The Night the Clocks Go Back
[Originally published in the North American Review.]
The party is at my friend JP’s house on 246th street in the Bronx, but right now we’re not going to JP’s house—we’re not going to the Bronx, either. Instead, we’re taking the A train south to 175th Street in Manhattan, getting farther and farther from the Bronx with every click of the rail. The “we” I’m speaking of here is me, my girlfriend Maria Jose, and the world’s largest suitcase. We started out the evening at Maria Jose’s place on 218th Street in Manhattan, just across the Spuyten Duyvil from the Bronx. It would have been a simple matter for us to walk across the Broadway Bridge to JP’s house, only we couldn’t, because Maria Jose is wearing her heels. Not only that, but she is wearing them for me. That’s what she said this evening as we were getting dressed. “I’m going to wear my heels for you, baby. It’s going to hurt, but I want to look good for your friends.” So she’s wearing her heels and any ideas I had about walking to the Bronx are moot, doubly so, since we’re now heading to 175th Street, which is well out of walking distance, heels or no heels.
The purpose of our detour to 175th Street is to reunite the world’s largest suitcase with its owner, Maria Jose’s Mami. She needs the suitcase back because she’s going home to the Dominican Republic next week and she has to start packing. This was the gist of the message she left on Maria Jose’s answering machine this morning, the message that arrived while we were otherwise indisposed, me and Maria Jose, wrapped together like a two-colored pretzel, listening to Mami leave the message in Spanish, all of it in Spanish, except the word suitcase: “Espanolespanolespano…suitcase!… Espanolespanolespanol…suitcase!” That’s what I heard, that word suitcase again and again, ruining our mood and then Maria Jose telling me she couldn’t do it with me after hearing her mother’s voice. “Dios mio! I’ll burn in hell,” she said, unwrapping her brown pretzel body from my white pretzel body. She went straight to her closet where the suitcase had been lo these many months since Maria Jose used it on her last trip home. That’s what this suitcase is for: to go from New York to Santo Domingo and from Santo Domingo to New York. She yanked it down from the closet and it looked like part of the wall was falling on her, this great slab of fake leather with its taped-up corners and broken zippers, so big you could fit all of 34th Street inside.
So here we are on the train as it leaves 207th Street with its load of revelers out for a Saturday night and I want to know just how late we’re going to be for JP’s party, but I don’t wear a watch and tonight’s the night the clocks go back. All night tonight I won’t know whether the time I’m looking at is the right time. Here in the subway, they’ve been changing the clocks all week—at least since Wednesday, when I first noticed a station clock that was an hour slow. Every station is different. Some have set their clocks back and some haven’t. Some will change tonight and some won’t change until tomorrow and a few won’t change at all. They will be wrong until the spring when the world will readjust itself to their time. In some places tonight it will still be summer and in others, winter will arrive. I think about asking Maria Jose for the time, but she hates that I don’t wear a watch. “Guapo! You’re not poor. Go out and buy yourself a Timex or something.” That’s what she’d say. All I can do is hope to catch a glimpse of her Swatch. Fat chance, though: she’s sitting with her arms crossed and her wrist shoved deep in the crevice between her elbow and her breast. I think of kissing her there, right on the train, kissing her and taking her hand and looking at the watch, but then it comes to me—I won’t know if she’s changed the time either. After all, Maria Jose is not exactly the world’s most punctual person. An hour either way doesn’t make a bit of difference to her. She probably doesn’t even know the clocks are going back tonight and won’t know it until she shows up late for work on Monday, so there’s no use. I sit there and wait until we get to 175th Street and wonder just how late we’re going to be for JP’s party. I have good reason to think we are going to be very late because after six weeks of dating Maria Jose, tonight is the first time I am meeting her Mami.
We come out of the station and walk towards Broadway. I’m carrying the suitcase and Maria Jose is walking in front of me, turning heads as she goes. She’s too thin for most Dominican men, but they look anyway, whistling and muttering as we pass and I know it’s not my ass they’re appreciating. On Broadway, we go into a liquor store so I can buy cognac for her Mami. Maria Jose’s mother exists for me as a list of things she won’t do: she won’t ride in elevators alone, she won’t wear pants, and she won’t drink anything but the finest cognac. Not wine, not beer, not even French champagne: only cognac will do. So I buy her one of the fancy brands, with the ornate bottle that looks like a giant Christmas ornament.
From the liquor store, it’s not much of a walk to Mami’s apartment. Maria Jose tells me her Mami has lived in the same building for almost thirty years, ever since she moved to New York with the Loser. That’s what Maria Jose always calls her father: Papi the Loser…that Loser father of mine…Mami and the Loser… I have often wondered if this is also what she calls him in Spanish, but I am afraid to ask since any mention of him is followed directly by a stream of bilingual profanity that blows back my hair. All I know for sure about the Loser is that he and his gypsy cab disappeared one night when Maria Jose was twelve. “I wouldn’t even know what that Loser looks like now,” Maria Jose once said. “Any Dominican man of his age could be my father, so they’re all a bunch of losers, if you ask me.”
Mami opens the door. She’s a stout woman, draped in silks like a sultana. A complicated hairdo rises from her head like a fountain. Costume jewels surround her neck. She extends her arms and magisterially beckons us inside.
“Hola. Como estas?” She kisses Maria Jose. “You are Thomas,” she says before Maria Jose can introduce us. “Thank you, thank you.” She takes the suitcase my hand.
Maria Jose says something to her mother in Spanish and hands over the bottle. Mami smiles and winks at me flirtatiously. “Me encanta el Conac!”
We’ve barely seated ourselves on the shrink-wrapped sofa when the brother comes into the living room. He is also The Loser, or Loser Jr. or Loser Number Two, but his real name is Edgardo, also known as Bones. We’ve met a few times at Maria Jose’s. Edgardo is wearing flip-flops with shammy cloths stuck to their soles.
“What the hell are those?” Maria Jose asks him.
“I’ve been dusting the floor in my room,” he says as he slides across the polished hardwood like Peggy Fleming.
“Can’t you just sweep like a normal person?”
“It’s more fun this way.”
At this point, the conversation becomes more heated, veering first in Spanglish and then pure Spanish. I move away from them towards the kitchen where Mami is at work among her pots, tossing pinches of spice and herb into the puffs of steam that rise as the lids are removed. The sultry dampness of boiling rice suffused the air around her with a shimmer. She pretends not to notice me, then catches my eye. We smile and nod. Actually, I have gotten up to look for a clock, but every clock I see tells a different time. There’s one in the kitchen that says 10:35, one in the living room that says 8:35 and another on the mantle reading 11:17. Completely defeated, I sit down again. Edgardo, his thrashing complete, has retreated to his room. “Maria?” I ask.
“Why do all the clocks in this apartment say different times?”
“Every clock is for a relative. That one in the kitchen is for Uncle Louis in Galveston.”
“Don’t ask. And the one on the bookcase over here is for my cousin Juan in L.A. And the one over there in the mantle is—it doesn’t work. When the ambulance men came to get my grandmother, one of them knocked it off the mantle and it broke. She died that night and Mami has never had the clock fixed.”
“When was that?”
“A long time ago. I was so young I don’t even remember it.”
“I see. Do you know what time it is by any chance?”
“Get yourself a watch, mister!” she says, elbowing me affectionately. “Don’t worry. We’ll get to your party. First I need to talk to Mami. Why don’t you see what you can do with Edgardo.”
Edgardo is my homework, assigned by Maria Jose. I’m supposed to study him, improve him. Last spring, he was accepted to Northeastern University but decided to postpone his entry for a year. He paints apartments three days a week, but mostly what he does is bench press, drink beer and read trash novels. Presently he’s going through a rather unfortunate infatuation with Edgar Rice Burroughs. The last time I checked in with him, he’d just finished Conan the Barbarian and was reading Tarzan of the Apes. Next up was John Norman’s Gor series. At one point, Edgardo said he was thinking of joining the Army. That’s when I was conscripted into Maria’s service. Since I’m from Boston and have a degree in English, Maria Jose thinks I can sway him from the military by pointing out all the virtues of my home town and suggesting that all he has to do to get a degree is keep reading. I’ve tried everything, but so far he has been unmoved.
“How’s it going, Edgardo?”
He’s lifting a huge barbell, something so big it looks like it might have been removed from an elevator shaft.
“Good.” He exhales through gritted teeth and finishes his reps.
“Read anything good lately?”
“The Call of Cthulu.”
“What’d you think?”
“That shit is fucked up,” he says. “But I liked it.”
“I heard they teach a course on horror fiction at Northeastern,” I say, having heard no such thing. “H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Dracula.”
Edgardo ignores this. He lifts the weight and does ten reps, a crease deepening between his eyebrows with every rise of the bar. When he finishes, he says, “here, you try it.”
“That’s all right,” I say.
“I’ll take some of the weight off. Come on, man.”
He removes two smaller weights from each side of the bar and nods at me. This still leaves one big and one medium-sized disc on either side. “I’ll spot,” he says.
I lie on the bench, which is damp from Edgardo’s exertions. The bar is still warm from his grip. I lift if off the rest and it falls quickly to my chest, where it stays put, as if the walls were attached. With enormous effort, I push it up and lock my trembling elbows. “That’s all,” I say.
“Come on, man. You can do another one. Just one more.” Edgardo leans over me, beckoning the weight upward with his paint-stained fingers.
I drop the bar back to my chest. It will not move. My feet kick off the ground with the effort, but the bar does not budge. It’s as though my muscles have completely vanished. And then the sharp taste of soy and ginger stabs into my mouth—the sushi Maria Jose and I had for lunch.
“Help me,” I croak.
“Come on. You can do it.”
“Edgardo! HELP me!”
“All right man. Stay cool.”
Together we raise the bar back to its rest. I sit up and feel my head pulse with such force I think my skin must be coming loose.
“Thomas!” calls Maria Jose from the kitchen.
“Are you all right man?” asks Edgardo, “You don’t look so good.”
“I’ll be fine,” I say, standing up, my stomach turning. I wander unsteadily back through the apartment, past the shrink-wrapped couch and the clocks telling time Texas and California, past the huge picture of Maria Jose on the wall holding her diploma from Columbia and the even bigger picture of Edgardo in his high school cap and gown, back to the kitchen where the table has been set with two heaping plates of food. “Mami made us some dinner,” Maria Jose tells me. “Have a seat and then we’ll go.”
I look at my plate: arroz con pollo, black beans, squid salad and fried plantains. Maria Jose is eating already, quickly wristing the forkfuls into her mouth. I’ve never seen anyone eat like her, this gorgeous woman who feeds herself like a truck driver.
I’ve eaten Dominican food many times before, but tonight I can’t face it. The kitchen is dense with a fishy reek from the squid cuttings in the garbage. Mami is frying something and a spray of grease rises from the nearby stovetop. The food on my plate positively shines. And then Edgardo puts some music on, a loud salsa-rap concoction that sends him dancing into the kitchen. Maria stops eating and says, “Thomas, are you all right?”
“I’m not so good,” I say, and the room goes black.
The fainting started just after puberty. Three or four times a year I just pass out—not for long, but for long enough to escape the moment of crisis. Most of my girlfriends have been uncomfortable with it (fainting is a woman’s business, apparently), but it doesn’t seem to bother Maria Jose. When I wake up, she and I are in a pink bedroom and I’m laid out on a leopard-skin bedspread. Maria Jose kisses my forehead. “There you are,” she says. “Are you all right?”
“I guess you really want to get to this party,” she says.
“I wouldn’t mind.”
“All right. Just eat some of my mother’s food. She’ll be offended if you don’t.”
Edgardo and Mami are waiting in the kitchen with worried faces. They stand and watch me eat. Fortunately, the blackout has awakened my appetite and I dig in. With every mouthful Mami’s smile gets bigger. By the time I’ve have cleared my plate, she is beaming. “Bueno,” she says.
“Ay! He’s all right,” confirms Ed. He claps me on the shoulder and shimmies out of the room.
After that there remains only a cup of silty coffee to complete my obligation. Maria Jose and I say our farewells and head for the subway
Some time later, when we finally get off the 1 train at 242nd Street in the Bronx, I still have no idea what the hour is. The station clock says 10:39 and even if it has not gone forward, we will be at JP’s before midnight, better than I had hoped.
On the train I’d apologized to Maria Jose for my blackout, but she laughed it off. This is her way: she’ll break her brother’s balls for not cleaning the floor properly, but won’t mind if I faint in front of her mother. “I told her you were nervous about meeting her.” She paused and I could see happiness in her face, the smile she was trying to suppress. “She says she likes you. That’s what matters to me.” She paused again. “The cognac didn’t hurt either.”
We leave Broadway behind and walk uphill, around the Manhattan College campus. Below us is the train yard where the metallic rolling stock gleams in the moonlight. It’s a beautiful night, the last gasp of late summer, the end of our first season together, and I feel the momentum of our lives, of novelty passing into something else, something else that, in its own way, is new. I think of all the times I’ve walked up this street to spend weekends and holidays with JP and his family, never thinking I’d be walking up the same street with a woman I’m desperate for them to like.
“During the winter break,” I say, “when JP and I’d come down here from college, we’d take inner tubes into Van Cortland park at night—clear nights like this, but in January, when the moon was out and the snow had been packed hard by the kids all day. JP and his father and me. We’d ride down the hills until we couldn’t take the cold any more. Sometimes we’d be out there until three in the morning.”
At the top of the hill, we turn and walk past a row of apartment buildings and enter Fieldstone, the private community where JP and his parents live. Fieldstone is not the Bronx you’d recognize from you television screen. It’s not the Bronx of drive-by shootings and infant death. Fieldstone could be the suburb of some small city in Connecticut, a neighborhood of winding lanes and Tudor mansions, the sort of place where you have to get dressed up just to go to the supermarket. JP is a lawyer now—just like his father. He and his wife Christina have just bought a house a block away from the pile where his parents live. It’s modest for the neighborhood, but bigger than the house I grew up in. Maria Jose cocks an eyebrow. “Are we still in New York?” she asks.
As we approach the house, I am surprised not to hear music. I guess the party ended early—maybe the neighbors called the cops on them. Their place is dark except for a single light in an upstairs window. I am almost afraid to ring the bell.
JP’s cousin Eileen answers the door. She is an accountant and lives in White Plains. She and I were set up on a date once, but it didn’t work out.
“Tom!” she says, stepping out of the house and embracing me. “I’m so glad it’s you.”
“Where’s JP?” I ask. “What happened to the party?”
“Come in,” she says. “I have something to tell you.”
I introduce her to Maria Jose and we walk through the ground floor to the kitchen where she has been sitting with a cup of tea and the Times crossword puzzle. “Please, have a seat.”
“What is it?” I ask.
“It’s Uncle Richard,” she says, referring to JP’s father. “You know he and Aunt Jane are in Italy.”
“They finally took that vacation,” I say.
“Yeah, well Uncle Richard had a heart attack this morning. He’s dead. JP and Christina are already on their way over there. It’s been terrible. I’ve been here all night breaking the news to everyone and sending them home. I feel awful.”
I don’t believe the news. I’m play-acting. As far as I’m concerned, Richard and Jane are still on vacation. Everything is still right with the world. But I am already dreading the coming days, the funeral, the wake, the line drawn across our lives. I suddenly want nothing more than to stay here in this lost hour between summer and winter.
We take a cab back to Maria Jose’s building, neither of us saying a word. She has her arm around me, pulling me close in the back seat as the streets count down to her street;
It was clear that Eileen didn’t want us to leave. We stayed with her and opened a bottle of wine, talking until she was tired and ready to sleep. In the cab, driving through the quiet streets, I am filled with gratitude for Maria Jose. I won’t be alone tonight like Eileen. I take Maria Jose’s hands in mine and bite her fingers playfully. I can taste a faint remnant of the lemon from the dinner at her mother’s place.
In the apartment, we strip and shower together. We soap each other up, slipping our hands between each others’ legs, washing the parts of each other we don’t normally wash when we bath alone: the small of the back and the back of the knee. I crouch down and cup the arches of her feet, rub them with a washcloth, stroking the bony top and the ribbed skin of the heel until she has to set her foot down for balance. Her feet are smarting from the heels. I can see the young blisters redden in the flow of water, the bee-stung points where the creases of the shoes have pinched her hard. Still crouching, I massage the backs of her calves, the muscles taut and slick. She moans and says, “Guapo, you’re killing me.”
We turn off the taps and flee to the bedroom, only half dried, trailing the towels behind us, drops of water falling from our hair. Her skin is smooth and cool and we’re both too excited for any more foreplay.
When we’re done, I stretch and groan. “Oh, God, I needed that.” I push myself against her. I can’t get enough of touching her.
Maria Jose reaches over to turn off the light. “Guess what time it is?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Late.”
“No,” she says. “It’s early.”
Then she switches off the lamp and I can see the first light of day coming in around the edges of the blind. Very quickly, Maria Jose is asleep, her chest pushing out and falling back in steady time, and I am left to watch the room slowly brighten into morning. In Italy, where JP and Christina have gone to collect his father’s body, it is already afternoon. I find this hard to believe. Even now their day is moving towards its close. They have seen the corpse, completed the paperwork and done their best to console the widow. Now there is nothing left but to sit in the presence of the thing that waits for us all and count the hours as they pass.