Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Meaning of Consuelo

A Novel

Judith Ortiz Cofer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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The Meaning of Consuelo

FULANO, NA, n.m.f.: So-and-so, what's-his/her-name; tart, whore; Mr./Miss/Mrs. Nobody
María Sereno walked in his leisurely way toward the cart selling piragüas that appeared on our street corner every day at noon. The fulano of our neighborhood, María Sereno, born Mario Manuel Santiago Sereno, wore tight red pedal pushers and a man's T-shirt over an obviously empty brassiere. His image contains my earliest understanding of a key phrase in my family's conversations: el fulano or la fulana; used to refer to the outsider, he or she never called by name.
The flip-flops on his big feet made a slapping beat to the subtle back-and-forth swaying of his hips. His black hair was slicked behind his ears, a coquettish curl wrapped around an earlobe. The women hanging clothes in their backyards or taking a break on their porch rockers stared unashamedly at María, smiling in a superior way or raising an eyebrow at one another. The piragüero, seller of ices, was a war veteran with a metal leg. He would sometimes let out a long wolf-whistle as he watched María approach. María Sereno just kept walking regally toward his daily treat of ashaved-ice cone topped with thick, sweet tamarind-and-strawberry syrup, which he would noisily suck on while standing there in front of man, woman, and God. He'd lick it with his long pink tongue. His eyes would be closed in some kind of sugar ecstasy, and then he'd smile enigmatically at no one in particular--like a Puerto Rican Mona Lisa--and head back to his mother's house, where he lived in a room with its own private entrance.
His mother was a widow on a pension and María Sereno was her only child. At the age of twenty-eight, he was still her dependent, since the farthest he would go toward male attire was pedal-pusher pants, which kept him from finding a decent job; any man who hired him would be exposed to ridicule too. He did manage to bring in a little money as a manicurist--a trade at which he excelled. He attended to the hands of women in their own homes, but community rules were strict; María Sereno could never be found in one of our casas decentes by a husband or any other adult male; instead he had to knock by prearrangement at the back door and be willing to fall into deception should one of the men arrive unexpectedly "He came begging for my old nail polish again, the sinvergüenza," the woman could then say, shaking her head in amused dismay at the disapproving husband or son. "You know how they are. Next he'll want to exchange recipes." And María Sereno would hang his head like a reprimanded child and slink away. That was the deal.
When there were no interruptions by the man of the house, María Sereno would arrange his tools over a black velvet cloth on someone's kitchen table and begin concentrating on the hands of the day He took pride in his work. My mother was a regular customer, though my sister and I were sworn to secrecy about María Sereno's monthly visits to my mother's kitchen. It was up to me as the oldest to keep Mili, who was only four, from telling. Mili likedMaría Sereno. She had confessed to me that she wanted to be a nail-painter like him when she grew up.
In public we were to pretend that we didn't know him. But Mili sometimes forgot. That sunny autumn afternoon, Mili and I tossed a rubber ball back and forth across the little square of yard in front of our new, modern cement house that sat on a street planned according to the geometric designs of North American developers. Our yard was precisely the same size and shape as our neighbors' yards, although there were still, as I quickly learned, subtle indicators of privilege. For example, the well-tended roses, the pruned hibiscus hedges of legitimate house owners were missing from our leased space. Our father was a veteran, and we had earned our suburban life, though we did not own our house. My mother did not see any need to tend a garden on land that did not belong to her. Our barren plot let everyone know that we were not setting roots in this place. Therefore, they were hardly obligated to include us in their communal lives. So, it was as a kind of outsider myself that I began to watch the little dramas of the street and learn the language I'd need for the roles that I was soon to play.




From early on I saw María Sereno go through his daily show of defiance, and the women practice their front-yard deceit. Only eight, I did not know duplicity from manners. It was all what you were told to do, what you had to do to be gente decente, decent people, which is what we all thought we were or wanted to be--except for María Sereno.
María Sereno strolled past our yard just as Mili missed catching the ball. He stopped in his tracks, hands on hips, and watched us, apparently fascinated with the pink-and-yellow sphere rolling toward him. Then he looked at Mili and raised one of his heavilydrawn arched eyebrows--like those of American movie stars--and opened his mouth in mock horror. Mili giggled, apparently as delighted as I was by María Sereno's ability to transform himself from man to woman, the ultimate clown's trick. I caught my breath as I saw him grab the ball with his free hand--he was still holding the snow cone in the other--and take a few steps into our territory.
I knew I was to yell for Mami if anyone violated our family borders in this American-style neighborhood of strangers--thrown together by circumstance rather than by fate or birth--so unlike her pueblo where families and friends lived next to one another. But I froze. Was he friend or foe? He came inside our home often by invitation, though only through the back door. My mother put her beautiful hands into his big ones like she did with Papi--the only two men she touched that way. I stood there frozen in my indecision as María Sereno knelt in front of my little sister, handed her the ball, and, taking her grimy little hand in his, pronounced her nails "Un desastre, mi amor."
Should I have screamed then? We were not to let any man who wasn't in our immediate family of father, grandfathers, and uncles touch us. Women we knew were allowed to caress and kiss us--somehow that was different. But was María Sereno a man or a woman? I could not tell in the bright sunshine of that tropical afternoon. My mother kept saying he had been born a boy. But that was years ago, long before my time. Had he turned into a woman after that?
In total confusion--knowing that we were being spied upon by many eyes up and down our street, by women who would tell Mami that I had let him/her come into our yard and not yelled for her like I had been told to--I turned and dragged Mili kicking and screaming into the house. Gasping, I pushed her toward our mother, who had been mopping the pink tile floor, one of her favorite activities. She mopped daily until she could see her own reflectionon the squares imported from Cuba, where Fidel Castro was hiding in the mountains and biding his time before he freed our sister island from its corrupt dictator. She seemed lost in thought, probably daydreaming about that rebel leader whom I had heard her call handsome and muy macho, but now, startled, she let the mop drop. Mili grabbed her waist, screaming that I had hurt her. I was glued to the window facing our yard. I saw that María Sereno had dropped his snow cone on the gravel and was picking up the paper cup. I saw the piragüero's face contorted with laughter, saying things I could not hear. He was slapping his metal leg as he looked this way and that, like he was a ringmaster in a circus making certain both sides of the audience had gotten the clown's joke. María crushed the paper cup and stood up. I could feel my mother close behind me with Mili still wrapped around her middle. María rolled the cup around in his palms like I did when playing with dough, then, glancing to both sides of the street as the piragüero had done, he reached his hand under his T-shirt and stuffed the paper ball inside it. The result was that he looked like he had grown a lumpy little breast, just one. He then began to walk in the slow regal pace that had been interrupted by our game, and headed toward his mother's house at the end of the street.
My mother watched him too. Her quick breathing told me she was gathering her anger; she reminded me of the new vacuum cleaner Papi had recently bought from a door-to-door salesman. It had been a strange purchase made by a man who did not realize that it's neither easy nor necessary to vacuum ceramic tiles, but who was anxious to provide his family with all the latest amenities of city life. He had been too proud to return the purchase and, in the process, to admit his ignorance to another man, who probably knew exactly what he was doing to this poor jibaro.
Mami used the vacuum cleaner on a small rectangular hooked rug just so she could vacuum something and please Papi. The machinealways threatened to swallow Mami's little rug in one breath. And that's how Mami seemed to me right then, sucking in her fury, about to blow up. She carried Mili and dragged me into the kitchen.
"Sit down, niña." She ordered me into one of the plastic-covered green metal chairs. All the women we knew had bought them at the Sears store that had just opened in Hato Rey. I sat down and folded my hands on top of the matching green Formica table. I had learned that a submissive posture in the face of parental fury always helped. I started hiccuping a little in preparation for full-fledged sobbing if necessary I wanted to preserve the tender skin of my calves, which had only recently felt the sting of her new plastic flyswatter, also bought at Sears, a tool she never used on the island's insects, only on her daughter's legs. Mili was staring at me in horror. I knew she had not meant to betray me quite to this extent. El Matamoscas, the evil flyswatter, was about to go after her only sister, her major source of amusement. She started making distress noises too.
But Mami was not going to let our despair spoil her demonstration.
"Silencio, both of you." She grabbed the rubber ball, which Mili had been holding like a life preserver to her chest, and, using only her fingertips as if it were covered with slime, Mami dropped it into her shiny aluminum sink, opening the faucet full blast on it. Then she poured disinfecting pine floor cleaner over it. Mili squirmed in her chair, perhaps thinking that Mami intended to do the same to her. My sister was filthy as usual, since she liked playing with the chameleons in our backyard, building modern American-style communities for them out of mud and gravel. Mami sometimes picked her up for a bath with the same expression of disgust on her face as she'd had in handling the ball.
"Now I'm going to tell you this, both of you, but it's up toyou, niña, as the oldest, to make sure you don't forget my warning. You are not to talk to that man in public again."
"But Mami ..." I couldn't help myself. As usual, when I heard a contradiction spoken by an adult, I felt the urge to point out the truth: that Mariá Sereno was not a stranger to us. "He does your nails ... he's your friend ..."
"How dare you talk back to me, niña? You are an entrometida and a malcriada. Now come here, both of you."
I knew those two words. They were used mainly to indict your own children. The first one meant that even if what I had pointed out was la pura verdad, like we were always supposed to tell our parents, I was still trespassing into adult territory by bringing it up; being a malcriada was even worse. It literally meant that I had not learned better from her; it was an admission of total disappointment in my upbringing. I shuffled over to the sink like a beaten-down prisoner of war, slapping the tile with my flip-flops. Unfortunately, I was wearing nothing but a sundress, which left my skinny legs totally exposed to the bite of the dreaded flyswatter. Mili was now gripped by fear--trembling and uttering choked little sobs. But all Mami did was yank our hands under the stream of lukewarm water and scrub them with Palmolivé soap, which killed almost all germs and bacteria, according to the advertisements in her women's magazines. Palmolivé soap and Jergens hand cream--the preferred hygienic combination of her house, used both for health and for beauty
Mami had been seduced by the first advertisements she had seen on television and had remained loyal to the products in the same way her mamá professed blind faith in the power of her herbal medicines, disdaining anything that came in a sealed jar. Mami had a less decipherable list of set-in-stone rules about people and relationships that Mili and I were to internalize without question. After we grew up and got married, she assured us, we couldmake our own rules for our own casas y familias. Until then, she spoke like the Pope, with infallibility. "You never know what you can catch from people like that," she would say. Then she'd send us in to take a shower together. We'd be made to stay indoors the rest of the beautiful sunny day, and play in our room with the Venetian blinds drawn shut to remind us of our lowly status as disobedient children, and of our total dependence on her. Mami was the keeper of the keys to our freedom. To her we owed every privilege, even that of playing in the sun.
That day was no different. "We do not associate in public with people like María Sereno," she announced as she sent us to our room.
All afternoon Mili made herself costumes from assorted pieces of our wardrobe--attempting to transform herself into a little María Sereno, stuffing a scarf with socks and tying it around her flat chest, and insisting on painting her nails with the watercolors we were not supposed to play with except under our mother's supervision. Nothing I said made any difference to my sister, who had a way of turning herself into a self-contained, fully automated doll when she wanted to, as unresponsive to others as any stuffed bear on our bed, but manic about the details of her fantasies. Her staged one-girl plays were elaborate--the only element she didn't care about was an audience. These were her fantasies, and she didn't need anyone else to enjoy them. Mostly I picked up after her to keep us both out of trouble. There was no way for any of us to know that Mili's talent for losing herself--as if inside her there was a hole she dove into, like Alice in Wonderland--was also the start of our family's spiraling toward what we would always call la tragedia, the events leading to the terrible day that changed everything for each of us, forever.
The next time Mariía Sereno did my mother's nails, I sneaked into the kitchen by sliding in with my back close to the wall like alizard, ready to scramble at the slightest hint of disapproval. But Mami was always in a good mood when she was getting a manicure. She ordered me, without looking, to get María Sereno a glass of ice water. That meant I had to get the plastic glass with the tiny black dot on the bottom down from the closet shelf. It was the one she had marked for his use only. It was kept with the plate and utensils she used when she fed the toothless, smelly old man who came around every few weeks collecting discarded clothing and any piece of junk we wanted to get rid of. She would give him a reheated meal in his special black-dotted dish, and he would eat in the shade of the breadfruit tree in our backyard.
I took the metal ice trays out of the freezer of our new Frigidaire. I ran water on the bottom to loosen the cubes, then, using all my strength, I pulled up the bar that released the perfect little squares of ice. I filled María Sereno's special glass with water from the faucet and placed it in front of him with my eyes averted. I saw that he held my mother's ring finger, the one with her wedding band on it, and he was carefully painting the nail red, like the hibiscus that grew everywhere on our street--the deep blood-red of the flowers clashing with the pastel paint of the cement houses. I sensed his eyes on me, and glanced quickly back at him and then away, feeling inexplicably like crying. María Sereno had looked at me--not in any of the ways I was used to grown-ups assessing me, with affection or disapproval, but in a new way with a different message, one that I was too young to understand but not too young to recognize. It said "betrayal." It said la traición. It told me I had somehow caused him pain, but I didn't know exactly how. And maybe it asked me if I thought it couldn't happen to me--if I thought I could never become la fulana myself.
Copyright © 2003 by Judith Ortiz Cofer