Before the sun shyly peeped over Trujillo, warming the city by degrees, when everything was still gray and chill, Camilla was up. She fed the cats, wondering if she would make it through the day. It would be a performance, to be sure, but she and her sister Julia had agreed on one thing and that was that Mama could never know.
Last week, she told her sister that she had been sleeping with her husband for the last year and a half. Julia, who had stopped loving her husband after he lost his edge, reacted by throwing most of Camilla’s ceramic bird collection at the wall. Her target, much of the time, was her older sister but Camilla found she could duck quickly when necessary. They had indulged in creative name calling and dredged up grievances dating back to childhood, but in the end, they both knew they would keep up appearances for a little while longer. With the failure of the chemotherapy and the radiation treatments, Mama would be making her own curtain call soon. Within the next month, the doctor predicted, reading Mama’s body like the planets and constellations.
She pulled a cardigan over her light summer top to protect against the early morning chill, her hair still damp from her bath and her feet slippered. She made herself a cup of coffee and ate a slice of thick bread with mango butter. Her children would not be up for hours. The sun was coming up, breaking through the stillness. She sipped her coffee and watched the cats clean their faces, satisfied from their breakfasts.
This morning, she would make tamales. Tamales were for healing.
When Camilla was seventeen years old, she hated her sister for the very first time. She and Julia always had their differences. They’d fought over toys as children and bathroom time as adolescents, but Camilla never truly resented her younger sister until Julia, at fifteen, got a date to a party that Camilla hadn’t even been invited to.
On the day of the party, she’d been in her mother’s kitchen sulking. Sitting on a stool, she ran her bare feet against blue tiles, curling her toes in reaction to their smooth, coldness. She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering in a thin shirt of white cotton even though it wasn’t cold. There was a bouquet of daisies on the counter, a present to Julia from her admiring date. It was sunny and beautiful out, a perfect spring day for romance.
“Come,” her mother said. “We will make tamales.”
They worked side by side. It didn’t seem like she got the good end of the bargain. Julia got to primp and decide what lipstick color best complemented her dress, while Camilla got to the work in the kitchen. She was silent, but her mother filled the void with stories of her own girlhood, of boys she’d won and boys who got away. She suspected Mama was telling her that her social status would not be determined by a single party, but Camilla was more interested in the here-and-now, rather than what boy she would claim as her own in a few years’ time.
Through her hurt, she found something soothing in the food preparation. She could sense the countless generations of mothers and daughters who had cooked side by side, joined by family love and tradition. A sense of wonder came over her, even as she wished to be painting her nails for the party and setting her hair in curlers. Her sharp edges of her jealousy softened until it no longer grated her insides. Years later, she’d recounted the tamale story to her mother, forgetting her seventeen-year-old disappointment with high school boys, and she was surprised when her mother recalled the hurt she had long since forgotten.
Camilla thought of her mother as she prepared the food. Everything – the cornmeal, the chicken, the ajji amarillo, the scallions, and the black olives – made her think of her mother and all of the things she had given her over the years. Now, Camilla was the one who did the cooking and the baking, while her mother grew weak with the chemotherapy, losing hair and hope in chunks.
Three hours later, Camilla brought all the fans in the house into the kitchen, despite her family’s complaints. It was the hottest January in years, and she would spend all day in the kitchen. She had sent her youngest son, Alejandro, to the store to buy some fireworks.
On the radio, Fragil played as she looked through stacks of handwritten recipe cards. Some, ivory cards with a strawberry border, held her mother’s slender cursive. Others, on plain index cards, held her own loopy handwriting. Every time she went through these cards, she always promised herself that she’d type up all the recipes, saving them to her laptop. Today, she was grateful for the handwritten cards, the disorganized chaos, as seeing her mother’s handwriting made the task easier.
She paused when she read one card. Ceviche de Pescado.
She would not make ceviche. The shame began with ceviche, with that very recipe.
One day over a year ago, Rafael, Julia’s husband, had stopped by the house when she’d been making ceviche. It was her special recipe with the flounder, lime, spices, corn, sweet potato, and yucca. She hadn’t been very hungry since the funeral, as if she’d buried her appetite along with her husband, but that day, she’d surprised herself with an intense craving for the tart flavors of ceviche.
She was surprised to see her brother-in-law who had looked half asleep at the funeral. He told her that he knew what she was going through, that he’d been through the same when his own brother was killed in a car accident three years before. Camilla didn’t see the similarity. Rafael’s brother had died when he fell asleep at the wheel. Camilla’s husband had died with a twenty-something blonde, Paulina, in the car with him. Rafael didn’t learn of betrayal the day he learned of his brother’s death. She didn’t say any of that. She knew he wasn’t there to comfort her; he was there to comfort himself.
“That Rafael, he’s lost it,” is what everyone said of him after his brother’s death. They all knew what it was. His magic smile, his suave ways in the courtroom. He’d never lost a case before the death. Three years later, he spoke of giving up law as if it were some hobby, like golf or tennis. He was still handsome, oh yes, but he was no longer half of a power couple. He was merely holding on to the tail end of Julia’s shooting star with a single hand, threatening always to fall.
She would never know why she did it. To spite her dead husband? Because Rafael had looked so sad? She had kissed him in the kitchen and she did not see her sister’s face until long after he had gone home and Camilla recalled that his true form was not that of an individual but half of a whole with her sister.
It should have stopped there with the impulsive kisses, but it grew stronger, more monstrous in its grip on Camilla. Soon they were meeting in seedy motels, in her home when the children were at school, and even in the bed he shared with Julia. They gloried in their own despair, loving even the foul motel rooms with their faded floral bedding and the small television sets that received only the most questionable of programs.
Rafael told her of his jealousy of Julia’s students at the university, young men who had not yet lost their boldness or youthful immortality. She told him of her obsession with Paulina, the young blond girl who had died with her husband. She spent hours parked outside Paulina’s family home, watching her parents and her two sisters, seeking answers when she did not even know the question.
They hid their affair well. She continued making her pottery at home, a respectable widow. He faded softly, as he had been doing for years. If he spent more time at Camilla’s, no one thought anything of attention to a widowed sister-in-law. They all thought it kindness and were relieved to see him think of someone other than himself or his dead brother.
By mid-afternoon, it was no longer peaceful in the kitchen. Her boys ran circles around her, trying to coax her into giving them some of the cookies she’d baked the day before.
“Felipe, Eduardo, clean your room! You know your cousins will want to play in there. Alejandro, make sure none of your toys are in the parlor where people could trip over them.”
“Mama! Carlos and Ernesto are much messier than we are!”
“Clean, boys! Then you may have some cookies!”
It took a fight, but Camilla got her sons out of the kitchen. Eight-year-old Isabel, who never had an untidy bedroom, tiptoed into the kitchen and asked to help. She was about to shoo Isabel away as well, but then she remembered her own mother had allowed her to work in the kitchen at Isabel’s age, even allowing her to work with knives. She showed Isabel how to chop carrots properly, and together they began to make the caldo de carnero.
Camilla had first learned to make caldo de carnero, a lamb and vegetable stew, from her own mother. Mama had taught her the recipe a few weeks before her wedding.
“Remember, Camilla,” Mama had said to her as they chopped carrots, leeks, and butternut squash, “Esteban is just a man. You are very excited for your wedding, and that is as it should be, but he will disappoint you and you will disappoint him. Marriage is full of mistakes and it is in forgiving those mistakes that you learn how to love.”
Fifteen years later, Camilla had not forgotten those words, but she did wonder if some mistakes were too big for even forgiveness to fix. She would be laid to rest alongside her husband, but in dying with his twenty-two-year-old mistress, it was as if Esteban had created an eternal link to the other woman. They would be a mismatched set placed together, like pieces from two jigsaw puzzles thrown into the same box.
Camilla pulled out the lemon cake she had made the night before and began icing it. Her daughter had begged for chocolate cake, but Camilla had refused.
Chocolate cake was for betrayal. They’d had too much of that in this family.
When Camilla was sixteen, her parents had had a fight and Papa had moved out, going to his family’s home for a month. Mama had bought new perfume and began setting her hair with curlers daily.
One night, she and Julia had returned home from a friend’s house. They were two hours early. Normally, they stayed out to the very borderlands of their curfews, but that night the sisters had fought with their friend, Eva. As an adult, Camilla knew Eva’s questions about their father had most likely been innocent. She’d been told their papa was visiting relatives and would’ve had no reason to suspect anything darker was at work. She’d merely been making conversation, but Julia and Camilla had seen it as an attempt to unmask their family.
They’d returned home, red-faced and stomp-footed, to find a strange man with a moustache sitting at the kitchen table with Mama, having chocolate cake. Mama seemed flustered. She asked if they wanted some cake, and introduced them to the man with the moustache, claiming he was a childhood friend. Julia and Camilla were old enough to be suspicious of childhood friends who dropped by only at night, no matter how wholesome the kitchen scene appeared.
They never spoke of the man. A few weeks later, Papa returned and they all pretended as if he had never gone away. Camilla found she had a lifelong distrust of both chocolate cake and men with moustaches. When her own husband had tried to grow a moustache a few years into their marriage, she’d refused to kiss him until he shaved it off.
She finished icing the cake. The curtain would go up soon.
Camilla checked to make sure all things were ready. Isabel and Eduardo had set a sloppy table with forks on the wrong side of the dinner plates, but Camilla didn’t care. She added bouquets of pink and orange flowers, brightening the table and lit fat, orange candles.
The food was ready, and she set out the drinks. There would be bottles of Inka Kola for the children and wine and beer for the adults.
Her children seemed reasonably clean. Alejandro was offended when she sniffed him, but she knew her youngest son was the one most likely to skip his pre-dinner bath.
After dinner, the family would go outside, set off fireworks and add some magic to the night sky. The children would run and tease the dog, the night a speck in their elastic lives. The grown ups would talk in soft murmurs, this night summarizing decades of family gatherings and looking toward the future and anticipating the losses to come. Some time, a month or two from now, the curtain would fall and all would be unraveled.
Stacy Wennstrom is a nonfiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2008, Stacy Wennstrom