Sometimes life comes crashing down, heavy and cold as a dead-weight. This is how I felt on opening the office door. It had all felt so cozy, so intimate, so mine. Before.
And yet to the naked eye there was no reason for apprehension; everything remained just as I had left it. Shelves crammed with books, bulletin board full of schedules and reminders. Folders, filing cabinets, old playbills, envelopes addressed to me. The calendar frozen two months back, July 1999. Everything stood intact in that space which for fourteen years had been my haven, where semester after semester I’d welcomed countless students lost in doubt or searching for something.The only thing that had changed were the props that supported me. Shattered.
Several minutes went by, perhaps even ten. Sufficient time, in any event, for me to come to a decision. My first order of business was to dial a telephone number. In reply I only got the icy courtesy of a voice mail. Hesitating whether or not to hang up, I decided to leave a message.“Rosalia, it’s Blanca Perea. I have to get out of here, I need your help. I don’t know where I could go; it’s all the same to me. Somewhere I don’t know a soul and no one knows me. I realize it’s the worst timing, with the semester about to begin, but call me as soon as you can, please.”
I felt better after leaving the message. I knew I could trust Rosalia Martin, both her understanding and her goodwill. We had known each other since our early days at the university, when I was a young professor with a meager temporary contract and she was responsible for running a recently established department of international relations. Although our friendship had diluted somewhat with the passing of time, I knew Rosalia’s mettle and was sure that my cry for help would be answered.
Only after the phone call could I muster enough energy to face my duties. My e-mail in-box opened like an overflowing dam of messages, and I dove into its current for a good while, answering some and discarding others that were outdated or of no import. until the telephone interrupted me, and I answered with a curt “Yes . . . ?”
“What’s the matter with you, madwoman? Where do you want to go at this point? And what’s with all the rush?” Rosalia’s impassioned voice brought back the memories of so many shared experiences. Hours on end sitting in front of the black-and-white screen of a prehistoric computer. Shared visits to foreign universities in search of exchange programs and partnerships, double rooms in non descript hotels, dawns spent waiting in empty airports. With the passage of time we’d gone our separate ways, but the traces of an old complicity remained alive, and that is why I told her everything. Without reservation, with brutal honesty. In a couple of minutes she knew all she needed to know. That Alberto had left me. That the assumed solidity of my marriage had vanished during the first days of summer; that my kids had already flown the nest; that I’d spent the last couple of months awkwardly trying to adjust to my new reality. And that now, facing the new semester,I lacked the stamina to stay afloat in the setting I’d lived comfortably in for years, simply latching onto my responsibilities and routines as if my life hadn’t undergone a swift sure gash like a knife through flesh.
With a dose of pragmatism equal to her body’s considerable size, Rosalia immediately absorbed the situation and realized that the last thing I needed was well-meaning sugarcoated advice. So she did not delve into details or offer me her soft shoulder as solace. She only made a comment that, as I might have expected, bordered on bluntness.
“Well, I’m afraid it won’t be that easy for us, honey.” She spoke in the plural, immediately taking on the matter as something we were in together. “The deadlines for interesting things passed months ago,” she added, “and the next fellowship application deadlines are still some months away. But the semester is just beginning, and I don’t know if we’ve received anything new in the last couple of weeks. Give me until the end of the day to see if I can come up with something.”
I spent the rest of the morning wandering around the university. I took care of pending paperwork, returned books to the library, and had coffee afterwards. Nothing sufficient to distract me while waiting for Rosalia’s call. I was overanxious and lacked confidence. At a quarter to two I rapped on her office door, which was ajar. Inside, serene as always, and with violet-tinted hair, Rosalia was busy at work.
“I was just about to call you,” she announced, without even giving me time to greet her. Pointing to the computer screen, she proceeded to reel off what she’d found. “Three things came in during the holidays. They’re not that bad—more than I expected, to tell you the truth. Three universities and three different activities. Lithuania, Portugal, and the united States. California, specifically. None are cushy jobs, mind you, and they all promise to work your ass off without contributing much to your curriculum vitae, but it’s better than nothing, right? Where would you like me to start?”
I shrugged, pursing my lips slightly to stifle a smile: this was my first glimpse of optimism in a long time. In the meantime, Rosalia adjusted her chewing-gum-green glasses and redirected her gaze to the computer, scrutinizing its contents.
“Lithuania, for instance. They’re looking for specialists in linguistic pedagogy for a new teacher training program. Two months. They have a European union subsidy, which requires an international group. And this is in your line of work, right?” Indeed it was. Applied linguistics, language pedagogy, curriculum design. I’d been treading that path for the last two decades of my life. But before succumbing to the first siren’s song, I chose to inquire a bit further.
“University of Espirito Santo, in Sintra. Private, modern, loaded. They’ve put together a master’s program in teaching Spanish as a foreign language, and are looking for experts in methodology. The deadline is this Friday—in other words now. A twelve-week intensive course, with enough teaching hours to choke a horse. The salary isn’t too bad, so I imagine they must have loads of applications. But in your favor you have all those years of slogging away, and we’ve got a wonderful relationship with Espirito Santo, so it might not be too hard for us to get it.”
That offer seemed infinitely more tempting than the Lithuanian one. Sintra, with its forests and palaces, so close to Lisbon, and yet near to home. Rosalia’s voice brought me out of my reverie.
“And lastly, California,” she resumed, without ungluing her eyes from the screen. “I see this possibility as more iffy, but we can take a look at it, just in case. university of Santa Cecilia, north of San Francisco. The information we have is rather scant right now: the proposal has just come in and I haven’t had time to ask for more. At first glance, it seems like a grant financed by a private foundation, although the work will be carried out on campus. The endowment offered is nothing to write home about, but you’d be able to survive.”
“What does the work consist of, basically?”
“It has something to do with the compilation and classification of documents, and they’re looking for someone of Spanish nationality with a PhD in any area of the humanities.” Removing her glasses, she added: “Normally this type of grant goes to people with a lower professional standing than you, so you’d certainly stand out from the rest when it comes to evaluating the candidates. And California, dear, is a real temptation, so, if you wish, I can try to get further information.”
“Sintra,” I insisted, refusing the third offer. Twelve weeks. Perhaps enough time for my wounds to stop stinging. Far enough away to distance me from my immediate reality, close enough for me to return frequently in the event that my situation resolved itself suddenly and everything returned to normal. “Sintra sounds perfect,” I stated categorically. Half an hour later I left Rosalia’s office, the electronic application sent. I had a thousand details in my head, a handful of papers in my hand, and the feeling that perhaps luck, in a haphazard fashion, had finally decided to take my side. The rest of the day went by in a sort of limbo. I ate a grilled vegetable sandwich, without much appetite, in the faculty cafeteria and went on working distractedly all afternoon. At seven I attended the presentation of a new book by a colleague in the Ancient History Department. I tried to get away as soon as it was over, but afterwards a few colleagues dragged me with them in search of a cold beer and I didn’t have the strength to decline. It was close to ten when I finally reached home. In the semidarkness before I turned on the light I could see the answering machine blinking insistently in the far corner of the living room. Then I remembered that I’d turned my cell phone off when the presentation began and had forgotten to switch it back on. The first message was from Pablo, my younger son. Charming, incoherent, and vague, with loud music and laughter in the background. I had difficulty understanding his rushed words.
“Mother, it’s me, where the hell are you? . . . I’ve called your cell phone a bunch of times to tell you . . . I’m not coming back this week either, I’m staying at the beach, and . . . and . . . well, I’ll keep on trying you, okay?”
“Pablo,” I whispered, pausing the machine to search for his face amid the bookshelves. There it was, photographed a dozen times. Sometimes alone but almost always with his older brother, so alike the two of them. The eternal smiles, the black bangs covering the eyes. Rowdy sequences from their twenty-two and twenty-three years of life. Indians, pirates, and Flintstones in school plays, blowing out an ever-increasing number of candles on cakes. Summer camps, Christmas scenes. Fragments printed on Kodak paper, memory cut outs of a close-knit family that, as such, no longer existed. With my son Pablo still lingering in my mind, I pressed the Play button to listen to the next message.
“Uh . . . Blanca, it’s Alberto. You don’t answer your cell phone, I don’t know if you’re home. uh . . . I’m calling you because . . . um . . . to tell you that . . . uh . . . Well, it’s better if I tell you afterwards, when I reach you. I’ll call you later. Good-bye, talk to you later. Bye.”
My husband’s blundering voice left me restless. Or rather, my ex-husband’s. I was clueless as to what he wanted to tell me, but from his tone I hardly expected good news. My first reaction was, as usual, to think that something must have happened to one of my kids. From the previous message I knew that Pablo was fine; I then quickly rescued the cell phone from my bag, switched it on, and called David.
“Are you okay?” I inquired impatiently as soon as I heard his voice.
“Yes, of course I’m okay. How about you?”
He sounded tense. Perhaps it was only a false perception due to the phone connection. Perhaps not.
“Me, well, more or less . . . The thing is that Dad called and—”
“I know,” he interrupted me. “He just called me too. How did you take it?”
“How did I take what?”
“About the kid.”
“The one he’s going to have with Eva.”
Without the power of thought or sight, impenetrable as a marble mausoleum or a sidewalk curb, I remained suspended in a void for an indeterminate time. When I was again conscious of reality, I heard David’s voice screaming from the telephone, which had fallen on my lap. “I’m still here,” I finally answered. And without giving him more time to inquire any further, I ended the conversation. “Everything’s fine; I’ll call you later.”
I sat still on the sofa, gazing into nowhere while trying to digest the news that my husband was going to have a kid with the woman he’d left me for barely two months ago. Alberto’s third kid: that third child he never wanted to have with me despite my long insistence. The one who would be born from a belly that wasn’t mine and in a house that was not our own. I felt anguish rising unchecked from my stomach, announcing waves of nausea and distress. With hurried staggering steps, bumping against the doorway to the hall, I managed to reach the bathroom. I flung myself over the toilet and, down on my knees, began vomiting. I remained kneeling there for a long while, my forehead glued to the wall’s cold tiles as I tried to find a shred of coherence in the midst of the confusion. When I was finally able to stand up, I washed my hands slowly, deliberately, allowing the lathery water to run between my fingers. Then I brushed my teeth methodically, giving my brain time to work in a parallel manner, unhurriedly. Finally I returned to the living room with a clean mouth and hands, an empty stomach, a clear mind, and a numb heart. I found my cell phone on the carpet and dialed a number, but no one answered. Once more, I left my message on the answering machine. “It’s Bianca again, Rosalia. Change of plans. I have to go farther away, longer, immediately. Please find out whatever you can about that California fellowship.”
Nine days later I landed at the San Francisco airport. The abrupt cessation of hammering brought me back to reality. I looked to see what time it was. Noon. Only then was I conscious of the number of hours I had spent rummaging through papers without the slightest idea what to do with them. I rose from the floor with difficulty, noticing that my joints were numb. While dusting off my hands, I stood on tiptoe and peered out the small window close to the ceiling. The only thing I saw was a building under construction and the sturdy boots of a handful of workers bustling about with their lunch pails amid stacks of wooden planks. I felt a sharp pain in my stomach: a mixture of weakness, bewilderment, and hunger. I had reached California the previous evening after three planes and countless hours of flight. After picking up my luggage and feeling momentarily disoriented, I spotted my name written in thick blue letters on a small piece of cardboard. It was held up by a robust woman with a lost look and of indeterminate age, thirty-seven, forty, forty-something, perhaps, with a vanilla-colored dress and a blunt haircut that ended at the jawline. I went up to her, but not even when I was standing in front of her did she seem to notice my presence. “I’m Blanca Perea, I think you’re looking for me.”
I thought I was mistaken: she was not looking for me. Not for me nor for anyone else. She simply remained static and absent, apart from the moving mass, immune to the terminal’s hectic bustle. “Blanca Perea,” I repeated. “Professor Blanca Perea, from Spain.”
She finally reacted, opening and closing her eyes quickly, as if she had just returned hastily from an astral voyage. Extending her hand, she shook mine with an abrupt jolt; then, without a word, she took off without waiting for me while I made an effort to follow, juggling two suitcases, a handbag, and a laptop bag dangling from my shoulder.
The white 4×4 vehicle awaiting us in the parking lot had been parked diagonally, brashly invading two adjacent parking spots. JESUS LOVES YOU could be read on a sticker in the rear window. With a sudden powerful acceleration that belied the stolid appearance of its driver, we headed into the humid night along San Francisco Bay. Destination: Santa Cecilia. She drove glued to the wheel and focused. We hardly spoke during the entire journey; she simply answered my questions with monosyllables and brief scraps of information. All the same, I learned a few things. Her name was Fanny Stern, she worked for the university, and her immediate objective was to drop me off at the apartment that, along with a modest stipend, was part of the fellowship granted to me. I still had only a vague idea of what my new assignment entailed, since the suddenness of my departure had prevented me from obtaining more detailed information. That didn’t worry me, however, for there would be plenty of time to find out. In any case, I expected my job to be neither stimulating nor rewarding. For the time being, I was just happy to be able to flee my reality like a bat out of hell. In spite of my lack of sleep, when the alarm clock surprised me at seven a.m. the next day, I was reasonably awake and clear-minded. I got up and immediately jumped into the shower, preventing the fresh consciousness of morning from revisiting the dark road I’d travelled in recent days. With the sunlight I was able to confirm what I had intuited the previous night: that this nondescript apartment intended for visiting professors would turn out to be a suitable refuge for me. A small living room and basic kitchen were integrated at one end. A bedroom, a plain bathroom. Bare walls, sparse and neutral furniture. An anonymous shelter, but decent. Livable. Acceptable. I roamed the streets in search of a place to have breakfast while absorbing what Santa Cecilia had on display. In the apartment I’d found a folder bearing my name with all the necessary information to help orient me: a map, a pamphlet, a writing pad with the university’s logo.
Nothing else was needed. I found no trace of the Californian scenery familiar from television series and the collective imagination. No coast, no swaying palm trees or mansions with ten bathrooms. That super wealthy California, a paradise of technology, nonconformity, and showbiz, was clearly elsewhere.
Ravenous, I finally sat down at a nearby coffee shop. While devouring a blueberry muffin and drinking a watery cup of coffee, I slowly took in the scenery. There was a large square clotted with trees and surrounded by renovated buildings with an adobe appearance that gave the whiff of a past halfway between America and Mexico, with a residue of something vaguely Spanish. Lined up on the opposite side of the square were a First National Bank branch, a souvenir shop, the all-important post office, and a CVS pharmacy. My next goal was to reach Guevara Hall, where I would find the Modern Languages Department. This was to serve as my work environment for a still undetermined number of months. Whether this interval would turn out to be an effective balm or a simple Band-Aid for my wounds remained to be seen, but in any case I would at least stop feeling trapped. Entering the campus, I remained vigilant so as not to get lost in that maze of paths where throngs of students were making their way by bike or on foot to their classrooms. The noise of the department’s photocopying machine masked the sound of my steps and prevented Fanny, who was working there, from noticing my arrival until I was right beside her. She raised her eyes and stared at me again for several seconds with her inexpressive face. Extending her right arm with an automaton’s precision and pointing to the open door of an office, she announced: “Someone is waiting for you.” Having nothing further to say, she turned and went off with that same dull gait as on the previous evening at the airport.
I took a quick glance at the sign on the door as I entered. Rebecca Cullen, the name on almost all e-mails I’d received prior to departure, finally had a tangible place and presence. In addition to all the files and transcripts in her office were paintings saturated with colour, family pictures, and a bouquet of white lilies. Her greeting was an affectionate, warm handshake. Her clear eyes lit up a pretty face from which the wrinkles did not detract. A large lock of silvery hair fell over her forehead. I figured she was in her sixties, and I had a feeling that she must be one of those indispensable secretaries who, with a third of their superiors’ salaries, are usually three times as competent. “Well, Blanca, finally . . . It’s been a total surprise to learn that we have a visiting researcher this semester. We’re delighted . . .”
To my relief, we were able to communicate without a problem. I had laid the groundwork for my English during stays in the U.K. and had strengthened it through years of study and frequent contact with British universities. However, my experience regarding North America had only been sporadic: a few conferences, a family celebration in New York after my son Pablo passed his university entrance exam, and a brief research stint in Maryland. So I was reassured to confirm that I’d be able to cope on the West Coast without any great language barrier.
“I think I told you in one of my last messages that the head of our department, Dr. Luis Zarate, would be at a conference in Philadelphia, so in the meantime I’ll be the one in charge of orienting you in your work.”
Rebecca Cullen explained in general terms what I more or less knew I was expected to accomplish: to order and assess the legacy of an old faculty member who had died decades earlier. It was financed by SAPAM, the newly created foundation for Scientific Assessment of Philological Academic Manuscripts.
“His name was Andres Fontana and, as you know, he was a Spaniard. He lived in Santa Cecilia until his death in 1969, and was much beloved, but the usual thing happened afterwards. Since he didn’t have any family in this country, no one came forward to claim his things and, awaiting someone to decide what to do, they’ve sat here all these years, stacked in a basement.”
“Nothing has been moved since then?”
“Nothing, until SAPAM finally endowed a grant to carry out this project. To be perfectly honest,” she added in a knowing tone, “I think it’s rather shameful that three decades have already gone by, but that’s how things are: everyone’s always busy, the faculty comes and goes. And of all the people who were familiar with and esteemed Andres Fontana in his day, hardly anyone is left here except a few veterans like myself.”
I made an effort to disguise the fact that, if his own colleagues weren’t interested in that expatriate who had fallen into oblivion, I was even less so. “And now, if it’s okay with you,” she continued, getting back to practical matters, “first I’m going to show you your office and then
the storeroom where all the material is kept. You’ll have to forgive us: the news of your arrival has been rather sudden and we haven’t had a chance to find you a better spot.” I pretended to look in my bag for a tissue to blow my nose, waiting for Rebecca Cullen to change subjects, hoping she’d move on to another matter quickly and not delve into the reasons why a Spanish professor with a secure professional career, an impressive CV, a good salary, family, and contacts had decided so swiftly to pack a couple of suitcases and move to the other end of the world like someone fleeing the plague. My new office turned out to be a remote cubbyhole, with no comforts and a single window—narrow, off to one side, and not too clean overlooking the campus. There was a desk with an old computer and a heavy telephone supported by two sturdy outdated telephone books.
Relics from other times and other hands; decrepit surplus that no one wanted any longer. We’d get along well, I thought. After all, we were both in a state of depreciation.
“It’s important that you know how to find Fanny Stern: she’ll be in charge of supplying you with any materials you may need,” Rebecca announced, making way for me to navigate the turn that led into Fanny’s working space. On sticking my head in Fanny’s cubicle, I was overcome by a feeling of confusion but one that existed somewhere between tenderness and hilarity. There was not an inch of empty space on the walls, which were covered with playbills, calendars, posters of sunsets among snowy mountaintops, and sugary, optimistic messages like Don’t lose heart, you can make it; The sun always shines after a storm; and There’s always a helping hand nearby. In the middle of all this, beatific and absent, sat Fanny, gobbling up a white chocolate bar as greedily as a five-year-old. Before Fanny managed to finish swallowing and greet us, Rebecca went over to her and stood behind her. Holding Fanny by the shoulders, she gave her an affectionate squeeze. “Fanny, you already know Professor Perea, our visiting researcher, and you know what office we’ve assigned her, right? Remember that you must help her with everything she asks for, okay?”
“Sure, Mrs. Cullen,” she answered with a full mouth. To emphasize her willingness, she nodded several times vigorously. “Fanny is very eager and a hard worker. Her mother was also part of this department for decades.” Rebecca spoke slowly, as if carefully choosing her words. “Darla Stern worked here many years, and for a while she held the position that I later took over. How is your mother, Fanny?” she asked.
“Mother is very well, Mrs. Cullen, thank you,” Fanny replied, nodding once more as she swallowed.
“Give her my regards. And now we’re off: I must show Professor Perea the storeroom,” she concluded. When we left, Fanny was again sinking her teeth into the chocolate bar, surrounded by her blissful posters and perhaps even some devil lurking somewhere in a drawer.
“Before retiring from the dean’s office about four years ago, her mother saw to it that Fanny remained in the department as a kind of inheritance,” Rebecca explained with no trace of irony. “She doesn’t have a great many tasks, because, as you may have noticed, her abilities are somewhat limited. But her responsibilities are well-defined and she manages reasonably well: she hands out the mail, is in charge of making photocopies, organizes supplies, and carries out small errands. She’s an essential part of this house. And she can be counted on whenever you
A labyrinth of hallways and stairs took us to a remote section of the basement. Rebecca, in front, moved about with the familiarity of someone who had trod these floors for ages. I, behind, tried in vain to commit to memory all the twists and turns, anticipating how often I’d get lost before finding my way around. Meanwhile, Rebecca reeled off some facts about the university. More than fourteen thousand students, she said, almost all from out of town. Initially it was a college and eventually evolved into its present-day status of small, somewhat prestigious university. She mentioned that it currently created the most jobs and the greatest revenue of any institution in the community. We reached a narrow hallway flanked by metallic doors. “And this, Bianca, is your storeroom,” she announced, turning the key in one of the locks. When she finally opened it, with some difficulty, she flipped several switches on and the fluorescent lights sputtered to life, blinding us. I saw before me a long, narrow room like the corridor of a train. The cement walls, which had not been painted, were lined with industrial shelving whose contents spoke of dislocation and oblivion. Through two horizontal windows located at a considerable height, some natural light filtered in and the sound of hammering from a nearby construction site could be heard. At first it seemed like a rectangular space; however, after we had taken a few steps forward, I realized that the apparent shape and size were somewhat deceiving. At the back end, to the left, the storehouse had an L-shaped space that unfolded into another room.
“Et voilà, ” she announced, flipping on another switch. “Professor Fontana’s legacy.”
I was filled with such a terrible feeling of discouragement that I was about to tell her not to leave me there, to take me with her, to shelter me in any corner of her hospitable human office, where her calm presence would mitigate my anxiety. Perhaps aware of my thoughts, she tried to rally my spirits. “Daunting, right? But I’m sure you’ll be making your way through it in no time, you’ll see . . .” she said as she took her leave.
My eagerness to flee my domestic demons had led me to imagine that a radical change of work and geography would anchor me. But on seeing that chaos—piles of papers, folders strewn on the floor, and boxes stacked one upon the other without a trace of coherence, I felt I’d made a huge mistake. Even so, there was no turning back. Too late, too many bridges burned. And there I was, marooned in the basement of a campus at the farthest reaches of a foreign country, while thousands of miles away my sons ventured forth alone in the first stretch of their adult lives, and the man who until then had been my husband was about to relive the passionate adventure of paternity with a blond lawyer fifteen years younger than me. I leaned against the wall and covered my face with my hands. Everything seemed to be getting worse and I was running out of strength to endure it. Nothing seemed to be sorting itself out; nothing moved forward. Not even the immense distance had brought me a glimmer of hope. Even though I had promised myself to be strong, to endure courageously and not surrender, I began to notice that salty, murky taste of saliva that precedes weeping. Somehow I was able to hold back, to calm down and thereby halt the threat of succumbing. One step before descending into the void, some mechanism beyond my will kicked in and transported me via memory to a time far in the past. There I was, with the same chestnut-coloured hair, the same slender body, and two dozen fewer years, facing adverse circumstances that were nonetheless unable to knock me down. My promising college studies were truncated in their fourth year by an unexpected pregnancy, intolerant parents who were unable to accept the blow, and a sad emergency wedding. An immature counterpart as a husband. A freezing subterranean apartment as a home. A scrawny baby that cried inconsolably and all the uncertainty of the world before me. Times of mackerel sandwiches for dinner, cigarettes of dark tobacco, and lousy tap water. Poorly paying private classes and translations on the kitchen table seasoned with more imagination than exactitude; days short on sleep with lots of rushing, shortages, anxiety, and confusion. I didn’t have a bank account; all I had was the unconscious strength provided by my twenty-one years, a recently born baby boy, and the closeness of the person I thought was going to be my life mate.
Suddenly, everything had turned upside down and now I was alone, no longer struggling to bring up that skinny crying little kid, nor his brother, who came into the world barely a year and a half later. I no longer had to fight for that young rash marriage to work out, to help my husband in his professional aspirations, to achieve my own career by studying at dawn with borrowed notes and a stove at my feet. To pay for babysitters, day care, baby food, and a third hand Renault 5, to finally move to a rented apartment with central heating and two terraces. To prove to the world that my existence was not a failure. All this had been left behind and in this new chapter only I was left. Impelled by the sudden lucidity that the memories had brought, I removed my hands from my face, and as my eyes grew accustomed to the cold ugly light, I rolled my shirtsleeves up past my elbows.
“Greater heights than this have been scaled,” I whispered.
I had no idea about where to start organizing the disastrous legacy of Professor Andres Fontana, but I rushed headlong to work as if my entire life depended on the task.