Noelia and Amparo by Glendaliz Camacho
Updated: Apr 2, 2022
This story was previously published in All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press), The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women (Shade Mountain Press), and Southern Pacific Review.
This short story set in La Romana, Dominican Republic details a rivalry between two very different women who utilize food to communicate with one another. Riveting and delicious, this piece reminds us all that there is power in the food we make and who we make it for.
Glendaliz Camacho was a 2015 Write A House Finalist and has been an Artist in Residence at Jentel, Caldera, Kimmel Harding Nelson, Hedgebrook, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Lanesboro Arts, The Anderson Center, and Kerouac House. Her work appears in The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women (Shade Mountain Press), All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press), and Everyday People: The Color of Life - a Short Story Anthology (Atria Books).
RECIPE AND A NOTE FROM THE WRITER POSTED AFTER THE PIECE!
Fried Eggs and Rice Writing Prompt: Point of view is especially important in Glendaliz Camacho's Noelia and Amparo, both women having distinct personalities and voices. Consider the points of view that weren't shown in this piece: Noelia's son, Federico himself, the animals that are used in the meals described. Write a piece in your preferred genre from one of these points of view.
Noelia and Amparo
By Glendaliz Camacho
Amparo met him on a Friday night when the women’s laughter—too high pitched to be sincere—resurrected the brothel. Dimmed lights winked off chipped glasses of rum. Amparo strode into the bedroom, where he was sitting with the posture of a war hero's statue in the plaza.
She introduced herself by offering her back so he could unzip her dress. His hands felt smooth and weighty like rocks that are worn flat by constant water. Amparo removed his fedora, somber gray suit, tie, shirt, shoes, socks, and underwear, hanging up and folding as necessary. She was as thorough the rest of the night so that the scar on her right index finger, the faded burns on her left forearm, or her pendulous breasts that hung like a wet nurse's did not matter. He finished not with a grunt but with an anguished pant in her ear as if he had bitten into food that was too hot. Amparo poured him a glass of water from a jug on the nightstand.
“When can I see you again?”
She lit a cigarette, inhaled, and passed it to him, while he gulped down the water.
“Ask yourself.” She pointed her chin toward his wallet, which she had placed within his reach on the nightstand. She would not remember his name until his fifth visit when she wiped the sweat from his forehead with a forgotten handkerchief and he told her he loved her.
Noelia spent every year since her twenty-third tightening the habit of spinsterhood around herself. Now at thirty-three, men were wholly obscured from her sight. Men were something to sift through, like the uncooked pigeon peas that she used to watch the cook inspect for pebbles as a child. Noelia had no shortage of suitors, but sooner or later—thankfully always sooner rather than later—they revealed themselves as pebbles. Noelia saw no good reason to risk what was certain to be a cracked tooth.
Noelia’s brother introduced her to his colleague Federico on a Sunday after Mass. He spoke to her for too long. He was too eager to talk about his work at Central Romana, the sugar mill; the book of Pedro Mir poems he was reading; how the music young people listened to like that merengue sounded as if it barreled straight out of a bayou. His sonorous voice drew curious glances. Noelia found him silly, especially for a man of forty-three, but something about his enthusiasm made her smile as he spoke.
It was not until she sat at the dining table, later that same Sunday, surrounded by her parents, brother, sister-in-law, sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, and nephews that Noelia allowed herself a moment to indulge. How would it feel? A man seated next to her that she could look upon with tenderness as he brought a forkful of food to his lips. To her surprise, she pictured the somewhat endearing laugh lines around Federico’s mouth.
Noelia declined Federico’s first invitation for coffee after Mass. Since visiting London, she preferred tea. There was a lunch invitation, but she liked to eat the biggest meal of the day with her family. His dinner invitation conveyed too much intimacy, but she acquiesced to a walk in the plaza.
Federico stood at a shorter height than Noelia would’ve preferred. His cologne was overpowering. She was grateful that their proper walking positions did not place her downwind. He walked curbside. She walked closest to the houses and shops. She found herself wondering if his kiss would taste of his last meal, or the mints that clattered against their tin prison in his suit jacket pocket, or nothing at all.
Their courtship resembled that first stroll—pleasant, unhurried, respectful. Saturday afternoons they enjoyed films at the local cinema—The Bridge on the River Kwai, An Affair to Remember, Tizoc. They attended dances at the San Juan Social Club established by the burgeoning community of Puerto Rican émigrés, thanks to the mill. Noelia waited for Federico to lie, or make a disparaging remark, or cross the line of propriety between a man and a woman. The moment never arrived.
One evening, after the usual light dinner with Noelia’s family—fish soup, white rice, toasted bread, and marble cake that night—Federico smoked a cigarette on the porch. Noelia sat beside him on the swinging bench that cupped them in the breeze. The full moon hung low and heavy like an expectant mother.
“How beautiful.” Federico’s exhaled smoke drifted up to the moon like an offering.
“If you like old rocks,” Noelia teased.
“That old rock has been illuminating the darkness for millennia.”
“Don't we have the sun for that?”
“The sun is a tyrant. The Earth must revolve around it or die, but the moon orbits around us.”
“That makes the moon nothing more than our slave.”
“Not at all. As much as we pull the moon toward us, she also pulls back and rules a part of us. The ocean.” Federico clasped Noelia’s hand in his. She looked down from the moon. Six months later, they married.
Amparo had not seen Fede in a couple of months. She only noticed when he reappeared seated at the foot of her rickety bed with a box in his hands. Fede’s eyes grew large behind his glasses, and he cleared his throat. Amparo could tell he did not expect to see her hand holding another’s. Her son peered at Fede from behind her thigh. She leaned down, whispered in his ear, and the boy slipped away.
“You have pierced ears, but you never wear earrings.” Fede handed her a red box tied with white ribbon. Inside sat a pair of diamond earrings mounted on white gold. Amparo resisted the urge to bite them. They would be useful in an emergency.
“You’re wearing new jewelry too.” She eyed his wedding band. Even in the caliginosity of her room, Amparo saw Fede's cheeks flush. She began to unzip her skirt, but he grasped her wrist and patted a threadbare patch of sheet next to him on the bed.
“I'm a civil engineer now.”
“I want you to stop working.”
Amparo nodded as if indulging a child. “No me digas.” She marched to her door and swung it open, planted her fist on her hip. “You don't want me to stop working. You want me to work for you instead.” A panic rose inside her like a wave and crashed into her chest. That same feeling that made her trust a man once. Back then, she needed to place her faith in one man’s word. All girls did to get married, but she was the only one in a whorehouse. Her mother always warned her if two people are in a relationship, make sure you’re not the one in love.
Fede extracted bills from his clip and placed them on the nightstand. “You owe me time then. Or change.”
Amparo cut her eyes from Fede to the money. She closed the door, but hovered in front of it, fingers wrapped around the broken doorknob. The door trembled against its ill-fitting frame with every exertion from the girl and customer in the next room.
“What did you dream about when you were a girl?”
“If you’re going to ask me stupid questions, I'd rather give you your change.” Amparo lunged at the money.
“Wait. Just answer me. What kind of life did you want when you grew up?”
“The same shit all the girls wanted.” Amparo stopped riffling through the bills. A blanket of dust had long settled over her wants. She was afraid she would regret this moment, disturbing it. “I wanted more than what I had. A clean house. A handsome husband. Children. A dog. My mother said it would be cruel to make a dog go hungry with us.”
Fede guided Amparo to sit next to him. “When I was a boy, I had a piglet. León. I fed him with one of my sister's old baby bottles. He slept with me every night until he grew too big. Oh, don’t look at me that way. Pigs are intelligent animals. We’ve just limited them to being food. So, one day, a hurricane ripped everything away. The only cow we owned, the chickens, the two other pigs, the mango tree, the roof, and two of the walls. León was the only animal left. So my father told me to bring him León.
“Look, there are things we want and things that ensure our survival. When they’re one and the same, that’s a blessing, but when they’re not…Well, we are animals too. We’ll always work for our survival.”
Amparo brushed invisible crumbs off her skirt. She tested the truth of what Fede said against the hardness of her twenty-five years. Survival coiled itself around her life, crushing it while holding it together.
“Now, I may not be what you dreamed of,” Fede lifted his fedora and ran his palm over his receding hairline, “but I can give you a better place to live. Your son can go to a private school. And I do love you. You and I are two different fruits grown in the same conuco.”
Amparo narrowed her eyes. “What about you? What do you get out of this?”
“I’ve already secured my survival. Now I’d like to have what I want.”
Amparo did not receive another client—after Fede made arrangements with the madam, of course. Two weeks later Amparo chose the row house Fede would rent for them.
Fridays and Saturdays, Amparo and Fede expressed what there wasn’t time for during the week. He his ardor. Through roses, Neruda poems whispered in the dark, and love letters left on the nightstand before Sunday dawns. Amparo, her cautious gratitude, with stuffed peppers, meatballs, and stewed codfish.
Amparo was clear about her place and in any case, she wasn’t in love with Fede. That didn’t mean she was indifferent to his well-being or happiness. In fact, Amparo cared so much she was willing to be the reason for his. That was some kind of love. Not the kind that Fede could see when he held himself on top of her. Not the kind that made her blood dance like her son’s father did, but it was something, and it dug into her a little deeper each day.
Federico’s absences did not go unnoticed by Noelia. She came close to asking him several times. She fortified herself through the night with the belief that truth was preferable to an illusion. She questioned what good principles of character were if they crumbled at the slightest pressure. Hadn’t she considered herself a woman hecha y derecha? Here was an opportunity to distinguish herself as a woman who is, rather than a woman who thinks she is, but when Federico arrived Sunday mornings there was only enough time to get ready for Mass. Then Sundays did not seem appropriate for anything but devotion to God. The rest of the week settled into a rhythm she was averse to disrupting on the distant hope it would continue through the weekend.
Noelia was certain, however. She took that certainty and busied herself in the kitchen for fear the turmoil would devour her. It gave the cook heart palpitations, but Noelia assured her this was just a whim. Noelia’s fingers found peace in the constant chopping and stirring. It quieted her mind so that only the dish mattered—not her charred pride or slices of jealousy. Cooking filled any holes that had eaten through her soul like moths. It made them not quite whole but aromatic and vibrant. As a girl, Noelia enjoyed the smell of onions and garlic sauteing, heralds of a good meal, before it became improper to spend her days with the help. When her sisters were pregnant, they craved her rellenos. They burst with pork seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, oregano. Only her hen soup would do when her father came down with a cold.
At first, she cooked random things—ñoquis, bread pudding, goat marinated in bitter orange and rum. Then Federico did not come home on a Thursday. Noelia escaped the mocking of her empty bed before dawn and began a purposeful banquet, by the light of an oil lamp. Her shadow on the wall resembled a witch hunched over a cauldron.
There was a knock at Amparo’s door just as she added auyama and carrots to the simmering pot of arvejas for lunch. When she opened the door, a young woman in a servant’s uniform stood on the porch. Avoiding Amparo’s eyes, she thrust a large basket in her arms. “De parte de Doña Noelia.” The girl scampered away before Amparo could say or do anything.
From Federico’s car, Noelia saw Amparo looked more like a cook than a whore. Amparo had come to the door in a faded housecoat! She was a sturdy mulatta with coarse hair held away from her face by a red headband. Noelia couldn’t decide whether she felt relieved or offended. When her maid climbed back into the sky-blue Ford, Noelia asked the driver to take them home.
When Fede arrived at noon, he showered as he usually did. He dried his glasses and sat at the head of the table—which Amparo liked to point out was square so for all they knew the empty seats were the heads. Fede asked, with a pat on Amparo’s bottom, if they were having a picnic.
Amparo unpacked the ensalada de vainitas y repollo cocido. Hígado, pan, aguacate, even dulce de naranjas en almíbar for dessert. The lettuce, string bean, and cabbage salad glistened with olive oil and vinegar. “Perra,” Amparo muttered under her breath as she served the liver. The one thing that Amparo couldn’t stand to eat—there was not enough garlic and oregano in the world to make liver taste better than a mouthful of coins—and here it was. Reminding her of the things life would serve her whether she liked it or not. You don’t know who you’re playing with. Amparo fumed as she bit into a piece of crusty bread. Amparo had never swallowed anything life threw at her. Not her father’s nighttime visits, not her son’s father disappearing soon after her menstruation, and not this now.
“How is it?” Amparo asked Fede as he chewed a piece of liver.
“Excellent. As always.”
When she told him the meal came from his house, from his wife, he blanched and coughed. Color rushed to Fede’s cheeks and the tip of his nose. He gripped the edge of the table and coughed again, but no sound came forth. His hand flew to his collarbone. The food went cold.
Noelia arrived at her parents’ house with two suitcases. Her mother looked at them as if they transported tapeworms instead of clothes. When Noelia confided to her that she had followed Federico, her mother shook her head. “Who told you to go snooping?”
Her father, the voice of reason, merely suggested finding a solution. While allowing Noelia to stay unmarried for so long had inspired a few whispers—which they tolerated out of love—this was more serious. Besides, they were getting older. Where would she run to when they were no longer there? Perhaps a child would keep Federico at home more. After all, the man had no family in La Romana, no roots in the Dominican Republic.
Noelia did not bother to stay for dinner. As her father’s driver took her home, her mind turned to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. Noelia no longer agreed with God that their sin was egregious enough to merit exile.
A child. Apparently, Noelia was still a child whose life decisions amounted to indulgences her parents had granted her. Noelia’s life was like the tea parties she used to throw for her dolls—she controlled the proceedings, but only until the real adults called her to dinner. She was not the moon, the sun, the earth, or ocean; she was a woman. Just a woman.
Back home again, the chime of the doorbell interrupted Noelia’s unpacking. She told the maid she would answer. Despite everything, she hoped to open the door to Federico, but it was a boy. About five years old, with beautiful brown eyes that swept about her ankles. He handed her a bag he struggled with and ran off the steps, down the street.
She unpacked the bag on the mahogany dining room table. “Touché.” The smell of sancocho de mondongo made her insides lurch. It arrived accompanied by steaming white rice, avocado, and dulce de coco con batata. When mondongo was cooked in her parents’ house, it sickened her. Beef tripe was only a few degrees from eating entrails, and they might as well be savages if they ate that way. She didn’t back down, and she expects me to. Noelia forced a spoonful of sancocho into her mouth. She’s got nerve, but that doesn't only grow in barrios and campos. Noelia continued to plunge her spoon into the food until there was a knock on the door. Noelia would not remember much more than the sound of her retching afterward. The bile burned through her nostrils long after the policemen gave her their condolences.
When Noelia’s stomach would not stop convulsing, her mother and sisters insisted it was the impact of receiving the terrible news of Federico's death. Not to mention where he died which no one did. Noelia feared Amparo poisoned her. A visit from the doctor proved them all wrong. Noelia was pregnant.
From the gate of the cemetery, Amparo watched mourners file past Noelia. Noelia’s face hid behind large sunglasses and a hat with a veil. The hair that peeked out against the nape of her long, ivory neck was fine and blond. Despite the balmy weather, her black dress, and gloves, she seemed encased in a block of ice. Apart from all those people around her. She moved only to dab her cheeks with a white, silk handkerchief.
At the end of the service, Noelia motioned to her family to walk ahead, that she needed a moment. She walked over to Amparo, lifted her veil, and removed her sunglasses. They stood side by side, watching workers shovel dirt onto Fede’s coffin.
“I'm pregnant.” Noelia's hand rested on her stomach.
“You’ll have to eat better.” Amparo turned to face her.
Noelia puckered her lips to dam the laugh in her mouth, but it was no use. Both women burst into laughter behind their palms, until tears spilled over. When their laughter evaporated, only a deep, simultaneous breath remained. They drew more than a few stares and whispers from mourners walking to their waiting drivers. Both women regarded each other for a moment, curious, but too spent to ask.
“Take care.” Amparo turned and walked away.
Amparo stopped at a bakery. When she had been pregnant with her son, she craved French bread warm out of the oven, slathered with butter. She bought a loaf and bit into handfuls she tore off as she walked. An occasional tear mixed with the butter on her lips. She whispered a blessing for Noelia’s baby.
1 ½ lbs of liver
1 ½ tsp of salt
½ tsp of oregano
½ tsp of white pepper
¾ c. of peanut oil
1 large onion, sliced
½ green pepper, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tbsp of vinegar
3 tbsp of milk
Pinch of luck so it doesn’t taste like a mouthful of pennies
Clean the liver of the membrane that covers it.
Rinse and dry it with a paper towel.
Cut into thin slices.
Mix the garlic, oregano, 3 tablespoons of the oil, and the milk and season the liver with this paste. Marinate for about 30 minutes.
Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a frying pan.
Season the liver with the salt and pepper. Place the slices in the hot pan, one or two slices at a time, browning one side and then the other.
Do not prick the liver, it will bleed.
As you fry the slices of liver, gradually add tablespoons of oil. When you have finished frying, add the onion and green pepper in the pan. Sauté a few minutes and serve over the liver.
Suggested accompaniments for dinner menu:
Green beans and cabbage salad Boiled green bananas Avocado slices Sweet oranges in syrup Coffee
A note from the writer:
This recipe is from a cookbook my grandmother owned, published in 1959, “La Cocina Dominicana” by Ligia De Bornia. Its pages are yellowed and the cover is long gone. The thing that captured my imagination thumbing through it as a child, when the particulars of the Spanish language beyond what I used to communicate with my grandparents were still lost to me was its encyclopedic quality. Before you were even allowed to proceed to the recipes, there were almost sixty pages listing things such as the 101 most used utensils, measurement conversions, a vocabulary list with words like bano de Maria and dorar that summon up my grandmother’s voice or a wave of her wrinkled hand when she would try to explain how to make flan or caramelized plantains. The cookbook also lists suggestions: how to balance flavors and colors of meals, what babies should consume at 4 weeks and 3 months and my favorites: how a meal should be served and what your servants should wear when they served it. Servants! There I was, a young girl in Washington Heights, being raised on the income of retirees, not a servant to be seen anywhere and here was this book painting other lives as vividly as fiction.
Talk about world-building. This cookbook presented the kitchen as a metropolis of important activity, scientific in its fastidiousness, that seemed to my very American sensibilities as almost Victorian with its rules and proper ways of doing things. It also did something for me that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate at the time. It allowed the Dominican Republic to exist in my imagination. As someone who wasn’t born there, was never sent there for summers like many of my friends, and even now as an adult has only traveled there once and stayed at a resort, the only way to experience it was to imagine it.
And so I did. When I wrote stories I imagined different cities (La Romana, Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo), different time periods (turn of the century, pre-Columbian, 1960s), different lives (children, professors, sex workers, wives, and yes, servants), including the ones in the story I contributed.