This story is by Jennifer Santiago and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Loneliest Resident on Kentia Street
Standing on the edge of my front porch, it seems nothing has changed. Just my whole world, little else. I notice the three banana trees lining the outer wall of our terrace have grown a few inches, so too the flowers hanging from our latticed ceiling. Some of the green leaves on the pillow plant have turned a pale pink. The longest stems nearly reach the tiled floor. Plectranthus Prostratus. Fillipe loved butchering its Latin name. The off-white, beaded hammock we brought from Brazil appears an off-off-white now. It gently rocks back and forth in a breeze that can’t seem to make up its mind whether to stay or go. I scan the entire street, settling on our neighbor’s home. There is poor Alice, the German Shepherd, still tied to a tree stump. She is a sad pile of brown and black fur slumped at the end of a slackened chain. I realize I am not the most miserable, lonely resident on Kentia Street, but there is no comfort in it.
“You know when I left the house that night, the neighbor was there.”
“Yes, I remember.” Shawn responds, taking a small step closer. “What did you say to her? She was crying while hugging you.”
“I begged her to let Alice go. I told her it was the only thing Fill would have wanted.”
We let the air grow cold between us for a moment, standing defeated in that chilly silence. Shawn, my co-worker and hero, lets out a sigh strong enough to rock the hammock.
“I’m sorry, Jen.”
“Me too. Me too.”
Exactly three weeks after Fillipe died I returned to Belize. My friends, my family, my co-workers, all had strong opinions about this. In the end, every single one said the same exact thing in different ways: You are so brave.
No, I wasn’t. I was sick. I was alone. I had no choice. I had no other home. My parents could not handle watching the rock of the family erode under the relentless pounding of the waves of grief against the shores of my sanity. My father was ill, inflicted with guilt, fear and whatever normally rots a ninety-year old from the inside out. My brother was wonderfully supportive for the three days he spent with me in Florida, but he had to rush back to his life. The management at our childhood apartment in Queens must have relaxed the no-pets policy. Bryan now lives there with a rescued street dog and a girlfriend who collects cats, and tattoos of cats. There is no room for me. I had no choice but to live in the home where Fillipe died.
But how am I going to sleep just feet from the bathroom where I found him?
When I arrived in Belize City that morning, Shawn was waiting at the international arrivals meeting point. He wore a white T-shirt that read “Baghdad Running Club,” and a pair of tan cargo pants. He squeezed me tight, then took a few steps back, eyeing my withered remains.
“Oh my God! You look so skinny!”
“Yeah- I’m on the death diet. Definitely don’t recommend it but man it’s effective.”
“How much have you lost?”
“I’m guessing fifteen pounds? I’m not doing so well with solid foods. Still can’t eat anything cold. But veggie juices keep me semi-functional.”
On the one-hour drive home to Belmopan he updated me on the house, the dogs and Fill’s garden.
“Maria is there now cleaning everything. The landlord said he will stop by later this evening with Rhianna and Rio. They are doing great and are going to be so excited to see you.”
“No offense, I owe you my life, but I definitely came back for the dogs.”
We laughed. The car ride was light, but as we pulled left off the Philip Goldson Highway onto the unmarked, dirt road towards the bungalow-style home on Kentia Street, I started to feel the heat of dread and fear.
“You ok?” Shawn asked, hesitant to take his eyes off a road littered with crater-sized potholes. “Went quiet all of the sudden.”
“I’ll be ok.”
“You don’t have to go there, you know. You can stay with me.”
“No. No. I have to do this. I have to be there. Fill is there. I mean, his garden is. I’ve got to take care of his banana trees. That’s what he would’ve wanted.”
“We’ll find you a gardener. I was out there watering the plants, but they need someone with a greener thumb.”
“No. I got this. It will give me something to do. Meaning.”
We pulled in under the corrugated steel car park. Three giant bushes of bright, red ghost peppers screamed ‘welcome home.’
“The garden looks amazing, Shawn. Those habaneros are like Michael Jackson-Thriller- jacket red. I should start a hot sauce business.”
We exited the Cherokee, Shawn moonwalking terribly towards the trunk. This time, I had just one bag.
“I see you came back a lot lighter all around,” Shawn joked as he pulled the Kenneth Cole logo’d suitcase out of the back.
“Yeah I gave one of Fill’s surfboards to his buddy Gabriel in Rio de Janeiro.”
Two days after Fill died, Gabriel and his surf buddies at the Aroprador surf club organized a “memorial paddle out.” It is a surfers’ tribute for a fallen friend. Straddling their boards, they formed a circle in the ocean off Ipanema Beach, then splashed the sea with their hands and feet. I watched the video posted on Facebook just a few days after the funeral. I could see the jagged, twin peaks of the Dos Irmãos looming in the background. I imagined me and Fill lying, as we often did, on its steep rock face, watching the tribute below, wondering who died.
“Let’s go inside and see what Maria is up to.”
I hesitate for a moment, staring at the weeping stems of the pillow plant.
“Shawn, before we do. Thank you. Thank you for everything. I couldn’t have come back here if it wasn’t for you.”
“I’m here for you, Jen. Anything you need. I’ll be here.”
Maria is in the kitchen drying a Starbucks coffee mug with a tea towel.
“Hi Maria,” I say, realizing she has no idea Fill is gone. “Thank you for coming.”
“Of course, Señora Jennifer. Welcome home.”
I walk past the bathroom. Mercifully, the door is closed. I walk towards the bedroom. I forgot we had it painted a soft lilac just a few days before Fill died. It looks so pretty. After spending my entire life living in apartments, finally I had the home I always wanted. Finally, I had the family I always wanted. Had.
“So, Jen, look. I am going to leave you so you can settle in. If you need anything, call me. If you decide you can’t stay here, call me. If anything at all comes up, call me. I’m here for you, ok?”
I walk Shawn to the front porch, watching the Jeep back up out of the garage and into the street. I am now alone. I am so very alone.
How am I going to do this?
“Señora Jennifer, can you come here?”
Maria calls my name from somewhere inside the house. I walk back in, but don’t see her in the kitchen. I walk to the laundry room. Not there.
Wait a minute. No. Please no.
“Señora can you come here?”
This can’t be happening. Now? So soon?
I keep following the voice down the hall. I stop. In the periphery I see the door is now wide open. I turn right towards the guest bathroom. Maria is on all fours in front of the tub, the soiled soles of her white, canvas sneakers point towards me.
Keep breathing. Keep breathing.
She stands up. Latex gloves cover her delicate, brown arms up to the elbows. She holds a sponge in her right hand. THE sponge.
“I’m sorry Señora but there is this red stain on the bathtub. I can’t seem to remove. I can try again tomorrow. Maybe we need some bleach, not this.”
In her other hand is some organic, no-chemical cleaner I shipped in knowing non-toxic cleaning supplies are a rare find in Belmopan. Funny what I thought might kill us.
“Look.” Maria shifts aside, pointing inside the tub. I obey. I see him there, though he is not there. I can’t believe I am still standing. Somehow a discussion about cleaning supplies dilutes the terror, rubs it clean.
“Let’s just try again some other time,” I say through lips stretched thin in a monstrously fake smile.
“And this sponge?”
She pushes it towards me. It is still stained red. The sponge lodged underneath Fill’s chin when I found him dead in the bathtub. I stare at it. It floats in the air like the three–week-old screams of grief and pain Maria can’t scrub away.
“Just throw it out.”