by Jose Sotolongo
“What kind of name is Octavian, anyway?” he had asked his mother when he was twelve and starting to look at girls.
He combed his hair meticulously in front of the bathroom mirror, turning this way and that, checking the shave job, getting ready for his date. It was ten in the morning.
“You going out again?” his mother called in through the thin bathroom door.
“I haven’t been out today yet.”
“I mean this Saturday, today, again. You promised your father you’d help clean the windows.” It was May, and the screens needed washing and installing after their winter rest in the grimy basement His father should have been able to do it himself, but he was more likely than not to spend his weekends downing six-pack after six-pack. “What kind of school club is this you have to go to every Saturday, Octavian?”
“It’s a book club, Mom,” he said, opening the bathroom door. Clara, pudgy under hair tinted red with copper highlights, was standing just outside the door, puffing on her fourth cigarette of the day. He tried to swerve around the cloud of smoke to avoid smelling of it. Maria Teresa would detect it and would make a face when she hugged him later that morning.
“I haven’t seen you read all week,” she said, squinting at him, figuring him out. “And what’s with your waiting by the phone every Saturday morning?”
He didn’t answer as he went into the bedroom he shared with his fifteen year old mess-cat brother, Scott, and rummaged through the closet to find the boots with two inch heels he wanted to wear this morning. She followed him in.
“You’re eighteen years old. When are you going to start pulling your own weight?” He ignored her and went out of the house, got into his car and drove off.
He kept in mind that school would be over in another month, and that he’d be out of the house soon thereafter. He’d already made contact with an Army recruiter, and he’d join up, go away, come home on leave a few times a year, and see Maria Teresa. He expected that as they saw each other regularly during the summer, she would fall more and more in love with him, and she would agree to leave her husband, with whom she was unhappy, he knew. They would have a life together, even while he was stationed somewhere in the Army. He hadn’t worked out the details of how that would happen.
He drove out of his neighborhood, full of small, shabby houses with chain link fences in disrepair, to the edge of town, and saw the farmland coming into view. He drove past Hansen’s Farm, where he worked part-time after school, and where he would start full time as soon as school was over until he could join the Army. He hated the work there. Working the fields left his hands sore and fingernails dirty, edged in black no matter how much he washed them. The guys in school from the better families had clean fingernails. When his mother saw him scrubbing his hands with a brush in the kitchen sink, she would ridicule him. The dirt was a recurring reminder that his parents were not only poor, but smug in their ignorance and coarseness. He hid his hands in his pockets for a day or so every time he worked at the farm. If he hadn’t needed the money for his cell phone, gas, and car repairs, he would have volunteered at the hospital, as the better-off kids did to improve their credentials for college. When he had mentioned the possibility of college at home, both of his parents had laughed, and had made it clear that he was expected to make a living right after high school.
He turned into the development of small ranch houses and drove into Maria Teresa’s driveway. He checked his hair in the rearview mirror, popped some gum into his mouth, and put on the gray cap that he hoped made him look like a workman on official business. From the trunk he got a hold of the pail, broom, and mop, and with a showy flourish for the benefit of any nosy and watchful neighbors, swung them out and walked up to the door. When she opened the door he tipped his hat and she said, “Come on in, it’s a mess this week,” and closed the door behind him. And the morning went as it did every time, a light lunch after she kissed him (gently, assuredly, not awkwardly like the girls his age) and they had enjoyed their bedroom session. She always had classical music playing as background, and today was an opera. After he rolled away from her, she went to the bathroom, her hips drumming majestically as she moved across the room, and he began to get excited again just watching her.
Over lunch she asked him about his future. He told her about visiting the recruitment office, and his plans for their being together after he joined the Army and got settled. “We’ll see,” she said. “One day at a time,” and changed the subject to the food they were eating. She was more knowledgeable about food than anyone else he knew, and enjoyed serving him unusual dishes, things he had never had before, and seemed to take delight in his reactions to them. Today it was endives with curried crab salad. He had seen those light green torpedoes in the produce section of the supermarket, but had never known their name, much less eaten them, just as he had no idea, until last week, what celeriac remoulade was. It was due to her that he had been exposed to excellent meals, even elegant ones, as well as to classical music. He was grateful to her for giving him a glimpse beyond his parents’ limited and uneducated world. After lunch they sat cuddling in the living room and listened to a Portuguese singer.
“How sure are you about the Army thing?” she asked after a few minutes of silence.
“Pretty sure. I have to start making some money, help out at home. No jobs around here. And anyway,” he said, “no one in my family has ever gone to college.”
Maria Teresa looked off into the distance, considering this. “You know, Tavi, you’re a very bright guy,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been with you for so long if you weren’t.” She paused. She looked at him for so long and so intensely before speaking again that he found himself holding his breath. “There’s nothing wrong with the Army, but don’t sell yourself short. You’ll achieve more than you think, so keep your goals high.” She paused again here, as if letting the message sink in, then said, “And as far as college goes, you don‘t necessarily have to follow in your family‘s footsteps.” Later, on his way home, he noticed that the peace and self-worth he always felt after being with her were different today –they felt deeper, and mixed with hope and elation.
The following Saturday morning his mother pounced on the phone when it rang at nine. “Who is this?” Clara asked when Maria Teresa asked for him.
“I’m the lady he cleans for on Saturdays.”
“Cleans for?” Clara was caught off guard, confused momentarily. “You have a name?” But Tavi was already on the extension and cutting in. “Hi, Tavi,” Maria Teresa said. “We won’t be needing you today. My husband and I have to be out this morning. We’ll call you next week.”
“Oh,” he said, not being able to express his full disappointment with his mother listening. “OK, maybe next week then.” He hung up. Clara was on him like a dog on a pork chop, and after an hour of threats and demands for an explanation about the book club, and yelling and slamming of doors he was out of there and in his car. Clara had figured it out just by looking at his face as she drew uncannily accurate conclusions about what had been going on.
He drove fast out of the neighborhood, shaking a little. He was strong and physically self-confident, and he looked it. He had never been pushed around by anyone else, including his bland and quiet father, but his mother’s temper always made him cower. He fed the old Mustang as much gas as the speed limit plus fifteen required, and finally slowed down as he approached Hansen’s farm stand. He decided he might as well try to work and make some extra money to get his cell phone working again. He parked well away from the weekenders’ BMW’s and Volvos. He could see Betsy Hansen’s fat face above the cash register, raking it in, overcharging the weekenders from New York.
“Hey, Betsy,” he said. “I can work this morning. Where do you want me?”
“I don’t,” she said, weighing some peas. “We’ve hired a steady worker. We won’t be needing you any more.” She raised her eyebrows at him, dismissive, daring him to answer back a plea. He walked away and back to his car, surprised at her anger, and feeling deflated. He could hear Betsy calling out to his back, despite the customers, “You never had your heart in it, like you’re too good to work here.”
He sat in his car for a few minutes, and considered his options: home was not a good idea for a while, until his mother had calmed down some; Maria Teresa was a no-go today; and money-making at Hansen’s was forever gone. Betsy Hansen was still glowering at him from the cash register. He considered trying another farm down the road, but instead he turned the car on and went in the direction of Carson General, where the students volunteered. He had heard through the grapevine that they were hiring for the summer, and although he had no idea about what went on in a hospital, he thought he might as well try it out and stay away from the farms if possible.
The human resources office was on the ground floor, and in it sat a young, well-dressed woman who had him fill out an application. At the space marked “Position Requested” he paused, and asked her what jobs were available. She looked puzzled, then asked him what kind of training or skills he had. He shook his head. She suggested “orderly,” and he asked her what that would be like. “You’ll be transporting patients and being of general help to the nurses on the wards,” she said. She disappeared into a back office with his application and then called him in to see an older woman who, after a few questions, told him he could start training tomorrow. The salary was a little more than he had made at Hansen’s, and after signing some papers he went home, now with a peace offering in the form of a decent salary for the summer with which he could help out with the house expenses. Clara glared at him as he walked through the living room on the way to his room, and he stopped by the sofa where she sat watching T.V. to show her, wordlessly, the signed copies of the employment papers he had been given.
He was assigned to the rehabilitation floor, where patients who had undergone hip or knee replacements went for therapy before going home. On his second day of work, a few nursing students from the local college arrived for a six week rotation. He almost immediately noticed Sofia among them, small and dark and intense, but for the first few days he was too focused on learning this new job to pay much attention to her or anyone else. He did notice that although Sofia seemed usually too harried and rushed to chat, she would occasionally talk to the nurses about her weekends, which seemed to consist mostly of going to the movies and family affairs. She had short brown hair and small features, except for her outsized, wide smile; and although she was pleasant and funny with her colleagues, she was also the most serious of the nursing students there. Her prettiness and maturity made him think of Maria Teresa, who he missed, and who had not called his house again now for over two weeks after his mother‘s interception of her phone call.
One morning, just a few days after his training, he heard yelling from one of the rooms of the ward and recognized nurses‘ voices, calling for help. He ran into the room and saw Sofia and two other nurses kneeling over a male patient who had fallen while trying to transfer from his wheelchair to the bed. He was a large man, tall, elderly, and severely overweight, and Sofia and the two nurses could make no headway in lifting him. Tavi hoisted him under the arms as Sofia and the other two nurses lifted his legs, and succeeded in getting him back in the wheelchair. He then assisted them in getting the patient safely back in the bed.
“My god,” said Laura, one of the nurses, back at the nursing station after she had caught her breath, “I don’t know how we could have done that without you. You’re a pretty strong guy.”
“Definitely a good thing you were around,” said Sofia, and smiled at him for the first time.
Later that day Tavi felt an unmistakable sense of pride in having been part of this team of professionals, and he thought that he hadn’t felt this good about himself in a long time.
When he got home that evening he resolved to break the rule he had agreed to with Maria Teresa and call her house. He had to share today’s event at the hospital with someone, knew she would be pleased, and didn’t think his mother would care about his accomplishments at work. After his first paycheck he had resumed his cell phone service, and could now have privacy when talking to her. It was still early enough so that her husband would probably not be home yet. When she answered, she was not upset that he had called, and in fact said that she had been thinking of him. They agreed to meet in two weeks. Tavi, disappointed, wanted to resume their meetings sooner, but she was clear that it would not be prudent to do so.
The next day Tavi, standing by the nursing station, overheard Sofia say that she would be meeting some of the other nursing students at Filo’s Pizza after work. She invited nurse Laura to join her, glancing in his direction with what he thought might be an apologetic look for not including him. He ran into her later in the break room, and for the ten minutes they shared the space they said little, as she sipped her tea and he drank his soda. At the end of his shift, an hour before she was to meet her friends, he changed from his scrubs into his street clothes, and as he exited the locker room she passed by with her medication cart, and smiled. “Good night,” he said. She stopped suddenly, and looked at him, as if something had just occurred to her.
“If you’re not doing anything, a few of us from school and some of the ladies from here will be going for pizza in about an hour. You’re welcome to join us,” she said.
She laughed. “Yes. Good ears, too.”
He had never tried anchovies on his pizza. Laura chided him and Sofia for never having anything but plain or pepperoni. “Go on, try it, live a little,” she said to them, rolling her eyes. They divided a slice in half, and simultaneously bit into their halves, looking at each other’s reactions. Both opened their eyes wide at Laura and each other in surprise and made faces. But they liked it and laughed and finished their shares. At the end of the evening they agreed to go to the movies later that week.
Tavi was not sure whether he enjoyed being with Sofia as much as he did because of her looks, or her smile, or the fact that she seemed to not care that he was slightly younger and not the professional that she was on her way to becoming. But when they talked about their experiences in school and at home it was clear that their worlds were not that far apart. He told her about his plans to enlist. She seemed interested in his decision to do this, and told him her older brother had enlisted and was stationed in Texas. Her parents were too poor to pay for her education; she was on a scholarship, and worked part-time. They saw each other a few days later, and knew that they were starting a dating relationship. Tavi, although still missing Maria Teresa‘s sophistication and kindness, as well as the sex, felt less urgency about it now, due to the simple comfort he derived from his dates with Sofia, and he was not eager to push her for more.
When the Saturday finally arrived when he would be seeing Maria Teresa, he drove early to her neighborhood and waited in his car for his cell to ring, thereby avoiding Clara’s looks, and also not wasting time driving after the call. He couldn’t wait to see her, and could feel movement in his underwear just by thinking about her. He parked the car two blocks from her house and waited for her phone call, then drove the two short blocks to her house. When he arrived and pulled into the driveway he noticed that the garage door was open. He parked the car, got the cleaning equipment, and walked in through the garage. The door from the garage into the house was also open, partially. He could hear Maria Teresa’s voice, talking on the phone, talking about him.
“He’ll be here soon. I’m going to tell him today.” She paused as she listened on the phone. “No, Marianne, I’m not tired of him. I’m very fond of him. That’s why I want him to find someone his own age. I am not getting any younger, and I don’t want him wasting any more time with me. And anyway, he would eventually tire of being with an old lady.”
He considered leaving and hiding his oncoming tears in the car, but he put down the cleaning equipment, swallowed, and knocked loudly on the open door.
She hung up the phone and came to the door, and he tried very hesitantly to kiss her, but she held up her palm and placed it gently on his chest. She kissed him on the cheek, confirming that their relationship had already changed. They sat in the living room, and he could see that the table was not set for lunch today, and that the bedroom door was closed. He sat on the sofa and waited in silence until she turned off the Strauss opera on the stereo system and sat down next to him.
“We’ve been seeing each other a year or so,” she said.
It was true, he had been seventeen when it had begun. Time had flown. He nodded briefly and kept silent, knowing what was coming, and not wanting to cry.
“It’s time you moved on, met someone your own age. This can’t go anywhere.”
“I love you and I’ve told you, I have plans. After I’m settled in the Army, we can be together. You’ve said yourself you’re not happy with your marriage.”
“That’s a different issue. It’s you I’m thinking of. I’m thirty-three. When you turn twenty five you’ll still be a young man, and I’ll be well into middle age. Forty. The number alone should scare you.”
She steered the conversation, and asked him about other people in his life. He told her about his friends from school, which she had already heard about, and about Sofia, which she had not yet. He hadn’t planned on telling her, thinking she might be resentful, or jealous, but now it seemed she was hoping to hear about someone else in his life, and in fact she seemed relieved. He told her about their chaste dates, and she encouraged his telling of details, smiling, genuinely pleased that he had enjoyed his time with Sofia. At last she went to a large blue vase filled with pink roses on the dining room table, where lunch would have been normally set, and picked out two with long stemmed buds that were just beginning to open.
“One for you, and one for her. You’d better go now.” She gave him the roses and put her arm around his waist. She walked him to the garage door, kissed him on the cheek, and closed the door behind him.
The roses stayed fresh in his room overnight into Sunday morning in a glass of water he got from the kitchen. “What’s with the roses, Octavian? You turning gay now?” Clara shot at him when she saw him walking into his room with the roses in the glass. “I guess that’s better than being an older woman’s side dish.”
He called Sofia early Sunday afternoon, and they agreed to meet later. “There’s a foreign film festival in Caniza. It’s a nice day for a drive.”
“I don’t know anything about foreign movies. Are you sure?”
“There’ll be subtitles. Try it.”
He took one of the roses, wrapped the stem in a wet paper towel and plastic wrap, and placed the other rose inside one of his boots, in his corner of the closet, hoping it would still look nice as it aged and dried. He put the wrapped rose in the trunk of his car, and set off for Sofia’s house. The rose stayed in the trunk, away from the sun, while they saw the movie, from Iran, about a couple that struggles against the laws and social conventions of their country in order to keep their illicit relationship going. The battles of the protagonists proved ultimately futile, and they were permanently separated and then killed by stoning at the end of the film. The ending saddened him, and made him somewhat angry, in a way that movies usually didn‘t, and afterwards in the car they were mostly silent as they rode around, looking for a place to have a snack.
As he drove, he thought about the couple in the movie, and about how things had changed for him in the past few weeks, and continued to do so. He was enjoying being with Sofia more than with any other girl he had dated, although he didn’t know how long this feeling of discovery and enjoyment with someone his own age would last. He knew that his affair with Maria Teresa might be judged to be immoral and even criminal by some, but he saw it as igniting the first stage of his escape from mediocrity.
They eventually found a diner, and after he parked the car he went into the trunk and got the rose. “What is this?” she said.
“It’s for you. Just a single rose. No big deal.” He saw that she looked perplexed, and then touched, her eyes moistening and her cheeks coloring ever so slightly. But he didn’t want the gesture to be misinterpreted. He frowned slightly at the thought that she might be falling in love with him, too soon, and he wasn‘t really sure he wanted that from her. The rose was, after all, a small gift for her, but he knew that it had been part of a very large one for him, and that he would never be able to explain to her, or to anyone, really, the origin or the magnitude of it. He still wasn’t really sure about his future, but he felt optimistic about the roads ahead. “Just a rose, Sofia. Let‘s go in and try something new.”