Mi Mejor Regalo – My Greatest Gift
“Today’s the day I change!”. The words came out slowly, deliberately and so soft, they were almost inaudible, but clearly, heartfelt and sincere. After three years of exchanging greetings, stories, insults and jokes with Santos at the corner bodega, they were also, well…shocking. Words I would never have expected to hear from this grizzled, world-hardened, beat-up old bum.
But they made me look again, paying close attention to the slight, but sure, change that seemed to have altered his look, his stance, his demeanor. I realized then, that he hadn’t challenged me on some odd and little-known fact of life, jibed me about the color or style of my clothes or hair, demanded a dollar from me or insulted me in any way. He seemed, in fact, smaller. The rust checkered coat he was so proud of when he found it last week, fit more loosely around his slight shoulders. The dark rope he used as a belt looked as if it might just fall around his hips. His usual frayed, gray cap had fallen back, revealing thinning, dark curly hair, much darker than the frazzled beard streaked with white that smothered his face, allowing only his black, flashing eyes to pierce you through in an instant.
They were not piercing today. In fact, he had hardly looked up at all, just a nod as I approached, on my way into the store to get my usual café con leche and morning paper on my way to work. “Que pasa, hombre?”, I asked in a jovial tone, expecting his normal ribald and rude response. He rolled his head from side to side, as if it were weighed down by bricks, and I swear there was a glint of light, like a tear, on his brown, wizened face, accompanied by what passed as a smile on a normal day, then silence.
The clock was ticking in my head. I knew that if I did not hurry, get my coffee and paper and rush to the station, I would miss my train. Surely, on a day such as this, Gonzalez would be at the front desk, tapping his pencil and shaking his head, “Late again, eh Jones?”. He loved jerking my chain on a Monday morning, knowing it would fry my senses and bother me all day. He also knew I hated the little, “gringo” names he invented, every time he insulted me. The thought made me twitch and it seemed the wind had picked up a chill, pulling at my coat. I shifted my weight, from one foot to the other, to let Santos know I was in a hurry, but he seemed lost in some far off thought.
“She’s gone. She’s really gone.”. “What? Who’s gone Santos?”. His wife had left him years ago, and as far as I knew, he had no children, in fact, no family was ever mentioned. Whenever I would touch on the subject, he would turn away, laugh, make some corny joke, but never, ever reply. So, this reference to a “She”, drew a blank for me. Again, the honking, street chatter, swish of passing traffic and that damn cold breeze made me anxious to be on my way. “Mi madre. Mi madre se me fue.”. Everything stopped, leaving only the beating in my chest to thrum my chilled ears.
His mother? Santos must have been, I don’t know, maybe sixty or so when we bumped into each other and he pushed me into the fence. “Watch where you’re going, GRINGO!”, he snarled. My quick reply, in perfect Spanish, stopped him in his tracks, and he looked more closely into my face and started laughing, a loud raucous laugh, fearless in its derision. “Ay Dios!”, he sputtered, “Otro muneco!”. As a Midwestern, mainland born, transplant, I had no idea what he was so amused about. When I told the story to Gonzalez, he laughed just as hard. “Muneco! Otro muneco!”, he shouted, slapping his chest and having a great time with his private joke. Later that day, another co-worker confided that it meant I looked like the old Gringo dolls, sold in Puerto Rico by the gringos, blonde and blue eyed, for the little brown skinned girls to play with and admire. Looking in the bathroom mirror, it struck me that the majority of Hispanics in New York seemed to be darker skinned, with black or dark brown hair and dark eyes. Of course there must have been lots of “munecos”, like myself, but since everyone, including my own people, were expecting the “normal” Hispanic face, I was not the norm. “Oh, well,”, I shrugged my shoulders, straightened my shirt and walked out. “Que sea lo que sea.”, as my grandmother was so fond of saying.
After that, Santos, as he finally introduced himself, seemed to keep an eye out for me. Whenever I came out of my sixth-floor apartment, (left to me by my mother’s sister,Tia Anita), he would be there, on that same block of concrete near the store, his jacket torn and dirty, shoes scuffed beyond recognition of color, pants stained and that same gray cap pulled down to his eyes. “Hey gringo!”, he would call out, smirking and looking around at the passersby, “Do you know how deep the Grand Canyon is?”. His thick Spanish accent made it sound like the word for gun, so it took me a while to understand the question. He took my hesitancy for ignorance, and proceeded to tell me not only how deep it was, but how long, how many states it crossed and what type of wild life it contained. Now I really was flabbergasted! In my estimation, I wasn’t even sure he could read in Spanish, much less study and remember such detail! The startled look on my face must have pleased him, because every day thereafter, until this one, he would ask about things like geography, politics, religion or science, that I could not remember ever knowing, but he knew, in depth. It became the best way to start my day, as it would get me thinking of things far beyond that street, that life and my boring job.
But on this day, there was none of that. The swaggering, self-assured professor had morphed back into the homeless street bum of my first impression. His mother. The silence enveloped us both, broken by a deep, mournful sigh, as he lifted his frail arms into the air. “She told me…”, his voice cracked, “Me dijo que no me volveria a verme si me hiba.”. “I laughed, being young and strong, hugged her little body and kissed her head. No mama, I said. I will see you again y pronto estaras conmigo.” His body trembled and his hands wrestled each other slowly. “Nueva Yor…it eats people. It makes good, strong men into borrachos y adictos que no sirven pa’ na’!” The sourness in his chest boiled over into seething words of anger, anger at himself for being weak, anger at a city that shows no remorse for doing such things to good people, anger at time for not allowing him to clean his life up and go back home, as he had promised. “Tenia razon. Esa Jibarita knew, she would never see her son’s face again.”. Choking back tears, he shoved me and headed up the street. “Santos!”, I stammered finally, fully hoping he would not turn back, as I had nothing to say. No words, in any language I knew, could sooth that kind of pain.
The following morning was dark with drizzly snow that painted the world dead and cold. The usual sounds of traffic, voices, life as we knew it, were there, but Santos was not. His cement stoop stood empty, as if a statue had stepped off its perch. What was missing, now occupied a space much greater than what it once held. The old man in the bodega shrugged his shoulders and turned away when I asked, “Y Santos?”. Clutching my café in grateful freezing hands, I ran for the train, in no mood for Gonzalez’ chiding today.
Why do all offices have those small, round, white clocks, with hands so skinny you have to squint to see them from across the room? This one seemed filled with molasses, and the minutes dripped on each other with no interest of my anxious gaze. Five O’clock! Finally! My desk was cleared and I almost knocked people over as I hurried to the crowded elevator. Take the stairs! They stunk of urine and mold and were so dark I had to blink several times to adjust my vision. A slap of winter greeted me as I pushed the exit door to the street and raced for the train. The entire world seemed to have purposely slowed down, putting people and things in my way. At last, my stop! Racing up the icy steps, I pushed my way to the street and began run-walking home, through the slush. As I neared my street, the faded blue sign above the bodega door appeared, then the cement stump, but no Santos.
Incredulous, my gloved hand touched it, smoothing it over and over, as if by some act of magic, he would appear. Searching the wintery street, its blackened tree limbs dripping what tonight would be icicles, I searched every face, every doorstep, every basement entry, but he was not there. The 48 steps to my apartment had grown higher and further apart. When I opened the door, my body slumped into the worn, overstuffed couch I had inherited from my aunt, and I was gone.
It was pitch black when I awakened and realized I had fallen asleep with my coat and all my clothes on. Someone was knocking on a door, somewhere down the hall. As I sat up, removing my coat, it came to me that it was my door. Someone was knocking at my door? “What time is it?”, scrambled through my sleepy mind. “Who would be knocking at this hour?”. I hardly knew my neighbors and had no family or friends on this side of town.
Approaching the door with faltering intent, I grabbed the flashlight from the hall table. “Who is it! Quien es?!”, I demanded, in my most forceful voice, through the closed (and I had forgotten to lock) door. Shuffling in the hall, then, “Soy yo, Santos.”.
It never occurred to me, until much later, to ask how he knew on what floor, or in which apartment, I lived. But in that neighborhood, there was not much about anyone’s life that remained a mystery for long. What the local “viejitas”, didn’t know for sure, they made up for with exaggerated stories. And although my heart leapt at the thought of seeing my old friend again, I put the chain on and opened the door just a crack, so I could close it quickly if this were some kind of trick.
There, looking somewhat like the man I used to know, was Santos, but not Santos as I had ever seen him before! He had shaved off his huge, unkempt beard, cut his hair, was dressed in a suit and trench coat and held a black fedora in his clean hands. Opening the door wide, I grabbed him, ushering him in quickly, lest he disappear again. We both laughed and hugged each other. “Santos! Santos”, my voice reminded me of the first time I was taken to see Santa Claus. So many questions raced through my head, but I could only smile and look at him. Incredible!
“Perdoname! Have a seat. Let me take your coat. Quieres café?”, the words spilled out like beans, and we both laughed again. He gave me his coat and sat down. Not knowing what time it was, I hurried to my small kitchen and began preparing the coffee, never taking my eyes off him. Forgetting to ask if he took cream or sugar, I just prepared it as my abuela had every time I visited her, with everything. He took the cup, and I noticed a slight tremble in his hand. Then he began to speak.
“Me voy pa’ Puerto Rico pa’ enterrar a mi madre, esta noche.”, he stated slowly, with a grim smile. It never occurred to me to ask him where he had gotten the clothes, the air fare, the cab fare to the airport. None of that mattered at the moment. The death of his mother stirred something inside of him that he had thought lost for some time, his pride, himself, the man his mother had held and bereaved losing so long ago. That man, that loving son, had risen from within all the failure, disappointment, and delusion, to return to her side and offer her at least the honor and respect so long denied. If I had grown to respect and admire the man for his intelligence and sensibility before, that respect grew a hundredfold that night, as he stood to leave and we hugged one more, and unbeknownst to me, final time.
His eyes looked into mine with such a direct and penetrating love and grief, that I teared up and had to look away. It became clear to me in that instant that we had broken through all the barriers; age, status, education, language, distrust, to become true friends, friends who had learned to respect and accept each other for what we were within, friends who would remain ever present, though we be miles apart.
The memory of watching Santos walk away, down that long green hall, his footsteps echoing on the steps, has never left me. His jokes, stories, riddles, and laughter find their way into my thoughts and mark many of the decisions I have made since. My job, and the excitement of moving to the biggest city I’ve ever known, became small and insignificant, as the memory of my mother’s hands, her delicious dishes, her loving advice, grew more insistent. I quit my job and moved back home that summer. In the fall she revealed to me that she had been ill for some time, and we lost her that winter.
Whether Santos had been sent into my life to bring to me a new perspective, a greater value of what really mattered, I may never know, but I am ever grateful that he did, and I was able to spend the most wonderful year with the person who loved me first, and more than any other.
I’ve often wondered, since then, what his homecoming was like, whether he made a new, and more rewarding, life for himself, how, and where he ended his days and, in the ultimate scheme of things, where will I?
Small matter this, now. “Lo que sera, sera.”, my mother’s voice echoes in my dreams, dreams filled with wonderful memories, and gratitude, thanks to my old friend, who changed his own, and in the process, my, destiny.
Gracias, mi amigo, wherever you may be. May life return to you all the good you have given to others, just by being yourself.
By: Zoraida Colon y Munoz de Collado
29th of October, 2021