She Called Herself Lola

A week after Lucinda heard the gals at the beauty shop talking about Patty’s June wedding, she began eyeing shoes at the upscale boutique where she worked—first a delicate set of kitten heels, then a pair of gold lamé sandals. She wasn’t tall and needed a good-sized heel, but not so high that she couldn’t shimmy and sway across a dance floor.

“Shoes are essential,” she told customers, “Special outfits begin with shoes, not the other way around.”

All day, she eased nylon-fitted feet into supple leather wingtips or sleek ballet slippers. “Call me Lola,” she said. If the customer happened to be male, she might hold his gaze, wiggle her shoulders, and put on a sultry voice.

“You know, Lola from the Barree Maneelow song,” she said, her “Rs” dancing off her tongue, “Or like the dancer, Lola Montez.” Customers chuckled, but before they knew it, they’d purchased not one but two or three pairs of shoes.

Lola flirted with everyone who entered the shop. She was a striking woman with a quick smile, mischievous hooded eyelids, and brassy locks. If you looked closely, you’d see silvery threads beneath orange-brown strands. Despite them, she managed to conceal her sixty-few years. What with the Colombian facelift she’d scrimped and saved for, her disciplined regime at the twenty-four-hour fitness center, and weekly hair appointment, she could pass as young as fifty, if not late forty.

Every Saturday, Lola went on a beautifying pilgrimage to Connie’s House of Style, an all-purpose, one-stop shop for hair and body treatments. Connie styled, waxed, tinted, lacquered, and massaged, occasionally dabbling in chiropractic and homeopathic care. But her greatest currency was the counsel she gave preferred customers.

That day, Lola lay back in a cushioned chair, her nose inside a starlet magazine, her fingers splayed as Connie sat on a stool across from her, applying persimmon-colored polish to her nails. With a free hand, Lola pointed to a full-page photo of an actress wearing a toga.

“I’m wearing a dress just like this for Patty’s wedding,” she said, squeaking with excitement, describing how she’d sashay on the dance floor arm in arm with Charlie, her new live-in boyfriend.

Connie raised a perfectly pruned brow. “You think you’re on Patty’s invite list?”

“Why wouldn’t I be? She’s my niece.”

“That’s Hector, your exhusband’s niece.”

“Ay, Connie. It might matter in your pueblito in Jalisco, but not here. I heard about a woman who invited ex-boyfriends to her birthing room in the hospital. Imagínate!”

Connie scowled. “Patty got pretty sore when you cheeked-to-cheeked it with her novio-soon-to-be-fiancé at her other primita’s wedding.”

“That was ages ago.”

“It was four months ago.”

“I’m sure she’s matured since then,” Lola said.

“Have you?”

Lola pouted. “Not me. I’m getting younger.”

Connie rolled her eyes. “Speaking of younger, how ‘s your new roommate?

“Charlie’s terrific. He cooks me gourmet meals. He’s smart too. Does crossword puzzles in seven minutes flat. The hard ones.”

Connie nodded. “Your genius has a job, right? Not like the last one.”

“Sure. He works part time for the city.”

“What’s Charlie do?”

“He helps sanitation engineers,” she said, her voice barely audible.

“Ha!” Connie said, “so he’s a garbage man.” 

“Well, no.”

“What then?” Connie demanded, placing her hand on her ample hip.

Lola considered her toes immersed in sudsy water. “He delivers the port-a-potties whenever the city has big outdoor events. But he also harvests mushrooms. Takes off whole days and comes back with huge sacks smelling like earth and sea. Restaurants pay him well. It’s seasonal, so he’s got two jobs. You think it’s better to say he works for the city or that he’s a mushroom picker?”

Connie shrugged. “I don’t believe in glossing over things, cept when it comes to nails. Where’d you meet this guy?”

“The boutique.”

“So he likes fancy shoes.”

“Yup. He’s sophisticated and smart. Just a few more classes short of an AA degree.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

Lola shot Connie a look. “He’s not like the last one.”

“No? This fella sounds like he’s got a green card.”

The women laughed.

“Nah, Charlie’s great. His problem is he reads too many comic books and smokes too much mota. Though he does have ambition where it counts.”

Connie laughed with every part of her body. “So you got yourself another Romeo. Does he know how old you are?”

“Aw Connie, don’t start. Charlie’s past forty and has grey in his red curls. You’ll meet him at the wedding.”

“Don’t you ever meet anyone your own age?” Connie asked.

Lola sighed. “The world belongs to the young—as long as they’ve got the right shoes.”

* * *

Lola hadn’t always believed in shoes. There was a time when her feet roamed unfettered in the dusty streets of her rural Mexican town. It wasn’t until the age of eight, when she went to school and Tia Marta ordered her to put on a scuffed pair. They were much too small and her toes bruised. But Lola soon recognized the dividing line between those who wore shoes and those who didn’t. Early on, she decided where she wanted to stand. At fifteen, when she saw an opportunity, she followed the footsteps of her parents and went north. And just like them, she never turned back.

That evening, Lola checked the mail but found no invitation. The following days she remained alert for different-sized envelopes. Wedding invitations had changed in recent years, sometimes arriving in boxes swaddled in white satin and tulle. It wouldn’t surprise Lola if Patty sent one of those. Maybe the post office had trouble delivering it to her steel mailbox.

Two weeks passed, and no box, envelope, or post office notice arrived. Lola’s patience wore thin. Charlie’s housekeeping habits didn’t help. He never closed or capped anything: not the microwave, not the toothpaste, not the bottles of cooking oil. And his dirty socks spawned and migrated from room to room, alongside his weather-beaten comic books and folded newspapers. But what she couldn’t get used to was the pungency of his cigarettes. Their thick sweetness permeated the apartment, reminding Lola of the syrupy-like incense the Bishop in her Mexican town dispensed from a golden cup. She remembered squirming on a wooden pew, Tia Marta pinching her, leaving blueberry blotches the size of walnuts on her arms.

One evening, Lola arrived home from work and checked the mail, but found nothing but newspaper ads in the cold metal box. She slammed the mail compartment and shuffled to her kitchen with her grocery bags. Immediately the aroma of Charlie’s pot assaulted her nostrils. Not only that, but the counters were overpopulated by crushed beer cans and a plate of browning avocado sprinkled with a confetti of tortilla chips. She pushed the debris aside, set down her bags, and called out to Charlie.

“Is it too much to ask for you to clean up after yourself? It’s not as though you have a full-time job.”

Charlie lumbered in, and as Lola unpacked groceries she saw the hurt in his eyes — a vestige of verbal pummeling from hard-drinking parents. She recognized it because she’d weathered blows of her own. 

“Lazy ass,” she said, teasing him. Charlie lightly spanked her behind and the next moment began nibbling her ear. The empty beer cans remained on the counter for her to toss later.

Their arguments felt as familiar as worn shoes. Despite their squabbling, Lola sensed Charlie cared for her, perhaps more than most. He was kind. Sometimes he surprised her by picking her up from work. At night, he rubbed her feet and massaged her back. And every now and then he splurged on fancy dinners out, just because he knew it pleased her. She knew she was quick to ignite and told herself to hold her tongue. If she didn’t, they might not make it to the wedding. And she had to go. She lived for events like those. Each night before falling asleep, an image unfurled in her mind—she and Charlie, linked arm in arm, glittering in their finest, dancing before a sea of admiring guests. Of course, it didn’t stop her from balking when he asked her to take his suit to the cleaners. 

“Why can’t you do it? You’re home all day?”

“Hey, it’s your niece’s wedding.”

* * *

The Saturday before the wedding, Lola sat glumly at Connie’s.

“I’m calling Ester,” Lola told her.

“You sure you wanna do that? Your ex-sister-in-law can be such a bruja.”

“You’re telling me! She accused me of slipping potions into Hector so that he’d marry me. It was just a little Splenda so he wouldn’t get too gordito.”

Connie rolled her eyes. “Ay, that Ester. She’s a little sangrona, but I’d think twice before calling her.”

“I know how to handle her. You butter her up like toast.”

* * *

“You can’t call!” Charlie said, “It’s not proper.”

“You’re saying I’m improper!”

“You’re putting words in my mouth. But Lola, honey,” his voice softened, almost pleaded, “You can’t call her. Even I know that.”

Lola shook her head. “You and Connie and your old school ways. I’ll show you how to take control of things. This is America for God sakes.”

“If you’re gonna lecture me I’m leaving.”

“No! I want you to listen. See how things get done.”

Begrudgingly, Charlie plopped himself on the sofa across from her. She picked up her cell phone, defiantly punched the keys, and waited for her ex-sister-in-law’s starchy voice. She heard the rings and twisted her mouth into an exaggerated smile.

“Hola, Ester dear? How are you?”

At first, the voice on the other end sounded high and musical like an expectant teenage girl. “With whom am I speaking?”

“It’s Lola,” she said. “Hector’s Lola. Listen, amor, I’m just calling because, you know, this is awkward, and I couldn’t believe it possible, but you see, I never received Patty’s wedding invitation. I thought to myself, the post office is so bad these days. Patty and I have always been so close. Remember those sparkly shoes I got her when I took her to the Nutcracker? She wore them everywhere. So many gifts and affection over the years, she wouldn’t forget me. And I wouldn’t dream of missing it. I’m sure you and Silvio have outdone yourselves; you’ve got such impeccable taste. I knew it had to be a mistake.”

Silence.

“I said to myself, it’s a slip. We’re familia.

“You’re putting me in on the spot, Lucinda, but there’s no error.” The voice on the phone deepened, grew colder, more assured. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a thousand things to do.”

Lola heard the abrupt click, sank into the couch, and threw down her cellphone. Charlie picked it up. “Aw, honey, it don’t matter.”

“Of course it matters. Can’t you see? Everyone I know is going to that wedding. They’re my tribe, the people I met when I first arrived. Connie, Trinidad, Socorro, all of us worked in housekeeping. That’s how I met Hector. I cleaned his house. I cleaned everyone’s house and knew all their secrets. I was the first to realize Ester’s eldest daughter got knocked up. Who knows more than the housekeeper who does the laundry? That’s why she hates me. That and the fact that Hector invested family money for my English classes and got me into retail.”

“He’ll be at the wedding?” Charlie asked, wincing.

“Yes, but don’t worry your pretty head about it. He’s ancient and he’s courting a spinster who’s as old as the Bible.”

“Why’d you leave him?”

Lola sighed. “Hector’s boring.”

“Bunch of louts. They all deserve each other,” Charlie said.

“Hey, they’re my family.” 

“I’m your family now. Listen, let’s skip the wedding and do something special that day. We’ll dress up for brunch at the Sheraton Court. Then we’ll stroll downtown. Everyone’ll see what a fine gal I’ve got. At night, I’ll take you dancing.”

“I’ll teach you how to cumbia,” she said, placing her hand on her belly and shimmying her hips.

“We could also lounge in bed all day. Whatever you want.”

Lola tousled his thick hair. The freckles on his nose gave him the look of an overgrown Dennis the Menace. “I really like you,” she said.

He plastered her with sloppy kisses. She closed her eyes and accepted them, basking in the warmth of his burly arms, the pungency of his sweat and lust. But she’d made up her mind about the wedding.

The following Saturday, Lola didn’t visit Connie’s. She rose early and worked out for an extra hour at the gym. When she returned, she breakfasted lightly before showering. She then turbaned her hair inside a towel, slipped on a satin kimono, and laid items on a chair—silk stockings, black lacy underwear, and gold sandals that beat out the kitten heels. She pulled out a turquoise one-shouldered dress and hung it on the door. It shimmered inside the dry cleaner’s plastic sheath. It cost two months’ salary and was worth every penny.

“Whatcha doing?” Charlie muttered, his eyes still shut.

“I’m getting ready for the wedding.”

He sat up. “You can’t go to that wedding.”

“Watch me,” she said. She looked at his morning head of disheveled curls and felt a stab of irritation. “You know what time it is? I got up at six and already worked out.”

“Can’t a man sleep? I worked late last night.”

“If you’d finish up those college units, you could get a decent job and wouldn’t have to work Friday nights.”

Charlie opened his eyes. “Here we go again. If you weren’t so loca, you wouldn’t have to go to that stupid wedding.”

“If you knew what was good for you, you’d get up right now. The wedding is at that winery you like. It’ll take a while to get there. All we have to do is make an appearance.”

“Why?”

“They’re family,” she said.

Charlie sat up and looked at her with vexed perplexity. “They aren’t your family. They’re your ex-husband’s relations. And even if they were family, they’ve made it clear they don’t want you there. They can’t stand you.” His voice had risen and he practically shouted. “This is ridiculous. You’re ridiculous. You wanna know what else? Lola Montez wasn’t even Spanish. She was Irish.”

Lola crossed her arms and stood by the bed. “Irish or Spanish, she worked hard and made a name for herself. Unlike some people I know.”

“Damn you.”

She saw the hurt again but was too exasperated to care. Why couldn’t he do this one simple thing? “If you don’t come, you might as well leave and not come back. With or without you, I’m going to that wedding.”

“You’d throw it all away for a wedding you weren’t even invited to?” Again she saw the hurt. “So all we’ve had is a six-week frolic in the hay?” He growled, stretched, and clumsily rose from bed, but kept his eyes fixed on Lola. She stared back, and for a few seconds the two silently measured each other. She felt his eyes journeying from her turbaned hair to her silvery flip-flops. A smirk expanded across his lips.

“Lu-cin-da,” he said, slowly drawing out each syllable.That’s your real name, isn’t it?”

“You’ve been going through my things,” she said, suddenly alarmed.

“Yeah and you know what else? I looked at your driver’s license. You’re older than my mother! How long were you going to keep me in the dark?”

“A woman is entitled to assume the age she believes herself to be.”

“Yeah?” He grabbed at her hands and examined them. The veiny wrinkled skin was the one part of her body she couldn’t surgically modify and coax into smoothness. All that scrubbing with detergents left its mark. Lola pulled away her hands and made fists.

“You lied to me,” he said.

“Don’t get overly dramatic.” She squinted. “What were you doing in my purse anyway? You take any of my money?”

“You’re going to accuse me of stealing? Aw come on, Lola, Lucinda, whatever your name is, let’s not do this. We’re good together. I love you, Lola.” There was a catch in his voice.

“How much you take?” She demanded.

“That’s it,” Charlie shouted. His pale face reddened beneath freckled skin. He picked up a pair of sweatpants from the floor, hastily put them on, and collected a pair of socks from the pile near the hamper.

“What are you doing?”

“What’s it look like I’m doing?”

Before she knew it he’d buttoned up a wrinkled shirt, slipped on tennis shoes, and flung an old windbreaker over his shoulders. In less than a dozen steps, he’d reached the door and slammed it behind him. He hadn’t even brushed his teeth.

Lola stood by the window and watched him drive off. Only then did she reach for her wallet, unsure whether he’d taken anything because she couldn’t remember how much she had. She went back into the bathroom and began applying her makeup. She dipped a brush into a compact of shimmery powder and swooped it in circles over her nose and forehead. Next she applied rich espresso shadow over her hooded lids and finished with touches of mascara. She stepped back and examined her reflection in the mirror.

Could Charlie see beneath the tucks and pulls? The puckered, dimpled skin could only stretch so far. Was that why he left? Or was it something else? A string of people had left her, starting with her parents. If they loved you, they would have provided for you. A pang of memories flickered. She switched off the light in the bathroom and headed for the bedroom, stopping to pick up strewn newspapers on the couch. She glanced at the half-filled crossword puzzle and read the clue for 4 Down: Sicilian hothead. Charlie had written Mt. Etna. What kind of person knew things like that?

Charlie knew things, not just inane trivia. Maybe he was right about the wedding. Hadn’t Ester made things clear? Maybe she was the fool for insisting on attending. She sank into the couch, unsure what to do.

The wedding gift on the coffee table taunted her. She’d spent a fortune on diamond cut crystal goblets, and imagined the couple toasting at the sumptuous celebration, the buffet of delicacies, and overflowing champagne. What did that herb-addled toilet cleaner know about what was proper in this familia?

She checked her watch. It was getting late. If she was going to make the reception, she needed to hustle. She went to the bedroom, slipped on the dress, then finished off her hair—pinning it back, but allowing a long strand to fall on the side, as she’d seen in Connie’s magazines. Afterwards she preened before the bedroom mirror. If only Charlie was there to admire her. Damn him.

Soon she was on the highway. Lola wasn’t one to reflect, but the long drive gave her little choice. Maybe she’d take a timeout on love, become celibate and spiritual—not like her churchgoing friends, more like the modern, yoga-practicing women, the ones who wore black leggings and carried rolled-up mats like infants. Or she’d meditate. Maybe she’d let her hair go natural. Ay Carajo! That was too much.

As she drove towards the winery, pastoral landscape replaced urban density. The cows and the hills alongside the lone country road always reminded her of home, even if the meadows here were greener and more kempt than those of her dry, high-desert home. She’d lived in an egg-sized cinder box house with Tia Marta. A tiny space filled with big fights and recriminations, especially when Lola told her plans to leave. Ingrata. I’m the only family you’ve got, little girl. Walk out and we’re done. And Tia Marta was done. She never wrote. Not once.

Melancholic gloom filled her lungs. Perhaps it was the fading image of her and Charlie dancing, or the edge in his voice when saying he loved her. Tears bubbled up, but she wiped them quickly, careful not to muss her makeup.

She thought about the dozen or so lovers before Charlie—a lineup of misfits, liars, connivers, and thieves. Some bored her; others bruised her. One had broken her nose as well as her heart. He’d called her a puta sucia and left her on the ground feeling irreparably sullied and broken. Ugly and unloveable.

She seldom cried, but alone in her car that day, she revisited the innumerable hurts and indignities, and sobbed. Her tears came from deep within her chest, and for once she didn’t care about smearing her makeup.

When the car sputtered to a stop, she saw no gas stations or signs, nothing but meadows for miles. She managed to pull to the side of the road.

“Carajo!” she shouted. She fished for her phone to call Charlie, but there was no service. She needed to flag someone down or walk somewhere. But there was nowhere to go. She left the car, stood by its side, and waited, feeling completely spent.

After about ten minutes, an old pickup passed by and pulled up ahead of her. Judging by the leaf blower and other tools in the truck, she guessed the driver was a gardener. The man left the truck and walked up to her.

“You speak espanish?” He said, sizing her up in her one shouldered dress, her reddened eyes and smudges beneath them. She felt exposed, vulnerable.

“Si, I ran out of gas,” she said in Spanish. 

“The closest gas station is about twenty miles up. I can drive you there to pick some up. Name’s Pablo, but people call me Pepe.” He held out a tattooed arm to shake her hand. 

She got in his pickup. It smelled of stale cigarettes, sweet manure, and men’s toil.

Pepe was a gabber, and she learned all about his uncle’s gardening business.  His prattle lifted her gloom. “This is his truck,” Pepe told her, “but if I play my cards right, it’ll be mine soon.” Lola heard the dreams in his voice. It’s what she wanted from Charlie. Charlie with the unwashed dishes and unmade bed. Charlie in bed. Charlie, kneading her feet, caressing her face, pouring his soul into hers. It stirred her. Right then she longed to hear his voice.

They drove to a small town, found the station, and she bought a container that he filled with gas. They were about to return to the car when they heard the sounds of laughter and the heavy thumping of a bass coming from a bar.

“Would you like a drink?” he asked. She saw playfulness in his eyes.

She did the automatic calculation she always did, examined Pepe like a potential shoe customer or novio—he was lean but muscular, thirtyish, no ring on his finger, probably no green card either, perhaps a girlfriend or wife and kids somewhere. She was tempted to follow him inside that bar, down two or three tequila shots, feel lighthearted inside the swells of the music, to seduce and be seduced in the soft glow, to enter a new story and see if it would yield a different ending.

“No gracias,” she said. She had an older story to pick up and mend. Still, she couldn’t help but wink at him.