Pieces of a Colombian Family

Tuesday June 5th, 2012

Altogether there are seven of us now. Pacho. Quiet, patient, caution of a surgeon. Pedro. Forthright, engaging, owner of a politician’s opinion. Grandmother Beatríz. Gentle, kind, suffers from arthritis. Señora Alvarez. Ecstatic, vain, exhales breathes of an alcoholic. Señor Alvarez. Firm hand shake. Absent. Like a ghost.

And then there is Cindy.

Cindy. Venezuelan. Seventeen. Wide, glorious smiles pouring from her face. Strangely, I later learn that Cindy is the lifeblood of the Alvarez family, even though she is not even part of it.

I am a stranger to the Alvarez family, and occupy the seventh room of a house that is undecorated. Beside plain white walls there is nothing to look at except a collection of mirrors, which seem to serve only one purpose, and that is to show you how old or young you really feel in a house where memories seem to be better forgotten. There is a collection of telephones in the garage. This is the shared memorabilia of the Alvarez family. 
The Alvarez family seems unprepared for my visit. On the day I arrive, Pacho notifies me that his father has left and has become unreachable. I ask why. Pacho tells me not to worry. Pacho says his father does this sometimes. It’s not me. Pacho explains that he has never done this before – he has never hosted an extranjero. I can tell that he is anxious. I tell him not to worry. I tell him that I have done this before.
At a wooden, clothed-in-white table, we sit down to our first meal. We wait. There are seven places for us. Señora Alvarez and Señor Alvarez do not come. Señora Alvarez, I later learn, would had long since chosen to remain inside her lone chamber on the second floor enjoying the bliss of smoke and beauty magazines and early retirement. Señor Alvarez, it becomes clear, is plainly gone.
Pacho explains that both of his parents used to work for one of Colombia’s most important telecommunications companies during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s as computer engineers. This made his mother unique. They retired early. The small collection of 20thcentury telephones is a celebration of an earlier era for the Alvarez family. Now the small collection of phones seems like an ugly reminder of an antiquated conversation had one time too many.
What I learn learn, in amidst low voices, cold tones, careful, and short whispers, is that the Alvarez family is not excatly unprepared for my visit. It is not that the conversation is obsolete. No. The Alvarez family is torn. The conversation that carries them, I think, seems to be dying.
But to say that it is dead would be an injustice to those who try to keep the family alive.
I hear Cindy’s footsteps on the stairs that lead into the center of my one room apartment. Balancing on a tray clutched tightly in her hands is my dinner. She sits it down on a small table in the center of the room and stands upright. She waits for me to sit and acknowledge her latest domestic feat. I do. I pick up my fork and begin. Then she sits across from me in an aristocratic wooden chair and crosses her legs. She feasts her eyes and watches me eat.
¿Te gusta? she asks.
I nod affirmatively. We talk.
Pacho says that Cindy is like a little sister in his family. Even though the presence of a domestic servant is foreign to me, I quickly learn that Cindy is not the rule, but the exception. When Pacho and Pedro and Cindy are in the same room there is finally laughter. She is more family than servant, it seems. 

Pacho explains that Cindy will clean my room daily, make my bed, and prepare meals. Meals are as follows: breakfast at 8am, lunch at 1pm, and dinner somewhere in the later parts of the evening. Dinner is taken alone, in our rooms. Lunch on Saturday is the last meal. Then Cindy finishes cleaning. Sunday, she is free. Do not expect Cindy to be here for you on Sundays, Pacho explains. And so I feel like a king.

Finally, Sunday comes. The Alvarez house is full, but silent. I am alone in my room. Then I hear footsteps. They are Cindy’s footsteps. However, who enters is not the diligent, youthful girl who cooked my meals over the last several days. Instead, today she is dressed to kill.“I’m going out,” she informs me. She says it in this dignified way as if it is a curated message that she has carefully decided to give to me at that precise, perfect moment. She says it like a diplomat. She stands in front of me, arms crossed, eyes staring into mine and says it.“Ok,” I reply. It is Sunday and Cindy is free. This morning, she appears like a lady. She appears astonishingly beautiful and mature for a maid of seventeen. Cindy might spend her Sunday with her sisters and her Mother and lament the cleaning of bathrooms and other domestic foes, politely toil over the intimate perplexities of a family to whom she does not belong, and conclude the day with a plot for navigating a week of the Alvarez family again. Six days of smile and laughter bravely crushing the habits of silence between brothers, father and son, mother and son, mother and Beatriz, sons and Grandmother. Six days of desperately trying to defeat the weariness of a dying conversation at the table she tirelessly governs so that she can make it to the seventh day intact, and express her disappointments to her sisters and her mother, and finally, maybe, feel like something of a lady again.

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