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When Cuqui called and invited me to lunch, I claimed to be busy. She wasn’t one of my favorite people. The last day of second grade, my son

Eddie had come home crying his eyes out, because he wasn’t invited to her son’s birthday. He was the only boy in the class left out. I should have stuck to my guns, but I let my husband Edgardo persuade me it was silly to hold a grudge about something that happened ten years ago.

Edgardo thought the lunch invitation meant I was finally accepted by the mothers that matter at Saint John’s School, the number one prep academy in San Juan. That sort of thing meant a lot to him. His parents ran a colmado, a mom and pop grocery, on the other side of the island, and Edgardo was the first in the family to go to college. Besides, Cuqui’s husband was a long time buddy of Orlando Ramos, the newly elected pro-statehood governor of Puerto Rico. Edgardo believed in making contacts.

Later that evening, I called Cuqui back and said I would be free tomorrow after all. We arranged to meet at the Patisserie on Ashford Avenue, walking distance from my apartment on San Jorge. Before entering the restaurant, I caught sight of her with two young women at a window table. One was her daughter Cristina, and the other was introduced as Ashley, her roommate from Swarthmore spending Easter vacation with them.

Cuqui had on a bright, flowered silk blouse and she wore large gold earrings, with multiple loops and diamonds, the kind that make your ears ache. The two young women, both fashionably thin, wore muted earth tones and tasteful single band gold necklaces. I was telling Ashley about the best beaches on the island, when Cuqui summoned the waitress in a loud voice and ordered a bottle of wine.

I said it was too early in the day for me, but she ordered a glass for each of us anyway. The wine went straight to my bladder. When I returned from the bathroom, and took my seat, our croissant sandwiches had already been served, and Cristina was giggling about how Marcos, a former classmate from Saint John’s, had been flirting with Ashley at a party the night before.

“Marcos turned out to be a real good looking guy,” said Cuqui.

Fair-skinned Ashley flushed.

“Watch out!” Cristina told her friend. “He’s a real player!”

“What do you mean?” asked Cuqui.

“A mujeriego,” I translated.

“He seemed very sincere and straightforward,” said Ashley.

“Ella no sabe como son los hombres puertorriqueños,” said Cuqui, shaking her head.

“Mom’s saying you don’t know how what Puerto Rican men are like,” said Cristina.

Ashley smiled. “Not just Puerto Rican men. You can’t be too trusting of any man.”

“Yeah,” said Cuqui. “You have to keep your eyes open.”

I wondered why she was looking at me.

“Un momento,” I said, “let’s not give Ashley the wrong idea. There are plenty of decent Puerto Rican men.”

“Maggie should know,” Cuqui replied, patting my arm. “She’s been married to the same one forever.”

The two young women declined to eat dessert, and left soon after in Ashley’s rental car. Cuqui ordered coffee for the two of us. Then she asked me whether I’d heard that her son Iván had been named Housing Secretary. “Edgardo told me about it,” I said. “Give Iván our congratulations.”

“Thanks. How is Edgardo? I haven’t spoken to him since the big fund raiser.”

Cuqui was talking about the thousand dollars a plate dinner for Governor Ramos we had both attended six months ago. I remembered telling Edgardo I wasn’t going. My father had driven a taxi to put me through college, and I wasn’t about to give all that money away to some goddamn politician. But Edgardo pointed out that it was hardly the time to be stingy when his consulting firm was bidding for a half a million dollar study of the new health card for the poor.

I told Cuqui that Edgardo was very busy nowadays with a new contract with the Health Department. “In the consulting business, it’s either feast or famine,” I said. “We hardly see him.”

“I saw him a week ago, in Zipperle’s, but I don’t think he saw me,” said Cuqui. “Do you remember the new Assistant Secretary of Health? She made a late entrance at the Governor’s dinner. Young, good-looking blonde?”

“You mean Claudia Meléndez?”

“You have a good memory,” said Cuqui, smiling. “That’s who Edgardo was with at Zipperle’s.”

“Edgardo has lunch with the people at the Health Department all the time,” I said and looked her straight in the eye.

“It was dinner time. About eight thirty,” Cuqui replied.

I couldn’t think of anything to say. I had known Cuqui for many years, but she had never invited me for lunch before. She knew I was born and brought up in Brooklyn. Up to this point, I had assumed the idea was to invite someone to lunch who spoke good English while entertaining Ashley, but it looked like there was another motive.

The waitress came and asked if we wanted anything more.

“Just the check,” I said.

Cuqui said that her friend Gloria told her just last week that Claudia went to the same plastic surgeon she did, a man known for working wonders.

By this time we had exited the restaurant. I politely returned Cuqui’s kiss on the cheek. While she waited for the valet to bring her car, I started for home on foot. As I got to the corner of Ashford and San Jorge, it started to drizzle. A loud honk made me realize I was crossing on red.

When I got home, I made myself another cup of coffee. The words “around eight thirty at night” not only rang in my ears, they rammed into my stomach and turned the food I had eaten into a hard lump. The second coffee only made it worse. A wave of nausea sent me to the bathroom. When I finished throwing up, I felt like my first mother’s milk had come up, or would have if I’d been breast fed.

I lay down. The lump in my stomach had been replaced by a hollow emptiness. I started dialing Edgardo’s private office number, but stopped midway when I remembered he had taken our son Eddie to his office party to celebrate finishing the first part of the health card project. What was I going to say to him? I needed to get my head straight first. Maybe Cuqui was making up a story to get back at me. But what for? On the other hand, just because my husband had dinner with Claudia didn’t mean he was having an affair.

When father and son got home around seven, I had enough self control not to bring it up in front of Eddie. Luckily, the guys had eaten too much at the office party to be hungry, and I didn’t have to sit through a family dinner. We all three watched a Law and Order rerun until Eddie’s friends came to pick him up.

“He’s a great help at the office,” Edgardo said.

I nodded. I was the one who had suggested a part time job would be good for our son, keep him away from the fast crowd at Saint John’s School.

“You’re awful quiet,” said Edgardo. “How was the lunch with Cuqui?”

I muted the sound on the TV. “Strange.”

“Come on Maggie, it can’t have been that bad.”

“What do you want first?” I asked, my voice neutral, “the good news or the bad news?

“The good news, baby.”

“Cuqui said you should give her son a call. I guess there might be some possibility of consulting for the Housing Department.”

“Good work, sweetie. Now what’s the bad?”

“She’s an awful gossip.”

Edgardo shrugged. “Okay, so who did she give you the low down on?”


“What do you mean?”

I told him.

“Maggie, sweetheart, don’t tell me that woman worried you. What a witch! My relationship with Claudia Meléndez is strictly professional. You have to wine and dine them.”

“But did you take her to dinner?”

Edgardo hesitated. “Just lunch, I think. He wrinkled his brow. “Maybe dinner once. Really it’s not important.”

“I just wish you told me before someone else did.”

“Oye, mi amor, I’m flattered you think I’m still attractive to a young woman like Claudia, but I swear nothing is going on. Negra, I love you.”

I began to cry hard. Edgardo comforted me, assuring me he treasured me and the family we built together. All those resolutions to keep calm, judge with my head not my heart, went flying out the window. We ended up making love like teenagers.

I awoke to the first gray light of approaching dawn. Edgardo was snoring by my side. I ran my hand over one breast, cupping it in my hand. The solidity of my body reassured me the lovemaking was real, and I drifted back to sleep. When I awoke, Edgardo already had coffee made. We had a leisurely breakfast before he left for the office.

All day I was like a surfer riding a frothy wave of reconciliation, until Edgardo called me at about four saying he would be late. He had to have a quick drink with Ricky Colorado, the head of the research section of the health insurer Triple S.

“I’ll just be an hour late. We’ll go out for dinner.”

My husband was trying to reassure me. But the phone call made me uneasy. The snapshot of Edgardo swearing his undying love for me was replaced in my head by a man wrinkling his brow, trying to remember whether he had taken Claudia to dinner. What man wouldn’t remember? Fucking liar!

I spent the next three days riding a see saw, up one moment and down the next. I looked forward to the spring vacation ending, hoping that getting back to teaching would steady me. A crisis with the best student in my high school English class, a girl of sixteen, kept my mind off my own problems for a week. But when I finally got Social Services to intervene with her abusive stepfather, my own situation began eating me again.

The feeling of not having my feet firmly placed on the ground didn’t go away as summer approached. After that one night of passionate sex, I just went through the motions. The momentary flame inspired by jealousy was replaced by the dull deadening ache of distrust.

But after a couple of months I began to feel better. Edgardo was working hard on the health project, but he rarely stayed late, and he called me at least once a day to just chat about how the day was going. He was doing his part to help me get over my suspicions. Neither of us mentioned Claudia Meléndez again.

By summer’s end, I thought we were back into our old groove, until I noticed Edgardo was obsessed with the news. He read both the San Juan Star and El Nuevo Día cover to cover, and then at ten he would urge me to join him in the TV room to watch the local news.

One evening, the newscast on channel two said the Federal Justice Department was investigating the use of funds for AIDS patients at the San Juan AIDS Institute. They were interviewing Dr. Emilio Orsini, the head of the Institute, a distinguished gent with white hair who solemnly assured the camera that the investigation was pro forma. The Institute was late providing the financial paperwork, because they had been too busy working on a new program for the homeless who walk the streets of San Juan.

When the ads came on I asked, “What was that all about? That Orsini guy’s face is kinda familiar.”

“He was at the thousand dollars a plate dinner. An honest and dedicated man.”

“I hope so. They were talking about taking funds from the AIDS Institute. Just imagine. Stealing from the dying.”

The ads were over. The pretty TV reporter was interviewing Elí Carmona, the Independence Party leader, who promised to push for a full investigation.

“Interesting,” I said. “He’s an independentista, but he seems happy to back up the Feds.”

“Maggie, you don’t understand the way things work in Puerto Rico. Anything to get Governor Ramos. It’s all politics.”

It annoyed me when Edgardo lectured me on how things work in Puerto Rico as though being born in Brooklyn meant I was any less boricua than he was.

“Carmona sounded sincerely disgusted about a scheme to rob the sick,” I insisted.

Edgardo changed the subject. “What worries me is that a full blown investigation of the AIDS Institute could spill over.”

“Spill over?”

“Into investigation of other health contracts.”

This conversation worried me, but when I broached the subject the next day, Edgardo told me not to be silly.

“Don’t worry sweetheart, we do everything by the book.”

I wasn’t completely reassured. Edgardo often looked preoccupied, and he began complaining about splitting headaches. Then I found him sitting in the living room at two in the morning, his head in his hands

“Maybe you should see a doctor,” I said, handing him some Tylenol.

He swallowed the pills and told me that the Feds had started investigating political contributions made by Health Department contractors. “I’m in trouble, Maggie.”

“But honey, I don’t think going to a $1000 a plate dinner for the Governor would be considered a bribe.”

Edgardo shook his head. “I made a much larger contribution to the Ramos campaign. I was just trying to get my company considered on its merits. Like an entrance fee to a contest. If you don’t pay, you’re not in the running."

“What kind of entrance fee?

“A lot.”

“For God’s sake, how much?”

“Twenty five thousand.”

I gasped. “What?”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

“That’s our family savings, not yours alone.”

“I wasn’t thinking only about myself. It was an investment for you and Eddie, the ticket to our future prosperity.”

The son of a bitch had taken out twenty five thousand from our savings without even consulting me. But was he in danger of being charged with anything? Edgardo was scaring the shit out of me. My legs felt like rubber. I sat back down on the sofa.

“They could accuse you of bribery. You could go to jail.”

Edgardo reached for my hand. “Maggie, believe me. It wasn’t a bribe. I’m proud of making a donation for a good cause. Statehood. Dignity for all Puerto Ricans.”

“But would a jury buy that?”

Edgardo slumped back into his chair, like a child whose birthday balloon had been pricked.

“You know me, Maggie. I would never try to bribe anyone. I just wanted to level the playing field. But you’re right. People might come to the wrong conclusions. I went to see a lawyer.”

“What did he say?”

“He’s making inquiries. It all depends on who’s talking to the FBI. I have another appointment tomorrow. Come with me.”

“Jesus Christ, Edgardo,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “How could you do this to us?”

The appointment was for the next day at two in the afternoon at the lawyer’s office on Justo Street in Old San Juan. The building had an old-fashioned façade, round columns at the entrance. Inside it had a black and white checkered floor and modern furnishings. We were directed to the third floor occupied by the offices of Álvarez, Dalmau and Petersen. After about twenty minutes, Licenciado Raul Álvarez, a handsome man with gray hair and a patrician nose, came out. He clapped Edgardo on the back, and said how pleased he was to meet me. From his office, you could see a lovely view of San Juan Bay through the picture window.

The first five minutes were spent in small talk. It turned out that Licenciado Álvarez had been two classes ahead of Edgardo at San Ignacio, the school my husband always said not only gave him a scholarship but a start in life.

“It’s a small world, isn’t it?” said Edgardo. The chatter of the two men about mutual friends reminded me that I was an outsider in the cozy world of people who matter on the island.

Mr. Álvarez glanced at his gold watch and said, “We had better get down to business.” He opened a file, stared down at it and drummed his fingers on the table, as though searching for the right words.

“Mrs. Rodríguez, has your husband explained to you why he sought legal advice?”

Edgardo who had been staring at his shoes, his shoulders hunched, looked up, “I explained that I made a large political donation that could be…misinterpreted.”

The lawyer nodded. “I have good news.” He smiled at us both. “The Re-election Committee has no record of a donation from Edgardo Rodríguez.”

Edgardo sat up straight. “Then there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Not so fast,” said the lawyer.

He was right about taking it slow. My head was whirling. If no money was donated to the Committee, where in hell was the twenty five thousand?

“The Feds have been asking questions,” said the lawyer. “They’ll be talking to Miss Claudia Meléndez next week.”

My stomach muscles tightened. “What does she have to do with it?”

The lawyer opened his mouth, exchanged a glance with Edgardo, and kept silent.

“I gave the money to Claudia,” said Edgardo. “To be on the safe side.”

I hadn’t forgotten my suspicions, but what he seemed to be saying was that Claudia was the courier to the Committee.

“A large gift to Miss Meléndez doesn’t look good given the fact that she was Assistant Secretary of Health,” said Álvarez in a low voice. “It could have an appearance of impropriety.”

My head was spinning. “Impropriety?”

“An effort to secure her influence to get the health card contract.”

“You mean bribery?”

The lawyer shook his head as though pained by the word. “Mrs. Rodríguez, you and I both know your husband is an honest man.”

“Claudia had nothing to do with the committee that selected the firm for my contract,” Edgardo said.

“Good point,” said the lawyer. “But the Feds might still be interested in a substantial gift made to the second in command in the agency. Did you give her a check?”

“The first five thousand. After that, I delivered cash”.

This was beginning to resemble the plot of a Grade B mafia movie.

“Jesus Christ, Edgardo,” I said.

Licenciado Álvarez turned to me. “Mrs. Rodríguez, I understand your concern.”

“No, you can’t possibly understand,” I retorted, struggling not to break down. “For you, it’s all in a day’s work, but it’s the good name of my family.”

“Sometimes things appear worse than they seem,” the lawyer said in a soothing voice. “Miss Meléndez’s lawyer is my wife’s cousin. Of course, I didn’t discuss your husband’s case with him directly. But he did tell me that she is a single mother with one child – an autistic boy of five. You know the schools here on the island don’t offer adequate services. Friends have helped her with the expenses of a child psychologist and special schooling.”

“You mean Edgardo helped her.”

The lawyer nodded.

“Twenty five thousand for a woman he just met?”

“The check in her name was only for five thousand,” Edgardo pointed out

“But your wife is quite right. Even if the amount is small, the Feds are bound to question why you took on the role of Good Samaritan.”

Edgardo changed color. His eyes met mine for a brief second and then he looked out the window at San Juan Bay.

“The Feds are not the only ones who want to know,” I said.

Through the airtight window I could hear the muffled shouts of young people and the distant rumble of cars from the street below.

Finally, the lawyer said, “Mrs. Rodríguez, your husband is in a dangerous position. Appearances could be against him unless we all pull together. If Claudia reveals anything to the Feds, we will have to address the question of why Edgardo donated money for the boy’s education. The most logical explanation would be what we call a sentimental relationship. Of course, there was none, but…”

From the beginning the lawyer had been the perfect gentleman, a concerned friend offering a helping hand. But the web he was spinning was not to save me. No, he was winding sticky strands round and round my body to make sure I would do nothing against Edgardo. If I didn’t say something quick, the gooey stuff would reach my tongue.

“You mean adultery is not a crime, but bribery is?”

Mr. Álvarez frowned. I had broken the rules.

“I am sure your husband had no intention of influencing the contractual process,” he said slowly, enunciating each syllable.

“May I assume,” I replied, imitating his precise way of speaking, “that you are equally sure that my husband didn’t fuck Claudia Melendez?”

The lawyer muttered something about giving us privacy and excused himself. He walked hurriedly around Edgardo’s chair, not mine, to get to the door, tripping on the throw rug in his anxiety to exit.

Once the door closed, Edgardo leaned over and said, “Maggie, sweetheart I’m terribly sorry. I’ve done some stupid things, but believe me there was never anything between me and Claudia.”

“Stop it! I screamed. “You’re a goddamn liar. Do you think I’m an idiot?”

“Lower your voice. You’re making us look bad. Everyone in the building can hear.”

I got up from my chair and started to walk toward the door.

“Maggie, I made a terrible mistake. Please let me explain.”

“What’s to explain? You betrayed your marriage for a goddamn whore who’s a thief besides.”

Edgardo sighed.

“Where’s the twenty five thousand? Cuqui knows Claudia because they go to the same plastic surgeon. A boob job here and a bit of botox there wouldn’t leave much for tutoring, would it? The bit about the autistic son is a sob story if I ever heard one.”

“Maggie, please, she really does have an autistic child. I’m sure she’ll give back the money. But I can’t ask her for it. Álvarez says under no circumstances am I to contact her.”

“I suppose that’s why it’s over.”

“No, it was over months ago. Maggie, believe me, I love you. It was a stupid midlife crisis.”

“That line won’t work. Not with me.”

“I was flattered when she began asking me for advice about the kid. Like I was her big brother, and then before I knew what was happening…”

“Shut up,” I screamed, my hands covering my ears.

“Maggie, please, we’ve been together for over twenty years.”

“It’s over,” I said

“Don’t do anything hasty. God, Álvarez will be back any moment. Sweetheart, you’re in no condition to talk to him.”

“You’re right about that,” I said. “Give me the keys.”

“I’ll only be with the lawyer a few minutes. Get the car from the parking garage and pick me up.”

I took the keys, and walked out the door. Before slamming it hard behind me I turned to say, “You can find your own fucking way home.”

I ran down the stairs rather than taking the elevator. It wasn’t until I was on the street that I lost control and began to sob. I couldn’t find the car in the Doña Fela parking lot until I finally remembered it was Edgardo’s BMW, not my Toyota.

While driving home I got stuck in traffic on Ashford Avenue. It was about three o’clock when all the mothers pick up their children from school. I leaned my head against the steering wheel. When I opened my eyes the light had turned green. I pressed the gas too hard and crashed right into a large black SUV in front of me. The driver came out yelling about stupid women drivers, but he calmed down when he saw only his bumper was dented, while the whole front of my BMW had caved in. By this time I was crying again. The man asked whether I was hurt. I said no, I’d just had a really shitty day.

By some miracle the BMW started, but every couple of seconds there was a horrible clackety clack. I prayed the axle wouldn’t break in two. Somehow, I got the car into our covered garage. It was a relief when the door closed and I could no longer see the damage. In spite of everything, I dreaded the moment that Edgardo would set eyes on the wreck.

Thank God Eddie wasn’t home. I collapsed on the bed. There was pressure on my chest, and then in the bones of my head, and my mouth twisted into a grimace. Sobs were forcing their way up but finding no exit, because I couldn’t weep. When the tears finally came, I could hear my own cries, like some wounded animal.

You can cry for a long time, but not forever. On the bureau facing me was a shot of me and Edgardo at the beach, drinking the same piña colada out of two straws. I got up and threw it against the wall. The tinkle of falling glass didn’t make me feel any better.

I lay down again. By this time the fury I had felt at the lawyer’s was gone. All that was left was an empty pit in my stomach and a fuzzy feeling in my head. If I divorced Edgardo would I have enough money for Eddie to go to college? Should I go back to New York or stay in Puerto Rico? Thoughts whirled around but I couldn’t get hold of them. My brain was like an old car battery that jumpstarted and then sputtered out.

I didn’t move when I heard the key in the door. Edgardo called out my name. I was lying on the bed with my face to the wall when he entered the room. He lay down next to me, his body encircling mine, reminding me that what I thought belonged to me wasn’t mine anymore.

Edgardo finally arose, picked up the picture of the two of us at the beach, and put it back on the bureau. I closed my eyes, and didn’t open them until I heard him sweeping up the glass.

He gave me a hand to get up from the bed. I hadn’t noticed it before, but my neck hurt. I let him guide me to the living room and sit me down on the sofa.

“We have to talk,” he said, taking a chair opposite me.


“Maggie, please forgive me. I love you and Eddie. I don’t want to lose you.”

I said nothing.

“I lost my way. Please help me get back on the right track.”

“It’s over, Edgardo.”

“Maggie, please.”

I kept quiet.

“You want me to move out?”

I shrugged. Our family was broken. What did the details matter?

“Maggie, please don’t abandon me now. I promise you I’ll be a new man. Don’t kick me when I’m down. Just stand by me until this is over. Then, if you still want a divorce, I won’t stand in your way.”

Forget about becoming a new man. I wanted the old Edgardo back, the man who had never heard of thousand dollar dinners. The man who thought me and Eddie were more important than anything else in the whole world.

“I’ll sleep in the guest room,” he said softly.

I wondered whether this was what the lawyer had told him to say, advising him that it was important to be sure the wife is on board and ready to stand by her man, just in case it hits the newspapers, or goes to court. “You’ve got to humor her,” Álvarez would have said.

My old Edgardo would never have thought of separate bedrooms. For years we couldn’t get enough of each other. Whenever I went for a few days to New York, he complained it was hard to fall asleep without me beside him.

I looked at him.

“I mean, of course, if that’s you want,” he added softly, smiling at me, uncertainty in his eyes.

What I wanted was to wipe the sticky smile off his face.

“I crashed the BMW.”


“I hit an SUV.”

“The Beamer, is it bad?” Edgardo’s voice rose in spite of his efforts to keep it under control.

“Maybe you should take a look.” I held out the keys.

He took them and went out the door.

After a few minutes he came back and yelled, “Jesus Christ, Maggie, you totaled my car.”

“The insurance will cover it.”

“No, it’s a total loss, believe me. You have no idea how I loved that car.” He sat down and cradled his head in his hands.

“Whatever the insurance won’t cover, you can take out of the divorce settlement,” I told him.

Edgardo just sat there staring at the ground

“You never asked me whether I’m hurt,” I said.

Edgardo lifted his head to stare at me. “Maggie, I’m so sorry. I’m not thinking straight. You look fine.”

“Appearances can be deceiving.”

“Sweetheart, tell me, are you okay?”

I massaged my neck with my hand. “Not really.” I said, blinking back the tears. Starting to cry again would mean collapsing into a heap of howling pain.

“What’s wrong?’ asked Edgardo. “Whiplash?”

Still fighting back tears, I forced myself to move my head from side to side, slowly and gingerly. “I don’t think so.”

“I’ll take you to the doctor.”

“That’s not going to help.”

“Maggie, are you sure you’re okay?”

I shook my head.

“For God’s sake, tell me what’s wrong.”

“Internal injuries.”

He looked at me.

I stared back.

Edgardo’s smile died before it was born.

Previously published in POUI: Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writting (No. XII December 2011)

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