Editor's note: this is very much a rough draft that I wrote today. I wasn't exactly sure where I was going with this. I simply woke up with the first sentence of this story in my head and I did the nosey writer thing of asking why the narrator was called that. This is what I got from today's writing session.
She used to call me pobrecito.
She was of Polish descent, but her neighbors were from Venezuela. Her eyes lit up when she talked about Mamá Fernández and Papá Fernández, about their daughter, who had become her best friend when they were both around three years old. She always had a story about her "second family", her mouth blossoming into the widest smile I had ever seen. Stories about hijinx, stories about extended family members visiting America, stories about meals so intricate and vast that she thought she'd burst. She'd get so caught up sometimes that she'd lapse into Spanish, talking about this or that event from her childhood.
When I found out her father died when she was eight, she simply shrugged her shoulders and said, "That's life. It ends."
One of the things that drew me to her was her sarcastic wit. No one was spared from her quips. She'd dramatically pout her lips and go, "Ah, pobrecito. Lo siento," whenever I had any type of complaint or mentioned any type of setback. I'd ask her what she had said and she'd reply with, "I said, 'I'm sorry you fell asleep during Spanish in high school.'"
I watched the way she would spin whatever someone was saying into innuendo, facetiously pushing away other men's shoulders or knees. For all our conversations, she never did that with me. When I got the most jealous, when my own smile would become like a snarl as she joked with another person or shrugged off a guy's only-semi-joking suggestion to become his wife, I would tell myself that she had this border with me as a safety measure. Like she was afraid of making a comment that would cross into a different set of territories and reveal more than she was ready to reveal.
I found out about her father years later, sometime after we had started sleeping together -- after splitting away from a group outing one evening and letting one thing lead to another, with me never knowing if she was going along for the ride or orchestrating the whole thing; after waking up the morning after and hearing her warn that she wasn't looking for anything serious. It was Father's Day, and I was busy frying bacon in my kitchen as she strolled around the house, cell phone pressed to her temple. She downright sang into the phone; I couldn't tell if it was just the language or the way she let the words dance and twirl as she laughed and rolled her eyes to nobody in particular. She ended her called with, "Te quiero mucho, Papá. Te quiero mucho," and downright waltzed into the kitchen.
"Is breakfast ready?" she asked, her elbows propped against my kitchen counter.
"Not for a while, actually," I replied. "I guess I assumed you had more phone calls to make -- that you would call your dad up before breakfast as well."
"I did call my dad," she replied, her voice completely devoid of the melody from just minutes before.
"Oh, I'm...I'm sorry, I guess I didn't..." I stammered, bacon burning right in front of me. "That was rude of me. I just assumed..."
"My biological father died when I was eight," she interjected, as if she were reciting a line from a History Channel special, informative but disconnected.
"My God, Rosalind...I'm so sorry..."
She shrugged her shoulders as if I had been apologizing over her missing a train or a meeting.
"Don't be," she replied, looking up at me eyes that were dark in a way I had never seen before.
"That's life. It ends."
She still called me pobrecito and still shied away from the more inappropriate remarks -- as if she were now afraid that making such a comment would reveal the truth to everyone around us. I asked her why she kept calling me pobrecito -- "poor thing", as I eventually learned -- and she said, "Because, when you complain, no matter how big or small it is, it sounds like it's a second way from ruining your life. You have a flair for the dramatic."
I had spent so many years assuming she was always single, never without a man -- that the attention she got when she walked into a room was more than sufficient and spent her time alone as a result. I slowly realized that I couldn't have been more wrong -- that how she was with me was probably how she was with a million other men before. Together, but not. Casual, but steady. Nothing, but everything.
It took learning that her own father had died to make me realize that there was a reason why I knew so much about her "second family" but absolutely nothing about her biological family. She'd mention a sister from time to time. She would tell a story about her best friend -- "mi hermana" -- and perhaps add in a cameo from her actual family -- "my older sister" or "my mother" -- the words hanging in the air as if she had only learned the words the day before. Most of her stories involving her older sister were from when she was young. Any stories from her teenaged years and onward showed no sign of that sister.
I tried to balance it out with stories about my own family. I talked about my own mother, my little sister. I talked about my own father, and how I knew what it was like, to lose a parent. Mine had died just a few years prior, from cancer.
"No, it's different," she'd say distantly.
"How so?" I pressed, finding myself oddly defensive that she was so quick to remove my experience from the same category as hers.
She shrugged again.
"It just is."
I complained about my mother exactly once. It happened when my mother called me while I was driving around with Rosalind. I answered my twenty questions, assured her twice that I loved her, and hung up, laughing as I shook my head from side to side, saying how my mom still can't admit I'm grown up, that she just tries to mom me from a thousand miles away.
"Aye, pobrecito," she downright whispered, her eyes glued to the passenger window. Her words lacked the flavor and tone that I had grown so used to. I never mentioned anything again.
For that first year, I forced myself to believe that what we had was more than enough. And I mean, why not? I had spent so long wanting to do more than a friendly pat on the shoulder. I spent so long wishing I could just adjust a piece of hair along the nape of her neck, wishing I could turn my head toward her and stay just a moment longer when we hugged. I spent so long wanting such little scraps that what I had landed was a feast in comparison. I forced myself to believe that there was an unwritten rule; that, even though we were not serious, we were something -- a something that was held sacred at least on some level.
I have analyzed and overanalyzed that sacred "nothing" a million times at this point, pinpointing exactly where things went wrong or exactly where things could've gone right. When the dust had settled and I was left with nothing but a broken heart, I immediately went to "daddy issues". Of course things couldn't work out: how could she carry my heart when both hands were wrapped tightly around such baggage? That was the easiest explanation. The injustice was clear as day to me: she had opened up to me, slowly unraveling the truth about her addict of a father, her sister who had fallen down the same path, her mentally fragile mother. She showed a side to herself that felt so vulnerable and raw, something that she couldn't have possibly shown to the other men who dance alongside her and gaze back at her for just a little too long. It was all figured out for me back then. I had everything defined so neatly that I couldn't accept that it might be messier -- or simpler -- than that.
We were at the movies at one point, one of our rare outings with just the two of us. In a similar turn of events like just a few months before, a mother had called while we were in my car. She answered the phone in English, her voice soft and patient like a nurse working with an invalid, asking questions in a way that would make anyone feel calm, even if the questions were things like, "What did Dr. Novak say about your dosage?"
I took a left instead of a right, looping around the city instead of going straight to the theatre. When she hung up, I blurted out, "You never talk about your mother."
I got met with one of her infamous shrugs.
"What is there to say?"
"Well, she's your mother," I pressed, my mind trying to wrap around what the previous phone call could've meant. "I mean, she raised you."
She sighed and looked at me with eyes that were way older than anyone's I had ever seen before.
"I love her, and she is the sweetest lady I have ever known," she spoke clearly. "I don't think there is a malice bone in her entire body. But, at the end of the day, Mamá Fernández raised me. End of story."
"I don't understand. Was she not around?" I found myself saying, not getting why I was pressing forward the way I was.
"You could say that," she replied. "I found that growing up was a lot easier -- that forgiving her for everything had happened was easier -- if I didn't view her the way society told me to."
I kept silent until we got to the theatre. I stepped forward to the cashier, buying two sets of tickets like a man out on a proper date, and offered to get us popcorn. When she refused, we went straight to our seats. She sat in the spot next to me that already had the armrest separating the two seats lifted up, creating a bit of a loveseat by the screen. She crossed and then uncrossed her legs before settling on crossing her arms and shifting forward in her seat. I left my hands rest by my side, my right hand slowly drifting closer to her left leg.
"How did your father die?" I blurted into the silence, the back of my hand now tentatively resting against her thigh, waiting for the moment when she'd cross her legs again and become the creator a new set of space.
"Liver cirrhosis," she replied flatly. She sat back in her seat, her arm now pressed against mine. I felt the heat against my bicep and felt a shiver race up my spine.
"I'm so sorry."
"Why?" She turned to me, her arm now against the back of her chair, my arm suddenly cold.
"Because..." I began, nervously licking my lips, staring at the floor, wondering how I could word how I felt about my own father's passing without turning the conversation over to me.
"Please stop apologizing for my father's death. Because I am not," she said slowly, the vibrations of her voice resonating around and against my heart. "He was a good man with a bad addiction. He could not overcome it, and it overcame him. It happened when I was old enough to know it wasn't my fault and young enough that his behavior had had only a small influence on me. There are worse situations to find yourself in."
Somewhere in the second year of whatever it was that we were, I had decided that she was slowly unraveling around me, showing that vulnerable side to her that the rest of the world never saw, a world that never fully made the connection between the funny & witty and the broken. I kept an ear out for whenever she would talk about her biological family.
Looking back, I don't know what I was expecting. I guess part of me felt like, if I pressed hard enough, if I dug deep enough, she would collapse into tears, with me there to catch her before she hit the ground. Some days I would fantasize about her revealing just how much it hurt her to have had such an unstable upbringing, the same time she would reveal just how deep her love was for me, and how afraid she was to admit it given all her damage.
Or maybe I genuinely believed that what she was telling me were deep, dark secrets. I would hear a rumor about her and someone, anyone -- a guy from work, a friend of a friend, whoever -- and decide that he didn't know about her family life, that he didn't hear the words drain of emotion when she talked about her biological family.
As far as I knew, I was the only one she'd facetiously call pobrecito.
With nearly half a decade between then and now, it's safe to say I see things differently. I used to pinpoint one particular day as that day she broke my heart without any provocation. I then pinpointed that day as the day that I blew it. Now I recognize that this was just how things were going to turn out eventually. It's just that it ended up happening in a more explosive manner.
It started out because of the pit of jealousy in my stomach. I had developed a downright compulsive ear for any possible outing with her and any other man. The newest one seemed to get at me in a way that I couldn't properly quell, like this particular rumor brought out the most territorial side of me. I found myself saying things in ways I never meant to say and almost watched from the sidelines as the conversation built up and up.
"I told you a long time ago that I wasn't looking for anything serious," she said, her arms crossed.
"Look around you!" I cried out. "We've been doing this for two years. 'Casual' went out the door a long time ago."
In my mind, my word had hit her square in the chest, forcing her to blink away tears and show a different type of vulnerability, a side I hadn't seen before but swore it was there, somewhere.
"Maybe for you," she replied solemnly.
"Can you see what this is?" I continued. "It's not fair for us that you keep me at arm's length like this."
"Who said I was keeping you at arm's length?" she asked.
"I'm sorry that there was so much going on when you were a child, but it is not fair to refuse love because of it," some part of me -- the part of me that was in control of quelling my jealousy -- said.
Again, in my mind, this would have been the part where she broke down and admitted how much it hurt to try to love. In some alternative universe, this would have been the beginning of our deep bond, a relationship where I saved the day and she gave me a new lease on life. The type of intricate love that people only read about. It would've been like the movies, where the main character saves the offbeat girl and the offbeat girl helps the main character find true meaning in his life.
"I think this needs to be over," she replied, shaking her head the same way a teacher shakes her head at a failing student. "This has gone on long enough."
Something in me ignited and suddenly I was in even less control of myself than I was before.
"Is that it?" I shouted, my hands flung in the air, my arm muscles rigid and unforgiving. "That's how it's going to be then, huh? It's because I'm not broken too, isn't it? Because I had a good childhood with good parents and a good life and I can't ever know what it was like for you, huh. Because my father's death is not as tragic as your father's death and my issues will never be as tragic as yours."
"No," she replied coolly. "But that right there -- the fact that you just said all that -- is part of the reason." She looked me up and down before adding: "I am not a tragedy, and my past is not to be fetishized."
I found out that she had gotten married three or so years later, to a guy she had met through a client at work. Before I had broken away from our group of friends, she brought him out to meet everyone almost as soon as they had started dating. Back then, I consoled myself by saying that I had been the lesson that she had needed to learn about love. I wasn't ready to admit that maybe, just maybe, we were nothing serious, and she never had any intention of having things get as far as I wanted them to.
I ran into them recently. It was the first time in years, especially since she got engaged. It was an innocent as being in the same aisle at the same grocery store at the same time. The man had a slight French accent about him, talking quietly to Rosalind as they scanned a shelf. I was half tempted to turn around and leave the aisle, but she caught my staring before I could move.
"Well, hey there, stranger," she said, turning to me, her hand reflexively touching her belly. "How have you been?"
"Oh, you know, the usual," I said. In a flash, I imagined me mentioning the issues at work, if only to watch her pout her lips, place her hands to her heart, and go, "Oh, pobrecito. Lo siento." Instead, I said: "Overall, through, pretty good. How about you?"
"Oh, you know." She looked down and moved her hand in a circular motion around her torso, emphasizing a small bump that I hadn't noticed before.
"Oh wow, congratulations," I replied, doing my best to look both her and her husband in the eye when I said this.
"Thanks," she said. "It's been interesting. I've learned the hard way that 'morning sickness' doesn't exactly mean it'll only happen in the morning."
"Aww, pobrecito," I said, my hands dramatically to my heart.
"Your accent is terrible," she replied with a roll of her eyes and a slight grin. "And also, it would be pobrecita. Unless you're calling me a man."
All I could do was smile at her, wishing I could maybe tuck a lock of hair behind her hair and place my hand on her shoulder, my thumb rubbing the nape of her neck.
"Besides, I'll be fine. Nothing a little ginger ale can't fix," she added, looking up at her husband with a warmth that I had once seen only when talking about Mamá and Papá Fernández.
"Anyway, we have to get going, but it was good running into you."
She slipped her hand into her husband's -- Michael, I want to say his name was? -- and walked past us. I turned around to watch her disappear down the aisle. In my mind, she would look back one last time before turning the corner. A look that would encapsulate all the love, the regret, the longing that I prayed she felt all this time.
But then again, that is where my problem will always lie. In my mind, I fell in love with the girl with the sharp tongue and incredible stories. From the moment I met her, I regarded her as this infallible entity, clearly meant to be with me. That girl became the broken one -- the girl that couldn't love me because of her past. I built up this fictional character in my mind to the point that I believed it wholeheartedly. And I believed that all I needed to do was do the right things, say the right things, probe into her past in just the right way, for everything to work out for me. I had decided that the girl I was in love with sang in Spanish and cried in English and eventually she would need me to be a translator. I was too busy labeling her the pobrecita that I missed seeing the woman in her entirety in front of me.