By Marilyse Figueroa
It’s not out of the ordinary for us to enjoy the smell of your father’s cigars in the humidor together. You promised to give up smoking with me, but I know it’s a smell you miss. For me, it’s the whole ritual, the flick of the lighter, the cigarette catching flame in front of my eyes, and the first exhale feels like God is touching my lungs. You used to tell me, Rosita, eres muy sexy when you smoke. I felt like the woman with the bedroom eyes and red rose in her hair on those bags of rice at the pulga-the dirt floor flea market skirting the San Antonio hill country where you fell in love with me. Maybe we’re bad parents for keeping our vices, but we don’t smoke in the house and we always tell Diego and Roberto they should never pick up the habit.
With your cigars, it’s something beyond habit. You kept those for yourself. You had boxes and boxes in the humidor, an inheritance from the Havana your father left behind when he boarded the plane to Florida with his young bride. It was the only thing they smuggled, other than you, a bean in your mother’s belly. You saved them from being deported, the judge couldn’t morally allow another child into the foster care system, maybe because she was Cuban, too, but probably not. Sometimes Latinos hurt each other, I know that more viscerally than you.
After the cigars ran out though, you were in withdrawals. You went to nightclubs with your coworkers, someone named Julia wanted to learn how to salsa and I let you teach her. You only know the merengue, but a wife has to choose her battles, and you had already given up smoking. There must have been something about that speckled white skin you found exotic, just like your father who made your morena mother dye her hair a garish platinum blonde. He fell prey to Marilyn Monroe’s entrancing looks, and women like your mother and I have to comply if we want our men to come home at night. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work if our growing embarazada bellies are restraining our cosmetics from producing the desired effect. Smoking at least kept my appetite away, but now it doesn’t matter, I have to eat for two.
I understand why quitting smoking was so hard for you, Rolando. When those cigars ceased to fill your nostrils with the odor of your father, you needed something else to make you feel the thrill your father felt as he danced in the streets of Havana. Wasn’t there that time when he came home from the discoteca with a cocktail glass in his hand? Your mother noticed the lipstick on the glass more than the alcohol in the glass itself. Or maybe your mother made that up to humiliate him at the one and only dinner we had with them. But as I said, if you want to go dancing it’s okay, so quit asking. You can dance with all the Julias as long as you come home and talk to me and the boys. We have so little to talk about when you’re not home, and I can’t teach them Spanish since the nun from Guadalajara beat the Mexican out of me. My continual frustration lies in cognates between English and Spanish. Those words who lie, who give me false hope of discovering their meaning, always betray me when I try to speak with you. Like how I thought embarazada meant embarrassed until you corrected me. I am so fortunate you can teach the boys proper Spanish, teach them how to speak confidently and with that accento that charmed me all those years ago when I became your young bride.
At home, I have a lot to prepare for anyway. The boys do their homework at the kitchen table after supper and I relax in the new baby room for a half hour, sometimes more, to recharge my mind. I used to go to the garage and smoke a few cigarettes, not too many because I want to live for a long time, but these days I like to get things done in the middle of the night when los hijos are sleeping or pretending to sleep. They still expect for you to come in and sing that corny “La Bamba” to them. I told you it’s not right to mess with a child’s schedule, but when the DJ plays another classic from your boyhood, you don’t remember, you even have a watch. Instead of waiting for you to sing to us, now we have a new routine. All of us stay up and look for you out the window. The boys fall asleep on the couch more than their own beds these days and I don’t mind anymore, their little backs are more resilient than mine.
I notice my heightened senses in the middle of the night when you’re not home. Of them all, my sense of smell is intensifying rapidly, more rapidly so than even my sense of touch or sight. I haven’t been able to get anything done, I walk around trying to find that smell until I fall asleep standing in the frame of the closet. When I tell you about the smells in the morning you say I am seeing things and I’m only being sensitive porque estoy embarazada. But how can I tell you I keep finding trails of cigar smoke in the kitchen, living room, and even in your clothes? When you are crashed out on the bed, I sniff your collars and pants, turn out the tongues of your pant pockets, but I never find matches or cigar wrappers. Your pockets are always clean with a little lint rolled into the pinched corners. I pick out all the lint to make up for the distrust I momentarily fell into. You wouldn’t smoke without me, I know my husband.
It used to be a game tiring the boys out at night, but now my feet are too swollen to chase and wear them down. I have gotten used to feeling their eyes on my back as we all watch for the sign of lights coming through the window. Except, I don’t need to see the headlights from the car, I can predict your arrival by the smell of you getting closer and closer. The bebé inside me kicks excitedly and every cell in my body says you’re coming home. When you walk in smelling of all sorts of urban perfumes, even Diego and Roberto ask where you have been. You should at least answer them, they are boys and need to learn from a man and not a tired mother. Answer them Rolando. They are thinking the same thing I am, he’s been smoking. It’s shameful when they have to hug you and smell those cigars, the ones you’re not supposed to have anymore because your father’s ran out and we said we would do this together. Are we still in this together?
When you’re crashed out beside me and I’ve sniffed through all your clothes, I pick up your hand and let the skin of my belly and your palm touch. Every time the skin on my stomach starts to perspire solely around your hand, I know he’s awake. The boy inside me who doesn’t even have eyelids wants to see and touch his apá. He even forgives you for lying to his mother. Your hijo inherited his forgiveness from someone else, not me, but maybe one day he will help me forgive you, to say the words, “Yo te perdonas” in my imperfect Spanish. Maybe this and only this time you won’t correct me. You’ll accept me with my straight black Indio hair, my skin that loves the sun, and my laughter cackling like the lightning across the river that bore me, because all of this is in your sons’ veins, too.
Marilyse Figueroa is a Latin@ writer living in San Antonio, Texas. Marliyse is writing a book of short stories about the relationships between Latin@s and other minorities and classes. She plans to attend a creative writing Masters program in the fall of 2015. You can follow Marilyse on Twitter @Marilysefig