But it was true that they couldn't afford to move somewhere else—Maggie didn't work after she got married. Lou worked for the New York City Fire Department with erratic hours, to his family's occasional frantic worry, and with a firefighter's peculiar mark of nobility—media—inspired or well-deserved, Maggie didn't know. Her plans for her own imaginative, effectual, worthy (probably non-existent) career became more distant every year, until they withered away, and she had to convince herself that she was satisfied as a professional mom.
The boys didn't get off their bikes, they just squinted from the street. Maggie said, "Hi," but Alejandro's flitty eyes made her think that she'd imagined their greeting her, "You glad to be out of school?"
They both dipped their heads, yes. Alejandro was shaggy-haired and lanky, his back curved into a C while he clutched his bike handles. Benito's shorter arms reached out in straight lines to his handlebars. A puff of stiff hair crowned his round face, and drizzled sweat over his forehead.
When Maggie asked their names, Alejandro answered for himself and his younger brother, offering no additional information. Maggie couldn't tell if he was guarded or assertive. They weren't able to say her name quite right. Maggie didn't correct them, but Alejandro said her name twice more, trying, unsuccessfully, to get the sound of the A right. "I will get it another time," he said, and his somber expression swooped into a slight smile.
That sweet flicker in his face made an eagerness for a novel friendship balloon inside Maggie, until she felt positively silly and unreasonable. She wanted to ask Alejandro every little question from a stockpile she hadn't known existed. She felt unjustifiably certain he would answer. But then the boys were on their way, and Maggie on her next page, which could have been blank or filled with fantasy, for all she knew.
The boys had caught Maggie in her particularly sad and self-conscious early fifties. There were months when her own high laugh made her wince, and the weighty awareness of mid-life and impending old age bore down on her. When she asked Lou if her face looked tired, if her skin seemed to hang a little loose, he said, "Not at all, Mag." It was a sweet little lie.
Her sense of isolation—preference for isolation—built a thin-skinned force field around her. Now, more than ever, she noticed her place as an outsider in the neighborhood, which for years had contented her. It was inevitable that she and Lou would not fit in, and for Maggie, this was far more pleasant than living in a place where she was expected to mesh into some "type" of person and could not. But, a long-time foreigner in Hammond, she'd never interacted much with her neighbors.
The next time Maggie spoke with the boys, she started with what she thought was the most basic—did they miss El Salvador? Alejandro's face knotted up, and she knew she'd intruded.
Benito said, "We miss it a lot," then, hands up, "Where are the pupusas here? I don't see any to buy, and my mom won't cook them."
Alejandro finished for him, "The food here is shit." His rudeness sucked the air out of Maggie's stomach. But when she asked the more innocuous, "So, what do you boys like to do?" Alejandro answered, "We like dancing, but the dances at the school here are also shit, they're so boring. Do you like to dance, Maggie?? His open-air A chimed.
"Then you should go to El Salvador. Only if you dance with rhythm, though, and do you have rhythm? In your feet?"
"I'm not too sure."
"Well," Alejandro said, 'my mother taught me dancing. And Benito, too. But we had rhythm on our own."
Maggie took a gulp of her iced tea, "I changed my mind, Alejandro. I have rhythm."
"Ha, ha!" Both boys' loud laughs reached the sky. It was possible that they were just humoring her. Maggie wished she could cup her hand over her tea glass and trap the echo of their laughter to listen to later. Instead, she waved goodbye, and they spun off.
But they came back. Often. Benito would joke around with her, sometimes making her guess what he'd just said in Spanish. One afternoon, Alejandro asked, "What do you think is the prettiest thing, Maggie?" She said her daughters, and she meant it.
"Both of them?"
Alejandro said Luz was the most beautiful thing he ever saw, and if any person saw her, that person would probably say the same answer. Maggie asked what he thought was ugliest, and Benito interrupted, "Luz, when she is angry with him!"
Maggie had no cookie or lemonade incentives, just a unique and new type of company to offer them. On the porch, toward the end of a long sun shower, Alejandro was saying, "I know it is impossible, but I did impossible things, Maggie." She was the first person he told about his plans to go to college. He had already printed out the application for the local community college. "I study for my classes a lot. More than any of my friends, I think." Maggie did not discourage him. She wouldn't dare. But her heart broke at the thought of him drowning in academia. She couldn't imagine that his English and education were enough to get him through the unforgiving exams and papers that her daughters had once cried over. But then she cast off all disbelief and made herself have faith in him. Such a lovely-eyed, excited young person could not fall short of success. Who deserved it if he didn't?