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Fantasmas y Memorias

           As she drove down the A-44 towards Granada, Gabriela wished she’d brought a scarf. It was too beautiful a day to put up the hood of her convertible and she hated to cut off the view of Andalucía’s rippling hills, but the wind was tangling her hair all around her face. She’d forgotten how much she loved the patchwork sunflower fields and the sliver-green of the olive trees. She and Alejandro didn’t travel much within Spain. He preferred to take her with him on his business trips to Berlin or Rome or New York City while they left Nina with his mother. He was a city person born and raised. Gabriela understood that – to her the constant humming and chattering of the Madrid streets meant success. It meant she’d clawed her way from the solitude of the countryside and reached a place where the sounds of the real world weren’t muffled by poverty and superstition.

But then Señor Martinez, who ran the Hotel de los Reyes in the old part of Loja, had called her. The feeling that she’d swallowed a small, cold stone returned as Gabriela remembered him explaining the situation. She’d been loading the dishwasher after dinner, but as he told her about Rosa’s latest delusion over speakerphone, she’d gripped the granite countertop so hard the red lacquer on her nails began to crumple at the tips. Alejandro had come down from tucking Nina into bed just as she was hanging up, and she knew she must have looked awful because he had sat her down at the table with a glass of red wine and finished the kitchen work himself.

“That was the mayordomo of a hotel in Loja,” Gabriela had murmured after taking a sip of wine. Alejandro slid the last clean knife into its slot in the wooden block and looked at her. “He said Rosa’s gotten a lot worse. I… may have to go stay with her for a while.”

“Gabriela, you hate that place. Surely Rosa will be fine on her own.” Alejandro came to stand next to her chair, leaning his elbows on the table. How she wanted to let him be right, to listen to his businessman voice, the one that stated the truths of the world, that said the stock market would go up and told her to come to bed when she stood in Nina’s doorway watching her daughter sleep. But Rosa was hearing voices now, or rather a single voice, and who knows what it would tell her to do.

“She’s my little sister, Alejandro.”

He sat down, leaning forward and holding out his hands. “Then we’ll hire a doctor. We’ll find the best clinical psychologist and he’ll take care of Rosa. I know your mother couldn’t afford to have someone look at her, but you’re not poor anymore, Gabriela, and you’re right – she’s your sister; she deserves the best.

“No,” Gabriela sighed. “This is something I have to do myself. We can’t throw our dirty laundry out for doctors and everyone to see.”

“Why, Gabby? There’s no shame in it, not hoy en día. Plenty of people see therapists.”

Gabriela shrugged, studying her hands. “I don’t know. It’s just… she’s my family. It’s bad enough that Señor Martinez and the hotel staff know. I mean, what if people hear about it here? ¿Que dirán la gente? I don’t want to be the girl with the hermana loca again.”

“People wouldn’t think that.” Alejandro smiled, tugging on a lock of her hair. “Elena loves you. She’d never let other people at the magazine treat you badly. She and that fashion editor seem to have the place under pretty tight control.”

“I know.” Dios, this was hard. “I have to go, though. It’s my job to take care of her now.”

“All right then. I’ll make sure Nina gets to school,” was all Alejandro said.

She decided she would pack in the morning. That night, she let Alejandro hold her close while she cried without knowing why.

Near Granada the traffic thickened, but the gentler breeze didn’t bring back Gabriela’s euphoric sense of freedom. Next to a giant black Osborne bull she saw a banner advertising a special weekend exhibit at the Alhambra. Great. Señor Martinez’s hotel was a popular spot for tourists willing to stay outside Granada to save a few euros. She exited onto the A-92, leaving farther behind the obligations she’d chosen and continuing towards the one she’d tried so hard to leave behind.

She’d been nineteen when she bought the train ticket to Madrid without telling her mother. If her mother hadn’t woken up so early that morning and wanted a glass of water, Gabriela would have left the note on the table and quietly disappeared. Instead, they’d awoken half the neighborhood with their screaming, as Gabriela’s mother had accused her of abandoning her family and in return Gabriela had spat out all the resentment that had been festering inside her – how it wasn’t her fault Rosa had been born crazy, and why shouldn’t she get to live a normal life, and how she’d tried to be a good sister.

“You didn’t try,” Gabriela’s mother had yelled back. “You never tried! You always made sure I knew just how much you were giving up to do those things for Rosa, how much it inconvenienced you. You were never kind, you were never gracious. But you were young and I needed you.”

“Then I hope you don’t need me now,” Gabriela had shot back, and then stormed out without her bags.

So she’d arrived in Madrid just as the siesta started without even a clean pair of underwear. She’d always thought of Madrid as she’d seen it in a photograph in a magazine once at the mercado – a nicely paved street with streams of men in suits and women in heels walking purposefully to important places, the walls of the buildings covered in bright yellow tiles with blue flowers painted on them, one tile with the street name in elegant black lettering hovering over the city peoples’ heads. It wasn’t like that at all. There were some business people talking on cell phones and sipping coffee, but there were just as many scruffy people, people walking dogs, people jabbering loudly to each other and shoving their way through the crowd to who knows where. Gabriela froze as she took all this in, but the momentum of the moving bodies soon carried her off. She found out that in the city, she had to keep moving. Cars filled the streets and took up most of the space between the buildings, and people didn’t appreciate another impediment to reaching their destinations. Eventually she realized it was dark out. She sat down on a park bench in a plaza where someone had left a red and black striped scarf. Even though it was only early autumn, there was a nip in the air now that the sun had gone down. Her stomach growled. She told herself that she would get her bearings and somehow get something to eat in the morning. Soon she was asleep.

Gabriela couldn’t believe how quickly things had come together for her in the city. The next day, outside a café, she’d picked up a fallen book and returned it to its owner, a tall elegant woman made even taller by her Louboutin heels (of course, Gabriela hadn’t recognized them as such at the time – they’d just been pretty shoes with red soles). As Gabriela had handed back the book, Insolación, she’d let slip a comment about Asís living before her time. The woman had looked taken aback and scrutinized Gabriela for several seconds before buying her a pastry and taking her to an office building. The woman had been Elena Villatorros, the editor in chief of Elle Magazine in Madrid, and she was looking for a new assistant. She’d discovered that Gabriela was extremely well-read – what else had she had to do while she waited for her mother to ask her to do something else for Rosa? – and hired her on the spot.

“You’re smart. I need that here,” She’d said to Gabriela. “You read, too, which is more than most people in this city can do. You’ll be something new.”

So Gabriela had a job. About three year after she started working for Elena, she met Alejandro. He’d had to escort his mother to a fundraiser that Elle was doing an article on – something about rainforests and frogs – while his father stayed home with food poisoning. Gabriela had been retrieving a champagne refill for Guillermo, the writer assigned to the fundraiser, and she and Alejandro had reached for the same glass. He had courted her for five years before asking her to marry him, although when Gabriela was being honest with herself she had to admit that she hadn’t given him much of a chase. The way he looked at her with those snapping blue eyes made her feel mysterious and intoxicated at the same time.

Gabriela felt the corners of her mouth lifting as she remembered. Out of all the joy Madrid had given her, there was one memory she kept deep in her heart. The morning after she’d arrived, she’d woken up to a misty sunrise and wood grain imprinted on her right cheek. She’d looked around, and she’d been alone. No mother with dark circles under her eyes asking her to make breakfast for them all before she went to school. No Rosa needing to be watched while she bathed so she wouldn’t accidentally drown herself. Gabriela wouldn’t have to swallow her vitriol every time Rosa needed help until she couldn’t keep it in anymore. She could never just tell Rosa to go away, so she would sigh and roll her eyes and say things like “Fine, I guess I’ll just do what I need to do later.” There would be no more of that. She was free.

But not anymore. She was back in Loja, with its ghosts and memories. Her mother was gone, killed by a brain aneurism last year, and Rosa’s psychosis, or whatever she had, was getting worse. Señor Martinez had told her that Rosa kept breaking into a room at the back of the hotel – “the one with peaches”, he’d said – and telling the maids who came to clean it that someone named Eduardo had booked it for the two of them and they didn’t want to be disturbed. It was frightening the guests. She pulled into the driveway of the house on the Calle de Cervantes.

Alejandro had always been understanding when it came to Rosa. It had taken a long time for Gabriela to share her past with him – he came from a wealthy banking family and had been to America. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting when she finally told him, maybe that he would laugh at her or tell her it was genetic and he couldn’t be with her for the sake of their future children. In fact, the only thing he had done that bothered Gabriela was suggest that they take Rosa to a hospital so she could get professional care. Much as Gabriela had been aggravated by the responsibilities of caring for Rosa while she’d lived at home, she hated the thought of Rosa in a blue-speckled gown being referred to as a case file rather than as a person. Besides, Gabriela had known her mother wouldn’t take her help even if she offered it.

Gabriela pulled up the telescoping handle on her suitcase, grabbed her purse from the front seat of her car, and walked to the front door. It was unlocked. She stepped inside, looking around. It was the same as she remembered leaving it twenty years ago. The same dusky orange walls and cream carpeting. Her old school photos still lined the hallway from the foyer to the dining room. The vase with the dancing gypsies on it still sat on its table next to a bowl for keys, now empty.


Gabriela turned and saw Rosa, her long dark hair partially covering her face, standing in the shadowy doorway that led to the sitting room. She stepped forward. “It’s me, Gabriela. Your sister.”

“Gabriela? I… My sister. Yes, Gabriela. You came back.”

“Sí. I came back.”

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