The house Fidelia grew up in sat on wooden stilts and had warped floorboards that didn’t quite meet. Scraps of garbage were swept through the cracks to fall on the chickens that lived under the house. There was no toilet, no bath, no glass in the windows, just mosquito netting stapled across empty frames. Hogs roamed the dirt lane outside; rain rattled the zinc roof; each month, the American plantation owners handed out pills for malaria and stomach parasites.
And yet, in the spring of 1988, at the age of thirty-nine, Fidelia found herself lying in a king-sized bed on the fifteenth floor of a towering glass hotel in San Francisco. The room was a nice one, a suite. Thick, royal-blue carpet deadened one’s footsteps; floor-to-ceiling windows looked out over the marina. There was no ceiling light, so her husband, Lawrence, had turned on the tall lamp standing in the corner. He’d sat with her while Fidelia, propped up on the too-big pillows, ate the hot-and-sour soup he’d ordered, and then he went down to the pharmaceutical conference. A company was debuting a new acne drug and had offered to pay Lawrence’s way. She’d never been to San Francisco. It’ll be fun, Lawrence had said. They’d go to the zoo, walk along the Golden Gate Bridge, eat clam chowder out of sourdough bowls.
Her original plan had been to feign sickness one evening and, while Lawrence dined with dermatologists and drug reps, slip out and meet Remy. This plan had become unnecessary by the time they reached San Francisco—she had decided not to see Remy after all. The moment she and Lawrence stepped out of the airport, however, a wet, freezing fog swallowed them up, dampening her newly permed hair and invading her nostrils and ears. In the taxi her body began to ache, and she knew she’d spend the whole weekend sick, the untold lie coming true just to punish her.
They arrived at the hotel to find that their room had been given to someone else by mistake. Fidelia stood at the tall desk in the lobby, silent as a cow—it was usually best not to speak, given her accent—while Lawrence argued with the concierge, a young Asian woman who had an accent as thick as Fidelia’s own. The concierge informed them that, with the pharmaceutical conference going on in the convention center next door, there were no rooms available, and the best she could do was refund their money and give them a 50-percent-off coupon for their next stay.
As she spoke, Lawrence’s eyes grew large and wounded. Referring to himself as Dr. Baginski and to Fidelia as Mrs. Baginski, he repeated five or six times that he had booked this hotel in particular because of its proximity to the convention center, and, what with Mrs. Baginski being pregnant and ill, and the weather being, frankly, nightmarish, he just could not see them driving around looking for a room. “I’d like to be flexible, but we’ve got a difficult situation here,” he said, shaking his head. “This is extremely disappointing. I’ll have to talk to the conference organizers.” Humiliated, the young woman booked them into a suite three times the price of their original room and gave them a voucher for the hotel’s Asian-Californian fusion restaurant.
Now, wrapped in the bed’s many duvets and comforters like an expensive china plate, smelling the five spice and pepper on her own breath, Fidelia wondered when she was going to tell Lawrence that she was not pregnant anymore. She’d been mistrustful since the beginning, despite the positive home pregnancy test and her vanished period. Thank God she had gone alone to her four-month checkup. After the ultrasound, her doctor had asked if she wanted a genetic test. Many women her age, what he called a high-risk group, were starting to do it, he said. She had agreed, provided that the doctor would keep things between the two of them, which turned out to be a prescient choice. She’d always been good at foreseeing calamity. There was no conversation with Lawrence about what it might be like to raise a child with Downs. She made the decision alone. This was nearly a month ago, yet her body, like the poor concierge, was so eager to give Lawrence what he was determined to have that it continued to burst forth in a gleeful effusion of estrogen, her usually flat stomach still puffy, her small breasts swollen and achy.
The phone rang on the desk on the other side of the suite. It was probably Remy, calling to make plans. Fidelia turned her head into the pillow, pressing her ear into her springy hair. The rings sounded far off, as if from inside a submarine. She tried to sleep.
She met Lawrence at a New Year’s party in Marina del Rey five years before. Her hair wasn’t permed then; it was slippery and black, and she spent hours teasing it, back-combing it, spraying volumizer into the roots. She showed up with a bottle of cheap California champagne, wearing cat-eye makeup and the short, silky, orange frock her older sister called her puta dress. But she was single, and not so young anymore; her slender legs, which she’d been teased for as a child, were now an asset, something men liked.
At first she hadn’t thought much of Lawrence, a stocky Pole with a sparse hairline. Within minutes of their meeting, his eyes became mournful and round—mutton eyes, she and her sister called them, the dumb and trusting gaze of a sheep looking up at its executioner. He had just finished his last residency and had started working full time at a dermatology practice in the Valley. “Of course, according to my father, I’m not a real doctor,” he said, in an overly jovial tone, and proceeded to tell her his whole life story: His father had driven a cab; they’d rented a rowhouse in North Philly; he’d gotten a math and science scholarship to Penn State but had to work at the student food court on the weekends. She listened attentively, knowing what he was trying to say: they weren’t so different, he hadn’t had it easy, either. She smiled at him, excused herself, and spent the evening flirting with a tall surgeon who played guitar and called her señorita.
Later in the night, Lawrence sidled up to her again.
“You know, I think Reagan’s a bastard,” he said. “The Contras, all of that—I don’t think we should have gotten involved.”
She didn’t know what to say. “Neither do we,” was the best she could come up with.
At least he knew where her country was. Some Americans couldn’t even place it on the correct hemisphere. He asked for her phone number and she gave it to him, but she went home with the guitar-playing surgeon who, though a competent lover, packed her into a taxi the next morning earlier than was decent. On New Year’s Day, while she was watching cartoons with her nephews and nieces, eating cold SpaghettiOs out of a mug and sipping a light beer to soften her hangover, Lawrence called.
“Isn’t it the custom in this country to wait two days?” she teased.
“Maybe,” he said. “But what if I wait two days and someone else takes you out?”
She smiled to herself. “Well, no risk, no gain, isn’t that what they say?” she said. She never remembered American idioms.
. . .
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