Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ilia Charms the Cafe

“Of course we’re making progress,” said Raf’s cousin Mayra, whom I had met just minutes before. “You wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t….”

I knew instinctively that “here” meant more than the restaurant at which we were eating: “here” was more about seeing Ilia, my mother-in-law, before we got to the restaurant.

Ilia is big on little gifts, regalitos, and since Mayra is a mother and possibly a grandmother (else why would Ilia be giving Mayra dolls?) there was a shopping bag full of little gifts. So we passed a pleasant ten minutes looking at all the gifts, and wondering—in Mayra’s case—how in the world she would get all this stuff back home to Texas.

We left Ilia to go to the restaurant, where the family secrets started to spill. There was the grandfather who... OK, that should probably stay a secret. And there was Mayra’s sister, who spent years and years being depressed, being hospitalized, being kept at home, all because she was Lesbian.

So yes, I am “here,” meaning also that last Thursday, the day that Ilia’s husband was admitted to a nursing home, I was chatting with Ilia in the café. Why? Because I got to imagining Ilia alone in her little apartment: how must she feel, knowing that her husband of 60-plus years was for the first time not coming home? Was she sitting alone in the living room? Praying? Crying? It seemed somebody should find out.

So I called and she immediately agreed to join me for coffee: that’s when the anxiety started. Why? Well, I proposed meeting her at her apartment; we could walk from there to the café. She, of course, refused and said she’d simply meet me at the café.

It’s only three blocks, but having had a broken back for the last three months, I can now tell you: relativity applies very much to space as well as time. And since all it takes is one crack, one bump in the sidewalk….

So I got to the café and immediately began to worry. Yes, San Juan is safe, generally, but an 85-year old woman is an easy target for a mugging. And what of the wind, which gusts so strongly on that street that my friend Harry, as a child, used to hang out there with his friends: the wind would blow lady’s skirts up…. Since Ilia is inversely proportionate in size to her years, she could easily have been blown into La Perla, outside of the city walls.

So I slunk off to her apartment, and lingered outside on the street, eyeing which car could provide maximal cover if she emerged. OK—that seemed silly, but was it? Of course not: she needs her independence, I need my reassurance. So if lurking outside the apartment, cowering for a moment or two, and then tailing my mother-in-law for two and a half blocks seems silly, well…

…you’ve never had an aged parent.

Which it now seems I don’t, since a Federal Judge, Juan Pérez Jiménez, has just ruled that Obergefell versus Hodges doesn’t apply in Puerto Rico. Why? Because we are a territory, and since we have the “limited” (his word, not mine) self government that could legalize same sex marriage.

OK—so today I am, again, not married. So if I’m hit by a truck and in intensive care, will I be able to see my (now) ex-husband? Or, since no legal convention holds me back, am I free to chat up and perhaps bed the really good-looking bearded guy who seems to be coming to the café an awful—or rather, a wonderful lot? Whee, I can go back to my promiscuous 20’s!

And how promiscuous was I then, and how promiscuous do I intend to be now? “Not very” and “not” to the two questions, and here it’s time to say that yes, some of the time it was fun, in those years. I had just come out—to everyone except my family and employer (you know, the little people in your life)—and you could hook up just by walking down the street, making eye contact, starting a mundane conversation, and throwing in the name of a gay bar. So yes, it was fun, except for the venereal diseases that were rampant, and the even more annoying problem of lice and scabies.

Was it as fun as watching Ilia work the café? Not really, since Ilia has advanced degrees from the very top-shelf of charm schools. She doesn’t enter the café, she makes an entrance—quite a different thing—since she has started the whole process by being introduced to Santana, addressing him formally as “usted,” and then, an hour or two later, as m’ijo. She then parks her walker in the corner, and gives a smile and a greeting to everyone she sees.

Nor does it stop there, since Ilia speaks just loudly enough so that others might hear, but not loudly enough to annoy. So it’s only a matter of minutes before the woman sitting on the sofa next to our table is engaged in conversation. And that’s wonderful, because the woman turns out to be a teacher, and Ilia herself wanted to be a teacher, and Ilia’s daughter is indeed not just a teacher, but a teacher de corazón, and that’s an excellent thing to be.

Well, Ilia and the teacher agree: things aren’t what they were when they were what they were, which they aren’t now. Which means that nuestros valores are all shot to hell—and no wonder that the insurance company was giving her such problems getting a hospital bed for her poor husband, because hadn’t the Feds cracked down on Medicare fraud? Imagine, even doctors….

Well, we go on about that, and then it’s time to discover that the woman is in the café not as a teacher, but as a mother, since her daughter is one of the people who draw murals. Instantly, it’s time to place the daughter, since Ilia has another daughter, not a teacher, but an artista de pura cepa, and that’s every bit as good as a maestra de corazón. Well, it turns out that a couple decades lie between the two artists, but is Ilia stopped? Absolutely not, since surely the daughter must remember Katherine, from the Escuela de Artes Plásticas? And indeed she does, and they both get a bit weepy thinking of Katherine, who took such good care of Ilia when she told the Grim Reaper to go “eff” himself, spent three months in ICU, and then three more months in the rest of the hospital. So Katherine was a godsend, and now she’s gone, having died of cancer.

Well, the idea had been to divert Ilia, and I had come prepared to chat, and was prepared to launch into my longest, and shaggiest of dog stories. In fact, I was about to tell her that the man she met at the opera last month was my shrink, and I was about to tell her that he’s surprising good, since he has absolutely only one, count it, one diploma on his wall….

…silence before the punch line….

But in that silence, Ilia burst in with a question about my brother, and didn’t he live in Montana? And so I choke the punch line (the one diploma is from Harvard University), and I tell Ilia, yes, he did. But now he lives in West Virginia, and then it’s Preston, who comes from the table two tables away but also from West Virginia. So we veer the conversation quite sharply onto a different ramp (since we were both about to trash the place, as if the inhabitants hadn’t done so already), and guess what? Ilia had a friend who was from West Virginia, and she was lovely, just lovely.

Here it must be said, I have never been with Ilia amongst strangers when she could not adduce a friend—of the highest loveliness—from any country which presented itself. In fact, speculation in the family runs high: how would Ilia fare in a tour of the United Nations? Would her roster of lovely friends extend even to Zimbabwe or Sumatra?

Very likely so, since Ilia is a loveable old fraud, which means that while she may not, in fact, ever even have met anyone from West Virginia, she still has friends there. As indeed she does: they just haven’t met. And now, of course, she does have a friend from West Virginia, since Preston is perfectly charming, and half-owns the bar with thousands of craft beers and rare whiskies. So Ilia and I agree: we’ll forsake coffee the next time and guzzle beer at Preston’s place.

So now we’ve met the school teacher and the school teacher’s daughter, and then Preston, and so who could be next? Easy, Stefan, who used to tutor Naïa, Lady’s daughter, but who has a masters in psychology. So now Ilia and Stefan are arm in arm, since Ilia has a masters in social work. But they both agree: the degree doesn’t matter, as long as someone listens….

At this point, Amir’s little baby appears, except that he has, in the space of only two years, gone from infancy to toddlerhood, which is excellent because no child can escape Ilia’s all-encompassing hand, and the encomium, “ay, que lindo!” So now it’s time to think about getting home, since at any moment Ilia may get a call from her children with the news: her husband is at the nursing home at last.

“It’s done me so much good,” she tells me. “Thanks for calling me!”

So we kiss, and then I go in and get her the shopper from SuperMax, because of course she has to know the specials. Then I ask her to please, please call me when she gets home, and she takes umbrage and says she won’t, and I tell her, “look, I ask my 22-year old son…

So she kisses me again and takes off in perfectly good humor, having met more people in the coffee shop in one afternoon than I have in two years, though I am now—following her lead—saying hello to that amazingly hunky bearded guy that I was telling you about. You know, the guy I am now, this week, perfectly free to pursue, since Judge Juan Pedro Jiménez has decided I am not, after all, married. And speaking of which, might I ask the judge a question? If I’m not married, then what the hell was I doing, last Thursday, when I called Ilia? Because—excuse me, here—screw you, judge! I was doing it for Ilia, those hours spent in the café, but I was also doing it for someone else.

And that would be my mother-in-law.