Some men don’t even like to do it and Agustín was one of them, except when he was really drunk, and because nothing else was working he’d relent, and then I couldn’t even pull him up for air. Usually I would be pretty drunk too, so that finally both of us being so
worn out would go to sleep. For a long time I figured that there were just some places men have no business going.
I never even knew there were men who don’t snore until Manolo fell asleep on me, even after they’ve been drinking like we both had been that night when I finally had the nerve to bring him back to the Hollywood Hotel or Manolo had the nerve finally to invite himself.
It was the first occasion we were alone, or more precisely without Agustín, who had done one of his not-so-unusual disappearing acts that night. I’ll be right back, he said while several of us were having drinks at the club where we performed. All right, everyone said or nodded, not bothering to even look up. But after a while with no Agustín we knew he had given us the slip again. The rest of us finished a couple of bottles of wine and then a couple more and then Manolo’s bato said he felt tired and someone offered to give him a ride home because it was such a cold night. One by one, two by two, each left until at last it was just Manolo and me.
What’s the matter, Manoli’o? I said, my speech slurred, not enough to sound sloppy but maybe just enough to be sexy. At least I hoped. No date tonight? I asked. Usually he’d have a female waiting in the wings. She’d sit at the bar feeling regal like the heiress apparent until he finished his business. You knew she was the one picked for that night because when she arrived they’d kiss the way he’d kissed me that first night at the party a hello-and-goodbye-with-everything-promised-in-between kiss, all at once. She’d sip a glass of wine all evening alone and finally he’d go over. Ready? his eyes would inquire as if she had not been exuding readiness for hours, but
she would simply nod and he’d help her with her coat and out the door they’d go, arm in arm, letting in a blast of wind behind them. The next time I’d see Manolo it would be with someone else.
Instead of his customary cocky grin in response to such teasing, he laughed a little and stared into his empty glass like a fortuneteller looking for an omen. That’s when I knew what he was thinking. Thinking but not ever saying, never in front of the bato who saw me as Agustín’s woman and in any case not proper wife material for his son. I was an outsider and too old anyway for people who marry their daughters off right after puberty. It doesn’t matter what country or what century, you do not marry outsiders without being ostracized. From Croatia to Italy, Granada to New York, India to Arizona, gypsies banded together with iron links of loyalty.
When we danced it wasn’t a folkloric example of long-ago country customs. It was a glimpse through a tiny window for a few gold coins. I was allowed into that life through Agustín as a watered-down and, let’s face it, inauthentic presentation of the gypsy woman for a public that he believed could not deal with the real thing. The real thing is not only too raw but too much of everything. And he did not believe the gaje-gringo audience bred on Hollywood wanted anything that real. I never was and never would be one of them. Manolo had not revealed his feelings for me in front of Agustín either, for obvious reasons. Why he chose to do it that night, I still don’t know. Except that there are times when you finally give in to fate and it was time.
Where do you live anyway, Carmen? Manolo asked with a quick glance at me from the shade of his thick eyelashes. It took me a second to remember, between the wine and the look he was giving me, and then clearing my throat as I answered, Oh yeah, the Hollywood Hotel on Wilson Avenue. If you think you can remember the
address . . . would you like for me to take you home? he asked with a little chuckle. I laughed a little too but no sound came out.
We made our way through the near-abandoned streets of after-hours Chicago, snow falling lightly and sparkling like powdered sugar on the ugly harshness of asphalt as if we were in an old black-and-white movie. When I almost slipped, Manolo took my hand, gripped it firmly and never let it go after that.
Once we got to my room he had to help me with the key. I giggled a little nervously but tried to play it down and when I looked at him putting the key in I saw that he was nervous too. It should have been smoother, I thought, between two pros. He should have grabbed me up in his arms like he seemed ready to do when we first laid eyes on each other, like he had done a couple of times when we finished an especially good performance. He’d twirl me around and people would applaud harder and then he’d kiss me, the way dance partners kiss, with lips closed, quickly, and we would be smiling so hard you’d think our faces would break. Instead when we got inside he sat on my bed in his coat like a shy schoolboy. A kind of depressed shy schoolboy at that. That’s when I knew he was in love with me.
Take your coat off! I said, aware of my slightly drunken speech sounding less sexy now than lascivious. The thought made me self-conscious and feel very tired next to those eyelashes and his pouting and all I could think was, What a mistake, what a mistake. I went to the cabinet for a couple of glasses, killed two cockroaches trying to escape, and decided to make an espresso on the hot plate to sober up instead of drinking anymore. What’re you doing? He asked. I don’t know, I said. It’s too late for coffee, he said. I know, I said, but
I think I’m drunk, and I think you are too. No I’m not, he said. Yes you are, I said, feeling bad and drunk. Come here, he said. Come over here. I’ll show you how drunk I’m not.
By the time I had shut the lights off and reached the bed Manolo had slipped out of his coat. He brought me close to him between his legs, me still standing, pulled my face down to his to kiss me. Then in one quick movement, my undergarments were gone and my skirt was up over my head and he had me spread before him like a Sunday brunch buffet. Not a position I objected to at all, I might add, even if my previous experience had not always given the desired results. I wrapped my thighs around Manolo’s neck and drew him right in.
All the years I had been with Agustín had led me to believe that gypsy men weren’t particularly eager about the act because they feared women could put a spell on men that way, a spell that would send them howling like wolves under black skies, a spell that would make their you-know-whats drop off the next time they tried to make love with any other woman, a spell of evil for life. Still, like I said, when he had drunk too much he’d do it as if he were doing me some great big favor.
But Manolo didn’t do it like he was doing me a favor. He did it like he had dropped deep into the sea and knew exactly where the treasure was, small and precious and belonging to him and me, mostly me I was thinking when suddenly a gush I had never known, never believed could come from a woman poured forth. I thought my brains had blown out of my head at the same time shot out through my skull, gone out the window and landed on the blinking neon light of the Hollywood Hotel. Then Manolo moved up to me, his under-the-sea voice repeating my name in my ear into the damp space between my neck and shoulder into the spray of my hair over the pillow again and again not like a chant not sweet or hypnotic or mystical but terrible and low, terrible and low like everything would always be between us. But that first night I welcomed our wet birth like a calf in a barn born just before light. It was still ours to do with as we would choose, to sustain us or to sacrifice for the greater cause. For a long time after Manolo fell asleep I lay awake repossessing my soul bit by bit, my head against the satin of Manolo’s chest.
When I woke up the next day he was gone.
I looked around my room as if he could possibly be hiding anywhere in a one-room studio. No note of course. Calorros aren’t into writing.
Later he called.
Why did you leave? I asked. I was really shaken up by self-doubt but I didn’t let on. I don’t sleep well if I’m not in my own bed, you know? he said. Then he laughed. Manoli’o the alley cat. I wasn’t even sure he had a bed of his own anywhere. It was a good answer but not the truth. Truth in the case of my lovers always being a matter of opinion.