For Carmen and Izzy.
I met Nani in the fall of 1985 at an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, DC. She came with my friends James and Carole. She was slight in stature but striking in appearance: dressed in black, with medium-length dark hair, cut in a slant across her face, and dark, expressive eyes. Sitting down opposite me, she seemed slightly bewildered, as if asking, “How did I end up here, in this place, with these people?” She spoke little English, and that with a thick accent. She would later recall that I wore a sport coat with white canvas sneakers, a combination she found very American. I remember looking at her eyes and thinking that they were looking back at me. The four of us ate and talked; later, we went out dancing.
I realize now that James and Carole were trying to set us up, though it didn’t occur to me at the time. James and I had been to college together and then to East Africa, where we both taught school. A group of us from Davidson, all teaching in Kenya, spent our holidays together there, and many of us ended up in DC when we came back. In the months since I returned, I had worked as a limo driver for Reagan’s second inaugural and made phone calls for the National Symphony Orchestra, selling subscription packages. Later, I got a job at The Monocle, a restaurant on Capitol Hill, waiting tables during the lunch and dinner shifts. I made good tips and enjoyed the motley crew of waiters, bartenders, and busboys who worked there. In the mornings, I tried to write – essays, book reviews, stories – for no one in particular, with no great end in sight, in an apartment on the fringes of Capitol Hill, 612 F Street, NE, which I shared with Mark, another friend from Davidson and Kenya.
Nani, meanwhile, was working as a nanny for a family in Chevy Chase; the mother was Carole’s aunt. She had come to the United States only a few weeks earlier – unfortunately, without a work permit. At Kennedy airport, federal agents found a letter in her bag with employment terms from the family in Chevy Chase. She would have to report to an immigration judge, they told her; she should probably get a lawyer. It was an inauspicious beginning to her American adventure.
At the time, she was twenty-five years old, a student of psychology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, from a small village in Extremadura, where her tight-knit family lived under the shadow of a medieval castle. She came to the US, she told me, to learn English. Later, she would say it was to get away – from what, I never really knew.
That night in Adams Morgan, I found her enigmatic and beautiful. When I woke the next morning, she was the first thing I thought of. “Nani,” I said to myself, playing with the sound of her name as it came out of my mouth.
What happened next I don’t remember. Did I call James and ask for her number? Did he call me? Did she and I meet for coffee or a drink? I know this: in late October of that year, my roommate and I threw a big Halloween party at our apartment on F Street, inviting everyone we knew. We purchased food and drink, made mix tapes for dancing, and filled the place, literally, with leaves, thousands and thousands of leaves, which we collected from the streets and yards outside. I don’t know where we got the idea; the festivity of it, the extravagance, doesn’t sound like me. I must have been trying to impress someone.
However it transpired, within a few weeks, Nani and I were inseparable. Able to communicate only fitfully, word by word, gesture by gesture, we were nonetheless drawn to each other. By the third time we met, we practically ran into each other’s arms. Soon, we were together whenever we weren’t working. Most nights, after the dinner shift at The Monocle, after the children were in bed in Chevy Chase, one of us traveled to the other, or we met somewhere in between, for coffee and a late dinner.
On Sundays, we spent the whole day together, luxuriating in the nearly numberless hours ahead of us. We would roam the city, using the Red Line as our private conveyance, riding back and forth from Union Station to Chevy Chase, stopping at Dupont Circle or Cleveland Park, Chinatown or Adams Morgan, and letting the long escalators glide us up to the street. And then we would walk – often with no real destination, stopping only to sit on a bench, wander through a museum, or see a movie.
We drank a lot of coffee. In 1985, America was just beginning to drink good coffee, in places that specialized in it. I had developed a taste for it in France, my junior year of college; Nani, a Spaniard, came to it naturally. Sitting in a coffee shop was a cheap date, of course, and a good way to get out of the cold. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the inside of a DC coffee shop one rainy afternoon in late 1985: we’re in Foggy Bottom or Dupont Circle, and I’m walking towards a table where Nani is sitting with a cup. Was I bringing her a napkin, some sugar? As quickly as it appears, the memory fades . . .
We got in the habit of writing down words the other didn’t understand – they would often make more sense visually than aurally. We wrote on whatever was at hand: newspapers, credit card receipts, table tops. To this day, I have a yellow bar menu from a Georgetown restaurant called The Saloon: on one side is a list of beers and “munchies”; on the other side, Spanish words in Nani’s handwriting: a complete conjugation of the verb “trabajar,” a lesson on the b/v sound in Castilian (“baca,” “vaso,” “Habana”), and a random proverb: “Barriga llena, corazón contento.” In my handwriting are the phrases “la mesa bonita,” “el suelo bonito,” and “la nani ‘best,’” with an arrow pointing, I assume, in her direction. I was doing more flirting than learning, I fear.
At night, after a day with Nani, I would pull paper napkins out of my pockets, filled with the words we showed each other that day: “El Hito,” “Raleigh,” “la Puerta del Sol.” On December 8, 1985, a Sunday, I wrote this on a piece of paper, which I saved:
Nani and I spent the whole day together. We have learned somehow to communicate to each other, despite her weak English and my nonexistent Spanish. I don’t like talking to her on the phone; but somehow in person – with our hands and eyes, sometimes our whole bodies, we can say to each other almost anything. We are teaching each other our languages: over coffee in little places all over town, we write down words on sugar packets and paper napkins. But the words, really, are not important: she likes to walk, stop for coffee, and sit awhile. And so do I.
We claimed all Washington as ours. In Dupont Circle, we browsed the paperbacks at KramerBooks and ate French fries at Zorba’s Café. On Capitol Hill, we went to The Tune Inn for burgers and beer and listened to Patsy Cline on the jukebox. In Cleveland Park, we roamed the Zoo. In Georgetown, we ate omelets at Au Pied de Cochon, a bistro on Wisconsin Avenue where the city’s European expats hung out; there we met other Spaniards, cultured and stylish. And we went out all over town with my friends – James, Mark, Steve, Rob, and their girlfriends; Nani found them sweet and funny. My older brother, also called Mark, lived on Capitol Hill a few blocks from me, on Massachusetts Avenue, NE; we sometimes met him and his girlfriend Julie for drinks or dinner.
There’s much I can’t remember from that time. But one thing is indelible, an image so vivid it feels like yesterday: Nani and I walking down a city street, in the cold. She’s wearing a long black coat, a cigarette in her hand; we are free of worries and responsibilities, the whole day before us, and we are walking – somewhere, nowhere, anywhere – our arms linked, the way she walked with loved ones.
In January, 1986, I got a “real” job. My morning writing had paid off. During the course of 1985, I had sold or published none of it, but when I decided I no longer wanted to be a waiter, I used it to chart a new path for myself. In December, 1985, I applied for an editorial position at a small non-profit called the Youth Policy Institute, a former project of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. It tracked federal policy regarding the young – education, employment, juvenile justice – and published periodicals on those topics. Its offices were on the campus of the Catholic University of America, right on the Red Line, a few stops north of where I lived. It was run by an old friend of Robert Kennedy, named David Hackett, and staffed by poorly-paid, hard-working young people. One of those young people liked a book review I had written about Winnie Mandela, whose husband Nelson, in 1985, was still in prison in South Africa. When they called a few days later, the Institute not only offered me a job, they wanted to print the review in one of their publications.
I’ll never forget how happy Nani was for me. It was the start of an exciting eighteen months at YPI. I worked hard, learned much, admired my boss, and made many friends – if not a lot of money. Best of all, I was now on a Monday-Friday, 9-5 schedule. When deadlines struck, we had late nights, of course; but weekends were free, and I spent them with Nani. I started to show her the United States – well, mainly North Carolina, with trips here and there to Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and New York.
On Fridays, we would rent a car and take off. Looking at old photographs, I count nine trips we took in 1986 alone. Our first, in February, was to the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia. We stayed in a little red cabin somewhere near Winchester and went hiking. I have photos of us chopping wood. Later, we went camping on Chincoteague Island in Maryland. I borrowed a tent from Steve, but I didn’t know what I was doing, and during a very windy night, it collapsed on top of us. (It was the first and last camping trip Nani and I ever took.)
In April, more successfully, I took her to North Carolina, where I was raised and where the rest of my family lived. Did we go to Raleigh? I don’t remember. I know we took the Cedar Island ferry to Ocracoke because I have photos from the National Seashore there, the two of us alone on a chilly spring day. We then drove up the Outer Banks, through Nags Head, into Virginia and back to DC. Nani loved seafood – I’m sure we stopped somewhere for shrimp or fish.
What did she think of the forlorn places I took her to that winter? A European, she no doubt gravitated towards city centers, bars and cafes, public squares, places of talk and music, life and humanity. Me? I headed for isolated mountain passes and lonely beaches. Did we acknowledge that difference between us? did we even recognize it? We wanted, I think, just to be together and were content with very simple things: a day without rain, a late-night meal, a well-lit bookstore.
We loved movies; I remember watching Hannah and her Sisters and Out of Africa with her that year. We saw Last Tango in Paris on a VCR in her bedroom. She introduced me to the films of Carlos Saura and Pedro Almodóvar, which we saw at the Biograph in Georgetown.
We gave each other little gifts: finger puppets and paper flowers. And we exchanged written notes, hundreds of them, many of which I have kept. Most are too private to share, but in Middlebury on October 11, I read one to a small group of family and friends. It was written on tissue paper, which Nani had used to wrap a book of poems she gave me, sometime in 1985 or 1986. In blue ink, it reads:
When I was 6 years old
I heard how my father was reciting a poem.
It looked to me very beautiful . . .
He explained me a little about the poetry —
I didn’t understand anything
. . . but I decided . . . “I will be poet.”
During many years, I was convinced
with this idea . . . but one day
I forgot my dream.
I have never written a poem . . .
“BUT IT COULD HAVE BEEN BEAUTIFUL.”
Don’t you think so?
I have found a note in my own handwriting from this time, written for but never given to Nani, and formatted like a poem:
If only this were Spanish
So it would go straight to your heart
And not stop first at your brain.
When I write, you must translate
When I speak, you have my eyes
(You see in them my heart
and don’t need every word.)
Meanwhile, I was learning about Valladolid and Alburquerque, Madrid and Badajoz, places I knew nothing about, with histories completely new to me. I read books about Spain and took my first Spanish language class, which met at night in a room at the Department of Agriculture, just off the Mall. I bought a laminated card with Spanish verbs and studied it while riding the Metro. And I began to imagine actually going to Spain, seeing that castle on the hill, meeting the people Nani talked about, sitting in the sun at El Hito. Sometime in 1986, I wrote this note to myself:
I dreamed, in one of those first little dream snippets before you really fall asleep, that Europe came over in the middle of the night, I mean the whole continent, and I quietly slipped over, looking back once I was across to see if anyone had seen me. Then the continent moved back to where it belonged, and I realized I was in Spain and hadn’t paid a cent for airfare.
On June 1, 1986, Nani and I moved into our own apartment at 408 Independence Avenue, SE, on Capitol Hill, right behind the Library of Congress. We paid $500 a month for it. For me, it was a move from one side of the Hill to another. For Nani, it was more momentous – she was committing to another year in the United States and would be living full-time with a man she had known for only seven or eight months. She would also be moving into the city and, perhaps most dramatically of all, quitting her job as a nanny and leaving the family in Chevy Chase. She would have to find work, of course. To make ends meet, we needed more than the $12,000 a year I made at YPI, low even then for a job at a non-profit.
For a few weeks that spring, Nani cleaned houses, but soon she found restaurant jobs that she liked better. The first was at The Fish Market, a rowdy seafood place on M Street in Georgetown, famous for its large schooners of beer. At the time, DC had the lowest drinking age in the region, and Georgetown in particular was a magnet for young partiers from Virginia and Maryland. The whole thing made me anxious: I was worried customers wouldn’t be nice to her, they wouldn’t understand her accent, she wouldn’t understand their orders. I worried about the drunk teenagers, obnoxious and rude, stiffing her on tips and making fun of the way she spoke English.
I was relieved when, a few weeks later, she got a job at The Monocle, closer to our apartment and with people I knew and trusted. I worried about her there, too, of course, but the clientele was older, more polite, and left better tips. What I didn’t like was her working late at night and coming home alone. The Monocle was close by, but it would be dark out, the streets empty. When I mentioned this to a friend, he reminded me that Capitol Hill was probably the most policed square mile in the world.
One night, waiting at our apartment for Nani’s shift to end, I became distraught. It was long past time for her to be back, and I hadn’t heard from her. This was before cell phones, of course. Finally, so worried I couldn’t stand it, I went out and started walking north, up First Street, toward The Monocle, looking for her. It was late on a weeknight: the area deserted, the streets dimly lit. A fog had descended, and an eerie silence pervaded, with only the faint sound of a siren in the distance. There was no one out as I peered up the street, into the darkness.
Then, suddenly, a block or two away, a vision appeared under a street light, a figure dressed in white, coming towards me. It was Nani. Only when I saw the lit cigarette in her hand and the smile on her face was the illusion dispelled. I was so happy to see her. We went home and had a late supper together.
We loved our little apartment. With practically nothing, Nani decorated it beautifully. She painted second-hand furniture, sewed curtains out of cheap fabric, made pillows for the sofa, created art for the walls. It was the first I saw of her extraordinary talent for design – furniture and clothing, jewelry and art – for making something stunning out of what appeared to be nothing. Because of her touch, the apartment on Independence Avenue was much nicer than my bachelor pad on F Street. We had a dinner party for my YPI co-workers; friends from Spain visited, sleeping in the living room; my brother Lee came up from North Carolina.
Despite its location, just blocks from the Capitol, right behind the Library of Congress, the neighborhood was residential, leafy, though there were businesses nearby. There was a Chinese restaurant around the corner; it’s where I came to like Hot and Sour soup and Tsingtao beer. There was a little store on the next block – I remember buying Pepperidge Farm cookies there. Eastern Market was a few blocks away, a nice Saturday stroll. The Tune Inn was even closer than before. And there was a place on Pennsylvania Avenue where we liked to go for brunch, though I can’t remember its name. We also began to cook for each other: me badly, she skillfully. I made toast and coffee for us in the morning, a habit that would endure for years. And, with a second-hand wok, I learned to make chicken and vegetable stir-fry. Nani made fried eggs and potatoes late at night. My brother Mark loved her pasta alla carbonara.
Today, a quarter of a century later, DC seems crowded, expensive, hard-edged to me. I remember a different place, more intimate and accessible. The summers were unpleasant, with the tourists and the heat; but the rest of the year, at night and on weekends especially, it felt like our town: familiar, easily-compassed, horizontal rather than vertical. We moved easily through it. That’s what I remember more than anything: the way we’d go to a museum on the Mall in the morning, get lunch in Dupont Circle in the afternoon, walk to Georgetown for a drink in the evening. There was something elegant about it: graceful, noiseless, discrete, even as you knew important things were going on.
I never got over my amazement at the museums and monuments, the parks and zoos: all free. We avoided them in the summer; but the rest of the year, Nani and I treated them as our private reserve, dedicated to our rest and education. For the young and cash-poor: they were a wonder. And there were little hideaways for the observant: in a west wing courtyard of the National Gallery of Art, I often ate my lunch and read in the green shade. On weekdays in the off-season, the place would be deserted; on weekends, Nani and I would stop to rest in the course of long, cross-city walks.
Of course, there was trouble around us – we sensed it. The apartment on F Street, on the edges of Capitol Hill, was next to a neighborhood that had never completely recovered from the ’68 riots. We saw another Washington there, one that, understandably, resented our presence. And yet, one Sunday in 1985, my roommate Mark and I went to an African-American church in our neighborhood and were treated with such kindness, such hospitality, that we talked about it for days afterward. Later, at YPI, I tried to wrap my head around what was happening in neighborhoods like that, in a country like ours: with a doddering old man in the White House and crack cocaine flooding the backstreets.
Our DC, I confess, was confined and cocooned, privileged in ways that I’m sure we didn’t recognize, even with the little money we had.
That summer and fall, of 1986, Nani and I traveled more than ever. I took her to my family’s cabin in the mountains of North Carolina multiple times that year. I knew before that she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the outdoors, but that summer, after a canoe trip down the New River, when we saw several water snakes, she confided that it was too much for her; next time, she said, she would stay in the cabin and read while the rest of us went out. So, I began to scale back the “wilder” parts of our life – though I never let her off the hook entirely when it came to hiking.
In September, we flew down to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where I had been sent, all expenses paid, to cover a National Governors Association meeting. I interviewed Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton and listened in on panel discussions about education reform. When I wasn’t in meetings, Nani and I took long walks on the beach. One night, there was a party for journalists and their guests, with free beer, live music, and all the oysters you could eat – Nani was in heaven, though she suffered for it the next day.
Later that month, we visited New York City with friends from Spain. And a few weeks after that, Nani’s parents came. They realized that something was going on with their daughter, who was staying in the US longer than expected and talking about some American named David. German and Carmina were not world travelers – they left a farm, a veterinary practice, a house, and the rest of their children and grandchildren to see what their wayward daughter was up to. We spent two weeks with them, visiting New York City, DC, and North Carolina. They met my boss, David Hackett, and visited the Roman Catholic basilica near YPI’s offices. They met my brother and his fiancée Julie. And, while I was working, they saw the sights of Washington and spent time with Nani. At night, we all went out. They enjoyed meeting Nani’s Spanish friends at Au Pied de Cochon. I still remember going up to their hotel room one night and watching as Carmina laid out German’s slippers by the bed.
But nothing impresses me more than the fact that we rented a car and drove to North Carolina so German and Carmina, from Alburquerque, Spain, could meet the Flemings of Raleigh, NC. But it happened! They slept in my bedroom on St. Mary’s Street – they ate at a Cameron Village restaurant where my brother Lee worked – they visited my father’s medical practice. Most stunning of all, we drove up to the mountains and stayed at our cabin in Laurel Springs – eating lunch in Sparta, visiting the NC State experimental farm near West Jefferson, sitting on Wildcat Rocks in Doughton Park.
During those two weeks, I realized how far my Spanish still had to go. It was one thing to practice vocabulary words with my class at the Department of Agriculture, or query Nani on this or that verb; it was another to have a conversation with two native speakers who knew no English. But I tried. In any case, the trip was a success: Carmina and German left happy, I think: they saw that Nani was loved, that I came from a good family, that we had a nice life in DC.
One night while they were here, we took a taxi down to the Mall. It was a cool October evening. We got out near the Albert Einstein statue on Constitution Avenue and walked over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, only a few years old but already very popular. I told German and Carmina the story of Maya Lin and the controversy surrounding the Memorial; and we walked slowly past the 50,000 names. Then, at the western end, we looked up and saw Lincoln in the distance. In the nighttime, he is an impressive sight. We walked towards that Memorial, climbing its many steps, and looking out over the bright city under a star-filled sky. Although Nani and her friends in DC were never shy about pointing out America’s flaws, I was proud of my country that night. Even Nani seemed a little in awe of it.
In Georgetown one afternoon, we took Carmina to get her hair done. On the spur of the moment, Nani decided to have hers curled. The hairdresser was Spanish, and the women were animated and talkative, enjoying themselves. German and I sat by the door and watched. When she was finished, Nani looked so different that it was a little unsettling. I eventually got used to the haircut – it would be the only time in her life that she curled her hair – but I never forgot the moment when I first saw it. Months later, I wrote a poem about it:
When you curled your hair, I saw
The passing of a time, and you,
That I was just beginning to
Find for myself a home in.
Now I see those days in your eyes,
The dark where I once looked for you,
That, with mine, led our goings to
The sand and snow and touch we found.
In all our places and my heart
You know how much I love you:
The nervousness and the calm too,
And the hair curling down your face.
A few weeks after her parents left, on October 29, 1986, at a courthouse in downtown DC, Nani and I were married by a justice of the peace. We did it because we loved each other – but also, frankly, to fix her immigration problems and to please our families. (For the two weeks of their visit, we hid from Nani’s deeply Catholic parents that we were living together, a difficult, sometimes awkward feat.) Neither one of us was especially religious, and we had no money or interest in a big wedding. We would eventually have a church wedding in Spain, but we always celebrated October 29 as our anniversary.
We bought gold wedding bands from a little place downtown, more pawn shop than jewelry store. The rings were small and cheap, $50 each including engraving. I would realize years later that I never gave Nani an engagement ring; I think it was always a disappointment to her. At the time, I don’t think I even thought of it; I was so clueless about so much. In any case, to me, the little gold rings were perfect. In mine, we had engraved “TE QUIERO NANI”; in hers, “I LOVE YOU DAVID.”
We invited a few friends: James and Carole, Steve and Anne, a couple from Spain we had met in DC, and my brother Mark and his fiancée Julie. We told my parents a day or two before; my father surprised us by flying in from Raleigh that morning. After the ceremony, he took us all out for lunch at a nearby restaurant. My mother, her sister, and some close friends celebrated in Raleigh with a cake.
In many of the photos taken that day, there is an undeniable sadness in Nani’s eyes. I’ve always noticed it, though I’m not sure I was aware of it at the time. It’s a hard thing to admit: that on your wedding day, your partner doesn’t look especially happy. Was she homesick for her family? for Spain? Was it all just too uneventful – the cheap rings and fluorescent lighting? Or was she having second thoughts about me? Nani’s adventure in the US had now turned into a narrow line stretching into the future. Over the previous year, we had both changed: she now spoke decent, if not perfect, English; she had a job; she was more confident; and we were keeping house together, sharing responsibilities, depending on each other, even as we were each trying to figure out our own lives.
At YPI, I had begun to develop some ambition – for what, I didn’t yet know – but I was starting to think about graduate school and beyond. Unfortunately, the field I chose would offer few opportunities for study or work in Spain. As for my Spanish, it would never progress past a certain level, a disappointment to both of us. My circle of friends, meanwhile, would narrow as my career took more out of me. A solitary streak from childhood would reemerge. With Nani, I could be cold, unfeeling, childish.
And she? What I thought at first simple homesickness revealed itself eventually as depression, a sadness that was sometimes so bleak as to alarm me. It was something that I had no experience with, that I didn’t know how to deal with. And I didn’t always react to it well: I resented the dark view she sometimes had of the world. Why couldn’t she be happy with the life we were building? why wasn’t that enough? why couldn’t she just cheer up? It’s nearly unbearable to think about now.
There’s a story by Henry James, called “The Middle Years,” in which the main character, Dencombe, a middle-aged writer, finds himself at a turning point late in his life. After years of toil, of mediocrity, he has finally begun to see what he is capable of and how to accomplish it. If much of his previous life had been wasted, he’s ready, finally, to make amends, to take advantage of the opportunities before him. With another chance, there’s no telling what he could do! “I want another go,” he says to a friend. “I want an extension.” Alas, it’s too late; Dencombe is dying. There will be no extension, no other go. “A second chance,” he realizes, “that’s the delusion. There never was to be but one.”
After the wedding, our guests dispersed to their workplaces – it was a Wednesday, after all. Nani and I went back to the apartment on Independence Avenue, with my father, and made phone calls, had some coffee, read the paper. That night, she seemed happier. We went to James and Carole’s for dinner and a party. They had placed lighted candles, dozens and dozens of them, all over the apartment and turned off all the other lights. There was music and merriment. We ate, drank champagne, and danced. Later, we took pictures in the candlelight. In a life full of photos, they are some of my favorites.
For our honeymoon, our DC friends chipped in and gave us a weekend in the country, at a bed & breakfast in Fredericksburg, Virginia. After Christmas in DC and North Carolina, we began 1987 with a vague plan. We would go to Spain that summer, and, in the fall, I would start graduate school in North Carolina. But there was still half a year before us in DC.
I have two vivid memories of that winter and spring. In late February, DC was hit by a huge snowstorm; the city got over a foot of snow. Both Southerners, Nani and I had never seen anything like it. With Mark and Julie, we sledded down the U.S. Capitol steps; then we went home and stayed inside.
My other memory from that spring is of the National Gallery of Art, just down the Hill and across the Mall from our apartment. The Gallery hosted a season-long festival that year honoring the Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti. I’m not sure how we heard about it – I knew nothing of Visconti beforehand, though Nani was excited. Across several months, the director’s entire career was showcased, 14 films in all, presented in the order they were made, from the 1940s to the 1970s. The movies were free and shown on Sunday nights in the Gallery’s huge auditorium on a massive screen; before each showing there was a lecture. So, throughout that winter and spring, every Sunday evening, Nani and I walked down to the museum after dinner and watched a free movie. We saw every one, from La Terra Trema and Rocco and His Brothers to The Leopard and Death in Venice. I remember Nani watching Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, and Alain Delon in The Leopard with such delight. She had seen the movie years before, in Spain, and it was one of her favorites.
That spring was the last time Nani and I were alone together with so few responsibilities. Soon, we would be enmeshed in family – hers, mine, ours. And the following fall, I would embark on an academic career; Nani would begin hers a few years after that. But in spring, 1987, we had just each other for one last season. And it’s those Sunday nights I remember most of all. Sunday, of course, had always been our day, ever since the early months, when The Monocle was closed and the family in Chevy Chase didn’t need a nanny. Of course, we were more settled now, less frantic to touch and talk. But we still enjoyed each other. We would have dinner in our apartment and then walk down the Hill in the waning sunlight. A few hours later, sated by the film we had seen, we would walk back up the Hill in the quiet Sunday dark.
Nani and I left DC in June, 1987, taking what belongings we had to Raleigh to store in my parent’s garage and heading to Spain for a long, eventful summer. We traveled all over but lived in Alburquerque, in the house where Nani was born and raised. I learned the place well. That July, we were married in the Church of Santa Maria del Mercado. All of Nani’s family and many of her Madrid friends were there. My whole family came: my parents, all my siblings, and several of my Davidson/Kenya friends.
That summer is its own story – I can hardly do it justice here. It was a revelation to me – the world of Nani’s that I had heard so much about, that I had tried so hard to envision, but which was more intense, more strange, more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. Nani’s happiness there – her love of that village, of her family, of Spain – was evident. I remember the long hot days, the endless dinners at that big round table, the daily walks in the plaza, the mornings at El Hito, German’s pigs, the dark bedroom where we slept. Some of it was difficult: the extreme gregariousness of it all, the going out every night, the pressure to dress well, the lack of privacy. But the liveliness of that family, the delicious food and drink, the Spanish landscape, all enchanted me.
In September, we returned to the United States and, after picking up our things in Raleigh, moved to Chapel Hill, where I had a scholarship to study at the University of North Carolina. We lived in married student housing, a boon we would repeat again in other college towns. I started classes and began reading and writing earnestly. Nani got a job as a teacher’s aid at a Montessori school nearby. We became friends with a Brazilian couple with whom we walked in the evenings, through campus to Franklin Street for ice cream. And we spent time with John and Megan, old Davidson/Kenya friends, who lived now in Durham.
My head those days was full of politics – a residue of Africa, DC, Reagan, and YPI – and I tried to figure out how I could integrate that into my studies; it was only when I discovered rhetoric and composition, a subfield of English, that my future path became clear. The question now was, how would I support my family after I got the degree? In the meantime, Nani and I enjoyed our little apartment: we had music and TV shows that were “ours”; we drove to Raleigh and Laurel Springs to see my parents and siblings; we were happy, I think.
That fall, living across the hall from us was a couple, both students like me. They had a little girl named Miriam, four or five years old. She often played in the hallway outside our apartment; she was smart and talkative, with short brown hair cut straight across her forehead.
One night, a few months after we moved in, I dreamed that I saw Miriam riding her tricycle in the parking lot outside. In the dream, I looked down from our living room window and saw her pedaling in the moonlight. As I watched, she turned into our parking space, which was empty, and rode slowly up to the curb, stopping when her front wheel could go no further. She raised her head and looked up at me, eyes bright.
In the morning, I told Nani my dream.
In memory of Juana Gamero de Coca,
Nov. 12, 1959 – Oct. 7, 2017