It must be seven o’clock; I can smell the coffee already. Maria always takes good care of me. My cafè amb llet always ready first thing. My other morning wake-up call—the swoosh of passing cars and the honking of impatient drivers below. Is the sun up? Suddenly, I don’t remember what it looks like.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen another person’s eyes. That’s what I miss most of all. Talking to someone and having that person look you straight in the eye. Seeing their expressions, their smiles, their admiring glances. I wonder what people see when they look at me now, if they are looking at me at all when I speak to them. Did I look at people when I spoke to them then? Probably not. I was just so damned busy—too many shoots, so many fitting sessions. The lenses of a camera were the only eyes I cared about. I know now that, somehow, I am being punished.
God, how everyone had adored me! I hate having to feel this way and if I cry this time, I won’t be able to find a tissue. I can’t see now. I can barely move.
Everyone eventually leaves. They always do when you have nothing to offer them. Michael was the first. He discovered me, here in Plaça Catalunya a few days after I arrived in Barcelona from California to live with Daddy. I was shopping at El Corte Inglés, taking the escalator downstairs to the supermercat when I noticed a man staring at me; the intensity of his gaze made me feel a familiar sense of unease and tiredness. They’re all the same. It doesn’t matter where I go. Another older man trying to get at me. This time, I guessed him to be about thirty-eight years old with his blond tousled hair and blue eyes that seemed to grow large as saucers as he spoke.
“You’re American, aren’t you,” he mumbled in a faint New York accent, as he picked up a stack of wrapped bananas, behind the fruit stand.
“My father is from here, from Barcelona.”
“Well, whatever you are, you’re exactly what I’ve been looking for.”
We began sleeping together soon after the preliminary shoot. I was nervous and he rubbed my shoulders to relax me. He was thinner and more experienced than the others, older and articulate. Freddy was my first and always had a hard time unfastening my bra's hook. His lips were thick and forceful just like his heavy body. He made me bleed once. Then there was Carlos, shy and awkward with a pimply face. He didn’t ever want me to see him completely naked and always managed to keep his long white socks on.
Afterwards, Michael read aloud poetry from his leather journal as we lay on the white crumpled sheets, me twirling his growing wavy locks into small twists as he spoke. It was during these times, when I felt the most secure and special, wrapped in a protective cocoon. My eyes completely covered, making me a fool.
If it wasn’t Chantal, it would’ve been someone else. I remember the humming high pitched French accent trying to pronounce Spanish words, each shrill like tiny daggers in my eardrums. “Presencia de mujer. . . tus ojos, tus labios, tus pechos. Todo tu cuerpo llena mi vida vacía de esperanza. . .” Specific lines from the journal. All by heart. A hypnotic, lovesick siren song from our joint dressing room after the Allure cover shoots in Paris.
I had just begun working with Daddy, helping him out with administrative tasks at his accounting firm on Carrer Aragón, when I met Michael. Daddy would be in the office no later than 8:30 a.m., stirring his café at 8:45, but always the same question first thing in the morning, “Alguna trucada important?” Montse, the forty-something secretary would shake her curly chestnut hair and shift her thick black-framed glasses upward with a long and perfect French-manicured finger. “Not today, Josep. No one important has called.” No one ever called before nine, but she was patient with Daddy. She understood that it's routine for him to ask this question, just as it was to greet everyone with “Bon dia.”
I do not have the same temperament as Montse, however. When was Daddy going to realize that I did not belong in a stuffy old office filling out forms and sending faxes? I’m suffocating here!, I wanted to shout by midday, wondering if anyone really noticed or cared. Each tick of the white circular clock on the wall tested every core of me. I waited for the others to say, “Fins demà,” see you tomorrow, before I left. That’s what Daddy expected of me.
And oh, how Daddy tried. He tried to convince me for so long, without exactly saying it, that it was no use having my mother around anymore, but I didn’t want to admit it until I woke up in the hospital this first time. I must come to Barcelona and live with him, he told me adamantly during one of my summer visits. The divorce was almost final. Three long years of separation and they were ready to admit to the failure with official documents. And I was an obedient seventeen-year-old girl. By then, mother was already falling apart at the seams like an old tattered dress. Audiences had grown tired of her weary, dramatic onstage performances, which had aged just as badly as her once-celebrated beauty. She was only forty-one years old.
Often when I was a young child, Mother stared at me, examining my facial features with cold, hard intensity, comparing our likeness side by side. We had the same pert nose and dark, round eyes. I looked almost exactly like her, but with thick dark hair like my father. After her “examinations,” she would brush my hair harshly with a wooden paddle brush until my scalp turned pink or I cried.
One afternoon after school, when I was seven, she frantically took out a pair of scissors and decided to turn my waist length hair into a short pixie cut. She had just found out she had lost the part of Maggie in “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof.” This was to be her comeback performance, she mumbled, shaking with every snip. I cried as the pieces fell to the floor one by one. I was to hold still, she warned, or she would shave my head, too.
That was the first and only time Daddy ever slapped her. Actually, the only time I can recall in early memories, when he touched her at all in my presence. They did not kiss or hug in front of me or in public, as it was my father’s manner to remain calm and composed in front of others, sometimes even appearing detached and uninterested. If I cried over a bicycle fall in the nearby park, or over anything at all, he would fold his hands, look deeply in my eyes, and say matter of factly as if I was an adult, “Now, Anna… Don’t cry. Let’s only think about what can be done now.”
On Sunday afternoons, I would watch him go outside to the balcony in our living room and smoke, puffing slowly on one cigarette after another. Then, I would wait for the transformation to begin, the ritual of a thirty-eight-year-old man. First, taking off his glasses, his fingers through his dark hair, now with hints of pepper-grey. Staring beyond the modest open space that was our flower garden of roses and peonies. Closing his eyes, his world began to shift and I could no longer reach him. He was alone, inhaling the intoxicating sea air and listening carefully for the imaginary ocean waves that stood in the distance of our quiet suburban neighborhood.
“What are you thinking about, Daddy?”
In the evenings after work, he would come to my room, hold me in his lap, and tell me fantasy-rich stories, always with the main character named after me. The lingering traces of cigarettes and after-shave lotion, as I lay my head on his shoulders, playing with his tie.
Anna the Queen with the ruby-encrusted crown, who was the savior of her kingdom, defeating an evil witch with a magic sword made of enchanted metal. Anna the Baker, whose specialty was to make chocolate cookies with fudge morsels that turned to gold before eaten. But my favorite one of all was Anna the Magician who could make white rabbits and just about anything disappear or change simply by snapping her fingers three times. Snap. Snap. Snap. She made the furious storm go away to protect the delicate flowers planted by the people in her village. Snap. Snap. Snap. She produced a puppy from thin air to make Johnny, the crippled boy, smile.
Anna the Magician, the heroine in my dreams. The one who had the gift that really mattered. Wanting to become this Anna, I would begin each morning snapping my fingers, dreaming that Daddy and Mother would start holding hands, and that Mother would be happy enough one day to really love me. It could happen at any time. One day, I thought, it must.
Despite the lack of open affection towards each other, on certain nights I could hear my parents making love from the dark hallway when I went to use the bathroom, adjacent to their bedroom. If you walked on a certain corner of the wooden plank floor it made a creaking noise, so I always made sure to avoid this section as much as possible for fear of being discovered. I could hear myself breathing heavily with each careful tiptoe of my red Mickey Mouse slippers, my heart pounding like a little drum in my chest.
One night, I crept slowly down the short corridor and peered into their bedroom door, which was slightly ajar. They were in bed, naked under the glowing light that shone from the window. Daddy held her in his arms, planting small kisses on her forehead. “Love me like this more,” Mother whispered, pleaded as she clung closer to him, knowing in the morning things would be different. I realize now the frustration that grew and festered inside of her.
Each time my mother hurt me, it ended the same way: “I’m sorry, Anna. . . so. . . sorry,” she sobbed as she held me in her arms afterwards, black rivers running down her face. “I didn’t mean it.” I hugged her back tightly with my own tears, my tiny hands rubbing her gold hair, desperately wanting to believe her. Daddy cried too, I’m sure now, although in solitude, just like his balcony fantasies of returning to his homeland. I thought I could tell what was on his mind: “If only she had another big break. There has to be some part.” It was only years later that I discovered what he really must have been thinking: “Why did I get her pregnant in the first place? I should have known this would never work.”
I remember the day he finally gave up, the day he left. I was fourteen and had just come home from school. As usual, the bus ride was overcrowded and stuffy, smelling of sweaty gym clothes and licorice. Kids pushed each other to get the front seats. But I didn’t care that day. A smile was plastered on my face since lunch because I knew Anna the Magician had saved me. I received an A on my history exam and Mrs. Lipton, our teacher wrote “Well done!” in bright red on the top page, next to my name. I had conquered the Civil War, but I was unprepared for the havoc I would find at home.
Letters, many letters scattered everywhere around the house, in the hallway, along the corridor, in the kitchen. All addressed to my mother in opened envelopes from Dr. Jack S. Burton, or Dr. Jay, as we neighborhood kids liked to call him. The good house doctor, who was more comforting than Daddy during one of my bike falls in front of his house. Our friendly long-time neighbor three houses away. Mother wasn’t home and Daddy was in the living room, picking up each letter and burning them with his lighter. “I need to leave, Anna,” his voice cracking as he read one final letter and watched it slowly burn.
The discovery of Mother’s love trysts with something other than a caramel-colored bottle had finally sent my father back to Barcelona. I had no idea what must have been happening for years while I was in school and my father was at work. Daddy was gone with a half-filled suitcase before Mother came back from one of her auditions.
Daddy promised to get me as soon as he had settled in, or at least send me to Uncle Jordi’s house in the nearby town of Sabadell. But I refused to go. I felt guilty for not completely blaming my mother for the affair, and I knew that someone had to take care of her. At the time, I thought that was all she really needed.
Dr. Jay came by often after my father left, staying over on certain nights and cooking an omelet for me in the morning before school. Ham, feta cheese, green peppers, and mushrooms. Always quick and delicious. He was kind to me like always, but quieter than before. He didn’t look me directly in the eye when he asked me how my day was, not the way Daddy would. He didn’t tell me stories. The constant blaring of the television was his escape from house calls and sometimes from Mother. In the end, he left us, just like Mother´s future lovers did when they realized just how much effort was involved with her. How that energy would eventually suck them dry like a prune.
When she wasn’t drinking, Mother was kind, sweet, like a lost child trying to find her way in the dark. She would take me shopping with her before auditions and buy me strawberry ice cream afterwards. “I really think is it, Anna!” she would squeal in delight, wiping away pink, milky drops with a napkin before they fell on my dress, as if I was still a small child. I could expect chocolate brownies and a glass of milk on the kitchen table and hugs at any moment, if only right beside it was a thick manuscript for a new part she had been chosen for.
But I’m not sure anymore that people can really change. I need more proof.
“Come here! Did you hear me, young lady?”
“Mother, you’re drunk again. I’m going upstairs. I need to call Daddy.”
“Don’t you dare!”
White ceiling, white walls, men and women in white uniforms. Was I in Heaven? No, my head and arms were in bandages and it hurt to move. My mother whimpering like a helpless puppy, beside me. I knew all at once where I was and what I had to do.
Then I became Michael’s newest discovery, his new “angel face.” Daddy was furious when I told him I was signing the contract. I had just arrived, university classes were beginning in two weeks, and now I was to be whisked away to Paris, then New York for my first shoot. One city to the next. “That is no way to live.” I knew, looking into his eyes, that he was genuinely afraid. He didn’t want me to change, to end up like Mother.
It did change me, of course. My plan to study architecture (it was really my father’s plan for me) fell through. I started out in Allure until finally I was able to accomplish three magazine covers almost simultaneously. “It is an honor,” I would practice saying in front of the mirror with pink lacquered lips. This scared me, the unspoken power I had. But I’m ashamed to say now that it also made me feel wonderful and accepted. Exhilarated. I was determined never to turn out like Mother, weak and unable to handle being in the spotlight. Too fragile and emotional. I knew how to deal with my success: I would make sure those around me were there to serve me and ensure my feelings of stardom. Nuria probably felt it the most. She still calls occasionally to check on me, though I don’t know why she bothers after the way I behaved towards her.
“I told you I want water with lime, not lemon. Don’t you know the difference, Nuria? One is yellow, one is green.”
“I’m. . . sorry, Anna.”
“Never mind. I’ll just take the lemon. I’m already late. Where’s my red bag?”
“I packed it in the car, like you said.”
“Yes, but I told you about ten minutes ago, I changed my mind. You really need to start paying more attention. That’s what all personal assistants should do. I pay you to be efficient. So, just go get it, O.K.?”
“O.K. By the way, thanks again for the gift. I…wasn’t expecting you to know. I mean, I haven’t been working for you that long. I’m planning on opening it later. Paco is taking me out tonight with the kids, so I was hoping I could leave a little earlier.”
“No problem. This is an exciting day for you. You’re thirty-eight, right?”
“Well, anyway, I figured it would be great with your new diet program.”
“My diet program?”
“Nuria, it’s a diet kit. I had it shipped from the States. There’s everything you could possibly need: monitoring cards and special recipes. I thought you’d find it useful. You need to make yourself useful. Now go get my bag and don’t forget to get my black coat as well. It’s a little chilly in here.”
A few days after the accident, Michael came to visit me in the hospital. He told me his schedule didn’t permit him to come sooner. He was in charge of a shoot in the Bahamas and had to leave the next day for Paris. Daddy came, too. He was silent at first, held my hand. My entire face and eyes were wrapped in bandages, so we couldn’t look at each other. With the intimate squeeze of his hand he told me what his lips could not: I was ruined just like my mother.
When the doctor told me there would be permanent scarring and that I may never see again, I honestly felt nothing but numbness. First in my head and then throughout the rest of my limp, broken body. Except my legs, I couldn’t feel my legs. The impact from the other car was very strong, he explained. It could take seven months before I could walk again. If I’m lucky. They would have to perform more x-rays to see the damage to my bones.
I didn’t cry. Instead, trembling from shock, I tried hard to piece everything together from that day. The photo session at two, shopping in the afternoon at five. . . or was it six? I couldn’t remember. Make-up for the party at the Universal Hotel. . . I tried to remember how many glasses of wine I had. But Daddy couldn’t stop, like a broken faucet. I was stunned. He thought he was to blame. He should’ve made me go to the university and quit this modeling nonsense from the very beginning.
Michael held me loosely. I felt his thin arms around me, touched his hair. It was shorter and felt crunchy, slicked with styling gel. “Everything will be O.K., angel face.” He called me a few times later but he never visited me again. There were excuses, of course. And I think I believed some of them. He would try and see me, if he could. But I should understand, he said, the demands of the job, an industry that brought us together once. Yes, of course I understand. When Chantal picked up the phone at his apartment, I felt a thump inside of me, like a foot had kicked me in the stomach. But it was telling me to wake up. I had served my purpose.
Mother called me after the accident to say what she’s said so many times before, “Sorry, Anna. . .” She was sorry for everything, for not being a good mother, for being a drunkard. It took the news of her impending death from cancer to see what she had done. The counselor at the hospital assigned to help her face her undeniable future made her see things clearly, encouraged her to close all wounds that were still open in her life, she told me. I cried then, cradling the phone in my hands after she hung up. The bittersweet admittance of the pain she had inflicted on me.
Last night she called me from the hospital, convinced that the staff was trying to kill her sooner than the cancer would. “The food here is absolutely dreadful, Anna. Tonight it’s mushy powdered water they’re trying to pass off as mashed potatoes. Not like those omelets I used to make for you. Remember?” I didn’t have the strength to tell her it was Dr. Jay who cooked the omelets and then drove me to school because of her hangovers.
So, now every morning begins the same as it has been five months ago on Carrer Quintana 65. From the second floor apartment, the balcony in my bedroom, I listen for the rhythm of the street. The sweet smell of cafè amb llet and the rich, buttery taste of una torrada amb melmelada on a tray. The knock, knock on my door and the sound of Maria’s voice, sometimes telling me she will be going to the supermercat around midday to pick up some things for this evening’s dinner. I smile for a moment as I imagine what dinner will be tonight, the tantalizing aromas from a savory feast. Perhaps, starting with the salad, amanida, and then Maria’s special seafood medley, escaixada de bacallà, my favorite. Sweet Maria, the caretaker of our household.
Then I realize that the rest of the morning must continue. With Daddy coming into my room to kiss me goodbye before he goes off to work at the firm, thinking that I am asleep after taking my pain medication. He rubs my head softly, gently with the back of his hand, as he did when I was a child, telling me a story about a girl named Anna. Paying close attention to the faint sound of my breath, the deep rhythmic inhalations and exhalations that let him know I am in a peaceful state. Under the bedcovers, I snap my fingers three times in quiet unison. I am Anna the Magician.
Copyright © Julie Ann Castro 2004. Title graphic: "Broken" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.