“Sorry, I’m not sure I understand,” he said. “Did you—?”
“I’m getting off at the next station. Would you like to come with me?”
Domingo looked at the woman. He’d seen her walk by those other nights and he’d never thought she’d speak to him. When he’d tried to talk to a girl on the subway the previous year, she’d recoiled. Domingo couldn’t blame her. He did look grubby. And now this pretty woman was chatting him up. Who was he to imagine a babe of that sort was gonna give him the time of day?
He nodded. He’d never been a lucky guy, but maybe he was in luck today.
Her apartment building was located just a few blocks from a busy intersection. It looked rather run down, a box of bricks built in the ’50s that had not been updated. The tiles that had once decorated its fa?ade might have been green and lively in the beginning, but they were now a muddled brown. Many of them had slid off, revealing the naked cement beneath. The apartment’s name was written on a plaque by the entrance, but someone had defaced it.
Though he was reluctant to part with it, Domingo left his shopping cart near the front door of the building. People stole your shit if you didn’t keep an eye on it. Garbage pickers were notorious for it. You could spend hours gathering glass bottles only to come back and discover they’d disappeared. That’s why you kept your stuff close. Domingo didn’t think he could ask her if they could take the cart into her apartment, so he hid it behind the stairs and prayed nobody chucked it out.
They climbed the stairs and he noticed that the building was in better shape inside; there were tiles with cracks here and there, but some retained their original coloring. There were potted plants running down the hallway and he realized the apartments were organized around a center square. He leaned against a railing and peered down, spying the laundry area below, which had stone sinks and several clotheslines.
“Hey, you haven’t told me your name,” he said when they reached the fourth floor.
“Atl,” she replied, taking out her keys.
“Is that foreign? What does that mean?”
“No. It’s from the Nahuatl language. You know. What they call Aztec. It means ‘water.’”
It was an odd name but it was pretty. It suited her. He thought her voice sounded like water, like a stream filled with pebbles, though he’d never seen a real stream in his life. All he’d had were the periodic floods in Mexico City during the rainy season, when the garbage gets stuck in the sewers and the water overflows the drainage system, creating little rivers full of debris, rotten fruit, and dog shit. The door swung open and she turned on the light. The apartment was small and empty. Atl owned a rug with some cushions on top of it, but had no couch, no television, and no table. She didn’t even have a calendar on the wall. A very big window sported garish, tattered curtains, further spoiling the place.
He thought girls had more of an interest in decorating their apartments. He pictured nice living rooms with pink curtains and neat furniture. A stuffed animal, perhaps. That’s how it looked like in the magazines, with rooms like museums. And the ads, the ads had told him to expect color coordination, scented candles on tiny tables.
The apartment did have a heavy smell, animal-like, probably courtesy of the dog. Perhaps she kept more than one pet.
“You haven’t lived here long, have you?” he asked.
She stared at him and for a moment he worried that he’d offended her. Maybe she didn’t have a lot of cash after all, and couldn’t furnish the place. He was no one to judge.
“I’m passing through. Do you want tea?” she asked. Her voice carried a soft indifference.
Domingo would be better off with pop or a beer, but the girl seemed classy and he thought he ought to go with whatever she preferred.
“Sure,” he said.
Atl took off her jacket and threw it on the floor. Her blouse was pale cream; it showed off her bony shoulders. She didn’t bother taking off her gloves. Looking at her, he thought of smoke, of incense and altars, and the painting of a girl he’d seen in a discarded museum catalogue.
He followed her into the kitchen. She lit a match and placed the kettle on a burner.
“I’m Domingo,” he told her.
Her gloved hands moved carefully, pulling out two cups, two teaspoons, and a box filled with tiny sugar cubes.
The dog padded into the kitchen. Atl leaned down, whispered something in its ear, and then it walked out.
She opened a tin decorated with pictures of orange blossoms. It was filled with white tea bags.
“I’m going to pay you a certain amount, just for coming here. If you agree to stay, I’ll double it,” she said.
“Listen,” Domingo said, rubbing the back of his head, “you don’t really need to pay me nothing. I mean, you’re cute. I should be paying you. Not … um … not that I think you work that kind of gig. If you do that’s all right too,” he added quickly.