Just across the alley from Baromeo D., with our apartments facing each other and the garbage cans below, I position several large mirrors on the walls beside the windows. That way, I can see everything Baromeo does in there when he has the curtains open, which is most of the time. Studying the life performed in those mirrors, I have learned some excellent techniques for chopping organic vegetables, for marinating tofu, cleaning paintbrushes, performing vocal exercises. For building a good life.
He has mirrors up, too, in his place across the way, pointed at my apartment. But all he can learn from a good look into his spy mirrors is how to stuff hundreds, perhaps thousands, of papers, boxes, random books and envelopes into a tiny closet.
Eavesdropping can boost your self-esteem. You see your neighbor/sometime lover preparing carefully for the date he has with you later that evening, the smile on his face as he sets the table, makes the bed, tosses the cushions about just right, raises a dashing eyebrow, selecting the precise music for the sort of evening he has planned. Planned for you. Delicious in every way, right down to the cold, tight cotton sheets.
But then the next day, while still in the glow of the night you've had with him, stumbling drunk from his touch, you see him go through the exact same routine to ready himself for the tall, thin blonde in shorts and a T-shirt who walks through his door precisely at 6:57 p.m. Things change. You wake up, pulled from your cool, sweet bubble into a burning wave of disappointment, a nauseating sense of theft.
None of it was really yours. Spying isn’t all that it had seemed.
There are exactly three of us sprinting up his stairs, rolling in and out of his bed, floating into his shower, over the next few months: the blonde in the T-shirt, the cinnamon-skinned, black-haired dancer, and me. Me with my dark, curly Jewish hair. Multiculturalism, he says to me, like it’s some kind of unique attribute. As if our hair, our skin, the curve of our cheekbones, our noses, the sound of the words and the scent of our grandmothers’ cooking have one single thing to do with him and his merits.
I say nothing about it, stop myself from even thinking. If I had my way, I'd be seeing a lot more of the one-eyed, pot-bellied conga player from across town who cannot let himself be revealed by Baromeo's mirrors, by driveway spies, by passing fellow students. Eddie. His new wife Emilia would throw him out, sending the entire community into scandalized disarray right after their wedding, an event held up to the light like a long-awaited jewel.
I don't think the other two women know about me, but he jokes at me about them. He doesn't worry much about public encounters. He’s taken me to the dance performance of the cinnamon-skinned one and the place of employment -a vegan restaurant- of the blonde. If I didn’t feel completely intoxicated and out of my head, tingling and babbling in Baromeo's company, I would have turned down those invitations, feigning other plans, never admitting to the baseness of something like feelings. Instead, I pretend to want the married conguero more. Or perhaps I mostly do want the married conguero more.
Baromeo is tall, sandy-haired, strong and fine-featured. His frosty teeth practically broadcast the fine brand of organic toothpaste he uses, something with fragrant licorice root. He’s an extraordinary chef, an artful black-and-white photographer, lead actor in a local theater , tender teacher of children, dexterous piano player, full-voiced baritone, brilliant conversationalist, political activist, supporter of environmental causes. I can barely get through a movie with him at his place without melting onto his bed. Helen, the blonde from the restaurant, though, doesn't seem all that interested. And the dancer never stays all night. Who knows what her deal is. I can’t figure it out. Does she prefer to be alone when she sleeps? Is she married?
Sometimes we dine together on his deck. Combining our food elements pressures me to become a better chef. Sometimes I sing a ballad for him from my balcony, and across the alley on his deck, he sings Al Jarreau's version of Spain full and smooth and fast, which pressures me to attempt Jarreau even faster. We both work part-time at the university daycare center, where he plays wonderful games with the three-year-olds, so I’ve got to play even better ones with the fours. When not dining with me (or sleeping with the blonde or the dancer), he hosts great parties, so when not dining with him or pining for my unattainable conguero, I feel forced to host even bigger gatherings with better music and tastier food.
When it comes to the art of organizing space, I find I can no longer keep up. Baromeo is so neat and orderly that he has managed to squeeze a music room, a film editing and photography studio, a vast library, a spice and kitchen utensil collection, a complete wardrobe, and all his boyhood keepsakes into a two-and-a-half room, one-story, over-the-garage apartment. I am fairly drowning in books, papers, photos, notebooks, old things I never use and new things I can't find underneath the old things. There’s a guitar I don't play very well covered with lyric sheets to unfinished songs; the ingredients for stews and soups and international casseroles that I can’t cook till I get the stove and countertops cleared.
Paralyzed by cluttered desperation, I finally manage to clean up my apartment, thanks to approximately three cubic feet of unfilled space remaining in my closet. It’s not for me, it’s for a sudden arriving guest. Annette.
Annette, Daddy’s friend, comes to Albuquerque for some sort of retreat. People come here for those all the time, those retreats that capitalize on the drama of cacti to the south, the red rocks to the west, the scent from the adobe ovens everywhere. She visits. She stays over. She treats me like an adult, and I am won over into her layer of trust over my own craving for home; for a sense of coming from somewhere; from anywhere; from there. Milwaukee.
It’s pretty nice, a relief, even. We drink some wine, munch a little on snacks. I worked my shift at the food coop earlier in the day and got a few cheeses, some stone-ground crackers, some grapes and chips. Carrots and a fresh vegetable cream.
Louder than the music, more percussive than the crunch of our snacks, the phone rings. I am caught by the unexpected: it’s Eddie. His low voice over seductive background music, warbling the latest news: his wife is out of town, on a retreat of her own, to the north; a place in the pine-covered mountains, Abiquiu.
I've missed you, he says, It’s been so long. A pause. Yeah, since your wedding, I think. Can't you come over tonight? I just have to see you. My neighbors are out of town, too; you could stay all night. You could probably walk straight out the front door in the morning…early. If it’s very early.
I am tempted by this, this last bit, or he thinks I’ll be. Maybe it’s more that I think I should be, because it’s easy to say no and get off the phone. My visitor is sitting two feet away, watching me. I have company, I say. So it’s no, then, he says, dejected.
There’s just nothing left to talk about, and the call is done; but when I hang up, I burst into tears. Tell Annette everything. The married lover, the romantically-busy neighbor. I reveal all to this acquaintance, this friend of Daddy. It all just spills out with no trace of the adult discretion I’d have used if I were really one of those.
Annette puts her arms around my shoulders. Years from now, she says, I will scarcely remember these men and their antics. When you think of it that way - as antics, as amusing behavior, as frolicking hijinks - it’s so easy to brush off: they did it, I did it, we were playing around, it’s ok. Like there’s no harm done in those games.
I’ll be fine. It’s just college.
I’ll be fine.
I’m a few months away from graduation, from a move to the East Coast, Daddy’s told Annette, and she reminds me. I’ll be gone soon. Her assurances about my fine future are plausible. I could forget or outdo my neighbor. Attend a famous theater college. Sing Jarreau faster than Jarreau himself. Add the conga to my repertoire. Make it big on the East Coast.
Albuquerque is far off to the west now. It’s my dream world, my movie that has ended. The broad expanse of red rock and openness of high mountains lives in the photos I carry in a box, showing no man, no specific characters engaged in frolicking hijinks.
I know what I’m supposed to do here. I’m supposed to forget the antics. Give it up. The story’s over. Move on. There isn’t any open space anymore. I’m living in a tiny room fashioned from an enclosed porch at a distant cousin's home in Brooklyn.
But Baromeo calls. He’s sitting on his deck watching my old apartment being cleaned for a new tenant. Laughing. He doesn’t need his mirrors for this. He sees the cleaners hauling six thousand bags of stuff out of my one closet, right into the dumpster in front of his deck, he says.
Didn't you take anything with you, Leila?
You could say I high-tailed it out of town. I took my songs, my guitar, my adobe oven incense burner with forty pinon cones and a purse-sized bottle of yucca-juniper perfume. Tossed my ill-fitting folkloric clothes, left my silver ‘62 Chevy Biscayne sitting on the street till some guys hauled it off, cut and pasted it, turned it into a low-rider.
I don’t need the car. There are subways here.
Baromeo and I say goodbye. He’s gone from me and it doesn’t matter. I don’t even get up to return the phone to its cradle. I hear my distant cousin behind me in the house and I keep looking out into the dirty Brooklyn rain.
A recent MFA graduate of Hamline University, Nina Adel has been published in Selcouth Station, the Linden Avenue Literary Journal, The Tennessean, Louisiana Folklife Studies Journal, among others, and she’s a Glimmer Train honorable mention recipient. Once primarily a singer-songwriter, she lives in the heart of Nashville with her two children and teaches writing at a local college.