Because he was dead, Don Raúl’s hand over Esperanza’s mouth relaxed. This was when she let out a blood-curdling scream. She had already been crying. Her pillow was soaked with tears on each side of her face.
The first person to arrive at Esperanza’s bedroom was Lupita, followed closely by Doña Ángeles. The first words out of Lupita’s mouth were, “Dios mío,” followed by signs of the cross. The first words out of Doña Ángeles mouth were, “What have you done?”
Lupita held Esperanza while they both wept.
Doña Ángeles had her husband’s body moved to their bedroom and told the servants who helped her, “You will not speak of this, ever!” She waited until the next morning to report her husband’s death, claiming that he passed in his sleep. Though the man was as fit as a bull, the coroner concluded that he’d died of heart failure.
Not only did the servants never speak of what happened, neither did Doña Ángeles. To her, Esperanza was to blame for the loss of both of her husbands. Now more than ever, she resented the beautiful daughter of the devil.
It took Esperanza months to get over what happened, though she never fully recovered—not for a couple of decades anyway. The one who took the loss of Esperanza’s virtue the hardest was Lupita. Over the next year, Lupita seemed to age at ten times the normal rate. She eventually became bedridden, and the roles between her and Esperanza reversed. Now it was Esperanza who took care of Lupita.
One day, while Esperanza was reading to her, Lupita spoke for the first time in months. “Enough,” she said. “It’s time for me to leave.” Shocked to hear her wet nurse’s voice, Esperanza was speechless as she watched the old woman help herself out of bed.
“’Pita, what do you mean?” Esperanza said.
“This house has become too dark. I must leave.”
Laughing in disbelief, Esperanza asked, “Where will you go?”
“I’m going to be with the Lord.”
Esperanza watched Lupita scavenge through the room as if she was looking for something, until she spoke again. “Ehh, what could I need?”
“’Pita, no. Not yet,” Esperanza said, and she began to cry, realizing that Lupita was truly leaving, though she was not sure how.
“That’s enough tears for now. It’s time. It’s my job to look after you, and I can’t do it from here, not anymore.” Lupita started to levitate. “As soon as I am gone, remove the money from my mattress. Find the black thread and cut along the seam. It’s my life’s savings. Take it, and tomorrow after I’m buried in the backyard, leave this God-forsaken place forever.”
As Lupita started to ascend, a hole in the ceiling began to appear. A bright light pierced through the hole as it began to enlarge, and pieces of plaster and concrete fell to the ground. Looking at Lupita, Esperanza could see a glow about her. The ten years she had aged in that year seemed to have reversed. Also, for the first time since that horrible night, Lupita had a smile on her face. “Don’t worry, mijita. I won’t abandon you. I’ll be looking after you the whole time. I promise.” And she disappeared up through the illuminated hole in the ceiling.
Esperanza closed her eyes and cried as if she were a baby again, anywhere in the house but the kitchen. Her mother came to the room and asked, “What’s going on in here?”
Through the tears, Esperanza choked out the words, “Lupita, she’s left.”
As if annoyed, Doña Ángeles said, “You can have the rest of the night to mourn. We’ll bury her in the backyard first thing tomorrow morning.”
Confused, Esperanza opened her eyes to find Lupita’s lifeless body lying in her bed and the ceiling intact. The Doña immediately walked out of the room, leaving her daughter alone to mourn.
The next day, after the funeral and during siesta, Esperanza followed through with Lupita’s request. She cut open the mattress where it had been sewn shut with black thread and removed Lupita’s life’s savings. She then packed two leather bags and left a note for her mother.
“Dearest mother, sorry I couldn’t say good-bye. I’ve gone away on a business trip.”
At seventeen, Esperanza’s body had been in full bloom for years, but she had lived such a sheltered life in Ojocaliente that she was unaware of the power of her beauty. In the year that she traveled the country, she was made well aware that she had something that men desired.
At first, she thought they were just nice, but it didn’t take long for her to realize that all they wanted was what her stepfather had taken by force. She had no interest in that and kept men at a distance for a long time.
Being a young, beautiful traveler with plenty of money, one would expect Esperanza to be having the time of her life. The truth was, she was sad. She was alone for the first time in her life and missed Lupita dearly. The only time her mind was clear of any anguish was when she was eating. She found joy in trying all the different foods the different parts of the country had to offer.
She tried everything she came across. She found that the best food came from the people in the street or on the side of the road. As she tasted the different delicacies, she asked vendors about the ingredients and then made notes in a book she carried with her. Sometimes the vendors could answer her, and sometimes they couldn’t.
“I use cinnamon tea as the base for my mole,” a woman would say. Or “I mix bacon grease in the masa.” Often though, the answer would be, “No sé, Señorita. My mother made them.”
Esperanza got great pleasure in seeing a ball of masa turn into a quesadilla right before her eyes. She would have it cut into as many pieces as there were different salsas, so that she could try them all.
One day, while eating a shrimp cocktail, she looked up and realized that she was in paradise. She decided right then and there that Puerto Escondido was her new home. By the end of that afternoon, she had found both a casita and a bathing suit she liked, and hit the beach to take in the sun.
It was on the beach that she realized how comfortable it felt to be barely dressed. She despised the attention it got her, though. Mothers would often cover their young sons’ eyes as they walked by, and men would often come up to Esperanza and try to make conversation without ever looking at her face. “To hell with them,” she eventually thought. “I’ll wear whatever I want.”
Puerto Escondido was filled with young tourists and foreigners, and it didn’t take Esperanza long to make friends. She spent her days on the beach and nights out with them. Smoking marijuana and drinking were habits she easily embraced until, one night, she found herself in a situation that reminded her of her night with Don Raúl.
The next day, the young German with a bandaged head apologized to her. Her response to him was, “Next time, after I break the bottle over your head, I’ll take what’s left and stab it in your neck.” There wasn’t a next time.
Esperanza felt it best to keep her senses about her and no longer participated in the smoking or drinking when she went out. After a few nights of this, she began to dread going out at all. The beach also had lost its allure. After trying to surf, she had resigned to just sunbathing, but this bored her after a while. With boredom set in and rent using up most of Lupita’s savings, Esperanza concluded it was time she went to work.
The first place she thought of was where she used to hang out with her friends, Mariscos Puerto Escondido. During the day it was a decent seafood restaurant, but at night it was the most popular bar in town. Not wanting to continue to be around drunks, Esperanza hoped to pick up a lunch or dinner shift as a waitress.
She walked in one morning before they opened and asked to speak to the owner. Ernesto was a handsome man not quite thirty years old. A close uncle had left him the restaurant when he passed away. As soon as Ernesto took the place over, he immediately brought in a stereo system and kept the restaurant open as late as the city would allow it. Within the first week, he had doubled his revenue. As any young man who inherited a bar would do, Ernesto enjoyed himself on a nightly basis. He took liberties with his liquor and his female employees. Within seconds of seeing Esperanza, he said, “When can you start?”
“Right away,” Esperanza answered.
“Good,” he said. “Let me give you a tour.” The first thing he showed her was his office and sleeping quarters, which contained a bed big enough for three people. They stood there for a moment in silence. When Esperanza gave no indication that she wanted to test the bed out, Ernesto continued the tour. Next was a private area for servers to change into their uniforms and store their personal belongings, and then it was on to the kitchen.
It was in the kitchen that, for the first time in a long time, Esperanza became overwhelmed with joy. Of course, she thought. That was why all the food she had been trying made her feel so good. It was the closest she had been to an actual kitchen. Esperanza was reminded of the stories Lupita would tell her. Of how, when she was a baby, the only place she wouldn’t cry was in the kitchen.
Excited, Esperanza addressed the owner. “Señor.”
Ernesto held up his hand and had a look on his face as if to say, “Please. Call me Ernesto.”
“Ernesto,” she continued. “I’ve changed my mind. I do not want to serve meals. I want to make them. Here in the kitchen!”
Ernesto let out a laugh and said, “Young lady, I’m not hiring you for either of those jobs. You are my newest cocktail waitress.”
The impact Ernesto had hoped for in hiring such an attractive woman was better than expected. The Mariscos Puerto Escondido was packed every night, mostly with men who had come to see Esperanza. The uniform for servers was a white cotton blouse with elastic at the top. The bottom of the blouse was tucked into a white cotton skirt with blue trim, and the restaurant’s name embroidered on it in big letters. Ernesto took the liberty to make some changes to Esperanza’s uniform. The bottom of her blouse came to an end right underneath her breasts, exposing her midriff. The slit in the side the skirt came up a little higher than normal, and he bought her some high-heeled shoes to wear.
Esperanza didn’t mind the sheer cotton top or skirt. It was as close to being naked in public as she’d ever been, and she quite enjoyed how comfortable that made her feel. She liked the uniform so much that she eventually bought some of the skirts for herself—without the embroidery or the slit in the side—and had them dyed different colors. As far as the shoes went, she hated them. And in time, getting rid of them was one of the demands she made on Ernesto.
Esperanza was not naive. She was aware that she was the one the customers came to see every night. She teased and flirted with the men, and if a song came on that she liked, she’d select a lucky patron and take him out on the dance floor. Nobody cared that she didn’t know the difference between cumbia and salsa. Just watching her move to the rhythm of the music was enough. Each song always ended with a roar from the crowd and a round of applause.
One day, after months of serving drinks and making Ernesto richer by the night, Esperanza came in early to negotiate new terms of her employment. Knowing that she could ask for anything she wanted, Ernesto waited in fear to hear her demands.
“First of all,” Esperanza said. “I do not want to wear these ever again.” She held the high-heeled shoes by their straps and then released them, letting them drop on Ernesto’s desk. “Next,” she said as Ernesto grimaced, waiting for it. “I want to make more money…”
There it was—what Ernesto had been dreading. How much was she going to want? Ten percent? Twenty? Thirty? Forget it! He would do 15 percent, tops!
“…by working in kitchen,” Esperanza demanded.
“Deal,” Ernesto said thanking the Lord for her reasonable request. “What shoes do you intend to wear?”
“Pues, my huaraches of course,” she said as she gestured down to her feet.
Ernesto looked down and saw her favorite brown, tattered leather sandals covering up most of what he thought were the prettiest feet he’d ever seen. “As you wish,” he said, but with the thought that he would have to replace those horrible things eventually.
Esperanza started in the kitchen that night. She spent most of her first dinner shift chopping. Chopping onions, cilantro, tomatoes and whatever else the staff needed chopped. Though the work was menial, she loved every minute of it. The blissful energy she absorbed in the kitchen was still with her through her entire shift as a cocktail waitress.
She could tell that the kitchen staff was just humoring her by letting her be in the kitchen. They had no intention of letting her cook anything. They all assumed she didn’t know how. Why would a woman this beautiful ever have to cook anything in her entire life? they thought.
The dinner-shift staff arrived one day to find Esperanza already in the kitchen. She stood at a table where a bowl of something sat along with a basket of tostadas next to it.
“What’s this?” someone asked.
“This is my fish ceviche,” Esperanza answered.
“We already have a fish ceviche on the menu!”
“Not like this,” she said and stood there, not inviting them to taste it, even though that was exactly what she wanted them to do.
Someone finally made a move and broke a portion of tostada off and scooped up a mouthful of the ceviche. He asked for a salt shaker, but Esperanza interrupted him, “Ah, ah. Taste it first.”
As soon as the staff member put the piece of tostada topped with ceviche into his mouth, his eyes widened. Still chewing, he went for another piece of the tostada. “It tastes like the ocean,” he said as he took a second helping. “An ocean with extra chilies.”
“Well, we are in the business of selling beers too,” Esperanza responded.
In the year that she spent traveling the country trying different food, it occurred to Esperanza that every dish was one special ingredient away from being elevated from good to great. The special ingredient in her ceviche was fresh ocean water instead of regular salt. She filtered that water through a series of coffee filters. What was left was a liquid salt solution that gave any seafood dish the essence of the ocean.
The last person to taste the ceviche was the head chef. With his mouth still full, he proclaimed, “This is going on the menu tonight!”
“It will have to be tomorrow,” Esperanza told the chef. “This is the last of it, and it takes twenty-four hours to prepare.”
“Then get to work,” he said. “And make plenty, for tomorrow it will not only be on the menu, but it will also be the special.”
With the head chef’s approval each time, changes were made to the menu as Esperanza introduced something else. Within time, Mariscos Puerto Escondido was the most popular restaurant in all of Puerto Escondido, making Ernesto even richer.
“Do you like them?” Ernesto could already tell by the look on Esperanza’s face that she did. Stunned, she held the handmade sandals in her hands like they were a pair of baby bunnies. “Well?” Ernesto asked.
Snapping out of her daze, Esperanza said, “Yes,” and put them on right away.
“Good,” Ernesto said as he presented her with another box. “Because I got you two pair.” Ernesto had spent months looking for a pair of shoes, until he decided that what he would like best to see on Esperanza’s feet did not exist. He sent away to León to have exactly what he wanted custom made. After sending several pairs back, the right ones arrived, and he thought that with all the effort it to took to get them, he’d better order a second pair. He waited till the second set of turquoise-and-silver decorated sandals arrived before he presented the first pair to Esperanza.
Esperanza started to have feelings for her boss. Gestures like this one helped, but he had made more significant changes over time. He’d cut his drinking down to the occasional celebratory shot, and his womanizing came to a halt, mostly. He was a man, after all, and waiting for Esperanza to come around had him so pent up with sexual frustration that he had to release it every now and then.
Esperanza’s beauty was enough to make any man want her. But her charm, charisma, and skills in the kitchen made Ernesto feel like this was a woman he could marry, forsaking all others.
One night after the bar had closed and Ernesto and Esperanza were the only ones left, Ernesto took a deep breath and said, “I’ve never seen you with a man, so I assume you are a virgin waiting for marriage. That being the case, I want to marry you. Not simply because I want to lie with you but because I love you and want to only be with you until the day that I die.”
For the first time in her life, Esperanza felt a man want her for more than just her beauty. She had gotten many drunken proposals over the years, but this was the first true, honest one. Her mind filled with visions of a happy life and children. It felt good to her to see this future. She’d never thought it was possible, but maybe she could have a normal life after all.
“I’ll marry you,” Esperanza said. “But I’m not a virgin, so I see no need to wait.” She dropped the towel she was using to clean on the floor and headed upstairs to Ernesto’s sleeping quarters. Ernesto immediately followed.
It had been five years since the night her virtue was stolen. It felt like an old memory to her—one that didn’t hurt so much. She felt she was ready to get on with her life and now seemed as good of a time as any.
By the time he got to the bedroom, Esperanza had already taken her sandals off. All Ernesto had left to do was lift her blouse over her head and pull her skirt down to the floor, and she was naked. “My God,” Ernesto said looking upon his naked betrothed for the very first time. It was a feat no other man in the world had the privilege of accomplishing. Still dressed, Ernesto walked counter-clockwise around Esperanza, lightly touching her with the tips of his left hand as he circled. He started at her shoulder and drew a line with his fingers down her body, as if he was painting a barber’s pole. By the time he got to the front of her left hip, just below her waistline, her knees buckled. Thinking she was going to fall, Ernesto grabbed her and then kissed her.
Esperanza responded to the kiss with overflowing passion. She kissed him back while boldly embracing him. Men had kissed her over the past few years, but none of them felt like this. None of them aroused her. And none of them had taken place while she was naked, feeling both vulnerable and comfortable at the same time.
Ernesto undressed himself in front of her. Like a little girl, Esperanza hid her face in her hands. She had never seen a grown man naked before. Hoping to ease her embarrassment a little, Ernesto got into bed underneath the covers. Esperanza followed his lead.
The kissing and caressing continued until Ernesto could no longer take it. He positioned himself on top of her, wedging his body in between her legs. He was more than ready to enter the most beautiful women he had ever known in his life, but every attempt he made was thwarted by Esperanza’s squirming just out of reach. “Are you sure you want this?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m sure.” Now more than ever Esperanza wanted to make love. Though she was attracted to Ernesto and wanted him to be her lover, at this point she just wanted to make love to make love. She wanted to prove to herself that she could. That what Don Raúl had done to her no longer controlled her—that she was over it. She scooted down to meet Ernesto’s erection and accepted it inside of her.
As soon as Ernesto entered her, his eyes rolled into the back of his head and his eyelids fell closed. The pleasure overwhelmed him, and he felt as if he were transported to another place. After a few seconds, Ernesto came back and opened his eyes to look at his lover. She had her face covered by her hands again. This time she was not hiding her embarrassment but her tears.
Everything was too familiar, an echo of the only other “lover” she’d ever had. As much as she tried not to let the experience of her new lover remind her of Don Raúl, she couldn’t help it. The tears came without permission, and she covered her face to hide that fact that she was crying. Hoping that Ernesto would finish before he noticed.
As soon as he opened his eyes, Ernesto withdrew from her and lay next to her on the bed. “You’re not ready,” he said, without anger or frustration.
“I’m sorry,” she said wiping away her tears. “I thought I was. I wanted to be.”
“Talking about it is something I know I’m not ready for.”
“Okay, my love. We have a lifetime to talk and make love. It doesn’t have to start it all tonight.” Esperanza smiled, and he kissed her on the temple. “Here, lie on your side,” he said as he slid his arm under her neck to spoon her.
Esperanza welcomed this new position. She had never spooned before. She liked how she could lie like a child and be held. It was like being hugged but not having to hug back. It would have been the perfect had it not been for something hard poking her from behind. “What is th…” before she could finish her question she had Ernesto’s hard organ in her hand.
“Sorry,” he said. “It will go away in a while.”
A little embarrassed, Esperanza let go of his erection and turned back around. She couldn’t help but notice how close it was to her vagina. “Do people make love this way?” she asked Ernesto.
“Yes, of course.”
Esperanza lay there, thinking about what it would be like to make love in this position, when she felt him gently slide inside of her from behind. Ernesto didn’t need any other confirmation that she wanted to try again, other than the mutual burning desire he could feel between the both of them. When Esperanza reached back, grabbing him by the hip and pulling him closer to her, he knew he was right to try.
As much as Esperanza like this position for cuddling, she liked it even more for making love. She liked that she didn’t have to reciprocate anything. Not because she was selfish, but because she couldn’t. Her lover would caress her, and she couldn’t caress him. Her lover could kiss her on the neck, but she couldn’t kiss back.
Don Raúl was the furthest thing from her mind. Nothing about this lovemaking session reminded her of that night in Ojocaliente. That is, until she realized Ernesto was dead.