So here is the first chapter of my novel, My Heart Is a Drummer. Should I bother saying at this point that I assert all my rights as the author of this work and mention that it’s copyrighted? Because I just did.
My Heart Is a Drummer
by Adam Sydney
The first glimpse was always the sweetest.
Her car’s transmission died and would never be fixed. Her daughter had a hypodermic needle in her sweater drawer. Her meatloaf was horrible – even though she’d made it exactly the same as every other meatloaf in her life – and Joselito yelled at her. Maybe things were a little tough, and Lourdes had wanted to cry on the bus with her forehead pressed against the sweaty, cold window.
But instead, she’d wondered about the first glimpse she’d have of him that day, and she smiled. Some mornings, it would be a little more difficult than usual, and she’d have trouble believing that he’d really visit her that afternoon, too. So she’d pull out the other first glimpses, which felt framed to her, like little paintings, icons, and review them for their actuality and their joy. Today, she had faith.
Always, always, Lourdes was baffled by what she’d done in her small life to deserve his presence within it, yet she denied herself the questions that could spoil, those signs of faithlessness that destroyed miracles because they offended the divine. Thinking of him was a prayer whispered, catching sight of him a prayer answered.
When it finally arrived, it was over Rodney’s shoulder, right between Niqua at the register and Alfonso at the fry station. Donald was looking down at his phone, as usual, but she knew he’d seen her because he was smiling. His hair fell across his forehead toward the floor.
“Lourdes?” Rodney was breathing down at her.
“No, I’m not looking for apologies.”
She returned her attention to the monitor and worked a little faster than usual.
“I’m starting to wonder about that extra 45 cents I’m paying you.”
Lourdes focused on the smooth surface of the cheese slice on her fingers and replayed the first glimpse, between Niqua and Alfonso, over Rodney’s shoulder. This time, his hair was a curtain.
The restaurant was a bit busier than usual, and it took an extra ten minutes before she could head out the door, certain Donald’s eyes were trained on her. The sharp smell of winter would always and only ever mean New Jersey to her, and it smelled the most like New Jersey just after the layered stinks of the December Burger King. Today, the parking lot was humid with salted snow and laden with exhaust.
Situated at the back of the lot, his car was as far away from the camera as possible. Lourdes had taught Donald to park there. Of course, she knew they watched her; she’d watched them, too, smoking or making out. Everyone made fun of her out there, just as they did with each other, and she just smiled. If they really knew, they’d be silenced by the purity of it, only able to giggle as they cut their eyes at one other.
Now she stood by his car, and when he joined her, she was glad that she’d learned just kind things to say in English. Of course, she knew the other words because they had been directed at her so many times in the past thirty years. But seeing his face, knowing that his grin was all for her, she understood the uselessness of learning the bad things because they could never help in determining Donald.
“Lourdes.” A gift.
She only blushed. Donald didn’t speak Spanish, and when she thought about their time together while she was at home or at work, she cursed her handicap in English, an inability to say things exactly the way they should be said to him, about him, for him. There was so much to say. But now, when he was near and his gaze melted the space between them, she remembered that there were no languages, no barriers. There was only this one thing.
They entered the car, which was still a bit warm. As he moved his hand into her big coat, Lourdes stared effortlessly into Donald’s eyes, a way to consume him and offer herself back. Helping him undo her pants, she allowed herself to moan as he encouraged her. In fact, it was the only time and place that she had ever allowed herself to moan — even with Jose, it had been too private. This was what she gave back to him, and she knew that it meant so much more to Donald than anything she could ever accept from him. But was it enough?
Right from the beginning, Donald had understood that Lourdes’s whole life had been conducted in service to others, so she and Donald had immediately fallen into this particular way of appreciating one another, a way in which she was welcome to receive and never expected to give. It had never varied since, at first because Lourdes mistrusted her English, and then because neither of them seemed to want it to. But now, although fully clothed, she laid herself bare, and it was this act, so profound for Lourdes, that also worried her. Did he sense the loop that formed in her mind during their communion, the round of doubt that she regretted and was fighting against? Did he want more? Was he hoping desperately that she snake her way under his puffy jacket? She so wanted to return his kindness, and in fact it was this act that she thought about — if she thought about anything — as he drove her on, down in her lap. But as always, Lourdes’s hands lay firmly on Donald’s arm. She’d never betray her desire because she feared that any change could end her miracle, and she climaxed, and Donald smiled into her, deeply, and her worry was pushed out of their union for another day.
After seeping in his rapt attention for a few minutes, Lourdes touched his cheek. “You look so sad today.”
“I have to leave you now.”
“No! I have to leave you.” Had any of them watched this time, and had they seen the faces she must have made? But she didn’t care; let them see something pure.
Zaïda wanted them to see something when she was 14. The Pacific’s breeze was colder than usual that day, and she’d spent the whole afternoon constructing her sand sculpture for her Aunt and Uncle in Punta Sal. Having spent all of her attention on the flourishes and details, she only realized how astounding the whole thing was when she waded out into the sea, the sun now at her back, throwing her work into sharp relief. It wasn’t a few grains of sand shifted around, the thing was Zaïda. Her father had died having never seen a single thing from her, and her mother had never looked before, but now, finally, Zaïda had something for the people she loved to recognize.
Running up to the house, she quickly determined that no matter what she said or did, no one would ever come down to the beach to see the only thing that would ever come close to expressing everything in her soul. So she ate her shrimp that night silently, knowing that only their brothers and sisters had seen what she’d done, as the tide dragged her revelation out to sea. After that, she didn’t bother to be seen, and she wasn’t.
Donald turned his attention to the steering wheel, naked conflict at his eyes and his mouth. Lourdes never knew, she never asked, worried that her untrustworthy comprehension would only make things worse. But to witness his pain was unbearable, and to do nothing a crime she grappled with during quiet times, washing dishes, waiting for sleep to come.
He never asked for anything.
“I’m going to learn Spanish.”
“No.” She said it as gently as possible.
But how could she truly explain that she suspected these waves of sadness that periodically overtook him were due to the endless selflessness he showed her? That somehow, doing only one thing more for her would make his life even more miserable? That she didn’t understand, but she wanted desperately to, and she’d be honored to do whatever she could to make Donald’s life easier for him to bear?
“No, Donald.” She said only this and prayed that he read the rest in her eyes.
The sun was out and steamed patches of brown grass near Donald’s car. Lourdes felt more uncomfortable being there with the sun so strong at the windows, but the innocence of the whole thing was so fundamental that anyone who came upon them would have to feel the same way. People weren’t always nice, anymore, and they needed to be reminded, sometimes. Donald and her orgasm were both gifts from God. She wished the kids in the restaurant would someday be able to appreciate all the gifts that are already there, right inside of them.
She watched Donald eat the mistake chicken sandwich she’d saved for him, glad he’d finally told her that some of the other workers were doing things to his food. She’d been at Burger King for two months, now, and she just couldn’t understand how people could care so little about others, about life. Nothing was important; nothing was serious; everything was gay or cool. Lourdes had been brought up to believe that most things were important and serious and floated on the waves somewhere in between. Your little opinion depended mostly on which coast you stood and how the waves moved that day, but all was tiny against the ocean.
Still, she laughed. “You have — on your — mayo.” She pointed to the corner of his mouth, enjoying the lack of tension in her shoulder that his tenderness had brought but that would return soon enough because of all the tomatoes and lettuce and Rodney, always over her.
Donald laughed, too, as he wiped it off. But he looked so much more tired than even Monday. “This is just what I needed, Lourdes. Thank you so much for thinking of me.”
She stroked his face; his eyes were bruised from stress. “I think of you always. You know, I call you my angel in my head.” She didn’t know much, but she knew she could do this, at least.
Donald stopped chewing to tear up.
“Oh, no! I make you cry every time. I’m sorry.”
“Please. Don’t apologize to me, Lourdes. There isn’t anything… You’re the angel.”
“No. Sometimes everything seems so bad, but then I think of you. Everybody should have an angel.”
His crying changed a little; with four grown children, Lourdes knew crying. “Oh, what is it?”
A strong intake of air steadied his breathing. “Would you come to my New Year’s party?” Donald gazed into her, laying wide an exposed panorama of hope and pain and need. His intensity was a constant shock to her, but this was more so. “Please.”
Lourdes averted her face and inspected the back of the restaurant. She thought of the bus to Newark that late at night, then the vomit and drunks. Then she thought of the other guests and how different she was bound to be. Then she thought of the private relationship that she and Donald had created, how she cherished it as it was and how it would have to change when put into words for others. Then she thought of the truth about Donald, which she knew he held close for her until he felt she was ready, experience obviously informing his actions and also at the core of the truth itself. This was in the car, too, somewhere.
She thought of her mortifying limitations and of losing her one and only angel.
Then she thought of herself, aged five, back in San Juan, when a neighbor boy the same age attempted to rape her, based on the relationship his father had established with him. Lourdes understood this, and also understood why the boy sold cheap wallets to tourists for 10 years so he could finish college and become the executive director of a food bank in Schenectady. All the apologies, all the sacrifices — she knew it was easier than the other way, the hardening and dismissing and forgetting.
To see his joy was to see a raw, beating heart, and Lourdes knew that she’d never regret her decision. But a New Year’s Party?!
Then the tears returned. “You’re so wonderful to me, Lourdes, and I’m — -” Donald trailed off into a slow shake of the head. “I am going to learn Spanish for you. I’m not going to let things continue like this. I promise.”
Lourdes cursed her limited English and railed against her fear, but still she wouldn’t ask what he meant by ‘letting things continue like this.’ They were honest with each other in so many other, gratifying ways. That alone was more than she’d ever asked for from her life, and she was determined to avoid anything that might alter her special gift for as long as she could. Things always change, she knew that, but in a way, she was barricading against old age now, collecting as many memories as possible that might save her when things got worse.
It was so strange: her favorite car in the world, something with which she was so achingly intimate, parked in a place that was intimate for her in all the other ways. It was the first thing she saw, down at the curb, and Lourdes felt her heart spasm, not sure if she was thrilled or terrified by the situation. Or both.
Then she noticed the expressionless Asian man, a little older than she was, in her seat, staring through the windshield out into the heavy snowfall, into the night. Things were changing.
The man looked like he’d had a comfortable life, and Lourdes couldn’t help but feel a little silly in her Wal-Mart sweat pants and old jacket with the stain on the back. She understood Donald wouldn’t care, and right now she didn’t really have time to care, herself, but she knew she would be reworking this moment over and over again over the next days and weeks, wondering how they discussed her poverty afterwards. Probably gently and charitably, if at all, but there would also be the mental echo of the shameful jacket, the boarded window on the second floor, the tennis shoes hanging from the wire above the car. These men couldn’t help but retain those things, coming from Montclair, and a flush of embarrassment quickly crossed her forehead.
And just like the Burger King, there were youngsters behind her, watching her. Here, they peered down from the windows, wondering who on earth would ever want to associate with their mother. She felt their exhausting presence sixty feet above her, and prayed that the snow was thick enough to obscure the street below.
As if stung, Lourdes sucked air through her teeth: Donald was standing a few feet away from her in the shadow of the porch. Her heart misfired. Meeting him at night, finding him almost lurking, being asked to contend with a third person — so much was suddenly changing. It was the panic of slipping to the cliff’s edge, so she took a deep breath and resolved to change as little as possible, herself.
But her eyes were adjusting to the light, and she saw that Donald had changed. He looked drained and frail and his expression, in her experience an epic battleground where love quickly and easily triumphed, now just looked haunted and vacant, a dispassionate evaluation of her, somehow.
It was the one look her angel was never supposed to give her, and Newark the one place in the world he was never supposed to be.
“Donald, you look so… What’s wrong?”
Relief at this flooded past the grayness around his eyes, and she felt a little better.
“I really want to hug you, Lourdes.”
“Joselito’s watching. Nobody comes to visit me. I said you were from work.”
“I guess I am.”
“You don’t have to come here to say you’re sorry about today.” She glanced at the man in the car. “I know how busy you are.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Lourdes knew that look; she’d been giving it to herself in the mirror for the past twenty years. Back then, she’d let out the cat, a misshapen, confused tom, by mistake and hadn’t bothered to look for him right away. She’d been nursing Carina, so she only moved the blinds and looked down around the dumpster, but the cat had run out into the street and had been immediately hit by a car. He’d dragged himself to the gutter, twisted, and panted for an hour before she’d found him, only to die, staring up into the sky as she lifted him. It was the worst anger, the kind that could only be directed at herself, and it still felt the same, all these years later. Some things she had no right to forgive.
But she didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else ever feeling that way. Especially poor Donald, who looked to be wearing right through his life. She wasn’t a mute animal with only heaven ahead of her. She understood.
A weak wind blew snow into the alcove, wetting the outside of Lourdes’s hands. The two of them couldn’t even find shelter there.
“This is not right!” Taking one final look at the car, Lourdes turned back to the light and steam heat of her building. “I’ll be right back.”
The snow had muffled Lourdes’s arrival, and she stood, a few feet behind Donald, clutching her two plastic bags and worrying that the men would notice that she’d changed her clothing. He was on his knees, leaned up against the passenger door of his car. The window was down and his head rested awkwardly on the seat before him as he stared down her street into the flurries. The other man was right next to Donald, in her seat.
His hesitation was too long. “Oh, Lourdes! I’m just — “
The man removed his seatbelt carefully, so as not to hit Donald with it. “Why don’t we get you into my seat, and then I’ll just drive you home.” He smiled apologetically at Lourdes, and she came up to the car, instinctively aware of her role, rubbing Donald’s shoulder before helping him stand up as steadily as possible. The man quickly vacated his seat, and the two of them got Donald strapped in.
As they backed away, the stranger quietly thanked Lourdes, who made no attempt to hide her distress.
“He’s tired. Maybe he has a cold. He’s been so busy today.”
Lourdes finally looked the man in the eye. “He has?”
But when she returned her attention to Donald, she found him staring at her, studying her and begging her all at once. She didn’t understand what he wanted and was too disturbed to ask, so she turned to the man and tried to smile.
“Oh. Lourdes, this is Joseph. Joseph, Lourdes.”
She shook the man’s gloved hand, aware that snowflakes were catching on her eyelashes and glad at least that was still the same. But she felt Donald’s gaze burning into her and understood only that it had something to do with this introduction.
“How are you?”
“Pleasure to meet you, Lourdes.” The man pitied, apologized with his eyes: she must’ve been failing at hiding her distress.
Signs of Donald’s illness were even more pronounced once he was in the car, and his head lolled against the seat. He turned away from her, defeated, disappointed, and massaged the gear shift. Lourdes had always been so thankful that his face was a window, a slave; this was the first time she had wished it wasn’t so.
Deciding to focus on the one thing that still made sense to her, Lourdes peered down at him, poring over his appearance as mothers do for clues, and therefore, for possible remedies. All this craziness was probably just due to his sickness. “You should go home, Donald. We can talk later. Oh — ” She looked down at the bags in her hands and then back to Donald, and in attempting to reconcile the two things, finally became overwhelmed. Her eyes welled up. “I don’t know — I made brownies and thought — “
The man smiled politely when she handed her bags to him. “That’s very kind of you.”
Neither Donald nor Joseph acknowledged her tears, so she was certain, then, that her reaction must have been appropriate for the situation. Fear gripped her more tightly.
Without looking up: “Lourdes, my party on Sunday. Rascal’s, you know the place?”
“Okay. You should go and get some rest now. Please.”
“You’re going to be there?”
Donald reached his hand out the window, and Lourdes took it deliberately, no longer concerned with what her children might think.
“Joseph will be there.”
“At the party.”
Lourdes looked up at the apartment buildings that loomed all around them, their lights and sounds so far away now, almost gone in the heavy snowing.
“Angels have hearts for everyone, Donald.”
A note of harshness crept into Donald’s voice that Lourdes had never heard before, but there was also the familiar self-effacement and contrition: “I’m not an angel.”
“Then there are no angels.” Lourdes shook her head at Joseph and backed away from the car, unable to experience any more. “I’m sorry. Go, go!”
She moved out of their decreasing sphere quickly, feeling already the frustration burning at her throat. He was leaving her now, and she’d failed in so many ways. She’d somehow even managed to make his life more painful. Lourdes didn’t know what was wrong; she didn’t know how to help him; she didn’t know what she’d done to hurt him; she didn’t have the capacity to understand.
Donald was still there, though, right in front of her! She still had time to make things right. She’d try until they understood each other. But she moved toward the car just as it pulled away. Lourdes could only vow to herself, then, as she watched the tail lights dissolve into the silent, rapid snow flakes, that she would make things right when she saw him next. At his party.