On Top of the World (Part 2)
When Carmen finally appeared through the swinging doors, everything froze. The meaning of time disappeared. Nothing moved except her.
She was pushing a luggage cart and pulling David by his hand like a toy on a string. Two overcoats, I guessed a large and a little one, hung on the side of the cart. Carmen’s amber hair was longer than I remembered. Her dress and shoes looked new, but everything else about her appeared unchanged. As beautiful as ever, she advanced to the center of the arrival area and stopped. Rows of people separated us. She had not seen me, and I took a few seconds to watch. On this foreign soil, I expected to see her more apprehensive, more clearly in need of me. Instead, she appeared serene.
“Carmen,” I let out. I wasn’t sure she heard me over the crowd and I waved the roses high above my head.
She turned in my direction and brought one hand to her face.
I pushed a few people out of the way. When I took her in my arms I became engulfed in forgotten familiarity — her weight against my body, her size, the faint lingering scent of perfume on the side of her neck, her hair tickling my temple, the smoothness and texture of her skin, the taste of her lips.
Here we are, embracing, the two of us.
I felt movement at the level of my hip.
Okay, the three of us.
“David,” I said. “David, my boy.” I let go of Carmen and squatted, stretching my arms toward him. He didn’t pull back, but didn’t throw himself at my chest. He looked up at his mom ever so briefly. When I picked him up, he seemed accustomed to the move and immediately straddled my middle with his legs and propped both hands on my shoulders. His head stayed pulled back. I looked into his eyes and smiled. I smiled as wide as I could.
“It’s okay,” Carmen said. “David, this is Daddy. Remember what I told you? We are now in New York.”
“Don’t you remember me, David?” I said.
A light blue vein was visible under the skin of his temple.
“Look at Daddy’s face,” Carmen said. “Remember the pictures I showed you at Grandma’s.” She touched my hand. “Grandma spent the night with us at the studio before we left.”
I kissed David’s forehead. He didn’t object.
“You look good,” Carmen said.
“So do you.”
“No, I mean you with your son in your arms.”
“I’ve been waiting for both of you.”
“It’s been hard.”
“You’re here,” I said.
We moved to a less crowded spot. I described the trip home and asked if they wanted to eat or drink anything. They did not. I told them our car was parked on the roof. Carmen said my parents said ‘hi’. They had visited a few days before, and brought David a chocolate bunny. My mother had cried.
“A chocolate bunny?” I asked. “Easter is two months away.”
“I know,” Carmen said.
“Mommy, I need to pee,” David said.
“Sure, baby, I’ll take you,” she said.
“I could take him, you know?” It felt natural to offer. Peeing together, finally, like father and son.
“David, do you hear that? You’ll go with your daddy, won’t you?”
David didn’t say anything.
I took him by his hand and started toward the men’s room. Carmen stayed behind with the luggage. I glanced at her once. She saw me, picked up the roses from the cart, and brought them to her face.
The urinals were in use so I took David into a stall and started undoing his pants. Instead of a zipper, his short fly had tightly sewn buttons. He waited patiently, his hands at his sides. My head was close to the toilet bowl. A few pieces of toilet paper were lying on the floor. I pulled down his pants and underwear and picked him up by his armpits. He let a thin stream splash into the bowl. Little was left from the memories I had of him as a baby. He wasn’t a baby anymore. If I tried, I could enumerate his familiar features: the pug little nose, the straight hair, the brown eyes, and the smile. Had I bumped into him by chance, I would have recognized him. I could clearly see the resemblance, the continuity. But I didn’t feel much beyond that. Hanging above the toilet bowl, David seemed content.
The afternoon drizzle had turned into rain. We had placed David in his car seat and Carmen had decided to sit in the back next to him. She had told me she wanted him to be comfortable and fall asleep. Traffic was heavy around the city, but it died down by the time we reached Brunswick. My headlights carved tunnels through the darkness deepened by rain.
I tried looking at them through the rearview mirror, and saw Carmen but David was too far down.
“The car seat is like an armor plate around the child,” I said. “Totally safe.”
“Yes,” Carmen said, “He’s asleep.”
“Then come up front.” I pulled over to the shoulder and stopped. Carmen got out of the car, came forward, and sat near me. David didn’t move.
“I felt drops on my face,” she said. “My first American rain.”
“I’m glad you’re out of the Romanian rain.”
I drove slower than before, and cars passing from time to time were surrounding us with the brief reflection of their headlights.
“So, do you like our new car?”
“I like it.”
“I mean it. It’s a Toyota, four cylinders, Japanese.”
“You wrote to me about it,” she said. Her dress had pulled up above her knees, the nylon stockings shiny in the passing headlights.
“I thought of you when I bought it,” I said and placed my right hand on her knee.
“It’s been a long time,” she said.
My hand moved up on the shiny stocking. Her legs were slightly apart. “I missed you,” I said.
She must have been very tired because she fell asleep a few minutes later, and I drove in silence for a while, and later I removed my hand and smoked a cigarette.
When we crossed the Delaware River she woke up. The wind howled through the bridge trusses, and the industrial shore behind us spread the glow of white electricity on the water. The night seemed to be ripping itself apart. She looked around in disbelief.
“It’s just a river,” I said and started to explain where we were. She barely nodded and went back to sleep. Even with me waiting at this end, it had to have been very hard for her: flying into the unknown with a child.
The carport was about thirty yards from the duplex. My apartment was on the near side. I parked the car, stopped the wipers, and turned the radio and the engine off. I touched Carmen’s arm. “Wake up. We’re here,” I said.
She looked at me, then outside. Rain fell obliquely against the light in front of the door.
“I’ll carry Davy,” I whispered. “Let’s get you guys settled in. Then I’ll bring the luggage.”
David was asleep. I reached through the back door of the car and unbuckled his seatbelt. He turned, opened his eyes, but closed them immediately. When I picked him up, he clenched his arms around my neck and pressed his body against me. Carmen covered his back and head with her coat. I smiled. As I stepped out of the carport, cold raindrops reached my face, but in my arms, my child was safe. He was little. I felt large and strong by comparison. We walked fast through the rain and stopped in the small hallway of the duplex. I pulled the coat off David’s head and looked at him. Under the neon light his face was pale, his skin almost translucent. His sleep was restless. I noticed tiny twitches under his skin and his eyelids fluttered. A few strands of brown hair covered his forehead. I pushed them aside with my finger and felt the rhythm of his breathing on the back of my hand. Then he turned in my arms and climbed on me, straddling my waist with his legs like a monkey. He did it without effort and without opening his eyes, and produced a soft sigh, almost like saying, “Much better, Daddy.” Our cheeks almost touched. A shiver passed through me like electricity.
In the apartment, I took them directly to David’s room. I had made his bed with blue and yellow sheets, and placed a small Winnie the Pooh on his pillow. Carmen undressed David and took him to the bathroom. His pajamas were in the suitcase, so we decided to let him sleep in his underwear. I tucked him in well and gave him a kiss. We watched him for a few seconds, then switched off the lights and left the room, the door half way open behind us.
“Let me show you around,” I told Carmen taking her hand.
It wasn’t much — the living room with the TV stand, the sofa and the low coffee table, the dining area with the table and chairs, the deck to one side and the kitchen to the other, and our bedroom where, like in David’s room, the bed was already made and the pillows fluffed up, only instead of colored I had used plain white linens, like the ones we had in Romania.
In anticipation of Carmen’s arrival, I had played out this moment many times in my head, developing several plans and scenarios. In one I was ending the tour on the deck with a glass of champagne and a description of the opulent surrounding shopping areas, followed by a long kiss. All versions ended in the bedroom. Rain and tiredness had never clouded my dreams. By American standards, this apartment unit was reasonable, but to most Romanians it would be a dream-come-true. The fact that in America I could accumulate so many household items so fast was my achievement. This was going to be my moment of glory, my chance to shine in her eyes.
We walked through the apartment slowly. I showed her the kitchen and took a bottle of chilled sparkling wine out of the fridge. I poured two glasses and grabbed a bowl of nuts and a plate of cookies I had prepared for David. Carmen told me she did not want to eat. We sat on the sofa. My cigarettes were on the coffee table, and she leaned forward and took one. I saw she was fighting back tears, but instead of talking to her, I stood up.
“I’ll go bring the luggage,” I said.
It was still raining outside, and I made several trips. Carmen unzipped one of the duffle bags, retrieved her cosmetics case, and went into the bathroom. I took off my wet jacket. I was tired and cold. I smoked a cigarette. Carmen was taking her time. I could hear the water running and her moving around. She was getting ready, I thought. What the hell, we were husband and wife. I got completely undressed, switched the lights off, and got under the covers. They felt silky and fresh. Finally, Carmen laid next to me perfectly still. I touched her and moved slowly toward her until our bodies touched. I kissed her. I caressed her body and kissed her again. She didn’t oppose it, but showed no initiative. She must be very tired, I thought. She must be overcome by the moment, the pressure of all the time that had passed. I rolled over and made love to her. It was tender — definitely not wild.
“Sorry,” I said in the end.
“Sorry? What for?”
“I was too quick. It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a woman.”
She didn’t answer. In a short while, her breathing became regular, and I guessed she had fallen asleep. In the next room, my son was sleeping, also. What else could I wish for?
Suddenly I felt wide-awake. No doubt, she had noticed. She could have questioned me, but she didn’t. It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a woman. She’s my wife. What idiot says something like that?