ROSITA HAPPENED TO Mimi the way things happen when you are nineteen with all your tomorrows ahead and all you have to do is just be. And they became friends.
In the Yaraví, a fellow passenger had spoken of a friend and told Mimi: when you get to San Francisco call him he knows a lot of people. She called him.
Yes. I know a famiIy you can rent a room from, he said.
The rented flat at Pacific and Kearny was then occupied by Mimi, Lorena and Teddy, Rosita and her husband, and John. John, who didn’t talk to anyone but Rosita. Ever. If you passed him in the hallway would look down at the floor and go silently on his way. Below their home a bakery opened its huge metal doors at three in the morning. And the fog horns could be heard all night long.
Life at Rosita’s was less restricted than at Mimi’s parents. Mimi. In fact she must have put in a good word for her to her husband a morose, taciturn man who was seen around the house but hardly heard. He didn’t have to. He just muttered his wishes to his wife of thirty years and they were done. But Rosita didn’t ordered, she suggested.
He has a car? ¡Oh niña! that is not so good. No. Cars are dangerous to young people. You find yourselves in odd positions. Mimi didn’t understand. Didn’t ask. She felt uncomfortable. Threatened. How would Rosita know? She had never owned one.
THE NIGHT OF Mimi’s date the plump, moonfaced, kind Rosita, hair freshly braided, cheeks red bright apples forgot to be assertive. Four feet tall she smiled up at Etienne with that mix of coquetry and shyness learned from the women in her family. To Etienne she gave her own brand of welcoming, bright stars shining in her eyes, hands nervously twisting the edge of her apron, voice suddenly low and pleading. Good thing he spoke Spanish she had never learned English.
Pero una tacita de café antes de irse, Señor…sólo una tacita ¿sí?
Please, call me Etienne, his smile radiated appreciation.
Etienne. She savored the name like it was candy and smiling looked at him sideways before walking back to the stove.
It was Mimi’s first date. Her father would never have allowed it. She is only nineteen, Mimi could hear him say.
BIMB0’S 365 WAS elegant, polished, beautiful. Famous for its GIRL IN THE FISH BOWL and the excellent artists it presented.
Yes. It was a sensation. The beautiful blonde, curvy girl shaped as a mermaid. How was it done? Mimi always wondered. A beautiful live mermaid in a fishbowl. It was the main attraction.
Bimbo’s 365 dining rooms had mirrored walls, high ceilings, red tablecloths, candlelight reflecting on the dark wood paneling. That night the nineteen year old learned to dance.
Yes. Just follow me. Of course you can. See? Etienne said. As Time Goes By was their song. He asked the orchestra to play it for them over and over.
They were a great looking couple. The flash bulb from the Club photographer’s camera shined on their smiles capturing the moment in a black and white photo that became the cover of a book of matches. The reverse carried the logo of Bimbo’s 365.
Mimi next to her date. The camera loved her. The girl looking straight ahead, smiling, radiant, self assured. He wears coat and tie. Elegant. Her dress has ranglan short sleeves, a boatneck with folds that drape softly to her waist. The shiny material defines it as evening wear. A necklace of many strands shows very dark, matching an earring the other one is hidden by his face that in posing leans on hers. A fur jacket is draped on the back of the chair she sits on. His right arm is around her shoulders. The girl’s hands are demurely clasped in front of her. In the fore-front his left hand holds a cigarette.
Everything she wore that night was loaned to her. Rosita and Lorena dressed her up. Mimi had nothing to wear for an evening date. That was Lorena’s dress, her jewelry. That was her fur jacket. Oh yes! Every girl dreamed of having one. Rosita put the make-up on her. And when Mimi started to protest, pero, es mucho maquillage. Rosita said ¡Ayyy! ¡Ayyy! ¡Ayyy! Pero es como para de noche, mi niña.
Mimi always wondered, how did she know? what kind of make-up was for night time? She never went any place, movies, theaters, clubs, restaurants, bars. Never saw the inside of one. Years later when she died she still had never seen one. So how did she know? Must have been those magazines, she spent hours leafing through, all in Spanish. About which candidly told Mimi, But what can I do, mi niña, I never learned me, that’s why I can’t read.
But that night Rosita knew exactly what to do. Those women enjoyed themselves, dressing her, making her up.
And Etienne being of the same mind, anticipating the evening called her to say, I’m on my way, and dialed her number that started with TU for TUXEDO. His house number started with EV for EVERGREEN. To call the Yellow Cab Co to take them to and from the club he dialed one that started with MA for MARKET. Yes. The prefix of the telephone numbers were letters. Just like in a Humphrey Bogart movie.
The taxi drivers wore uniforms with caps that said Yellow Cab Co in black letters when hey pull up their flat.
ETIENNE INTRODUCED MIMI to his friends. They saw a lot of Juan, the young vice–consul, and Elsa, his wife, their baby, their maid-nanny. Also of the Porters who invited Mimi to dinner often.
Mr. Porter liked her. Mrs. Porter had concerns. A practical woman, she thought Etienne should meet other girls also. But gave up after an evening when ... he didn’t even stay to express his appreciation, she reported to Mimi. He couldn’t wait. Left the table the moment dinner was over. To go see you, I suppose. Mr. Porter smiled. No other girl was ever invited to dinner again.
Years later she remembered him “going to see her.” Rosita preferred Mimi didn’t go out week nights. To get around that, Etienne and Mimi worked out a plan. He would whistle from the street, Come. My Heart is Calling You, from the sidewalk in front of her house. She, having been waiting, listening, would go out quietly to join him. Then would come back in, the same way. Quietly.
I went back to the street of my nineteen years and your twenty-four.
I went back to the street of my dark brown hair, big eyes, bright smile, moist-carmine-sensuous lips.
Your fiery red hair, golden mustache, athletic body and elastic step.
I went back to the street that heard you whistle.
Siempre estás en mi corazón…
No. It wasn’t: Siempre estás en mi corazón.
You are always in my heart.
It was: Ven. Mi corazón te llama.
Come. My heart is calling you.
I went back to the street of my nineteen years and your twenty-four.
Mimi silently went out, careful to leave the front door unlocked. He was on the sidewalk looking up at the house. In a flash came up the stairs. Took her by the hand away from the porch light. His arms held her tight, his tongue for the first time tasted hers. Mimi closed her eyes. He lifted her arms, pressed them against the wall. His hands caressed her pelvis, her breasts over and over. Mimi felt dazed, lightheaded. She opened her eyes, his breath was on her face. His body pressed against hers. The palms of his hands burned hers.
CHANGING THE CONVERSATION Mr. Porter continued, our children grown, in homes of their own it’s good to share the house with nice people. By the way, have you taken Mimi around Chinatown? To the Arboretum? And did you know? there is a lake, right here in San Francisco, Lake Merced?
Lake Merced became one of their favorite spots. The June-July weather was mild. Evenings, they drove to it in Etienne’s two-seater. No police patrolling there like at the Great Highway. They steamed up the windows necking. The radio always on. One evening, his arms around her, red hair shining with the last rays of the setting sun when As Time Goes By was announced. Etienne listened. Tenderness in his voice murmured in her ear an offering, a gift, This is our song. It will always be our song...and as two lovers wooo....they still say...I Iooove yooou.
The lake turned liquid siIver. The full moon shone among the trees. The night their accomplice. Love songs on the radio. Windows fogged up. Their flesh hot, moist, their clothes stained.
They saw each other every day. Weekdays he walked from the Consulate on Montgomery St. down to Seventh and Market and met her at Foster’s.
MIMI, BILLY AND Willy were inexperienced, optimistic. The guys, in their twenties, would work at anything, they said. Full of bravado, dreamed of earning their way through college. Mimi, could count on her father’s help, he is going to send me forty dollars every month, more when he can afford it. You know... exchanging soles to dollars...you lose a lot in the exchange.
Her friends were worried, It won’ t be enough. You’ll have to work.
O f course, she said.