"The Social Distancing of Hector Zapatero"

Submitted into Contest #38 in response to: Write a story about two neighbors talking from their yards, windows, balconies, etc. ... view prompt



Hector ate his soup, but he did not care for it. It came in a bowl designed for the microwave his son bought him last year, but no soup should be warmed with a device such as that. Soup should be simmered on a stove top or over a fire, and it should make the house smell like the ingredients that loving hands placed inside the pot. Hector remembered the way his house would smell as a child when his mother would make her albondigas or posole soups.

           But then his father would come home and the smell of chicken or pork would give way to the smell of cheap wine or beer. While his mother was soft and warm, his father was hard and cold. He worked hard, his father, but he drank even harder, and hit harder still. Hector’s mother took most of the punishment until Hector was old enough to withstand the blows, and then it was Hector’s turn to carefully read the narrowing of eyes and the slow clenching of fists.

           Hector looked down at his right hand that still bore the scars from the last time his father ever hit him or anyone else ever again. The courts were sympathetic to the abuse Hector received as a child, and he was sentenced to just two years of probation for the killing of his father. His mother withdrew from Hector over the death, and Hector found himself smelling more like wine than soup.

           Hector grew into a man, but he would not allow himself to be a man like his father. He put aside the alcohol, but he could not put aside the anger that came with it. He married the pretty girl two stories up and they started their family. Hector and his wife Anita had only one child, a son, and they named him Louis. And while Hector never struck his wife or son, he abused them both with his distance.

           Anita and Louis tried to earn his warmth, but Hector had little to give. His father was always close, his stale breath warm on Hector’s face. Hector always knew where his father was, or to be more precise, the length of his father’s arm in relation to his own body. Hector could not allow that animal to be let loose and so he kept his distance emotionally. He loved his wife and he loved his son but he could not be present in their hearts.

           So, Louis grew up learning to not have a father that was right before his eyes. As is the natural flow of such things, Louis at first felt pain and then resentment and then anger and then Louis felt nothing at all. By the time Louis left for college to study engineering, he had a mother who cherished him and a man who feed him and kept him warm throughout the years.

           And now Hector paid for his choices. He paid in the form of a wife who left him and a son who never knew him. It was a short trip to where his son, daughter-in-law and his grandchildren lived in Williamsburg from his apartment in El Barrio, but Hector seldom saw them. They would come to visit on holidays and on his birthday, but Louis and his family would never stay long. As Hector’s legs began to fail him, the limited visits became more meaningful as Hector could scarcely leave his apartment, let alone travel out to Brooklyn.

           And now this damn virus…

           Because of his health and because of the rules, Hector could not venture outside his little apartment. Aided by the pandemic, Louis stopped coming at all, and simply had a pre-packaged meal company deliver food to Hector’s front door. The food kept him alive and full, but it wasn’t meant for someone who had grown up eating the foods of Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico and Cuba. It was the food of Karen and Bob, not Hector.

           Hector finished his clam chowder soup and tossed the bowl into the trash. He then pushed his wheelchair over to the main window and looked outside. It wasn’t much of a view, especially in a city where the view was everything. From his wheelchair, he could see a small portion of the street below. The foot traffic was much less now due to the sickness, but it was enough to keep Hector from contemplating his own sense of misery. The people below, in their vibrant colors and with their increased sense of urgency, allowed Hector the imagery of rainbows on this gloomy April day.

           Directly across the small courtyard were the identical apartments of his complex. Hector would sometimes sit at his open window last summer and take in the sounds of his neighbors. Squabbles here, words of comfort there, but mostly it was the sound of normal family life. It was parents scheming how to attend three events at the same time with only two people. It was sage advice being passed on to children. It was a family deciding where to go on vacation with the money they had been setting aside for three years.

           With every laugh and cry and reprimand, Hector foolishly thought himself part of their families. He envisioned himself as the silent abuelo, listening always but only giving advice when asked. And listen he did, for he would never be asked to speak, when he was nothing more than a nosy old man eavesdropping on their conversations.

           Hector was about to leave the window and return to his couch when a motion caught his eye. It was a boy directly across from him waving at him from his window. Hector gave the customary return wave and started to push himself away when the boy began to frantically wave harder. He indicated to Hector to open his window, which Hector reluctantly did.

           “Hello,” the boy cried out. “How are you doing?”

           Hector grunted. “It’s chilly outside, my window is open and I can’t even leave my apartment. How do you think I’m doing?”

           “I’m sorry. Do you need to leave the window?”

           “What is you want?” Hector asked abruptly.

           “I thought you might like to talk a bit,” the boy answered. “I thought you might be bored. I know I am.”

           “How are you bored? You are a child. You should be playing with your friends.”

           The boy smiled. “I can’t! We all have to stay at home like you!”

           “Well, go play your video games or something.”

           “I’d rather talk to you.”

           That caught Hector off-guard. When he still worked as a tool-and-die specialist at the shop, people wanted to know what he thought. When the Yankees were playing, people wanted to know if they would cover the spread. Throughout the years, people wanted to know if the rent was going to be late or how to change a starter or who made the best picadillo in the five boroughs. But to just talk? About nothing? And to a teenager?

           “What do you want to talk about? I don’t even know you?”

           “No one knows anyone until they start talking.”

           “That is a fair point. So, what is your name?”

           “My name is Louis Delgado.”

           “I have a son named Louis. My name is Hector.”

           “Hello, Hector. It is very nice to meet you.”

           “Nice to meet you too, Louis. Tell me, Louis, what makes you hang out by the window, besides the virus?”

           Louis shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I just want to see that life is moving on. Right now, it feels like the world has been paused, but I know it hasn’t.”

           “If you think it feels slow now, wait until you get old like me,” Hector warned. “My world has slowed to the point of becoming meaningless.”

           “How can it be meaningless? There is always something to offer.”

           That thought irritated Hector. “It is getting too cold for me,” Hector lied. “I must close the window and go warm up.”

           “Would you like to talk again tomorrow?”

           “We’ll see.” With that, Hector closed his window and rolled himself back into his living room.

           He sat there in his small apartment, his thoughts being his only companion. Hector had never felt so alone in his entire life. His mother died many years ago and his father died at his hands long before that. He kept himself in his shell to protect those that he loved. He was the tiger at the zoo, dangerous and unpredictable, but managed by the fences he himself had built.

           They have to know that, he thought. They have to know that distant was better than brutal.

           God help him, he wanted a drink. He wanted the pain to go away. Maybe he was no better than his father, he reasoned, just more controllable. Hector turned on the television to distract himself, but the tears still came.

           Days passed, and every day Hector saw Louis at his window, wanting to talk, and every day Hector ignored him. Finally, after a week, Louis stopped trying. At first Hector was glad, as he saw Louis’ persistence as an annoyance. But then he came to understand that the small conversation he had had with the boy was the first time someone cared about what he thought in a long while. After three days of sitting by the window, waiting for a sign of Louis, Hector finally saw him.

           Louis stopped to look outside and caught sight of Hector. Hector waived cheerfully at the lad, but Louis didn’t respond. Hector opened his window to talk, but Louis kept his closed. Hector then leaned out of his window and began to make silly faces at Louis. That action was more than Louis could bear, and he broke out into laughter. Louis opened his window and called out to Hector.

           “Hello, Hector! Do you feel like talking today?”

           “I do indeed, Louis.”

           The two of them talked. They talked about nothing and they talked about everything. They discussed the weather and the odds of baseball starting soon. They spoke of girls and the inevitable heartbreak that love always seemed to provide. They argued over the value of fish tacos and they lamented the closing of the local Jewish deli.

           “I enjoy a cochinita pibil as much as anyone, but sometimes you just have to have a great Ruben sandwich,” Hector pointed out.

           “I love their Rubens! Or, at least I used to,” Louis said glumly.

           “Things come, things go,” Hector said, the irony of his comment not lost on himself.

           As the two of them made their small and not-so-small talk, Hector began to fully understand the great chasm that existed between he and his son. This boy, this stranger across the courtyard, was engaging with Hector in a way that Hector never did with his own Louis. Perhaps the threat of losing such a temporary relationship like that of Window Louis never engaged his inner demons like that of Son Louis. Maybe the kid was just a fresh relief from the boredom of the isolation caused by the virus and his own self-inflicted distancing.

           Yes. That was it. Hector was trying to unload the guilt of being aloof to his wife and son by allowing Window Louis to become his de facto “do-over.” All the things he wanted to say to his own flesh-and-blood had been rendered moot utterings by now, tepid vapors of false emotional ties. Hector feared that he and his son could never build a relationship sturdy enough to bridge the gap between them.


           “Yes, Hector?”

           “Do you have a father?”

           “Why do you ask that?” Louis wondered.

           “Because you never speak of him.”

           “My father left me before I was born. My mother said that he was a scared boy. I have never met him.”

           “Would you meet him? I mean, if you could?”

           “Yes,” Louis said weakly. “If he was the same scared boy, then I could just go back to being the same way I’ve always been. But if he has changed, if now he is ready to see his son, then I will have something that I’ve never had before.”

           “Thank you, Louis. I don’t mean to be hasty, but I have to go make a call right now. Can we talk tomorrow?”

           “Of course, Hector.”

           Hector waived goodbye as he shut the window. He rolled himself over to the table where he kept his phone, which might have been the last land line in all of Manhattan. He called his son, hoping that there were still enough days ahead to make amends.

           Louis picked up the phone. “Hello, dad. Is something wrong?”

           “No, nothing is wrong. I just wanted to know if you and your family would like to come over for dinner soon.”

           “Umm. Yeah. Sure. When were you thinking?”

           “As soon as possible, I suppose. Could you do it this week?”

           “You know it’s not healthy for you to have visitors right now. You could get sick and die.”

           Hector saw where the conversation was going. Louis would make excuses. He would list the many reasons as to why it was a bad idea until the meal was shoved aside like missed childhoods.

           “It’s fine. I understand. Maybe sometime later.”

           “You know…” Louis said.


           “We could bring take out, and we could all wear masks. You still have that sanitizer left, right?”

           “Most of it. You would do that for me?”

           “Of course. The kids have been asking about you, wondering how you were doing.”

           Hector felt himself tearing up. It was an uncommon and uncomfortable sensation for him, as tears once brought more strikes from his father and he learned to stuff them down deep inside.

           “How about this Friday then? After you get home from work?”

           “Sounds great. See you then.”

           That Friday the Zapatero family ate fried chicken and sweet potatoes. They played some quick board games and the first stages of the bridge was being built. It would take time to overcome so many years of mistrust and isolation, but Hector was no longer the scared boy he once was; he was ready to be the father Louis deserved all those years ago.

           As his family started to leave, Hector spoke to his son.

           “Thank you, Louis. It means so much to me to see you all again.”

           “Me too, dad. I’m busy with work, even with all of this going on, so I can’t come by all the time, but we certainly can come by more than we have been.”

           “I will be here,” Hector said to the laughter of everyone.

           “Bye, dad.” With that, Louis and the others slipped outside the door into the hallway. Hector rolled over and locked the door. He then pushed himself over to the trashcan and tossed away his mask.

           He was done wearing them.



April 24, 2020 22:47

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