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Personal Essays

The University of Marias

Daily life can wear you down when your freshman-year roommates are gray-haired and flirting with dementia. Then again, the best lessons may come that way.

Gregory Gillespie, Peg's Grandmother, 1998-99. Courtesy the Gregory Gillespie Estate and Gallery NAGA.

I didn’t know my college experience was unusual until I left Miami. I’d listen as friends told stories about keg parties with homemade slip ‘n’ slides and mac ‘n’ cheese wrestling, and think back on my own Saturday nights at university. The image that usually comes to mind is of me sitting in the living room in a flowered nightgown, watching Sábado Gigante while my gray-haired roommates snored and farted in their armchairs.

This was my freshman year—1999, and nothing, I’m sure, like what Prince had in mind. I was living with four stoop-shouldered, waddling ladies, each some gradient on the spectrum of Maria: Maria Nela, Maria Manuela, Maria Carmen, and simply, Maria. They were the cousins and aunts who’d helped raise my father in this country, and when he was the only one who had children, my siblings and I became theirs by extension. They’d lived together since the beginning of time and argued like the Kramdens, shouting to finish each other’s sentences. It was not uncommon to hear them yell, several times a day, “Just go ahead and die already!”

My move felt a little more like entrapment than a voluntary relocation. I’d opted to stay in Miami for college, and the Marias’ house was closer to campus than my mother’s. What began as a few sleepovers a week after my evening classes soon turned into full-time residence. They’d call on random days to casually ask when they should expect me for dinner. “There’s no problem if you can’t come,” my aunt would say. “We just haven’t eaten all day because we were waiting for you.” I’d leave a spare set of clothes there and on my next visit my jeans and underwear would find their way into the wash at the precise moment I needed them, leaving me no option but to hang around in a giant Winnie the Pooh T-shirt while I waited for them to dry. I’d bring more clothes to avoid this the next time I came, until suddenly there was a whole dresser full of my stuff in the guest bedroom. The Marias were experts at this sort of thing. They had a way of turning people into boomerangs.

When my dad traveled from Cuba alone at 13, leaving his parents behind for what would be ten years, it was to live with two of the Marias and their mother in Spain. Later he would immigrate with them to a factory town in New Jersey where he’d decide he didn’t like the lack of ESL options at his junior high school and hop the train down to Miami, arriving on the doorstep of the eldest Maria (we called her Tata), clutching the same pale blue suitcase he’d lugged with him from Cuba. He worked after school at car washes and construction sites to help pay her rent. He skipped class and got into a few fights, but he never made too much trouble at home—Tata ruled with an iron fist, and his own father reminded him of her generosity in every letter.

The Marias eventually ended up all living together at Tata’s house, while my dad got married, moved out, and started his own family. But he would always come back to the Marias. When we needed a place to stay between houses, when he and my mother divorced, when he wanted a home-cooked tortilla to remind him of Spain. They fed and mothered him and he, the most Americanized of their lot, helped them navigate jobs and finances.

The last time my dad came to visit me I woke up one morning to find him pruning my plants in his underwear. When I mentioned this to my sister later she laughed and said she found that very hard to picture; he’s never exactly been the domestic type. But then we both stopped to consider it and agreed it might not be such a stretch, given that he lived for so many years with Tata, a woman whose porch practically required a machete to walk through. It’s likely she taught him to care for plants, too.

By the time I lived with her in college, Tata was backsliding into dementia. For a while we thought she’d designed the condition for her own amusement. She pretended not to recognize Maria Carmen, her least favorite sister-in-law, asking, “Who’s this old hag?” whenever she came upon her in the kitchen. For church on Sundays she’d dress like it was Tacky Tourist Day, emerging from her room in an oversize Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts and a smirk. She’d walk around with ham in the pockets of her bathrobe until the whole house was engulfed in the stench. If my aunts mentioned getting a dog—something they wanted desperately—she was suddenly coherent enough to announce that it was her house and dogs were not allowed. To which my aunts would retort, “Fine, we’ll just get one when you die. We’ll pick it up on the way home from the funeral!”

I was, I think, a happy distraction for them. Under their roof I was a little girl. La niña. I needed to be sheltered, fed, reminded to never leave the house without first putting on earrings or perfume. They spent their days worrying aloud about my next meal, although I was always served the same things: instant oatmeal for breakfast; a chicken breast for lunch and dinner; and lentils as an iron supplement when I was menstruating. My lunch was packed in a picnic-size cooler everyday, each item stored in recycled margarine containers wrapped in several layers of foil. (Tata would also give me a dollar for lunch, then forget and give me another one an hour later. I told myself it would be insulting to refuse the money.)

I tried to do my part and pitch in where I could. I acted as intermediary in their fights. I helped Carmita make long distance calls to her family in Puerto Rico. During one particularly wet hurricane, we all worked together to drain the sunken living room, those of us under 70 emptying buckets of rainwater out the windows while the older women stacked plants and furniture up high.

The Marias were like zombies waiting up for me every night, their nightgowns backlit by the TV’s glow.

The Marias liked to describe my social skills as completely two-dimensional: Either I woke up in the morning with what was affectionately known as “diarrhea of the mouth,” or I’d go to bed at night having barely formed a sentence aloud. True as this might be, I can also tell you that trying to make your voice heard in a house full of loud Cubans is akin to attempting to outrun a speeding train on a unicycle. While juggling. Sometimes it’s wiser to not compete. My siblings and I are all soft-spoken. I became an observer, and a relatively shy teen. I didn’t make many friends at college.

Once, I tried inviting my study partner back to the house. I called ahead to let my aunt know. She hesitated. “But I only bought five chicken breasts.” I could hear shouting in the background: “Who is she bringing? There aren’t enough chicken breasts!” My aunt yelled for the others to shut up then came back on, her voice serious and steady. “You can’t bring that girl over here. I don’t have a chicken breast for her.” Dating, too, was out of the question—the Marias were like zombies waiting up for me every night, their nightgowns backlit by the TV’s glow.

I was working part-time at a local gym but decided to get a second job to keep me busy. I enjoyed working. Like my dad, I held a slew of part-time positions throughout high school and college. I’d say I liked serving the public but I think I just preferred the company of strangers. I could be whomever I wanted with strangers, or not talk much at all. (People have a way of revealing a lot when they think you’re not really listening.) So when my dad’s girlfriend told me about a nearby dentist who needed a receptionist for his office, I asked her to set me up with an interview.

The office of the man I’ll call Dr. Gonzalez was a narrow, wood-paneled suite in a South Miami strip mall that also housed a team of divorce and immigration attorneys, La Virgen Maria Dollar Discount, and Roberto’s Phat Fade Barbershop. Inside, I was greeted in Spanish by a Cuban woman wearing several gold bracelets and a ring on every finger. She led me back to an office where Dr. Gonzalez sat at his desk, nearly eclipsed by huge stacks of files. He was a small man with hands the size and texture of turtle feet. His forehead was so shiny that I wondered if it was grease and not gel that held his slicked hair in place.

He seemed surprised to see someone like me standing before him. Dr. Gonzalez was a Nicaraguan whose entire staff was made up of recently arrived Cubans. I looked decidedly American in my button-down shirt and sweater vest. He offered me a seat and squinted through his glasses. Then he put his forefinger and pinky to his right ear and nodded for me to do the same, making a ringing noise out of one long rolled r. I looked around before picking up my line. “Um…hello?”

“Is this Dr. Gonzalez’s office?” he asked in Spanish, staring me right in the eyes. “Um… Si?… Si señor?” Then, catching on, I continued: “Esta es la oficina del doctor Gonzalez.” He seemed pleased with this response and requested an appointment with himself, asking me to check on several dates for him. I nodded and played along, flipping through the imaginary calendar on my lap. When the appointment was scheduled he gently hung up his forefinger and pinky on the desk and congratulated me on my manners, my use of the formal “you,” usted—something, he said, leaning forward on the desk, young Cubans don’t even know exists.

I worked the morning shift before my classes. I got to know the other women at the front desk, women with children and buzz cuts and high-pitched helium laughs. Like my aunts, they never cared to learn English. They flirted with the old men coming in to get fitted for dentures, accepting their gifts of Cuban coffee and pastries with a playful slap on the chest. If the old men showed up empty-handed the women pretend-pouted, propping a hand on their hip like, What, you forgot about me?

The front desk team treated Dr. Gonzalez like a king. They called him “El Doctor,” as if he was the only doctor on the planet. “El Doctor should never be interrupted,” they sing-songed. “You should always memorize El Doctor’s schedule first thing in the morning.” Despite the look of worry on their faces when I started, I was able to keep up and even developed an intricate color-coded filing system. I took it as a compliment to my ingenuity when Dr. Gonzalez called me into his office and asked me to spearhead a “special project.” I wasn’t told what the project was exactly, only that it would require me to come in late, after class. It would take me years to recognize this as the first sign of trouble.

I said yes. I had nowhere better to be after class.

When I walked out of Dr. Gonzalez’s office, the rest of the front desk team was crowded by the door. They confronted me like a gaggle of fat middle school girls, hissing coffee breath in my face. “Dr. Gonzalez wants you to do a special project? You’ve only been here a few weeks.”

He’d pull me from the front desk to show me a particularly interesting X-ray, his arm brushing against mine as he quizzed me on the teeth’s digits.

I shrugged and returned to my post at the front desk. I knew they were jealous. I was much younger than they were, and my color-coded filing system really was quite impressive.

After class that night I returned to find the office manager sitting at a rollaway desk in the corner of Dr. Gonzalez’s office, a tall stack of files at her feet as she typed into the computer. El Doctor stood over her, staring right through the cheerful studio portraits of his wife and two kids on the wall in front of him. His tie was loose around his neck, the lines framing his mouth grown deeper and shinier. He looked like a presidential candidate who’d lost an election after a long campaign.

I asked what work needed to be done and the office manager sucked her teeth. Dr. Gonzalez looked at me with defeated eyes. He told me not to worry about it, thanked me for coming and went back to staring at the wall. I figured the office manager had complained about not being selected for the special project, but I couldn’t understand why Dr. Gonzalez looked so sad about it, or why this woman with a family of her own wanted to work after hours. I felt sorry for her. I’m in college, I thought. I have my whole life ahead of me. I know Excel! I could run this entire strip mall if I wanted!

 

And yet I was desperately undecided about what to do with the rest of my life. I was enrolled in a random assortment of courses and approached Religious Studies and Statistics with equal enthusiasm. I was always eager to learn something new in the hope that it might lead me to my destined occupation. Spending so much time with X-rays and molds of teeth made me wonder if dentistry wasn’t the way to go. I began studying the ceramic mouths on my lunch break, clamping my chicken breast between them and examining the indents left by their sharp incisors. Dr. Gonzalez took note and invited me to watch him in the exam room. I looked over his shoulder into strangers’ mouths as he pointed out laterals and bicuspids, the apparent need for a crown or a bridge. He’d pull me from the front desk to show me a particularly interesting X-ray, his arm brushing against mine as he quizzed me on the teeth’s digits. The front desk team complained that they were too busy for me to be playing student, but El Doctor only bragged about how quickly I was catching on.

It was around then that Dr. Gonzalez started with the gifts. The first was a shiny tin water bottle he presented to me early one Monday, before anyone else had arrived for work. He said he’d seen it while shopping with his family over the weekend and he just had to buy it for me. When I seemed confused he said, “I noticed you drink a lot. From the fountain.” It was true. I had started a new morning jogging routine and I never felt hydrated enough. I thanked him and took the bottle up to the front desk.

Next came the Tupperware. Dr. Gonzalez must have seen me liberating my lunch from its foil confinement everyday and identified an area of need in my life. The Tupperware was mint green, of the classic, airtight caliber ordered from catalogues at parties. He handed it over with excitement. “Don’t you need this?”

When I brought the Tupperware home my aunt scowled at it. “What, that Nicaraguan thinks he’s better than us?” The Marias were all divorced or widowed or eternally single. They were suspicious about men in general; even more so about an older married man gifting Tupperware to their niña.

They weren’t the only ones with suspicions. Dr. Gonzalez’s wife started calling the front desk several times a day, asking first to speak with her husband and then later to the office manager, who’d raise an eyebrow at me as she hung up the phone. “Be careful…” she’d warn.

 

My last gift was given to me late on a Friday. El Doctor called me into an exam room and loudly asked if I could drop off a mold at the lab on my way out. I was pretty cautious at this point—on the verge of quitting—so I began to say no, when he put a white lab bag in both my hands and whispered, “Don’t open it until you’re far away from here.” The bag was stapled shut on all sides, its edges rolled up and tightly flattened against whatever boxy thing was inside.

I know I should have thrown it back at him and walked out. But my curiosity has always had a way of trumping my pride. Challenge me to a blind taste test and I’ll take it, even if it means letting a goldfish squirm down my throat. Demand my clothes in exchange for a treasure map and you’ve got yourself a naked scavenger. I needed to know what was in the bag. Live gum tissue squirming for breath? Another useful household storage item?

I didn’t even wait until I reached my car. I ripped through the layers of stapled paper in the parking lot and out fell a CD, a compilation of love songs by the Mexican singer Luis Miguel. On the cover was a photocopied picture of Luis himself, eyebrows pinched, a strangely disapproving look on his face, as if someone had just denounced the power of love in his private hotel suite. Taped to the inside cover was a note scribbled in Dr. Gonzalez’s recognizable chicken scratch. He listed his reasons for dedicating each song to me. He wanted to get to the bottom of my “Mirada.” He wanted to be with me among the “Sol, Arena y Mar.” He was sure we needed to be together—it was “O Tú O Ninguna.”

With this gift Dr. Gonzalez had confirmed something I’d never considered: Even middle-aged men believe in the seductive capabilities of the mix tape. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. There was the office manager, glaring at me from in front of La Virgen Dollar. She pursed her lips and shook her head. How did she know everything? I got in my car and drove off.

I waited until Monday morning to call him. There was a chipper, nervous quality to his voice. “Tanyita! How are you?”

“I quit,” I said.

“Didn’t you like the gift?”

“You’re lucky I don’t tell your wife.”

He took a deep breath into the receiver. “Tanyita,” he said, “We should be together. You know that, right?”

I pictured his fingers tracing the outline of eleven o’clock’s new dentures and cringed. “Don’t ever call me again.”

But he did call again. And again. He’d ask me to come back, telling me the office was in shambles without me. When I stopped answering my cell phone he called my house. My aunts took turns cursing into the phone. “Go to hell, you old pervert!” “Should have your rotten little huevos chopped off!” By this time they’d come to their own researched conclusions about El Doctor. (One good thing about old ladies is that they’re old enough to know everyone.) They’d talked to a friend who’d gone to dental school with him back in Nicaragua. Turns out he’d been a pervert then, too, although no one could elaborate on what exactly it was he’d done to earn that reputation. “I never trusted him,” they spat, having never actually met him.

Eventually Dr. Gonzalez stopped calling, except for one time six months later when he rang to tell me that everyone had quit and he needed me back desperately. I hung up and never heard from him again.

 

Privacy is a laughable endeavor in my family, so everyone knew about what happened. The Marias showed the CD to my dad like they expected him to do something with it. He only stared at the package as if it were a dead animal he’d encountered in the wild: interesting, but no longer threatening. What could he do? I’d thought. A mix tape isn’t exactly a crime.

Years later, though, my mom told me it was my dad who’d put an end to the calls. According to her, he walked into Dr. Gonzalez’s office calmly, like a patient with a problematic bill, and closed the door behind him. He began by suggesting that Dr. Gonzalez call the cops. I’m sure El Doctor was too scared to pretend with his fake phone and swivel chair but he probably tried to play it cool anyway. Then my father repeated, “I’m telling you, call the cops—you and I both don’t know what I’m capable of doing to you.”

My mom says that then my dad “took care of it,” which if I know my father, means he gave El Doctor a stern talking-to that ended with a swift pat on the back. But sometimes I like to imagine that he did do something police-call-worthy, like maybe he pulled up El Doctor by the lapel of his lab coat and shoved him into the wall, causing his smiling wife and children to rain down on him. Or maybe he punched him and swiped a mold of teeth on his way out. Who knows? Whenever I’ve asked him about it (twice) he’s quickly changed the subject or pretended he hasn’t heard me. I don’t press him on it because I don’t really want to know. I like to think that my doughy, jovial dad operates on parallel planes of predictability and secret talents. I want to believe he’d defy fear and the law in order to protect me.

And why wouldn’t it be possible that the same man I found pruning plants in his underwear also stood up to El Doctor? He’s like me, a little tougher than he looks. He knows to respond in kind when someone tries to take advantage of you, or suggests that you just die already. He knows the value of keeping what’s yours. We both learned some things at the University of Marias, where the gifts are wrapped in layer upon layer of foil, guarded and hard earned.

Tanya Rey‘s writing has appeared in the Chattahoochee Review and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She is fiction editor of Epiphany magazine and a biographer of people with Traumatic Brain Injury. More by Tanya Rey