On February 1, 2009, my eight-year-old daughter Jane, my miniature dachshund Beau, and I pulled up behind the moving truck in front of our new home in Baltimore, a sage-green rowhouse on a tree-lined street. As the movers began to unload, I went in to make sure everything was clean and ready. It was, except the basement, where a crew of workers were still remodeling a rocky, inhospitable cave into a usable room. The contractor had explained that the job was bigger than he’d expected and they’d probably be around for several weeks after I moved in. No big deal, I said. I didn’t need the space until both boys came home to visit from college.
I stuck my head in the basement door to let the workers know I’d arrived. “Buenas dias!” I called.
Within the first few hours, one of my new neighbors had stopped by with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and her daughter Julianne, also a third-grader. When they left, they took Jane with them to their house. So I was alone in the kitchen, hanging pots on the rack over the stove, admiring a nice frying pan the previous owners had left behind, when an attractive, loose-limbed Latino man in a knit ski cap came upstairs to fill a bucket with water. The minute he set eyes on me, a look of interest crossed his face.
I stepped to the side to let him get to the sink and his paint-spattered plaid flannel shirt brushed my arm. Our eyes met. His were liquid black.
“Gracias, senora,” he said when the bucket was full, and turned to go back downstairs.
“Como te llamas?” I asked.
“Humberto,” he said, flashing me that smile again before he shut the basement door. He had a way of gazing at me as if I were Aphrodite.
By this time, it had been over a year since my husband moved out. The only man I’d been with in that time was … my husband. But now that was over; it had been six months since I had last driven over to his house like a zombie and thrown myself onto his bed, the vortex of sexual energy still swirling between us. Half a year, but still I’d felt physically ill that morning when I realized there was a woman at his house. I had called at 8 a.m. with a frantic last-minute question about some stuff he’d left in the basement. When he didn’t answer the phone, very unlike him, I called again. I called his landline and his cellphone about three times each, then texted and emailed. When he finally picked up at 10:30 and shouted, “What the hell do you want?” I absolutely knew.
Honestly I’d known since 8:01.
Have I mentioned the man’s initials are tattooed on my shoulder?
My marriage to Crispin Gallagher Sartwell, Ph.D. had ended badly, brimming with blame and misery on both sides, and I’d been unhappy for years before we split. But I had yet to untangle myself emotionally, and I still had either nightmares or sex dreams about him every night. I might never get over it, it seemed.
Nonetheless, now that he was with someone else, that was that. I had to move on. But what to do? Go online? Hit the bars? Beg my friends to fix me up? Start cruising the Central Americans in the basement? Or somehow adjust to a life without love, sex or passion?
The way I saw it at the time, only one of these choices was totally out of the question.
The way I saw it at the time, those were the choices.
Jane started school the Monday after we moved in, so I was alone in the house with the construction crew. Sitting at my desk grading papers, I was surprised when I felt someone standing behind me.
“Que haces?” asked Humberto.
“Trabajo,” I replied. I speak very little Spanish, but I was able to explain that I am a writing teacher. And a writer. I gestured to my books, sitting on the shelf. Something about the way he looked at them suggested that it wasn’t just that he didn’t read English. It was that he didn’t read.
“Tu no lees?”
He shrugged. “No mucho.”
I pulled down a book whose cover shows a picture of my first husband and me with our baby sons. He pointed to my name and tried to pronounce it. “Mah ree on … Weeneek. Es tu?”
“Es la historia de mi primera, um, mi primera… marriage. Mi esposo es muerte de SIDA.”
His eyes widened. My first husband died of AIDS?
“Hace mucho tiempo,” I said. “16 years.”
He shook his head sympathetically and touched my cheek.
Most of our interactions were no longer than that. A couple of times a day, he found a reason to venture upstairs. If I was at the desk, he’d come up behind me and touch my shoulders or stroke my hair. If I was in the kitchen, he would just stand there and look at me.
One day, I decided to use Dr. Sartwell’s Amazon Prime account so I could get free shipping on some books I needed. This turned out to be the very last time I ever used it, because I saw that he had sent a copy of the Kama Sutra to his new girlfriend, who lived in New Jersey. I nearly passed out, even though I realized it was my own fault I found this out, it was none of my business and it was no surprise. I told myself to stop thinking immediately about whether this meant she was an innocent who needed to be initiated in the ways of the world or a super-freak who would try things I never imagined.
But — did we ever even look at the Kama Sutra together? We did have a bunch of crazy electric dildos and stuff from when I did an article on sex-toy home parties for a women’s magazine. I was thinking of the thing that looked like a rubber tarantula and fighting tears when suddenly Humberto appeared behind me.
For the first time, I got up out of my chair and turned to face him. He put his arms around me and I leaned into his chest. He was muscular yet soft, much bigger than me where my husband was about my same size, and there was a sweet unselfconscious quality to the way he held his body, as if he’d never given much thought to his abs, his pecs or his quads, which makes sense when you come from a place where hunger is the biggest physical fitness issue.
Our hug lasted a minute or so, then we pulled apart. “Tu pelo,” I said, looking up at him, running my hand through his newly cropped hair.
“No te gustas?”
I smiled. “Me gusta mas largo.” If this meant I like long hair, it was only sheer luck.
It went on like this for weeks — hugs, looks, confusing conversations — until I began to worry. By now all the other guys knew what was going on. Did they talk about us? Did he talk to them about me? What if they told the boss?
In fact, the other men were unfailingly nice to me, extremely polite and always helpful when I needed something. Every day, they all trooped upstairs and asked me if it would be okay to microwave their lunches, and we usually exchanged a few sentences about how great the basement was turning out. At some point, Humberto stopped going back down with them to eat. Instead, he sat at my kitchen counter and opened his plastic container of food and his bottle of orange soda.
“Que es eso?” I wondered. It smelled so good. “Tu cocinas?”
No, he didn’t cook it himself. He explained that the ladies on his street sold plate lunches to go for the working men. “Ven aqui,” he said, putting a forkful in my mouth.
Having lived 20 years in Texas, I loved this kind of food. In fact, this food could be the reason for the 20 years in Texas. I showed him my jars of pickled jalapenos and habaneros and bottled hot sauces and told him how I love to cook frijoles negros and frijoles pintos. He wrapped up a bite of beans for me in a homemade corn tortilla.
“Mmmmm,” I said as the masa melted in my mouth.
The next day, he brought me a foil package of fresh, hot tortillas.
When Jane got home from school, I rolled one up for her with butter and jam. “Humberto brought these for us,” I told her gaily. “Isn’t that so sweet?”
“Humberto?” she said, eyeing both me and the snack with suspicion in her big blue eyes. “Is he your boyfriend?”
“No, silly, of course not.”
“Then why are you always talking about him?” she said.
Well, Miss Third Grader, that was a good question.
At this point the crew was almost done in the basement and began alternating my project with other jobs. One day, Humberto pulled out his cellphone and asked me to put my number in it. I couldn’t think why since we could barely talk to each other, but I did it anyway. Sure enough, he called me often. He said Hola, I said Hola, then he would say something else which I had to ask to him to repeat 200 times until we gave up. Then he said Adios and I said Adios.
Though we never kissed, unfortunate progress was eventually made on other fronts. He would run his hands over my body, but had a way of pinching whatever he got hold of that I couldn’t stand. It wasn’t your usual two-fingered pinch, but a whole-hand squeeze, as if he were juicing a particularly resistant citrus fruit. Finally I used Google Translate to look up “pinch.”
“No me pellizcas,” I told him.
“Como eso.” I did to him what he was doing to me.
He chuckled and pushed my hand away, but also looked a little hurt. No matter, I hadn’t gotten anywhere because the next time we were together he started doing it again. Had no woman ever told him about this problem before? No one would like this technique, I was sure. Didn’t they complain?
The truth is, I liked it so little that I was beginning to cool towards him. Yes, he was cute but the pinching delivered a message to me that nothing else had.
Really, we weren’t right for each other.
But to put it in Pokemon terms, the ability of looking must be stronger than the ability of pinching, because looking beat pinching in this Poke-battle. When Humberto called a few days later to say he wanted to come over and see me, I didn’t ignore it or pretend I didn’t understand, as I had in the past. I made a plan. He would come on a Saturday, when Jane would be with her dad in Pennsylvania. I’d drive over to where he lived and pick him up around noon — except for the bus, he had no other way to get here.
It took about ten minutes for him to give me the directions since he was saying Fayette but I was hearing Fie-jet, so didn’t recognize the name of one of the biggest streets in town.
The day of our date, I was nervous. Why was I doing this, if I didn’t really want to? I guess it seemed like my best chance or even my only chance to have sex, which I obviously had to do as a phase in my recovery. I put on black yoga pants and a stretchy, V-necked black shirt, and I drove across town to the barrio, where he was waiting for me, standing in the rain without an umbrella.
He was dressed up, sort of heartbreakingly, in an ironed shirt, pants of shiny, thin material and black lace-up shoes. Though I liked him better in the hoodie and ski cap, I appreciated the sense of occasion. When we got to my house, I offered him something to eat. He didn’t want food, but drank plenty of champagne.
With my laptop open on the coffee table and Google Translate running harder than a shredder at Goldman Sachs, I was able to learn many more things about Humberto than I had before. Such as, he had three kids at home in El Salvador whom he hadn’t seen for four years. And their mother — his wife? he was vague on this — had left him. (Actually, it looked to me like he had left her.)
The kids? Didn’t he miss his kids?
Oh, yes, he did.
This is a sexy conversation, isn’t it?
He was tossing the ball for Beau, which only showed how uncomfortable he was, since he usually treated the dog as some kind of large rodent. Despite the champagne, neither of us was the least bit bubbly as we trooped grimly upstairs to the bedroom.
He took off his shoes and lay on top of the quilt.
I took my shirt off — somebody had to do something, right? — but when he started some half-hearted pinching through my black bra, I rolled away.
Then he said, “No tengo un condón. He olvidado.”
He forgot his condoms? This seemed kind of hard to believe, so we confirmed the translation. Condón. Profilactico. Preservador. Perhaps I should try to tell him that my tubes were tied so we didn’t need the condón.
“Su marido murió de SIDA, no?”
Oh, okay. AIDS. Right. I could have attempted to explain that I didn’t have the HIV virus but really, I just wanted to put my shirt back on. Meanwhile, he looked about to cry. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Estoy muy triste,” he told me. “Mi vida — es muy triste.”
“Porque? Que es la problema?”
“Es mi hermano,” he said, and the tears rolled. He told me that his brother was trying to come to the United States from Salvador and was stuck in Mexico. He needed money to pay the coyote or they would keep him there. It was very, very dangerous, like when Humberto himself came he almost died. So, maybe could I please give him some money? He looked at me with tortured hope, his dark eyes wet.
“How much money is it?” I wondered.
He told me.
At this point, my eyes also filled with tears and I leapt off the bed. I mean I felt bad about his brother and I knew I wasn’t Aphrodite but this was really pretty far to fall.
Before I took him home, we sat on my front porch with Google Translate and had as serious a conversation as we could manage. I tried to explain how I felt, and to reassure him that I knew how he must feel. I didn’t think he meant to hurt me, but he had, and I didn’t have three thousand dollars to spare. Also, I told him, you should never ask a woman for money in her bedroom. It just isn’t done.
He may or may not have understood, he may or may not cared, but it was time for me to drive him back to Fie-jet, where I would give him two twenties toward the cause. Then, if I knew what was good for me, I would close Google Translate forever and sign up for Match.com, where I might not find love but I would at least find people in my age group who spoke English.
Our new columnist Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl. Please note: Some identifying details have been changed in the essay above.