11. Amanuel Visits Class

Marina shouldn’t have drunk the cafeconleche Claraberta brought her Tuesday
morning as a peace offering, after she heard that Amanuel Cole would visit the class on Thursday. Here it was two days later and she was nauseated, had blurry vision, the beginning of a migraine coming on. Was she that terrified of what might happen if Amanuel didn’t show? She'd realized she liked to be the disappointed, not the disappointer, the betrayed, not the betrayer. Migraines were the embodiment of her self hatred. Her body turned on itself. The throbbing on the side of her head was the very spot she’d pummel with her own fist when she had desperate losing fights with men, the very spot her Mother’s blows sometimes hit. That was before she gave up physically running away and invented the inward escape: to never show her Mother she felt a single blow, to not flinch, not move, not acknowledge she was being hit, not cry. And there was the punishing of eating and drinking the things she knew would cause a migraine, if not today than the next.
Today was the perfect day for a migraine. Katia said the only day Amanuel had open was the very day Marina had rehearsal in the afternoon. Not just any rehearsal but one that Hal said he’d come watch, to give her notes. This was more terror than her body and her nerves could take.
She remembered to compliment the women, who had come to class dressed up even though she’d asked them to look the way they looked on any given day. The point was to show them as they really were. But Claraberta had worn her nightclub makeup and her highest heels. Ginny had braided beads into her hair. Julita wore a white embroidered Island dress, Lula had come in a navy blue taffeta Sunday dress with matching hat and she had brought a vase with red, and yellow carnations. Alta and Gracia wore identical striped black pant suits. Alta's blouse was red and Gracia's purple. Asia wore a red suit with a skirt. “You look beautiful.” Marina got it. This was the way they really were, people who honored special occasions with special adornment. She felt embarrassed to be wearing her usual black knit circle skirt and brown crumpled silk blouse. Clothes were a uniform for her.
Katia erupted into the room with a camera crew of two. She argued with them and won. They didn’t move around any furniture to make the best of the sunlight and keep the white blossoming pear trees in the shot. “Get your head out of the studio. Think cinema verite.” She had just the right light tone to keep the two young men from getting defensive. Marina watched closely but couldn’t figure out how she had won and still had them laughing. Maybe those things couldn’t be learned.
“We’ll get started and Amanuel will arrive and do his bit.”
“He’s not going to hear us read?” Here was someone else for Claraberta to feel betrayed by. Katia put her hand on Claraberta’s shoulder. “He’ll hear some of it. He’s a busy, busy man.” She gave her ‘just for you’ smile and Claraberta moved to the side, got out her compact and touched up her bright red lipstick.
They had decided to read their story: Who’s Cheating Whom? They had decided to do a dramatic reading, with each woman reading a different character. Those who were performing stood in the central spot, Marina’s spot.
Claraberta began: “I am Marta. I work hard raising my two daughters, keeping my home, and at my job waiting tables every night. The only way I can get health benefits for my daughters is to be on public assistance. I would much rather earn a living wage in a job that had full benefits.
The women had decided that the last sentence of each segment would be read by the whole class. In chorus they repeated: “I would much rather earn a living wage in a job that paid full benefits.”
Asia spoke next: “I am Flora, I came here from the Island buscando ambiente. I thought it would be like when my Abuela came. She supported our whole family in Karaya sending money she earned in a dress factory. But when I got to the City all the jobs were gone.
“When I got to the City all the jobs were gone.” The chorus, Marina could see, was getting to Katia. Her face looked exalted.
Ginny took over: “I am Susan. I am the Chief Executive of Byron Corp. Last year we got a contract from the government to make electronic parts for missiles for the Island War. We had to lay off fewer workers than we thought. I got a huge bonus for getting that contract. It was lucky for me the war got bigger last year.
The chorus repeated. “It was lucky for me the war got bigger last year.
Alta read: “I am Carmina. My husband came to the City to look for work. After a while he stopped sending us money. I saved up enough money to come join my husband in the City with our two sons but when I went to the address of his last letter I couldn’t find him. I ran into his cousin at the assistance center. She told me where he was. I finally found him. She didn’t warn me. He had started a new family with a new wife and a new daughter.
“He had started a new family with a new wife and a new daughter.” Marina’s migraine blurred eyes began to tear.
Lula read. She had practiced until she memorized the words: “I am Ann. To keep my benefits I have to pretend I don’t have a husband. He got laid off from Byron and I had to go on assistance. I have to hide him and his things in case I get a random visit. It’s hard on my son. He’s just three years old. He can’t understand where Daddy goes.
The chorus sent a chill up Marina’s spine. The migraine throb was there but not commanding her full attention.
Julita was about to speak when Amanuel strode in. Katia motioned to him to take a seat and he waved and sat down at the table closest to the door.
Julita dropped her papers, bent down to get them, began to read in a small, halting voice. “I am Maria. I am on assistance because my husband was laid off from Byron and went into the army. He’d never been to the Island where his parents came from. He went to the Island for the first time to fight in the Island War.
After the chorus Amanuel led the applause.
“I want you to tell me how reading has changed your lives for the better,” he said.
Claraberta tossed her hair and grinned at him. “If you’d come on time you’d already know.” His flinch was barely visible but even with her blurry vision Marina caught it. He laughed. “This is what they call having a voice. That’s what I liked about your group when I saw you at the City hearings.”
Ginny cut in. “That’s damn right. We learn to write before we learn to read. We learn to read by writing. To us being literate means we're joining a chorus with our own voice. Writing has given us more of our voice.”
Marina heard herself speak, saw herself from above, from where she’d escaped the pain in her head. “Mr Cole, the women have some questions for you.”
Claraberta didn’t miss this opening. “Mr. Cole, what’s going to happen with the funding for this class?
Before he could answer Ginny said, “Where are the jobs? We want jobs. Byron doesn’t have enough jobs for everyone, and anyway, some of us don’t want to make weapons.”
“I’m not the guy who can answer these excellent questions. I’m just like you. I’m a civil servant, not a councilman who makes City laws or the mayor who shapes policy. I’m outside looking in. I’m just like you, looking for a way to bring some pressure to bear on the City. I can tell you this, I’ll remember your questions if I ever get into office.”
He was gone before they could say another word, didn’t stay for the coffee and deserts the women had prepared for him. Katia and the crew ate and ran. The women sat at their tables with their home made sweet potato pie and flan and rice pudding and dulce de coco.