As her enters the dilapidated building, he looks back at Nina, standing there beside the taxi. He doesn't understand why she told him to go alone, to this random brick apartment building on the West End. It's nearly dark, the drive from Washington Heights to here has taken up a good portion of the time. The sun is dipping low, the entire sky a brilliant orange, slowly fading into red the higher you look - it painfully reminds Usnavi that Abuela Claudia is up there in the sky, perhaps saying hello. Part of the night sky she missed so much in Nueva York - perhaps, she combs the stars through the sky, distributing their light across the heavens. He pauses in front of the double doors, grime coating the glass, preventing him from seeing further into the lobby, he hesitates, turning to look at his dear friend
"Are you sure I hafta go alone, Nina?"
"This is a talk you ought to have alone, Usnavi."
"I trust you, Rosario."
She smiles, before heading back to the taxi. Going back the way they came, towards home. Washington Heights. Usnavi, gathering his courage, opens the double door, and peers inside the lobby.
It's filthy, water stains from previous thunderstorms across the delicate looking staircase to the second door. Two doors across from each other, the glass in one of the windows shattered. Usnavi is careful not to step on it, as he slowly makes his way to the other door - locked. Sighing, he decides he must travel upstairs, and he takes his time, one step after the other. He pauses as he notes the way the evening is replacing the day, how fast the sun seemed to set. Smiling, he remembers the way the sun looked on the beach in Playa Rincón. The entire beach would be darkened, as the sun slowly ebbed into the ocean, the trees and the waves swaying gently in the breeze. If he closes his eyes, he could smell the salt air, the way the wind brushed against his face as evening announced her arrival in a beautiful overture of wind and sea.
Continuing his way, he passes two more apartment doors on the second floor before seeing a third, almost hidden away. It's tucked in the corner, next to a wide window. The window has a large set of steps to meet the bottom of the window - the lower sash is pushed up all the way. The window looks out onto the rest of the street, the noises of the city at night beginning to arise in a cacophony of sound. It catches his attention - none of the other windows were open, so why is this one opened? Making his way through the small tucked in space, he observes that there's a fire escape, brown and rickety, attached to the outside of the window.
How in the hell is anybody supposed to use this window to get out in a fire, Usnavi has no idea, but he feels his heart break just a little bit, as he sees a woman sitting on the edge of it. Her chin resting on the bar, her hands wrapped around the crossbar - looking out onto the city. He recognizes that hair, long brown hair that sways gently in the wind. He recognizes that t-shirt - it belongs to Nina Rosario, red with gold accents, loose threads here and there. And he recognizes that tune, the one that seems to echo through the silent building. A tune Abuela Claudia used to sing whenever she thought she was alone - Paciencia Y Fe. Only a few people in the Barrio had ever heard her sing, Usnavi, Nina…
The tune dies in her throat, as the woman freezes. She slowly stands up and turns to face him - worn eyes, lines in her face that weren't present before. Her frame skinnier, that hopeful woman that used to sing on the corner in the Barrio is gone, replaced by this shell. She gives a sad smile, as she looks at him, Usnavi feeling his heart breaking every passing second.
Usnavi is still in shock as he sits on the couch, made more of foam than leather. He looks at the worn wallpaper, with a yellow smiley face spray painted onto the fleur-de-lys pattern. The room is freezing, night having hit the apartment hard. Vanessa, now fussing over a small pot, walks over to the man, holding two mugs filled with a creamy brown, rich looking liquid. Cafe.
"Just the way you made it before, I think…" She says softly, avoiding his eyes. She slowly hands him the blue chipped mug, as she herself takes the stained yellow mug. "Lots of milk, I think. And you liked three sugars, not two."
"I know, it probably isn't as good as the one you brewed, but I hope you don't mind-"
"Vanessa. What're you doing here?"
She sighs, slowly raising her head to meet his eyes. Usnavi's eyes are filled with concern, sadness, confusion, perhaps even the smallest bit of rage - Usnavi is known to be the calmest man in the Barrio, always checking his anger. Always simply listening, never reacting. He had a heart of gold, dealing with every simpleton who came to his bodega and ranted - never offering his advice unless they asked. Usnavi De La Vega - he made good coffee and listened. A constant in her life.
"Well, that's just it, isn't it?"
"Where did you go?" Usnavi immediately asks, setting the cup down without even taking a sip. He straightens his white shirt, looking at her, turning at the wall for a moment, and closing his eyes. Patience and Faith. That's what Abuela taught him when he was about to get emotional. "Vanessa…A-Abuela passed a week after you left-"
"Why didn't you come back?" Usnavi asks simply, looking up at her, his voice beginning to rise. "Why didn't you come and visit like you said you would? We missed you, Vanessa! We-We all worried about you…wh-why are you here? Why aren't you in a studio apartment like you said? Wh-What happened? Why are you-What the hell did you do, Vanessa?"
He asks these questions rapid fire, not even pausing to give her a moment to explain - Usnavi stands up, looking at the woman before him. "A-And what about Nina? Couldn't have even told her? She's your best friend, Vanessa! I found out after you left that you only told me! Only me! And Sonny…why did you leave so soon? Why are you here? What happened? Who the-"
"Usnavi. I need you to calm down."
"…Calm down? Calm down? You expect me to calm down after Nina basically hauled my ass to this building on the West End?"
"Calm down after you just left without so much as a warning to everybody else here?"
"You had everybody worried sick! I told them you all left!"
"You didn't have to!"
"Why didn't you tell anybody else, Vanessa? Why?"
"Usnavi, I don't know why you're mad at me!"
"I-I…I wish I was mad."
Usnavi pauses, looking down at the woman in front of him, sighing, as he slowly deflates. All this anger he held inside, this frustration from this beautiful, brilliant woman suddenly leaving, slowly ebbing away as looks down at her. She was angry he told everybody else. And he was angry because he never got to tell her how he felt.
I was just too late.
He sighs, taking off his hat and running his hand through his long hair, hanging around his shoulders - he had decided to keep his hair long, back in Playa Rincón. Tugging his hair tie from his wrist, he ties his hair back in a ponytail, before closing his eyes, counting to three. Uno, Dos, Tres. Paciencia Y Fe. He slowly takes the coffee mug off the table and takes his first sip. Sweet, light and creamy, exactly how he always made it, with just the smallest hint of cinnamon. Cinnamon.
"Ma-May I explain myself, Usnavi? Please?"
He simply nods.
She explains, over slowly cooling coffee, that she had forged Daniela's signature two years ago - she was so desperate to leave, so desperate to get out and prove herself. Daniela, who in a way had been a mother, she forged her signature. She knew she could, and one night, after her Mother berated her for hours, she couldn't take it anymore. She took out the papers she owed the landlord, and forged Daniela's signature, cosigning it as her. The landlord, who didn't know Daniela, approved it, along with the security deposit.
Usnavi listens, as he sips at the coffee. He listens intently, as he always has, to Vanessa. Never interrupting her, never questioning her - always respectful. If this had been under any other circumstance, it would have been just like before - Vanessa walking into the bodega, getting her coffee, and walking out without a thought to the boy who stood behind the counter, amazed by her. Loving her. She never understood, and still didn't understand, that underneath all her respect for Usnavi, there is still admiration.
"So, you got caught?"
"Someone, I don't know who, in the Barrio. I thought it'd be Daniela, but Daniela had already moved out of the Barrio as soon as she started getting calls from my landlord - so it wasn't her. I've got my suspicions, but…that can't help me. The landlord was sent my way, and I didn't know what to do…I didn't plan on doing it like this-"
"Then why did you, Vanessa?" He asks, looking at her sadly. Slowly setting the cup down, he leans forward, clasping his hands together. "We both know, you didn't have to do it like this."
"I-I don't know! I-I just…I wanted to leave the Barrio so badly. Leave…leave her, and prove to her I wasn't a worthless skank."
That hurt, Usnavi feels a slight pang in his heart - she wanted to leave them, leave him, so badly. She still didn't know, judging by the expression on her face, how Usnavi felt. Feels, he mentally corrects himself. Closing his eyes, he prays above to God to give him patience, gives him faith. Paciencia y Fe.
"Vanessa, I-I don't know how to help you. I don't know why you asked for me, of all people! H-How're you even living here if you have the fuzz after you?
"Nina…" Vanessa smiles, looking at the floor sadly, "She came right when I needed her. When I needed her most, she was right on time."
"So, why do you need me?"
"…I was thinking if you were still up to help an old friend. I know it's been two years since Abuela passed, and you'd come back…I-I was hoping you'd come back to visit."
"I was going to…I-I have a picture of her, y'know."
"Abuela Claudia, back in Playa Rincón." It's Usnavi's turn to have a bitter smile on his face. He pulls out his phone, the small Nokia cellphone he carried to the Dominican Republic with him, and pulls up the grainy photo. His bar, with Abuela Claudia's face beaming, as locals drank and sang, dancing under her portrait. Vanessa's eyes widened, tears forming in the corner of her eyes.
"You really mattered to her, y'know." Vanessa says softly, slowly handing the phone back to Usnavi, their fingers brushing against each other for a moment, "You-she always loved you the most, out of all of us."
"It's true!" She smiles, shaking her head at how oblivious Usnavi is. "Whenever I talked to her, she'd tell me stories about you as a child, how you would help her sweep the floors, babysit Sonny, whatever she needed, you'd be right there, by her side."
"She loved all of us."
"Yes, but we all had parents or parent. You and Sonny…you were like her children. She got to raise you from the beginning."
"Vanessa, I don't mean to interrupt, but I still don't understand how I can help you. You're in a lotta shit, and I'm supposed to go home two days from now, right after the service-"
"I need you to take me with you."
'I know it's a lot to ask, Usnavi." She says, looking down at her worn hands, manicured once upon a time. Her face is wrought with worry, as she bites her lip, looking at the floorboards. "But…I-I just need to get out of here. Get out of the country. Take me with you, then you'll never have to see me again. You'll never see me again."
"If I win the lottery, you'll never see me again."
Those words come rushing back to Usnavi, remembering the day all of them were on the streets, wondering about the 96,000 dollars. Wondering how each of their lives would change, each of them announcing what they'd do. Benny, he'd form his own business. Daniela and Carla, live in luxury. Sonny, that little shit, would change the world. And Vanessa…she had wanted to leave so badly, even then. She had promised she'd get out of the Barrio. Usnavi, he promised he'd leave too, go back home. Home.
Usnavi De La Vega is an extremely patient man. He has put up with enough bullshit, enough jackasses that came and went in his lives, from the customers that would come, to the assholes in Playa Rincón that treated him like an outsider because he came from the United States. But this, to ask him to do this? It isn't until he looks down at his hands that he realizes they've curled into fists - he stretches out his fingers and slowly picks up the mug again.
"Vanessa…th-that's too much to ask of me."
"I have a business now. I-I've got to go back, take care of the bar. I have to say goodbye to Abuela, and I-I got to make it up to Sonny. H-He's back there, Vanessa. Running the bodega because I left. I've got so many people I need to see, so many problems I need to fix-a-a million things I haven't done-"
"Usnavi, I'm not demanding this of you, I'm simply asking-"
"How can you say you're not demanding this of me? After-After all you've done?"
"You-You can't just leave, then come back and ask people to jeopardize their entire lives-"
"-knowing that I'd do anything-"
"I'm not putting your life in jeopardy!"
"-for you, Vanessa!"
The two fall silent, as the pair had stood during their argument. She stares into his eyes, confused by his words. Usnavi, his shoulders heaving, voice growing increasingly louder during the fight. He closes his eyes, his heart aching too hard. He couldn't do this again - she couldn't just come into his life again, with those damn eyes, those fucking lips, be as beautiful as the sun, and ask him to do this for her. He couldn't just fucking do it, and not be able to act on his feelings.
"I was in love with you, Vanessa." He deadpans, looking down at the ground. No blush runs to his cheeks, because this wasn't a declaration of love. He doesn't intend for this to be reciprocated. "I-I'm still in love with you, Vanessa. W-When you left…I-I didn't know what to do. I left the Barrio…I was running to make it home, and a home was where you were running away from."
"And-And I know this won't make a difference now, you needing my help, and it's not your fault you don't love me, because I know you don't owe that to me. But you can't just fucking ask me of this, and honestly tell me-" his voice beginning to break, "you never noticed me at all?"
"All the free coffees, all the compliments, the flirting, can you honestly tell me, Vanessa, that you didn't know?"
"I…I-I think I knew-"
"Then why didn't you say anything?" He asks, eyes already filling with tears, looking at the woman in front of him, this woman that he had eluded him for hours on end, the woman he would do anything for, "Why-Why did it take me leaving the goddamn country, for you to realize I was in love with you!"
"I didn't know that you were in love with me, Usnavi! I didn't know you loved me this entire time! I-I just, I don't know how I didn't…I just…" She slowly looks down, wringing her hands together, "I didn't know what to do."
"About you loving me."
"So you just ignored it. All that time." His voice is choked with tears, as he feels a tear slip down his cheeks. He wipes it away quickly, trying to conceal the sadness he felt. This frustration. He felt relief washing over him, like a tidal wave - she knew. But she never said anything?
How could she?
"I-I didn't want to hurt you, Usnavi."
"How could you hurt me more than you hurt me now, Vanessa? Asking me to endanger the future I have in Playa Rincón, what Abuela wanted. What I've dreamed of for years. How could you?"
"I'll help you, Vanessa." He says softly after a moment, looking down at the mug on the table. Cafe. Just like he always made for her. She always liked it sweet, but how could he have known that beneath all the sweetness, was a woman made of bitterness, boleros, and broken hearts? How could he have known that she knew this entire time? "Because that's what Abuela would have wanted…but I don't want to be in the Barrio alone tomorrow during the service."
"I just want one more day. One more day in the Barrio, with you, Nina, Benny. The way it was supposed to be before you left. I-I…you don't have to come if you don't want to, but…I figured, after all of that, after all, you've done. You owe that much, to Abuela. To Nina. And to me. That's all I ask of you, Vanessa. One more day."