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From Chapter Four
Esperanza walked through town toward her house. The house had stood for over two hundred years silently witnessing the lives of her family's generations. Many layers of paint covered it. These days bright egg yolk yellow bounced off the walls. Bougainvillea pink lines ran along the borders of every opening, embracing the old door and covering the bottom half wall. Cobalt blue wrought-iron posts guarded the windows, anticipating the very unlikely possibility of a break-in.
Luis had picked those colors before he was killed in the bus accident. Esperanza had it painted the way he wanted and kept it like that for more than twelve years, missing him more every day, reading his letters over and over and saving them in a tin marzipan candy box under her bed, along with newspaper clippings from the accident, his wedding ring, his wisdom tooth, a few strands of his hair -- stiff and glued together with a dry blotch of green paint -- and a key chain with their photo, his arm around her, taken when they went to visit the Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico City.
A reasonable, prudent time after Luis' death, six men came forward all at once and claimed to love Esperanza. They wished they could caress her long black hair and hold her close for at least one century.
The first one hoped to marry her and give her three boys so she could be safe and taken care of in her old age. The boys would become doctors, lawyers, or engineers, if that's what it took to make her love him.
The second man's desire was to build her a modern house with air-conditioning and paint it with the colors she liked best and then make love to her in every one of the rooms, every day of the week at different hours of the day, so sunlight could reflect on the colored walls and bounce back on their skins, making them blue, then green, then orange.
The third man belonged to the wealthiest family in town. He owned a sugar cane factory and swore he would make Esperanza's life as sweet as he hoped her lips to be. He admired the way she sometimes held them open a tiny bit in a hint of a smile, revealing her straight, resplendent white teeth.
The fourth man, a Mexico City native, threatened to kill himself if Esperanza didn't pay attention to him. He followed her to church every Sunday for eight months, attracted mainly by the way her hips swayed like a boat when she walked.
The fifth man wanted to feel her large, firm breasts pressed against his chest and was known to sleep every night holding a pillow as if it were Esperanza. He made the mistake of telling this to his barber, who in turn told the rest of his clients, sending the gossip all the way to the neighboring town of Alvarado. Often he would be asked at social gatherings, "And how's Mrs. Pillow?"
The sixth man, a sailor, wanted to take her on a trip around the world. His plan was to stop at every island and make love on the shore, where curious seagulls could glance at them and die of envy after realizing what they missed for not being human.
But in the end, except for the fourth man, who was ultimately locked up in a mental hospital, they all had to marry other women, so tired had they become of waiting for Esperanza to even greet them on the street.
I couldn't love any of those men," she told Soledad once while walking home from the market. "God gave me my chance with Luis. Too bad it didn't last long. I'll just be a widow and that's that."
Luis fell in love with Esperanza at eight-fifteen in the morning on the first day of tenth grade when she walked into the classroom. He couldn't help but notice her hair, long and a bit wavy, like the river water on a windy afternoon. And just looking at it hanging loosely down her shoulders and over her back made him lightheaded. He saw her scan the room in search of an empty desk, greet the teacher, and sit down in the third row. Another empty desk was next to him. Hadn't she seen it? Why was she sitting so far away? Had she caught him staring at her? Had she seen him break out in a sweat the minute she walked in? Could she have noticed the pimple on his nose? Maybe she didn't want to sit next to him, the new kid in the classroom.
Luis had been unabashedly happy since preschool, but on that day, he silently admitted to himself that he had wasted sixteen years of his life, which meant all of it. Why had God sent him to earth so long before he saw that girl? He thought of the millions of minutes wasted with his friends at the Alvarado wharf talking about girls they'd like to go to bed with, walking younger girls home from school and imagining them naked, posting magazine cutouts of teen beauties behind his closet door and masturbating on mosquito-infested nights. Suddenly, every woman he knew became small, insignificant, a midget next to the girl who sat in the third row.
Esperanza didn't notice Luis until recess, at ten-thirty. He sat at the far end of the schoolyard, protected by the shade of a generous mango tree. The heat was oppressive. The sun was cruel. He drank a tamarind soda straight from the bottle and offered Esperanza a sip with a wordless gesture that she understood clear across the yard. And since she just had to get a closer look at his smile, she walked over and sat by him until the bell rang, fifteen minutes later. They exchanged names. They laughed for no particular reason. They shared the tamarind soda. By day's end, they had already written each other notes that went from hand to hand across the classroom.
He wrote: "Life has been senseless until today. Let's make up for the time we haven't been together."
She answered: "Come for dinner with my parents at eight o'clock."
From that evening until years later when Luis was killed in the bus accident, Esperanza felt that each hour they spent together was worth three. They loved each other with hurried passion. Their kisses did not have the taste of eternity. It was during those days that Esperanza's skin began developing a tamarind-candy flavor. Bitter, sweet, sour, and salty, all at the same time. Her flesh was like a planet with one harmonious nation. A luscious fruition for Luis' taste buds. A sacred shrine for mosquitoes. A potential threat to those with weak stomachs. Every night, he spent one hour licking her, starting behind her ear and ending between her toes.
After his death, his pictures, framed in wood, silver, pewter, plastic, and bamboo, hung from the walls, stood on the bookshelf, on the kitchen table, by her bed, and at the door. Every day, Esperanza spent a few seconds looking at each one and wondering how she would get by in his absence. She kept herself busy making sure the accounting books were up to date at the hardware store, helping Soledad iron the Jarocha costumes she designed, and visiting her parents and Luis at the cemetery.
And then there was little Blanca to care for. She was born a very small baby, two months before her due date, would never be held in her father's arms. And in fact, during her first four weeks of life, it was mainly Luis who held her. If anyone else picked her up from her crib, she'd cry tears the size of an adult's. Esperanza came to think her baby didn't love her, but Blanca was just getting the most attention she could from a father she would not have for long. As soon as Luis died, Blanca's crying stopped and Esperanza's began.
The door of Esperanza's house was stubborn at times and refused to open. But she found a way to jiggle her key in the old lock until it gave in. She amused herself thinking she tickled it with the key and that the squeaking sound the door made when it opened was its laughter.
"Where were you?" Soledad was waiting for Esperanza on the patio. She sounded concerned. A habit of hers. "The Espinozas came by to express their condolences."
"I went to see Father Salvador. I told him all about Blanca."
Esperanza whimpered on Soledad's shoulder, tired of crying so much those past few days. Soledad squeezed a couple of little tears out. They seemed petty, almost inadequate, but to Esperanza those tears meant that her friend was finally allowing herself to be vulnerable.
"I shouldn't be crying in front of you," said Soledad.
"It's fine. You don't always have to be strong."
They exchanged handkerchiefs and dried each other's tears.
"You're as hard as an oak tree, Soledad. Can't you just break down once for me?"
"I am breaking down." Soledad wiped a single tear off her cheek and smeared it on Esperanza's palm. "See?"
Esperanza knew Soledad cried inconsolably at certain moments during her beloved soap operas, yet when it came to her own tragedies, she would always act as if she could take anything. At her husband's funeral, she was the only one who did not cry, at least in public. Because of that, many people believed that Soledad had never really loved Alfredo, that she had married him just because he resembled the late Mexican movie idol Pedro Infante. This gossip went on for a few years, until one day, while ordering a birthday cake for Blanca at the bakery, Esperanza overheard two women talking about the issue. She took two meringue cupcakes topped with whipped cream from the counter, paid for them, and once given the change, smashed them on the women's heads. From then on, the gossip focused on Esperanza's temper. And it didn't stop until Esperanza tied a coin to the mouth of San Ramón Nonato, always called on for protection against people talking behind one's back. She fastened the coin to the saint's statue with a red ribbon, passing the ribbon around his head and making three knots at the back of his neck.
Soledad and Esperanza tiptoed across the patio, so as not to wake her grandfather's hydrangea sleeping in terra-cotta pots and old motor fuel oil cans. Hundreds of containers -- tin, plastic, majolica, wood, cement -- were carefully arranged in groups all over the brick floor and around the magnolia tree. The women knew well where to set their feet as they walked in the semidarkness toward the door at the end of the cluttered patio.
As they settled themselves in the living room, a major drama involving two angry, handsome men developed before their eyes on the TV set, but they did not pay attention.
"What are we going to do with so much pain?" Soledad's voice was brittle. "If it keeps growing it won't fit in our bodies anymore."
"The worst part is that we're crying for no reason." Esperanza was blunt. "Blanca is not dead."
This was the first of many times when Soledad would question Esperanza's mental health. To her, the girl's death was a fact as clear and tangible as the funeral itself. She had signed the death certificate as a witness, she had seen the casket being covered with dirt at the cemetery, and she had prayed for Blanca's soul along with the sixty or so other people who attended the service. Clearly, the next step was to mourn her, accept the fact with resignation, and move on.
"San Judas Tadeo told me." Esperanza bit her lip. "In person." She bit it again. How could she be saying this?
She had promised Father Salvador to keep the miracle to herself.
"For God's sake, Esperanza. Don't go crazy on me."
Their conversation became tangled with the one coming from the soap opera on TV, a braid of words overlapping one another, trying to make sense.
"I never thought that my own partner would back stab me this way. Those signed checks were blank and you knew it. You're a fortune thief, Carlos Alberto! A thief of hearts!" said one of the well-groomed men on the TV screen.
"You don't believe me." Esperanza realized then why Father Salvador had asked her to keep the apparition a secret.
"She set the amount on those checks! Forget about your daughter, José Fernando, she's mine from now on, body, soul, and bank accounts!" A younger man, more handsome, his mustache a bit uneven, yelled in a closeup almost too big for the screen.
Esperanza didn't wait for the other man to answer. She stood up, turned the TV off, and walked away from Soledad.
I just want everything to be the way it was before we lost Blanca," she said at the door, leaving Soledad alone in the living room.
A very large living room, it seemed to Soledad. The whole house had suddenly become a big empty place. The kitchen, the bedrooms, the dining room, all were now filled with heat and nothingness. Sunlight refused to come in through the windows. The hallway was silent, devoid of Blanca's laughter. Chairs and armoires and tables had lost their purpose. She felt she didn't belong in Esperanza's house anymore. With the girl gone, she no longer had a reason to live there. Blanca didn't need her. Souls that live with God don't need little dressmaking godmothers. But if Esperanza was losing her mind, she would have to stay and take care of her.
Soledad dragged the rocking chair to the portico and sat, staring at the street as if something interesting might happen. She, too, wanted everything to be the way it had been when Blanca was around. Just a few months before, she had begun making her a Jarocha costume. In her lifetime she had made dozens of those elaborate dresses for the most beautiful girls and women in Tlacotalpan to wear at their Quince Años dances and Candelaria festivities. But her goddaughter's dress had to be special. Far more embroidery would be involved. Imported satin. First-class organza. Esperanza's slip, worn also by her mother and her grandmother. The shoes, brought in from the city. During the last fitting, a couple of weeks before Blanca died, Soledad enveloped her tender preteen body with the white fabric, making her look like a child angel surrounded by voluptuous clouds. She remembered Blanca in the dress, halfway made, pins sticking out everywhere, wearing a tiny bra that bashfully covered breasts the size of mosquito bites. Even at that ungraceful age, not yet a woman, and no longer a girl, Blanca was pretty. Her body was beginning to swell in the places men crave the most. Her hair, long and black, like the wings of a magpie, fell over her bare shoulders. This was a girl who would not suffer from acne, would not need braces, would not gain weight, would not smoke or follow teenage fads, and still, one whom all her friends at school would love and envy. Not only that, had she not disappeared, she would have finished her school years with honors. How could she not? She had the undivided attention and care of two mothers. She pleased Soledad by wearing the costumes she made for her. She stood patiently through the fittings. She participated in every parade that Soledad asked her to. And she kissed and hugged Esperanza, always clinging to her like a barnacle to the stilts of a dock.
Every morning, Esperanza and Soledad took turns writing notes to put in Blanca's lunch bag. When the juice of this mango drips down your arm, think of how much I love you. Blanca collected every note in an envelope she kept in the diary she hid under her mattress. When Esperanza began sorting through her daughter's things after the funeral, she found the diary. She cried so much that the tears blurred her vision. She had to wait two weeks before she could read a word, but once she started, she read the entire thing in one sitting. Under other circumstances, she would not have violated Blanca's privacy. But now that she was gone, Esperanza went through the pages tracing the handwriting with her finger. She cherished the roundness of the o's, the firmness of the t's, and how the a's at the end of words curved the serif upward, almost touching the line above. Esperanza kissed nearly every word in the diary, even those that were misspelled, then put the diary back in its place.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, after school, Blanca had practiced guitar with her teacher, Don Remigio Montaño, a retired mariachi who helped her develop a passion for music. Before she was even seven years old she had already learned to play and sing a couple of boleros, without really understanding what the sad, heartbroken lyrics meant. Her little voice filled the house, floated out the window, and blended with the street noises, making the sound of a truck passing by not only bearable but harmonious.
But now she was gone. Now Soledad would have to finish the dress for someone else, the sixteen-year-old daughter of one of Soledad's cousins, who would ruin the costume three summers later while being chased by her boyfriend in a sugarcane field, ultimately surrendering and making love with him in the mud.
While Soledad rocked mechanically on the chair in the portico, Esperanza sat inside, on Blanca's bed. She was angry at Soledad for not believing in San Judas Tadeo's apparition. And by not believing, Soledad's life after Blanca's disappearance had become one of grief, acceptance, and resignation, as if the girl were really dead.
With the palm of her hand, Esperanza ironed a crease on the bedspread and remembered how she had cleaned Blanca's room meticulously before she went to pick her up at the hospital. She had placed half a dozen white roses in a crystal vase and had set it on her night table, right next to a picture of Luis in a small silver frame. With respect, she had lit a brand-new candle, the kind that smelled like roses. She had pulled the sheets open, folding them out in a perfect triangle, and fluffed the pillow just the way Blanca liked. Soledad had come in the room, cooling off her sweaty face with a paper fan, minimizing the effects of the heatwave and an early menopause. She had hung the Jarocha costume from the rod by the window and fixed the flounces and frills. In four more months she would finish the embroidery along the sleeves and on the apron. But the rest of the dress was almost completed. She had planned it so that it could grow with Blanca, leaving enough fabric along the hem to let out as needed. This way, she could wear it to her Quince Años dance three years from now. Esperanza and Soledad had made sure every stitch was in the right place. They imagined the girl in it, dancing with the most handsome boy in town, waving the spacious white skirt like a storm at sea and making him dizzy from glimpses of her legs during the split seconds the skirt was up.
Blanca's clothes were still in the armoire. Her shoes were under her bed. Her dolls were on the pillow. The Jarocha dress still hung from the rod. She would not wear it. She would not make any boy dizzy from desire. She would not be kissed or adored. She would not marry or have children. Unless Esperanza found her.
Copyright © 1999 by María Amparo Escandón
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
ESPERANZA'S BOX OF SAINTS
Esperanza's Box of Saints is a magical, humorous, and passion-filled odyssey about a beautiful young widow's search for her missing child -- a mission that takes her from a humble Mexican village to the rowdy brothels of Tijuana and a rarely seen side of Los Angeles. But it's not just a geographical journey -- it's also a journey of self-discovery.
- What did you think of Esperanza's apparitions? Are they serious? Comical? Rooted in religion? Why do you think the author chose San Judas Tadeo to be her patron saint?
- Esperanza carries her box of saints wherever she goes. What do you think this box represents? Is it the mobility of faith? Or perhaps the saints are protection from evil? Why do you think strangers find her altar so intriguing?
- Are you convinced that Blanca really died in the hospital, or do you believe that she's still alive? Did your opinion change at different times during the book? If so, when? Did you agree with Esperanza's intuition?
- Esperanza has been living with Soledad for twelve years. Do you think their relationship is supportive or destructive? What does Soledad's presence bring to the plot and to Esperanza's mental and physical well-being?
- How do you think Esperanza's major losses (husband and only child) at such a young age have affected her and her outlook on life?
- What role do shoes play in Esperanza's journey? She's always searching for the perfect shoes -- then ruining or losing them. What do you think this says about her?
- When Esperanza goes from brothel to brothel while searching for Blanca, she meets some interesting characters along the way. Do you think it's realistic that each one breaks the rules for Esperanza? What is it about her innocence that allows her to remain unharmed?
- The bulk of the novel takes place in Southern California and Mexico. Did the pace and spirit of the writing give you a tangible sense of place and cultural background? How did Esperanza's surroundings affect the plot?
- Did you ever think that Esperanza would find love and trust in another adult? Did you expect someone like Angel to be her savior? How did you think the tale would end?
- On the surface, Esperanza dramatically reinvents herself to survive, but after she completes her odyssey -- and her journey of self-discovery -- do you think she's still the same person inside?
Born in Mexico, María Amparo Escandón now lives in Los Angeles where she cofounded a Spanish-language advertising agency with her husband. She teaches writing through the UCLA Extension service, and her stories have been published in many magazines.
Why I Wrote Esperanza's Box of Saints
by María Amparo Escandón
Esperanza Box of Saints became a novel after a question popped up in my mind: What if I was told that my daughter had died and I wasn't able to confirm her death? My immediate answer would be to deny it. To prove them wrong I would do what anyone else would in this case: anything and everything. Call on other worldly forces for guidance? Sure. Set out to find her who knows where in the world? Of course. Become a prostitute? You bet. And in the process of looking for her, I'd most likely find myself. And so Esperanza embarks on this magical, amusing yet enlightening, serious yet irreverent journey of self-discovery. I wanted to write a painful comedy in a quirky, whimsical, bold, sensuous, agile way that could make the reader laugh to tears in the midst of the tragedy. I also wanted to keep this story outside the margins of magic realism. Why keep magic within the parameters of extraordinary worlds when it abounds in real life? Esperanza's story is magical reality, the kind that people who live in Mexico encounter every day.
To learn more about Esperanza's Box of Saints and to correspond with the author, visit Mariía Amparo Escandón on the World Wide Web at: