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The Problem with Rosalinda
It's her life, and she's in the middle of it. On her knees, scrubbing behind a toilet at the only hotel on the island. She hums a bolero, a love song filled with longing. She's always humming, sometimes a ballad, sometimes a lilting cha-cha-cha. Often, she sings out loud. Most of the time she's not even aware of the pleasing music that comes from her and is surprised when tourists tell her how charming it is that she sings as she works.
The tiles are unevenly laid behind the toilet, and she catches a nail on the corner of one and tears it to the quick. 'Ay!' Still on her knees, she moves to the sink and runs cold water over her middle finger. The bright pink crescent of her nail hangs by the cuticle. She bites it off, drawing salty blood.
The scream bounces against the concrete walls of La Casa del Frances. America scrambles up, finger still in mouth, and leans out of the bathroom window. Her mother runs back and forth along the path at the side of the hotel, peering up at the second floor.
"What is it?"
"Ay, nena, get down here!" Ester wails and collapses into a squat, hands over her face.
"What is it, Mami? What's the matter?" From above, Ester is a circle of color on the path, the full skirt of her flowered housedress a ring around narrow shoulders, brown arms, and pink curlers on copper hair. She rocks from side to side, sobs with the gusto of a spoiled child. For an instant America considers a shortcut through the window. Seeing her mother from above, small and vulnerable, sets her heart racing, and a lump forms in her throat that threatens to choke her. "I'm coming, Mami!" she yells, and she runs through the guest room, down the stairs, around the courtyard, out the double doors of the front verandah, past the gardenia bushes, through the gate to the side garden, and down the path, where Ester still squats, still wails as if the world were coming to an end.Sleepy guests lean out of their windows or step onto porches, concerned expressions clouding their vacation faces. Don Irving, the owner of the hotel, runs heavily from the back of the building, reaching Ester at the same time as America.
"Whasgononere?" he bellows in English. "What's all the screaming about?"
"Ay don no!" America kneels next to Ester. "Mami, please! What's the matter?"
"!Ay, mi'ja!" Ester is hyperventilating and can't get the words out. America's breathing quickens, and a whirling pressure builds around her head.
"Please, Mami, what is it? What's happened?"
Ester shakes her head, sprinkling the air with tears. She presses both hands against her chest, as if to control its rising and falling. She gulps air and, in a halting voice that rises to a final wail, gives America the news. "!Rosalinda se escapo!"
At first she doesn't quite understand what Ester means by Rosalinda has escaped. Her fourteen-year-old daughter is not a prisoner. But the words echo in her head, and the meaning becomes clear. America covers her face, squeezes her fingers deep into her flesh, and sobs. "Ay, no, Mami, don't say such a thing!"
Ester, who has gained some composure now that the problem is no longer hers, wraps her arms around America and rubs her shoulders, her tears mingling with those of her daughter. "She went with that boy, Taino."
America stares at Ester, tries to make sense of what she's heard. But the words and images are distorted, go by too quickly, like a movie in fast-forward. And at the end there's a pause, a soft-focus portrait of her daughter, Rosalinda, and pimpled Taino with his innocent brown eyes. She shakes her head, trying to erase the picture.
"What the hell's going on here?" Don Irving stands over them, blowing great gusts of cigar-scented breath. Behind him, Nilda, the laundress, Feto, the cook, and Tomas, the gardener, run up from different directions. They surround America and Ester, and the men help them stand.
"Ees my dohter," says America, avoiding Don Irving's eyes. "She in trubel."
"Rosalinda ran away with her boyfriend," Nilda interprets, and America cringes with shame.
"Oh, fahcrysakes!" Don Irving spits into the oregano patch. "Geddadehere, c'mon." He steers the sobbing America and Ester out of earshot of his guests, to the back of the building, where he leaves Feto and Tomas to escort them to the path behind the stables. Don Irving walks back to the front garden, mumbling. "Every day it's something else. A damn soap opera. Jesus Christ!" He waves at the curious tourists at the windows and porches. "It's okay, everything's fine. Relax."
Supported by Feto and Tomas, America and Ester go in the opposite direction. The tourists stare long after they have all disappeared behind the outdoor bar.
America and Ester shuffle home through the path at the rear of La Casa del Frances. Nilda accompanies them, rubbing the shoulders of one, then the other.
"Calm yourselves. If you don't control your nerves, you won't be able to help the child," Nilda reminds them. Her voice vibrates with the joy of a busybody who has stumbled into the middle of the action.
"You can go back, Nilda," America suggests between sniffles. "We can manage on our own."
But Nilda is not so easily dissuaded. America is not like other women. She's not willing to talk about her life, to commiserate with other women about how tough it is. She goes around humming and singing like she's the happiest person in the world, even though everyone knows different. No, Nilda will not leave her side. It's not every day she can plunge into America Gonzalez's reserve.
"I'll just get you home and make sure you're all right," she insists.America's Dream. Copyright © by Esmeralda Santiago. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from America's Dream by Esmeralda Santiago
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