Don't Let Them See
It was so excruciating. She tried hard to avoid running into fellow employees but it was unrealistic as it was impossible. The elevator ride this morning had been emotionally exhausting. Eduardo Rivera Fortuño from HR and Luz María Pérez Martínez from Accounting slipped onto the elevator on the 6th floor. When they greeted Irma, it was all she could do to mutely nod back. They didn't know that Irma knew their secrets. And that she knew they were hiding those secrets from each other. Eduardo was cheating on Luz María with Soledad, also working in Accounting, while Luz María had missed her period by three weeks. Then they stopped on the 8th floor and the American from Legal, Gil Monroe, joined them. When Gil greeted her, all Irma could think about was how he had been denied a home mortgage and that the deal fell through.
It didn't matter if their secrets were happy ones. Just yesterday she had encountered Felipe Mendoza Oquendo in the stairwell and she brushed passed him when he tried to chitchat. Because she knew he had been offered a significant promotion at another company. She even knew that he planned to accept it.
She would frequently remind herself that they didn't know she knew. Still, she avoided making eye contact. She squirmed when she encountered them, their secrets running like a flashing banner through her mind.
They didn't know she was the IT employee that monitored inappropriate use of the company computers. Although personal use of the system was permitted, it meant monitoring the system and being privy to all their “personal use”. Her near perfect photographic memory meant she carried their secrets with her, always. Knowing their secrets tormented her, but sordid or mundane, joyous or sorrowful, she kept them safe.
Ramón never knew otherwise. She had always been with him. His earliest memories included her. His grandmother, his Abuela, was a constant presence, who offered unconditional love and affection but demanded obedience without tantrums.
As an infant, Ramón nicknamed Moncho, Monchito or Ramoncito, was a very quiet baby. When he needed to comunicate, he would make a guttural noise. If that failed to get anyone's attention, he would increase the volume of his throat clearing and extend the length of time he engaged in the exercise, which would only make his brothers and sisters laugh as they heard him from the other room. If that still did not result in an adult or older sibling checking on him, he would then engage in an odd mewling. His brothers and sisters joked that Moncho sounded like a kitten, not a baby at all. They would run and place their cat, Fortuna, right next to Moncho when he started mewling, and teased Fortuna with a treat to get her mewing. When both Fortuna and Moncho where mewing and mewling together, they laughed and laughed raucously. Mamá would walk in upon hearing the racket and chastise them for not tending to Ramón. They would try to get Mamá to agree that Moncho sounded like Fortuna; she secretly agreed but she would ignore them or give them a look. Mamá knew better than to encourage her other children but she also found Ramón's throat clearing and mewling amusing. She would pick Ramón up and sing softly in his ear. Ramón would immediately quiet down; he trusted his needs were soon to be addressed. Abuela had instructed Ramón, “ You don't need to cry, just let them know you are in need. Crying infants are so loud and it is just unnecessary.” And it was as though Moncho understood her. Ramón was Mamá's sixth child, but he was the first one who was so polite, formal almost. She worried about it a little, but she would think of her Mother telling her- 'Todos somos hijos de Dios'- we are all God's children, and she would feel comforted by her Mother's words. And anyway, Mamá could not spend much time worying, she had six children to raise.
Ramón would spend hours looking at his siblings move about, talk, laugh, play games. He was silent and often kept still, just staring. That too concerned Mamá. It looked like he was concentrating so hard; but why? After all, he was a baby, all he had to do was sleep and eat. He looked so hard at work most of the time. Whenever anyone would stop and talk to him, or sing him a song, he could be seen moving his lips and vocalizing. His siblings said he would be speaking any day now. Mamá would say, “Nonsense, he is too young!” When Papá arrived at the end of the day from work, he would scoop up Moncho and ask him, “What did my son learn today?” and Monchito could invariably be seen moving his mouth and lips and jabbering away at his Father. It always reminded his Father of the scatting done by jazz singers. His Father would laugh and jabber right back at his baby. He would make muecas (silly faces) at Ramoncito and riff nonsense words to him. The baby loved engaging in this battle of sounds with his Dad. It was a language they shared. This was a time Monchito could be heard laughing hard, the way that only young babies do. That breath-catching, uncontrollable belly laugh delivered in such a delightful and increasingly manic way. All his brothers and sisters would come running when Papá had the baby laughing, and as they ran into the room, they would all start the jabbering until the room was filled with cacophonous, Babel like sounds. Everyone knew those moments were precious and wanted them to last as long as possible. The children laughed with abandon, and Papá would turn the baby around to each of them so that they could each have a turn jabbering with Monchito. As the baby wound down, and Mamá would walk in, asking for the baby to be given to her and tsk tsking at her husband for riling up every one of their children, the other children would look wistfully at each other, knowing that moment of intense joy was soon to end. They would fight its demise to the very end.
It was at these times that Abuela would whisper to Ramón, “You keep it up, keep on practicing, you will be speaking in no time at all. Remember there are vowels and consonants. Let's review the vowels, and remember, erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre carril, rápido corren los carros por la vía del ferrocarril ...” and on and on she would go. Even into adulthood, he would have the kaleidoscopic memory of dozens of the letter “r” making up cigars and lanes, with train cars running down the tracks and he would remember his Abuela whispering the child's rhyme to her.
Ramón learned to prop himself up on his arms and turn over in no time at all. He was hard at work on learning to sit. Or at least that is what it looked like he was trying to do. The physical exertion in learning how to coordinate his muscles to sit upright ensured a night of sound sleep. He was very secure on his behind before he was 2 months old. Abuela had painstakingly and repeatedly explained to him- “Mi nieto guapo (my handsome grandson), let's break this down. First you place your arm on the mattress...” and she proceeded to give the determined baby detailed instructions on how to sit up.
Mamá had fleeting worries of how young Ramón was in sitting up, compared to all her other children. It was odd and she couldn't really talk about it to her husband, but she worried Moncho was just too hard at work at learning and not enjoying being a baby. She knew that sounded strange. Her husband encouraged Moncho to sit up, just as he had encouraged him to turn over. Abuela told Moncho over and over, “and soon you will be on your toes young man!” and you could see Moncho start to flex his toes and grab at the rungs of his crib as though he understood her.
Papá was delighted to see Ramoncito so proud of himself holding on to furniture and starting to try to navigate this task of walking. He could hold on to furniture and pull to a stand all alone at 4 months. At which time, he also started enunciating “Abuela”, which confounded his Mother. Abuela of course, was not surprised, since she was the one who constantly worked on the word with him. When pleased with how well he could say 'Abuela', she moved on to expand his vocabulary. He was so precocious, it was no surprise when he was walking with confidence at 7 months, navigating the rooms with a certainty of step that had Abuela proclaiming to him proudly “¡Ese es mi nieto!” (That is my grandson!) Mamá became truly impressed with his vocabulary, marveling at how quickly he picked up new words. Shortly thereafter, he was speaking in short, but complete sentences.
Ramón grew into a quiet, shy child who always had his face in a book. It didn't matter what the subject matter was or whether he could understand it. He loved everything about books: their smell, their heft, their varying colors and titles. He loved the shapes of letters and was fascinated by font styles. He loved both stories and learning facts. He just loved books and was reading on his own before the age of two. His Abuela would define words for him and his vocabulary was truly impressive.
Although he was only about 3 and a half years old, he vividly remembered the moment when he learned that only he could hear and see Abuela. He was propped on his belly, reading an encyclopedia (volume F-H) in one of his favorite places, under the dining room table. It was like a cave and he felt protected. He also sought relief from the heat that the coolness of the tiles provided. Ramón heard his Mother in the kitchen, “ Ay Mami, no me acuerdo, tengo preguntas de esta receta, no entiendo tú letra.” It always struck him years later how mundane his Mother's words had been for such a life-altering discovery. Mami expressing frustration about Abuela's poor handwriting regarding a recipe just did not match the momentousness of the occassion. Ramón scooted up off his belly and ran into the kitchen, even though running in the house was expressly forbidden.
“Mami, you are talking to Abuela!”
His Mother stared at him in shock. “What are you talking about Ramoncito?”
“Abuela! I just heard you! Where is she?”
Mamá took a deep breath, trying to find the right words. “Ay, how I wish your Abuela could have met you. She died when I was pregnant with you, when you were in my belly.”
“I heard you! You want me to find her?”
Mami shuddered as tears came to her eyes. She was trying to get through the overwhelming grief she so often felt at her Mother's passing. She knew from experience she had to let the grief crest for a moment or two before speaking. She also was very unsure of how to have this conversation with her precocius child who now seemed to be telling her he spoke and saw her dead Mother.
Ramón was rapidly shifting from one foot to the other and swinging his arms. He was so impatient to hear his Mother's next words, but he knew bettter than to be disrespectful and waited for her to speak. He knew what 'died' meant because Abuela explained everything to him so clearly. But how could she be 'dead' when he could hear her and see her all the time? Mamá must be about to tell him she was mistaken, Abuelita was not dead.
“Monchito, I talk to Abuela because I miss her and it helps me. But she is gone, she is not here. I do feel closer to her and keep her memory alive by talking to her. You never met her, which makes me sad. She never met my Monchito.”
Now he was at a loss for words. Her words shocked Moncho. He just stared at his Mom, and went from his impatient shifting to standing stock-still. Sadness gripped him and he felt tears forming in his eyes; could it be that Mamita and the rest of his family couldn't see or hear Abuela?
His Mother gave him time and gingerly placed her arm around his shoulders. “It makes my heart sing though to know you feel this connection with your Abuela. We do talk about her, so I guess you feel you know her, that is great.”
Monchito mumbled unintelligibly, hugged his Mom back and scuttled out of the kitchen and back under the safety of the dining room table.
He was so sad for his brothers and sisters. Was she not a constant presence in their lives? Ramón did not have the words to explain to his Mother that her Mother, his precious Abuela was with him, that she shouldn't be sad. He wanted to continue to ask her “But she is often right there, don't you see her?” Somehow, he knew better. He knew instinctively that from now on, he better keep her presence to himself. Abuela was so important to him; she helped him with everything. He needed time to ponder this troublesome and truly earth shattering development.
Ramoncito considered discussing it with his oldest brother Carlos, after all he had been going to school the longest and knew so much. But he had a sense that discussing it with anyone might be very problematic. He understood once said, he could not take it back. And his parents...Mamita had seemed almost upset that he saw and talked to Abuela. He decided he could not speak to either of his parents about it again. So he followed the only path available, he discussed it with Abuela.
Many in the family had often heard Monchito mumbling and whispering when he was alone in another room. They had often asked him if he had an imaginary friend and he had just smiled. He thought they were being silly; because he was with Abuela of course. He had often wondered why he and Abuela only talked at length when they were alone. Otherwise, she whispered to him. He always thought it was because it was so hard to get in a word with his large, voluble family. Now he would be more careful when he spoke to Abuela.
When he asked Abuela about her being 'dead' she told him her body was gone but couldn't he see her and hear her? She told him that she was waiting for him to get older to explain this state of being to him. That it must be a special privilege given to just a few of those who 'died'. She explained it was news to her to, and that she had tried talking to all the family members, but it was only he who could hear and see her, apparently.
Demonstrating the maturity of his thinking, Ramoncito asked her if Abuela had encountered others like her. Uncharacteristically, she was at a loss for words and just shook her head in a negative response. She decided he was too young to share her disappointment that when her brother died she thought she would be able to talk to him again. She had been crestfallen that he couldn't hear or see her, and that he didn't appear to join her, in this state of being she inhabited.
“I don't know what this means. Am I a 'ghost', a spirit? I just know that I don't exist the way I used to and that I can talk to you and that you see me. No one explained anything to me after I 'died'. There was no book to help me understand. So here I am.”
Monchito pondered this. “So where are you when you are not with me?”
Abuela looked wistful as she said: “It is more of a space than a place. I really can't find any other words to try to explain it to you. But what is important is that I can be with you. And for that, I know I am very lucky.”
Moncho hugged his Abuela and she kissed his forehead. He know understood why her kisses and hugs were different than Mami and Papi's. Abuela's kisses where a slight movement of air, a gentle puff on his forehead. He had always thought it was because she was so old and frail. And her hugs, those were such soft, ethereal caresses, he barely knew her arms were around him.
Moncho grew into an intellectual young man and pursued the sciences. But he was known for the apparent contradiction of having a very spiritual side to him. He went to church and took great comfort in the traditions of prayer and reflection. He learned all he could about Santería, which came from the slaves brought to Puerto Rico, and their culture as Yoruba people of Nigeria. Over the years, he discussed with Abuela that she must be his Orisha, the deity he was lucky enough to have in his life.
Lydia Isales: "After 30 years as a federal government environmental lawyer, I am now retired. I am a voracious reader and have recently begun writing. I grew up in Puerto Rico, but raised my children in Pennsylvania. I married a gringo who after 37 years of marriage can still make my heart beat faster when I spot him across the room. His hugs are still magic. I recently had a short story accepted for publication by an e-journal, for their Spring 2018 edition. I am still tingling when I think about that.
"As a woman in this society, I started to become invisible in my mid-thirties and now that I am in my late 50's I am invisible to the majority of the population. And now as a person with cancers, I am trying to retain my soul."