Writing Selections

“My Splenda Daddy”

An excerpt from Divorce After Death. A Widow’s Memoir

Photo by Bernard F. Stehle

Photo by Bernard F. Stehle

Secretly I had always wished for a sugar daddy. Despite being an open feminist, I was in the closet, so to speak, about this fantasy. I wanted someone ten years older, at least – who as a bonus, would make me look younger, now that I was fast passing middle age. Someone to dote on me, to treat me everywhere, to take me on a cruise and buy me a diamond ring. What the hell! Even surprise me with a fur coat. Women who have sugar daddies, on principle, are not politically correct.

In the meantime, I was falling (didn’t he know that love was a four letter word?) for another artsy type who looked older all right, but was just about my age. He was generous, that’s true. If he had the money, he’d buy me a beautiful jewel, I was sure of that. But instead, he brought me a clear plastic bangle from South Street that looked like amber. The cruise was out of the question, while going to New York City on the Chinatown bus was certainly in the cards. And what about the fur coat? Couldn’t he find it in one of the thrift shops we had visited, looking for Christmas presents? Turns out he called my bluff and told me that real feminists didn’t wear furs.

But in his own way, he did dote on me. He found me lovely from the top of my auburn hair to my brightly painted toes. He didn’t object to my peculiar Castilian accent or the occasional cultural gaffe. From the first day, he called and came when he said he would, even though he showed up sans wheels. He made little photo albums of our special dates for me. So what if we always went Dutch? Maybe he thought that this made him worldly and sophisticated. At least he was tall, something I yearned for, while sugar daddies were usually short and pudgy, I feared.

It ended up that, despite his height, he did watch his weight. He used 2% milk in his coffee, and never real sugar – it was bad for the colon, he said – he preferred Splenda.

“In Loehmann’s Dressing Room”

An excerpt from Beyond Jet Lag: Other Stories

I like being a witness, observing events and taking mental notes or figuring out a life narrative for people I see in airports or other crowded places. Sometimes I think that I’ve become an outside observer because of my identification as a foreigner and my interest in looking at things through other eyes. It could be that after so much observing, I’ve become a writer, a chronicler. I’m particularly fond of everyday situations, apparently unimportant, but indicative of human nature nevertheless; shopping at Loehmann’s can be just this type of experience.

I can’t deny that clothes shopping is like a hobby for me, something I do for pleasure. I often go into Loehmann’s to reward myself after a particularly difficult week at the university. I know that it seems strange, but if I have a headache, ten minutes in the store and my stress disappears. I don’t need to make a major purchase, just a trinket will do or, better yet, some terrific bargain hanging there, waiting just for me, a piece of clothing that goes beautifully with something else I already have at home. But don’t be deceived, shopping at Loehmann’s is not a spectator sport, it’s more like a full-fledged safari.

Loehmann’s is not your average discount place, it’s sort of a combination of thrift-shop and designer outlet. The merchandise you see on the floor one day, often will never be there again. You have to decide on the spot: either you buy it when you see it, or you take the risk that tomorrow it will be gone. There are no returns in Loehmann’s, unlike other major department stores that will let you return anything, anytime, no questions asked. This sharpens the dangers of the hunt, one must choose carefully; there is always the chance that the shade of the garment doesn’t match the one in the closet after all. Just recently they changed their policy. Now, within a week, the merchandise can be returned for store credit only. At first I missed the real hazards of old times, but I’m getting used to it; you get to come back for a second look or you can save your credit for yet another expedition, it’s even better than money in the bank.

The Loehmann’s I know is not centrally located. It’s in the suburbs, close enough to be able to go regularly, but not in a trendy shopping area, so that one will not be distracted by other stores. It isn’t in the most affluent of neighborhoods either, but close enough again to attract the well-to-do looking for bargains, as well as the run of the mill, middle-class, average shopper like myself. The racks are packed full of clothes and it takes an experienced shopper to be able to separate the junk from the finds. Often the garments are not hanging with others of the same size or, worse yet, are mistakenly sized, making it necessary to search extensively just in case. Each item has been marked with its price and a comparison of what it’d cost in a department store, an important incentive for the thrifty shopper.

Aside from this, there are other promotions. There can be un-advertised marked-downs in the store at the end of the season, so it pays to stop by often. Usually there are prominent ads in the newspapers that tempt the clients with a reward of 20%, 30%, up to 50% or more in addition to their regular low prices. If you are privileged enough to have a Loehmann’s card —something like a frequent flyer card for clothing— you are on their mailing list, get special discount on your birthday and receive valuable coupons in the mail. Oh the added thrill of an extra 20% off coupon to subtract from your total bill! On special occasions there are specific times in which to take advantage of an offer, never mind that you have to rearrange your entire schedule to make it there by 9:00 a.m or on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. If you are really lucky, you’ll take advantage of a buy-one-take-one-free sale, or two-for-the-price-of-one if you find the terminology confusing.

“East Meets West”

An excerpt from Letras Femeninas, XXXI 1 (2005): 221-225.

When I woke up, I had a headache. I thought I was in a plane going to Spain in my usual yearly sojourn to visit relatives. In other words, a nightmare. I could see the gray clouds up above from where I sat, next to a big window, and the images on the TV screen without the sound – I never view the movies when I travel. I could hear some announcements being made on the intercom, as if we were getting closer to land or we had run into unexpected turbulence. I was even a bit dizzy and felt butterflies in my stomach flying up toward my throat. This plane seemed to be taking me to a place where I didn’t want to go. Except that this time reality was worse than any bad dream, or any trip to visit my family, I ever had.

“Mom, Mom, wake up, the receptionist is calling your name.” Andrea was shaking me urgently, trying to wake me up, a bit embarrassed.

She had been waiting for us when we arrived to the hospital at six a.m., although we had told her that she didn’t need to come, that it wasn’t necessary, that she could come later, after work. The surgery would take several hours.

I looked around the waiting room, conscious now of my new reality. Ewen had been diagnosed with cancer less than a month before. It had been a whirlwind of activity: doctors’ visits, second opinions, CT scans, MRI’s, ultrasounds, endoscopies and biopsies; all this two weeks before the end of the semester. We had learned more anatomy and medical terms than we really wanted to: the pancreas, the gastrointestinal junction, an esophagectomy. We could say the euphemisms the doctors used as if they had always been part of our vocabulary: we were dealing with an aggressive tumor, the liver and the stomach could be compromised, the chemotherapy and radiation would follow protocol.

I couldn’t see Jason, Ewen’s cousin, a psychologist who had helped us so much these past few weeks. He probably had stepped out to have a cigarette or make a call. I felt somewhat self-conscious around him, and feared he was sharing our shortcomings with other family members. It was probably my paranoia showing up. This term I knew from long before, having been the youngest and raised by critical parents.

“Dr. Kirkland is on the phone and wants to speak to you,” the receptionist said with a suspiciously sweet voice, pointing to a door.

I took the call in a small, dark room with a table and a few chairs, no windows there to fly away to Spain. Just the ideal place to receive bad news.

“Everything is going well, a little better perhaps than we had anticipated. We won’t need to open his chest cavity. We’ll make the second incision through his neck, that’s less painful and makes for an easier recovery, since we don’t have to break any ribs.” Uncharacteristically, I had lost my voice.

“Is his pancreas compromised,” I managed to get out.

“No, it isn’t, it’s fine. I’ll call you again when we are finished, in about three more hours.”

“Thank you so much, thank you,” I repeated crying with happiness.

How relative life had become! I felt thankful then for the strangest things: that surgery was still possible, that it could have been worse, that my husband had a chance. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Hadn’t I married a younger man this second time around? A bachelor bon-vivant who made me laugh and could help take care of my two daughters? He sure had turned out to be a high-maintenance dude! Now thanks to him I had earned a brand-new title without the proper credentials or experience: a primary care giver. Just what I needed, another title. This one was much harder than getting my own Ph.D. when the girls were still so young. More difficult than being an immigrant or a college professor; more intimidating than being the mother of two American teenagers had been. Now I could debut in my brand-new role of the wife of a cancer patient, thankful just to have Ewen survive.

The Road Less Traveled. Reflections of a Spaniard on a Trip to Bolivia”

An excerpt from Divorce After Death. A Widow’s Memoir

The Richest City in the Country

Our group, nine members from Saint Joseph’s University, arrived in Santa Cruz after a long flight from Philadelphia, tired but eager to start our immersion into Bolivian culture. We stayed at a Jesuit retreat center on the outskirts of the city. There was such a big contrast between the comfortable homes we had left and the Spartan accommodations, yet since we had been warned, we were thankful to have a very small private room with a cot, warm blankets, a table and a chair. Down the hall were the bathrooms with running water and some fickle warm water in the showers. So what if the sinks were out in the hallway and the water only trickled from the faucets, we weren’t supposed to drink the water anyway – not even to rinse our mouths– it would make it easier to use the water bottles. We never figured out when the showers would be warm. We could see some tanks on top of the roof and assumed that the sunshine served as the heater. The first ones to shower, preferably in the afternoon, should be the lucky ones, right? but it wasn’t always that way – just another excitement in our day.

The grounds were quite pretty, with some palms, grapefruit trees full of fruit and other trees we didn’t recognize, almost a paradise to us. Despite the approaching winter there were some plants in bloom and the grass was green. A cold front, which had settled in that part of the country, meant less mosquitoes. They call the chilly winds surazos because they come from the south, from the Patagonian pampas in Argentina. In the distance we could see the mountains of the Cordillera Oriental and closer to us, the tops of some taller buildings. We liked sitting on the benches under the shade, waiting for the next activity or writing in our journals. For the time being, this was a home to us weary travelers.

We did love the food, the soups in particular, and all the cooked vegetables and fruits. The desserts were tasty too, and soon we were used to the coca tea with each meal, highly recommended for the soroche, the altitude sickness, never mind that Santa Cruz is a mere four hundred meters over sea level. Thanks to the technologically savvy in the group we were able to connect the small computer in the office to the web, and we felt fortunate to have a couple of minutes to send greetings to our families.

According to my guide book, Santa Cruz is the richest city in the country, although we had seen lots of poor areas on our way from the Viru-Viru Airport. In fact, the roads were in disrepair, clogged with trucks, SUVs, and buses making their way in the endless traffic circles, with people hanging out of the doors going to work. I saw an interesting and controversial Bolivian film last year (the racy title alone, Sexual Dependency, gives you an idea of the content), which took place in Santa Cruz, and I recognized some of the places where the young gathered, like the McDonald’s and the Burger King. In some ways it could be any American city with plenty of places to have fun or get into trouble, only more chaotic and unpredictable. For example, unbeknown to our hosts, there was some very disturbing graffiti outside the very walls of our residence: “en caso de violación, relájese y disfrute” (“in case of rape, relax and enjoy it”). Paradise lost.

We visited several schools sponsored by Fe y Alegría, our host institution. In preparation for our trip we had learned that Fe y Alegría is “a movement for integral popular education and social development whose activities are directed to the most impoverished and excluded sectors of the population.” We knew from our reading materials that it was funded in Venezuela in 1955 and that at present it serves over a million people in one year in almost two thousand different centers. We were familiar with its philosophy of social and educational justice and liberation theology, or “the personalization of the new generations, deepening their consciousness of their own human dignity, promoting their free-self determination and their sense of community.” The commitment made by the Jesuits through funding and human resources is also well-known to us. But it was something else seeing these centers up close and personal.
One of the first things we learned there is that a teacher makes less than $100.00 a month, not nearly enough to live on even in such a poor country as Bolivia.

One school had programs in the afternoons for children with Down’s Syndrome and others with learning disabilities. We visited during parent-teacher conference and most of the mothers (we saw very few fathers) brought their children and introduced them proudly to us. They had a kiln for their ceramics, sewing rooms, wood-working equipment and community gardens. The children had made arts and crafts projects as gifts for Mothers’ Day. The older students could even make furniture and sew their own clothes. The Santa Teresa nuns who showed us around told us that children like these would have been ostracized a few years ago. We laughed with them and remarked that even the children knew how to use the challenging Spanish subjunctive and speak much more fluently than our bunch of gringos! By the end of the afternoon even the shyest ones wanted their pictures taken with us. They trusted us implicitly because their teachers told them that we were friends. For the full story, click here.