Celia's only son is more of an idea in this story, since he appears only for a brief moment in Baskets of Water. But the idea of a son is powerful here because they are unique in a narrative about women. Celia hinges her entire future on the outcome of her first pregnancy, hoping for a boy who would allow her to escape:
Celia wished for a boy, a son who could make his way in the world. If she had a son, she would leave Jorge and sail to Spain, to Granada. She would dance flamenco, her skirts whipping a thousand crimson lights. Her hands would be hummingbirds of hard black sounds, her feet supple against the floorboards of the night. (42)
But Lourdes comes to her instead, keeping her inside a life she doesn't want. Lourdes herself pins all her hopes on the son she lost to miscarriage and spends a lot of time imagining how much more simpatico he would have been with her than Pilar. She compares him to "the Navarro boy" who dies after she chases him into the river, and to Ivanito, for whom she feels great sympathy and affection. Lourdes, too, feels like her life would have been different—less lonely—had that son been a reality. She ultimately turns her attention to saving Felicia's son, Ivanito, from a dead-end life in Cuba.
For Celia—as for Lourdes—the absent son becomes a reflection of her best qualities and hopes. We learn that Javier shared Celia's enthusiasm for El Líder and that he ran away to Europe (much as Celia wished to do as a young woman). Though there are things about Javier that make Celia uneasy (he marries a Czech woman and has a child Celia never sees), she's still disposed to place many of her hopes on the boy who escaped.
Celia feels tenderness for Javier precisely because he is an echo of her. Remember that although she patches together a love for her husband Jorge, she always thinks of him as the other—a person who is not like her and has some pretty undesirable qualities. Her relationship with Lourdes is all but ruined because she feels that Lourdes was Jorge's child, one who felt natural sympathy with her husband and carried many of his personality traits. But she feels a special tenderness for Javier because, despite some superficial physical similarities to Jorge, he has turned out like her:
What she learned most about Javier came from the family picture her daughter-in-law, Irina, dutifully sent every Christmas. Celia saw her son age in these photographs, watched his mouth acquire his father's obstinate expression. And yet there was something vulnerable in his eyes that heartened Celia, that reminded her of her little boy. (119)
Celia needs to feel this kind of oneness with someone in the family in order to keep her loneliness at bay. Since her telepathic, spiritual connection with Pilar has ceased, she turns to the idea of Javier for comfort. But the idea of him is quickly spoiled by his return to Cuba, and even Celia is surprised by her exasperation at his presence.
Fact? Javier is a mess. He is unlucky in love and failing to thrive, and it makes Celia wonder if she's to blame:
Could her son...have inherited her habit of ruinous passion? (157).
His turn to alcoholism, his mysterious illness—signaled by the lump and scar that Celia will soon mirror in her own body—push Javier further away from an ideal relationship with his mother.
Javier's ambiguous exit from the narrative prepares us for Celia's own vague final moments at the end of the book. He takes off for the mountains on some insane quest, predicting that he will die in a very bizarre way. Up to this point, so much has hinged on the well-being of this character. For Celia, he is the "test case" for herself and her family: if she can save him, she can redeem her sad life, find and heal Felicia, protect Ivanito and reestablish her connection with Pilar. But she can't. Like so many things in life, Javier is out of her control.