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Essays   ISSUE 06 | SHORT STORY | ILLUSTRATION   Jun 14, 2017

The Mother, Son, and Holy Spirit

Text by Dany Salvatierra
Illustrations by Jorge Medina

The Mother, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

Text by Dany Salvatierra

Illustrations by Jorge Medina

There is no one to greet me at the airport. I drag my broken suitcase through the international arrivals area and exit the terminal, still buried beneath my gigantic coat. The Florida climate struck me as if I had been thrown into Satan’s bathhouse, forcing me to strip my outer clothing, the remains of a South American winter I’d left behind. The other exiting passengers glare at me in silence, waiting for me to pull something out of my bag, possibly a bomb.

My head is pounding from the seven-hour flight from Lima and the extensive customs inspection. As the officer stuffs his gloved hands inside a pair of packed shoes, he asks what I do for a living. Instead of mentioning my usual day job, I reply that I am a writer to avoid the likely salary questions as advised by friends that had gone through the same ordeal.

Two hours later, following the commuter train ride, the local Metrorail, and two additional buses, I finally set foot at the corner of her apartment building. She lives in a predominantly Latino, residential area on the far suburbs south of Miami. The female busybodies glue their faces to the windows, examining the bearded muchachito traipsing through their parking lot with his wet hair plastered against his face, consumed by the early July humidity. I try to memorize their faces and even wave in case I’m to run into them later, only because my mother, who knows every single family in the building, has already told them about me.

Her door is decorated with the King Jesus international Ministry official sticker, featuring a banner that reads: Este es un hogar cristiano. After three knocks, she finally opens the door, her bifocals balanced over her chest, attached to a silver chain, fresh from a recent bible reading. She smiles politely but not warmly. Or not as warmly as would hope given my recent odyssey. I can see a slight smirk indicating she’s already starting to regret my visit.

“Hola hijo,” she says.

Not hijito, not mi amor, not even mi vida.

“Hola mamá,” I say.

Not mami, not mamita, not even ma’.

She holds the door open, displaying her bright red and perfectly manicured nails. I pause for a moment before taking the initiative and give her a small kiss on the cheek. She smiles again politely and steps aside to let me in.

No kissing back, no pat on the shoulder, not even a hug.

I set my suitcase in the living room by the couch, my makeshift bed for the next four days. While still standing, I feel her eyes burning on my back. I close my eyes and hear in Spanish.

“That shirt is too tight on you.”

I’m too exhausted for a counterattack and use one of my prepared phrases for this very topic, which always happens the first day of any visit with her. “I need a shower.”

“That’s good, because my friends are about to arrive at any minute.”

“What friends?”

“Just some friends from the temple. We’ve prepared a little welcome party for you. nothing big though, but wear something that meets my approval.”

The party news is not as shocking as the fact that she refers to her church as a “temple” (templo), which makes me think of a cult conducting elaborate ceremonies in the Everglades. as she steps into the kitchen, without asking about my trip, I open my suitcase and find the outfit I’m forced to bring for these situations: a plain, light blue short-sleeved shirt and a pair of oversized old navy jeans she bought for me two years ago. I lock myself in the bathroom and undress, taking note of the various objects next to her sink. These belongings from her former self include perfume bottles from two decades ago, night creams, an amusing liquid soap container shaped as a transparent high heel with quartz stones. all traces of the life she abandoned in Lima more than 14 years ago when she divorced my father, moved to Miami, and left everything and everyone behind. The only little inconvenience was that she, on top of it all, found the Lord.

It wasn’t that I was a non-believer. She raised me as a Catholic and taught me how to say my nighttime prayers, although at the time of my First Communion she was more worried about her dress than shedding any tears as I received the Holy Waffle. Her faith matured and accelerated when she settled in Miami by herself, working as a caregiver in a posh Coral Gables hospital and grieving over my father’s estrangement as she watched her patients die. over time she was slowly led into the “temple” by the other nurses with whom she worked during long, overnight shifts. Some months later she started questioning my lifestyle, my clothes, and my physique, and when she failed to pass on her rediscovered faith to me, she started lying. Whether the first lies were to herself or to her church friends, I don’t know.

I can’t blame her for the constant meddling of her social circle. it’s inevitable that an independent lady will have inquiries about the anonymous young man whose portraits and newspaper interview clippings are displayed on her living room walls. Especially if that fellow has no recorded history of chasing women, flirting with secretaries, or false paternity claims. My mother will summarize their doubts in a single sentence: “Oh, I’m sure he’s dating someone, but he is way too focused on his work.” and when her friends claim that a single male over 30 with no children should be living with his mother as God intends, she responds: “Oh, he travels so much that he can’t settle down anywhere, but I’m sure he’ll buy us a bigger apartment once he lands a book deal with a major publishing house here in America.” Her story has stayed remarkably consistent over the years, so much so that I wonder if she’s truly come to believe it herself. Occasionally, interviewers ask me where I got my talents for storytelling, and I have to tell them from my mother’s side.

I come out of the bathroom wearing my ill-fitting clothes, yawning from my relaxing 15 minutes under the warm shower and longing for an extended nap, when suddenly the doorbell rings. My mother runs towards me to conduct a final inspection on my appearance, commenting on how beards are only worn by “homeless and homosexuals.” I fire back citing a selection of bearded Hollywood actors and she responds: “But they’re fit, muscled, and masculine. You’re too skinny, and you don’t look masculine at all.”

The door then opens to four well-coiffed ladies carrying a guayaba cake, a small plate of mini empanadas, and a box of chocotejas. I greet them with my best smile and wonder at the same time what I could do to get rid of all that food. My mother’s colleagues are certainly more lively and colorful than she is. They wear high strap-on heels, white tight pants and tons of jewelry, certainly very un-church-like for ladies on their ‘spread the Word and tell the Good news’ mission. Two of them are named Úrsula and Amaranta, and when I try to joke about how those are also the names of two characters in Garcia Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, my mother informs me that those very ladies are just this moment working to ban that depraved novel from the local high school because it celebrates the unnatural love of an adult man with a 13-year-old girl.

As we sit in the living room, my mother brags about my writing career and “the girl I’m dating back in Lima.” I smile wearily and look out the window, gazing at the salmon-colored buildings, palm trees, and the rest of the deep rain forest throughout the apartment complex. Amaranta mentions that I will probably dump my Peruvian girlfriend for one of those nice corn-fed American gringas. Suddenly they are discussing where the wedding will be held, and after half an hour of answering their inquiries with a head bow, I rise up and excuse myself, mentioning that I’m going to get some rest, and that I need to edit a chapter of my manuscript by the next day. Úrsula is the first to hug me goodbye, taking my hands in between hers and saying that they are praying that I’ll soon start writing for the Lord, and that my forthcoming novels will help readers around the globe prepare for the second Coming. I don’t have the heart to tell her that my manuscript is about a fugitive Peruvian terrorist who also happens to be a child molester.

I retire to my mother’s bedroom, clutching the remote as I search for primetime Telemundo telenovelas, just as I did as a kid. Later that night, while mouthing heroine Kate del Castillo’s dialogue, I hear the ladies chanting bible verses in the living room, invoking Jesus’ name and adopting spooky deep voices that didn’t sound like their normal cadence. The Exorcist instantly came to mind. Why does this simple Christian ritual sound so sinister? Wasn’t this supposed to take place deep in the Everglades instead of my mother’s living room? For a moment I’m afraid they will try to kidnap me and send me to a gay conversion camp. But when sneaking out for the bathroom a bit later, I realize that, thank God, their worship ceremony is over. I find my mother sitting alone in the dim light, reading her bible, munching over the remaining mini empanadas.

The heavy rain wakes me early the next morning. When it clears, I prepare for a day at the beach, packing books and a towel in a totebag. My mother is already up and has even made breakfast for me, since she has to be at the hospital by nine. as I try to kiss her on the cheek, she extricates herself from me and stares blankly, in horror.

“Why are you wearing that tank top? I told you several times before: when you’re under my roof, you’re under my rules and under my control. And you’re not leaving my house in those shorts. Would you please wear the normal clothes I bought for you? You can change later when you’re away from my sight.”

“Mamá, I’m 34 years old.”

“There’s no excuse. Can you imagine what the neighbors would say if they saw you? The last time they found out about your condition, I had to move out to avoid their constant gossiping. Nobody would even give me the time of the day. Now, several people from the temple live nearby. Do you want that to happen again? Don’t you love me at least a bit? Please, do it for me”.

I sigh, go to the bathroom to change my clothes, and leave the apartment without further word, declining her offers to drive me to the train station. one of the biggest tragedies of my failed efforts at being a cosmopolitan globetrotter is that I never learned to drive, and in order to get to south Beach from Kendall I have to take two buses, then a local train, and then walk twenty minutes before reaching the gay beach on 16th street, an hour-and-a-half trip in the best of cases. The first bus drops me at Dadeland Mall where I change back into my summer clothes in the restroom and manage to buy some vodka that I mix inside a bottle of cranberry juice, Lima-style, to drink on the ride over. The booze lifts my spirits, and by the time I take the train to Government Center in downtown Miami, I’m tipsy enough to miss my connecting bus.

Once I get to ocean drive, I finish the remaining vodka and finally settle on the white sand beach near 16th street, unable to read any of the novels I brought since the words keep bouncing in front of my eyes. I try to relax, feeling good for the first time since I arrived in Florida, when I notice a handsome long-haired, bearded guy sitting nearby who is giving me the eye. He’s sitting with another good-looking friend, chatting and laughing as he throws the usual deep stare at my direction from time to time. a moment later, as I lose myself in the beautiful sight of the waves, I perceive the unmistakable scent of pot drifting over from my neighbors. Buoyed by the vodka still coursing through me, I leave my blanket and swiftly approach them. I mention that I’m going for a swim and ask if they don’t mind watching out for my belongings. The one that keeps looking at me smiles broadly while exhaling a prodigious cloud of pot smoke and says, “Sure, no problem.” a sparkle in his eyes gives me the sense of assurance I’m looking for, and I ask if I can have a toke. He laughs and almost chokes on the fumes.

“Please, go on” he says, his eyes always on mine.

“Gracias guapo,” I say after accepting the joint and confessing that I’m Peruvian, currently on vacation. They invite me to join them and immediately start asking where I’m staying. Already feeling a rush of exhilaration from the smoke and enjoying my newly acquired self-confidence, I scrap my initial plans to unburden my heart on these two handsome, stoned gentlemen. Instead, my lips part and out comes the story of a mother named after a European capital, who dyes her hair blonde and who’s taken half-a-day off to drive me to the beach in her vintage 1967 Corvette.

The boys sitting next to me are all smiles and nods, and offer me yet another toke. Suddenly everything becomes surreal, the three of us in speedos, enjoying the sea breeze, and laughing about absolutely nothing. At the same time, I’m struck by the realization that my story was hardly any different than my mother’s own fabrications. In fact, I had been describing the main character of my first novel, though before that moment I’d never made the connection.

After that, the hours pass quickly. At some point we hit the waves and later they tell me they’re both students at the University of Miami together. They tell me UM’s radio station is possibly the best in the country, a claim I’ve yet to assess but am inclined to believe. By five the stash is exhausted and they ask me to join them for sunset happy hour. I politely turn them down, saying that my mother is taking me to dinner at Gloria Estefan’s restaurant to introduce me to her latest boyfriend, a recovered ex-Christian who might be the inspiration for a novel. Walking back to Collins avenue, I write these ideas on my notepad knowing my latest lie could be a good pitch for future development.

That night my mother is astonished by my appetite (the inevitable bajona, as my friends call it). Over the coming days, I begin to informally study her daily routines, from home to hospital and hospital to church or weekly prayer meetings, and try to understand her motivations for putting a mask over my real life instead of being honest with those who know her. It’s not easy being with a stranger I hardly recognize and who criticizes every move I make, even during mealtime. If I cut my steak too slow she shouts that it’s a shame that I’m not manly enough, and when I rise abruptly to excuse myself from the table, she hisses that I should do it more slowly because “the neighbors can hear.”

I discover that she keeps a little shelf with all my books and everything I’ve published by her nightstand. I grab a copy of my second book and find her King Jesus international Ministry cardboard bookmark on page 47. The page opens with a paragraph at the end of which there’s a brief and educated mention of a blowjob, and I know that she’s put an effort into reading the novel right until that point, where she doubtlessly decided it was too much for her, although it meant the world to me that she at least tried.

Aside from a second trip to south Beach, I fail in my efforts to find a used bookstore in Miami and end up at Barnes & noble. I spend my remaining days lying on her couch, devouring tome after tome, until one night before bedtime my mother surprises me with a chaste kiss on the top of my head. “I love you,” she says.

I’m prepared to say I find her words questionable. You don’t love me, I’d like to say, you love an idea of me, you love the image of someone you want me to be, but you don’t love me. That’s what I want her to hear. Isn’t the Lord supposed to be all about love?

Instead, I turn a page on the book I was reading and recite, without looking at her, “I love you, too.”

On the last night, she cries. She claims that during my short stay she has gotten accustomed to my presence, and that she likes seeing me on the couch when she arrives home from the hospital. But she still won’t take me to the airport, even to the Miami airport, admitting that she can’t drive at night due to the cataracts starting to develop in her eyes. Instead, she’s hired one of her church friends to drive me to the airport, a gesture I tell her I appreciate, and I do. Still, I don’t have the heart to tell that I’m flying from Miami to new York that night to see my editor, and I don’t tell her that my journey back to Lima will bring me back to Miami, where I’ll be spending several days with a friend. This visit has reached its end, and I don’t want to see her again until the next one.

Her friend honks from the parking lot at 5:30 a.m. sharp. My mother hugs me, still wearing her nightgown and slippers and her hair messy from sleep. in my mind I think about all those school trips that started similarly, back when she was a different woman and didn’t cry but simply told me to be careful, over and over. This time, my mother cries because she knows she’s wrong. Because she has to live two different lives, for me and for the church. That sacrifice, in the tradition of the Hispanic self-punishment-based upbringing, is a cross she’ll carry until she decides to accept me in full. A fact that I (yes) pray will happen before it’s too late.

She hugs me one more time and stifles her sobs with a tissue. Inside the car, her church friend is watching us and she silently sobs too, probably imagining how painful it is for us to be apart. I try to imagine how Telemundo could shoot this scene as it is and consider all the income I’m missing out on from screenwriting.

My mother doesn’t tell me to be careful. She says, “Don’t forget to put your life in the hands of King Jesus,” and waves goodbye. The lady that drives me to the airport, whose name I’d forgotten because it wasn’t Úrsula or Amaranta, Comments on how hard my absence will be for my mother. I know she’s right, in a way. My mother keeps sight of us as we exit to North Kendall Drive, and I’m sure she would remain there, staring at the highway, with her eyes fixed not on the image, but on the real me that is now gone.


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