mundane task, he found his mind drifting—found himself returning in his imagination to the beautiful vineyard where he and Maria had met. He had been a lowly farm hand, a migrant worker, and she the child of his boss, the vineyard owner. They had spent endless sunny days together: hiding under the bushes, eating grapes, whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears when they thought no one was looking. They’d been through so much together, so much that only they could go through together; hidden behind the hills of those rolling, fragrant green fields, they had discovered each other’s secrets—secrets they’d each hidden from their families for years.
He sighed. It had been nearly three weeks now since he mailed the letter. He was beginning to give up hope. For nearly three weeks, he had been living for that moment in the afternoon when the mail came. But the one-month deadline was creeping closer, and he had heard nothing. Why would Maria even want to write back anyway?
The last day of the month finally arrived. When the mail truck pulled up, he was so distracted that he ran outside without his shoes. As he hobbled along to the mailbox, the hot ground nearly peeling the skin from his feet, his heart was pounding like an African drum. Mario reached the mailbox just as the truck was pulling away. Today was the day that would determine his fate. Today was the deadline he’d set for her to respond. If the letter was there, he’d know they were meant to be.
First, he took a deep breath. Then, he yanked the mailbox door open quickly, the way you tear a bandage off. And as he looked into the darkened oval-shaped box, he saw nothing.
Not a damn thing.
For days, he tried to live with the truth. The matter was settled. He had set the ultimatum and now he had to live with it. But he couldn’t. As the days rolled on, no matter how busy he kept himself, no matter what he did to keep his mind off Maria, he couldn’t, he wouldn’t let it go.
One night, during his janitorial shift, Mario’s anger began overtaking his disappointment. As he sprayed down the desks in the school classrooms, he scrubbed them fiercely, thinking, the least she could have done was write me a note that said ‘shove off.’ She couldn’t even find the time to answer? That night was another restless one. He tossed and turned for hours, wrestling with his feelings, and finally, long before his mother was awake, he got up and went to the kitchen, knowing there was only one thing he could do.
His large fingers fumbled as they dialed the old rotary-style phone. Even after all these years, he still knew the number by heart. He only hoped the number was still good and that, even this early in the morning, someone would answer.
He almost hung up after the twentieth ring. He was foolish to even think someone would answer early as they did wake on the vineyard—and yet then, someone did.
“Hello?” a raspy old voice said.
Mario immediately recognized the voice. He had so many memories of having to go through Maria’s mother to speak to her.
“Hello?” the voice repeated, this time more irritated.
“Um, hello,” he heard himself say, and suddenly he was a teenager again, shy about talking to an adult, scared Maria’s mother wouldn’t let her come to the phone.
“Who is this?” her mother said.
“Senora Santiago? This is … this is Mario,” he said.
The silence that followed his words felt like an eternity. Finally, she spoke again. “What do you want?”
He worked up a smile and said, “Maybe you don’t remember me, it’s been so long, but…”
“I know who you are,” she snapped. “Now, what do you want?”
It had been over ten years since he’d heard her voice and, even though she hadn’t always been the friendliest person in the world to him back then, he’d thought that after all these years, he would get a warmer reception than that.
“Oh, well, I was curious if Maria…”
“No,” she cut him off very firmly.
“No? I only want to talk to her for a moment,” he said as politely as he could, though his blood was starting to boil.
“You’re going to call up here, after all these years, and now you want to talk to my daughter? Now?!” she said, raising her voice.
He wanted to tell her that it was none of her business, that what had gone on between him and Maria was between the two of them and no one else. He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t going to let anything come between him and the one he loved anymore, not even her, but instead, he held it together.
“Now, you listen to me,” he said, the bass in his voice rumbling with authority. “I only need a few minutes with her. She’s old enough to make her own decisions.”
A wicked chuckle erupted from the other side of the phone. “Old enough. You really are stupid, aren’t you?”
“I beg your pardon, Senora?” Mario was reaching the edge of his patience.
“You mean, no one told you?”
“Told me what?”
“She — my daughter died, Mario.”
Even with the edge in her voice, he could tell she was trying to hide the pain. Suddenly, his world was spinning. He was drowning in guilt. He was too late. Too late.
“Dead?” he heard himself say.
“Yes, dead. And she died of a broken heart—all because of you.” Her voice was tight with anger. “My daughter loved you, Mario. You knew this, and you used her.”
“I never — Senora, I’m — I’m so sorry for your-” he started to say.
“Save it,” she spat. “Nothing you can say will bring my daughter back.”
“I had no idea she — she felt that way about me. I thought she understood …. we talked about it.”
“Why don’t you ask me what you really want to ask me?” she said.
He swallowed hard. Did she know? Had Maria confessed the truth to her mother before she died?
“Is he — Is Keith around?” he asked.
“You have some nerve. The Devil’s got a special place in hell for people like you.”
For days, he felt hollow and dizzy, as if he were shell-shocked. Maria was dead. The one link between him and the one he loved was gone. Suddenly, all those years she had pretended for him, all those years she’d protected his secret, all those years she’d selflessly served as his beard began to make sense to him.
Maria had been in love with him. Why hadn’t he seen it? He’d written the letters using her name because she had said he could. She had understood what his lover’s parents would do if they found out about the two of them. She had never seemed to mind, all those times he called her up just to give her a telephone message to pass along to someone else, and now he realized she did it only so she could hear his voice. All those years. She must have been dying inside the whole time, wanting Mario so bad yet knowing that not even in her wildest dreams could she have him.
Mario had spent so many years calling Keith, the person he really loved, “Maria”—so many years referring to his love as “she,” that it almost felt natural, even though Keith was as macho as Mario himself. The secret of their love had been safe with Maria and yet, all along, she’d kept the secret as a way to be close to the one she loved: Mario.
His heart ached for her. He only wished he could have had the chance to say “goodbye” to her, to thank her for all she’d done for him and Keith. There was nothing he could ever do, ever say, to repay her but that night he took a walk out in the middle of the desert amongst a sacred land and river his father used to take him to when he was younger. There, he lit a white candle and said his final goodbyes.
Mario stood with the immense, silent desert stretching out for miles on all sides of him, with the endless sky above him awash in a red-orange sunset, with the brown mountains just visible in the very far distance.
She’s out there, somewhere, he thought. My dear friend Maria.
He knew she wouldn’t want him sulking after her. She had sacrificed her life, her love, to make him happy and he only hoped there was a chance he could speak to Keith again. Keith had to be fine—he had to be, or, Mario knew, Maria’s mother would have mentioned something, if only to hurt Mario, out of spite.
The sun sank below the mountains and the red of the sunset became the deep purple-black of evening. The setting sun always reminded Mario how short life was. Keith was alive, and now Mario could no longer hide behind Maria. It was Maria’s greatest gift to him. As he turned to begin the long trudge back to his mother’s house, he vowed that their love would come out in the open, if only Keith would see him again.
“Are you going to bring me that soup, or are you going to let it get cold again, like the last time?” her mother scoffed as Mario made his way down the hall with the tray.
He was doing his best to stay patient, but some days were harder than ever, especially lately. His nerves were fraying at the ends. He was unravelling, coming apart at the seams. And all his mother ever did was scream and shout and expect him to serve her like he was a nurse. What was she going to say when he told her that he needed to leave her for good?
“Almost there, mother,” he said, bringing the tray to her bedside.
“Better not be too much salt in it this time,” she said.
“Tortillas?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Of course, I want tortillas. How can you eat tortilla soup without tortillas?”
Mario brought the tortillas from the kitchen, and when he came back into the room, she said, “Well…?”
“Well what, mother?” he asked her.
“Have you heard from her yet?”
He sighed. He really didn’t want to get into it right now. How could he tell her that the woman he’d pretended was his girlfriend was dead? How could he tell her that he didn’t even know if the man he actually loved would see him again?
“No,” he answered. “And I probably never will.”
“Well, don’t sound so gloomy,” she said.
Mario couldn’t stay in this room one second longer or he would scream. “I’m going to get some air,” he mumbled and turned to leave the room.
“Son,” his mother’s tone was suddenly softer. He turned around and looked at her in surprise. It was a very rare occasion that she called him “son.”
“What is it, mother?” he asked, concerned.
“Sit down for a second,” she said, patting the bed.
Mario hesitated. Hearing her wheezing and labored breathing, he wondered if she was really on her deathbed, if she was going to speak her last words to him, or reveal a secret she had held all her life. His mother had never allowed him onto her bed. Not even when he was a child and he’d had a nightmare. He was never allowed to crawl under the covers with her and take comfort from the warmth radiating from her, like most children had been able to. It was his father’s side of the bed, she’d once explained, and she was keeping it open for him. Mario had long stopped questioning the fact that she kept a space for her wasted love life, but not for her son. Now, he sat down gingerly on the very edge of the bed, feeling like an intruder.
“There’s something I want to talk to you about.” His mother’s speech was slow, but it wasn’t from her difficulty breathing. She was opening herself up, showing her vulnerable side, and she was having a hard time with it.
“What happened?” he asked.
She started and stopped half a dozen times before she finally spit it out.
“Is there something you need to tell me?” she finally asked.
“About what?” he asked her, tightening up.
What did she know? Did she know Maria was dead? Did she know that he had never really loved her in the first place? Did she know about Keith? Had she guessed that, any day now, he was going to need to leave her for good?
“I don’t know, how about Maria?” She raised an eyebrow.
“What’s that supposed to mean? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he lied. His heart was racing. He had always known there would come a time when he’d have to have this conversation. He had hoped it would be when his mother was long gone so he didn’t have to face it. How could you tell someone something that might shatter their perception of you? How could you confirm their lifelong belief that you were a complete failure and disappointment of a son?
“Son, really?” she said. “I know, we haven’t always … seen eye-to-eye about things but I hoped that you felt like you could be honest with me.”
“Honest with you?”
What a joke.
“Are you really going to make me say it?” Her voice was wavering, and Mario saw tears in her eyes. “You know, this really disturbs me that you don’t trust me enough to talk to me, to tell me what’s going on in your life.”
Clearly, his mother was still playing games, still trying to torture him. Mario stood up and, impatient, began pacing the room. “Mother, honestly, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“I understood if there was never going to be a wedding or grandchildren for me. I accepted that a long time ago … with your condition,” she said.
“Yes, Mario, your condition. Well? Will you just say it?”
“Say, what mother? Say what? That you never wanted me to be with Maria? That even if I had brought her into this house, you never would have accepted her, you never would have approved of our relationship?”
Every time he said the name “Maria,” he had to struggle against the lump in his throat. He was tired of lying, tired of hiding behind Maria’s name. Using that poor dead girl’s name was the lowest of lows to him, and he was getting to the point where he just didn’t care whether his mother’s heart would be broken or not. He loved Keith and she was going to have to accept it, whether she liked it or not.
“Never would have approved of your relationship? Now, that is not true. Not true at all,” she said, folding her arms tighter.
“You lie!” he said. “You did everything in your power to prevent us from being together.” His voice cracked on the last word and he stopped, refusing to speak again until he had himself under control.
“I did nothing of the sort,” she said, clutching her robe under her chin dramatically.
“You did,” he said. He sighed. This was not how he wanted to have this conversation. He always thought when the truth finally came out, he would have Keith by his side—or, better yet, a marriage certificate in his hand, even if they weren’t legally married. Then, he could rub in her face that there was nothing she could do about it. Instead, he was skating around the conversation like he was still sixteen-years-old.
“Tell me this,” she said finally, breaking the silence, “When did you start calling him ‘Maria’?”
So, she did know. Mario’s head was pounding. His throat was dry. It felt like his world was falling apart. His fingers fumbled with the hem of his shirt and he shifted from one leg to the other. How long had she known? How long had she been hiding that secret from him?
“It was a mutual decision,” he said in a low voice, thinking back to the day they’d decided. As fast as the world had been changing at the time, with discos becoming popular and gay culture seeping into the world’s consciousness, both he and Keith had known that the love between them was forbidden, and had to be covered up.
When he’d first met Keith, Mario had tried to trick himself into believing he’d fallen for a female, perhaps so he could sleep at night without being tortured by memories of the stories his mother told him of heaven and hell, stories which he swore were nonsense but were still etched so indelibly into his subconscious that the fear had become part of his DNA. He remembered the nights away from her. Him. It was only when they were together that Mario could forget the consequences, the difficult journey that lay ahead, and focus only their love. The other times—the nights he was alone, the days when he worked and couldn’t see him—those were the times that fear shook Mario to the core and he wondered if it was possible to run away from himself.
It had taken him years to be comfortable with the fact that Keith was a man, and that he was in love with another man. But by then, the lie had taken hold, and Mario kept it going, telling himself that the truth would break his mother’s heart. It was easier to say you were lying so you wouldn’t hurt someone else than to admit that you were barely comfortable with the truth yourself.
Now, he avoided his mother’s eyes, looking down as he said softly, “We thought it would be best.”
Mario always hoped if he could find the right time for this conversation, that somehow it wouldn’t be painful and awkward. But was there ever an easy way to tell someone you would never be the person they expected you to be? That you’d defied their hopes and dreams for your future? Was there ever a time that it would be easy to admit to your parents that you could accept yourself as a failure, but you would never survive knowing they thought of you that way, too?
“Best? For whom?” she asked.
“For everyone,” he said.
“Seems like a coward’s way out to me,” she grumbled.
Who is she to talk? Mario thought. Wasn’t his mother the one still pretending that his father was coming back? Wasn’t she holding on to a lie, just like he was?
“Really, mother?” he said. “Fine, I’ll tell you what you want to know. Everything, nothing held back but only under one promise from you: that we never discuss this again, ever.”
“Whatever you wish,” she said. “Of course, had you been honest with me the first time, we never would have had to have this little discussion in the first place.”
He sighed, sank back into the chair, and stared at the bed to gather his thoughts for a second. Then he began, “His real name is Keith.”
After he said it, Mario watched his mother’s reaction. He wanted a response from her. He had earned that right after decades of avoiding the topic, after decades of caring for her. Where would she be without him? She might see him as a good-for-nothing waste of a life after this, but she would have died long ago if it hadn’t been for him.
His mother swallowed hard. “Keith,” she said, breathing out as if in relief. “That seems like a nice name.”
“Really, mother? Are you going to pretend that you’re fine with it?” Mario was on edge. He’d prepared himself for a fight. For insults and tears and shame.
“Why wouldn’t I be fine with it?” she said in feigned innocence.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you and Papi said that if any of your sons ever went gay, you’d disown them. That ever since I was a kid you told me to buck up and be a man and that if you wanted a sissy, you would have had a daughter?”
“Me?” she said. “I would never-”
“You would and you did,” he said firmly. He wasn’t going to let her deny it. He wasn’t going to let her off the hook. If she was going to make him own up to his past, then she would have to own up to hers.
Finally, she lifted her chin. “Things were different then. I was only trying think of what was best for you. It’s a cruel world out there and I didn’t want you to go through any more heartache and pain needlessly.”
“Is that your way of saying you’re sorry?” he asked her. He was at the end of his rope. He didn’t know how to pretend anymore. His emotions were taking over, and they lapped over him like waves. He stopped trying to control himself, stopped trying to be the model, obedient son. He was Mario. Gay, emotional, maybe even a disappointment to her. But he was himself, dammit, and that’s all that mattered.
“I haven’t always made the best decisions, but you have to understand that I never meant to harm you or make you unhappy,” she said.
He sighed and shook his head. That was probably the closest he was ever going to get to an apology from his mother for her years of disapproval, lack of acceptance, and stranglehold on his life. If he didn’t accept it, he would be bitter for the rest of his life. He reached out and squeezed her hand, then kissed her on the forehead.
“Are we done yet?” he asked, starting to get up, but she squeezed his hand and pulled him back.
“There’s … one more thing,” she said.
His shoulders, which had started to relax in relief, tensed up again.
“What is it, mother?” He braced for impact.
“You have to understand, at the moment, I was more shocked than anything—and I was still hoping that somehow I could persuade you to …”
“To marry that nice little girl in the village, remember her name?”
“Gloria?” he asked. “How could I not? You bugged me about it every day since I returned from the States.”
Was she losing her mind? Was her age really causing her to forget, or was this yet another one of her performances?
“Yes, that was her name, Gloria. She would have made a lovely wife and mother for you,” she said, smiling at the memories.
“Tell me,” he said.
“He was a nice man, Keith,” she said.
Mario frowned at his mother. She had said that almost as if she knew him, and she had a funny look on her face.
“Yes, he was,” he said cautiously.
“And beautiful blue eyes,” she added.
His insides leapt. He didn’t have a photo of Keith; they’d agreed it would be too risky. “How did you know he had blue eyes?”
“Gorgeous strawberry blonde hair, too.”
“What? How did you know?” he asked.
She was toying with him again, working him up. He knew she loved seeing him panic like this.
Her lips quivered. “‘Cause he came here … looking for you four years ago.”
His heart dropped and the blood rushed from his face. “Wh-what?”
“He came here to the house-”
“I heard you, but what do you mean, ‘he came here’? How could he have come here and you not tell me?”
It felt like time had stopped. Everything around him was frozen, and even the earth had stopped moving. Had Keith, the love of his life, come all this way just to see him and he’d missed him? Mario could hear his own heartbeat in his ears. A drop of sweat rolled down his back between his shoulder blades. It was suddenly unbearably hot.
Tears were streaming down his mother’s face. He’d never seen her cry like this, not even when his father left the last time, for good.
“I didn’t want you to go,” she choked out between sobs.
“What?!” he said, his voice raising.
“You were all I had. You have to understand. I have nobody else and I didn’t want you to go away. I was trying to protect you. Your father left me, and-”
“My father left you ‘cause he was a drunk. Why did you have to deny me the one thing that made me happy?”
Mario leapt out of his chair, too restless to sit one second longer. His body was buzzing with electricity. He felt like he had fire at the tips of his fingers and if he touched something, anything, it would burst into flames. It felt like he would burst into flames. His mind raced with a million thoughts. His Keith, right on his door step. How could he have never known about this? Why hadn’t Keith left a note, even if all he had to say was goodbye?
“I didn’t want you to go through the heartbreak I did. Love only lasts for a moment.”
“No, mother, not true love. You are … You are …” How could he possibly put into words all the anger, pain, and betrayal he felt? It felt as if he was being torn to pieces.
“I know. I am all of it and … there’s more…” she said, sobbing so hard her words were almost indistinguishable.
“More?” He wasn’t sure if he could take any more.
“He thinks … I mean, I told him that you were …” Her words broke off as she started coughing emphatically.
Maybe I should let her cough to death, Mario thought spitefully. But finally his empathy, as well as his anxiety about what she had to say, implored him to fetch her some water. If she died now he would never know, and he had to know. He practically forced the water down her throat as she gasped for breath.
“You told him I was what? What, mother? What?” he asked. “Married? You didn’t tell him I married someone else, did you?” He couldn’t imagine what could be worse than that. The very idea of Keith having moved on had hurt him so much, he couldn’t bear thinking that his mother had inflicted that same kind of pain on Keith.
She wouldn’t answer. He couldn’t help himself; he grabbed her and shook her. “Mother, tell me!”
She calmed down enough to answer, looking at him even more apologetically than she had before. Then, she uttered one word: “Dead.”
Shock and horror swallowed him up like a giant wave. His ears were ringing, and he couldn’t believe that he’d heard her correctly.
“I told him you had died in a horrible accident. He wanted to visit your grave, but I told him, there was nothing left of you, and so…”
Mario felt like he was drowning. His body was dizzy and weightless, and he had to gasp for breath. He shook his head to clear it and blinked furiously, hoping this was all just a dream he would snap out of.
He squeezed his eyes shut. Maybe when he woke up, he would still be waiting for a letter. Maybe when he woke up, he would still be crying into his mop at the elementary school. Maybe when he woke up, he would still be in that sun-warmed vineyard, lying on the fragrant green grass with Keith lying next to him, their fingers intertwined. At this point, anything would be better than being here, now, knowing that his mother had ruined every single opportunity for him to be happy again. And she’d done it on purpose.
His throat was so choked with hatred he had to fight to say the words. “You are wicked, you are evil, you are … I will never speak to you again. Never.”
He turned to storm out of the room. He wanted nothing from his mother. He had spent his entire life trying to make her happy, trying to be good enough, and what had she given him in return? She never let him live. She let him die a little bit each day, knowing all along that he could have had at least an ounce of happiness. Had she hated him that much for being born? Had he really robbed her of her dreams? Was this her way of getting revenge?
“I won’t try to stop you this time,” she called out weakly after him from her bed. “I know I deserve it, I know I deserve to die alone.”
Mario whirled around. “Don’t even try to guilt trip me into one of your manipulative-”
“I am not manipulating you,” she gasped at the audacity of it.
He laughed a bitter, angry laugh. “You have manipulated me from the day I was born, using whatever means you could to suck me into your conniving self-serving agendas. I’ve been nothing but good to you. I went to America to send money to you, I gave up the love of my life for you. Everything was for you, and what do I have to show for it?! I’m 34, I’m stuck here in this — this hell hole living with you, the female embodiment of the Devil.”
He spat the words out like they were venom. She gasped in shock. Mario was sick of her, sick of her lies, sick of her acting, sick of her ropes that strangled and chained him to a world he hated. He wanted to be freed, freed once and for all.
“Don’t give me that dramatic display,” he snapped. “There won’t be any Oscars, any Emmys, any Tony awards for your performance today, mother. What you did is unspeakable and for your sake, I hope that God forgives you.”
For the first time he could remember, his mother was stunned into silence. He stormed out of the bedroom and, in a flustered rage, grabbed whatever things he could and shoved them into a bag. He was leaving. He didn’t know where he was going, but he wasn’t staying here one more night with that woman. Let her find someone else to look after her, he thought. Someone who doesn’t have a life, who doesn’t care about being robbed of every shred of their freedom and personal life. Or let her die, alone.
But, on his way out of the house, Mario stopped suddenly in the doorway. Could he actually do it? Could he truly leave behind the safety net that for years had served as his excuse for not following his heart? Could he leave his own mother alone, no matter how much she deserved it? What kind of person did that make him—and, if there was a God, like his mother had pounded into his head all these years, would He forgive him?
Mario took a deep breath. This was the part he hated. She always pulled him back. After all, she was blood. There was nothing stronger than blood—well, maybe true love, but she had destroyed any possibility of his having that years ago. Now, he had nothing but the sliver of hope that somehow he could scrape together a life of his own and that maybe Keith would be waiting for him, dreaming of the same thing. And yet, he knew what he had to do.
When Mario walked back into the bedroom, his mother looked up at him, her eyes puffy and red. With her tiny frame swaddled in a robe and blankets, she looked more like a little girl than the old woman she had become.
“Goodbye, mother,” he said. “I will call Paula and ask her to check in on you tonight.”
He didn’t even bother to let her respond, leaving her with nothing but the echoing sound of his footsteps as he headed out. A steely resolve settled in his chest. If there could be forgiveness for who he was, a gay man, there could be forgiveness for what he’d done.
When he heard the voice behind him, Mario turned around and stared in surprise. His mother was in her bedroom doorway—standing up on her own two feet. She was no longer wheezing or coughing; she was no longer the sickly woman she had presented herself to be for the last few weeks, but the proper lady he remembered from his childhood. He was confused.
“It was me, you know?” His mother was speaking clearly now, no longer rasping out her words between wheezes. “I couldn’t think of what to get you for your birthday and I … I made you clean out that shed because I wanted you to find that letter. I asked your cousin to put it under the boxes because I knew if you stayed out there long enough, you would find it. Can I get at least credit for that?”
Mario stared at her, his face an expressionless mask. Even though he felt like a hurricane had ripped through him, unsettling everything he believed, he refused to give her the benefit of seeing how much she’d shaken him. The woman he had devoted his entire life to, the woman he had spent countless sleepless nights worrying over and caring for, was now standing before him healthy and strong. She had never really needed him, he realized now. This whole time, it had all been a performance, a complete lie. There was nothing he could say to convey to her the immense pain, betrayal, and rage he was feeling.
His mother reached over into the kitchen drawer and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Death on a stick. Her coughing and wheezing was thanks to that, and still she insisted.
“Sit down,” she said, cupping her cigarette in her hand as she flicked the lighter.
Just to defy her, he stayed standing as she lit it up like an old pro.
“I may not win an Oscar, an Emmy or even a Tony, son but you have to admit, I gave the performance of a lifetime,” his mother said, taking a deep drag on the cigarette. “I was going to be an actress before you … before your father left you with me. You know that. I could have been somebody. You owed it to me. The least you could have done after stealing my future away is stay with me.”
Here she was again, blaming him. After everything she had done, and admitted to doing, she was going to lay it on him again. Well, he had let her blame him for everything that was wrong in her life long enough. He was done.
“No, mother. I don’t owe you a damn thing.” He hitched his bag on his shoulder and started to walk out the door.
“You’ll miss me!” she called after him, yelling out the door, “You’ll come back! Mario? Mario, come back! Come back this instant!”
But her calls fell on deaf ears; he kept walking with conviction. He knew where he needed to go. He knew where his heart was, and he was going to finish what he’d started so many years ago. This time, he was older and wiser and ready to take the reins in life. The only person that could stop him this time was him.
Maybe he’d find nothing. Maybe Keith would be with someone else—but he had to know, he had to try. He was going to return to the love of his life, if he would see him.
There had been so many moments when Mario thought he would never get to the vineyard. Months had passed since he’d hitchhiked his way up through Mexico and smuggled his way over the border. He had faced heat, dirt, exhaustion, and fear when the flashlights of the border control almost tracked him down.
But he had made it—and now he stood at the foot of the vineyard. The scent of wine grapes filled his nostrils, bringing with them so many memories of times gone by. As he walked down the dusty road, Mario thought about the summer he spent working in the fields, the summer he fell in love for the first time. Now, the house rose up before him: a plantation-style home with columns that seemed to reach the heavens. The house was beautiful, but badly in need of repairs– the paint was chipping, the wooden boards of the porch sagging. It almost seemed abandoned to Mario; there was no one around that he could see. But still, as he climbed the steps of the front porch, his heart was pounding in his chest. The yelp of an old dog nearly made him jump out of his skin. The ugly mutt was practically blind but as it smelled the air, its growls turned to a friendly bark and it licked his hand.
The screen door creaked open suddenly, and a man with rifle stepped out. “Can I help ya’?” the voice said.
Mario recognized the voice immediately, and he felt as if a warm hand was closing around his heart.
It was the love of his life. It was Keith.
He stepped out from under the shadow of the house into the sunlight and cupped his hand above his brow. He’d aged well, the years had been good to him. Not even the fine lines that had begun to be etched around his mouth could take away that handsome face and those ice-blue eyes. After a moment, a smile of recognition lit Keith’s face.
Seeing Keith’s smile again tugged at Mario’s heart, and Mario couldn’t help smiling in return. “Keith?”
Keith set the rifle down carefully and when he looked up, Mario could see the tears that had filled his eyes. Mario ran to him, and they threw their arms around each other. Keith’s smell, a familiar scent of sunshine and wine and Old Spice, was like oxygen to Mario. They held each other close, and then Keith kissed him.
As Mario kissed him back longingly, deeply, passionately, he knew he was home. Finally, he was home.