by Randy Gonzales

For a year, she walked an extra three blocks to work so that she could cross by the Khalifa roundabout and pause by the small memorial. Sometimes she would bring new flowers or candles, or place a square of chocolate on a small plate of wax. Always she stooped and rested, then ran her fingers through the sand. Her friends wondered when she would leave.

“Why is it that Elvie stays?” they would ask. “She has a husband in the Philippines. Her daughter and son-in-law are dead almost a year now.”

“Her visa should be coming up. Once it expires she will leave,” some said.

“After the one-year anniversary, she will surely go,” said others.

The Filipinos who had recently arrived saw her as one of those middle-aged workers who had labored abroad for too long. They took her sullenness for jadedness. They thought a return to the Philippines would change her outlook.

“It’s time for her to go home,” they would say.

The young workers planned on leaving the Emirates before they grew old and gloomy. “Once I am finished paying for my children’s school, I'm going home,” one would say.

“They will have good jobs,” another would add.

“We are all here for our family,” another would say.

They all would agree that family came first.

Elvie was not jaded, nor angered. She put no blame on the place, the people, or the economic situation that brought them there. She was mourning.

Some saw a natural sorrow in her quiet consistent bearing. They suggested that by continuing as she had before, by working and consistently avoiding the intermittent pleasures of social gatherings, Elvie mourned their loss. She worked at Beirut Bakery and Sweets where she arranged individually wrapped bite-sized pieces of chocolate. She formed towers of pink-wrapped chocolate squares into a gift for the birth of a baby girl. She stacked red squares into a heart or silver circles into a bell for a wedding present. She mixed and matched pieces of chocolate, arranging them in bowls and baskets for men to surprise their wives. She worked alone with the chocolates. The other workers, Jordanian and Palestinian men, baked and bagged flat bread for the crowd of husbands who contributed to their evening meal by delivering the hot bread to their wives or housemaids. Elvie sat behind a glass display of sweets, mostly undisturbed by the chatter in the bread line.

Others said her sorrow had melted into depression. They pointed to the mementos of loss she collected in the shrine in the corner of her room. She lit candles and burned incense each night. At the center of the shrine was a photo of the two in front of the Burj Khalifa. They had placed under their upturned chins a thumb and an index finger, a gesture for their friends back home to whom their framed smiles would say “look at how our fortunes have changed.” A broken piece of silver plastic, two passports, and two wedding bans they bought at the gold souq on their second wedding anniversary rested at the feet of Mother Mary. Dried rose and daisy petals filled the spaces between statues of Jesus.

“She should pack the shrine and ship it home,” some suggested.

“She should change her job and move in with a friend,” others thought.

“She should at least get a roommate,” most agreed.

Elvie stayed. Beirut Bakery and Sweets renewed her visa and she kept her job stacking chocolates. She stopped walking the extra three blocks. The memorial at the roundabout slowly was consumed in sand. She shed her tears mostly alone in the room she once shared with her daughter and son-in-law. She still cried when the two straight-haired boys came and poked their heads around the glass display case.

“Tita, chocolate Tita,” they would call out.

She would smile as their eyes widened and lifted the bowls of their heads. “Come here, get what you want anaks,” she would tell them. She rubbed their cheeks between her hands. They would go from bin to bin.

“Salamat,” one would say as he stuffed a colored square into his pocket.

“Shukran,” the other would retort as he grabbed a conch-shaped confectionary.

“Thank you,” she would echo back.

As they stuffed their pockets, her eyes would fill. Each time she let the tears fall. She would turn to her reflection in the display case and watch them disappear in her hands. She couldn’t hold them.

Most thought they would use the money to go home and build something new.

“I’d get out of here. Spend the money on a house,” they’d say.

“I would add another floor to the one I have,” another insisted.

They tried not to think about what had been lost. They thought mostly about going. They thought about how much nicer things would be when they went home. One thought of a rooftop garden with flowerboxes. She thought she could plant lilies. She imagined looking over the tops of her neighbors’ homes, being able to see across the barangay. She didn’t want to think about her children playing in the streets. She hoped her mother was feeding them.