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I ripped the letter in half, then fourths, eights, until tiny pieces of paper covered the small kitchen table like so many chips of dried white paint. Who did Claudio think he was? A satiated lord discarding his concubine? He’d gorged at the full table and then grew sick of the food and drink he’d so coveted. Five weeks of waiting and waiting for a letter, a call, a postcard – the early morning check of the empty mail box, the silent telephone, the walls that seemed to whisper you fool.
I glanced over at the green fruit bowl, empty since his goodbye, unable to bear the sight of green and red grapes, Claudio’s favorite. Dionysus fruit – I a Maenad, swirling and gyrating around my intoxicated god, clusters of the glistening fruit in my hand like a thyrsus. What if I’d held a cooking pot, a broom, a scouring pad, a soiled diaper, a sickly baby? Would Claudio still want to see me dance? Or would he be sickened by the sight of his ravished bride?
Lately there had been signs, signs I’d refused to see, but the rumblings in the air, like the sound of distant thunder before a storm, were real. Azure eyes restless, wavering, time spent together turning shorter, more hurried. Always a reason, a relative waiting, a friend in need, tiredness, an early client the next day. Even in that fervid night before departing for Italy, he said, “I promised my father I’d be home earlier tonight. I’m only twenty one, you know. My father hasn’t been happy with me walking in at all hours. It’s not the Italian way, not to respect one’s parents.”
And still I said nothing. Though I’d known for seven weeks.
Twice I’d brought up the idea of marriage, children, settling down, two people building a life together. The first time, Claudio just smiled. The second was at Nancy’s wedding, a hairdresser at my salon. The wedding had been a rushed affair, her bun-in-the-oven showing under the white satin dress. I was embarrassed for her, embarrassed for women who didn’t do the right thing. Ha, how easy to criticize others!
“Aren’t we happy?” Claudio had replied, as though he’d been prepared, lines rehearsed, defenses ready. “Aren’t we having fun? Every married guy I know wishes he was single. My two sisters are divorced, both having been abandoned by their husbands, struggling to raise children on their own. My father gets drunk every Saturday so he can cope with the rest of the week. I never heard a kind word between him and my mother.”
Claudio and I had been seeing each other regularly for one year, since I’d left my first husband, Eduardo, and walked out on my whole family – my mother, father and younger brother, Manuelito; we had all been living together at the time in that new back-split in Mississauga.
Only my father had come to see me once in that whole time. I’d hoped he’d missed me but he came to recover the $1500.00 he’d lent me for the down-payment on the house. Manuelito, with whom I’d been so close, never even bothered to pick up the phone. Claudio was all I had. He was my family, my friend, my boundless world. I was finally free from a marriage I’d never wanted. Now I was desired, loved, or so I thought. In the letter, Claudio didn’t write a word of love or “I miss you,” or even a hint of commitment. Just two pages describing the swarms of pigeons in Venice, the raging Lambrettas on narrow cobblestoned streets, the delicious food and cheap wine, vineyards shining in the golden sun of the Tuscan hills, the beautifully dressed people and, “I’ll call you when I get back.”
How could that be? “You’re like no other,” Claudio mumbled between gasps, muted explosions, even on that last night, his sweaty, spent body framing mine long afterwards, a velvet cover, my nail marks on his back. “I’m a thirsty castaway and I can’t drink enough of you.”
I thought of the woman roaming the streets of Amendoeiro when I was growing up. We called her Vagabunda. She’d walk by slowly, always humming some discordant tune, her hazed gaze somewhere in the distance, never on you, she never turning her head one way or the other, her belongings in a dirty grey cloth sack hanging over her back. No one knew her name or where she’d come from or where she slept at night – she never spoke to anyone. Bakeries in town gave her old bread, a cookie or two, grocers, rotting vegetables and fruit. My grandmother gave her a few figs, pears, and Muscat grapes from her own garden at harvest time; my mother, a bowl of soup now and then. Knowing Vagabunda’s age was difficult, long hair matted, face unwashed, clothes ragged and filthy, a smell of sewage wafting from her as she passed by. One day she was pregnant. The culprit was never found, never owed up to what he’d done. A woman heard screams one evening as she passed an abandoned shack on the outskirts of town. She found Vagabunda yanking the baby out of her body, dirty hands dripping in blood. Others came to help. “O desgraçado died after inhaling his first breath,” the woman told everyone the next morning. “The disgraced one was born to die,” my mother repeated after the news had flooded the town, people restless for gossip, for anything to liven their bored lives. “Born to die,” was what my father said when a sickly chick from a poorly hatched egg had to be killed. No one ever blamed the man who impregnated Vagabunda. “Men are men,” women said, even my mother and grandmother. “They can’t help themselves. It’s up to women to be smart, protect their chastity, make the right choices, be on guard.”
Had I been on guard? I caved in to Claudio’s first kiss, lips full, warm, fingers soft as cumulus clouds under my dress, searching, searching, something in me unfurling with each touch, giving in, overflowing desire like an overfilled cup. But was love for Claudio just the grasping, the unfathomable hunger, the release? Sometimes, he whisked me to the bedroom or the couch or the rug on the living-room floor even before three words were spoken or my period even finished “It’s okay, I can’t wait.” I took him, always took him, happy to be wanted, the green fruit bowl brimming with Dionysus fruit waiting for him, filled before his every visit, I dancing, whirling, toward his every desire.
What was I thinking? Did I imagine grapes to be the bewitching potions women fed philandering husbands back in Amendoeiro? Evenings after some late visit to family or friends when my mother and I passed the brothel at the entrance to the old road behind our house, we’d see crowds of men waiting their turn outside, whistling and screaming obscenities as we walked by, fodas, fodas – I’d wonder why the magic potions, the chants and prayers of their women, had failed. “Married men grow tired of their wives; domesticity dulls them,” women said. Was that what Claudio feared? The dullness of everyday until death-do-us-part?
The clock on the kitchen table showed 4:30, the white clock rising above the white mound of the torn letter like some monument to peace but no doves flew from it. The outdoor lights of the modest U-shaped, red-brick apartment complex on Lawrence and Keele (all I could afford on my own), flickered earlier than usual, lighting up the early darkness of the cold, rainy October afternoon. Fall engulfing Toronto with a vengeance this year, as though pushed by a restless winter, I feeling as low as the temperature, feeling as if I’d swallowed a cupful of glass.
I switched on the lamp.
My reflection on the living room window didn’t show any changes, no bun-in-the-oven yet protruding from under my mini brown woollen dress. Not yet, the doctor said, likely in four or five months. For now, only morning nausea and ghostly paleness.
Vagabunda’s baby had been denied burial in the Cimiterio de Misericordia in Montijo by Father Santinho, denied baptism too, the baby having no father, Vagabunda not married. Hierarchy in the kingdom of heaven. Selection in the empire of blessings. Did Jesus know? Where had the baby been buried? Who’d buried it? Had the stray dogs dug it up the way they’d dug up the chicken with fowl-pox my father had once buried so as not to contaminate the whole flock?
Was that what Father Santinho feared? Contamination of his blessed flock?
The stuffed grey racoon Claudio gave me the night he left seemed to be smirking at me from the side table. No explanation, he’d just handed it to me as he walked in. An offering. A tiny black heart hung from the racoon’s mouth. I hadn’t noticed the tiny black heart until now. Was it a coded message for broken-hearted lovers? A disguised Morse code of goodbye? I don’t love you anymore; my heart has turned black. He’d won it at the Exhibition.
I placed the racoon in a shoebox, threw in bits of the letter, crumbled a few cookies and slices of bread on top, threw in a note, Reflections on your life, October 15, 1980. Then I sealed the box with tape and tears. He would return in a week; I’d mail it then.
His life? What about my life? I’d given up my family for Claudio the way penitent Catholics give up the thing they love most for Lent, a down-payment for immortality, sacrifice showered with salvation. I did it for love, the stuff of romances, poetry, movies, TV, songs, stories passed on from one generation to the next, all those who died for love or the absence of it. Oh, that elusive wanderer! Find love and your life will shine like a guiding star through the dark abyss. Romeo and Juliet killed themselves for it. So did Emilia, that triste throwing herself into her father’s well after her boyfriend found someone else. Amendoeiro talked of Emilia for years afterwards, a warning for young girls. “Be careful who you give your heart to.” But how does one know? After the lips and tongues and spasms, how do we peek into the heart?
I turned on the TV, something to shut out the extreme quiet, to stifle the secret murmurs coming from the walls. A beautiful young woman appeared, wet hair framing her angelic face – she has obviously just taken a bath or shower, she covers herself in Johnson & Johnson baby powder while crooning, BABY POWDER, GIRLY POWER.
Sex, babies… How would I manage? I knew a few women who’d had abortions. It was now legal in Canada. Helen, the receptionist at work had had three or four, one just this past winter. She was married, had three daughters, and she and her husband liked sex-in-the-raw. “No rubbers for us or pills for me.”
“The abortion was nothing,” she said. She’d come to work the next day. “Just a bit of discomfort like a bad menstrual pain.”
One strike and Claudio’s seed would stop growing, squashed, like a cockroach under a shoe. Finished. Nothing. Or was it a cut that did it? A stabbing? A poking? A sucking? Was the fetus, or its mangled parts, buried or just thrown down the incinerator, flushed down the toilet?
My aunt Luisa nearly died back in Amendoeiro, blood gushing out of her like a geyser. Crow, the old woman, who’d done the clandestine deed, ran as fast as a mouse in the light when she heard the doctor was being summoned, her knitting needles and scissors still dripping in blood as she dashed by me toward the door.
“Oh, the days of knitting needles are long past,” Helen said. “Different times now, your doctor does it for you. It’s all very safe. A woman should be in control of her own body, don’t you think? It should be her choice.”
Her body, her choice. I wasn’t so sure, the picture wasn’t so clear for me. Something inside me was seeking to be, to exist, to become. What was its choice?
Choice, choice, I was sick of the word. Claudio was back for two weeks and still he hadn’t bothered to call. What choice did I have? Maybe he was still finding himself, words he’d used when announcing his need to go alone to Italy. “I need to make up my mind about a few things, need to think.” I knew that the two things were his ex-girlfriend – someone he was seeing before we became involved – and me.
Saturday evening. A knock on the apartment door, a stranger filling the door frame. No hugs or kisses or gifts – I didn’t expect any – except he was holding the black shoebox in both hands. I blushed at its sight.
Tall, eyes bluer than I remembered, black hair messily falling over his chiseled tanned face, an air of traveled worldliness, of things experienced, drunk and tasted, his presence naming everything in the apartment, lighting up the starless November sky menacing the large window. He stood before me, a river of awkwardness and hurt separating and silencing us, fixing us on either side of its banks.
Claudio at my door!
Ah! This time I wasn’t going to let my resolve fold upon itself, as it’d done before. Who did he think he was? Did he imagine he’d just show up and the hurt, the humiliation, would wash away like winter ice in spring thaw? Stand at my door and I’d begin my dervish swirl, place a crown of grapes on his head? This time the words were carefully chosen and ready.
“Claudio,” I would stare him in the eye, “you don’t love me enough. I don’t want to see you anymore.”
I imagined him walking away, blue eyes yellow with sorrow, me free from his nail-studded love, bringing me nothing but sorrow, regret, and his seed growing in me.
Instead I said, “I’ll make tea.”
I turned toward the kitchen and Claudio walked across the living room, sitting on the Scandinavian red chair he always sat on. Hands shaking, heart beating, I managed to fill the kettle with water, my eyes, two paint brushes, coloring the tea kettle, the cup, the kitchen, my mind in a grey shade of expectation and confusion.
Should I tell him tonight? What if he walks out and I never see him again?
Calm down, down, down, you’re not putty to be molded as he sees fit, a door rug to be trampled on.
I’d manage. When I could no longer work and pay the rent I’d move into that home for single mothers on Euclid Avenue run by nuns. I’d seen young women come and go for years on my way to the bus stop. Maybe I’d give the baby up for adoption.
What? Push that thought away. Who’d raise it, love it, coddle it, nurse it, name it? My baby in the care of strangers? Never – I’d find a way.
The boiling kettle fogged up the kitchen. I heard Claudio’s footsteps at the stereo and the sound of a 45 dropping. Percy Sledge began shouting, When A Man Loves A Woman. Claudio had given me the record for my twentieth birthday.
I placed the two peppermint-tea-filled mugs on the coffee table next to the shoebox with the racoon. Claudio had placed it there, like a silent punishment, a reminder of my cruelty.
He turned to face me: our eyes locked. There was desire and pain and fear in his. Perhaps repentance too.
His embrace nearly knocked me backwards, his lips swallowing mine, tongue seeking, the anger between us fading away as fast as fog in sunshine.
“Claudio, I have to tell you something.”
“Can it wait?” He kissed me again, pulling me tight against his swelling sex.
When I caught my breath, I said, “I’ve known since before you left for Italy. It’s over three months now. I didn’t want to spoil your holiday.”
He held me gently by the shoulders, puzzled eyes staring at my face. “What? You’re not on the pill?”
I shook my head.
“Let us drink the tea.”
He took off his coat and sat down.
Vagabunda stopped humming after the birth. She’d be seen meandering through the Pinhal, the thick eucalyptus and pine woods outside of town, any time of day or night, or walking along the muddy river, or sunning herself in wheat fields, arms outstretched, face up to the sky, always alone. A living scarecrow. One day she was gone. No one knew where she went or what happened to her, she soon becoming an old story. But that September when my grandmother harvested her figs, pears, grapes, I refused to eat any.