'Desperate Housewives of Roland Park'
An abbreviated version of the opening essay from Marion Winik's 'Highs in the Low Fifties'
I was hanging pots in the kitchen when an attractive, loose-limbed Latino man in a ski cap came out of the basement with a bucket. The moment he saw me, an expression of interest crossed his face. I stepped aside to let him get to the sink and his paint-spattered flannel shirt brushed my arm. Our eyes met. His were liquid black.
"Hola," I said. "¿Cómo te llamas?"
"Humberto," he said. "Y tu?" He gave me another long look as he shut the basement door. He had a way of gazing at me as if I were Aphrodite.
By the time I moved to Baltimore, it had been over a year since my husband and I split up, and the only man I'd been with since was ... my husband. But now he'd become serious with someone else, while I had no idea how to proceed. I'd been in back-to-back relationships since I was 25, 25 years ago. What was I supposed to do? Go online? Hit the bars? Start cruising the Central Americans in the basement? Adjust to a life without passion?
There was only one of these choices that seemed to be out of the question.
The next week I was sitting at my desk when I felt someone standing behind me.
"¿Qué haces?" asked Humberto.
"Trabajo," I replied. I haltingly explained in Spanish that I am a writer. But something about the way he looked at my books suggested that it wasn't just that he didn't read English. It was that he didn't read.
"¿Tu no lees?"
He shrugged. "No mucho."
I pulled down a book whose cover shows a picture of my first husband and me with our little sons. I explained to him that Tony had died of AIDS.
His eyes widened.
"A long time ago," I said. "Sixteen years."
He shook his head sympathetically and touched my cheek.
One day, I decided to use my ex's Amazon Prime account so I could get free shipping. This turned out to be the last time I did that, because I saw that he had ordered a copy of the Kama Sutra for his girlfriend.
When right then, Humberto appeared behind me, I got up and turned to face him. He put his arms around me and I leaned into his chest.
It stopped there, but went on like this for weeks – hugs, looks, confusing conversations. One day, he brought me a foil package of homemade tortillas. When Jane got home from school, I rolled one up for her with jam. "Humberto brought these for us," I told her gaily. "Isn't that so sweet?"
"Humberto?" she said. "Is he your boyfriend?"
"No, silly, of course not."
"Then why are you always talking about him?" she said.
Well, Miss Third Grader, good question.
My basement was almost done and the crew began working on other jobs. One day, Humberto pulled out his cell phone and asked for my number. I couldn't think why since we could barely talk to each other, but he called me often. He said "Hola," I said "Hola," then he would say something else which I had to ask to him to repeat 200 times until we gave up.
Though we never kissed, unfortunate progress was made on other fronts. He would run his hands over my body, but had a way of pinching whatever he got hold of that I couldn't stand. It wasn't your usual two-fingered pinch, but a whole-hand squeeze, as if he were juicing a particularly resistant citrus fruit. Finally I used Google Translate to look up "pinch."
"No me pellizques," I told him.
I showed him, he laughed, then he started doing it again.
I was beginning to see. We weren't right for each other.
But to put it in Pokemon terms, the ability of looking must be stronger than the ability of pinching, because looking beat pinching in this Poke-battle. When Humberto called one day to say he wanted to see me, I drove over to the barrio and picked him up. He looked as nervous as I was, waiting for me in the rain without an umbrella in an ironed shirt, creased pants and shiny shoes. Okay, let's do this, I thought. I had to have sex as a phase in my recovery and this was my chance.
Back at my house, we sat on the couch and had a glass of wine. With Google Translate running harder than a shredder at Goldman Sachs, I learned many new things about Humberto. Such as, he had three kids at home in El Salvador whom he hadn't seen for four years.
This was not a sexy conversation.
Gloomily, we went up to the bedroom. He took off his shoes, lay on the quilt, and told me that he had forgotten his condoms.
He muttered something about my husband dying of AIDS.
Oh, okay. I get it now. I considered explaining that I don't have HIV, but he looked as if he were about to cry. "What's wrong?" I asked.
"Es mi hermano," he said, and the tears rolled. He told me that his brother was trying to sneak into the United States but was stuck in Mexico for lack of funds. It was very dangerous. Could I please give him some money?
"How much is it?" I wondered.
He told me.
At this point, my eyes also filled with tears and I leapt off the bed. I mean I felt bad about his brother and I knew I wasn't Aphrodite but this was pretty far to fall.
Afterwards, we sat on my front porch and had as serious a conversation as we could manage. I tried to say that the inequality of our situations made it difficult for us to understand each other. I knew he hadn't meant to hurt me, but he had, and I didn't have three thousand dollars to spare anyway. Finally, I told him, you should never ask a woman for money in her bedroom. It just isn't done.
I gave him two twenties toward the cause and took him home. Then I ruefully closed Google Translate and signed up for Match.com, where I might not find love but I would at least find people in my age group who spoke English.
Marion Winik reads and signs at BookPeople (603 N. Lamar) Wednesday, July 10, 7pm. Visit the BookPeople website (www.bookpeople.com) for complete event details.