“You look so much like my daughter, Romina,” Maria said, looking at me closely and curiously. “I almost feel I know you.” I tried to smile like someone in pain would smile.
Maria was a natural caregiver. She went slowly, carefully down the rock scrabble slope. Her grip on my arm was secure. When we got to the gate, she told me to hang on to the bars so I wouldn’t fall while she punched in the code. I noticed, though, that she strategically placed her body between me and the keypad so I couldn’t see what numbers opened the door to paradise.
We made our gimpy way to the mansion’s front door. There was another keypad next to the massive wood and wrought iron door, and again this kindly woman made sure her injured foundling didn’t glimpse those all-important digits. The door clicked open into a huge foyer with a marble floor that had a circular geometric pattern inlaid in the middle of it. The house was ultra-modern, inside, and out. Lots of windows, some of them rounded, that somehow let in light but not heat. The AC was cranked to a costly frigid level my roommates and I could only dream about. The kitchen was restaurant-sized, with two huge stainless steel Sub-Zero fridges, a Wolf stove and oven, a Bosch dishwasher, also in stainless, and polished copper pots and pans placed strategically and decoratively about the cavernous space. Across the room, I glimpsed a crescent-moon shaped bar with a wine refrigerator and another dishwasher. All the countertops were a tasteful black granite with a dusting of white swirls. The cabinets were dark wood and looked Spanish to my unschooled eyes. Everything said top-of-the-line.
Maria aided me across the foyer, through the kitchen area over to a soft and heavily pillowed curved sofa that could seat 12. A TV screen suitable for a small movie theater hung directly across from the sofa. On an angle, a gas fireplace with a mound of yellow and orange glass orbs the size of golf balls glowed like campfire embers, but more orderly. My gaze drifted to the dark wood, roughhewn fireplace mantle. Professional photographs of three young adults were positioned there, each with a small vase of fresh flowers to the left of the photo, each with candle encased in amber glass glowing softly. It smelled like church: frankincense and freesia.
The distinctive clunk of ice cubes startled me as Maria scrounged in the kitchen’s freezer. She returned with several wrapped in a white kitchen towel, placed another towel on a nearby footstool, had me remove my boot and sock and place my faux injured ankle, which was neither swollen nor discolored, on the footstool.
“The ankle doesn’t look badly injured,” she remarked as she wrapped the ice cube towel around it. “But perhaps the swelling hasn’t started yet.”
“Thank you, Maria,” I said. “Maybe it’s not so bad after all.” Maria retreated to the kitchen and returned with a crystal goblet of water for me. I was beginning to feel queasy about my fake fall and injury. I sure didn’t deserve all this kindness or all these luxurious surroundings.
Maria noticed that I was staring at the photos across the room.
“Are those Madam’s children?” I asked in a small voice, scared because the display looked so funereal.
“Yes.” she replied and glanced around to make sure “Madam” hadn’t somehow appeared.
“Madam has had nothing but tragedy in her life.” Maria spoke softly, shaking her head in empathic sorrow. “I have been with the family for 30 years, so I knew Madam’s children as babies. I helped to raise them. Sometimes, I think I am partially to blame for what happened. I gave them too much love, maybe, or made them too many cookies. But other times, I think, why was it wrong to love them, as I did, as Madam did, as Madam’s husband also did. They were good parents to those children. I was a good tía, a good aunt, to them.”
“Are they all …” I searched for the most unalarming word for it, … gone?”
“Si, Veronica, her husband died most recently, of the diabetes. His kidneys, they stopped. He searched and searched for a kidney transplant match, but he had a rare blood type and even with all his money, no donor could he find. About one year ago, he died. It was the kidneys, yes. But he had also become a very sad man, because of the children. Madam is alone now, except for me.”
Bingo. If this was indeed my father’s family, I had just learned where my diabetes came from. Grandfather Smith, had it, and had it bad.
“And her children?” I prompted, though part of me didn’t want to know. I thought one of the two men in the photos might be my father.
“Love and money, this is what brought them all to ruin. For the eldest, the daughter Karen, it was money. She loved the wild life. She would go to many, many parties with other children of the well-to-do. There, they would do many drugs and drink, too. Karen — we only found this out later — became addicted to cocaine. She could afford much cocaine because Mr. Smith was a very wealthy man. He was always generous with the children, perhaps too generous.
“Karen never worked, but he gave her money for her own apartment when she was 19. We didn’t see her often after that. We became aware that she had a problem with drugs. Once the police brought her here in the middle of the night because this address was still on her driver’s license, and she was so high she could not talk. Her parents sent her to rehab, to a beautiful place in California that was where the wealthy sent their children.
“For a while after she returned, she lived with us again. She enrolled in college. We thought she had changed her life. After one semester, Mr. Smith let her have an apartment on her own again. That was a bad idea. By the end of the next semester, she had dropped out of school and had gone back to drugs. The next time the police came here, it was to tell her parents that she had died of a drug overdose. She had started injecting cocaine by then and it was too much for her heart. She was only 20 years old.” Maria took a handkerchief out of her skirt pocket and wiped her eyes, which had started tearing.
I used the back of my hand for mine. A sad, but all too typical story here in my hometown. I might have had an aunt, but she had died at my age. Was there a genetic trend towards addiction in my family tree, beyond the diabetes and my mom’s mental illness and alcoholism? Great. I was beginning to regret I came.
Then, Maria’s story got worse.