"Over my dead body!" When I was young, these words made up my favorite cuss-line. It was so wonderfully threatening, but so absolutely toothless when I think of it now. It was the best I could muster. To venture into hardcore four-lettered words within the hearing range of one's parents would have been suicidal.
Over my dead body. I felt that way even though I didn't know how a dead body was supposed to feel. Four solid words expressed my inner resistance to any idea that I opposed. Most of the time, I used the phrase to shut my brother up whenever he announced that he, Alex, was going to marry Tereza.
| ...because for some crazy reason, even in play, I could never accept anyone marrying Tereza. Anyone, that is, but me.
It was all in fun. By ourselves. Or with an audience. He would shout "HEY, STEVIE, I'M GOING TO MARRY TEREZA WHEN I GROW UP!" I would shout back: "OVER MY DEAD BODY!" We would end up wrestling each other. I always overpowered him because he was so puny. If he started crying, I was prepared for the usual admonitions from any grown-up who was present; because for some crazy reason, even in play, I could never accept anyone marrying Tereza. Anyone, that is, but me.
Alex was almost three when Tereza came into our lives. I didn't need anyone to mind me. I didn't need anyone. But in the ensuing years, the thought of losing Tereza always put the fear of God in my heart.
The threat was voiced whenever my parents thought Alex and I were totally rambunctious. It became a ritual, reduced to what was supposed to be a conversation but with only Mom doing the talking:
"Maybe you boys prefer the company of someone like Mrs. Andrada!"
Mrs. Andrada was fifty going on seventy-five. Don't laugh, Alex.
"What are you laughing about, Alex? You think Mrs. Andrada will have the patience to play with you?" Definitely not. Andrada would sit us in front of the TV so she could rest her aching legs for at least two hours. O God, please, not ole Andrada!
She turned to me. "If you can't get along with your brother, I have a mind to leave you in an after-school program." Aw, c'mon, Mom, I was only kidding. At which, both Alex and I would make a show of hugging each other, giving Alex the idea that during our clinches he would be free to bite whatever part of my torso was near his mouth. She continued, "Tereza can find nicer kids to take care of than you two." This remark would start Alex whimpering.
Strange as it may sound, but the more frequently Mom confronted us in this manner, the more I was reassured that Tereza would stay. And stay. And stay.
Tereza was special. Even back then, I knew. It had a lot to do with chemistry. Hers and ours, hers and mine. It wasn't that the others were less competent. It was simply that they didn't have the right ingredient to make our time spent together wonderful. Although Tereza was constantly at Alex's beck and call, I felt a bond with her because at nine and a half, I definitely knew more. I was the one to whom she could confer with and talk to. She would turn to me during the early months for a translation of Alex's baby talk and she also found me useful whenever she wasn't altogether sure she heard instructions given to her by grown-ups. I remember she would constantly flip through her pocket dictionary in the early days and wonder why she couldn't find the word she heard. For her, everyone either mumbled softly or talked too fast. I used to love the expression on her face when she'd turn to me with a questioning look after a remark flew past her.
| I joined them once when they were comparing notes about how to deal with Dad whenever he started telling stories.
She confided this dilemma to my grandmother. During Nana's visits, she and Tereza would spend time together in the evenings. I joined them once when they were comparing notes about how to deal with Dad whenever he started telling stories. Apparently, even Nana had problems listening to him, which delighted Tereza, because it was precisely her complaint.
Nana was describing one time when Dad was recounting something. "I kept nodding my head and watching him." She said. "Whenever he smiled, I smiled right back so he thought I understood, but Land's sake, I didn't understand a word he said!" She exclaimed.
"When he starts talking to me," Tereza added, "I start worrying. I say to myself, pay attention, pay attention! And I do. But when he leaves, I feel so stupid because I don't know what he was talking about."
"Why don't you ask him to speak slowly?" I suggested.
"No, no" insisted Alex, "just say, Again please, Daddy!"
"Too much trouble." Tereza said.
"Just smile when he smiles, Tereza" Nana said. And they both roared with laughter.
* * * *
I remember her eyes. Tereza's eyes charted my day. There were mornings when I would meet her at the bottom of the stairs and guessjust by the look in her eyeswhat she was silently saying. "Waffles!" I'd shout, and Tereza would break into a smile.
Then there were times when she seemed to harbor rain clouds in her heart, for the sadness in her eyes was disguised by a faraway look. She would play our games with us, chase us in the park, wade in the brook with us, help us cut up old magazines, but all the while the sadness remained, now and then punctuated by flickers of lightness when we tried to coax her with our antics.
One time I got down ahead of her morning call and found her preparing breakfast. I did a double take and looked at her again. She was always beautiful to me. But this particular morning she was dazzling.
"You in love, Tereza?" I blurted out tentatively.
"You think so?" She smiled teasingly.
My curiosity knew no bounds. "Who is he? Is he nice? Do I know him? You're not thinking of marrying him, are you Tereza?" But all she did was send out peals of laughter.
Tereza never explained. She had this blanket statement which she would use whenever she didn't want to or couldn't explain a situation. Whenever I would say "I don't understand," she would say, "It's okay, I can count on your heart," which, of course, always baffled me. What did my heart have to do with what my mind couldn't figure out? All other queries would be met with answers, no matter how roundabout a way she arrived at them. But questions digging into whys, especially those having to do with people's actions, were covered by Tereza's saying.
"What good is my heart, Tereza, if I can't figure things out?"
"You have a very good heart." She replied. "Answers will come."
"I don't know. When you're . grown up."
"It will be too late then. I would have forgotten what I couldn't understand."
"Good! If you forgetthen it's not so important."
| One time she complained that she was not feeling well. I told her to tell my mom so she could see the doctor. But she said...what would my parents think if they also had her to worry about.
One time she complained that she was not feeling well. I told her to tell my mom so she could see the doctor. But she said doctors were too expensive, and besides what would my parents think if they also had her to worry about. I suggested she take two Tylenols because I had heard my mom say just that to my dad often enough.
That night at the dinner table I casually asked what would happen if Tereza couldn't work because she wasn't feeling well. Dad prescribed two Tylenols and bed rest.
Alex stopped stacking his carrot slices and turned to Mom, "Is Tessa gonna die, Mama?"
"I said IF she's not feeling well" I shouted at him across the table before Mom could answer.
"You said that about Hermie and the next day he died." Alex fired back.
"You overfed him, stoopid. A frog can only eat that much!" I returned a volley.
"Boys! Boys, enough!" She turned to Alex, "Tereza is fine, Honey. Finish your dinner." Mom turned to me in a matter-of-fact way, "Apologize."
"But, Mom, I didn't do anything!" I felt Dad's foot kick me under the table. I turned to Alex, "Oh, all right, I'm sorry" but Alex ignored my apology, jumped out of his chair and ran to Dad.
"I don't want Tessa to die, Daddy. Please don't let Tessa die." Dad nodded his head in agreement.
"No one said anything about dying, Alex." He said, unable to disguise his amusement at the tragic expression on my brother's face.
Mom reached out to try to pacify Alex, but he ran out of the dining room crying and calling out to Tereza. Dad gave me one of his "See-what-you-started" look. I avoided his eyes and decided that the carrots on my plate needed my full attention.
"Mom, I didn't mean to. I was just asking what if" I felt like crying.
"I know, lovey. I know you mean well. Don't play with your food."
In the hallway, we could hear Alex's muffled crying and I could picture Tereza rocking him. 'Wish someone would rock me.
Mom did pick up on my "what-if." After dinner, she sat and explained to Tereza that she was part of family and asked if anything was the matter. To which, of course, Tereza shook her head, smiled and quickly looked up because her eyes glassed over with tears.
| That night, however, she playfully landed a gentle punch on my cheek. I think it marked the moment I fell in love with her.
I knew I gained points with Tereza and it became the start of my role as some kind of spokesman or go-between. In the routine of goodnights, kisses were reserved for Alex and a simple brush of my forehead was mine. That night, however, she playfully landed a gentle punch on my cheek. I think it marked the moment I fell in love with her.
* * * *
"You are older than Alex so you have to be responsibler." Tereza was trying to enforce some discipline.
"More responsible." I corrected. I was trying to get away with something.
She looked at me suspiciously, "Why 'more responsible'?" And then conceded, "Okay, you will please be more responsible otherwise we will be in trouble when your parents come home."
"But Tereza, you didn't tell me"
"I do! But you didn't listen."
"Tereza, it's I-did-But-you-don't-listen."
"Thank you. I did, but you don't listen. Now, it's already ten and Alex will not sleep because he knows you are still awake." She whispered, "Go to sleep! Stay in your room! If Alex is still awake because of you . . . ." And away she would go with her threat in mid-air. I would settle in between the sheets wondering why I couldn't put one over her.
You might wonder in your mind how an adult could casually accept being corrected by a child? But that was what made Tereza so special: She made one feel okay about oneself. It was possible even for Alex to correct Tereza's pronunciation, and she would thank him when he did.
We would laugh listening to Alex talk when he was just learning. He sounded like Tereza. He would hum all the songs she sang. Tereza was a great fan of Trini Lopez, and Alex did a great imitation of "I Wanna be in America." When he was in nursery school, he would come home and share all the new songs and rhymes he had learned. And she took his lessons as her own.
I think of Tereza whenever I search for answers to the whys in my head. I invite her into my mind over and over again because she gave up what she loved mostuswhen she didn't have to. I keep trying to remember her anger, if she felt anger at all, especially in the end when she had every reason to be.
It was during that summer. I remember standing outside the door of a room. I had been waiting there, frantically chewing on my nails. When they came out, Mom had her arm around Tereza. Dad looked defeated.
| I couldn't stop the tears or the heaving ache in my chest. I kept muttering, "Explain to them! Just this once! Explain Please explain."
Without knowing why, I said, "You're not leaving, are you Tereza?" She made an effort to smile and she nodded. I remember screaming at my parents. I don't remember what I said. My father's hands were rough and his fingers dug right through my shoulder blades. I struggled and pulled away but Tereza caught and held me.
I couldn't stop the tears or the heaving ache in my chest. I kept muttering, "Explain to them! Just this once! Explain Please explain." But she never did. She simply acquiesced to the situation. Two days later, she was gone.
The loss of her introduced me to a pain I couldn't understand. It hid itself in me and had a life of its own. How could it all come to this?
* * * *
I return a thousand times to that summer at the beach house. Those were days filled with a sense of being carefree and being cared for. I can still feel myself drenched in sweat, with sandy grits and shell shards fighting for space on my hair and scalp. The sound of waves crashing on the shore competed with the radio blaring out my favorite "oldies but goodies."
I remember a string of days when I went barefoot, running against the wind on the beach; hopping on one leg all the way to the water to avoid the scorching reach of the sand. I would be strolling down the boardwalk with my soles so callused I was oblivious to splinters. Or the times when I would feel my taut toes spread wide as I did my high jumps on the bed while practicing for trampoline games. To walk through life barefoot is heaven. That summer was heaven.
We were sharing the beach house with the Landers, their twin girls, Karen and Kimmie, and their nanny, Joy. Tereza and Alex spent their time with Joy and the twins. I would see them ride their bikes on the boardwalk, and sometimes I would catch them in the House of Mirrors sliding out the exit tunnel. Because no one forced me to be part of the group, I liked joining them. I especially enjoyed our afternoon picnics on the beach. Not picnics for us, but for the sea gulls. We would spread the blanket and each of us would take crumbs and stale bread from a large brown bag and throw them up in the air. The sea gulls would hover above our heads. To tease Alex I would try and balance a piece of bread on his head, inviting a sea gull to dive down and swoop it up, which always startled him. The twins would squeal with delight.
At this particular picnic, we stood knee-deep in water, tearing up pieces of bread and throwing them up in the air only to watch them slowly fall on top of jello waves, as Alex called them, while sea gulls and other birds fought to catch them before they sank. I ran laughingly to where Tereza and Joy were, digging into the brown bag for more bread, and caught the drift of their conversation as Tereza was admiring the ring on Joy's finger.
"It was quite expensive. This kind of cat's eye is not very common!" Joy said. Cat's eyes? I couldn't believe . . .
"Lemme see, please" It was a brownish yellow stone, a little larger than a dime; when you stared at it long enough, the darker shades of brown would frame an almond shape of a gleaming yellow eye with a piercing black iris.
"Aren't you afraid you might lose it here on the beach?" Tereza asked.
"You should do what I do." I said, "I hand over my watch to Tereza till we get home. Right, Tereza? My watch is still in your pocket, isn't it?"
She nodded and dismissed me. But I continued pestering her. "Can I show her my Mickey watch, Tereza? Please, I wanna show Joy my watch!"
"See?" I showed off after Tereza handed it to me. "I think your cat's eye is safer with Tereza."
| Joy thought for a second, then slipped the ring off her finger and handed it over with a teasing look, "You sure it's safe with you?"
Joy thought for a second, then slipped the ring off her finger and handed it over with a teasing look, "You sure it's safe with you?"
In the same tone, Tereza said "Well, let's see, we have one witness," she looked at me and then she lunged, "unless I kill this witness" but I caught her look and was too fast for her. I laughed and ran to join Alex and the twins.
In the house early that evening, we were all preparing to go out for pizza and the movies. Tereza was still trying to convince Alex to come out of the bathtub when I heard bits and pieces of a conversation between Mom and Mrs. Landers. I was running back and forth to the bathroom with only a bath towel around me. Mrs. Landers was saying something about seeing her remove the contents from her pocket and placing them on the toilet seat cover. I didn't quite catch Mom's remark. Then I heard Mrs. Landers say "But I saw it with my own eyes!"
I barged in the room, curious and not knowing why I was angry, "What did you see, Mrs. Landers?"
Mom was livid. "Young man, did I hear you knock on my door? Outside! Outside! If I ever catch you"
I ran back to the bathroom to check what was on top of the toilet seat cover. I remembered seeing some bills, coins, my watch and Joy's ring. What else did she see? Alex and Tereza were not there and whatever it was Mrs. Landers saw was gone. I went over to Alex's room still clutching the bath towel around me. Tereza was slicking down Alex's hair, and from the corner of her eye, she gave an appraisal of my condition.
"Too bad, huh, Alex? Someone is not dressed yet and we are going for corn dogs and pizza at the boardwalk. I guess you will just have to eat an extra corn dog." Alex looked at me gleefully.
"Tereza, did you" Before I could continue, Mom walked in with Mrs. Landers who stopped at the threshold of the door.
Mom was smiling when she said, "Tereza, Mary thought she saw something of hers in the children's bathroom just now. Do you know anything about it?"
I piped in before Tereza could answer. "She means the stuff on top of the toilet seat cover."
Tereza laughingly dug into her pocket, held out her palm, displaying watch, dollar bills, loose change and the cat's eye in full view. I watched as Mom casually picked out the ring, walked out and down the stairs with Mrs. Landers. That's Joy's ring, Mom, I said to myself. Tereza's laughing eyes turned quizzical. I was about to follow Mom but I noticed Tereza with her palm still spread open.
Our eyes met in some field of understanding. A thought kept prying to gain some acceptance in my mind, but I warded it away because its meaning kept intruding and I refusedeven as I slowly began to realize it. For a split second I thought I saw a frightened look in her eyes. She looked away. She held out my watch, and out of habit, I gave her my wrist.
| I felt I needed to hold on to something but where were the handles? There were answers somewhere but I didn't know what the questions were.
I felt I needed to hold on to something but where were the handles? There were answers somewhere but I didn't know what the questions were. I was flailing in my mind and was about to formulate an observation when Alex's tinny voice broke the silence.
"You're browner than I am, Stevie. Why's your peter standing up?"
Picking up the gathered towel around my feet, I ran to my room certain about what I was going to do. I struggled with my shorts and pulled at a soiled tee-shirt. She knelt to face me and took the tee-shirt.
"I know what you want to do. But don't do it. Please." She said gently.
"But I can explain, Tereza. I can tell Mrs. Landers. They'll believe me." I said excitedly.
"No." Her voice was firm. " Explain is not necessary. What for?"
"So they'll know it's Joy's ring." I countered.
"Then, Joy will tell them. Not you."
I was about to protest but she handed me a clean shirt and I slid my arms into the sleeves she held out.
Smiling and in a conniving whisper, she said, "If you're ready in five minutes, you can join us. I'm treating tonight."
I searched her eyes. Why was I so worried? She obviously wasn't. All Joy had to do was tell them. I was sure she would tell them. I was about to ask Tereza why she seemed afraid just now, but she was answering Alex's call.
* * * *
Later on, I kept hearing the phrase like wind brushing my ears: "It's the principle involved." I could not comprehend. Why were parentsand all grown-ups for that matterso powerless when you wanted them to turn the world around? Because of the principle involved.
No explanations were asked and none were offered. Instead, the grown-ups each went about their own way as though the coming days would hold the same people together, as though one of us would still be there.
These days, I listen to Alex talk back to his baby-sitter. He spits out a cuss-line, familiar swear words, part of the hand-me-downs, I suppose. I hear him but I leave them both to fight it out on their own.
"Stevie, fer kite's sake, explain to her we don't do it that way! C'mon, Stevie"
© Remé A. Grefalda