Mariela waited for the American boy in his bedroom. The bedroom had been Mariela’s once—hers and Hector’s—before Hector died. She could hear the boy playing cards down the hall in the miners’ room. She liked how sweet his face was, like a painting in the church; his skin was so white, it was almost blue.
The night before, he’d been studying Spanish verbs after dinner as she washed the dishes, and when he smiled shyly up at her, she imagined, for the first time in many years, what it’d be like for a man to touch her.
Mariela wasn’t sure the boy desired her, but she would make it up to him. In the mirror, the red lace slip protested the girth of her hips, and her breasts threatened to flop sideways. She adjusted the small triangles of the lingerie’s top to cover her nipples, but as she did this, the spandex retreated over her hips to expose her ass again. She examined her profile and gave the slip’s hem another tug. It was useless. She decided to wait for him on the bed where things might stay put.
When the American boy had passed the open door of the miners’ room, they’d called him in: Hey, American, do you play cards?
The miners staying in Mariela’s boarding house—Luis, Mateo, and Alejandro—were proud of their Johnny Walker bottle, and Luis, the oldest one with the crossed teeth, made a little show of pouring the boy a glass. The boy was twenty-two and had been in South America for several months then. The week before, a British girl told him that tourists could visit the silver mines in Bolivia, that tourists brought the miners gifts of alcohol and cigarettes. She’d seen pictures, she’d said. But because the miners were drunk, there were often accidents. She refused to go down there, she told him, for moral reasons.
Luis said they liked it at Mariela’s, even though she was so strict. She made them leave the kitchen after dinner each night, so they had to drink in the room. But, Luis knocked on the card table, she did surprise them with this little table.
Mateo stared at the boy as the cards were shuffled, which made the boy uneasy, and finally, Mateo said, You have this face. Mateo brought his hand up to his own face like a mask. Like a baby angel.
The miners laughed when the boy blushed.
Do you have girlfriends in America? Alejandro asked.
He said, she doesn’t love me anymore.
The boy was surprised he admitted this to the miners, but the men took his admission seriously, nodding.
Mateo asked, is that why you look so sad all the time?
That’s just the way I look.
By the time Mateo had emptied the bottle between their cups, the boy had lost several rounds of poker. But he didn’t care because they were just playing with centavos. They all felt very friendly with one another. Alejandro re-counted his winnings. Luis threw his cards down with a sense of finality.
The boy stretched his arms overhead. All right, he said.
All right? Luis asked.
Yeah, it means, like, entiendo.
All right, Luis said.
They all shook hands. There was a lot of feeling in those goodbyes, a firmness in the handshakes. The boy felt much drunker when he stood, and he had to trace the wall toward his room with his hand to keep upright.
There was no moonlight that night. The boy didn’t notice Mariela at first. In the dark, he searched the walls for the standing lamp. Mariela watched him from the bed as he fumbled along the wall. He knocked the lamp over, and she laughed.
He gasped. I’m sorry, he said. I’m lost. I’m so sorry.
She made a gesture that he took to mean, forget it, and she extended her arms up to him. He looked to the door and then to his backpack leaning in the corner. He sat down on the bed, his back to her knees, and she stroked his arm. He felt like he’d stepped off a spinning top. She pulled him down next to her and worked on his back. She pressed her thumbs under the wings of his shoulders. The boy’s leaden hands kneaded her thigh and up to her hip.
Okay, he said, and then he turned to face her.
Some time after the boy had left Bolivia, Mateo asked Mariela, what ever happened with the American boy?
Normally, she served them as if they were ghosts at the table. But instead she said, I taught that boy all he needs to know about making love.
Alejandro shot up from his chair. Let’s have a drink!
She didn’t usually let them drink at her table, but she consented, and as they drank, Mariela told them the old wives’ tales for restoring virility, some of Hector’s stories, just the funny ones, and even about the schoolboy with a slanted-eye who had loved her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d talked like that. It didn’t matter that she had lied, that after the boy had had a hand under her slip, his face changed, and she’d had to guide him to the bathroom, where he vomited. She held his head over the toilet, pulling his blond hair out of his face, which she’d done years before, for her husband.
When she’d put the boy to bed, he’d started to cry, and told her about a little girlfriend named Katy. He said he loved Katy too late. Mariela wanted to comfort him, but she still thought of Hector. We could have had fun, she thought. There were many things Hector was not, but he had been a light-hearted man. She couldn’t remember when she began to punish him for it. Even his expression, the mischief in his face as he’d offered the lingerie between a thumb and forefinger, had angered her. Hector juggling dishes. Hector casting cat food in the yard. Hector, eyes glazed, pulling her onto his lap outside. Hector who’d look down before he answered her, as if the answer was in the earth.
Joselyn Takacs grew up in Virginia Beach and holds a BA in creative writing, French, and film studies from Virginia Tech, and an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine a Story of the Week and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art as their 50th Issue Fiction Winner. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.