After five years of living in Manhattan I realize there is nothing more beautiful than an afternoon in mid-September, when the sky is the color of lavender and the light behind the clouds is opalescent, heavenly. Everything in the city comes back to life in autumn, and that includes the tertulias in Isabela's apartment. This is the first one of the season, and after so much traveling in August, we are anxious to catch up. I'm the only one who didn't go away; as usual, I didn't have sufficient funds. So, whether I intended to or not, I explored my city and learned a little more about it. For instance, where to go to escape the suffocating pollution that drapes every corner (the Boat Basin off Riverside Drive at 79th Street), how to sleep in a room whose windows are painted shut, without air conditioning (with ice-soaked towels covering legs and stomach and a fan), what to eat on next to nothing (iceberg lettuce chopped finely with a carrot, cucumber, and a slice of turkey), and even where to go to meet nice men (definitely the eleven o'clock service at almost any church; my preference is Riverside).
Our Sunday afternoon ritual of catching up invigorates the pace of our month. We gossip, recount favorite stories, and I get an earful of advice. There is a lot of teasing. The conversation seems to fall out faster than a dip of castanets. We jump from topic to topic so freely that at times I can tell who is saying what or why. We're just so happy to be back. Meanwhile, Isabela conducts the flow of our voices with the artistry of Zubin Mehta, using her solid hands to bring one of our voices higher or lower, depending on which is more in tune with her way of thinking. She definitely has a few ideas about my most pressing concern of the moment: I just can't seem to get ahead in my career. No matter how hard I work, or how much effort I put into all the aspects of my job, nothing changes the fact that I'm still a paralegal making very little money. I keep asking myself how this can be. Wasn't I the girl about whom everyone would say, "Claire, you'll be a star someday?" In college all my diligent work led to success. Excellent grades and praise from professors. I was good with people, a manager and leader. Involved with student government, I had a flair for bringing disparate groups together on campus, fraternity brutes and overachieving scholar types, students whose worldly airs rubbed Middle American innocents the wrong way, the joiners of every dub and committee and the loners who studied on Saturday nights in the library basement. And I believed, that's the thing, I really believed that I would be recognized outside of college in the very same way. I thought that being a woman in our enlightened society would be no different, in terms of achieving success, than being a man.
So how can I explain why my boss said recently, "I can't give you a raise on your good looks, Claire," when I asked him for a modest increase in my low salary? I had just been given someone else's job--coordinating assignments in the translations department of the law firm--in addition to my own. The guy who had this responsibility before me was being paid twice as much as I am now, and I have two jobs to do. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my gift for languages and ability to speak Spanish, German, and French would get me into trouble in such a tony law firm.
On my way to Isabela's, I am still furious thinking about that sexist comment. It seems to me that when a woman is young, people tell her that she lacks stature, that she's too inexperienced to be taken seriously. As she grows older, they say she shouldn't complain too much about work ("Be nice!") because there is so much competition from younger women bubbling over with energy. My heart aches at the thought. Isabela and her friends, of course, always have a way of setting me straight, telling me to buck up or eat right or concentrate on the positive. Isabela, especially, seems to thrive on offering her opinions.
Isabela - Claire, my dear, if you want to get ahead you have to fight; otherwise you'd be sitting in a chair doing the same thing all your life. Yes, yes, you know that. But by fighting I don't mean being aggressive in your conversation or your actions. You can fight by using your charms. A smile here, a smile there. Being a good listener, asking questions, Knowing how to dance can't hurt, either. I think a woman needs a little angel and a little duende to get by in this world. You need to be sweet and you need to be hot as a jalapeño. Así, lo es. Nobody, for example, can charm people like my cousin Celinda and at the same time get exactly what she wants. And she is so smart! When she left Cuba, she couldn't take anything with her, just the clothes on her back. But Celinda had an extremely good idea. She gathered together all her Colombian emeralds and her sisters' diamond jewelry and had the jeweler in her town take the stones from their settings. But how to smuggle out this wealth without arousing the suspicion of the authorities? She had to find a receptacle of sorts that no one would dream of looking into or coming near. Do you know what she did with all those stones? She put them in her baby's dirty diapers! When they were at the airport and the officers were checking everyone, not one of them would come near her baby, Alejandrito, that day. In fact, those big strong men were pinching their oh-so-sensitive noses.