Tia Lupe held my hand as I watched a girl being serenaded by mariachi, a young man cowering behind them. Pressed against her balcony ledge with curlers in her hair the girl appeared ready to take flight, started crying. The young man raised a bouquet to the girl. His flowers seemed comical, his tiny hat slipping off the crown of his head as he peered toward his love.
As we walked, her arm bracing my shoulder, Tia Lupe explained.
"Some girls aren't so lucky," she said. "And some would rather not be serenaded."
"Why?" I asked.
"It's hard to explain, has to do with feelings. When your stomach gets butterflies inside, you know what I mean?"
"Sort of. Like when we go driving with Lucio."
"No. When you're falling in love you get goose bumps or sweaty palms. Sometimes it feels like butterflies in your stomach. And, if she doesn't feel those butterflies . . ."
When Tia Lupe touched my shoulder, when her hair brushed into my face and her flowery scent tickled my nose, I got the butterflies.
As a baby it took time for me to warm up to Tia Lupe, when she held me, or so my mother said. I think she said this to keep me away from Tia Lupe now, years later. Recalling I'd once been uncomfortable with her would trigger a memory, and I'd ditch her and spend more time with kids my own age.
For my seventh birthday, she gave me her guitar. My mother made a fuss when Tia Lupe handed it to me with a big red bow. She hadn't been that angry since the time I tried to sneak a dog into the house.
"He doesn't have to feed or walk it, Norma," Tia Lupe said. "You could stick it in the closet."
"I'm not hiding that guitar for you," my mother said.
"Look at Pancho," Tia Lupe said. "See his joy."
"If Raul comes for it I'll give it to him."
"Ah flaca, he's long gone."
What I didn't know then was that the guitar had belonged to Tia Lupe's ex-husband who'd been a talented mariachi. Raul swam off to find new fish, as Tia Lupe put it. She'd never forgiven him. Afterward, she saw him passing through Zoccolo. Raul had left his guitar unattended for only a moment. Tia Lupe seized it and fled as the mariachi chased after her. She reenacted the scene, kicking off a shoe.
"It was fair," Tia Lupe said. "He stole my youth. I took his guitar."
It made me a bit uneasy knowing I owned a stolen guitar, but at the same time I loved the Tacote wooden top with cedar sides. The strings made a deep, sweet sound that should have been plucked by somebody else. The best part, though, was Tia Lupe had decided I deserved it.
I felt Raul's luck rubbing off on me, his joy and his doom. Maybe this is why I bottled up my true feelings and let myself think of Tia Lupe as my real aunt. The thought of losing her terrified me.
My mother admitted she'd wanted Tia Lupe to be my godmother, but appeased the family instead, selecting my blood aunt, Manuela, who stunk of onions when she kissed me hello. Tia Lupe only mussed my hair, denying me her lips. Alone, I puckered and left lip prints on the bathroom mirror. My sisters had caught me a few times. The bathroom had a crappy lock that snapped off with a good tug. We pinned an occupado sign in bold black letters on a piece of cardboard hanging from a string. That never did much good with family always nosing into my business.
Tia Lupe made me a chiquito celebrity. Whenever we heard music, we sniffed it out. In our barrio, parties were on every corner. We crashed weddings and I brought the guests to their feet singing "La Negra." Tia Lupe passed around the sombrero for tips. It's a tradition to pin pesos onto the groom's shirt during a wedding, but somehow I got my share of the purse. Then we filled our faces with empanadas, taquitos, and Jarritos for me and tequila for my Tia.
"Don't mind if I do," Tia Lupe would say, slugging back shots.
We never stayed past our welcome.
"Follow the mariachi," she said waving to her new amigos.
The mariachi weren't thrilled to have us horning in on their turf so we agreed to wait till they'd completed their set before making our entrance. Besides weddings, we played at block parties.
Another good thing about lugging around a big guitar was that it helped shape my muscles. Without a shoulder strap, I cradled the guitar like a fat baby.
"So macho," Nellie, Tia Lupe's amiga said.
"Hands off, he's my sobrino," Tia Lupe snapped.
My mother didn't even guard me with that much vigor.
One day while Tia Lupe was making a blouse she told me she couldn't have children of her own so she decided to bring home an abandoned boy and tried to raise him as a son. I stopped playing my guitar right then, sat there waiting for her to tell me what had happened to the boy. I had this terrible pain in my chest as I watched her snap the thread from her pin and the blouse, as if she were breaking an umbilical cord. But, I knew he must've run away, and I also realized how grateful Tia Lupe was that my mother let her play mother herself, if only for short spurts.
My mother and Tia Lupe kept fighting over me. At one of our birthday parties, things got batty. Tia Lupe's glassy eyes were ready to shatter as she rocked back and forth, and my mother spilled Tia Lupe's wine on the floor. She sent me to bed with the music blaring, couples dancing rumbas outside my window.
For two whole weeks, I didn't sing, not even in the shower. When my mother made up with Tia Lupe, I was asked to sing at my cousin Alejandra's confirmation party.
The morning of the big day, I spotted a few prickly hairs on my chin. I didn't shave. I splashed on cologne for the first time, wore a brand new shirt leaving open the top two buttons. At the party, I stole glances from my cousin's friend whose name I didn't catch. When I'd taken a break to soothe my throat with a cold soda this girl pulled me to the side of the house. She undid her blouse, showing me her breasts, and I spilled soda onto my pants. She stared right into my eyes and brought my sticky hand to her skin. The warm bricks behind my head lent some comfort. We kissed, open-mouthed, and I tasted fruit punch and chicken and the delicate bumps along her tongue. She dug her nails into the back of my neck, but I was too afraid to scream and have somebody catch us.
She stopped briefly and loomed in my eyes. I had this strange feeling I was going to drown, so odd, both my feet planted on dusty concrete. I leaned closer to kiss her again, but she shoved me away.
When I resumed playing, I kept flubbing my chords. I hadn't a clue why she kissed me and why she pushed off. I felt ashamed for sliding away so easily.
Years later, I serenaded the same girl upon a customer's request. When I gazed into her green eyes I remembered, but she looked past me without even smiling at my customer. It occurred to me then that chasing love meant chasing pain. A mariachi, like myself, only played the guitar.
People find me over by Plaza Garibaldi and pin their hopes to my wavering strings and honeyed voice. They believe mariachi have talismanic powers, a few well-plucked notes can win them love or bring it back. By a senorita's eyes, I know if she is taking in the honey. I've come a long way since the pimply-faced days playing in my courtyard. Sometimes a chica still gives me a nervous twitch standing by the balcony's edge, elbows kissing the cool balustrade stone. The wind tosses her hair; the moon shines copper in her eyes. Is she smiling, frowning? What is she thinking?
Sometimes the senorita gets offended and points at us as if we're criminals, liars. I don't love this man; why are you crouching under my balcony like fools for neighbors to laugh and spread gossip? And then the fathers charge in. Believe me, I've eyed the barrel of a shotgun, the blue steel winking. I've left behind sombreros, shoes, pieces of pride, but come back, sometimes even to the very same senorita. Never for the same chico, but a new caller. Maybe I really don't know if this new suitor is a better match. Maybe I hope love will soon find me.
Funny things happen; a senorita refuses to come to the window, but her neighbor slips out. Oh, yes. Better than the man getting flat rejected. Melody plays tricks with the mind. Nacho, a local fruit vendor, falls in love five times a week.
"I'm telling you, Pancho, this is the one," Nacho told me, placing two huge mangoes in my hand.
I let him pay me in fruit. I've got to eat, so I accept his offering. We then shuffled over to Zona Rosa, where all the strawberries live, as they are known—rich people. It seems right, Nacho ending up with a strawberry; after all, he is a fruit vendor. He knows my hangouts and isn't afraid to pull me away from my nopales and rice. He'll snatch the fork right from my hand, then wash his mouthful down with whatever is left of my soda.
"What's this one's name?" I asked.
"Carolina," Nacho said, spreading both hands as if raising a billboard.
She'd stopped by his cart for avocados. When he learned she was going to Chapultepec all by herself he invited himself along. She found his corny brand of humor amusing. He'd told her he'd been meaning to get a haircut and asked her to mind his cart so he could get a quick trim. Later on, they laughed about it sprawled in the grass while taking turns feeding each other fruit.
He loved how she hid her teeth with the napkin while nibbling her torta. They kissed, but she confessed she was married and that this would end here. He promised not to follow her home, but he lied.
The curtains were partly drawn and I belted out "La Negra." Carolina, in her pink nightgown, poked her head through the curtain. I let Nacho join the serenade. Maybe not the brightest idea since he sang like a bullfrog. Carolina fixed on us as if we were a two-headed monster.
Singing to win love for somebody else has a powerful and sobering effect. I wanted him to be happy. It crushed him when his beloved didn't share his passion. His tangled hair bunched toward the front of his scalp into a comical widow's peak, the crinkle in his forehead an Ash Wednesday cross stamped into his skin. He denied it. Sometimes his skin flaked, leaving him slightly red. He joked he was part reptile.
"You'd be cold-blooded then," I joked.
He was warm, but never talked about his past novias. As though they'd never been part of him. If she'd been part of him then she was the skin he'd shed.
Tia Lupe stopped coming over our house. She and my mother had made up, but they couldn't take back what they'd said. Tia Lupe didn't wear her smile as easily. She stayed inside with the blinds drawn, her door locked to keep the greedy pirates from rushing into her place and pillaging candy from her ceramic bowl.
With the courtyard blaring music, Tia Lupe shut herself in the house. When she came out, dressed in a simple black shirt and pants, she was there but not there. Once famous for breaking her heels dancing under the stars, she frittered away nights picking at tamales on her paper plate. She strained laughs as if fooling herself into having a good time. I wasn't fooled.
"Tia, let's dance" I said, resting my guitar on the chair beside her.
My real aunts stared because I never asked them.
Tia Lupe smiled. Her eyelashes curled into half moons. The scent of her perfume filled me with dizzy delight.
"Let me sit this one out," she said, patting my neck.
I grabbed my guitar. It felt right in my hands. Better than any drink or cigarette because I was making music, and when I was feeling blue, I thought I'd at least strike a chord with somebody else. But, it had always been Tia Lupe, the same intoxicating melody playing in me. I strummed as she drifted off and I stood there, alone like the gentleman caller who was never going to win his beloved. My little girl cousins danced in circles around me.
When Nacho crashed the party I was surprised and a little disappointed. I didn't want him messing around with my cousins and yet I felt bad for the guy. I told myself he was a friend and that his greatest fault was his untamed heart.
He wasn't as big a romantic fool as I had made him out to be and he flirted with each of my aunts. He drank slow sips of beer so my mother found him respectable. My cousin, Alejandra, boxed him into a corner and must have been chewing off his ear, but Nacho sat patiently.
Then he approached Tia Lupe. She sprang from her chair and he cleared a small path. They danced and I had to admit they even looked like a couple. Their hips swayed together and he spun her in tight circles. Tia Lupe fanned her ruffled dress. A bachata played next and I put down my guitar to cut in, but Tia Lupe brushed me off. I looked over at my cousin Alejandra pursing her lips.
"Bring him back," Alejandra said.
"What can I do?" I said.
"He's your friend. He'll listen."
"He's his own man."
Alejandra made a sour face and I couldn't help but feel a bit of her grief.
"I'll see to it he dances with you," I said with unconvincing bravado.
Five dances later, it became obvious she'd lost her partner. Alejandra glowered at me. My stomach bunched in a knot, but Tia Lupe seemed happy and so did Nacho. Who was I to come between true love?
I'd had a crush on her for years. I knew she wasn't my real aunt, but my mother's best amiga, and I wished she could look beyond my seventeen years. Nacho was only a few years older than me, maybe twenty-one, but he wasn't family and he didn't live in our complex.
Weeks later, I saw Tia Lupe's clothes dangling from the wire. I missed watching her make dresses. It brought back fond memories of her sewing while I played for her. Dressmaking was her joy, her lifeblood. There was something peaceful about watching her while I played. Only when my mother hollered for me to come home did I break from my daze. All day long I could've watched Tia Lupe whisking her needle through cloth and the graceful, deliberate, almost invisible knots she'd tie. Each time I was amazed how she transformed a cloth, an old curtain or a blanket. It made no difference who barged in to inspect her work. She handled my aunts and cousins with the same grace as the dresses she handed them.
It hit me then that Nacho might want me to serenade Tia Lupe. I had to avoid him, but he knew my hangouts.
He nabbed me on my way to Plaza Garibaldi.
"You don't want us to be happy," Nacho said.
"Of course I do." I said.
"Then you'll sing?" Nacho said.
"Here, in the complex. Everybody will see me."
"All your serenading; now you're shy?"
It occurred to me I'd serenaded Tia Lupe before, when I played and she made dresses. We were together when I first saw a girl being serenaded. Was it a sign? I dreaded singing on Nacho's behalf because I so much wanted to do it for myself.
"She's private," I said.
"What makes you so sure?"
"I know her."
I hoped that I still knew her. I steered clear of Plaza Garibaldi and didn't go anywhere near Nacho's fruit cart.
And then it happened, but I wasn't sure who had ended things. Neither would say. It didn't matter. Tia Lupe's heart was broken and I was furious. Maybe I'd brought it on by not playing for Nacho. I had put my foot down and crushed my Tia. The only way to set things right was to play for her.
I waited till night dusted the rooftops. My little cousins skipped over car parts and tools strewn about the courtyard, and I clutched my guitar. I tuned it with twiddling fingers. I fumbled with the chords for a while, but I couldn't dilly dally all night. Tia Lupe stayed still behind the curtain. Her shadow betrayed her.
When she opened the door my arms shook. The guitar hadn't felt as heavy since I'd been a child. I still refused to wear the neck strap. Tia Lupe's watery brown eyes seemed to want to save me from embarrassment. My strings sounded brittle. They'd snapped on me before, but it wouldn't stop me now. Tia Lupe waved for me to come in and the others gathered closer: my mother, my aunts and uncles among them. I'd made the mistake of glancing back and the weight of their curiosity slumped on my shoulders. Tia Lupe's worry balled into anger and showed in her clenching jaw.
Was this how Uncle Raul had won her? There was no turning back. My voice faltered and when I'd finished the song and heard raucous laughter from my cousins I kept going because a dash of hope gleamed in Tia Lupe's eyes. I stole a moment from her past. Yes, it was silly to play as if she was my novia, but there was no other way to rid my stomach of its swarming butterflies. I heard their bristling wings, but I soldiered on hoping and worrying she'd hear them through my fluttering strings.
"Pancho, please," Tia Lupe said, her delicate fingers spread across the doorframe.
"It's true," I said.
"Everybody is staring."
"Good. I'm tired of living this lie."
"You're talking crazy."
"Maybe I am. I've finally realized what all this practice was for."
When I looked down my hand trembled, but it no longer plucked the strings. Tia Lupe ducked into the house. I went in after her and locked the door. Her sweet perfume made me weak. I touched her shoulder.
"Not like this," she said.
"Who cares? They all know."
She broke down and began to sob.
I rested the guitar on the floor and hugged her. Her warm, salty tears slid down my cheek.
"I'm so ashamed," she said.
"There's nothing wrong."
"I've known you since you were a boy."
"And this makes it much sweeter."
"I've dreaded this day."
My nosy cousins pressed to the window. Tia Lupe shut them out with a twist of the blinds. I propped Tia Lupe's chin with my thumb and forefinger. Our noses got in the way as I leaned in to kiss her. She kept her small mouth open and my top lip pressed into her teeth. She didn't kiss back, but I pursued, an earnest pulse rippling in me. She held me tight to her body as if protecting me from the dark and sang a soft, weepy melody. Her sweet cottony breath soothing my ear. I kissed her with all the passion I could muster. I did it not because I was trying to heal her wound, but to grow my heart.
Title graphic: "Sango" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2013.