Though the nuns wept and urged her to stay, Grace left the Albergue and made her way back to the warm three rooms she shared with Shella. The simple care she'd received while she withdrew -- the cool palms and prayers in Spanish, the endless glasses of Jamaica with ginger and lime -- for these simple things she was alive and grateful. Thin, pale and weak, her dress of dark sleeves and long pants for her slow walk to Centro under the bright sun brought shameless stares from children and their mothers and fathers alike.
At home, she was not surprised to find the cats using her room as a respite, lazing about on the cool tiles under the hammock. Shella left the ceiling fan on so the sheer blinds grazed and billowed at the slotted windows. Nothing changed in the three weeks since she'd left. It looked as though she'd stepped away, for minutes -- for milk or beer, and was just now returning home. The four marbled ashtrays remained positioned near the corners, mostly full of butts and tiny bent spikes. In the nights before she left she had begun sleeping with a Pharmacy tech, who would arrive each evening with clean syringes. In those last days before the Albergue, though shamed and abused by Cito and the others, Grace felt giddy and flush with needles, no need to share or re-use.
Her only books in English, three of them, lay wedged the far wall below the hanging cross the landlord insisted remain nailed tight and steady. Tired and damp from the walk and the heat, Grace made her way to room’s sole piece of furniture, an ancient dresser with drawers swollen shut from the humidity.
Reaching inside, she searched for her old notes and found the three folded pages beneath a musty pile of t-shirts. She pulled one out and unfolded it carefully and there found, once again, the hard pressed script of Noe.
Babe, he never used her name.
I been clean now for nearly three weeks, and you know everyone says I look good. I gained some weight and feel pretty good. And I look better, you should see it, everyone says so.
Sitting slowly down on the hammock, Grace presses Noe’s letter to her face and inhales. She used to believe she could still smell him, even months after he was gone. But today, on this hot afternoon with the walls swelling in around her, Grace smelled nothing but her own skin washed in the nun’s chamomile soap.
The gate outside clanks and, keys jangling, Shell appears in Grace’s doorway with a tired smile. Reaching over to lightly swing the hammock, Shell asks if she is thirsty.
“Yeah, I am. Just haven’t mustered myself into the kitchen yet,” Grace grips the floor with one foot and pushes, making to get up.
“No, no, I will. I have something special…” Shell is already moving past the hall window to the kitchen. Seconds later, she is cursing the tiny fire ants that have again invaded the sink.
“Rotten little shits! Where do they all come from?”
Grace smiles and pushes herself into an easy sway, still clutching Noe’s note. She is wondering how it was, not so long ago, that she and Shell fought bitterly and regularly – that she and Shell once didn’t speak for nearly 7 months.
At one time, they lived together in Brooklyn with Noe crashing for weeks at a time. There, the nights ended with many, many slammed doors and Grace crying into Noe’s armpit while they lay on the futon.
“She can be such a bitch!” She once slobbered into his fine hairs and folds, and she felt his body shaking with a stifled giggle.
“What! What?” Her anger amplified, finding that her lover not taking her side.
“No, no! It’s not you, it’s not – it’s just that the sniffling and tears makes me tickle!” He was laughing outright now, no longer able to hold it. Slowly, Grace began to laugh, too, while curling herself into his slim body, inhaling deeply. She can smell his sweat and skin, warm like cinnamon and musk.
Swing swinging in the hot room in Centro, Grace smiles sadly at the memory, realizing now that Noe would be dead within twelve days of the night they laid laughing together.