Originally from Walla Walla, Washington, Bailey is a 68-year-old semi-retired English teacher who’s spent half his life in Europe, Polynesia, Japan, and Latin America (the longest stint was Venezuela, 24 years). He’s worked on a tramper in Bristol Bay, Alaska, as a Christmas tree packer near Missoula, Montana, a U.S. Peace Corps teacher in the Kingdom of Tonga, a chess magazine editor in Seattle, and on the languages faculty of a Venezuelan university. A memoir of his appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine and five pieces in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin newspaper treating Venezuela and inter-Americas dating and marriage considerations.
The email propelled John Porter around the kitchen counter. Coffee, he needed coffee. Once steaming in his chess-themed mug, the slender and balding 60-year-old English professor added a touch of white sugar. Brown was better but there was only white today. Had been for weeks, in fact—since his wife had left, for it was she who remembered and provided him his little pleasures.
The thirty-five-year age difference with the email´s author, a recent student of his, was only part of her attraction, Porter reiterated to himself as he sat down at the massive hardwood table in his son-in-law´s living room. The warm mug steadied his quivering hands. Through large windows behind him, a tropical gorge plunged out of sight, its distant bottom screened by a canopy of treetops. Porter, perched on the chasm´s southern rim, often felt as if he were floating in a green heaven. But once he´d heard a wild pig die in the muck below screeching hoarsely at the end, killed by frenzied dogs that had been barking for an hour.
“Age!” he scoffed aloft. Class prejudice, homophobia, racism, sexism—when would agism as it related to his circumstances be held in contempt? All who make a sentimental attachment across a decade or more know the soul is ageless, and the rest ought to respect their discovery.
He returned to the email. It said what it said.
Also, he considered, turning away, hadn’t Graciela earned a Ph.D. in biology? Made herself into a fine photographer? Didn´t she know good poetry? She’d sent him some in Spanish, her first language—Ana Terán, Neruda. Clearly she was interesting enough in her own right to quell anyone´s objections to their, how should he to put it--association. Anyone, that is, with the gall to consider it their business in the first place.
And she cared about him! This was not in doubt since their last lunch, three years ago, marinated in a long string of beers at a nearly empty open-air country restaurant near the university. She´d sat almost sideways to him, her breasts squeezed all but up and out of their lacy green bra in the twice-unbuttoned white cotton blouse. Her idea had been, he realized later, that he could enjoy them to his heart´s content without the obligation of losing even a moment making eye contact (she´d learned during previous lunches where his eyes had liked to roam). But the effect was bizarre. Her breasts were squashed skyward into almost unrecognizable shapes as she softly addressed her side of the conversation to the vacant air off to her right, as if speaking to the distant cook grilling beef. The effect less erotic than erratic. But later he understood: Genesis, the blessings of the breasts.... With love! For him!
Did he love her?
Had he ever loved anyone?
No to the first question. At least, not yet. The second resumed its decades-old gnawing.
Again at his computer, Porter minimized the email and opened The New York Times. Being on one´s feet was good for the health, he´d read, and the kitchen counter served as a standing desk. Donald Rumsfeld had worked standing up. That Secretary of Defense had been an outstanding college wrestler, and Porter liked the idea that he, like Rumsfeld (who with Shock and Awe turned the Baghdad night to day) was a man who stood his ground. But he couldn´t concentrate on the Times.
So he stepped towards the abyss. Crisp gorge air entered an open glider left of the windows. It was as cool as it ever got in Caracas this rainy afternoon, if such tiny droplets could be called rain. A savanna hawk screeched nearby. A continuo of chirping crickets, sometimes punctuated by three different bird calls, wafted in. This place really was paradise, he thought, forgetting the pig. And he had it all to himself with Maggie, the arthritic 12-year-old golden retriever asleep under the counter on the coverlets sewn by his wife.
Belén was with his stepdaughter Carmencita in Panama. It was Panama where his son-in-law had found his latest job, so it was Panama his wife had gone a month prior to the birth of Carmencita´s baby. Before she left she announced that she´d be staying three more after.
“Those two,” Porter thought. “Joined at the hip. Cross-generational Siamese twins. United by a never-severed umbilical cord. Mom-e-o and Juliet, the show paid for by the unfortunate Romeo, who has to work late at the office.” Romeo was his son-in-law Alfredo. Porter was soon emailing this formulation to a friend. Though the fellow and he had not planned it, they´d shared three lovers in sequence in their roving days. “Sometimes I ask myself,” Porter wrote, “that if I´m to have half a wife—where´s the other half?”
No further thought surfaced to follow that, so he stepped back to the open glider. He looked at the tree rising clear of its gray-sheathed companions, the one a three-toed sloth had climbed and stayed atop a whole day and night. “Forget women. Forget sex,” he thought with sudden bitterness. Despite doctors, their creams and pills, the aftermath of menopause had made coitus painful for his wife. He thought of his former student´s long hair at its glossy midpoint between black and brown. Farewell To All That, as the book title went. Didn´t the passing of the years mean accepting the stages of life? “But I´m a young 60!” his thought. That´s how his orthopedist had put it while telling him that if he ran too much, why yes, something would hurt, in this case the ball of his right foot. “Repeated microtrauma,” the man wrote for the insurance company. Staring idly out the window, Porter recalled that moment.
Idly, he imagined his sister´s features coalescing in the gray curtain of wet draping the gorge. The face came whole. It spoke. Assume Your Role (kindly grandfather dandling grandchild-to-be on his knee). Be Responsible (manage his money carefully so everybody could have enough of it while he was alive and all of it when he was dead). Act Your Age (she might as well have appended “little brother Peter Pan”). Don´t Disgrace Our Family (their late parents being unable to defend its honor, she sure as hell would). He raised the last of the now-cold coffee to his lips. Outside the mists had thickened; they pressed against the gliders. A few fell in, shrouding his ankles.
Is this dying? No screeching, no barking, no red blood on black gorge floor. Just a silent succumbing to the gray proprieties.
He darted to the laptop to read the email again. Graciela was back in Caracas and wanted to see him.
Not long after the mazophilic lunch gone surreal three years before, Graciela went halfway round the world for a doctorate. Well, that was all right; even a relief. Porter knew she threatened his marriage, and his marriage, everyone agreed, was good for him. Starting on a great wave of sex, over time his wife had proved well-organized, industrious, intelligent—and fiercely caring. Though the sex had winnowed to nearly nothing, gradually thickening Belén with the dyed blond hair she wore short remained hard-wired monogamous with no truck for the notion that loyalty did not require fidelity. Suppose, he´d once invited her to imagine, she was in another city for work. Drinks and dancing in a hotel bar with an attractive and amusing fellow chemist presented the opportunity for a harmless one-off fling upstairs. Should he, as her husband, deny her such augmented joy in life? Hardly; as someone who loved her, he wanted her to have all the joy possible. “I know what you´re doing,” she´d responded. “You want me to give you this permission. The answer is no.” He´d accepted this, at least in the sense of not pursuing other women. To his mind, their marriage of 23 years had in one way ended his sexual career: he´d never cheated on her.
Thought about it, yes. Amid lunches with and fantasies about his former student, plenty.
“How could I be anywhere else?” Belén Cassani thought, attaching her seatbelt beside the chiseled youth in the window seat (he could be a model, she thought). What her husband thought about her going to Panama for four months—well, what did she care what he thought? What do gringos know about family life anyway? Besides, he´d be fine on his own. Anger tightened her striking features—strong chin, green eyes—as she waved off the hand-towel in the flight attendant´s tongs. As for going away, John did that every day, even while she was talking to him. She could see his blank eyes rising from his computer screen after she´d once again nearly had to shout to get his attention. No, he´d be just fine alone. In his vaunted solitude. His individualistic, egotistical solitude. His selfish solitude.
So why shouldn´t she? If most of her thoughts were on her daughter anyway, if the two met on Skype every day, of course she was right to fly to Carmencita’s side like any mother of any daughter about to have a baby. “You´re going for four months?” He´d looked astonished. But there was so much to get ready, and then there would be the hard stretch after the birth of the little boy. Alfredo would be rising early for work and Carmencita had never been strong. All her life she´d needed her sleep, and a lot of it. Mothers help their daughters, period. John would be all right. More than all right.
The little boy. Belén Cassani sat very still. Then she wanted to lean forward and close her eyes, so she did. She wanted to take a deep breath and smile, so she did. Carmencita—was going—to have a little boy! A woman of 59 sat in an airplane seat, a graceful arch to her bent back, a little curve at the corners of her mouth in an equipoise blessed by God. The black-haired youth beside her who was indeed a model stared at her transfixed.
Before Belén he´d lived by the sword for 17 years, Porter reflected, taking the stairs by twos. The sun was burning through outside and he wanted to run. Those 17 had begun after the much-delayed (in his opinion) end of his virginity at 22. At 21 he´d fallen in love, the real thing. Or so it had felt. Still, one afternoon walking a street near his beloved, feeling sainted in the light of the new life about to dawn with her, a singular thought came: “This isn´t the only woman I´m ever going to fuck.” In the end she wasn´t the first either. That fact, and then the loss of her altogether, contributed to a suicide attempt. But there´d been forewarning of trouble, symbolized by a flourishing pimple defacing him one soulful night in a bar where she told him she thought they had something really intense together. The comment had been a milestone on the road towards the exalted future they seemed destined to share. But the raging blemish might as well have been the physical expression of his later strolling conclusion he wasn´t going to be confined to but one woman for life—not even to her, whom he knew beyond all doubt was the one for him. Still now at 60, he wondered if the long-ago blemish might yet stand for something he´d come to suspect over the years: that he was coarse to the bone. The boy in love at 22 was even then, in kernel, the ingot-eyed visitor to strip bars and brothels, the seducer at home and abroad. Even then he was a self-indulgent monster.
“Yet,” he argued with himself, “yet!” With Graciela surely there was more! The topic of suicide, for example, had been a powerful commonality. One afternoon after class while they´d discussed Willy Loman among the battered chair desks of their fine but underfunded university, it devolved that she too had once nearly taken her life over crossed first love. The moment had marked a consonance. Strong too was the effect of her shoulder bag whose diagonal strap traveled deep between her breasts, drawing her cotton shirt taut over each. Her hair in its lustrous dark falling long down her back glinted in the slanting sunlight. From that hour, their age difference mattered not a whit to him nor (he sensed) to her; no more an impediment than skin hue and height to becoming lovers.
Which he knew would end his life as he had known it for the last 23 years.
Graciela Paredes in a thin red v-neck sweater studied Porter´s reply at her desk in the Venezuelan Ministry of Health. No cell number though she´d asked for one. No meet-up plan. This, after all the electronic banter of the old days? How swiftly they´d arranged meetings then! All the while she´d been gone she´d been sure of resuming their--thing--on her coming home. But she´d been back a month, written him after a week, and so far he´d barely said hello.
Confusion and an old melancholy back of that stole over her. She noticed the infectious diseases chief watching her again from the water cooler. The overweight man´s wrinkled white shirt and brown tie looked the same as yesterday´s.
She thought of her professor´s call three years ago. He´d said it was better they not communicate anymore. He was sorry. To her feeler for more information he´d repeated himself verbatim. She´d said okay. It was nowhere close.
From the water cooler: “Say, that sweater looks warm. Need more a-c? I know I do.”
She hadn´t put it on for him. For who then? Someone—there must be someone out there. Her baleful stare pinned the 35-year-old to the wall like a moth on a collection box floor. He studied the tiny paper cup in his hand.
As her professor had stipulated, there´d indeed followed a long time with no contact. But finally she´d included him in a group of university friends in her postings from Down Under, where she studied, and Vietnam and Cambodia, where she traveled. He´d returned a few words of praise for the pictures she attached and for her descriptions of her experiences. A few words only and far between.
“No way my marriage can take a second round of this,” thought Porter at his dish drainer. Graciela´s new email—a response to the reply he´d finally sent—gleamed at him. He lifted his chess mug to its accustomed shelf but stopped halfway, arrested by memories.
The coffees on campus. The light meals there. Later the heavier fare elsewhere, the beery hours flowing by in easy confidential chat. The time they´d met in a mall when Graciela arrived in a sheer purple dress, her face a subtle rainbow of lovely cosmetic hues. All that had led to The Night.
The Night Porter told his wife he was going to a bar where his running group met.
Surely he knew he and his attractive young companion would be seen by people at this bar who knew him and Belén. The choice of this place represented a wish to keep the various parts of his life aboveboard. If not to his wife, then at least to people who knew her. As a man in a rough sea grabs at a lifeline, Porter was grabbing at the last strand of his integrity.
What he had not told his wife about the bar was that he was going to meet a recent student of his on the other side of the facing avenue, accompany her across, and escort her in. As he waited for Graciela, the words This is over the line mortified him.
She soon appeared saying that she and a girlfriend had spent the afternoon depressing themselves in conversation about the philandering men they knew. They wondered if they´d ever have sufficient faith in men to marry one. Porter knew (because she´d told him) that she´d slept with more than one husband. As they looked for a break in the traffic he wondered how she couldn´t see her own role in her depression. Nor he his.
Two of his running friends were standing in the doorway. Porter introduced Graciela: “From my university. Almost done with her Master´s. In biology!” They looked at him, and they looked at the short young woman with her blouse rather open, a necklace of polished wood blocks obscuring half her cleavage. Again they looked at Porter whom they´d known for years. They said quiet hellos but did not smile.
Inside, a young Swedish woman and her Venezuelan boyfriend invited the 60- and 25-year-old to share their table in the noisy darkness. They´d just returned from two years in Goteborg. Porter spent the next two hours absorbed in talk about immigration and the Swedish welfare state. Beer was drunk though not much. Graciela said little.
She drove him to his apartment building around eleven. Her brown Toyota stopped in front and they said good-night. He laid his hand an instant on the hair along her neck. She neither said nor did anything. He opened the door and was gone.
She´d been too surprised to react in time.
“We´re going to a nice place in the mountains,” Belén told Porter two weeks after The Night. “I´ve got a surprise for you.” They drove the twisting road talking of this and that amid deep silences. Their room was chalet-like, done in blond oak, and there she presented her husband with a private detective´s report. At home, she said, she´d noticed him slipping around corners to check his cell. The report detailed not only his meeting with a young woman in a bar (though clearly the sleuth hadn´t waited out the two-hour conversation about Sweden to see them leave in a car together). It also included all Porter’s email correspondence with Graciela over a long period. The detective´s grasp of English, Porter decided as he read (under his wife´s steady gaze), though strong, was not perfect. The conclusion the correspondence proved a love affair struck Porter as unfounded. He looked up to tell his wife this, but stopped. She was smiling. It was a rigid smile. It was a horrible smile. He laid the folder down.
“Now you are going to call her,” she said. Her green eyes glittered. “You are going to tell her you will never see her again. I am going to watch you do it.”
No one can tell me not to see another person, thought Porter. But he saw that his wife was stretched to the breaking point. The tearing of her was too ghastly to imagine. He thought: I will come back to this.
He nodded. His wife leaned over the low table extending his own phone to him. He held up a hand.
“I need to write it down.” His wife nodded very slightly.
He wrote, crossed out lines, wrote again. At last he picked up his phone.
“Hello, this is John Porter.” Belén sat five feet away.
“Hi!” said Graciela.
“I´m calling to say it’s better that we not communicate anymore. I´m sorry. I wish you well.”
“Oh. Uh … okay.” Porter had never heard a more dubious voice. “Is something–”
“It´s better that we not communicate anymore. I´m sorry. I wish you well.” He hung up.
Spouse regarded spouse in careful silence. But soon they were talking outside on a small patio in what Porter thought, to his immense relief and happiness, was a surprisingly normal way. Petunias exploded from hanging clay pots. The late afternoon sun, clarion yellow against a lapis mountain sky, set the red and white flowers aflame. “Don´t think just because I´m talking to you this way I´m all right,” Belén said once with incongruous bounciness. “You have hurt me a lot.” Within a week they´d agreed to marriage counseling. By three months they´d completed three venues of it. They had their says individually and together, resolving nothing but discussing everything. Strangely, that seemed enough. Porter did not contact his former student nor she him until she was in Australia. Then, until they once again shared Caracas.
Three years since The Night, Porter and his wife were packing in their bedroom on the rim of the gorge where the pig had died. They were going to visit his “Family North,” as he called it, in the States.
It took him 20 minutes to work himself up to it. “Graciela is back. I´m going to have lunch with her.” Belén´s hands froze; resumed placing a green shawl in a blue suitcase.
“I see,” she said, patting the shawl into place. “Bring me my shower cap please.”
“We´ll meet on campus. That´s where we met, that´s where it should be. A cachapa by the baseball field.”
“The shower cap.” He got it. She pushed it in, zipped the bag shut hard, went out into the hall and down the stairs.
“Maggie! The park!” As the heavy front door closed, Porter heard, “Make it fast.”
John Porter, 60, Professor of English at the country´s leading public university, pulled into the huge lot next to the campus baseball field on a sun-drenched midday. According to his watch he was one minute late. This disturbed him; it seemed to reduce the strength of his position. He knew he needed the last scintilla of his strength to preserve—no, restore—the correct level of formality between him and his former student. A formality he was worried even if restored might crumble again in a quarter-hour due to his core weakness.
But Article 20 clause one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects freedom of association, and this was the day he had chosen to reassert it in his life.
Porter shut the door of his blue Fiesta and walked in a very straight line towards the cachapa stand. This was a griddle where cheese and dough were fried, then mixed and served by two languid women of color whose youth had vanished on the very spot. Awaiting him around a corner on a raised concrete platform were three white plastic tables with matching chairs. Sitting in one of them, doubtless, was Graciela.
Stern-faced, crunching gravel, Porter went over it again. Ask about her studies, work and plans. Australia, her travels and photography. Period! He was relieved there´d be no alcohol to wash him headlong out of the sanctum of his married life. But how, even sober, could he resist returning to those intimate conversational places with this just-returned queen of his fantasies? Where they´d so enjoyed going so often before? For surely she was thinking of resuming their—dynamic—what else could she be thinking? How restore a distance he´d so delighted in destroying? Booze or no booze, as he ascended the last step to the platform, the task of reestablishing boundaries suddenly felt gargantuan with this woman, the object of so many raw imaginings. One: a roadside dive in the first light of morning, the two on a bed of black velvet, red lamp beside, straining towards the very heart of Eros. Such a scenario despite three years of separation now seemed but a few words from arranging. For hadn´t she once told him, calmly, quietly, that however he might want to structure a liaison, she would, in complete discretion, agree to its terms?
Why had he thought he could manage this? He mounted the platform knowing his marriage was hanging by the thread of his self-control.
When had he ever mustered that in the anterooms of pleasure?
He turned the corner.
She was not there.
He stood stock still. One table was occupied, two were empty. He sat as close as possible to the two bored women at their griddle hoping their proximity, though they didn´t speak English, might still constrain him after Graciela arrived. Five minutes passed.
“Twenty. Not a second more,” he decided. He ordered a cachapa.
Wiping his fingers on a little napkin, he watched the second hand of his watch climb to the twentieth 12. In one motion he was off the platform striding towards his car. No doubt he´d meet her on the way. That did not occur. No doubt she´d call to him from her own car parked nearby. No. She´d tap his window as he started his engine. No. As he backed, turned, and began to drive away, he would see her running up. No.
He saw her a hundred yards off just after he´d turned right onto the campus loop. She no doubt was parking there to walk the green glen past the tennis courts to their rendezvous. She was leaning over, putting something in the back seat of the brown Toyota. Then she straightened and found her key.
She looked the same. Her hair, burnished under the day-star, fell its thick self to where his face had longed to press. She wore a red faded sundress, slightly wrinkled, an empire waistline gathering up her breasts. The dress looked soft on her skin below, soft for his hands upon. She pressed her key; the locks snapped shut. The soul of summer and youth, she turned towards his approaching car.
Did she see a rigid form in a gray shirt stare fixedly ahead?
Porter would never know.