F. Brinley Bruton
Part of the Family


Keeping the bathing suit on was the hardest part.

Mari knew that as soon as she searched through her bag for the mango-pineapple-lime fruit salad or gazed at the tall many-eyed buildings crowding the beach’s side, Agnes would slip out of the skimpy cloth and dash at the wave froth.

It’s not that she thought naked was bad. In fact, these gringos’ insistence on keeping children clothed at all times was silly, in Mari’s opinion.

"Ay, who’s it harming to show off those fat little pompis and pink little chichis?" she said to Nani, her grandmother. "And goodness knows sandy bathing suits are uncomfortable."

"Es su playa y es su cria," – It is their beach and it is their young – Nani whispered back.

Mari smacked her heart-shaped mouth in annoyance and refused to listen. And when she did look up only moments later a small empty red bathing suit lay next to the turquoise beach blanket. Mari sat up and scanned the expanse of white powder. She spotted Agnes squatting next to a dead barracuda that had washed up onto the beach.

Before she got to the child’s side, a tall thin blond woman with huge fly-sunglasses had dragged Agnes away by the arm saying, "No! Don’t touch that. That is bad, dirty, dirty!" A second woman, short and pregnant, stood to the side staring down at the sand.

Agnes twisted her head away from the woman and stared at the long fish, examining its silver and blue scales, its sunken eyes, and the tiny yet menacing teeth lining the jutting bottom jaw.

"Is she with you?" the woman asked, whirling her dark insect eyes around at Mari.

Mari looked dumbly off to the side of the American woman’s right shoulder – it was never good to let on that you understood English – and said to Agnes gently in Spanish, "Come here, you little traviesa, come here so that I can give your bottom a good spanking."

"Malo! Malo!" said the blond as she leaned close to Mari’s face and pointed at the fish. Mari smelled fresh toothpaste smell from the American’s mouth and looked at her guava-pink toenails.

The blond woman sighed and smiled tolerantly as she delivered Agnes’ arm to the maid.

"One thing you’ll learn while you’re here is that these people let your children swim in dirty dish-water, if you let them," said the fly woman to a woman at her side as they twirled around.

As soon as the tall blond was out of sight, Mari swung Agnes up onto the side of her ribcage – the small bottom rested comfortably on Mari’s forearm and the chubby toddler belly against her side – and crouched down to let the child get a real eyeful. Mari hypothesized out loud that the fish, which now gave off a faint metallic smell, had swum through all seven seas and died at a ripe old age. He left behind many wives and many many baby barracudas.

Later that evening, in the privacy of the apartment, she let Agnes run completely naked. The child screamed as she dashed from room to room, her wood-shaving curls flopping against her neck and the sides of her face. When the lights went out, as they did about once a week, they played hide-and-seek in the kitchen. And when she found her, as Mari inevitably did and Agnes always expected, the woman wrapped her arms around the child’s chubby body and blew tickles onto the small white neck.

The electricity still hadn’t returned when the slender black-haired woman and plump golden-haired child fell asleep on the single bed. Flickering candlelight illuminated Agnes’ head rising and falling atop the woman’s chest.

Old dead Nani’s voice, insistent and troubled, warbled on the edges of consciousness, but Mari couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make out the words.

The parents returned, the mother bearing smiles and presents. Mari got a large straw hat with a red bandanna and American makeup. Agnes got a peach-colored dress, with embroidery on the chest and a satin sash that tied in the back.

"The one I wore when I was her age," said the mother.

At the dinner table Agnes showed off her newly-acquired ability to drink milk from a glass.

"Oh, Mari, you’re a genius. How did you get her to give up that blasted bottle?" asked the mother as the young maid stood behind the high chair.

Mari began to answer, but realized when the mother fussed with the child’s bib that this was one of those questions that did not require a response. She wondered how long it would take her to tell the difference between this kind of question, one that hung lifeless in mid-air, and one they expected you to answer in full.

Agnes yelped as Mari slid through the door connecting the dining room and the kitchen. With the child still whimpering, the mother said, "Mari, don’t bother staying up, I’ll clean this mess and get Aggie ready for bed."

Cigarette smoke curled its way up off the yellow Formica table, only to be dragged up into the wide ceiling fan and dissipated. Half-finished glasses of orange juice stood on their bright blue mats, pulp stuck to the sides.

"It’s Mommy, Agnes, Mommy," said the mother trying to hide the shrill note of desperation.

"Say Mommy, sweetie." Mari listened through the dining room’s swinging door, hesitating before she entered carrying toast and coffee.

The little girl squealed at the sight of the young woman, flinging her arms out in spread-fingered glee.

"Mari! Mari!" The word, repeated, came out clear, strong and unmistakable. A moment later, the hum and bump of a large black fly fighting against the sun-filled window magnified the silence.

Though her fingertips ached to, Mari didn’t reach out to the child in whose face confusion began to crowd out pleasure. She stood awkwardly, one shoulder hanging below the other, not sure that she should apologize what had just happened, say sorry for having captured Agnes’ heart.

Mari crept out of the dining room as the mother carefully placed her face on her arm’s soft inner side, leaning as it was towards the highchair’s food-tray. The mother’s back heaved.

Mari avoided keeling over by digging her fingernails into her palms.

"Oh dear, I’m afraid this came as a bit of a surprise, didn’t it? We just thought that it would be best if she were raised in the States, learned English, that sort of thing."

The mother got no approval or sign of understanding for her rational and obvious decision.

"You know, we’ll miss you as well. You were positively part of the family," said the mother patting the nanny’s arm.

Mari nodded irrelevantly.

"Oh, and you’ll be ok, I know you will," said the mother, running her fingers through her nest of short brown hair. "You’re too smart to be a maid for the rest of your life. And you’re so pretty, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble . . . "

"Thank you, Señora," said Mari as she swung into action, picking up glasses, plates and the ashtray. She stopped, leaning the tray against the table, as dizziness swept over her.

"Just remember that, ok? Remember how much you have going for you, and how much we’ll miss you," said the mother to Mari’s back.

"Lo importante es no olvidar," – The important thing is not to forget – she said smiling at her own horrendous accent. Then the mother leaned forward to hug Mari, but changed her mind and left the room in a self-consciously delicate attempt to give the maid a chance to be alone.

The night before the departure, Mari’s stomach throbbed and the apartment vibrated with Agnes’ upcoming absence. Agnes fretted through the night, but Mari did not go to her, understanding that she no longer had a place in the little girl’s life.

She was alone now. Even Nani had disappeared.

Mari’s stomach was still clenched the next morning as the family packed the car to take the mother and Agnes to the airport. The father was staying behind to "wrap things up."

Agnes wound her arms and legs around Mari, holding the black straight hair in her small fists.

"Ok, Aggie sweetie, it’s time to fly on that big airplane," said the mother. Agnes wouldn’t let go, so the mother and Mari had to pry her loose. Eventually the child took with her a small handful of thick black hair.

Mari rubbed the sore spot on her scalp with one hand, while she waved at the car that pulled away with the other. The sound of crying leaked through the bubble of red metal and black glass.

As she turned away from the space which moments before had held Agnes, a voice whispered into her ear. Mari realized at once that it was Nani, but at first she couldn’t make out the words.

"Lo importante . . . lo importante es olvidar."

The important thing is to forget.

Mari stopped to listen for more in front of the building's large metal gate. Halfway down the block, the car pulled into reverse and came back to where she stood.

"Please remember how much you have meant to us, to Agnes," the mother said through a cloud of child sobs. The tinted window slid up and Mari flinched when the exhaust enveloped her. This time the red car turned the corner and didn’t come back.

The street was still, even the birds were quiet, and sun bore through Mari’s body. She felt as if she were going to float away in the shimmering tropical air.