The day after I came to the United States from Santo Domingo, I had a good job waiting for me. This factory paid minimum wage but hey I needed the money and I know how to use a machine and sew. I wanted to get away from Santo Domingo, not only because there was no future there for me but because the past was stinging. To get away would release me from my painful memory of my ex-husband who left me when I hadn’t had a child after a year of marriage and his new girlfriend got pregnant. After months of suffering humiliation and loss I decided I was ready for a change, something to give me a future where I didn’t need a man. I could start fresh. Have a new life!
There were no jobs back home that suited me and as much as other Americans complain about this type work, over where I came from I wouldn’t have a TV, or steady electricity to keep the TV going so like other young girls I came here to Woodside Queens.
I’d had bad luck before with men so I was looking forward to living independently. And I did live independently for a very long time. I came to this country when I was 20 years old, in 1962 and didn’t speak a word of English but I got along. The stores in my neighborhood were bodegas and were run by Hispanics.
After living alone for five years I met Jose. He seemed like a decent fellow and he pursued me. He was a single Dad and he worked in a European Car repair shop. I liked being with him and he liked the things I liked, good movies and good food. I never met a man before who cleaned either but every Saturday Jose got up and worked till the floors shone. Not to brag but I’m an excellent cook. We finally moved into a decent building, a state subsidized Mitchell-Lama co-op and for the first time, we owned something decent. Working in a sweatshop for thirty years isn’t the greatest but now we could look forward to our golden years. I planned to retire in five years and he said he’d wait an extra year to earn more and get a better social security benefit. I helped him raise his two sons, and his ex wife was grateful, occasionally sending gifts or presents and seeing her son rarely. She was not very stabile and had enough sense not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The time had finally come when we were rewarded and could enjoy the fruits of our labor like the bible promises. First I retired and a year late, according to plan, Jose retired. We were both retired and collecting social security, plus had our savings. We’d always put money into an IRA plus saved what we could, scrimping everywhere we could. His social security was much more than mine. Mine was only $958 a month and his was $1469. That’s probably, God forgive me, the one good thing about Jose being gone, is that now I collect his social security, which makes life easier for me.
About a half year before he died, he began to argue with me all the time, which had never happened before. He accused me of looking over his shoulder when he was doing his banking. I had always done so before. After all it was both of our accounts. My looking over his shoulder had never bothered him before. We’d always done these things together before, usually over his shoulder since it seemed too much a bother to drag a chair over to the computer. We’d done everything together, including two yearly vacations, one at his son’s house in Cape Coral and the other week we spent with family in Santo Domingo, near Puerto Plata, for two weeks every winter. These holidays were good times for us. We didn’t have to pay for a hotel, and the basically the extras were only gifts. After all, one eats wherever he goes so it didn’t come from our savings.
Thirty-nine years we were married. It would have made forty years in two more months if he’d stayed alive and hadn’t died. The pain and ridicule feel as strong today as they did the day he died. Can you imagine falling for that young woman? Jose was seventy years old and she is only thirty-eight years old. I am sixty four years old. The day he died I had grown very suspicious about what was going on between Jose and Donora. Donora is the managing agent in our Co-op.
Six months is a long time to go completely deceiving one’s self, but that’s been my entire M.O. these past few years so in actually – in comparison – six months is short. It’s been difficult to hide the truth from myself, but I gave it my damnedest. Now, finally, I’m ready to accept the truth. I’ve lived with this secret so long and been hiding it for over a year. The only other person who knows works here still where I live plus my sister knows but she lives downtown. That’s it. Today for the first time, a year from the day he died, I told another neighbor. I know she will tell at least one other woman who she is close with, a religious Jewish woman, but I need someone to help. I told my neighbor because she is the one who always helps me when I need, like going to surrogates court to fill out papers. Every time I share the truth of what really happened it feels less painful. I’m not sure if this is really true or if I say it to delude and justify myself from telling someone.
Married all these years and Jose had never disrespected me before. I raised both his sons. His ex-wife and their mother had been a ditz who really didn’t want to spend her time bringing up children. I remember she said, “You can have them. I know they’ll love you more than me because you’re more stable plus I know I’m not a great mother. As long as I see them once a week or so is good enough for me.” Ava always seemed grateful and appreciative. The children lived with us. I trusted Jose. He was my life, and even more so since retirement.
I didn’t see what was right in front of my eyes. He even brought Donora to my table to eat and I cared for her two children for free, fed them while she worked late. I did it for Jose, because he asked me. She and her children sat at my table and ate the food I cooked. Black beans and rice, fried fish and salad with bread. I served them too.
“What are you trying to see?” Jose yelled! So cranky and short tempered, said in the same ill-mannered way, the same way which characterized his tone and behavior towards me during the last year of his life.
“Don’t you trust me anymore?” Jose said exasperated with me, as he now always seemed. Jose continued, “We just discussed what I was gonna do and I told you I was moving some money to our bank in Santo Domingo. You said OK do it so we have money when we’re there. So what is the problem now? Why are you looking over my shoulder? Don’t you believe that’s the truth? That I’m doing what I say I’m doing? What are you standing over me for?”
I backed off. I retreated to the kitchen or another place where he wouldn’t target me that I’m trying to spy on him. I tried to show him the respect we’d become accustomed to before hoping he’d return to his former ways with me. I’d always allowed Jose to be man of our house. Do I have to say more that that – you know what I mean – old –fashioned Latinos in spite of living here in NYC. We’d both moved here in our teens from DR, and our neighborhood in Washington Heights is like a little Santo Domingo.
Jose had last say and he seemed so agitated. Not wanting to make matters worse, I retreated to the kitchen to prepare rice and beans. Jose had to have his fresh rice and beans every day. They had to be cooked the same way. It had to have racaito, cilantro, onion and garlic plus one large spoon only tomato paste. It was unusual for Jose to pick fights and be so aggressive. I wondered privately if it was due to the sexual incident between us. I guessed it was the sex thing because the last time we’d tried, he’d been embarrassed when he went soft. The following day, he changed. He began to spend more time in the bedroom next to mine. I think he was afraid of a repeat performance.
It occurred to me he could see a doctor but Jose is so macho I feared humiliating him, so I thought I was leaving well enough alone. I wish I’d thought twice and in retrospect, I wish I wasn’t so old fashioned. You know pregnant and in the kitchen was familiar and although I’d been barren I had fostered Jose’s two sons, from the time they were four and seven years old respectively.
I admit I still had no clue why his behavior to me had changed. Before, every morning he went to the gym at 6 a.m., then return by 8 to make coffee for me. I’d cook and shop while he cleaned the house. I liked our little domestic routine. Jose liked the floor to shine. He was immaculate when it came to cleaning house. He’d shine those floors to a spit. I still miss him. Jose was handsome, strong, enigmatic, cheerful and outgoing with light skin. I’m dark and wouldn’t call myself anything but Negra. Not so pretty but definitely not ugly. Standard I’d judge. Nothing special except for homemaking skills, managing being a mother to two children who weren’t mine plus working a full time job and cooking for all of us daily. Serious stuff, women’s work is never done.
The past week, I’d noted he’d seemed a little distant and came home around noon, kind of shamefaced to be so long, and always with a new story. ‘I ran into Joe, (our local senator), and we had a long talk,’ Jose said with a straight face. ‘Joe asked for help to get Nancy Rodriguez on the ballet as house representative. I couldn’t just walk away. You know I have to help him. This was one story, then there was, ‘I ran into Carol, my sister at the big gym and we had coffee and she took forever she had so much to tell.” I did notice that over the past two months he gradually stayed away from home more and more and seemed more irritable, ready to pick a fight. When I tried to reason with him he yelled at me and as he walked out the door, said he was going somewhere. You fill in the blanks as to what.
The next day while vacuuming the run I picked up a little blue pill. I wouldn’t have believed a word Irma had said if I hadn’t found that pill on the floor the day before. I brought that little blue pill to the pharmacist to identify.
Irma first brought it to my attention. “Do you know he brings breakfast to the managing agent in the office every day?”
I didn’t know so I conspired to watch him more. I also got mad at Irma. You know what they say about kill the messenger. In retrospect I understand she wasn’t to blame, but it made me not trust her too. Over the next two weeks, every time Jose left the house around 8:30 in the morning. I waited until I heard the elevator close and took the next elevator down. I arrived in the lobby just in time to see him enter the locked door where our managing agent worked. Then he’d go get coffee and sandwiches and go back. I managed to watch undetected.
I bought the pill to my local drugstore. “Viagra,” the pharmacist identified. “Generic kind.”
I accused Jose and he said I was imagining things. He said, “We have lots of neighbors drop by and one of them must’ve dropped the pill, wasn’t me.” I wanted to believe him.
After spending his morning out, Jose came home expecting his dinner. We eat early so I had the rice and beans with roasted chicken ready at 4 p.m. He ate and said his stomach hurt and he was going to take a nap. I left him alone. I called him a few hours later to see if he wanted coffee. No responses, so I went to see if he was still sleep. I touched him and his skin was cold. I started screaming and my neighbors began ringing my bell to see what was wrong. The coroner’s office came and took his body. My neighbors stayed almost all night. I sat there in disbelief crying.
When Jose was buried, I went through all our papers and a friend helped me go on line to see our bank accounts. Forty-two thousand missing from the last time I’d looked ten months earlier. Yeah, I know it doesn’t sound like a lot if you have millions, but to me – working all my life in a sweatshop - sewing stuff for others since I am came to this country as a young girl, it seemed like my life.
Like I said the only good thing is that now I get five hundred dollars more per month but that doesn’t make up for my loss or the forty two thousand and who knows what else he gave her.
The topping on the cake was Donora sending me a card. The card read, “I am sorry for your loss, but your loss was also my loss.” How gross and unfeeling can one get? Unless, I guess, she just had an urge to share, throw it in my face.