Before I start the series of blogs about my trip to Pennsylvania, I'd like to share a new book, Divorce After Death. A Widow’s Memoir by Concha Alborg. Concha was born in Spain and emigrated with her parents to the United States when she was in high school. She currently lives and writes in Philadelphia, where I was traveling. She has written several books and has recently left her position as a professor at Saint Joseph's University to write full time. You can visit her Amazon author page here. Below is the blurb and an excerpt from Divorce After Death.
Concha Alborg didn't think that anything could hurt her more than the death of her husband from cancer, but hours after his death she learned how wrong she was. Within days of being made a widow, she discovered that her marriage and her husband were not what she had envisioned. In Divorce After Death. A Widow’s Memoir, with a unique point of view, due to her bi-cultural background, and a self-deprecating humor, she takes us on a personal journey. Her strength and determination to build a new life led her down a path that allowed her to reject the veil of widowhood and instead embrace a life of happiness, love and acceptance.
It isn’t funny, of course, when men stop looking at women. After a lifetime of whistles, looks and a few fresh comments, which used to bother me since I consider myself a feminist, now the men I like don’t look at me. It’s more than that; they don’t see me. I’m off their radar screen; I’ve become an invisible person. If that isn’t depressing enough, I’ve noticed that old men not only look, but also stare me down.
I know; old men are men too. I should be writing this in Spanish, since political correctness is less strict in my native language. We can still say la gorda, la rubia, la negra, and nothing happens. While in the United States, there is hell to pay if one says “the fat one” (unless she is the one who sings last), or “the blonde,” and heaven only knows what would happen if we were to say “the black one” and with good reason. I have an aunt who says that one of her granddaughters is feíta, which would be inconceivable to an American. Imagine a Gringa grandma saying: “One of my granddaughters is a bit ugly.” Never!
So, let’s agree that old men are men, but not the ones women want noticing them the most, never mind if we are feminist or not. Besides, since I’m closing up in age to the gawking geezers, I’m allowed to speak about them, and old women too, if I want to. I don’t have to say “senior citizens.” In other words, I’ve become an older woman myself; a woman of a certain age, even though I would be offended if I were to be called an “old lady.”
If I go to New York City, I can tell immediately how men look at women intensely there. Maybe that’s because it’s full of foreigners who tend to be more aggressive. Men in the big city don’t only look at women; they stare straight into their eyes, like a good bullfighter in Spain would look at the bull. In Philadelphia, founded by Quakers after all, men are not so forward. If they look, it’s on the sly, unless you are in one of the blue-collar neighborhoods, and then it’s every woman for herself. Even in The Big Apple, I’ve noticed that older men are the ones looking at me the most. But heaven help me, nowhere else is this more obvious than at the Jersey Shore.
Ocean City, New Jersey, for example, is fast becoming a retirement community, attracting all kinds of old people who come for the sun and the sea. Even though it’s close to Philadelphia, a cosmopolitan city, as some would say, and Atlantic City, a bigger attraction, Ocean City has a personality all of its own. It’s a long and narrow island, which serves as a barrier for the ocean, joined to the mainland by two bridges. The open side, facing the Atlantic, is full of wide beaches, with white sand that forms large dunes, giving the houses facing the sea some privacy as well as beautiful ocean views. The waves, though never like the ones in the Pacific, can be big enough for surfing during high tide or when a storm is brewing. On the bay side, there are no waves or beaches. Only the tides going in and out let on that it’s also the sea. The bay is formed by canals shaped like fingers that hold the island in their grasp. These canals are full of summer homes with private docks, each at a different angle. There are only two or three public marinas for intrepid sailors coming from other shores or for locals of lesser means, like myself, who don’t own boats.
For several years, my family had a place in the middle of the island, at its widest point. It didn’t face the ocean nor had access to one of the bay channels, but we were in front of a wildlife refuge, where migratory birds stop on their way north or south, depending on the season. With a pair of good binoculars, we could see the ducks’ nests and the tiny cranes after they had broken their shells and were wobbling around in the marshes.
I tried to go to Ocean City often, not only during the summers to enjoy the beach, but during the entire year, when there are fewer people around, to recharge my batteries. There I could write in peace or read to my heart’s content, lying on one of the decks, even if I had to cover myself with a light quilt when the sea breezes were blowing. When I had academic work to finish, or if I had to grade or research a paper, it was easier if I could do it close to the ocean. I wasn’t born on the Mediterranean for nothing (as Joan Manuel Serrat says in one of his songs).
Ocean City is not always as idyllic as it seems. Each year, there are more poor Hispanic immigrants working for a song on the island, doing all kinds of dirty tasks on the expensive homes: painting windows and shutters since the sun and the sea air are so hard on the wood, patching up the roofs that rot easily with the humidity, planting flowers, mowing the lawns, taking awnings up and down and moving furniture on and off the decks. I remember talking to a Mexican man from Oaxaca who was making an outside shower for the downstairs neighbors. At first he didn’t even want to speak to me. Then he told me that he left his family behind in his country. He was sending them money until they had enough to join him in the States. I didn’t ask, but I guessed that he was in the States illegally and that’s one of the reasons he didn’t want to speak to strangers. Also, it was probably the reason people were taking advantage of him and paying him low wages.
On another occasion, I noticed that in the big Super Fresh there was a Chinese food section (and I’ve never seen an Asian on the beach), a Jewish food section (the phonebook is full of names like Cohen, Segal, Ruben) and aisle after aisle of Italian foods (they must be the ones with the biggest appetites). But despite all the immigrant workers beautifying the rich folks’ homes, there wasn’t a decent Hispanic section. Not one to mince words, I asked for the manager and told him outright that there was some discrimination going on there. It wasn’t that same summer, but now there is an entire area with Goya products, which happens to be a Hispanic company based in New Jersey itself.
Every morning during the summer months, before I started to write, I went down to the beach for some exercise. If it wasn’t too windy, I would ride my bike on the boardwalk, all the way down to the lifeguard station. My problems could start right there. We all know that older people suffer from insomnia, and they wake before the sun comes up. So, even in the early hours, most of the benches that line the boardwalk are occupied by gaping old men. They would realize right away, despite failing eyesight, that I was no spring chicken, but that I didn’t look bad for my age, either. At least I could still ride my bike, which most—if not all of them—stopped doing a while back. If one of them was almost completely bald, with those big dark glasses specially made for cataracts, I was vulnerable. And if I saw some other poor guy with a limp and a metal cane shining under the sun, I needed to watch out. The big fat ones, with Buddha-like figures, also would stare my way. The most dangerous were the well-preserved ones, who thought they were still debonair. I’m pretty sure that I saw one winking at me.
Did they think that I was their age? Did I look like I belonged to the same senior club? Was I not wearing riding shorts with a cute matching visor? I knew that I have some spider veins in my legs, but I was certain they could not see those from where they were sitting, between my speed and their eyesight. Yes, I dye my hair, but what did they know about that?
At night, Ocean City changes. The old folk must be at home watching TV or maybe they are in bed already. But the young crowd that was quietly sunbathing during the day, families with children of all ages, newlyweds who can’t afford to go anywhere else on their honeymoons, all would converge on the boardwalk. Given my thirst for knowledge, I had to look up the word boardwalk in the dictionary. It’s defined as “a promenade, especially of planks, along a beach or waterfront.” Truly, a boardwalk is something unexplainable. It’s part carnival, part arcade, part food court, part shopping mall. It’s full of movie theaters, dollar stores and shop after shop of the most ridiculous souvenirs, T-shirts and general junk. And all this without a single bar or a club, because Ocean City was founded by Methodists, who were even stricter than the Philadelphia Quakers and forbade alcoholic drinks, and the laws have remained unchanged to this day.
My husband and I almost never went to the boardwalk, especially if Spanish relatives were visiting. It would be unimaginable. How could we explain that it’s against the law to sell beer or to have a glass of wine with dinner? How to rationalize a beach without pubs or discos? I have to confess that on the few occasions I’ve been to the boardwalk with my daughters or American friends, I’ve enjoyed myself. Once Peter and I went, and we ended up in an arcade full of instant-photo machines, where, in a booth, we could fabricate a child to one’s likeness. Since I already had two daughters from an earlier marriage, we decided to have a son. That’s right, for ten bucks! First we had to answer a questionnaire as if we really were to adopt a baby. We had to decide his ethnicity:
“Should he be Hispanic or plain Gringo?” I asked only half jokingly.
“Well, he should be a mix, don’t you think?” answered Peter without missing a beat, as usual.
“Fine. What about his hair color?” That being one of my pet issues.
One by one, we answered all the questions about eye color, size of the nose; even his age was specified.
“He should be at least twelve,” said Peter. “That way we can leave him home alone.” And we immediately agreed.
Then the “daddy” got in front of the camera, followed by the “mommy;” obviously a sexist machine. I have no idea what would happen if two people of the same gender wanted to have a child at the Jersey Shore. You waited five minutes and out came four passport-size pictures–just in case you want to travel with the kid, I guess. I was half-way emotional, as it well should have been with my first-born son. No sooner did we see our son, than we loved him already, although he was “feíto,” a tad ugly like his dad. He turned out with a nose identical to his father’s, too large, particularly for his age, with dreamy hazel eyes, from that side of the family, too. The bangs and his hair color were definitely mine; somewhat unruly and of an artificial mahogany shade. We named him Benjamin, given his last place in the family, and because it’s a name that can be pronounced almost the same in English and Spanish.
The strangest part was that both of his “half-sisters” hated him from the start. The two of them said that he was very ugly, that his hair was like a girl’s and that his skin looked green. I have to admit that he did have an olive complexion as do I. Our daughters made us promise, since they were familiar with our sense of humor, that we wouldn’t frame Benjamin’s picture and place it on the mantle, and that we wouldn’t show him to anyone:
“Please, please, please, he’s such a nerd!”
When Peter was first diagnosed with cancer, he loved coming to Ocean City. Here he could rest in peace (no pun intended) and, since it’s so flat, he could still ride his bike without turning blue. But eventually, he wasn’t strong enough even to climb the stairs to our second floor unit. Before he died, I decided to sell the place. I would have enough responsibilities keeping up the townhouse in Philadelphia. It turned out that the downstairs neighbor, who had our key, had already shown our place to an acquaintance of his—a young widow with three small sons. I could only imagine what her situation was like in anticipation of my own widowhood. Never mind that I was pissed at my neighbor. I didn’t know whether to call him a vulture or to thank him for his foresight. I felt better once I found out who the new owner would be.
As it is customary at the Jersey Shore, we sold the condo completely furnished, linens and all. I only brought home some personal knick-knacks and a set of Mikasa dishes with the shells for my name and the seagulls for Peter’s (Concha means “shell” in Spanish and Peter’s last name sounding like the bird). I had to give them away later because it just made me too sad to be reminded of our cozy summer place.
Before the closing, I went back alone to our home in Ocean City a few more times; those were emotional days. I was aware of how much I would miss that place, but it didn’t compare with the bigger loss I would be suffering in a short time. I remember bargaining internally with myself. Perhaps if I sold the beach house, Peter would miraculously heal, and I could keep him for a while longer.
One of the things I loved best about Ocean City was going down to the beach an hour or so before sunset and strolling by myself at the water’s edge. Often, at that time, the beach was virtually deserted. The children and their moms would have already left; the young crowd would probably be getting ready to descend on the boardwalk to hang out, and the old folk would probably be at home watching reruns on TV. There was enough light to enjoy the view. The pinkish clouds would join the deep blue ocean at the horizon. They had a unique color at that time of the evening: hues of purple, orange and pink with a touch of grey. Instead of old men, the birds would take over the beach. The seagulls were quieter and more pensive than during the day, and they stayed closer to the water. The sandpipers also would come down in the evenings, and the sparrows would fly low over the dunes. Sometimes, the moon had already made an appearance sitting low and coming out of the waves. If it was late enough, the first stars would be showing up, too.
On the very last day I was there, I was so distracted observing all this that I didn’t notice a man approaching me. He was against the light, so I couldn’t see him well, but he was tall and barefoot, like me, dressed in light colors with a sweater over his shoulder, in case the weather cooled. He didn’t have a lot of hair, but it was carefully combed, rather stylishly.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you,” he said gallantly.
“No, no. You didn’t. I was just distracted,” I answered.
“Do you come here often? I think I’ve seen you before.”
And now he was closer to me, and I could see that his eyebrows and mustache were of a silvery shade.
“Yes and no,” I tried to explain.
I told him that I lived a few blocks from the beach, next to the wildlife area, but that I didn’t think we had ever met. He said that his house was on the bay side, on one of the channels, but he liked the open sea better at this time of night. He told me about his neighborhood.
“It’s like an American Venice, don’t you think?”
And I smiled because I knew that there is a summer festival called “Night in Venice,” another unique spectacle of Ocean City.
We said goodnight right away; it was getting dark and I didn’t like to get back home late. I didn’t tell him that I was really saying goodnight and goodbye, that I would soon be all alone, ready to talk to tall strangers on a beach, no matter how obvious their pick-up lines.
Since that evening, I realized that old men not only look at me, but are now prone to start a conversation, if I give them a chance.
About the Author
Concha Alborg was born in Spain during the difficult years after the Spanish Civil War and went to school in Madrid until she emigrated with her parents to the United States, where she finished high school. More than any other event in her life, this move defines who she is, an immigrant living between two cultures. She may seem Americanized to her Spanish relatives, but she is from another country as far as her daughters are concerned. Although Concha fits well enough in both cultures, a tell-tale Spanish accent marks her speech as well as her writing.
Concha Alborg earned an MA from Emory University and a PhD in Spanish Literature from Temple University. In addition to numerous academic publications on contemporary women writers, she has been actively writing fiction and creative non-fiction. Recently, she left Saint Joseph’s University, where she was a professor for over twenty years, to write full time. She has published two collections of short stories: Una noche en casa (Madrid, 1995) and Beyond Jet-Lag (New Jersey, 2000) and a novel, American in Translation: A Novel in Three Novellas (Indiana, 2011).
Concha Alborg lives and writes in Philadelphia. See more information about the author at www.conchaalborg.com