top of page

A Great Foursome

by Barbara Southard

“I’ll bring him to the party,” Elena told her brother Rafael over the phone. “You’ll like him.”

“Hey, this sounds serious. Is he the one?”

“Hope so.”

“Hmmm. I’m gonna have to look him over carefully. What’s the guy’s name? Joel Rodríguez?”

“Yeah, but Rafa, he hates to be called Jo-el. He pronounces it the English way, one syllable, Joel.”

“Okay. The dude’s determined to fit in, swim with the sharks in the good ole American melting pot.”

“I don’t know about that, but he is sensitive about it.”


Elena came from a closely knit family in Puerto Rico, with lots of uncles, aunts and cousins. She and Rafa, the only members of the Ramos clan in Miami, had become closer after her father’s unexpected death of a heart attack, and she wanted her brother to get along with her boyfriend.

Also of Puerto Rican heritage, Joel had few ties to the island or to extended family. Born and brought up in Orlando, he was the only child of a single mother who had fled an abusive relationship in Puerto Rico and resented her own family’s lack of support. Joel understood Spanish, but spoke very little, because his mother had pushed English, determined to give her only son the tools to make it stateside.

While driving over to the party at Rafa’s house, Joel asked questions about her family. Elena explained that she and her brother had been close as kids, but once adolescence hit, he moved with a faster crowd.

“You grew apart?”

“Let’s just say we had different interests.”

“Who was the favorite?”

“My parents loved us equally,” said Elena.

“Come off it, baby. Did you read that article in Time mag? Most parents are lying through their teeth when they claim to love their kids equally.”

Elena didn’t answer. Ordinarily she loved the way Joel kept abreast of the news and read widely about everything from physics to psychology, but now he was using his savvy as a wedge to pry open a door she didn’t want to enter.

“So, who was it?” he insisted. “You or Rafa?”

“With Papi it was always Rafa.”

Elena had cried herself to sleep after winning the English spelling bee for all Puerto Rico, because her father made a bigger deal about Rafa making the school soccer team.

“According to the article,” said Joel, “the less favored child often compensates by becoming an achiever.”

Elena shrugged. “Rafa’s equally bright but I studied harder.”

“Don’t sell yourself short. Hey, you graduated from the Columbia School of Social Work.”

“Did the article say anything about only children?” asked Elena, anxious to take the spotlight off her own family dynamic.

“Only kids can go either way. Some never adjust to life outside the family cocoon, but others are driven to succeed in order to continue to be a superstar in the outside world. Yours truly chose the second path.”

Elena frowned. Joel had been full of himself after graduating from law school, landing a position in Feldstein and Flores, and passing the Florida Bar on the first try.

“Modesty doesn’t seem to be a characteristic of the only child,” she said.

Joel laughed. “Damn right. Modesty never got anyone very far.”

“Oops,” said Elena. “We missed the turn.”

Joel doubled back, and drove past a large neon sign with amber lights blinking in broad daylight that said Hialeah Executive Phantasy Hotel, before turning into a side street with three story walk ups that looked run down. Garbage pails were overflowing, and the three teenagers on the stoop of Rafa’s walk-up didn’t bother to move over to let them by.

Once the lobby door closed behind them, Joel said Rafa could have chosen a better neighborhood. Elena explained that her brother was trying to save money.

“Rafa sings with a band and also makes money as a DJ. He’s had some good gigs lately, but it’s not a steady income. It’s been rough for him since Papi died.”

“Yeah, it can be tough having your allowance cut off,” said Joel, as they started up the stairs.

Elena didn’t like the belittling tone of this last remark. “Papi was always willing to help us kids realize our dreams. He put me through grad school.”

“Lucky you,” said Joel with a grin.

Elena knew Joel had to make his own way with scholarships and loans, but she wished he would cut out the snide remarks belittling her father’s sacrifices.

When they reached the third floor landing, music was blasting. Joel mimed a few dance steps on his way to the door. Rafa opened it and welcomed them both with open arms.

To Elena’s relief the guys hit it off. They got into a long discussion about what music was in for young adults in the Miami club scene, and then moved on to the topic of how to dress and talk to get past the guy at the door at the hottest spots. Elena was surprised, because Joel had agreed with her when she expressed a dislike of high flyer Miami glitz. But Joel’s knowledge of that scene was not entirely unexpected. He was the kind of guy who knew everything about anything. As always, Joel impressed her with his easy way with people. He steered Elena around the room, talking to one couple and then another, mostly Latinos, with a sprinkling of Anglos and Blacks.

A few days later Elena drove her car over to her brother’s place to see whether she could change the brake pads for less than the $225 the Toyota guys had demanded. Rafa hopped in and directed her to a mechanic who was a friend of his. The guy said he would do it for $160. The garage had a small waiting room with a couple of plastic chairs, and an industrial fan that re-circulated the hot air. Rafa got two coffees from the machine.

After taking a few sips, he said, “What I really need is strong Cuban coffee.”

“Long night?” asked Elena.

“Yeah. Made good money. By the way, Sis, are you and Joel serious?” he asked.

Elena flushed bright red. Joel had talked about marriage two days before, but they had decided not to announce the engagement, because he hadn’t saved up enough to buy a diamond. Elena hinted that they could go for a less expensive stone, but Joel wouldn’t hear of it. The real thing or nothing.

“Yeah. It’s serious,” she replied.

“What do you like most about the guy?” asked Rafa.

“He’s focused. Knows what he wants in life. I’ve gone out with so many drifters.”

“You mean guys like me.”

“No, Rafa, that’s not what I mean. You’re an artist. I’m talking about guys who have no idea what they want to do.”

Rafa nodded. They both remembered her boyfriend at the University of Puerto Rico. A real nice guy, but ten years later the dude was still living with mom, trying to figure out what to do with his life.

“You like a guy with ambition.”

“With a goal in life. Joel worked his ass off to get through law school. He loves being a trial lawyer, going after the drug dealers.”

“To tell you the truth, I was a bit worried he might be full of himself when you told me he got a law degree from Columbia, but he’s a down to earth guy. You’ve got the Rafa stamp of approval.”

“I’m glad you guys hit it off. Why don’t you join us tomorrow night? We’re going to this new sushi bar.”

Rafa said he would bring a date. He assured his sister that his new girl, Melissa, was nothing like the last one. Elena sure hoped not. Gillian had been a disaster, a waitress with a purple streak in her hair who did designer drugs.

Joel and Elena and another couple, Roberto and Natalie, were already about to order their second round of Sapporo beers when Rafa made his entrance to Nakagama’s Sushi Bar with Melissa. She was a striking girl, full-figured with green eyes, light brown hair streaked blonde, and a swaying walk that attracted the attention of every man in the restaurant. Elena was glad to see that her clothes were casual chic, nothing bizarre like Gillian, and she was soft-spoken.

Midway through the evening, Joel offered a toast to Roberto who had been made junior partner at the firm.

“That’s quite an honor,” said Elena, lifting her glass.

“I like the money even more,” Roberto replied.

“Way to go,” said Joel, slapping his friend on the back. Then he leaned toward Rafa and Melissa, and said in a confidential tone. “We’re talking twenty-five grand more a year.”

“Rafa’s got good news, too,” said Melissa.

“Hey,” said Elena to her brother. “You’ve been keeping secrets. Tell us about it.”

“They hired me at Parrot’s Beak in South Beach,” said Rafa.

“A regular gig every Friday and Saturday night,” Melissa added.

“Wonderful,” said Elena.

“Is that where the Beautiful People go?” asked Joel. “They must be paying you a bundle.”

Rafa looked embarrassed. “You’re thinking of Parrot Jungle. Parrot’s Beak is new. They’ll give me a raise if I bring in the crowds.”

“Well, to Rafa’s future raise then,” said Joel.

On the drive home, Elena wondered if her brother had felt uncomfortable with the lawyer duo showing off. If so, he had concealed his feelings well, keeping up a lively banter all evening.

Joel’s mind was on other things. “That girl with Rafa, looks Anglo, but the way she talks…”

“Melissa Cuevas. She’s Cuban,” said Elena. “Sweet girl.”

“She’s a looker, too,” Joel replied. “Of course, I prefer brunettes with long legs, but for a blonde on the chubby side, she’s not bad.”

Elena smiled at this. It was a backhanded compliment, because she was tall and slender, with olive skin and dark, curly hair. “Most men would consider Melissa voluptuous not chubby.”

Joel shrugged. “She’ll look like a fat cow in ten years. But to each his own. Where did Rafa meet this chick?”

“In a club. Rafa never had a problem attracting women.”

“Yeah, he’s a good looking dude, but let’s hope Parrot’s Beak works out for him. If a guy’s not making more than 50 grand a year it can be hard to hold a woman. It’s not like in high school when looks and charm were enough.”

“Melissa seemed to have her feet on the ground, unlike some of the crazy girlfriends he’s had.”

“But not all that bright. Didn’t even know Afghanistan borders Pakistan.”

“Maybe she’s not all that interested in politics.”

“Give me a girl who’s a looker and well-informed. Keeps things from getting dull, sweetheart.”

The next week Joel took Elena on a boat cruise and formally proposed. The solitaire was larger than she had expected, and more expensive than they could afford, but she didn’t spoil the moment by saying so.

Elena knew her mother had almost given up hope once she turned thirty the year before. When she called home that very night, the good news was greeted with a squeal of joy. The information that Joel was a lawyer of Puerto Rican heritage, employed by a prestigious firm, was icing on the cake.

Once they were engaged, Joel pointed out that it was silly for each of them to keep paying over nine hundred a month for small apartments built as annexes to houses near Coral Gables, if they could rent a two bedroom townhouse for the same money in Doral. Sure, they would both have a longer commute, but Doral was the in place for rising young professionals in Miami, complete with gym and swimming pool. Before he put a ring on her finger, Elena had refused to cohabit, but now that they were officially engaged it seemed the logical next step. Since Joel had used up his savings to buy the ring, Elena had to drain her bank account to pay a month’s deposit plus the last month’s rent.

The townhouse they rented had a driveway in front that bordered their own strip of lawn on the left and the neighbor’s lawn on the right. Beyond the driveway was a white wooden gate, with paint peeling off, that opened onto the tile walkway leading to the front door.

They moved in on a Saturday. While Elena was busy inside unpacking boxes, Joel talked to the neighbor on the right and reported that he was a white-haired Anglo, probably retired, a Mr. Bob Godwin. Across from them was a young Latino couple with two young kids. “They’ve made it big here in Miami,” Joel told her. “Import-export business. Must be Venezuelan, judging from the way the husband ranted on about how Chávez is ruining the country.”

The next day was Sunday. Exhausted from the move, Elena slept late. When she came downstairs Joel’s car was gone. Half an hour later, he returned with a Home Depot bag containing a scraper, white paint, a brush and a mini roller.

“I can’t stand the shabby look of the front gate,” he said.

“Don’t you think we should ask the landlord first?” said Elena.

“We’re not changing the color,” said Joel. “Why should he object if we improve the property?”

Joel scraped off the old paint diligently, and Elena swept the debris off the tile. While he was applying a new coat, he nodded to her Toyota Corolla, which had seen better days.

“Looks kinda out of place, doesn’t it?”

Elena took in the Lexus in front of the Venezuelan couple’s home and Godwin’s Mercedes Benz next door.

“We’re just starting out.”

“And doing just fine,” he replied with a grin. “Hey, we’ve got to plan our housewarming party.”

Once the brush and roller were rinsed and put away, they sat down at the kitchen table to plan the menu and make a shopping list for next Saturday’s party. Joel called Rafa to see when he could help make the music mix to be played on the iPod sound dock.

On the day of the party Joel woke up in a bad mood. When he checked the refrigerator in the morning, he complained that Elena’s choices at Costco were too ordinary. Couldn’t she have thought of something better than chicken wings, potato salad and a cheese platter? What about the special spicy meatballs and crab dip? Something classy.

“I got chicken wings, because lots of our friends don’t eat red meat,” Elena defended herself. “You don’t have to bark at me.”

“Sorry, sweetie. Rafa messed everything up. I kept asking him to do the music stuff with me, and he kept putting me off until Friday night, so I couldn’t go with you to Costco.”

Elena sighed. “Rafa’s like that some times,” she said. “Has a hard time getting organized.”

Joel shrugged. “Someone should tell him to get his act together.”

“We all have our faults,” said Elena, and clamped her lips together to resist the impulse to say something about people who are hypercritical of others.

“I left the iPod with him, so he could add a few more things,” said Joel. “Hope he remembers to bring it.”

They had about twenty people over for the party. At eight o’clock Rafa still hadn’t arrived. Elena phoned. Melissa picked up his cell, and assured her they were only ten minutes away. To Elena’s relief, she confirmed that Rafa hadn’t forgotten the all-important iPod.

Rafa and Melissa came into the kitchen where Elena was heating up more appetizers and greeted her warmly with kisses on the cheek.

“We couldn’t find any visitor parking, so Rafa parked next to your Toyota,” said Melissa.

“But not on the grass?” asked Elena.

“Never fear, I squeezed my car in to the right of yours,” said Rafa.

The appetizers disappeared quickly while drinks and conversation flowed. As the night wore on, the guests moved out to the back patio and started to dance. At ten o’clock one of Joel’s buddies, Randy, who’d been with him at law school, called for a toast. He raised a bottle of champagne and pointed to the waning moon emerging from a cloud in full glory, and said that this was a perfect night to announce the engagement of a couple made for each other.

After draining his glass, Randy came over to Joel and Elena and asked whether they could introduce him to the super cute blonde. Elena hesitated.

“He’s talking about Melissa,” said Joel.

“Yeah, she’s a knockout. Can you introduce me?”

“That’s Elena’s brother’s girlfriend,” said Joel.

“Forget I said anything,” said Randy, backing off.

Someone turned up the music. The dancing got more frenzied. A few salsa numbers came on and Rafa expertly twirled Melissa as the beat got faster. All eyes were on their performance. Joel declined when Elena invited him to dance, shaking his head as though to say there was no way to compete with the show her brother and Melissa put on. But later, while Elena was dancing with Rafa, Joel accepted Melissa’s invitation to teach him the basic salsa step. Out of the corner of her eye, Elena could see he was making progress. Later, when Randy cut in to dance with Melissa, Joel returned to his fiancée.

“Melissa’s a great dancer,” said Elena.

“Yeah. She got me into the rhythm,” said Joel.

Elena remembered that her fiancé had never expressed any interest in learning salsa when she offered to teach him, but all she said was, “Yeah, you’ve got the hang of it now.”

Joel suggested to Elena that they sit the next one out. They watched Melissa and Rafa give another stellar performance.

“All the guys think your brother is a lucky man,” said Joel.

Elena knew Joel and his buddies weren’t thinking about the qualities she liked in Melissa, the girl’s sweet way of talking, and her firm position against drugs. Elena worked in anti-addiction services at the Miami Dade Health Department, and she was well aware of the role of drugs in the music scene.

“Melissa’s good for him,” she told Joel. “My brother is really good to her, too.”

Rafa and Melissa left about half an hour later to attend another party. Elena was nuzzling with Joel in a slow dance when the doorbell rang.

Elena lifted her head. “Who could that be?”

Joel followed her to the door. It was Bob Godwin, the neighbor. Joel shook hands and asked whether the music was too loud.

“Yeah, it’s late.”

“We’ll turn it down,” said Joel.

Bob thanked him, but said that wasn’t the reason he had come over. “We’re all friends here, all the neighbors, and we watch out for each other,” he told Joel.

“That’s the way it should be,” said Elena.

Bob gave her a tight smile, and then fastened his eyes once more on Joel. “You’re new here, and we’re hoping you will fit in with this neighborhood.”

There was a short silence.

“Let me show you something,” Bob added, turning on his heel. Joel and Elena followed him. There was a muddy rut on the grass to the right of their driveway, protruding onto Mr. Godwin’s front lawn, obviously the imprint of the right wheels of Rafa’s car.

Joel apologized profusely, and assured Bob that he would make sure nothing like that ever happened again.

After Godwin left, they returned to the party. Elena could tell that her fiancé was upset, but he kept up a cheery front until the last guest left. Then he turned to her and demanded Rafa’s phone number.

“It’s almost 2AM,” said Elena. “Let’s call him tomorrow.”

“Elena, let me deal with this.”

“It’s just that you’ve had a lot to drink, and…”

“Just give me the fuckin’ number.”

He dialed, but Rafa didn’t pick up. Joel was livid with rage. That fuckin’ asshole Rafa had left their engagement party to go to some music event in South Beach. The goddamn prick disrespected his own sister. And then shamed them both in front of the neighbor.

“How in hell are we going to show our faces? If we hadn’t signed the goddamn lease, I’d move out tomorrow.”

As far as Joel was concerned, Rafa was persona non grata. The next day he was going to tell the security gate people to take him off the list of approved visitors.

Elena was crushed by the level of his fury. Sure, Rafa should have been more careful where he put the car, but it was hardly a capital crime. And her brother had stayed at the party until midnight. Probably Rafa needed to meet some important musical contacts in South Beach.

Joel told her to stop making excuses for the inexcusable. What was fucking wrong with her family was that they all coddled her brother. That’s why he was still fooling around pretending to have a music career, and going nowhere fast.

“Do your brother a favor and demand that he be responsible,” he barked. “If you want to let him get away with everything, go ahead, but let me tell you one thing right now, he’s not going to treat me with disrespect in my own house. And he’s not going to treat my future wife with disrespect. No way.”

It was their first serious argument. Elena was unable to fall asleep until almost dawn. When she awoke, Joel was nowhere to be seen. She got up, made herself a cup of coffee and sat on a stool in the kitchen, nursing the hot liquid and her worry that Joel was headed for Rafa’s place.

“Dear God, don’t let them get into a fist fight.”

She tried dialing both men, but neither picked up. Finally, Rafa’s sleep-drugged voice came over the phone.

“Hi, Sis. Whassup?”

“Rafa, this is serious. Are you awake?”

She told him about the encounter with Bob Godwin, and Joel’s fury, and then asked him to apologize to avoid stoking the fire of Joel’s anger. Rafa was disbelieving.

“Elena, I don’t think my car made a rut, really I don’t.”

“You were the only one who didn’t use visitor parking. Don’t try to weasel out of it.”

“Okay, so maybe it was my fault. But why is it such a big fuckin’ deal?”

“I don’t know,” said Elena. “But he went ballistic about it.”

“I get it,” said Rafa. “Joel is worried about what that stupid Anglo thinks about him. That’s the real issue. Impressing the gringos in your upscale neighborhood.”

“Oye, Rafa. This is the man I’m going to marry. I want you two to get along. Just apologize, and he’ll calm down. Por favor, do this for me.”

“Okay, I hear yuh, Sis. Not to worry. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

About an hour and a half later, Joel appeared. She gave him a cup of coffee and a bagel. He ate and drank in silence, while she dried the dishes in the drainer, just to have something to do. After drinking the last drop of coffee, Joel told her Rafa had apologized. In fact, her brother had been really good about it, accepting the blame, promising to be more careful and responsible in the future.

“Rafa’s really happy about our engagement,” said Joel. “He thinks we’re made for each other. Listen, I’m sorry that I said all those things about your brother. He has his faults, but he’s really a great guy with a big heart.”

Elena began to cry. Joel held her close and apologized for his behavior. Later in the day he told her not to bother to be super friendly with that goddamn Anglo. Sure, they would be polite, but Bob Godwin was a fuckin’ busybody who thought he owned the neighborhood. They could do without stuck up pricks like him.

Joel dropped whatever reservations he had about her brother, and the two guys got along just fine. He even told Elena, “Sweetheart, your brother is my brother.” Melissa had moved in with Rafa and the two couples became a foursome, going out together every weekend. During the week, Rafa and Melissa often stopped by after work. The foursome met less frequently at Rafa’s place, because Joel was reluctant to take Elena to what he considered a low class neighborhood.

One evening when they were alone, Joel asked Elena whether Melissa was a college graduate.

“She has a two year degree from Miami Dade Community College.”

“There’s an opening for a receptionist at my firm. It would be pay better than her waitress job, and they could move into an apartment in a better neighborhood.”

“But isn’t secretarial work for law firms highly specialized?”

“This isn’t a secretarial position. The previous receptionist that left was a looker with a super friendly manner. Melissa fits the bill.”

“Being pretty is such a sexist job requirement. Even flight attendants are hired for their skills nowadays.”

“Maybe. But, hey, babe, with only a two year degree, Melissa doesn’t have all that many options, does she? I’m just trying to help your brother and his girl out.”

Elena said she’d call Rafa in the evening.

Melissa interviewed the next day and got the job. After a couple of weeks on the job her old Ford gave out. Rafa took it to two different garages and the lowest estimate he got was $2,500, about $500 more than the car was worth.

Rafa told his sister that he had priced several used cars, but even after pooling their savings, the two of them couldn’t come up with the down payment. He had taken on a part time data processing job about a month ago to make ends meet. He could pick up Melissa from the law firm in the afternoon, but they would have to accept Joel’s offer to drive her in the morning.

Elena sensed that her brother was ashamed to have to rely on his future brother-in-law to take his girlfriend to her job. When she mentioned this concern to Joel, he got huffy about doing a favor for someone who doesn’t even appreciate it. Elena dropped the subject. There was no use explaining further, because her fiancé would never understand that Rafa’s macho pride was as easily hurt at his own. When Melissa’s mom helped her buy a used car a couple of weeks later, Elena breathed a sigh of relief.

Soon afterwards, Joel received an invitation to the wedding of a law classmate named Bill Scavone who had landed a job with a big firm in New York. They decided to drive rather than fly to save money.

The bride was from Chatham, New Jersey, and the wedding was held nearby at an old country estate with lovely gardens rented out for festive occasions. Joel instructed Elena to observe everything carefully in order to know what to do and not to do at their own wedding. On the drive back, they went over the list of positives and negatives. The flower decorations were perfect, but the champagne served was too cheap to go with such a splendid wedding.

“Bill’s wedding must have cost over twenty-five thousand,” said Elena.

“Whatcha mean? More like 50 grand.”

“We’ll never be ever to afford anything like that. Maybe we should just get married by a justice of the peace. Of course, Mami will be destroyed.”

Joel sighed. “How much do you think your mom can fork out for our wedding?”

Elena didn’t know what to say. She would have preferred not to ask her mother for a cent. Her father had been very successful as general manager of Yum Foods in Puerto Rico, supervising Kentucky Fried, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants, but her mother had struggled since his death.

“I’ll ask her. But Papi had huge debts, and my understanding is that almost all his assets had to be sold.”

“What about the house?”

Elena felt a pang. The house was her mother’s pride and joy, four bedrooms in the exclusive Caparra area, and a beautiful garden, much of which her mother tended herself. Tears came to her eyes. They were talking about the house she grew up in.

“I’m not going to ask my mother to sell the house.”

“But she can’t manage it. Imagine the monthly costs for gardeners and household help. And you yourself said it’s not safe for a woman alone. She could buy an apartment in a building with a 24 hour guard, you would sleep better at night, and your mom would have lots of money left over. Why not ask her to sell it?”

“Because it’s her home, and she loves it, and I love her, that’s why not,” Elena snapped.

“OK. OK. I get it.”

“No. You just think you get it, but you don’t. I won’t get married if it means forcing my mother out of her house. Now, do you get it? No way!”

Joel did a quick about face, assuring her they would find another way to finance the wedding.

Elena sat still. She looked away from him out the window at the farm country passing by, and cried silently. The fields of corn and the silos in the Pennsylvania countryside were picturesque, but the sky was overcast, and she was suddenly homesick for the deep green of plantain leaves under a bright blue tropical sky.

“Sweetheart, I’m sorry,” said Joel.

Elena kept her face averted. If he says another word, she thought to herself, I’ll ask him to stop the car and let me out. But Joel maintained a discreet silence for the next fifty miles, until he pulled off at a rest stop and asked whether she needed to use the lady’s room.

In the next couple of weeks, Joel avoided the issue of wedding finances, allowing Elena’s resentment to cool. When he did broach the subject, it was to inform her that the 25% owner discount on the reception rooms at the clubhouse of Doral complex would apply to them as tenants. The most attractive reception room, which opened on to a patio and garden, was too expensive, but they might be able to afford a smaller room, which had a window overlooking the artificial lake at the start of the golf course. By this time, Elena’s mother had volunteered the information that her late husband had set aside about ten thousand dollars in a special account for his daughter’s wedding.

Elena and Joel spent the next few days feverishly getting estimates from caterers and decorators. Joel put the figures together.

“I think we can get by with 20 grand. We’ll have to borrow 10 grand.”

“But we haven’t included the cost of the wedding dress, the rings, the drinks, and…”

“Surely your mom will pay for the dress.”

“Yeah, I guess so, but still we are going to be up to our necks in debt.”

Joel pooh-poohed her worries, and started making lists of guests, carefully calculating how many people could be invited without sending the costs skyrocketing. Every decision to cut down the guest list, go for cheaper decorations, or a more modest cake, was agonizing for him, as though termites were gnawing away at the foundations of the ideal wedding, reducing his dream to dust.

As the wedding approached, he lashed out at Elena for being too tight with money. If it weren’t for her, he would have rented the larger of the two reception rooms. Now, the guests were going to be squeezed and uncomfortable. They were probably underestimating how much people would drink, and it was going to be a disaster when the liquor ran out. It was her fault they hadn’t hired a wedding planner.

During the trials of wedding planning Elena became closer to her brother’s girlfriend. Melissa had helped with her older sister’s wedding, and she was really good at hunting down the best-priced caterers and decorators. But most important, she had a soothing effect on Joel, reassuring him that she had checked liquor quantities with some girl she had gone to high school with, who supposedly was the assistant to Gloria Estefan’s niece’s wedding planner.

A week before the wedding, Joel began to cheer up. Most of his law school buddies had arrived in Miami and he spent all his free time with them, confiding to Elena that Randy, his best man, and the rest of the guys were planning a super bachelor party for him. Rafa would have to join them.

A few days before the bachelor party, Rafa called Elena, and said that Randy had contacted him for a three hundred dollar contribution.

“Are you serious?” said Elena. “What on earth are they going to spend three hundred dollars apiece on?”

“Well, you know how it is, exotic dancers and stuff. It adds up.They call L.A. the tinsel town, but I’d say the tinsel costs even more in Miami.”


“Most of them are hot shot lawyers, so I guess three hundred is nothing to them.”

“What did you tell Randy?”

“I didn’t answer right away, so the asshole tells me not to worry. One of the younger guys, some undergrad at the University of Miami is only paying one hundred.”

“So, it’s okay if you pay one hundred?”

“And let Randy laugh about it with his buddies? No way. I told him three hundred is no problem.”

“But it is a problem?”

“Yeah. Melissa and I have been saving up to give you a decent wedding present. I’m going to call Randy back, and give some excuse, tell him I can’t go.”

“Oh, Rafa, Joel will be so hurt if you don’t go.”

“I want to go, not that I’m dying to see Randy and that crowd, but, you know, it’s good to have someone from the bride’s family, just to be sure…”

“Yeah. How much can you afford?”

“A hundred.”

“Go then, I’ll get the other two hundred to you.”

“Are you sure, Sis? It doesn’t seem right when you have so many other expenses.”

Elena insisted. That night she told Joel his friends were being insensitive, planning a bachelor party that expensive. Not everyone could fork over that kind of dough.

Joel conceded she had a point. “I’ll call Randy and tell him your brother can’t pay that much.” He pulled out his cell.

“NO,” cried Elena. “Stop!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Forget it! I meant to tell Randy to change plans so the price would be reasonable for everyone. Promise me you won’t say a word to your friends about my brother. I’ll help Rafa out.”

“If you say so. But don’t complain later that I didn’t do anything.”

The next day, Elena went to the airport to pick up her mother, her uncle, aunt and five-year-old cousin, Maribel. In the whirlwind of preparations, and the pleasure of having her family around her, worries about the bachelor party receded to the back of Elena’s mind.

On the morning of the wedding, Elena let the decorator into the clubhouse at 9AM. The staff was just finishing cleaning the picture windows with giant squeegees. Through the sparkling glass you could see cumulus clouds drifting slowly across the still surface of the lake. With her mother’s help, Elena gave the last instructions to the caterer. By five o’clock everything was ready.

The ceremony went off without a hitch. Little Maribel, in a white dress with a blue sash, performed her task of strewing flowers on the red carpet very methodically, with a serious expression on her face, determined to get every detail just right. The bridesmaids looked lovely in pale blue and Elena could see the admiring glances fastened on her old fashioned lacey gown as she walked on the flower strewn carpet on the arm of her uncle. Joel said I do in a loud, firm voice.

Rafa gave the toast to the bride, expressing wonder that his little sister, who used to bribe him to take on the role of husband and father in her playhouse games, was now all grown up and starting a family of her own. Unlike her uncooperative childhood playmate, the man she had chosen for the role of husband in real life was perfect for her. After telling a couple of other childhood anecdotes, he congratulated the happy couple and said that their example had inspired him to propose to his girlfriend Melissa.

The guests cheered.

Elena and Joel smiled and drained their glasses, but once the toasts were over, he frowned and whispered, “Your brother’s already drunk.”

When the newly married pair finally reached home, they were dead beat. Elena’s back hurt from the weight of the wedding dress and her feet ached.

“I was so worried,” she said, as she emerged from the bathroom in a silk robe, “but everything was perfect. The food was excellent, the band was great, and people really got into the dancing. I’m so, so happy.”

Joel agreed that the caterer, the decorator, the bartenders and the band had all done a superb job. The wife of one of his co-workers had said it was the prettiest wedding she had ever seen.

They got into bed and held each other close, too tired for anything else. Just as Elena was drifting off to sleep, imagining her niece dancing through a whirlwind of flowers, Joel said, “The only thing that spoiled the wedding was your brother’s behavior.”

Elena jerked awake, trying to remember what her brother had done.


“It was our big day, and the jerk tried to steal the show.”

The only image that came to Elena was her brother hamming it up on the dance floor, doing break dance moves when the band varied their Latino sound with some rap and soul.

“Rafa couldn’t give a toast without turning the spotlight on himself. Wouldn’t let his sister be the star even on her wedding day.”

“I’m sure Rafa didn’t mean anything. It was just a spur of the moment comment about him and Melissa,” said Elena.

“Yeah, sure, to you Rafa is always innocent, but I know the game the son of the bitch is playing.”

Elena didn’t say anything. Just when everything seemed perfect, Joel had to take offense at some imagined slight. She didn’t feel Rafa was trying to take the spotlight away, so why was Joel up in arms? Now wide awake, she stared into the darkness for a long time, waiting for Joel’s breathing to become even. Finally, exhaustion overcame her, too.

The next morning, Elena was awakened from a dream about her home in Puerto Rico. The house had been repossessed by the bank and sold at auction to a couple who wanted to rebuild from scratch. Elena and her mother were sitting in the living room, crying, while they listened to the pounding of the demolition ball coming closer and closer. She opened her eyes, saw that it was already ten o’clock, and heard loud knocking on the front door. She crawled out of bed, went downstairs and peered through the peephole. It was Rafa, holding his cell phone in his hand.

She opened the door wide and gave him a hug. Rafa pecked her on the cheek but he had other things on his mind.

He held out the cell phone. “Look what that asshole wrote.”

“What asshole?”

“Your husband’s best man, that fuckin’ prick, Randy.”

Elena read the first line of texting out loud: “Forget it, man. U can’t hold a girl like Melissa. Out of ur class.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Elena. She had noticed Randy cutting in on her brother and Melissa during the wedding, and remembered Rafa glowering at him at the after party in South Beach.

She looked at the next few lines of texting.

Rafa: “Get anywhere near her and I’ll cut your dick off mother fucker.”

Randy: “Cowards talk big. U’ll need stitches when I’m thru with u. How much money did Elena give u for party?”

Rafa: “Leave my sister out of it, asshole.”

Randy: “Who pays ur rent? Ur mom or ur sister? Go fuck urself, loser.”

Elena handed the phone back. She didn’t need to read more. The best man at her wedding had guided a knife with unerring precision to the spot where it would hurt her brother most.

“I never liked Randy,” she said. “He’s so goddamn full of himself, but I never knew he could be that nasty.”

“They’re all like that. Everyone of Joel’s fuckin’ buddies,” Rafa yelled, his voice hoarse. “Now you know,” he added in a quieter tone, his eyes wet with tears.

Elena stood still, not knowing what to say.

“It all started at the bachelor party,” Rafa told her. “I never should have gone.”

“Tell me.”

“The asshole, I mean Randy, thinks he’s hot shit, but he’s an ugly son of a bitch and puts on this wise guy act women don’t like. Can’t get a girl, that’s his fuckin’ problem. So, you know, at the bachelor party, he’s making a big play for this chick called Geraldine…”

“One of the strippers?”

“Yeah. The only one worth looking at. Joel was egging him on.”

Elena shook her head. “He wouldn’t do that.”

“Don’t get worried, Sis. Joel wasn’t making a move on her himself.”

“So, what happened?”

Rafa wiped away a tear with the back of his hand and grinned. “Yours truly started telling jokes, complimenting her and stuff. You know me. Pretty soon the girl wouldn’t even look at Randy’s ugly face. Dude offered her money to go in the other room with him and she turned him down. Now don’t get me wrong. I was 100% faithful to Melissa, but I couldn’t resist messing things up for that stuck up bastard.”

Elena sighed. Now it was becoming clear. Randy had humiliated Rafa by insinuating that he didn’t have the money to pay out $300 for the bachelor party, and her brother got back by blocking Randy’s play for the exotic dancer.

“So that’s why he was making a move on Melissa? To get even?”

“Nah, he’s been eyeing her forever. All those lawyer dudes, Joel’s buddies, are jealous of me, because none of them have a girl as hot as Melissa. But my girl couldn’t give a shit about Randy. She complained to me that he turns her stomach, he’s such a creepy stuck up prick.”

“She’s right,” said Elena.

“And you know who else is a goddamn stuck up prick? Your husband.”

“Wait a minute,” said Elena. Her brother had stepped way over the line. “What’s this? Guilt by association? Joel didn’t write those texts, and I’m sure he didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“Then how did Randy know you helped me pay the goddamn $300 for the fuckin’ bachelor party? Come on, Elena, you know as well as I do that Joel told him and the two of them probably had a good laugh about it. Let me talk to him.”

Elena placed herself in the center of the doorway.

“Rafa, please, calm down. I just got married. You’re not going to pick a fight with my husband, for God’s sake. Let me handle this. I’ll tell Joel what happened, and I’m sure he’ll tell Randy off.”

Rafa eventually left, but not without letting his sister know that as far as he was concerned Joel and Randy were birds of a feather, and he could do without the whole frickin’ crowd of stuck up assholes.

As she closed the door behind her brother, Elena saw Joel coming down the stairs. “Who was that?” he demanded.

“Some salesman.”

Joel brushed past her and opened the door just in time to see Rafa’s car disappear around the bend.

“What was your brother doing here?”

Elena told him. The fight she had tried to head off between her brother and husband became a fight between man and wife. Joel maintained that Rafa had started the whole thing at the bachelor party, and only got what he deserved.

“And you know what, Elena, you’re the only one blind to Rafa’s game. He’s a goddamn lazy son of a bitch pretending to be a singer so your dad paid his bills, and now you and your mom help him. I have no idea what Melissa sees in him. She can do a whole lot better. The guy’s a loser.”

“Rafa is more talented than most successful singers. And he’s got the looks and the personality to be a heartthrob. How do you know he won’t be a success one day? And leave my father out of it. If Papi, may he rest in peace, wanted to help my brother, what’s it to you? What’s eating you? Are you jealous that Melissa is crazy about him?”

Joel reached out and grabbed her forearm. “Don’t insult me, baby.”

Elena pulled her arm away.

In a gentler tone, Joel said, “You need to wake up and face reality, sweetheart. Like Randy said, your brother is a goddamn loser.”

“This isn’t just about my brother,” said Elena. “It’s about you and me. You promised you wouldn’t tell Randy I helped Rafa pay the $300. But you betrayed me and went ahead and told him.”

“I did not.”

“I’m not dumb, Joel. That’s the only way Randy could have found out.”

“Are you calling me a liar?”

Elena hesitated. She had crossed a barrier.

“Joel, I know you didn’t do it intentionally to hurt Rafa. It probably slipped out in conversation without you realizing.”

They patched up the quarrel and went on their honeymoon weekend at a small guest house on the Keys. Elena told herself that Joel and Rafa had fought before. They were both hot headed and proud, but once they cooled off there was no reason not to expect they would make up once again.

The reconciliation Elena counted on never took place. She finally came to the conclusion that it was best to agree to disagree with her husband about her brother. About two months later, Rafa decided to return to Puerto Rico. Although she hated to admit it, Elena was relieved. She would miss Rafa, but it was awkward having her brother in the same city when her husband refused to have anything to do with him.

Elena went to lunch with her brother just before his departure. Rafa said their uncle Alfredo, the one who gave Elena away at the wedding, was offering him a job as a salesman and buyer for his men’s clothing store.

“You’ll be good at that,” said Elena. “Even when you go in for the grunge look, it’s a fashionable look.”

Rafa smiled. “Yeah. I guess it’s time to grow up and get a real job, and see if I can get ahead. It’s the only way I can marry Melissa.”

“Is she going with you?”

“In two months. Her job at Feldstein and Flores pays well and she wants to save up. Can you look after her, you know give her a call now and then?” asked Rafa.

“Sure thing,” said Elena. “She’s a great girl and I’m happy for you.”

After Rafa left, Elena called Melissa to have lunch. Melissa was very friendly over the phone, but said that there was a crisis at the firm and they were working right through lunchtime. She’d call Elena soon. Elena tried again after a couple of weeks. Melissa was courteous but distant.

The next time Elena phoned her brother, he complained that Melissa kept putting off coming to join him in San Juan.

Rafa came back to Miami for a long weekend, hoping to rekindle his romance. Elena picked him up at the airport, but didn’t see him again until he called from the airport. In tears, he told her it was all over. Melissa had broken it off. He had tried to get her tell him who the other man was, but she insisted there was no one. All she said was, “It just won’t work, Rafa.”

Elena wondered whether she should tell Joel about the break up. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of being right about a guy like Rafa not being able to hold a girl like Melissa, the kind of golden girl on a man’s arm that ensures admittance to the most exclusive night spots in Miami. On the other hand, Joel worked at the same firm and he might know whether there was a new man in her life.

When she finally told Joel about the break up, he didn’t say much. Elena gave him credit for having the decency not to crow in spite of his dislike for her brother. Maybe there was hope they wouldn’t hate each other forever.

“Do you think Melissa’s seeing someone else?” she asked.

Joel shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. We work on different floors.”

“Maybe Randy finally got lucky,” said Elena, keeping her voice neutral, trying to draw her husband out.

“Don’t think so,” said Joel. “Randy got a super offer from a firm in New York a week after our wedding. But a girl like her won’t be single long.”

Elena wasn’t sure that the break up with Melissa was necessarily a bad thing for her brother. Now that he had decided his music dream was unrealistic, maybe what he needed was to concentrate on building an entirely different career. She called her mother and asked how Rafa was doing.

“There’s bad news and good, but more good than bad.”

“Tell me the bad part first.”

“He cried a lot, but the good news is that he’s pulling out of it, and doing well in his new job. He was born with fashion sense and he’s bringing in a younger crowd.”

“I’m so glad,” said Elena. “Papi would have been so happy.”

“Have faith,” said her mother. “Your father knows.”

“I have good news, too, Mami.”

“Oh, Elena, it can’t be what I think it is.” “Mami, you’re going to be a grandmother.”

“Oh my God, I’m so happy. If only your father were still with us. The day you got your degree from Columbia University was one of the happiest of his life. He was so proud. And now this. Our little girl is going to be a mother. Joel will be a good father, just like Papi. Do you know whether it’s a boy or a girl?”

“Not yet. I go for the sonogram next week.”

Wanting to give her husband a surprise, Elena didn’t tell him about the sonogram appointment. She asked for the whole day off. If she finished the sonogram early, there would be time to go shopping, take a look at baby clothes. By noon, the results were ready, and the technician told her everything looked great. It was a boy. She called Joel, but he didn’t pick up, so she left a message, asking him to call her as soon as possible.

After leaving the lab, Elena got into midday traffic and decided she was too tired to go to the Dolphin Mall. What she really needed was a good nap. She arrived home at about one, unlocked the door and kicked off her heels, thinking about the luxury of curling up with a book until she dozed off.

A sound, soft and high-pitched, like a kitten crying, made Elena stop at the foot of the stairs. She walked through the living room toward the back patio to look. There was only the barbecue and two empty lounge chairs where she and Joel usually sat while he had a drink before dinner. She shrugged, and started back toward the stairs, listening, but the only sound was a car passing. Halfway up, the mewing started up again, first low pitched and then shrill. A sharp pain in her abdomen made Elena stop short. She closed her eyes and waited until the pain subsided, gripping the railing as she hauled herself up the final steps.

The bedroom door was closed.

Even before opening it, Elena knew. She didn’t need to see the arched back, or the full breasts half hidden by golden hair, swinging to and fro over Joel’s naked chest, keeping time with the rhythm of the cries.


Search By Tags
Recent Posts
bottom of page