“Come in,” he said in response to the five steady raps on his door. There was a soft squeak as the door opened to let in a waft of the shimmery perfume the woman was wearing. Lawrence Gaston, Director of the St. Francis School for Special Children, thought it strange that he would be put in an instant trance by the smell of the perfume. He put down the Manila envelope he was holding and adjusted his eyeglasses on the bridge of his nose.
The woman had a slender build. She wore a short haircut highlighted with the color of cinnamon over a dark brown hair. Despite the boyish haircut, she looked very feminine in her long-sleeved white sheer shirt and reed-shaped black skirt that revealed a pleasantly proportioned pair of long legs.
“You are the Director, I presume,” said the smile that exquisitely curled her lips.
“Ah, yes, I am,” he said and stood to catch the offered hand. “Please have a seat.”
The handshake was warm and steady. Lawrence Gaston envisioned a bright string of firecrackers lighting up the tiny room as he let go her hand reluctantly.
“I am here to talk with you about my son, Steven Brown,” she said.
“Steven Brown. Steven Brown.” Lawrence Gaston searched his mind for the name. “Of course, Mrs. Brown.
I will be pleased to discuss this thing with you.”
“The name is Anna Zubieta, Mr. Gaston. Steven’s father and I have
If the Director’s mistake upset her, Anna’s voice still sounded cool and soothing, like being in a comfortable macramé hammock under the shade of a flowering mango tree. She gave him a direct gaze that to Lawrence Gaston seemed tough. Sharp.
He felt a warm fluster on his face. It wasn’t new to him, making mistakes about a woman’s civil status. After more than twenty years of teaching in schools and meeting the children’s mothers, he had more or less assumed that all of these mothers had existent husbands bringing home their paychecks. That she was an attractive single woman, mother of Down Syndrome-afflicted Steven Brown notwithstanding, made the pleasure of seeing her more intense, a fact which he pronounced when he folksily said,
“All right then, it will be Miss Zubieta,” but he corrected himself in a flash. “Anna? Is it okay to call you Anna?”
She responded to this with a mischievous smile, then with shoulders thrust back, she told of her business about enrolling her son at the school although it had been two months ago that the school year started.
“Can you take Steven in, Mr. Gaston? You will, won’t you?”
Her question came fast and with sureness. It didn’t even impress upon Lawrence Gaston that Anna wasn’t expecting herself to be turned down. She wasn’t waiting for answers. Anna Zubieta had taken him down on an irreversible course; she knew that. Tiptoeing on eggshells of lucidity and lunacy, the school Director was now among the many people she had easily prodded to gravitate to her seamlessly.
She got up to leave, supremely composed. The Director, still transfixed, was trying to break through the bubble he had caged himself within.
“Can you come back in a couple of days, Miss Zub … Anna? I’m sure I can do something about your son,” he said, trying not to irritate or anger her.
There was a momentary pause from her. She smoothed her skirt and sort of laughed at him, incredulous. The Director looked down, a bit embarrassed. Then she said,
“I’ll call you in two days.”
He felt fine with that. Much better than upsetting her, he thought. And besides, Lawrence Gaston rationalized, those two days will give him time to float, savor that period of high expectations. And perhaps, he thought as he touched his graying hair, he could get a color rinse himself.
For a while after Anna had left, Lawrence Gaston sat in silence, slouched in his chair, his eyes riveted on the door knob of his room, the last piece of the Director’s physical domain that Anna had touched. He sighed and tried to shake off or at least sort out the chaos in his head. In the eye of an existing ethos that insisted that passion and sensuality are co-terminus with age, Lawrence Gaston at sixty-seven had discovered that he was capable of questing for romance, for that kind of love that, as fools would often say, never died, never faded away. Anna Zubieta was a fire, a brilliant light, definitely alluring and deliciously dangerous. He knew that. She oozed with organic carnality—a standout who had beautifully patched together nerviness and discernible intelligence into a singularity. Sexy. And Lawrence Gaston was the firefly, carrying in his lit belly a vulnerable need to get close to the fire. He was ready to be singed. He was willing to have his life splashed on with colors like those of the wildly beckoning neon signs.
Then he saw the cluster of keys on top of his desk that Anna must have left. With heart pounding and ready to tear open, he grabbed the keys and went out of his office to catch up with her. A light rain was falling as he stood by the school gate. He looked around in a furtive way that people do when they are about to commit something they ought not to and wondered if someone would be nearby to recognize him. It was midmorning and classes for that day had started which meant that all the schoolteachers were in the classrooms and would see nothing to wag their tongues about. He sprinted toward the pedestrian crossing a few meters down the block, and hoped that she parked her car in the parking lot that faced the school.
He spotted her at the curb of the block, refusing to cross the street against the red traffic light even in the absence of passing motor vehicles. Seeing her in that crowd of passersby was magic, that acute cuttingness of being lucky to witness what normally were mere figments of the most seminal of visions. He kicked his voice level up at least two notches so that Anna can hear him.
“You forgot something,” he panted as he dangled the cluster of keys for her to see.
Her smile tasted of honey. She made a sweeping arch of her arm in combined helplessness and delight as she took the keys from him. Lawrence Gaston felt an immediate tickle as their fingers touched.
“You could have crossed the street,” he said. “Sugar easily melts in the rain.” He wondered if his attempt at gathering his nerves for a return to self-control did not sound quixotically tethered.
“I grew up in the USA where traffic rules are strictly followed,” she explained.
“Some rules are meant to be infracted,” he said.
Anna Zubieta locked eyes with Lawrence Gaston in a dazzling gaze, then laughed.
“I agree; how right you are. But some rules are fun to break. I tell you what, Larry? Would you mind if I called you Larry?”
“Go ahead,” he said promptly.
“I tell you what, Larry. Why don’t I call you sometime this afternoon and see if you’re free for lunch tomorrow?” She prepared to cross the street. Anna Zubieta touched his arm and said, “I’m looking forward to having lunch with you. It will be a pleasure to talk with you again.”
He nodded. It meant the whole world to him. It was a chance too delicious to pass up—an indulgence, perhaps, but not foolishness, that he deserved.
It seemed to Lawrence Gaston that the ll:00 o’clock TV newscaster was talking so fast that his words came out in blurs. He was seated in front of the television set that night, watching the newscast before retiring as was his habit. His eyes perforated the picture tube but the phrases merely looped around his ears then went away.
He thought about Anna and how the droplets of rain as she stood that afternoon at the curb waiting for the traffic red light moistened her blouse. It agonized him to see the visages of her breasts staring him in the face, as if begging to be cupped, and how he thirsted to cup them. This was his time, like the time any one of the universal mortals will deliberate before a forked road, what stand to take, to involve or disentangle oneself, to remain a middle-of-the-roader or to live on the edge, so as to experience, even for once, that human lava flow.
Lawrence Gaston looked over at his wife seated on a nearby couch. At 17 when they got married, she was a pretty woman, tiny and ephemeral as the silken web of a spider. Now the mother of five grown children, that image had evanesced and reappeared in an avalanche of fat, something that he found dislikable even as he would insist that she cooked delectably as no one else can. She had tried to obscure the bulge under a loose housedress but rather than distracting one’s eyes to the obvious, she merely ended up looking like an overfed mother goose whenever she would take a seat as it flattened out her enormous underside. She had become, in his eyes, a caricature of everything he liked to behold in a woman—contoured breasts, threadlike waistline,
He can’t even recall when he realized that he no longer loved his wife. Probably the downhill affection started when the children were growing up; when his wife got so sunken in the household matters that filled her hands so that her hair rode her head in a stench and convoluted tangle day in day out. Together they have become unwitting participants in a phantom of a marriage that, for all practical and sexual purposes, was as flat as a wedding day’s champagne left uncorked. The charade of his marriage and the nauseating social conduct of his office were the mundane preoccupations. The same long days at the school; the obligatory pedantry towards the mothers of mentally arrested children oversucked into making sure their kid’s needs are met.
Morbidly faithful, they persisted in the marriage; the wedded bliss which turned into an emotive paralysis. He sensed that his wife must likewise be as unhappy as he was. For his part, he assumed that this was because he had to live through this dreariness; that the past was many years behind him. His midriff bulge will hold him back into doing the limbo rock. His permed Bob Marley hair, shorn to a decent haircut when he started to teach has now grayed and thinned.
Her dialogue rode on loops and curvy currents, sometimes in spurts of shriek amusement, sometimes sounded condescendingly ingenuous, but it was always scented and refreshing, splashing sea breeze into Lawrence Gaston’s face. Even the way she twirled her spaghetti at the end of her fork during lunch that following day looked sensuous. She said she was taking him to her house after lunch for some beers and a promise of getting him off his treadmill.
He remembered it well, how Anna Zubieta served his beer. Holding her eyes on him, she wiped the trickling water off the bottle of beer, fresh out of the refrigerator, by coiling her fingers around its neck and pushing them down to the base. She did that motion several times while he watched, grunting like a pig on a rut, at every vicarious stroke. He woke up about 7:00 o’clock that night, a few breaths away from panic, the way people are initially startled when roused in an unfamiliar house. Coming home, his wife had looked at him deadpan, aware that the alibi he offered was more hollow than the bowl of plastic fruit on top of her dinner table.
For a couple of months, he was freed of straining himself with the futility of putting up with his wife and their overwearried marriage. With Anna Zubieta, he took back his lost younger years, the acid drops in his reputation recklessly exchanged for the vagaries of his adolescence. Lawrence Gaston considered himself lucky, peacocky lucky. From under his rock he had come out and dared to explore the tableau of most men’s lives, often though not always, prey to a fascination for the forbidden—of which he is now a leading star by taking Anna Zubieta, the earth goddess, the unapologetic Eve, beautiful even as she slept, as his lover. Leaving his wife was an attractive option, in fact, he had speculated on that for quite a time.
On a truanting spree before lunch one day, Lawrence Gaston decided to surprise Anna at her apartment with a pot of blooming gardenias. He knocked on her door and waited for her to open it as he felt that usual internal change in his body chemistry charging up through him. He liked that feeling, being at the mercy of man’s aboriginal desire, his heart pounding with glandular emotions.
It was a much younger man who opened her door as she came out of her bedroom blanketing herself with her bathrobe. For a few seconds Lawrence Gaston remained on his feet in unmerciful silence as Anna averted her eyes. He looked down, embarrassed by the weight of a dwarfed self-esteem. When at last he found his voice, he told the young man he must have knocked on the wrong door.
Reaction to brutalities, or to anything else for that matter, is not learned in school. People build fortifications around themselves to safeguard their vulnerability until their moats cracked and then every man was on his own, trudging on pitted roads. It was difficult for him to define, having been propelled to the top then to abruptly slide down. Nevertheless, he thought, it was not easy to be unmortified by the demise of that affair. He had lived on the verge and that itself evidenced something great existed, uplifted his days that used to drag on him, drenched and jazzed him up, made him forget the dread and pain of aging.
Now he asked himself, was that love he had for her? Lust? The kind that shoehorned him in those two months with her? He knew of the risks, yet he was inevitably seduced to lose his head, muddled away everything he thought highly of—emotional independence, moral integrity, distaste for promiscuity—when Anna came. Perhaps it was tristesse, that desiderium to go back to a yesterday, to something worth keeping, to someone unforgettable, that undefined yearning to grasp at a phantom that is in everyone.
He was home early that evening. The smell of garlic-filled chicken adobo pleased his nostrils as he closed the front gate. His wife was wearing another of her loose housedresses when she opened the door for him. Lawrence Gaston winced.
“I brought you a pot of gardenias.”
“My favorite flower. Isn’t it rich,” she snapped at him.
He understood her tone as one of utter disbelief, even of dismissal. Lawrence Gaston mentally punched himself. He thought he heard a thud, but it was a hollow boom and did not hurt him a bit.