Poems: Las flores de Lolita

Lolita’s hands are soft, brown, and clean,

carrying the knife with such ease in the chopping

that the blade melts the cebolla into fine minced white,

like the crushed ice in last night’s curated cocktail.

Puedo ayudar?” The words sputter from my tourist lips;

still squinting, my eye stays twelve inches behind

the image of her hands frozen on my lens.

Lolita nods and I try

trading my Sony for her blade,

shocked as it shapeshifts into a block, a club, an axe

unwieldly in my own hand. I am a hack,

shredding the pimienta to shards.

Lolita speaks to me in Spanish.

It is not her mother tongue. It’s not mine, too.

She proffers common words: pollo, arroz, grosella, tomate

and calls me mi hija, my daughter.

Lolita’s kitchen warms with onions, McCormick garlic, and her sons

waft in, float out,

¡Hello, encantado de conocerte!

from work, to work, in jeans they say it’s easier

to pass as Ladino.

I nod, as if I could understand.

I’m here to make pictures.

We set plates at the Formica counter,

beneath a fluorescent bulb,

next to the gas stove, next to the brick oven,

where a kettle boils.

Downstairs, in the cement basement, there’s Lolita’s Panadería

where red wood stokes orange and white, hot enough now

to receive the dough that will become the morning’s bread,

sold for a few quetzales by Lolita herself,

who will rise before dawn, to open the shutters

to a laughing girl in leather,

to a shrinking woman who lost her teeth,

to the Maya weave in flip-flops,

who climbed the stairs to the street,

a blue basket snubbing gravity atop her head,

and hid her face from my lens.

Lo siento. Lo siento.

After dinner, Lolita invites me on a walk

through the narrow cobblestone streets of Santiago Atitlán,

her youngest child—still a schoolboy—leaps and darts ahead

until Lolita pulls him back, her hand hovering like heat at his neck.

Neighbors sit on their stoops, talking in the dim,

some coughing,

some laughing,

some just watching the cars, and watching

people like us

climb and wind through the city, until we arrive

at Café Lolita, where tortes y dulces shimmer inside brilliant bakery glass,

and where Lolita takes a seat at her own counter,

her dark hair curling at her temples, ready to uncoil,

in this moment,

her solemn upper lip now wears a foamy white mustache,

surely the mark of the best cappuccino in all of Guatemala.

Lolita shows me my room, a rooftop palace:

a twin bed, a thin blue blanket, a lamp, and a plastic sink,

where I can brush my teeth alone before falling asleep

to the scent of wood baking bread three floors below.

The morning comes with rooster calls,

the sun painting orange on purple hills

distant, outside the city.

There’ll be a party soon and Lolita,

with her lips pursed in focus,

is decorating a quinceañera cake

with flowers so pretty I want to eat them.

Lolita opens drawer after drawer, a cabinet of wonders,

filled with her creations of steam and sugar,

an illusion: black-tipped stamens climbing out

of curling petals of purple and pink.

She hands me one blossom.  A parting gift.

I crack a thin, delicate petal free and

let it melt on my tongue.

las flores de lolita