The phone rang a second time in less than a minute. The insistent ringing shattered José’s light reverie and woke him up for good this time. He was not going to sleep late that day. In any case, the sun was already beaming, warming the still Dominican Republic air. He’d gone to his homeland, four hours away from Virginia by plane, for two weeks to visit his elderly mother.
“Good morning José. How are you?”
It was one of the kids, and she breathed heavily into the phone. It was nine; Esma had no qualms about calling early. She must have thought, he was awake. Anyway, staying in bed past 7 am wasn’t like him.
“I’m well, thank you. You? Why are you calling?”
“We’ve missed you. You’re coming back in two days, right?”
José frowned and scratched his head. What were his step-children up to? “Yeah, that’s right. What can I do for you, Esma?”
“There’s a house I showed Mom online. I want you to see it too and promise that the day after you return we can all go and see it. There is an open house. Promise?”
“Okay, we shall. What’s really going on?”
14-year-old Esma and, her little sister, 10-year-old Ayse, were José’s wife’s children from a previous marriage. Bright girls, that behaved like princesses and preferred to be called BRATs—Beautiful Rich American Turks. Bratty as they were, more than anyone realized, he considered them his girls too. José adored them.
“Nothing. I really can’t wait for you to see it. That’s all. See you in two days then. Bye, José.”
There was nothing José would not do for her. Precious as she was, Esma had no business disturbing him like this. Yet, they had an affinity for each other.
José rolled his shoulders and climbed out of bed. He thought it strange. She’d never interrupted his vacation before. And for what? A trivial promise! Why did his wife, Emel, allow the international call? Something was up! Sure, they would all go and see some random house?
He shook his head. Whatever was up, he knew his wife was more than likely behind it. José pressed his palms into his eyes and then ran his fingers through his hair. He had wanted to get away from it all. Unhappy at work, disgusted with his professional situation because of a superior he found toxic, he’d come up with the perfect excuse to get away. He needed time off to take care of his aging mother. The thought of her, past age seventy, living alone far from close relatives, without the benefit of good health, was a major source of irritation.
José worried about Esmeralda, his valiant mother. Ensanche Naco, in the capital, Santo Domingo, his hometown, was a very upscale and cosmopolitan neighborhood. Over the last decade, it had undergone a radical transformation. High-rise residential and office buildings had sprouted at a rate so alarming the sudden elevation in population density caused unprecedented traffic congestion. José had barely recognized the place.
Before the 1990s, the upper-middle-class neighborhood had consisted of low-rise buildings and large family homes. Esmeralda’s house was now too big for one person. José remembered, in better days, seven people had lived there: her husband, herself, their three children and a gardener/handyman, and finally his wife, the maid, who also cooked for the family. But now Esmeralda could no longer take care of it, or pay someone to do it.
It remained a large house but had lost its purpose. The mansion no longer felt like a home. It even sounded different: mostly quiet, except for the crackling noises the wood made and the murmur of the wind against the windows. Three of the six bedrooms in the back remained locked at all times, out of sight and out of mind, creating all kinds of concerns over potential break-ins. Some stranger could be sleeping in the mansion and his mother would be none the wiser.
José knew that a considerable number of city residents lived in abject poverty, much too close for comfort, in neighborhoods a stone throw away. Neglected by her progeny long before her husband’s passing, in a country that lacked a national retirement and a healthcare system, for immediate assistance Esmeralda relied on a host of distant relatives and younger cousins. José knew that, for the most part, all of them hoped for a piece of her inheritance.
José’s older sister had long ago moved with her husband to New York City. The younger one had settled in Chicago, and he’d made roots in Virginia. Esmeralda remained in good spirit, yet he could not forgive himself; he felt guilty for leaving her behind. He’d moved too far up north in search of opportunity; exactly what she had encouraged them to do when he was a teenager.
At her insistence, they, José and his sisters, had agreed not to return and settle to an island that could not support their big dreams. He now regretted agreeing to this. The island looked vibrant. Economic growth had returned bringing riches to more professionals, not just to a handful of musicians and celebrity baseball players. The warmth outside did not compare to the oppressive July heat in Virginia.
José felt home here. No, he was home.
The morning of Esma’s call, he went to the beach and swam a few laps, a welcome break from a busy week sorting, with a practiced eye, his mother’s affairs. He had spent the last week poring over taxes, bank notices and contractual agreements. He helped her with the bureaucratic hassle much like his father had done before him for fifty years. The ownership of sugar cane plantations in the western part of the country inherited from her father generated much red tape. Rumor had it, scores of Haitian obradoras routinely lost their lives there, eaten whole by the discriminating fields.
After the swimming, he walked over to his favorite eat-out joint on the beach and gulped a delicious lunch of spicy pescado frito, red snapper with red beans and rice, and a side of plantain. Satisfied, craving no more, he brought a plate home for Esmeralda. He loved his native food. It sang in his mouth, and filled him in a way American food never could. His soul craved it. Nothing in Virginia could rival with home. A native land feels sacred. In his mind, Virginia stood for order and the rule of law, while the DR, for passion and sensuality. These two hardly ever mixed.
He missed it all, especially the food; the fish, the tasty asopao, the seasoned meat, and the shellfish. He binged on Batata fritas, liqueur, Mamajuana, and freshly pressed tropical juices. In two short weeks, José would put on a few pounds of happy.
Finally, all was in order. The day before he flew back to America, he consented to do one last thing for his mother. She was a good Catholic. A tradition she insisted on keeping whenever her son came for a visit; he would accompany her to the “dump”. It was a way, as good as any, for them to stay grounded, and to give thanks and praise to a merciful God who had blessed and kept the family safe through uncertain times.
Many families had not been as lucky as José’s family. For many, the Dominican Republic was a tropical piece of hell. Illiterate bottom feeders, many people only a notch above “gusanos,” worms, faced extreme hardship. They made their living off of the large landfill where the city trash disappeared. José remembered people digging through piles upon piles of discarded items in search of anything worth recycling and selling.
Despite the stench, they hardly ever left the dump for fear someone would rob them of the bounty. Businesses came to them and paid for the most useful and salvageable finds. So did sinners looking for absolution, eager to assuage their conscience by delivering food and water to people in greater need. The night before, Esmeralda and José with the help of a few cousins loaded batches of bottled water and canned goods onto Toyota pickup trucks and brought them to the ‘dump’.
“All will be better now,” said Esmeralda.
Humbled, later that night, José had the best sleep he’d had in a while. The next morning, a flight took him back to the life he had made in Virginia. The trip back home lasted less than five hours. By two in the afternoon, he’d already stashed away his suitcase in a closet. In two days he would be returning to the office. His relationship with the deputy turned sour and trouble started once management found out about his office romance with Emel. José felt crushed and collapsed on the bed trying not to think about it.
José had met Emel at work, in the deputy chief’s office. If one paid close attention, this much was obvious, Emel herself could barely stand the surly man or the office. She wore her emotions on her sleeves. With such an expressive face, José surmised, she was not much of a politician. Like most staff, she found it hard to maintain a poker face. Always of a mind to punish someone, Waldo never uttered a word of appreciation, nor did he trust his charges to do what is right. He looked for flaws in everything anyone did or said.
Uneasy around the old man, Emel felt that he very much wanted to get her in trouble at the first opportunity and keep her confined to a life of dissatisfaction at work. Over the littlest thing, Waldo was constantly on her case, as if he intended to make her life miserable and have her quit. She was new to the job and had no history with the company. “What was the real issue? Was he trying to show her who’s boss? Something was the matter with this man!” Emel was everything anyone would want for an employee; competent, bright, pleasant and attractive. “That’s it! Maybe Waldo secretly fancied her? She must’ve stopped or discouraged his not so subtle advances.”
When José first showed up in the office of the new chief of the IT Training Branch, an athletic and charismatic fellow, it was to negotiate the hand-off of a series of courses in need of a new host. The chief was energetic, alert, and young. In a corner of the large office, witnessing the pitch sat Waldo, the deputy chief, a sullen character withdrawn into an uncomfortable chair attempting to suppress a snarl.
Five minutes into the pitch — a hastily prepared presentation of the benefits students derived from the courses José had designed and delivered — the chief interrupted to extend a generous job offer on the spot. It befuddled José. He had not sought a position, merely a new host for the courses he was giving away. Without one, his efforts would have gone to waste. He promised, however, to consider the job offer.
The first time he met him, José could see that Waldo’s demeanor betrayed an inner tension. He’d remained withdrawn, aloof, almost timid. He sensed an uneasiness whenever he approached the man. Was it personal? Waldo’s closed off attitude affected everyone around him. Did he resent him too? Barely perceptible hints betrayed how much he resented his younger superior, the chief of the IT Training Branch. Why the attitude?
Waldo had coveted the position someone in headquarters had led him to believe would naturally fall into his lap, only to see it go to a bolder candidate half his age. He’d suffered what he saw as a humiliation! By keeping silent, save for a few twitches, while everyone in his vicinity sensed it, he faked it and managed to mostly hide his growing frustration. He would remain the deputy for the time being. To survive the office, he sported a good-natured grandfatherly persona, yet succeeded in fooling only a few people. His frustration turned into a subdued rage which in the course of eight months prompted him to come up with no fewer than a couple of dozen excuses to justify repeated absences.
The two secretaries who fielded his calls grew a nose for Waldo’s next absence and excuse, which became legendary.
“We’ve been competing to see who collects the lamest excuse from the deputy.” Said the oldest. To which the youngest responded:
“I’m pretty sure I’m winning. On two occasions, he used the excuse “I hurt my back yesterday trying to get my 7” wooden fence gate back onto its hinges. I won’t be able to get into my little car this morning” forgetting he’d already used it once before. How could this not be the lamest?”
Eager for a clear winner they engaged everyone in the gossiping.
“Not so fast. You be the judge, José. How about these? “I will not be in today. After the devastating news that I was not selected as chief, I need a day at home.” And this one, “I cannot warm up this morning. I will be home.” And that one, “I hurt my back in the cold working on a car yesterday. I will be home with email access.”
“That one is funnier, I think, “Well, whatever was bothering me since lunch yesterday has caught up with me. I will be out today.”
And they bickered on and on. Colleagues joined in the fun.
“God forbid anyone in the office has an emergency or a legitimate reason to miss work like I did when my wife went into labor last month. Waldo hounded me on the phone and treated me like a delinquent. He even threatened to write me up. This man would’ve sent the national guards after me if he could have.” The office had a good laugh at Waldo’s expense.
José wanted to get away from that place for good but felt trapped. To disagree with the deputy was tantamount to risking a promotion. Worse, he held grudges. The absence of flattery, a lack of deference, bothered him to no end. Insecure to the core, Waldo had to be the center of all the attention. The deputy was utterly toxic. An angry shrinking man, a negative figure, José resented his actions even more after finding out that indeed, he’d tried to destroy his chances of ever getting promoted.
During the past couple of months preceding his visit to the DR, José had found it particularly difficult to work with Waldo. In that, he was hardly alone. He had allies; all the people whose careers he tried to stunt. Mainly, the blatant disregard shown to the people under him accounted for the man’s unpopularity. The grandfatherly stance deceived no-one. His higher-ups after a while stopped trusting him too. José resented Waldo the most for assuming that he hated him. Did he believe himself important enough to occupy precious real estate in José’s head, and mobilize this much animus? Hatred was a big deal. It required effort and a commitment. Hate? That emotion was exhausting. One had to care enough. The assumption alone caused José to become thoroughly disgusted with Waldo’s obsession with himself.
Early on, as if looking for an ally, throughout the day, Emel would hover and seek out José’s advice; until one day, she mustered the courage to ask him out. It was a risky thing to do, asking someone out at the office. José could have been a lout, who crushed her pride and disgraced her publicly. In an office this small and so conservative, a public rejection would have destroyed her reputation and made her pass for the workplace slut. But José agreed to the date.
Emel loved to cook. She’d invited him over for dinner. First, she’d get him hooked on her cooking, then, she’d play it by ear. Pouring wine over a delicious middle eastern meal José had been praying for time to slow down to a halt. He was enjoying himself. Who knew Emel could be so much fun? How could one resist these sultry eyes? Deny the Lust? The temperature had been rising. José struggled to remain phlegmatic, appear detached, and feign a lack of real interest. Her looks held the promise of a boundless rapture. She reeled him in and seemed skilled in all the areas that made a woman luring to a man. The initial spark between them ignited a compelling chemical brushfire which unfurled into a full-fledged carnal firestorm. That evening long before they were wed, José and Emel caught a case of the fever.
Emel embodied exuberance. A colorful full-figured character, she was large and in charge. He loved the way she made him feel. With her shimmying, playful and oversized buttock, she kept him riveted and at attention. Her scent became enough to excite him. He felt increasingly lost without her. Of average height, 5’5, the butterscotch complexioned, curvaceous Turkish American woman may have looked fat to some, but to José, she was divinely scrumptious; happy in her own skin, and it showed. Her towering personality mesmerized him. Built for lovemaking, Emel had an Ashley Graham quality to her looks, a cute face, and fully kissable lips. José considered her supremely sexy. She reigned over his libido and nighttime fantasies. The boy was happy to have been whipped.
From Istanbul, Turkey, and proud of it, Emel often passed for a Latina in the U.S. The first time José saw her, he mistook her for a Latina, much like others before him had done, and greeted her in Spanish. Pictures of Atatürk and the evil eye hung in every room of her townhouse. The dark blue teardrop-shaped piece of glass, with an intense black pupil over white, appeared on clothing, furniture, and jewelry. The talisman provided peace of mind and warded off bad spirits. A beauty queen with status, Emel was a part of the Turkish elite, but had given up a career as a diplomat for a poor ambitious immigrant, Kadir, she’d met at an embassy function in Washington. She’d believed in the man’s vision.
With the connections she’d made over the years, and after the wedding, she helped Kadir grow a solid import/export business that made him a millionaire within ten years. Before the kids arrived, Emel and Kadir had grown to enjoy the good life together; they took trips abroad whenever they felt like it, slept in fancy hotels, drank champagne, ate caviar, drove exotic cars, developed expensive tastes, and fulfilled their wildest fantasies. Nothing was too good for either of them. Proud Ottomans, a people with a rich history of conquests and a strong sense of identity, they saw themselves as deserving of the best.
Once the children came, Emel’s jet-setting screeched abruptly to a halt, while Kadir’s continued. Her only concern, Keeping the nest warm. More often than Emel cared for Kadir’s business trips landed him halfway around the world, far from home and family. She wanted him home, she claimed, for the sake of the children. They were growing so fast.
Celebrating a deal made with business partners at a club in Slovenia, one day, Kadir bumped into a gorgeous blonde. Spellbound, in the sudden mood for play, he removed his ring and then cast a strong line. Flashing potent aphrodisiacs, money, power, and status, that instant, the die was cast. His marriage to Emel was doomed.
Emel eventually found out about the love nest and the woman he hid in plain sight, tipped off by Kadir’s renewed attention to his appearance. He’d moved his mistress stateside. Bleeding pride, she taught herself a few unfortunate lessons: Louis Vuitton bags over flowers, and flowers over cards; stick around with a man only as long as times were good and never when times were bad. Feeling short-changed, now more than ever, she aspired to an exclusive lifestyle. A man in need of emotional support would have to call his mama, not her. Emel was no man’s comforter. She only had daughters.
Under these circumstances, remarriage was not to bring her happiness. José learned that the hard way. Emel never chose happiness, a cheap emotion, as a single woman or as a married woman. She didn’t know how. True happiness to her, it seemed, had always been more about owning things. There was so much stuff yet to be had. Marriage never worked for unhappy greedy people expecting their partners to make them whole. Only happy people made happy marriages. A fury in bed, Emel’s bliss partly required José to climb on top of her, alert and responsive to her every need. She surrendered then, stopped talking and let go of inhibitions.
While José yearned for the crisp clean air of his native land the Dominican Republic and craved the foods, the smells, and the golden warmth that would seep into your bones, Emel’s happiness relied on things bought: diamonds, clothes, and purses…
José knew that Emel would never love his homeland. It was too poor. Most times, she romanticized the past, before “the blonde bitch” came around and shattered a picture-perfect-family. The memory of that past crept up and forced her ex-husband upon José as the hero in a life she hung onto. She wallowed in self-pity causing José to bear the cost of another man’s transgressions. She talked as if she’d been skinned alive and had yet to recover. Over time, her heavy heart built up an invisible wall of unmet expectations too tall and too exhausting to climb over.
Esma and Ayse would not stop talking about the house and how perfect it looked. To bolster her big sister’s claim, on her MacBook Ayse pulled up pictures of a mansion. The oversized five-bedroom house was 5,577 square feet and sat on a four-acre lot somewhere in Hamilton, Virginia, a tiny rural town in western Loudoun County 50 miles west of Washington, DC. A mile-long quaint narrow town, inhabited by no more than 600 people a couple of miles from the Potomac River.
José had grown up in a mansion and wasn’t much impressed with them. They had a way of grounding you to a place, making it difficult to pick up and go. His heart was already in the DR. There was no way he’d entertain an idea that could only deepen his roots in the U.S. It was way too early to share these private feelings with Emel. Sharing feelings could backfire. Home is where the heart is; his was with Esmeralda, his mother. To get some peace, José kept the promise he’d made to Esma and drove the girls to the mansion.
Upon arriving at the house, Emel’s smile broadened. Although the children seemed to be leading the way, José knew that his wife had a heavy hand in the sudden collective infatuation. The house looked impressive, even more appealing than it did online. Its open floor, sunroom, many windows, and sunroofs brought a lot of light inside. Throughout the house the details were thrilling: granite, recessed lighting, spacious rooms, pricey upgrades, mahogany floors, intricate finishes, high ceilings, a humongous finished basement, breakfast bar, loft, study, a fully renovated kitchen complete with an oversized island, expansive deck, comfy media room, in-ground swimming pool, hot tub, and a wet bar. All of the details made José dizzy. He paused, beyond impressed.
The kids running from room to room were beaming. Emel’s eyes glistened, wet with giddiness; barely containing her excitement, almost drooling, José knew she’d pictured herself living there many times before. Overwhelmed with adrenaline rushing through his brain, he felt set up.
“Do you like it?” Ayse asked as she tugged on his shirt.
“Yes. I like it. Very much!”
Back in Ashburn at the townhome, as if to cuddle, Emel inched closer on the couch.
“Honey, we can afford this house.” She only called him honey when she wanted something. His BS meter went up. “Between the two of us, we can afford the required $3,000 a month. You sell your condo, I sell this townhouse, and it’s done, we won’t be paying much more individually than what we’re already paying. It is so much bigger, so much more beautiful. You deserve this. Let’s buy it. Honey please.”
She trailed a finger across his chest. He smiled at her, knowing there was no point in arguing. “I think you’re right. When you put it like that, it seems doable. The price tag is scary though, $839,900. Let me think about it.”
José was buying time. True, they could all use more space. The 2,500-square-foot townhouse was adequate for two adults and two kids, but all the stuff Emel and the kids had accumulated over the years was making it feel cramped. There was stuff everywhere and no plan to donate or do away with any of it. Almost three years in that townhouse and José still did not feel at home, but rather uncomfortable. Expensive gadgets everywhere cluttered his thoughts, making him long for the simplicity of his mother’s house.
His belongings were in storage, it made sense to upgrade. José’s thoughts drifted back to the dump and the people who would wade through the trash hoping to find enough to make a living. The thought of more debt triggered visions of indentured servitude like the kind he’d seen on his family’s sugar cane plantations. Uncertainty triggered anxiety; not so much the monthly payments, but the future scared him, adding to the sense that his relationship with Emel was tittering on the brink of failure.
She seemed oblivious, unconcerned with any of that. Maybe she was. He couldn’t afford to throw caution to the wind and let his guard down; feeling like he was in another man’s shoes, a richer man, playing father to his progeny and frolicking with his wife. She still raged at the ‘real’ husband’s infidelity.
Emel hated the blonde, her ex’s new wife and mother of his newborn baby boy. A boy she couldn’t give him. The Slovenian bitch as she called her, the one he’d dared bring under her nose across the Atlantic Ocean, to reinvent himself, feel young again, and inhabit their dream. No one in the townhouse was to speak her name.
A mere allusion to Anja’s existence would throw the household into hell-bending turmoil. Although remarried, emotionally Emel was stuck. She had not moved on and couldn’t let go of the past. José was just a tool. The hatred she nurtured for her ex and his new woman stunted the growth of the commitment she’d made to him three years in. José saw this new house business as just another test he was sure to flunk.
It required a bet on a future he felt ill-equipped to take on. Now, with the shenanigans going on at home, he gave no thought to work unless he had to. What if he lost his job? What if their divergent aspirations could not be reconciled? They disagreed on everything, priorities included. He was stifling. They shared no children of their own, no vision of a clear future. Nothing more than great affection and an inextinguishable lust. She wanted to retire in Turkey; he wanted to go back to Esmeralda. Would he need to give up on the marriage to be happy?
José would continue to buy time and find out why, all of a sudden, this new house had become a wedge between them, a huge deal that added to the turmoil in their lives. Seeing his excitement waning, Esma insisted they are again going to see the beautiful house the following weekend.
So they did.
And this time, as he slowly and quietly paced each room, José tried as hard as he could to imagine himself living there with Emel and the kids.
He would try harder to hang on to the hope of a good relationship. It was the hardest thing to do. That mansion was designed for a rich happy family. His marriage felt like a fraud based on lust; try as he might, he could not see himself in it over the long haul. It was a question of values. In the car, on the way back to Ashburn, escaping the hard questions would prove impossible.
Emel turned to him all glammed up for the occasion. “Honey, I can’t wait for us to live in this house. We’re gonna be so happy there.”
The girls piped in to press for a response. Lost in his thoughts, José tried out loud to add up the higher property tax with the cost of keeping the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter; he would not be disturbed. He still had to put a son through college, and before indulging any further felt the need to get to the bottom of his wife and kids’ obsession.
“Esma, why now, all of a sudden? What’s different now?”
From the back of the six-year-old Benz S 500:
“Why are you not on board, José? This is the American dream. Stop acting like an immigrant. You are an American now. Own it.” Emel rolled her eyes in disbelief, repressing her annoyance.
Ayse erupted. “I knew it, mom. Your husband thinks small. He’s a little man.”
“Why does it matter so mooch to you guys that we get this particular house?” José said.
Under pressure and exasperated, his Spanish accent resurfaced.
“Well,” Esma said, “if you must know, my father moved into a much bigger house with his new family recently. And we agreed, my sister, my mom and I, that we too deserve to live in a bigger house.”
“Aye, caramba! I see.”
In frustration, Emel blurted out, “Stop being so cheap, José. We can afford this new house. What is wrong with you?”
The next day, in the early afternoon, José instructed everyone to get in his car. It was Sunday and to brighten the heavy and somber mood, they would be heading to a water park a few miles away to enjoy an afternoon outside. The sun and some fresh air, he told them, would do wonders for this family!
He felt adventurous, promised them a good time, and asked everyone to chill out and for once appreciate the simple things in life. As a kid growing up in the Dominican Republic, he’d seen his share of poverty all around, especially in the bateys* his mother owns. He developed an appreciation for the good fortune that had befallen his family. He knew things could be much worse.
They had to hurry if they were to avoid crowds and arrive early. During weekends in the summertime, water parks tended to be crowded. Chlorine and pH readings being what they were, José cautioned the kids to be careful not to swallow park water.
“Our day at the park is not limited to the water and the sun! Enjoy the playground. I’m sure you’ll find plenty to do there!” José laughed, and then turned to his wife. “You’ll find high back sand chairs, and chaises-longues spread throughout the park. And when you need to get out of the sun, there are plenty of shaded areas. Let’s meet back at the car when you’re done. Two hours from now, everyone.”
They could already hear the sound of water splashing everywhere. The car was even moving slowly under a cascade. Everybody seemed miffed, except José. He was smiling broadly.
“What is this?” Emel asked in disbelief. They were at the carwash.
* Settlements around a sugar mill