He walked into my backyard and we fell in love. That’s the only way it could have happened: I had imprisoned myself in a bougainvillea- and lemon tree-bordered secret garden overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains, but my deck had a hole that needed patching, so he came to fix it.
His name was Armando. He was young with brown skin, dark hair and broad shoulders. He told me his English wasn’t good, but it was.
The hole in my deck was under yards of lime-green AstroTurf, so it took time to get to the rotten wood. He showed me that all the boards were cracked and splintered, that it would be a bigger job than we had first thought.
Armando worked on the deck, and I sat close by watching my cat Maggie. She was 17, a silver and black tiger cat with turquoise eyes. We had gone through so much together, and she was dying. Armando was kind to her and brought her water. It was September.
He came from a village near Puebla, Mexico. His grandparents had raised him because his mother had left and his father had come to the U.S. for work.
When his father returned for visits, he would hold Armando on his lap and tell him that he was as good as anyone else, that if big kids pushed him around he had to fight back, that he was smart and would one day be able to build his own house. His father wore Polo cologne, and one time when he left Mexico to return to Los Angeles, Armando kept the bottle so he could smell it and feel as if his father weren’t so far away.
At 17, 11 years before we met, Armando crossed the border for the first time. He was caught and deported, found other smugglers (called coyotes), tried again and made it. Coming through the desert, he saw the bones of those who had crossed before.
He carried two gallons of water and finished them before making it halfway to the pickup point. His thirst made him think he had died, that he was a ghost floating above the dirt. The coyotes were armed with automatic weapons; they held him in a house until his father drove down and paid them $2,000.
When he took breaks from working on my deck, he would sit under the pine tree with Maggie and me.
“Why did you move to California?” he asked. He had figured out that all my family and most of my friends were on the East Coast, where I had lived until the previous June, most of my 56 years.
I had gone through my third divorce – filed in 2002, finalized two long years later. The marriage was abusive and the divorce made the newspapers. Known for writing books about love, I had stopped believing in it for myself.
When Maggie died, he helped me bury her under the pine tree. One day he didn’t come until late afternoon. I saw his clothes were different: new jeans and a black T-shirt. He sat beside me and I smelled cologne. Polo. He held my hand and asked if he could kiss me.
I wanted him to, and he did. And we fell in love. We had been falling all along, ever since we started talking. Did he think about the impossibilities? Did I? There were so many differences: age, language, culture.
He finished the deck and started visiting every Sunday.
He called our Sunday visits his dream. My pretty yard with flowers and a view of the mountains and sea, the other two cats playing in the hallway, skidding after yarn balls across the red tile floor.
We spent Christmas with his family. His father has a green card and lives in a small house in East Los Angeles, with his girlfriend. Armando’s 10-year-old son lives with them because Armando works six days a week from early morning until after dark.
One Sunday when he was leaving I asked him to stay – move in with me because we love each other. That’s when he told me about Angela.
The unquenchable thirst
He lives with a woman. She is from Guatemala, undocumented like him. They met in English class years ago. He found out she owed her coyotes $1,800. Armando borrowed the money from his father and paid them off.
He tells me he loves me. Their relationship is not “like that.” But he cares about her, helped her get clean, and they are bound by things I’ll never know. She has a 13-year-old daughter in Guatemala, but she can’t return. He sends money to her daughter.
It sounds strange, even to me, but I love Angela, too.
Last month I volunteered with a group that maintains water barrels in the Imperial Valley Desert along the Mexican border. It was 104 degrees. A border agent told us three migrants had died nearby that morning. Replenishing those blue barrels, I thought of Armando and the unquenchable thirst he felt on his crossing.
I have nightmares of the desert, of those who die in that harsh place. I want them to live, and to find the better life that will be worth the journey.
Luanne Rice’s latest novel is “The Lemon Orchard.”
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