Cynthia Gomez

The Hallway

Photo on 2011-06-08 at 19.48 #2



Cynthia Gomez is an educator who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work was published in From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas 1900-2002.

The dresser had seemed out of place when Susana toured the apartment; it dominated the narrow hallway, and she had to squeeze past it to enter the living room (sunny, if small) and the kitchen directly around the corner.  The last tenant's funeral had been only that Saturday and the apartment somehow had the look of a place left abandoned. The walls bore huge patches of lighter paint where pictures had hung, and deep grooves in the carpet where the furniture had been. What an odd place to put such a huge piece of furniture, she thought, even more so when the realtor pulled up the shade and afternoon light fell right on the middle, a lovely warm glow.  She decided it was a good omen.


She got rid of the dresser right away,  and the next day she unpacked her boxes of framed photos. The journey of the frames told the story of her career almost as well as the photographs did, she thought; the earliest ones were in simple drugstore frames, the kind sold everywhere at 2 for $15; then they moved on to plain wood from Pearl or Aaron Brothers, and then finally beautiful custom matting and dyed red or purple wood from Framed.


Her mother called on a Friday night, while she was rearranging the photos for the third time, and she stared at the phone for several rings before finally picking it up.  Susana could hear the sound, faint but unmistakable, of solitaire cards. She was in her easy chair, then, the tray table pulled up alongside, and by her fingers she'd have a single cigarette burning and the long, twisting cord of the old-fashioned phone would be straining slightly against the wall. Her voice was strained, but she was sober.


“How's it going in your new house, baby? You all set up?”

“Pretty much. I'm just doing the pictures now.” Susana let this remark hang in the air for as long as it needed to, the silence of the burning cigarette hanging over the line.

“Yeah, well, your brother told me you were working real hard on fixing it up.”

“The place is fine, mami. It's not a dump.”

“No, no, baby, I just meant it must be exciting. You've never had a place all to yourself before, huh?”

This time Susana let the line carry along the sound of her digging through the box for the last of the 3/4” nails.

“So, how's the neighborhood? Is it safe?”

“Sure, mom. It's got to be, since I'm living alone now.”

More smoke.

“Okay, baby, well listen, it sounds like you're real busy, so I'll let you go. Don't be a stranger, okay?”

The nail went crooked into the wall.


The phone woke her two mornings later, and she had to bite back the growling comeback she'd had ready when she saw who it was from: the modeling agency that fed her fully a third of her revenue every year.


“Hello, is this Susana Pineda?”

“Speaking.” She was frantically trying to wriggle out of her pajama bottoms and remember how to check the time on her phone at the same time – the shoot wasn't until 10; she couldn't possibly have overslept by that much, right?

“I am so sorry. We need to cancel this morning's shoot with Elise Taylor.”

Susana stopped hopping around and sat down on the bed with a thump. Elise was beautiful and fascinating, and that shoot was the best-paying job she had lined up all month.                               

“I understand. Did you have a new date in mind?”

The voice broke into a sob.

“I am so sorry. She was found dead early this morning. I don't have any more information for you, I'm afraid. Please understand that we will still pay you for the job today.”

Susana could feel a tiny icicle of self-loathing form inside her heart when she didn't refuse.


Elise was on her wall, the last photo she'd hung, in the spot where the light hit just so in the hour before sunset. They'd gone to the petting zoo for this shoot, and the picture of Elise, all leather jacket and smoky eyes, bending down to pet a goat, had made its way onto the cover of Chicago magazine, with “photographs by Susana Pineda” just on the inside cover.  Susana had thought the concept was ridiculous – who says that people in leather and combat boots can't be gentle? –  and she and Elise traded surreptitious eye-rolls while the stylist fluffed and primped. Later, they'd shared a cab, and she'd been amazed to have to suppress a fantasy of being invited up to Elise's apartment, to a bed she imagined as huge and luxurious. It was the first time she'd wanted anyone since Karina.  She wasn't surprised when Elise gently rejected her offer for a drink, and instead they traded business cards and Susana went home and masturbated, for the first time since Karina doing so without crying.


She took the photo down right after the phone call, and brought it to the funeral, where she set it on Elise's casket.  She met Elise's sister, shorter and curvier, heavily pregnant; she thanked Susana for the photo. Susana hung nearby for an embarrassingly long time, until she heard someone else asking Elise's sister the question she hadn't dared to ask, what the obituaries had left unanswered.


“She hurt her back three years ago so she took Demerol sometimes. They said they found sleeping pills in her stomach, and half a bottle of wine by her bed, and with the Demerol they said it could be enough to kill her. But I didn't think she took sleeping pills. She didn't have trouble sleeping. Or at least she    didn't tell me about it.”

“Who prescribed them to her? Didn't they warn her about mixing them?”

“They didn't find any bottle anywhere, and the cops told me she probably bought them off the street. All they had to hear was 'model,' and they didn't believe me when I told them she wouldn't do anything that stupid. And she knew you don't mix those kinds of drugs with alcohol. Our father was a doctor. It just doesn't make any sense.”


The two weeks after Elise's funeral were full of work; Susana worked four days a week at Framed, and she'd booked two more jobs after the funeral from people who saw the photo.  The empty space on the wall seemed to haunt her every time she walked past it, but it wasn't until the end of the second week, tipsy after a terrible blind date, that she took out the boxes of pictures in search of one to fill it.


The frame for Karina's photo was from the Pearl/Aaron Brothers phase, and the glass bore a tiny crack in the right-hand corner. Karina was lying in bed, black hair covering her bare shoulders, smiling sleepily at the photographer, her body barely covered by the sheets. The light made her look like an angel, Susana had told her, not quite meeting her eyes. When Susana's mother came to visit it was stored, not yet framed, safely in a drawer in her bedroom, tucked away in an envelope with the flaps securely closed. When her mother shoved the photo under her face, she wanted to say that someone who spied deserved to be shocked by what she saw. But when her mother grabbed her phone and dialed Karina's number, calling her a dirty puta, it was Karina who told her to mind her own business, called her a lousy drunk, told her to go look in the mirror if she wanted to find something to be ashamed of, while Susana swiped impotently at her mother's arms, the phone silent when she finally wrestled it out of her mother's hands.


There were other pictures of Karina, and many of them better composed, but this was the one that went on the wall, the last one she'd see before she reached the living room, in just the spot marked by the setting sun. It was the one Karina saw when she visited the next day with her new girlfriend Christine, and she put a soft hand on Susana's shoulder when she walked past it. They invited Susana to a dinner party with them, but she shook her head and when they left she stayed rooted in the same hallway spot, staring at Karina's half-closed eyes for what seemed like forever.


The day after Karina's visit Susana forgot her phone at home, and spent most of the morning down by the lake capturing the old men playing chess, so when she got back the news had been laid out for hours. Christine's voice leaving the message was steady; she said nothing but asked Susana to call right away. But Susana knew. She sat in the armchair, the photo in her lap, fingers smudging Karina's face, while she listened to the story that made no sense.

“They said she hit the wall at 80 miles an hour, at least. They're going to do tests but those cops knew her, and they told me she must've been drunk. But I asked them if they found any alcohol in the car and they said no. They said she could've gone to a bar. Susana, she had four years sober. You know she was sober.”

Susana could only nod. The glass was getting wet. She brought the photo to Karina's funeral too, and set it on the casket. Karina's parents embraced her, a long soft hug that opened her chest and pulled out sobs she couldn't fight back. She collapsed into the pew, not even sure whose hands were clutching hers, whose arms were bearing her up.


She spent a lot of time at home the next few weeks. She had shoots and she canceled them, or she farmed them out to her old roommate Jeremy, and she told Framed she was sick. She slept on the sofa in fits and starts, wrapped in her pink knitted afghan, under a painting that Karina had bought for her. It was the Virgen de Guadalupe, restyled into a pair of labia, and for years it had held court above her      bed, vanishing from the walls when either mother came to visit. It was staying up permanently now. Her mother kept calling, never leaving a message, but trying again a day later, a gentle tug. After her fourth try Susana finally picked up.


“Baby, I wanted to tell you I'm so sorry about your friend.”

The phone actually dropped from her hand, and she sprang and just caught it before it clattered on the floor and into her mother's ear.


“I … I don't always know how to talk to you, mami. I mess up a lot, I know. You know I didn't like that girl” – and here Susana moved the phone away from her ear, a well-practiced move – “but she was real special to you. And she was so young. I keep thinking about her parents. It's a terrible thing to bury your children.”


So there it was. Words for the loss, but nothing for the love, nothing to mark what it had meant to finally want to hold onto someone, for the way she'd lain in the warm outlines left in the sheets after Karina had left the bed, for the easy weight of Karina's curled hand in her lap, the perfect fit of her head on Susana's shoulder. For her mother, Karina would always be “your friend.” She felt for the knot in her chest, loosened it, but left it there all the same. They made plans to meet for breakfast the next Sunday. She slept in her bed that night, waking only twice, taking each time a swig of vodka from the bottle she kept for emergencies, and rolling back into an uneasy sleep, with dreams she couldn't quite remember.


The Saturday before her mother's visit had been a bad week. She'd made it into Framed only twice, and farmed out another photo shoot to Jeremy. She spent most of Saturday reorganizing the photo hallway

again, letting the landscapes and nature shots have the dead space right by the door, her portraits and    candids the biggest space in the middle. The family shots got a narrow sliver just before the end of the hall. The ones of her brothers were easy enough to put up, and a shot of everyone together would never come for this family. But she found a great picture of her mother, two tattoos and thirty pounds ago, at Susana's graduation. She had her wide, charming smile, and she was wearing her daughter's cap and gown. The frame neatly cut off the full glass of wine in her other hand. It had been one of Susana's first portfolio shots, long-since surpassed by better ones, but she found a beautiful matting and frame for it. It fit perfectly in the spot where Karina's picture had hung.


Susana's doorbell never had worked, so her older brother's loud knocks on the doorframe on Sunday morning rattled the whole place. He was the only one besides Susana who even talked to their mother anymore, and it was his number that the hospital had called. The neighbors in their mother's apartment complex had heard her little dog, Cholo, yapping incessantly since just after midnight, and after it had gone on long enough they knew something must be wrong.


“Mom was obsessed with that dog. She walked it four times a day no matter how, um, sick she was feeling. So the manager let them in, finally, and she was right there on the floor.  She'd probably been dead for hours. They said it was instant, she didn't even probably feel anything.”

“But she never had heart problems before.”

“She had high blood pressure though. She didn't do shit for it, she just kept on eating her carnitas and smoking her cigarettes. I tried to get her to stop, but she told me it was better than ---”

“--- the alternative,” Susana finished for her brother, who gave her a grateful look.


The photos were the first to come down. They went carefully into tissue paper and into boxes marked “Fragile,” next to the boxes with the paintings and the breakables from her shelves.  She was moving back into her old room at Jeremy's place, and he came to help wrap kitchen stuff while the realtor showed the apartment to a young couple.


“It's been such a bad year.  I was doing so well just a few months ago. I was finally living in my own place, I got such a good deal here, and I was starting to make good money, and then ...”

Jeremy's hands closed over hers, but she could see the discomfort in his eyes.


“Maybe this is the universe telling me I'm not supposed to live alone.”

“I don't think so. You'll find your way again.”

She shook her head. She'd heard that one before too. He left not long after, and the couple smiled apologetically while she squeezed around them to pile more boxes in the hallway.

“It's such a cute little place … do you mind if I ask why you're moving?” the woman asked, and Susana could see the realtor's eyes loom horrified over the woman's head. She gripped the lid of a box before she spoke.

“I couldn't really afford it any more. But it's a great place, really.” She forced a fake smile and caught the realtor's look of apology.

“This hallway gets great light in the afternoon. It's a really nice spot for putting up pictures.”









© The Acentos Review 2014