La Parada

Kristin Vukovic

USA

Peach-hued clouds slash across the Mexican sky like a rip in a banner of grey-blue fabric as night falls. Hovering in the darkness, the illuminated cross on La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel burns a bright white. Hollow bells resonate in my stomach, their lonely tones evaporating into the stillness. Dogs bark in a chorus and I want to howl with them, to hear my voice make the sounds I know will scare me, deep belly cries disrupting the solace I’m seeking in San Miguel de Allende.

The wet bar on my roof patio is made entirely of concrete: hard and grey and cold to the touch. Heavy and solid, yet penetrable. Water and time create cracks and with them bring the realisation that too soon the day will come when cement returns to sand, bodies become ashes, the earth demands a transformation of matter. The globe rotates and we don’t feel it, although the planets dance in predictable cycles. But life is not predictable. I see Lita in the stars that dot the San Miguel heavens, not in the ash-filled urn back home in New York City.

Tyres rumble over cobblestones on calle Recreo. My footsteps are steady like a metronome, the only thing steady about me. Crickets chirp in harmony with the beats of my footfalls. I’m so entranced by their sounds that I almost miss the restaurant.

“Hola, buenos noches,” I say. “Solamente uno.”

I’m used to being alone. An only child; solo; one.

“La bar esta bien?”

“Sí. It’s OK.” The host senses my hesitation.

“O…” He gestures to a table in the corner, near a wall constructed of irregularly shaped stones resembling drywall, like they build in Croatia or Greece.

“Perfecto,” I say.

A song that sounds like a fado plays in the background, but this is a Peruvian restaurant, not Portuguese. The tones are mournful — I wonder what the woman is really feeling, if she is channelling the devastating material of her life through someone else’s words or if she is pretending to express sorrow through her singing.

“Are you alone?” the man at the table next to me says. We’re eating dinner at La Parada, which translates as “The Stop” in Spanish. Cars making a pit stop; a stopover; an intersection where people meet. A moment where time pauses, or motion ceases. Mexican license plates are everywhere: the bar, the washbasin, the bathroom lock that slides right to hold the saloon-like doors together. These license plates have stories, each belonging to a vehicle that has lost or changed its identity.

I feel compelled to tell the friendly Canadian man — Marin — and his wife, Cynthia, that my husband was here over the weekend, I’m in a writing workshop, so I’m not alone, no, not really. I want to deny my solitude. But I am alone. I walk home at night, wary of the man in the shadowy doorway on an empty street. I am afraid of tripping on cobblestones as I’ve done once today already. I don’t know what is making me feel so fearful. I only know that, since Lita died, I need to be careful with life, to cradle it like a small bird with delicate bones.

***

Lita no longer wore her waist-length hair in a braid, and now, 14 years after I first met her, it was streaked with silver. She gave me a hug. “Kris-tin,” she said in her raspy voice, drawing out the syllables of my name. I told her she was looking good and assumed she was back on her swimming routine, maybe even smoking less. Her eyebrows raised in surprise.

I hadn’t seen Lita in a year. Our relationship was complicated: she didn’t approve of my marriage to an Indian man, and my husband never forgave her for trying to separate us before and after our marriage. We met at our local bar near Lita’s Morningside Heights brownstone in Manhattan.

We ordered glasses of Pinot Noir, our tradition. She always used to outdrink me, and I teased her since she was drinking slowly. We caught up on life, reminiscing about the years when I lived in a studio in her building. She asked me how long it had been since we met. “Fourteen years, almost to the month,” I said. “Fourteen years,” she repeated, her forehead crinkling like a compressed accordion. Lita had seen me through my undergraduate and graduate years, attended my graduation party, engagement party, wedding in Croatia and my 30th birthday. She was the guardian of my young adult memories and had witnessed my transition to womanhood.

I met Lita the December after 9/11 following a brief stint in Los Angeles, a college dropout following her naïve acting dreams. Reality settled in when I couldn’t get a job seating people at the Jay Leno Show because I didn’t have a college degree. Being accepted into a returning students program felt like a streak of fortune. At 22, moving to the city was a second chance. Life felt ripe with possibility. I imagined glossing over all the mistakes I’d made like new asphalt on a pockmarked street, the ugly past hidden beneath a smooth coat of black.

Lita’s brownstone was plain and beautiful. The oak panelling in the entryway was warm and inviting; there were flowers on the fireplace and a dish of candy on a small table near the banister. A miniature Christmas tree covered in ornaments and lights glowed in the corner. I confirmed with the broker that the building was rent-stabilised; I was incredulous that a space so magnificent could be within my budget. Lita peered down from the second floor and stuck her head over the polished railing, her long braid swinging like a tail. Her skin was tan even in winter.

“You here for 3F?” she rasped.

The broker took out her portfolio and scanned it. Lita eyed me suspiciously.

“That’s the one,” returned my broker.

We passed Lita’s second floor studio, below 3F. She had returned quickly like a crab tucking into the safety of its shell, leaving the door open a crack. I saw her eyes scan me up and down, felt her watch my retreating figure as I ascended the second flight of stairs to what I knew would be my home.

I entered through the enormous wooden door marked 3F and faced the kitchen, which fit squarely into a converted closet. The pre-war studio had twelve-foot-high ceilings and three tall bay windows. A full-size refrigerator stood in the middle of the open space, unplugged. Inlaid parquet oak was worn with character by the soles of previous tenants. White crown moulding offset cream walls: I imagined my pictures hanging there, the ones my actor ex-boyfriend painted from me, en route from Los Angeles on a Mayflower moving van. Handsome bookcases flanked an antique fireplace. Later, Lita told me that the room used to be the library of the brownstone. I imagined neat rows of books locked behind the glass doors.

When I met Lita for the second time, I learned that she was the landlady and owner of the building. We discovered we were both only children and shared a love of travel. Lita had been a travel photographer, but took over managing the building when her parents died. She lived in 2F, and had grown up on the first floor. Since it was such a small building and her home, she interviewed all the potential tenants. She took an immediate liking to my father. Our families came from the same region: Lita’s father was Albanian, her mother was Greek, and my father is Croatian-American. Lita would later tell me that he reminded her of her own father. After meeting my father, it was a “done deal,” as she liked to say.

I was sick the week I moved in. There was nothing but a bed in the big, bare room, an express purchase from Macy’s. I only knew one person in the city, my Bosnian friend Senka, who let me stay with her during my apartment search. She lived down in Murray Hill and worked odd hours for the NBC foreign desk. She was probably sleeping in preparation for her 4 a.m. shift, so I didn’t want to ask her to come uptown and bring me cold medication.

Around 8 o’clock, I heard a knock at the door. I opened it to find Lita standing in her bathrobe holding a steaming bowl of soup.

“Thought you might need something homemade,” she said. “It’s goulash. I hope you like it.”

From that point on we were “like family,” as she always used to say.

Shortly after I moved in, I met Lita’s husband, Piotr, from Poland. Everyone called him Peter. Lita met him in Greece, on the island of Skopelos, where she vacationed during summers. Peter was a handyman who refurbished the entire brownstone, meticulously scraping old varnish from the entryway and staircase by hand, patch by patch. He refused to use varnish remover, “Too many chemicals,” he said. When he progressed to the third floor, I remember being awakened at four or five in the morning by the sound of scraping wood, or the pungent smell of new varnish wafting under my door. Years later, I learned he was bipolar and an alcoholic. In the bad times, he became so unrecognisable that I mistook him for a homeless man on Broadway.

Lita separated from Peter after her mother died. Their relationship was platonic, and they had been living together in 2F for years. Peter had ups and downs like calamitous tidal waves, pulling him under. Lita often felt like she was drowning, too, a sensation she mitigated with Pinot Noir. But she always managed to drag them both ashore and clean up the wreckage.

***

At our local bar, Lita wondered aloud how nearly a year had passed without us meeting, not even once for coffee or a glass of wine. It was the longest period of time we had been apart in 14 years. When I called to get together, she said, “I’ve been thinking about you.”

Peter showed up unexpectedly after we’d each had two glasses of Pinot Noir.

“Lita has cancer,” Peter said.

He was drunk.

“What?” I stammered. I couldn’t stop the tears from falling, quick like rain.

“She’s dying,” he said.

Lita hadn’t wanted to tell me about the cancer. She was angry with Peter. He said it was in her chest, her spine and her brain. Through the haze of alcohol everything seemed surreal. Suddenly, Lita looked so frail. When I held her hands, her bones felt bird-like through her skin. Cancer, that unforgiving beast, was ravaging her inside.

A week later, Lita was in the hospital. At first she didn’t tell me, and she didn’t want me to visit. Finally, she relented. I went to see her on the Sunday before I left to visit my husband’s family in India. A thin hospital gown clung to her body. Her rimless reading glasses were set low on her nose. Her hair was greasy and unkempt. She had always taken great care of her hair, splurging on expensive haircuts and products, the few indulgences she allowed herself besides travel. I held her hand as the nurse gave her oral morphine and fast-acting intravenous painkillers. “I’m like a junkie,” she joked, pointing to the needle in her forearm. I tried to laugh but it came out hoarse.

Lita wasn’t eating, so on Monday I brought her a F&%*ing Genius Blueberry Protein shake from Juice Press. She loved the taste and the name. She sipped a little shot out of a Dixie cup covered with flowers. I also brought a turquoise bracelet with a silver lotus charm, a Moleskin diary, a poppy-stem pen and a miniature Christmas tree with an ornamental golden bulb. She wore the stretch bracelet on the same wrist as her hospital identification. Her eyes lit up when she saw the tree. “That’s what really got me,” she said, smiling, “But I’m not making a frigging death journal.” Still, she told me to put the journal and pen on the windowsill near the tree.

A few minutes passed and Lita struggled to rise from the bed. Her spine protruded through the gown ties, each knotted in a bow. Wrinkled tan flesh hung loosely on her thighbones. She returned from the bathroom brushing her hair. I asked if she wanted me to braid it. The image of her leaning over the bannister at 304, her long braid swinging, flashed through my head. She said no, but let me hold her hand.

We sat in silence. The hospital bed breathed in and out, alternating pressure and sighing out air. Lita closed her eyes and grimaced when a wave of pain made its way through her body. “You can’t believe this pain,” she said. When the nurse came on her rounds and asked Lita to rate her pain on a scale of one to ten, she said, without hesitation, “One hundred.”

When the nurse left, Lita said, “This isn’t fair.”

“No, it isn’t,” I said.

She stared at me through her glasses, child-like, her eyes rimmed with tears. “Am I going to die?”

“I hope to God not!” I said.

As my vision became blurry through my own tears, I didn’t know what else to say.

The day we left to visit my husband’s family in India, my parents came to be with Lita for a week. They stayed in the fifth-floor apartment of 304 and went to the hospital with Peter every day. I called my mother’s iPhone from India and she put it on FaceTime. Lita was tech illiterate and had never experienced FaceTime. She couldn’t believe she was seeing me on a screen from halfway around the world. My mother asked if she wanted a new iPhone and Lita shot her a devilish grin and said, in her throaty voice, “Yes, I want one.” I told her she sounded like herself again.

On New Year’s Eve, I woke up to a text message from my mother: Give us a call now before we go to bed. I knew Lita had died. I called them and we cried together, our voices traveling through phone lines that stretched more than 8,000 miles. My husband hugged me. I didn’t need to tell him what happened.

He had booked an afternoon boat cruise with friends on New Year’s Eve. I wore dark sunglasses. Everyone drank gin and tonics, beer and wine. The music blasted. In the surrounding beauty of Goa, my grief felt invisible. I sat at the bow with our friend’s daughter, eleven-year-old Anaia, who had taken a liking to me. I wondered if she sensed my loss. I braided her hair and we watched dolphins play in the wake of the waves while golden eagles dove for fish in the Arabian Sea. The day signalled the promise of a new year, but my mind was alternately in the hospital room and at 304. Lita never said goodbye to her home, the place where she lived for 62 years. Like her mother, she went to the hospital and never came home.

My parents arrived in New York City the day after we returned from India. They had purchased tickets when Lita was alive, anticipating they would visit her in the hospital again, but she died earlier than anyone expected. I helped them carry their luggage up 304’s five steep flights of stairs, which Peter had meticulously refinished. The shades of Lita’s second floor apartment were drawn like closed eyes. Peter was sick. I brought him chicken soup and cold meds. It was my turn to bring soup to someone who was sick and alone on a cold January day. I never got the recipe for Lita’s goulash. There were so many things left unfinished, things I was never able to do with Lita.

Three summers ago we planned a trip to the island of Skopelos. Lita told me not to come because Peter had gone on one of his benders and she needed to get him sober and back on his bipolar meds. I was in Croatia and already had tickets. But Lita always wanted to handle everything on her own. Don’t come, she’d said, in that way that meant there’d be trouble if I did. Don’t come, she’d said when I wanted to visit her in the hospital before I left for India. She didn’t want me to see her or Peter that way. She didn’t want me to hold those heavy memories in my heart.

I remembered Lita holding my hands in the hospital, fingering my rings. She’d asked about my antique intaglio, which my husband gave me for our anniversary. I’d spotted it while in Florence, at a small shop on Ponte Vecchio. It was an oval piece of lapis lazuli engraved with a dragon perched on a crown and the phrase CEDE DEO. “A quote from Virgil, meaning ‘Yield to the God,’” I’d told her. Lita ran her thumb over the surface. I thought she’d been interested in the ring itself, but she must have been thinking about her mother’s jewellery that Peter had pawned to buy alcohol and possibly drugs, which I only discovered after her death.

There was nothing else of value besides her brownstone, which Larry — her friend, lawyer, and executor of her will — decided to sell. In the last months of her life, she had to take a mortgage on the building and borrow money from Larry. “She said Peter and the building were killing her,” Larry said. She had lost everything, and I’d been completely unaware. Guilt washed over me for the time I hadn’t spent with her, the suffering she had to face alone.

I recalled sitting on the beach with Lita near my parents’ place in Florida the December after I’d graduated college. Lita extinguished her butts in the beach ashtray my mother had provided, an empty McCann’s Steel Cut Oats tin can. When I’d talked with Lita about the long-term effects of smoking, she used to wave her hand and cough, “We’ve all gotta go one day.” If I pressed her, she glared at me and said, “Put a lid on it, kid.” We gazed out at the Gulf of Mexico.

“Sometimes I think of selling it, of moving to someplace like this and just kicking back on the beach, watching the water,” she said wistfully. “I can’t though. Every time I walk in that door, I face the memories. Helen on the first floor with cookies ready for me after school, my dad coming home from work. He built all this so that I could be alright. He was a soda jerk, paid off the mortgages penny by penny. Flipped burgers so that we could have a home.”

She took a drag on her cigarette.

“I’m like an orphan now,” she said. “You don’t realise it until you’re alone.”

“We’re all alone in the end,” I said.

She took another drag.

“You got that right, kid. It’s just some of us don’t have someone extra to lean on.”

***

San Miguel de Allende’s colourful landscape seems to mock my grief, conspiring with Goa’s beauty. From India to San Miguel, I’ve carried my sorrow. Its heavy load bleeds into the infant new year.

Peter calls when I’m in Mexico. “She loved you,” he tells me over the long-distance line.

“I loved her, too,” I say.

I loved her like family.

La Parada: a pit stop; a stopover; an intersection where people meet. San Miguel was created as a stopover on the Spanish silver route, and here, I am forced to confront Lita’s death alone. I am forced to acknowledge the awful truth that I will never see her again. We will never drink Pinot Noir together again. I will never have the chance to describe to her the generosity of strangers, like the woman in a San Miguel shop who invited me to dinner at her house, knowing only my name.

I would tell Lita about La Parroquia church, a pink peacock announcing its splendour. I would tell her how peach-hued clouds glowed against the darkening sky, how crickets chirped in a chorus with the beats of my footfalls. I would describe the restaurant’s wall that could have been in Croatia or Greece, the sweeping view from my rooftop surrounded by howling dogs, and the stars, suspended gem-like in the heavens.

I imagine her on that island I’ve never visited, together on the trip we never made together, gazing out at the Aegean Sea just as we had gazed at the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. I imagine the stars there, how the same constellations shine. Lita had expressed her wish to be cremated, her ashes spread on the island of Skopelos. According to Greek legend, Skopelos was founded by Staphylus — Greek for grape — a son of the wine god Dionysos. I will stop there and raise a glass of Pinot Noir to her.




Kristin Vukovic is the Streetview Editor for Panorama.