The widow arrived at LaGuardia on a Sunday, but the rumors about the woman who had rented a big apartment, sight unseen, had taken an earlier flight. We had already reviewed, on many occasions and in hushed tones, in the quiet that comes after long hours of visiting, what little we knew about the widow and her dead husband.
About her life in the old country, we asked the obvious questions: Were there children? Cheryl heard from a friend who still lived in the Dominican Republic that they had only been married a year when he died. Had her husband been rich? No, our sources in the old country said, poor as a church mouse, with a big family to support out in el campo. Had the husband been handsome? Yes, in a rakish sort of way. And with what we knew we created him in our minds: medium height with a mop of curly hair and an easy laugh, walking down Saona Beach in a white linen guayabera, dropping suddenly to one knee. We ourselves felt a flutter in our hearts.
On the day the widow finally arrived in New York, the rain came in fast, heavy drops that sounded like tiny birds slamming into our windows. She emerged from the taxi with a single battered suitcase and, little-girl small, stared up at our building as the rain pelted her face. Behind us our men and children called out for their dinners, but we ignored them. We would wonder later if she had seen our faces pressed up against the windows, on all six floors, peering out over flowerpots full of barren dirt.
We watched her until she made her way out of the rain and into the lobby. Those of us lucky enough to live on the fourth floor squinted through our peepholes or cracked open our doors as the super carried her suitcase to the three-bedroom apartment she was renting. How could she afford it?
The little widow walked behind the super, her gait slow and steady on the black-and-white tiles of the hallway. He was rambling about garbage pickup and the rent. She was younger than we expected her to be, thirty, maybe. The amber outfit was all wrong for the chilly autumn weather. She was from Santo Domingo, but she looked like a campesina visiting the city for the first time, everything hand-sewn and outdated by decades. She wore an old-fashioned skirt suit, tailored and nipped at her round waist, and a pair of low-heeled black leather pumps. Seeing them made us glance down at our own scuffed sneakers and leggings. On her head, she wore a pillbox hat, in matching yellow wool sculpted butter-smooth. She dressed her short, plump body as though she adored it.
Instantly, we took a dislike.
We ourselves had been raised on a diet of telenovelas and American magazines, and we knew what beauty was. We gathered after dinner to laugh at her peculiar clothes. We murmured with fake sympathy about her loneliness, and joked that she might turn our husbands’ heads. When we ran into her, though, we smiled and asked her how she was finding New York.
We began to invent stories about the little widow’s life: torrid affairs that had driven her husband to die of heartbreak, a refusal to give him children, a penchant for hoarding money—we repeated the tales until we half believed them. The drama of the little widow’s previous life became richer and denser, like a thicket of fast-growing ivy. Who did she think she was, anyway? Living alone in that big apartment?
The little widow seemed to understand what we expected of her: she muttered only quiet thank-yous when we held the door open as she struggled with her groceries, or when we helped her up after she slipped on a patch of ice in front of the building and landed flat on her back. As briskly as she could, she composed herself and disappeared, her head bowed low into the collar of her quaint amber coat.
When we heard that the little widow could sew, we started bringing her dresses and pants to hem, mostly because we wanted to know how she lived. The little widow’s three-bedroom apartment was laid out like the others, but as she worked, our eyes darted hungrily between her and the contents of her sewing room.
Her hair was curly, dyed reddish brown, and cut short around a pointed
chin. When we got to see her up close, we noted that though she did have deep creases at the corners of her eyes, she did not have a widow’s peak. Her eyes were a dark hazel, and her pupils so small they looked like pinpricks.
The little widow had wallpapered her sewing room with a cheap burlap. When one of us slipped a fingernail underneath a panel and discovered that the rough cloth was glued on, we crossed ourselves and said a quick prayer for the little widow’s security deposit.
On that burlap the little widow had embroidered massive, swaying palm trees, so finely detailed that we could almost feel a salty breeze warm our faces as we stood on her tailor’s pedestal. Running our fingertips across the embroidered walls we could feel the braille of her labor; the grains of sand were individually stitched, as if the little widow knew each one. The ocean seemed to ripple and surge as the little widow worked around us in meditative silence, kneeling near our ankles with a pin between her lips. She was so gentle and fluid in her movements, her soft skin creasing like a plump baby’s around the pincushion she wore on her wrist.
We liked her in those moments, but even so, we didn’t invite her to our birthday parties or gatherings at Christmas, though we knew she was alone in that large apartment, watching the passing of the seasons, just as we did, through black-barred windows.
We imagined she would soon have to take in a subletter to make ends meet. We mentioned that a cousin was coming to work at a coffee-filter factory and needed a place to live. She didn’t have a lot of money yet, we explained, but she would be able to pay back rent on a room once she started collecting paychecks. And that could be a good source of extra income!
The little widow tilted her head to one side and appeared to think about it. She said yes, and Lucy, a single girl from Higüey, moved into the little widow’s spare bedroom.
The goodwill the little widow won among us was short-lived. On a visit to get a skirt hemmed, Sonia asked to use the restroom and snuck into the little widow’s bedroom. Like the wall of her sewing room, the wall across from her bed was covered with burlap, and on that canvas the little widow had hand-stitched tidy rows of Limé dolls.
The faceless dolls looked just like the clay figurines tourists bought as souvenirs. They varied in hair and clothing—some wore their hair in a single thick plait, draped down the side of their necks, and some wore it down around their shoulders. Their dresses were every color of the rainbow and some wore Sunday hats and carried baskets of flowers. But rendered in the little widow’s hand, these familiar dolls took on an eerie quality. Sonia studied the wall for a long time and became convinced that the dolls represented us.
She took a picture and texted it to the group. We looked at the faceless dolls, with their caramel skin and their ink-black hair styled into bouffants and braids and pigtails. Then we looked at each other, with our jeans and winter boots and blond highlights.
The resemblances are uncanny, we said. And so a rumor spread that the little widow was a witch come from Santo Domingo to ensorcell us and steal our husbands. We rummaged in our drawers for our old evil-eye bracelets. We started going to the dry cleaner’s down on Broadway to get our clothes hemmed.
When we ran into the little widow in the halls, she smiled at us sadly, but said nothing.
To this day, we do not know how Andrés and the little widow met, but the rumor is that it happened through mutual relations from the capital.
Unlike the little widow, Andrés was a New Yorker, born and bred, and he spoke in a brambly, chaotic Spanish that she seemed to find charming. On their first date, the little widow wore a silk slip dress, hand-embroidered with small, delicate birds. He wore a blazer, jeans, and dress shoes. They stayed out until two in the morning, and when they came home, we heard her laugh ringing in the halls, a lovely, alien sound.
The next day he delivered to her a bouquet of radiant, limp-necked sunflowers. She arranged them in a giant vase by the window in her sewing room. Then in the weeks that followed, he could be heard in the small hours of the morning, serenading her on his guitar. He wrote her poetry, and according to Gladys—who took to pressing a glass against the wall she shared with the little widow—it wasn’t half bad.
He was about thirty, like the little widow. But unlike her, he wore his age gaily. He was boyish and relaxed, and we often spied him leaning on doors and smoking cigarettes near the trash cans. He kept his hair cut in a neat fade that he refreshed every two weeks. He used the creaky metal ladder on the fire escape to do pull-ups until the super told him to stop. We decided that we liked him, tsk-tsked that he was too good for the little widow, with her opaque melancholy and insufferable pride.
It is said that he proposed to her right in her sewing room. Relieved that she was finally on the right track, heading toward a life we understood, we flocked in a squealing, air-kissing mob to her apartment to admire the ring: a small round diamond on a simple gold band. The way she wore it made it look like something Elizabeth Taylor would have been proud to own. There was a new lightness in the little widow that we liked to see, in spite of ourselves.
She smiled often, sometimes for no apparent reason, and it was a strange, unfamiliar smile that made us think of sunlight bursting through a cloud-choked sky. The wedding was set for the following month and the weeks flitted by. Lucy told us the little widow was hard at work on a wedding dress and that she mooned around the house, dreamy, distracted, and in love.
It all fell apart as quickly as it had come together. Five days before the wedding, Lucy woke up in the middle of the night to find Andrés standing at the foot of her bed. He had come in with the little widow’s key, he said, and he had come in to see her.
Lucy leaped up and, assuming he was drunk, tried to walk him back to the door. But he refused to go and instead pinned her against the wall, which the little widow had recently embroidered with sunflowers. He attempted to unfasten his pants. Now scared in earnest, Lucy screamed and shoved him to the floor.
The little widow appeared quickly and without sound, like a ghost. She had been working; she had a needle pressed between her lips, and one lip was bleeding. She looked from Andrés to Lucy and understood everything.
Without a word, the little widow took Lucy by the hand and led her into her own bedroom until Andrés was gone, and then she dead-bolted them into the apartment for safety. The little widow kept vigil by Lucy’s bed until she fell asleep, then locked herself in her own room.
For two days, the little widow didn’t speak, or eat, or sleep. She subsisted on a nightly glass of morir soñando, which she drank to appease Lucy. The girl blamed herself for everything and thought it a small penance to squeeze the orange juice for the little widow’s drink.
Because we didn’t know yet that the little widow was rich, we assumed Andrés returned two nights later because he loved her.
Florencia spotted him from her window on the first floor and it only took a few minutes on the phone to spread the news. By the time he was at the little widow’s door, we all hovered at ours, swatting away needy children and chatty husbands.
On every floor, we cracked our doors. His pleas reverberated through the tiled hallways, filling even the central stairwell. Our hungry ears consumed every sound: The wet, racking sobs. The thud of his knees dropping onto her welcome mat. The wailing against the hard wood of the little widow’s door.
He was sorry, he insisted. It hadn’t meant anything. Who was Lucy to him?
After nearly an hour, it seemed to us that he planned to spend the night there, performing this noisy contrition. Then the little widow flung open her door with a whip-sharp bang that sent an echo all the way down to the first floor.
“What,” she said, her voice a small, cold blade, “do you think is going to happen next?”
All through the building, our ears pricked up.
“You’re the love of my life,” he moaned. Cheryl, watching from her apartment across the hall, could attest to the fact that he was still, at this point, on his knees.
“And are you mine?” The little widow crossed her arms over her chest. She wore a silk dressing gown, embroidered with human hearts the size of silver dollars.
“Yes, yes,” he cried, pressing his face to her bare feet.
The little widow stepped back to free her feet, and then stepped around him, out into the hallway. “Let these busybodies witness,” she said. And now we could see that her eyes were red and her curls ravaged by nights of insomnia.
Andrés hobbled after her, on his knees, making mournful sounds.
“Let these chismosas be my witnesses,” she said again, waving her hand and locking eyes with Cheryl, who later told us that she had nearly died of shame. “If you bother me again, you will not live to tell about it.”
Andrés clasped his hands together in a prayer motion and mutely held them up to her.
The little widow looked at him as if he were a turd on the sidewalk. She shoved him aside, walked back to her door. “You heard me,” she said, one hand on her doorknob. “Not a single knock.”
She closed the door and left Andrés to gather himself off the floor and wipe the snot from his face. We thought we’d never seen a man renounce his dignity quite so definitively and that realization seemed to hit him at the same time. Grimacing, he wiped his mouth, and cursed under his breath. He kicked the door as hard as he could. Once, twice.
“You think you can control me,” he said. “I’ll show you control. And Lucy, too.” He slammed the heel of his hand on the door.
Only Cheryl—who slowly and silently slipped the chain lock into place, all while holding her door ajar and keeping one eye firmly on Andrés—can describe what happened next, and only you can decide if you believe it.
Andrés raised his arm again, and as he drew it back for another blow, it froze. The arm appeared to be stuck to his head, as if glued there. His back still to Cheryl, Andrés shook himself and tried to use his other hand to pry it loose, but that one became attached, too, and then it looked like he was holding his hands to his head, the way men do when their baseball team is losing. He began to make a frantic humming sound.
When he turned to Cheryl, with the purest, most desperate panic she had ever seen blazing in his eyes, she discovered that his lips had been sewn shut with large, sloppy stitches.
He dropped to his knees with a grunt, and then bent in half at the waist. He kept folding in on himself, over and over, becoming smaller and smaller, his moans of distress more and more distant, until he was just a small scrap of cream fabric that fluttered to the floor in front of apartment 4E.
No one knocked on the little widow’s door after that. Three days passed in shallow breaths.
In our apartments, huddled together over coffee, we discussed what we knew and filled in what we didn’t. We imagined the little widow, dead-eyed and small in her cavernous apartment, punching a threaded needle through cloth—until she folded the entire building in on itself, apartment after apartment, life after life, collapsing together—until she could tuck it all into her little silk coin purse and carry us away forever inside her handbag.
We pretended we were innocent. Weren’t we like an old fan, just moving the air around? We tipped over our coffee cups and saw in our fortunes an angry darkness that threatened to swallow us. And hadn’t we sensed it from the beginning?
For the first time, it occurred to us to call our families, the ones back in the old country, to find out the full story. We pooled our facts together. We knew the story people liked to tell, but now we were detectives. We dug deeper, asked our distant aunts to ask their cousins what they knew, and were stunned at how shallowly buried the truth was.
The little widow had married for love right out of high school, to a man who was primarily interested in her family’s money but liked her well enough besides. When the new couple said they wanted to move from the capital to the beach, her parents bought them a big, sprawling house on the coast near Bávaro, and hired three live-in servants to work there. And the little widow was happy! She loved the beach; it was said that she went swimming twice a day, that she walked up and down the shore as if she wanted to memorize every gull, every seashell, every grain of sand. It was at this time that the little widow began to embroider seascapes and mermaids, her head bent low over her needle and hoop.
But middling affection does not a good man make. The husband began to throw his weight around the house, speaking cruelly to the servants, punching walls, breaking things. The little widow miscarried their first child under mysterious circumstances and mourned the loss in private. She focused more than ever on her work; sometimes the light in her sewing room burned through the night.
Less than a year later, a servant filed a police report against the husband, saying that he had forced himself on her and she had become pregnant. The husband’s proximity to the little widow’s influential family allowed him to avoid serious charges. But he did not live to see another year; the servant’s husband shot him, point-blank, as he walked down the beach near the house.
The little widow’s parents swiftly stepped in, at their daughter’s request, to scatter the tragedies of the story in the wind. They paid the hefty bribes required to free the servant’s husband and sold the beach house to American tourists. The little widow quietly went away.
Her wedding to Andrés had been scheduled to take place at Our Lady of Lourdes, the crumbling, majestic old church we attended, and on that day, we dressed for Sunday mass.
Someone’s mother-in-law in Queens said she spotted someone who looked like Andrés slinking out of a bodega, but who could be sure? The tiny scrap of cream fabric had long since disappeared in the building’s hustle and bustle. We knew for certain that the wedding was canceled. But for reasons we still can’t explain, we sent our husbands and kids ahead to Sunday school and lingered in the building. The wedding had been scheduled for four in the afternoon, and when the time came, we opened our doors and, like cuckoos from their clocks, stepped out of our apartments and crowded into the narrow fourth-floor hallway.
By then we knew her name, and we started slowly calling it, in unison. Lucy came out first, dressed in sweatpants and looking like a wrung-out dishcloth. When we asked her if the little widow had spoken to her, she shook her head sadly.
A thud inside, the sound of footsteps, and our murmurs dissipated into a tense silence. When the little widow opened her door, she wore an enormous white silk wedding dress.
On her head, she had crowned herself with a ring of white silk flowers, embroidered with red drops of blood, delicate as anything we’d ever seen. Her face seemed younger than we remembered, though her undereyes were bruise-blue from lack of sleep.
She maneuvered the seemingly boundless skirts of her dress through the tight doorframe and began making her way to the elevator. With a gasp, we parted like a sea to let her pass. At least six feet of heavy, layered skirts embroidered to the last inch with small, careful cursive letters trailed behind her.
Unfamiliar-yet-familiar names were scattered densely across the silk like polka dots. Women’s names from the old country: the Dominican y’s, the florid, delirious layering of syllables. We knew our people.
We did not recognize these specific names and we did not dare ask anything of the little widow. Instead—and without thinking—we formed two lines and picked up the train of the dress to keep it from getting soiled as the little widow walked slowly down the long corridor with her head bowed and her hands clasped.
Mutely, we helped her enter the elevator and passed her the skirts, which foamed up around her, rising well past her shoulders. As the heavy door slid closed, she gave us the brokenhearted smile we had come to recognize.
“Up,” we half whispered, half barked, after pressing our ears to the door. We ran toward the stairs, taking them two at a time to keep up with the old elevator, jostling one another at each landing—until we saw that the little widow was going up to the roof.
She walked out onto the silver-painted cement with us trailing behind. The air was cold but we hardly noticed. We elbowed each other and pushed to get close enough to see her without touching her, though when one of us shoved through and blurted, “Don’t jump, viudita! Don’t do it!”—she spoke for all of us.
The little widow turned to look at us, like a somnambulist shaken brutally awake.
Then, before anyone had a chance to stop her, she sprinted across the silver roof, clutching her frothing skirts to her sides. She climbed onto the ledge and we saw, or thought we saw, the cream soles of her naked feet.
She turned to face us. Behind her the sun had begun its plunge to earth, the sky ripe-mango orange behind needle-sharp skyscrapers. The little widow’s dress lathered all around her, making her look ten feet tall. Why hadn’t we seen before how beautiful she was?
The little widow’s eyes shone. It was as if she were recognizing us, each of us, across a crowded room. Afraid to approach, we formed a semicircle around her, willing her to stay.
For a long moment we were mesmerized, frozen where we stood, in our regret.
When we came to our senses and reached for her, surging forward together—to grab hold of her dress, at least, to keep her from falling the seven stories to the street below, we didn’t move fast enough. She took up her dress again, great big fistfuls of it, and with her back to the sky, let herself fall.
The whine of a car alarm below halted our hearts. We rushed to the edge and peered over. And what we saw—how to even describe it? The dress dissolved into a thousand pigeons, and they filled the space between our building and the next with brown and gray and white, with the sound of wings flapping. The air was thick with the feathery thrum of their wings as they flew away in different directions, toward downtown, toward the river, toward the Bronx, and skyward, toward heaven.
The little widow was gone. All we had left—as we huddled together for warmth on that silver roof and watched the sky deepen to the bruised plum of Manhattan night—was the story. And so we told it again, and again, until we had stitched the details into our memory.
We carried the story back to the patios of Santo Domingo, where we sat at dusk with the yellow light of our old family homes behind us, listening to the crickets and the slow creak of our wicker rocking chairs, and told the tale again, except this time it ended like this: in some far-flung town, maybe here in the old country, maybe back in the new, the little widow appeared with a small suitcase in hand.
Here, our eyes brightened and we leaned forward.
This time she arrived without fanfare, we said, and her neighbors liked her right away. The little widow wore an amber-colored dress, hand-sewn. Perhaps a little older than we remembered, but still recognizable, with her full cheeks and shiny curls. She signed a lease for a house by the beach. She was already picturing the magic she would create on these new walls, and we, too, thrilled to imagine it.