I never saw mothballs or cabbage in Angelica’s apartment, but that didn't keep the pink walls of her Buenos Aires living room from having the ferocious sting of naphthalene and fetid cabbage. It was that same smell that made me wince as I opened the armoire in Angelica's spare bedroom, where I was to tuck away my clothes and valuables; the smell was strange and unsettling when you're in Argentina and you're ten. The smell intensifies behind the doors of closed cabinets and hutches when there are no visitors to entertain. It smells funny here and the people move too fast, and everyone already knows me but I don't know them at all, is what I had already planned to tell my mother when she called from California.
“La hora del té, nena.”
I was called to teatime, five o’clock. The ting of the cathedral bells sounded wildly and a cloak of cloud matter rose off the river to shroud the lower districts; La Boca, San Telmo, the neglected port. We had a layered view of the city's tops from Angelica's twelfth-story window. My eyes narrowed toward the florid details of baroque buildings, the crowning adornments of the basilicas, tried hard to avoid the water tanks, peeling paint, and collected garbage on the rooftops below me, because they had an unfamiliar ugliness and frailty. I couldn’t control my eyes when they spotted cats or pigeons on the rooftops, though. Those were familiar and sort of suburban to me, to a degree.
“Nena, tomá tu asiento.”
Angelica wanted me to take my seat. She hardly knew me and already she was giving me instructions, telling me what to do. Her assuredness in knowing me made her wobbly and gargled voice all the more repugnant to me when I'd here her call for me. My grandmother, whom Angelica always introduced as her best friend, encouraged her and chided me when I buried myself in a book, pretending not to here anything. I had always felt my grandmother was my closest confidant, after all, she had moved to California to raise me and be with me. Now there was this Angelica woman, crowning the head of her French mahogany dining table, smacking down on a crustless soggy sandwich.
Angelica had assigned me a teacup, a plain one, albeit a very fine porcelain one. All her teacups were dainty and little. I watched her pour the honey-colored liquid into my cup, my grandmother’s cup, then hers. Her cup was the prettiest, the most ornate. Her thick fingers and yellowed nails looked insulting, vulgar as she wrapped them around the milky, almost transparent cup. Yelí’s face was round and meaty, her eyes watery, her hair a wild and fiery red. She claimed to be a model when she was twenty, but then a headboard fell on her face and broke the bridge of her nose, so she became a doctor. "I was a female Alexander Fleming," she said over the honking of taxis that rose into the room through the brittle windows. And she sighed after saying this, to emphasize how obvious this statement should be.
She told good stories. One time, she seduced Juan Peron while Evita (she called her Eva) was out of town. Peron fell in love with Yeli at first glance. There was another story was about her theories on why she thought my godmother was working for the CIA. "Why do you think she travels to North America all the time? Who do you think is paying for all her expenses, especially when she doesn't have a husband to support her?"
I have lived a life of fortune and well-deserved notability. She said this with her unperished confidence, her surprisingly dainty hands dancing across her sagging bust as she gargled. The reality was that she had survived a lot of misfortunes and ....
(Husband- alcoholic, tried to go out window)
One sunny winter's day, while sitting under blankets and watching pigeons dance on the sill, Yelí announced it was almost time for tea. "Tea is a staple and a pastime" as she opened the hutch that housed her finer china. "All ladies should know how to set a table for teatime." I figured she wanted me to watch her set the table, so I got up and shyly watched her arrange the china in a neat pattern. Then she went back to the hutch and paused with a cup and saucer in her hand.
"This one is really old," she said, "it's an antique."
The ivory cup had a curly handle, almost in the shape of a leaf, and scalloped edges, on the top and the bottom where the cup met its matching saucer. Tiny dots of gold leaf, almost Braille-like, studded the tops of green leaves and faint white blossoms. The scalloped saucer had looked like an alabaster lily pad, and bore an important-looking seal on the bottom. The cup and saucer reminded me of a fairy, or a distinguished garden, like nothing that existed in the California suburb where I had grown up. I suddenly realized that it was the age of the pieces in her apartment, the pieces of her life that had weathered the trial of time, that mesmerized me about Yelí’s apartment the most. Her teacups can still evoke this feeling, I’m certain.
"Do you like this one?"
It's my favorite, I thought.
"If you hold it up to the light, you can see that it is of the finest quality," and she held the teacup sideways in front of her smoggy window, showing me how the light filtered through the delicate porcelain.
"I will wash this one for you and put it in a box for you to take home to North America. This one will be yours but you have to promise me that you will serve tea in your house when you grow up to be a fine lady."
I blushed and smiled and kissed her soft flabby cheek, and sat at her grand table for tea.
In the summers when I clean out my hutch, or when my grandmother comes over for tea and I’m setting the patterns down on the table, I pick up the cup , follow the glistening gold leaf dots with me fingers, and it them up to my nose to see if they still smell like mothballs, or cabbage.