An Island of Illusions
The box lay on my lap. I did not want to open it. Angeles sat across from me, in the torn leather chair in the room in Edgewood, Texas, where my mother had kept her books, her photo albums, and the trinkets she had picked up in her travels. I had arrived just a few hours before and had walked around the house as if it were a church, slowly, gazing up at the pictures my mother had chosen to hang on the walls, looking at her bed, at her bottles of Arpege and her felt-lined jewelry box, staring unbelievingly at her faded red robe still hanging on the back of the bathroom door.
My mother's room had not been touched. The bed was made, the rose-colored bedspread smoothed around it, not a wrinkle in it, the way she had left it. Beside her bed, on her night table, she had a framed picture of my grandmother, a picture I had always loved, my grandmother in a gray and white housedress with dark stripes. Her face was powerful, nothing frail about it. It was the face of Spanish doñas, those Goya faces, smileless, almost ruthless, eyes long lost in some past. Next to the picture was a paperback edition of Toni Morrison's Beloved, a book I had recommended to her. It lay there as if it had just been bought, no pages turned. Closest to the bed and my mother's pillow was her latest crossword puzzle, which she had clipped from a newspaper. It was unfinished. I wanted to take it but didn't dare touch it. I couldn't touch any of it.
I glanced up and down the hallway, where her diplomas were hanging in the same frames I remembered, and the picture of her I most loved, taken when she was twenty-three, just before I was born. It was in a cluster of family pictures. I stood before it the way I stood, when I was very young, before the statues of the Virgin Mary, the way I later looked at posters of movie stars.
I want a copy of that, I said.
The house where she had lived for the last five years of her life was full of people, more people, I was sure, than had ever been in it when she was alive, Townspeople, neighbors, her husband's relatives, people I had not met or had forgotten. My sisters were already there, and my brother, and my aunt, Angela Luisa, with her son, Jacobo. I was startled to see him, immaculately dressed in a dark business suit, resolute and somber, standing at her side, just a step behind her, attentive but distant, at her elbow but not quite touching it. I wouldn't have recognized him now except for the dose-set eyes and foxlike face, the same look he had when he was a boy.
One by one they came to me.
But, nena, you look the same, my aunt said. It had been many years, more than two decades since I had last seen her.
You look the same, too, I lied, throwing my arms around her, relieved to see someone who had shared my mother's life, who had shared our childhood.
She said, I came because I knew that if I didn't come you and your sisters and brother would not have anyone here that was real family. I embraced her again. She was right. The sadness in her, the sorrow that had to be in her after losing her only sister, her older sister, seemed muted, cut off. She had never been one to show much emotion.
When I was a child, she had been a spire to me. She was a writer, a journalist, the center of attention in rooms crowded with powerful men whom you read about in the papers, and with women in demure cocktail dresses who kissed her on both cheeks. She had been my model, tall and light-haired, unadorned yet shining in her silk scarves, elegant like a swan. But she didn't look the same, how could she? She was seventy-four years old, two years younger than my mother, and she was less agile and a bit stooped. Her hair was a blond gray curled by beauty parlor hot rolls, combed in tight waves. She had on a silken dress with long, flowing sleeves, the sort she would wear to a theater opening. Her strand of pearls was draped loosely around her old woman's neck. But she had the brightness about her that I remembered, her glow, her playful smile, and the warmth she seemed to hold mostly for Angeles and me.
Your mother, she said, taking me aside, should have lived the life I had (she meant fame, travel, awards all over the walls), and I should have had hers.
I didn't believe her, didn't believe that she would've traded lives with my mother, but I did believe that my mother would have wanted my aunt's life. This was a comment, I thought, meant to suggest something about my mother more than about my aunt, and she said it as if revealing a secret, something she had thought about all those years. It felt like the point of a blade touching briefly, coldly, against my skin, before it fell to the ground.
When she embraced me again, she let her long, ringless fingers rest on my shoulder, and stood back to look at me. I wanted to scream, Where is she, where is she?
Angeles came out of a room, and we held each other for a very long time. She looked older than I, her hair a sea gray that was oddly almost black like the depths of the sea. She held me like a doll, tight to her, and her tears touched my face, making it impossible for me to cry. Holding her was as close as I could ever get to holding my mother again, but we still played the roles we had played since we were children. She cried, I didn't.