TAMPA — They were almost home, the monotonous miles of interstate unfurling south into a recognizable stretch of Tampa exits. Bearss Avenue was next.
As her husband drove, Carmen Rodriguez glanced at the GPS. It was 3:54 a.m. She knew they were close. Nineteen minutes, she told him. That's when she saw the headlights.
Their night out had started unexpectedly past 10 p.m., when her husband, Pedro Rivera, got a call from a friend with an engine fire on Interstate 75. Pedro, 48, was a mechanic. Carmen, then 50, went along for the ride. The friend thanked Pedro and called him an angel.
In the 16 months that followed, Carmen would mark April 25, 2010, as the moment everything changed — the day, after 14 years of marriage, when she became, at once, a widow and a witness.
"Doesn't it look like that car is headed this way?" she asked him.
"Looks like it is," he responded.
Then, just before he swerved, he gave her a command:
• • •
They met in their native Puerto Rico, in the city of Guaynabo, when the air conditioner in her car broke, and someone said Pedro could fix it. He was a flirt, called her beautiful. The spark was instant, she said, "love at first sight."
She had led a tough life. Her mother gave her up for adoption. Her first husband left her for another woman. For the first time, with Pedro, she felt like part of a family. He had two kids. She had three. Her daughters began to call him Dad, she said, and only because he earned it.
He was the cook, the fix-it-man, the life of the party.
They moved to the United States in 2002, and grandchildren started coming. He called her Ma. She called him Pa. Pedro, dark and moustached, grew a belly; Carmen joked he was her blond, green-eyed hunk. In her mind, she said, he was.
She made an album after he died, spanning their life together. She flipped to a photo of him in his casket. "How handsome," she said, "like he's fast asleep."
In that album, there is another photo, of a smashed-up Impala, the one she saw coming that night. "This is the car," she said, "of the famous colonel."
Colonel, captain — it makes no difference to Carmen. She has been told that Scott Sciple was out drinking when she and her husband were out helping. And now he's trying to blame his actions on post-traumatic stress disorder?
Carmen is a nurse. "I, too, have had people die in my arms."
She calls his defense an excuse, an abuse of power. She said other Marines have approached her and said they respect her pain. If Sciple could not offer an apology, she said, he could at least have voiced the same. He has not.
"I have faith in American justice," Carmen said. Though her English is limited, she spoke this year at a hearing in which Sciple's bail was revoked. She said she will continue to speak.
"Pedro will not come back to life," she said, "but his death cannot be brushed off like that of a dog, killed in the street."
• • •
If Pedro were here, he'd see how much his mother misses him, even through the severity of her Alzheimer's disease.
He'd see how his wife, who has chosen not to tell the older woman about the death of her favorite son, tries to help by putting another man on the phone to call her mamita.
"He's working," Carmen tells her. "Sending money, so we can go to Puerto Rico."
The mother tugs at her ear and taps her foot and stares off through wet eyes. She had begun to show symptoms three months before Pedro died.
As he lay in the hospital the morning of the crash, connected to machines and unconscious, Carmen promised she'd take care of his mother. She believes he heard it; in nursing school, she learned that hearing is one of the last things to go.
For that reason, she knows he also heard these, her last words to him: "I love you.
"I will always love you."
Quotes in this story were translated from Spanish to English. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.