Two Halves of an Orange by David Santiago

Friday, September 2, 2022
Javier, a Puerto Rican stylist living in Chicago, struggles to hold together his love life and his business, and asks: ¿Cuándo se fue todo al garete? By David Santiago.

Image generated with OpenAI
We used to own a hair salon on the corner of North Hamlin Avenue and West Thomas Street in Chicago. Mercedes Caribbean Beauty and Style.

Mercedes is my wife. She's a real Latina beauty, although the past year has been hard on her. Her black hair is now gray, and she hasn't been up to coloring it. She's gained weight, too. Her doctor thinks it's menopause.

But she is all I have eyes for. The love of my life. Mi media naranja.

That is, except for Claudia.

I've seen Claudia for a couple of years now, and she is also the love of my life. We see each other once in a while, and we have a different kind of relationship.

Mercedes and I opened our salon in 1996 on the first level of a red-brick, two-story mixed-use apartment building, across the street from Garcia's Boricua Grocery and Deli. We were a landmark. People used to ask, "Javier, what would this neighborhood be like without this salon?"

I would reply, "It would be like we were never born."

I met Mercedes on a cold February day, a year before we opened the salon. I was twenty-five years old and waiting for the bus to take me to my temp job as a sheet metal fabricator. The bus was delayed, which is the way it works in this city. When the weather is the most godawful or you're running late and really need to be at the hospital during visiting hours or you're exhausted and just want to be home... in these circumstances, you can bet the law of cause and effect will come into play and you will be delayed. You will have to endure.

I was wearing multiple layers of clothing - a red winter Maine jacket over a wool sweater, blue jeans over long underwear, work boots over wool socks - but I was still chilled to the bone. When the westbound bus finally arrived, I took a seat in the rear, rubbing my hands vigorously to get the blood flowing again. The bus was full, the riders stoic from the cold.

I exhaled slowly and was planning to shut my eyes when I noticed a woman on the other side of the aisle. I had never seen her before. She too was bundled in full winter gear: a navel orange-colored puffer jacket, loose-fitting light-wash jeans, black snow boots, amber ski hat with ear flaps and pom-pom. She had black eyes and raven hair that spilled over her shoulders and against her reddened cheeks. She caught my gaze and I awkwardly tried to look away, pretending not to stare.

The next day I was at North Avenue again, waiting for the bus. This time I didn't mind the cold. When the westbound bus finally rolled down the street, I edged my way to the curb at the front of the queue, anxious to find a seat near her. To speak with her this time. But she wasn't there.

Days passed with no sign of her. I even rode the bus back and forth on North Avenue the first two weekends, just in case I might find her. There was something about her... I couldn't exactly explain what it was, and I couldn't get her out of my mind.

"Chucho," I said one evening, "have you ever seen a girl in an orange jacket who's got black hair and black eyes?"

Chucho picked up a slice of pizza and took a bite. "Have I ever seen a girl in an orange jacket with black hair and black eyes in Humboldt Park?" he said with his mouth full. He shook his head from side to side. "Did you see that!" He shouted at the television.

We were watching the Bulls play the Suns, and Charles Barkley had grabbed another rebound. I had known Chucho since we were kids, and we shared a one-bedroom apartment in an affordable housing complex off North Humboldt Boulevard.

"I'm going to find her," I said to myself.

Three weeks later - by now it was Early March - I was waiting at the bus stop. I was there earlier than normal, not having slept well the prior night. There had been a dispute in our building, lots of shouting and banging. Eventually the cops came and quieted things down, but by then I was fully awake.

When I boarded the bus, I wasn't thinking of her for once, and got quite the shock when I saw her sitting on a second-row aisle seat. She was wearing the same orange jacket and jeans, but no ski cap this time, as the weather was better. Her hair fell past her shoulders in long, ebony waves, framing her round face. She was wearing pink lipstick and mascara to bring out her eyelashes.

The bus was mostly empty, so I took a seat across the aisle from her. She had a newspaper on her lap, and didn't seem to notice me as I sat down. After a minute or so, I turned to her. "Do you ride this bus often?" I asked, after clearing my throat. "I take the bus every day and usually see the same people."

She was startled. I had interrupted some kind of morning reverie, and she frowned when she turned to me. "Excuse me?" She asked.

"Sorry," I replied. "I was just wondering if you ride the bus often? I usually see the same people on this route."

It was a stupid question, because clearly she didn't ride the bus often, at least not at this time of day. But I had to break the ice somehow.

"No, not often," she said, her eyes narrowing as she looked me up and down.

There was an awkward silence, and I felt my courage waning. My mind didn't seem able to put words together. Just say something.

The bus hit a large pothole, and we bounced in our seats. I heard the newspaper rustle and caught a glimpse of a Pantene conditioner ad. "Those women have great hair," I said, grasping for any words that came to mind. "It must take all morning to comb it out."

She looked at the ad in the newspaper and nodded in agreement. "It takes time," she said. "Whenever I pick up a copy of the paper, I look at these kinds of ads. It gives me ideas."

"Are you a hair stylist or something?" I asked.

"No, not really," she said. "I started cosmetology classes, but it's expensive. You know how it is."

Yeah, I know how it is. I thought to myself. Life here is no Disney fairytale.

"I know a thing or two about cosmetology," I exaggerated. "I could help you study. You know, so you could pursue your passion."

She smiled and folded the newspaper in half.

"I don't ride the bus much," she said. "Looks like we won't have that opportunity."

The bus hissed as the driver braked to a stop. The door swung open, and a rush of cool air swept through the cabin. A tall man, wearing a yellow knitted Rasta cap and a brown knee-length fur coat, strutted onboard, nodding at me as he took a seat at the back of the bus.

I glanced at the newspaper again, and thought of Chucho's cousin, Lola, who used to work as a hair stylist in Pilsen. Before Chucho started working at UPS, she would come to our apartment every month or so to cut our hair. She had mentioned once that good stylists were always in demand.

"Good stylists are always in demand," I said as the bus moved forward. "If you're thinking about it this much, then maybe it's your calling. You shouldn't let anything hold you back." I pulled out a pen and motioned at her newspaper. "Could I borrow that for a moment?"

She gave me an appraising look and reluctantly handed me the paper across the aisle. My hand grazed hers, and we both locked eyes momentarily.

"My name is Javier," I said, writing my name and phone number on the corner of the paper. "I know we just met, but seeing that you might not be riding the bus again, why don't you consider letting me help you study?"

She gathered her paper and purse and pulled the cord running along the upper window to request a stop. Then, turning to me, she said, "My name is Mercedes."

And that was how it all started. She agreed to meet me for brunch the following Saturday at a cafe in Logan Square on the condition that I helped her with cosmetology. I told her there was nothing I'd rather do.

"Chucho," I said that evening, "this girl is special. I can feel it."

Chucho reclined on the sofa, placing his hands behind his head. "What makes her so special?" He asked. "You barely know her. Plus, you said the same thing about Valentina."

"Look, Chucho," I said, waving away his comment, "she has an energy about her. Anyway, can you get me in touch with your cousin? I need to learn as much as possible about cosmetology."

It's amazing what you're capable of when you put your mind to it. We become what we think about, so the saying goes. All I could think about was Mercedes and I together, hand in hand.

In the days leading up to our first date, I pored through the Sun Times, the Tribune, Cosmopolitan, and Glamor. I examined celebrity hair styles and learned terms such as the messy bun and feathered bangs. I read tips and tricks for flat ironing, volumizing, and tousling hair. I learned about crimping, braiding, and highlighting.

When I visited Chucho's cousin Lola, she told me about trends in hair, nail design, and skin treatments. She explained that stylists needed to bring out the beauty of every customer. She stressed that everyone had a unique look, and that hair stylists needed to showcase everyone's best look based on their specific circumstances. She told me how curls add volume and can cover up thinning hair. She showed me pictures of women with different face shapes, and how different hairstyles suited one better than another. She mentioned that people sometimes straightened hair rather than embracing their natural, frizzy hair.

And despite all that I needed to learn, I remained undaunted. I had Mercedes in my mind's eye.

Saturday came, and Mercedes and I were seated across the table from each other at a diner off North Milwaukee Avenue. Mercedes was a dazzling sight, even in a simple white T-shirt and jeans. She had her hair pulled back into a coil, and I could make out her slender neck and shoulders.

"Do you know why I agreed to see you?" she asked after the waitress filled our coffee cups. "I've been working for my cousin at his café for two years, since finishing Roberto Clemente. My cousin means well, but it isn't for me. ¿Cuándo se fue todo al garete? I've been asking myself lately, where did things go wrong? I appreciated what you said about following your calling... I needed that reminder to stay on track."

She pulled out folded sheets of paper from her purse and placed them on the table. On the first page I saw Candidate Study Guide for the Illinois Cosmetology Examination.

"So, what do you actually know about cosmetology?"

Over the next two months, we met every weekend. I immersed myself in her studies and we were happy. Soon we were meeting during the weekdays as well. I would come to her cousin's cafe after my shift ended, and we would grab dinner or catch a movie. Most often we'd just walk and talk or sit by the boathouse in Humboldt Park whenever the weather was nice.

She told me about Josephina and Roberto Burgos, her aunt and uncle, who took her in when she was nine after her mother died.

She told me how she grew up with her cousins, Luis, Ofelia, and Carlos Burgos. Luis was four years her senior and was the chef in the house. He ended up opening the small cafe in Oak Park where Mercedes worked. Ofelia was one year older than her, slightly overweight and quiet. She focused on her studies and ended up getting into the UIC College of Nursing on a scholarship, where she was a senior. Carlos was the baby of the family and was one year younger than Mercedes. He had trouble with school, being dyslexic, but was a standout athlete and was trying to break into AA baseball.

They were all ambitious, and by just about any account the Burgos family was a success. She told me how fortunate they all were to be making something of themselves, even if some dreams were unfulfilled.

One Saturday afternoon in late August, Mercedes called me breathless with excitement. "Where are you?" She asked. "I need to show you something."

"I'm at the apartment," I said. "What's up?"

"I'll be there as soon as I can. Get something to celebrate."

I had expected Mercedes to pass the cosmetology test. She had been accumulating the hours at beauty school and knew the subject matter in and out. But there was something especially satisfying watching her wave the score report in front of me. As I read the words, We are pleased to inform you that you have passed the Practical Examination, I felt a lump in my throat. I'm not one to cry, but there I was, tears welling in my eyes at the sight of the report.

I suppose it was the realization that I had fulfilled my part of the bargain. I was committed to her success. I was committed to supporting her.

When she pulled me into the living room, kicking the door shut, we fell onto the coach, score report in hand. I could taste the cherry balm on her lips as she kissed me. It was at that moment that I realized she was the one I would marry.

Two months later, we were in a small room at the Municipal Court downtown. Mercedes and I were standing in front of an altar, next to a Cook County judge. The entire Burgos family - Roberto, Josephina, Luis, Ofelia, and Carlos - was crammed in the room with Chuco, my mother and her boyfriend, and five or six other friends of ours.

Mercedes wore a white ruffled wedding gown with a yellow floral pattern and red bridal shoes. Her long black hair was parted in the center and fell in wavy curls down past her chest.

"¡Dios santo!" Chuco said to me when he saw her. "She really is special."

As I stood in front of the altar and held Mercedes's waist, I felt like a Puerto Rican John Smith marrying Pocahontas. She had that Indio look, a statuesque figure with ink-black hair, angular shoulders and wide hips.

My mother, who had been twice married and divorced, came over to me after the ceremony and squeezed my hand. "Javier, I am very proud of you," she said, looking into my eyes. Then, leaning in closer, she said in a hushed voice, "But trust me, you know how it was growing up, with your father. Keep your vows close to your heart, because when they are broken, picking up the fragments hurts."

"Thank you, mami," I said. "Mercedes is my other half."

Several days after the wedding, Mercedes moved in with Chuco and I. It was an awkward arrangement; the apartment was small and unkempt, but we had little money, and it was the best we could do.

Chucho, to his credit, was gracious and gave us plenty of space. A few weeks after we married, he switched to the night shift at UPS to get extra hours and to get out of our way. It was an unspoken arrangement, but we were like brothers, and it was his gift to me.

The following year, in early January, Mercedes landed a job as a stylist at Ebony Images, Braids, Dreadlocks, and Weaves. It was in the Austin neighborhood off West Division Street, next to a food mart. The exterior window bars and security gate did not inspire confidence, and I was nervous every time she commuted back and forth from the salon.

"Javier, stop being such a baby," Mercedes said one evening. "This is a good opportunity for me."

"Look, I don't mind you being a stylist," I said. "But why do you have to be one in that neighborhood? There's too many lambóns hanging out on the street corners, making crude remarks or worse."

"Javier," she said, giving me a stern look, "I can take care of myself. Plus, it's too cold right now for people to be hanging out on the street corners."

There was nothing more to say. Mercedes had made up her mind, even though she was just earning commission and a small salary.

In late January, when the Tribune reported the killing of a pizza delivery driver in North Park by a fourteen-year-old gang member named "Bone," I knew I had to get her a new job.

But she was right about the cold. It was cold enough to keep most of the bad actors at bay. I began privately researching small business loans. I wanted her near me, and what better way to do it than by starting her own hair salon in our neighborhood?

Starting your own business was a lot more complicated than I had originally imagined. There wasn't a bank branch anywhere in the neighborhood, which made finding loans far more difficult than it should have been. A quick stroll down North Avenue revealed plenty of vacant storefronts and liquor stores, but no banks.

One Saturday morning, after Mercedes had left for the salon, I stopped at Luis's cafe to seek his advice. He invited me into the kitchen, where we sat on bar stools in the corner of the room so as not to distract the cooks.

"Luis," I said, "I'm worried about Mercedes. I don't think she's safe going to Austin. Did you hear about that pizza driver who was shot? Anyway, I've been saving up a little but don't have much. How did you get a loan to start this restaurant?"

Luis sighed and wiped his brow with a ragged dish towel.

"Man, it was not easy," he said. "Most of it came from family and money I saved up. Listen, if you go to a bank, you need a business plan. There are some banks that have SBA-backed loans. That's where I would start."

It turned out there was a new SBA microloan program designed to serve underserved markets, including borrowers with little to no credit history. Mercedes and I had little credit history to speak of, and given the state of North Avenue, no one was arguing that our community was well-served.

When I returned home early that afternoon, I found Mercedes reclining on the couch in the center of the room, idly reading a copy of Glamor magazine. There had been a water-main break next to her salon, and the owner had let the stylists go home early.

"Babe," I said, sitting next to her on the couch, "I want to run something by you."

I placed my arm around her shoulder and pulled her close to me.

"I'd like you to start your own salon, right here in Humboldt Park," I said. "I've been doing research. There's a rental available off of North Hamlin Avenue and West Thomas Street. If we get a loan to help with the start-up costs, you know, some money for rent and equipment, we could start our own shop."

Mercedes edged away from me and gave me that now-familiar, penetrating look. It always threw me off, the way she was able to remain silent while her eyes did the questioning.

"Javier, what do we know about starting a business?" she said at last.

"Mercedes, I'm good with numbers," I said. "We can make this work. You're too talented. Just hear me out, and let me take you to a bank to learn more."

A few weeks later, we were at a Harris Trust and Savings Bank branch office in Kenwood. We were sitting around a desk in a high-rise office building with a man named Hector Alba, an SBA Specialist who also happened to speak Spanish.

"This is a new program," Hector said. "Mr. and Mrs. Morales, we can offer you up to twenty-five thousand dollars in working capital. Of course, we need to run the numbers again, and need to assess your collateral. We have a partnership with the Women's Business Development Center, and this program is designed for entrepreneurs like you."

He stood up and walked over to the coffee machine.

"Are you sure I can't get you anything?" he asked. "Coffee, tea, water?"

"No, we are fine," I said.

"This is the American dream, is it not?" he asked. "We have low interest rates and can provide technical assistance. We have another client in the area who is also planning to open a hair salon. But we only have so much funding available, so I would try to make a decision soon if this is what you want to do."

The grand opening of Mercedes Caribbean Beauty and Style was a family affair. It was a cool, late Saturday morning in April, and we were gathered outside the salon. Roberto was sitting on a metal folding chair next to the crosswalk and the lamppost, smoking a cigar and speaking in Spanish to Alejandro Garcia, the middle-aged owner of the neighboring deli. Josephina and Ophelia were helping Mercedes put up the signage on the store front. Her hair was pulled back into a bun and she looked radiant in her white T-shirt, jeans, and black-and-white flannel.

I was leaning against the brick wall on the other side of the building talking to Chucho and Carlos. El General was playing from a boombox a few feet away.

"I'm guessing Mercedes wasn't the one who came up with the name for the salon?" asked Chucho above the music.

Carlos laughed and I grinned.

"Just telling it like it is. When she's the one for you, you may as well advertise it."

"Sounds like a pimp," said Carlos. "Sounds like you're selling Mercedes on the street corner."

"Sheesh. I got bars on the doors and windows in case anyone has any wrong ideas."

Chucho whistled, and we turned around to see Lucia Foster crossing the street. She was half-Puerto Rican, half-Black, and all swagger and curves. She was wearing dark, rectangular sunglasses, a white tank top with a black leather miniskirt, and black runway heels.

"The sun's shining today!" called Chucho. "Bright and fine in Humboldt Park!"

"Boys," she retorted, nimbly crossing the street toward Roberto and Alejandro.

"When you gonna call me back?" shouted Chucho.

"When you gonna get a better job?"

"Damn," we said in unison.

"Mercedes!" cried Lucia.


I left Chucho and Carlos and walked over to Roberto. He handed me a Miller Lite from a Styrofoam cooler next to his chair.

"This is where it's all gonna go down, Don Roberto," I said, staring at the salon. "This is where it's all going down."

I met Claudia on a steamy July afternoon in 2018. It was during a delivery run to the Northwestern Chicago Campus.

I had taken a second job at UPS to offset tuition costs for our daughter Isabella, who coincidentally was enrolled as a sophomore at Northwestern. Mercedes and I wanted to do whatever was possible to get Isabella through school, and our salon never brought in enough money to cover those types of expenses.

It had been a full day of deliveries by the time I pulled the UPS tractor-trailer into the university's main receiving dock. The air was heavy with exhaust fumes, and I was already tired and sticky with sweat. I was standing next to the trailer's door latch when I noticed a woman walking toward me, iPad in one hand, water bottle in the other. She was young, maybe a few years older than Isabella, and wore a close-fitting navel-orange T-shirt, with black slacks and white Nike sneakers. Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and it was hard not to notice the contours of her chest as she approached. She looked Mexican, a bit like some of Chucho's relatives, and was a couple of inches shorter than Mercedes.

"This is for you," she said, handing me the water bottle. "We're having a heat wave. Did you know that heat kills more people in Chicago than the cold?"

"Oh, really?" I said, shaking my head. "I can believe it. Man, it's hot today. I'm getting too old for this."

She took a step back and looked me up and down.

"Is that so?" she asked. "You don't look too old. I've always appreciated older men. Aging just means you've done more living."

"Yeah, living the dream. Working a second job to put my kid through school. She's going to Northwestern, as a matter of fact."

"Congrats," she said. 'You must be so proud."

I leaned against the back of the trailer and looked up as a plane flew low overhead.

"Proud, yes. But sometimes I wonder if I'm just living to fulfill everyone else's dreams? ¿Cuándo se fue todo al garete? I've been asking myself lately, where did things go wrong?" I paused, feeling slightly ashamed. "I hope you don't take that the wrong way. I love my wife and daughter, but it can be a drag trying to support everyone."

"I completely understand," she said. "Please, don't apologize. My name is Claudia, by the way."

She reached out her hand, and I shook it. Her grip was firm, like it had purpose, but delicate at the same time. "I'm Javier," I said. "And thank you for the water."

The following week, I was back at the receiving dock at Northwestern. The air was still, and there had been scattered showers and thunderstorms earlier in the day. I was listening to Univisión Radio and didn't feel like getting out of the truck to unload the packages. After about ten minutes I stepped out of the cab, and turning toward the dock, I saw Claudia speaking with another man.

She was wearing an outfit similar to the one she'd worn the previous week, except this time she had on a canary-yellow polo shirt. She had an energy about her that radiated even from a distance, and I could tell that people were drawn to her. For some reason, I felt a twinge of jealousy that she was speaking to another middle-aged man, but that quickly evaporated after she saw me and waved. I waved back and was walking to the rear of the trailer when I accidently stepped on the edge of the curb, causing my knee to lurch to the side. A jolt of pain shot up my leg and I fell to the ground, holding my right knee. "Come on, not now!" I groaned, feeling slightly sick to my stomach.

I'm not sure how long I was lying on my side in between the truck and the curb, but when I looked up, I saw Claudia running toward me. "Oh my God, are you OK?" she said breathlessly. I must have been a sorry sight, crumpled among the dirty street puddles in the middle of the city. Claudia bent down and grabbed my hand. "Can you stand?" She asked. "What happened?"

"I don't know. My knee just buckled," I said, attempting to stand on my good leg.

Claudia placed my arm around her shoulder, and together we managed to get me upright on my left leg. My right knee pulsated with a stabbing sensation, and I didn't even attempt to put any weight on it. "Could you walk me over to the cab? I need to call my supervisor."

When I finally managed to make it into the truck's cab, Claudia joined me, sitting in the passenger seat as I explained the situation to my boss.

"What did he say?" she asked after I ended the call.

"He told me to take the rest of the day off and head to urgent care." I sighed. "What a day."

It hadn't fully registered that we were still holding hands until I turned to her, but I didn't pull away. She had this cherubic quality, her face slightly chubby, her skin clear and smooth with a hint of blush. "I am very grateful for your help," I said. "You are my good Samaritan."

"It does seem like you've been in need of a few things going right. I'm happy to help."

I stared at the windshield, where three orange-and-black spotted ladybugs were grouped together, near the driver's side wiper.

"There's an urgent care about five minutes away," said Claudia, withdrawing her hand from mine and swiping her cell phone. "I can call an Uber if you like."

"I would appreciate that." I said, watching the beetles inch their way onto the wiper. "Let me ask you something. How do you have the energy to be so active, helping me for example, when you got other things to do? I can tell you're the one around here that makes things happen."

"I help run the dock," she said. "It's all about relationships. My relationships with the clerk staff are what make this operation possible."

"Yeah, I used to be like that. But as I get older, I can't seem to find that fuel for Mercedes and me. We're running on empty."

Claudia placed her phone on her lap, and out of the corner of my eyes I could feel her staring at me. "I assume Mercedes is your wife?" she asked as I continued staring at the beetles. "Have you spoken to her about this?"

"I think that is just the issue."

"The issue being that you don't communicate?"


Later that evening I was home, icing my knee. I was sitting in an armchair in the living room with my bad leg elevated on a table. Mercedes had gone to the pharmacy to pick up naproxen for me. I had just spoken with Isabella, who had called to check up on me. She had been on her way to the library with a group of friends, and we didn't talk for long.

Chucho had also sent me a flurry of text messages. After all these years, he had continued working for UPS, mainly doing deliveries, then moving into the warehouse. He had helped me get my job at the company around the time Isabella started college, but his priorities revolved around being a perpetual bachelor and watching Chicago sports. He was loyal, though, and much like his relationship with UPS, we stuck together through the thick of it.

My phone vibrated, and I saw a text from a number I didn't recognize.

Everything OK?

I stared at the phone for a moment.

This is Claudia.

I felt a rush of adrenaline. Yes, everything was OK. Thank goodness I had given her my cell phone number to book the Uber. I thumbed an initial text, saying everything was fine, but then decided against sending it. Instead, I settled on a burning question.

When can I see you again?

A couple weeks later, I was at the salon with Mercedes. It was a typical Saturday afternoon. Two of our regulars, the middle-aged Ramos sisters, were seated in the back under the hooded dryers. Mercedes was coloring the elderly Señora Estrada's hair, and our other stylists, Denisa Rivera and Aliyah Evans, were chatting and working with their customers, Lola Hernandez and Edelira Vasquez, respectively.

I was seated at the reception desk going through the receipts. My knee had largely healed at this point. The doctors had diagnosed the injury as a mild Grade 1 MCL sprain, and I had to take a couple weeks off work from UPS to rest and heal. That gave me more time to spend at the salon with Mercedes.

The salon had come a long way over the years, with Mercedes and I initially doing the bulk of the styling, to the point where we were able to hire a few stylists to keep up with the demand. We had a loyal customer base, but more recently things had slowed down. We made enough to scrape by, but there was no growth, and paying for Northwestern, even with some financial aid, was a challenge.

I could hear the Ramos sisters talking in the back, as if out of an episode of Como dice el dicho.

"Tsst. Yes, but Fabian was a bum."

"No he wanted a bum."

"Haha! He had only an eye for one thing."

"Not that she was complaining. She must have been sore."

"Sure, especially after her husband walked in on them."

"And then he jumped through the window. Naked as the day he was born."

"I wish I could have seen that!"

"I'm sure you do."

"But he shouldn't have done it with a white girl. In the middle of the day in Winnetka!"

"He is a landscaper. He needed to tend his seeds."


Lucia entered the salon.

"¡Buenas!" said Mercedes.

"Lucia!" chorused the Ramos sisters.

"Buenas, ladies," said Lucia, placing her pink, faux-leather shoulder bag on the reception desk. "And what happened to you, Javier?" she asked, pointing to my cane.

"He tripped over his manhood," said one of the Ramos sisters.

"Over his member, they all do, hahaha!" said the other.

"Okay, now, stop teasing," said Mercedes.

I went red. I hadn't explained to Mercedes how I had sprained my knee, other than I fell doing a delivery run.

"Come now, why is Javier looking like an old man?" Lucia asked.

"Nah, it's nothing," I said. "I hurt my knee doing a delivery."

"Poor Javier. You need to take care of yourself. Mercedes needs a strong man around the house."

"Less around the house," I countered. "I need to get back to work, to pay the bills. You know how it is."

"Oh, come now. Don't work too hard," said Lucia.

"Gotta pay the bills. But it's all good," I said. "Heading back to the office for the third shift tonight, to help with administrative tasks."

"Aww, Javier is a good man," said Lucia. The others nodded in agreement.

That night, I did head to a UPS office, but not to work the third shift. Claudia and I had agreed to meet at a UPS store near her condo in the River North neighborhood. I arrived early, a little before nine in the evening, and stood beside a curbside maple under the rusting Elevated tracks. It was still warm outside, and I was glad to be away from Humboldt Park. The neighborhood didn't ever seem to be getting any better. I was tired of the same old problems and the same old people, and needed a change.

And perhaps change was okay. Yes, Mercedes and I had been married for more than twenty years, and for the most part, we were happy. But as our finances were squeezed with Isabella at college, we had spoken less and worked more. There was a space between us that was growing. We were not so much bonded in marriage as loosely roped together, like two vessels drifting apart in the waves.

If I had to sum up the men in my family, they all had diverse interests outside the home. My father was a bastard. He never spoke much about my grandfather, Don Fernando, but it was known that he had several mistresses in Ponce. When my grandmother was on her deathbed at the ripe old age of ninety-three, she told my father that she saw Don Fernando in his eyes. My father, meanwhile, had eyes for just about anyone. The marriage lasted a couple years, long enough for them to have me, before he was on his way to the next mistress. When he died prematurely of kidney disease at the age of fifty-eight, he left at least six children with five different women.

My father's half-brother, my Uncle Christian, was a devoted married man. That is, he was devoted to sleeping with married women. When he was caught with his hands on the thighs of Tony DeMarco's wife in a hotel room in Daytona, a fight ensued. Tony ended up on the wrong side of the altercation, being thrown off the third-story balcony to the pavement below. Tony was an executive with the Daytona Tortugas, a Cincinnati Reds minor league affiliate, and his untimely demise attracted quite a bit of local publicity. Christian ended up getting 25 years in the state penitentiary for second-degree murder.

And then there was my Uncle Jorge, another one of my father's half-brothers. He was what you might call a whore, no pun intended. He was involved with a prostitution and gambling ring in Queens and could always be seen with one or two women at his side. I never met him, but I did see a grainy black and white photo of him wearing a three-piece, pin-striped suit with a cane.

If I was anything like my father, and his father, and just about every other man I knew, I was just experiencing a rite of passage. It wasn't that I wasn't committed, it was just that I didn't feel that I needed to be committed exclusively to Mercedes anymore.

When Claudia showed up a little past nine, wearing a red, guipure lace minidress that draped over her like a form-fitting curtain, I knew my family tradition would continue. There really weren't proper words to describe her. You had to experience her in person.

Later that evening, it must have been around midnight, I stood on her condominium balcony overlooking the Chicago River. Below, I could see the Irv Kupcinet and DuSable bridges stretching over the winding waters, and the blurred motion of lights on East Lower Wacker Drive. It was a view I had never seen before, thrilling and alluring at the same time.

Claudia walked over to my side, leaning her head against my shoulder. She had a bathrobe on, and I could still smell her black plum perfume.

"My family moved to El Paso from Ciudad Juárez when I was twelve," she said. "My father had been working at a maquiladora specializing in plastics, but decided that we needed to leave for El Paso. We got DACA status a few years later."

I stared at the Wrigley Building in the distance, radiating with floodlights, reminiscent of cathedrals I had seen in photos of Spain. "What brought you here?"

"What else? A man. His name was Bartolo."

I instinctively pulled away. This didn't go unnoticed by Claudia, who tightened her bathrobe belt and moved toward the balcony railing.

"I hope that doesn't trouble a man such as yourself," she said sardonically.

I cleared my throat and walked over to her. It was still warm outside, and I felt clammy. "Of course not," I said. "Tell me about him."

Claudia remained quiet for some time, long enough for me to feel even more uncomfortable, before she began. "There isn't much to tell," she said. "He was a pendejo. We dated for a year or so before I left him."

"Okay. I see."

"He was from Juárez and had some relatives in Calumet Park. I followed him up here when I was eighteen, but he got mixed up with the police."

Claudia brushed her long black hair from her eyes and looked at me.

"Javier," she said, "It's all in the past. I'm a survivor. I've always been able to get what I need to get by. I've more than just survived in this city. I've made it."

I thought about my mother, raising my siblings and me at the top level of a crowded three-room flat off Rockwell Street. We shared the building with two other Puerto Rican families and their kids, most of whom were first generation like me. It was during a time when the gangs were starting to get bad, cheap crack cocaine was flowing through the streets, and good jobs were hard to find, but the thing that stuck with me most was our roof. I can't explain why. It was insignificant in the great scheme of things, but I could distinctly recall the sound of water plopping into a bucket when the rain seeped through our roof and into our rooms. That always stressed my mother out. She warned us of black mold, but the landlord never got around to fixing the leak, so we just learned to live with it.

I leaned in and pulled Claudia close to me. "I understand. We're all surviving in our own ways," I said. "I started a business more than twenty years ago with my wife. It was hard then, and it's still hard now. But it's paid the bills, and helped put my daughter through college."

We stood there silently for a few minutes, my arm wrapped around her slender shoulders, and stared out at the city lights.

"What is she like, your Mercedes?"

I wasn't sure how to answer this, given the circumstances. I tried to find the right words. "Cold," I said at last. "Detached."

"Do you have a picture of her?"

I fumbled through my jeans pocket and pulled out my cell phone. It had been many years since we had taken a good photo together. I swiped through the images on my phone until I found a selfie of the two of us and Denisa and Aliyah at our salon. The four of us were huddled outside the glass door entrance, and to our right, cheap orange window decals could be seen, advertising Mercedes Caribbean Beauty and Style.

Even in this photo, taken while Isabella was still in high school, there was distance between us. Mercedes was standing at the edge of the group, next to Denisa and the decals, while I was standing at the opposite end next to Aliyah.

"She's beautiful," said Claudia. "And you don't love her anymore. Or at least, like you used to?"

"I do love her," I said. This time I could feel Claudia flinch, but she didn't move away. "I do love her, but it's not the same anymore. It's like we've moved on in our lives, and just co-exist together."

"You deserve more than just co-existence," Claudia said.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have taken things a little slower with Claudia. We went from zero to sixty in a matter of weeks, and there's no denying that I fell head over heels for her. I felt energized in a way that I hadn't felt in years. It was like meeting Mercedes all over again on the bus: fresh, unpredictable, passionate.

We began to meet regularly in the evenings. I started working the third shift at UPS to fit her into my schedule and to avoid any unnecessary attention from Mercedes. This went on for about two years, and Mercedes was none the wiser. She was always too tired, too focused on work or Isabella or her family to notice what I was doing. I did somewhat lament the fact that I was hiding something from her, but I couldn't see how things could be any other way. I just couldn't imagine not having Claudia in my life. She was my new Mercedes.

The trouble began around January 2020. I was at Claudia's apartment, sitting upright under her bed covers, leaning against her upholstered headboards. The room was warm and stuffy, as Claudia was sensitive to the cold. She was sitting on the far edge of the bed near the bathroom, distractedly brushing her long black hair. The lights were off and the curtains drawn, but I could make out her bare back.

I glanced at my watch. It was nearly ten o'clock on a Thursday evening, and it was about time that I left for my shift.

"Claudia," I said. "Do you have any of that Bustelo coffee left? God, I'm so tired of this job."

Claudia continued brushing her hair in silence, and I wasn't sure if she heard me. I yawned and stretched out my arms. "Claudia," I said after a minute or so, "do you have any coffee left? You were out of coffee yesterday, and I feel so drained."

"Hmm?" she said, as if waking from a dream. She stopped brushing her hair and tilted her head towards me.

"I wanted to know..." I started.

"Javier," she interrupted. "Javier, what am I to you?"

I didn't know what she was talking about. "What's that?" I asked, scratching my stomach.

Claudia stood upright and faced me. Her bare womanhood was on full display. I could see that she had been crying, and I thought of Mercedes. She had that Indio look.

"Is this it to you?" She asked, pointing at her breasts. "Who are you committed to?"

Who is the real Mercedes? my inner voice shouted at me.

These questions hit me like a crowbar to the head - questions that I had been avoiding until this moment. Our relationship was certainly more than superficial. We spoke about many things, but mostly our relationship was about intimacy. For me, at least, it was more than platonic; it fulfilled a primal need, I suppose, one that had been lost with Mercedes as we aged.

"Babe, I have to head into work soon. Could we talk about this tomorrow, when we have more time?"

"Please pick up your things and go," she said with restrained fury. "There's no coffee."

Late one Saturday morning in mid-February, Mercedes and I were sitting by ourselves at the salon. Normally, this would have been the peak hours for our business, but with the rapid spread of a novel coronavirus, the store was shuttered. We had expected this interruption to last a couple of weeks, but with each passing day, the news was more ominous, and our expectations had to adjust.

I was sitting at the reception desk, reviewing our QuickBooks expenses for the past several months. It was evident that we were experiencing a cash-flow crisis. We had no cash in reserve and were piling up debt. We couldn't afford the rental payments for the store.

"Mercedes, we need to review our lease agreement again to see if there are provisions for suspending payments during an emergency," I said. "We can't go on like this."

Mercedes was sitting in a salon styling chair, staring at the window. There were dark bags under her eyes, and she appeared listless.

"We can't cover Denisa and Aliyah's salaries. They have to go on one hundred percent commission."

"Javier," she said. "There are times I wish you had never taken me to get that SBA loan. Now, we have so much wrapped into this. So many memories. So many lives touched."

"And so much money," I added. "No one's coming in right now. People are scared."

The air vents whistled in the background. Claudia sat silently for a moment, and when she seemed ready to speak, she mouthed something quietly to herself. I could not make out what she said, and she said nothing more. There was the whistling and nothing more.

It was early April, and I was at home with Mercedes. The Governor had declared a shelter-in-place order, and the city was eerily quiet. We had the TV on, playing CNN in the background. I was on the phone with Chucho, speaking from the kitchen. "This shit is crazy," I said. "It's like the plague or something."

"It's bad. How's Mercedes doing?"

"She's in our room, lying down right now. It's the stress."

This was true. What was also true was that he knew what was going on with Claudia.

Last year, I'd spent an evening with Chucho and one of his buddies at a Tex-Mex sports bar in Logan Square. As we were getting ready to leave, I pulled out my wallet to pay the tab and a crumpled piece of stationery fell out onto the counter. I stepped away to use the restroom, and when I returned, Chucho handed me the stationary and said, disapprovingly, "I believe this belongs to you."

From them on, Chucho and I had an unspoken understanding.

"Our credit cards are maxed out, and we're at the point where we may have to shut down the salon for good," I said. "We can't survive like this."

"I can probably get you more hours if you need them," said Chucho, referring to UPS.

"I may need that. There's a new program through SBA that's supposed to help small businesses with payroll and rent. I might apply, even though I hate the idea of taking on more debt. It's a last resort."

"It's worth fighting for the salon. For Mercedes, at least," said Chucho.

"Right, for Mercedes."

Later that afternoon, I pulled out my laptop and navigated to the SBA website. On the landing page there was a press release:

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Small Business Administration Administrator Jovita Carranza today launched the Paycheck Protection Program, a $349 billion emergency loan program...

There were a number of banks offering the PPP loan on behalf of SBA. I stared at the screen blankly for several minutes, the contours of the laptop fading into a blur. Everything seemed to be blurring together. ¿Cuándo se fue todo al garete? No, I need to sleep on this. Later this week, I thought. Later this week, I will call the bank.

A few weeks later, Mercedes handed me a letter from Wells Fargo while I was sitting at the dining room table. "I didn't know you had applied for this."

I looked at the red Wells Fargo letterhead and the words: Your Paycheck Protection Program application has been approved.

"What is this?" I asked. "We had planned to apply for a PPP loan."

"Yes, we had discussed this. Did you apply?"

"No. No, I didn't apply. I was trying to figure things out. I was going to apply through Bank of America."

"What does this mean, then?"

"I don't know. Some mistake, I suppose. Let me call the bank."

The call volume was high for Wells Fargo, and I had to wait nearly two hours before someone called me back. When I finally got in touch with an agent, she confirmed that someone had taken out a loan in my name.

"We've been getting more reports of incidents like this, unfortunately," the agent said.

"Okay. So, cancel the loan. I need one for myself, for our small business. Can you do that?"

"I'm afraid it's not that simple. Someone has access to your Social Security Number and financial information. You actually are in debt to us for $20,000, and we can't issue you a separate loan until this is resolved. You'll need to contact the Small Business Administration and the Federal Trade Commission to report the identity theft."

"Identify theft," I said, more to myself than to the agent.

"Yes, I'm sorry. That appears to be the case."

Mercedes was sitting across from me at the dining room table, staring at me. She appeared to be shaking.

"Mercedes," I said as calmly as I could, "You just heard what the agent said at Wells Fargo. I'll reach out to the SBA and the Federal Trade Commission. We'll figure this out."

"It's over, Javier, isn't it?"

"No, no. It's not over. The salon is still there. It hasn't gone anywhere. We just need some more time to figure this out."

The next morning, I was on the phone for hours with the SBA and the Federal Trade Commission. They were useless. Typical bureaucrats. They confirmed that someone had taken a loan out in our name. They said it was good that I had caught this now, before someone had taken out any additional funds. But it wasn't good, because we needed that recovery money, and now we couldn't get it until the issue was resolved. Which meant that we weren't getting recovery money, even though we qualified for it, even though we were desperate. They told us to create a get-well plan. But I needed action. I needed funds now. And to make matters worse, someone had access to our personal information and was probably doing other crazy shit. Someone was pretending to be us.

I sent a text to Claudia. Normally I was more discreet with speaking with her, but we hadn't spoken since she kicked me out that night, and I needed her advice. She was so resourceful, having worked her way up from nothing, a DACA kid from Ciudad Juárez, to a leadership position at Northwestern.

Claudia, call me, please. I need your advice. Te amo, I texted in a hurry.

The text went to Mercedes. Shit, shit, shit, I hissed to myself.

Sorry Mercedes. Wrong person. I added. Need advice from one of my cousins.

I walked over to our bedroom and saw that Mercedes was sleeping. She was doing that a lot more lately, taking two or more naps throughout the day. I could see her cell phone by our bedside table, lit up from my text messages.

Jesus lord almighty, I thought. What a day.

I decided I needed to see Claudia. I needed to tell her that I couldn't leave Mercedes. It just wasn't right. She might not survive if I left. What kind of husband would I be to leave her now?

I grabbed my jacket from our bedroom closet and left for Claudia's River North condo.

I arrived about thirty minutes later. It was cold as hell outside, and the sky was overcast and gray. I rang the intercom to her condo from the lobby, but there was no answer.

"Where are you?" I muttered to myself.

I rang the intercom again, then tried calling her. No answer.

I decided to wait in the lobby for a while, to see if she might show up. The lobby was quiet. It felt almost like a tomb. There wasn't anyone around. Everyone was sheltering in place.

I tried the intercom again and again, but there was no answer.

Two weeks later, I was sitting on the street curb outside our salon, alone, smoking a Don Collins cigar Luis had given me last year for my birthday. It was early Sunday morning. The concrete was cold, my mind numb.

What the hell just happened? I thought.

It was all over. All the years, all the sweat and effort, down the gutter. Down the gutter, mixed with all the other sewage, all the other bankruptcies and failures that seemed to embody this time.

If we had only been able to get that recovery money, I thought. Scammed.

We couldn't afford the rent. We were massively in debt. We still owed the bank money we didn't ask for.

I exhaled a long stream of smoke and watched it slowly dissipate into thin air. Up in smoke. I said. We've gone up in smoke.

"Javier," Mercedes said to me a few days later, as I entered the living room from our bedroom. "Javier," she said again, lowering the volume to the TV. "I think I'm losing it. I don't know who I am anymore."

I stared at Mercedes for a moment. She wasn't looking at me directly, but was staring at the TV. I noticed that she still had her bathrobe on, and for the first time I could see the gray in her hair and the heaviness in her cheeks. She appeared ragged.

"You are Mercedes Burgos-Morales," I replied. "You are a world-class stylist."

"I am not sure of anything anymore," she continued softly. "My world has been flipped upside down. Someone has taken my salon. Someone has taken my life. And now all I can do is sit here, stuck with you... stuck with you in this wretched flat, watching TV as the world burns."

Eight months have passed since we declared bankruptcy and shut down the salon. I am still with Mercedes, my beautiful wife, but the past year has been hard on her. Her black hair is now completely gray, and she hasn't been up to coloring it. She has gained weight, too. Her doctor thinks it's menopause.

I have not heard from Claudia. She stepped into a fog, and has yet to reemerge. I hope to see her again, to touch her, to ask her why she left. I wish her well.

We were recently able to resolve the issue of bank fraud with the PPP loan. We don't know what exactly happened, or who committed the fraud, but we were cleared, which is all that matters. A step toward restoration.

But if I'm being honest, I do wonder if two halves necessarily make a whole? If Mercedes is my other half, does that mean that I was only half a man before I met her? If I was half a man before I met her, did I become a full man after marrying her? Or did we just continue being incomplete, our juicy flesh still exposed and messy, like an orange?

Perhaps this is why Mercedes was so drawn to the beauty industry. At her salon, she was able to cover up all the messiness, all the imperfections around her. She was able to charm an otherwise brutal concrete corner in the inner city. She was able to give me, a Boricua street kid, a dignified career supporting her.

And now that her salon is gone, who is going to help her clean up this mess? Who is going to make her feel whole again, even if being whole was never really possible?


  1. I admit to registering surprise when Claudia betrayed Javier. I didn’t see it coming; perhaps it’s understandable that Javier didn’t see it either. It is a story of a self-indulgent man willing to fall back into a lifestyle that characterized many of the men in his life. Javier is not a very sympathetic character; in the end, in fact, he seems totally oblivious to the source of his woes, and stupid to boot. I enjoyed this story.

    1. Thank you for your comment Bill - I’m glad you enjoyed the story!

  2. I think your characters were vivid and well-formed. I like the narrator, as unsympathetic as he is, because of his candor and authenticity. I think there's a few dramatic moments in here that could have been brought out a bit more - this would perhaps fit well as a serial novel or something longer.

  3. Thank you David for your comments and perspective!