Manuel's Mother's Visit

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Manuel, jolted by the radio alarm blaring next to his ear, awoke with a start. His arms jerked sideways, swiping the previous night’s dinner dishes off the coffee table and sending them crashing to the floor. The room was pitch dark, which made no sense. Had he forgotten to turn on the night light? Impossible. He couldn’t fall asleep without it. Perhaps the tiny bulb had burnt out?

He listened for Chris’s breathing. Silencio. His hand fumbled to the right, searching for Chris’s body, but instead felt a wall, a soft wall. Where was Chris? Where was he?

“Manolo, que pasa?” he heard his mother call out. A moment later a crack of light streamed in from under a door, then the door opened and his mother ran in. Then he remembered. He was sleeping on the living room sofa. Mama was visiting from Mexico City and he had given her his and Chris’s bedroom. Their bedroom.

“Nothing, Mama, I’ll clean up,” Manuel told her in Spanish, even though she was already gathering up pieces of the broken pottery. “Go back to bed. I’ll see you this afternoon when I get back from work.”

“You and I, we need to talk. Now,” Mama said in an I mean business tone of voice. Manuel’s fists clenched. What did I forget to hide? He and Chris were the same weight and build, so even if she had gone through his closet and bureau drawers, she wouldn’t have suspected anything. Chris had taken a toiletry bag with him to his cousin’s apartment, what else might be in the bathroom might be suspect?

“Not now, Mama,” Manuel said as he stood up. “I have to shave and shower and get to work.”

She pushed Manuel back onto the sofa as if he were still a kid she could boss around. “Don’t move,“ she said, then ran back into the bedroom.

She returned a moment later holding the photo of Manuel and Chris taken last New Year’s Eve under mistletoe tacked above their bedroom door frame, their arms wrapped around each other as they smiled at the camera. That’s what he had forgotten or rather hidden poorly. He asked himself if it was accidentally on purpose, that maybe be he wanted his mother to find it.

He suspected she might go through his things - in the back of his bed table drawer under some papers. He loved that picture - they looked so happy, they were so happy. Their friends called them Salt and Pepper as Chris was so fair, Manuel dark. Manuel loved the nicknames; salt and pepper were a pair, they belonged together. Mama would love him too if she gave him half a chance.

Mama didn’t say a word, just held the photo out towards him as if holding a poisonous snake, a look of such misery on her face that he almost started crying.

Based on their conversation over dinner the previous night, Manuel knew his mother had come to visit with an agenda. “I’m getting old. When are you going to give me a grandson?” she had asked. She even had his bride picked out, Consuelo, the daughter of Maria, her best friend’s cousin’s brother-in-law’s sister. She had come to the states around the same time as Manuel. “A fine girl, pretty, never married, a receptionist at a hair salon in Queens, “ etcetera, etcetera. Manuel dutifully looked at the picture Mama had brought with her. It had a 718 phone number written on the flip side.

“You’ll call her, Manolo?” Mama said, eyeing Manuel with a look of fear bordering on panic. The best Manual could manage was to numbly nod, which appeared satisfy his mother. “I’ll tell Maria to relay the message to Maria’s cousin’s brother-in-law so his sister will be expecting your call.”

Now he had to decide. Could she take the truth? Would he break her heart? Did she in her heart of hearts already know? “Necesito ir al baño,” Manual told his mother, brushed past her to go to the bathroom. He actually did need to pee, but he also wanted to think through the best way to tell her.

Where to begin? He had known he was gay since he was thirteen. He sensed his father sensed it, too, the way he called him a sissy because he didn’t like sports, the way he made fun of him because his pants were tight. Mama always came to his defense, but Manuel knew it was her way of using him as an excuse to tell Papa off.

But then Papa died, and it was just the two of them. Then Mama picked up the same refrain. When he was still in school, it was, “Why don’t you like soccer like the other boys your age? Why are you wearing a purple shirt? Why don’t you take Gloria or Carmen or some other girl in your class to the movies?” Always pushing, questioning.

Later, after he’d started work as a busboy in a restaurant, when he came home late, she would pester him with questions about where he had been and with whom. She even sniffed his clothes. Finally he came up with a cover story saying that he was taking night classes in English to supplement his income. He had to wonder what kind of classes she thought would be offered so late at night, but she seemed to take him at his word.

After he would he head over to the Pink Zone for some action, some sex. But in time it started to sour. Some of the hookups were rough, painful and some of the men gross and dirty. Some of the older men offered him money, making him feel dirty, like a prostitute, and worse still, he took it. Also he became paranoid that someone might recognize him and it would filter back to his mother.

But above all, he was lonely. It had never occurred to him that having all the sex he wanted wouldn’t be enough, but it wasn’t. He had never had a romantic relationship, and he wanted one. He wanted to fall in love. He knew he had to get away so he could stop living a lie.

When he was twenty-five, between busing tables and ‘moonlighting,’ he had saved to emigrate to the states. As luck would have it, he had dual citizenship since he had been born in Los Angeles a month ahead of schedule when his mother was visiting cousins there.

When he told Mama he was leaving, she cried about how she would miss him, how could he do this to her, but he wondered if it wasn’t also a relief to her. She made sure he knew her friends kept asking him when I was going to find a nice girl. Perhaps she was tired of holding on to the lie as well; her excuses for him were wearing thin.

“Mama,” should he say, “I also want to have children. When Chris and I get married –“ No, too soon to introduce Chris... and marriage.

“Mama, haven’t you always said you love me no matter what?”

“Mama, I am glad you want to talk. I have been waiting for the right moment to –“

No, he decided, he would not rehearse it. He would wing it. What was the worst thing that could happen? She would disown him? Unlikely. He was her only son, her only child. Why was he so afraid of her?

Manuel realized all he was wearing was jockey shorts, not that he had to be embarrassed in front of his mother, but somehow it made him feel even more vulnerable. He grabbed his bathrobe off the hook in back of the door and saw Chris’s robe beneath it. If he looked around, he would probably find other evidence, but now it didn’t matter.

When he opened the door, Manuel saw Mama sitting on the sofa crying. His hunch was right: she knew.

He went over and wrapped his arms around her as she sobbed against his chest. They didn’t talk for a while.

Finally she drew away from him.

“Manuel,” she said, looking down at the photo that was still in her hand, “do you love him?”

Here goes, he thought. The only time she ever called him Manuel was when she was angry with him.

“Yes Mama, very much,” Manuel replied. Mama nodded her head up and down, digesting the information.

“His name?”

“Christoffel Andersson, but everyone call him Chris. He’s Swedish. ”

“This Chris, he’s good to you?”

“Very.” Manuel said.

“And you love him?”

“Very much.”

“And he loves you?”

Manuel nodded.

Mama paused a long time before speaking.

“Tonight, I will make paella for three.”