Do we forge it, or are we carried forth like a leaf over rushing waters? Does it actually matter? Perhaps it is the same. We are shaping our destiny by the decisions we take, but we take them really without the least idea where they will eventually lead us. And then there are the things that we apparently don’t choose. Excluding suicide, the way we are finally to die, for instance.
My daughter called last night: her father has cancer, it has metastasized and they have no idea where the original tumor is lodged. What they finally found is a secondary carcinoma that is disabling the vocal cords; he is having trouble speaking. I sit here today thinking about the man I lived with for thirty years: the father of my two children. And my mind goes all the way back to the night we met. That might seem to have been destiny.
I was nineteen and had recently quit college in the States and returned to Mexico. On my parent’s insistence that I do something (study or work, in other words), I had taken up studies in social work and had become active in a Voluntary Association that worked with hemi and paraplegics. By some twist of fate, I had also contacted somewhere an old friend from primary school. She hadn’t even been a good friend, more on the scale of an acquaintance, but seeing as I had lost touch with most of my buddies from days past, I was glad to have her to chat with. Her name was Yolanda.
Yolanda had a sister who was about to turn fifteen and was planning her “coming out” party which is celebrated in Mexico at that age. The festivity usually entails having male escorts (boys from your class) in tuxedos and parading down a flowered staircase amid billows of dry ice escorted by the boy of her choice. So one day Yolanda called to invite me to her sister’s ball.
“I don’t have anyone to go with” I said, thinking it was the perfect excuse to miss out on the silliness of pink organdy dresses and dry ice.
“I’ll fix you up with a blind date,” she insisted, “my brother is one of the escorts and he has a friend with an older brother. I’ll arrange it.”
I took that to mean she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer so I agreed. Believe me, a blind date for a birthday cotillion for a fifteen year old was not my idea of something to look forward to, so when the day came and I spent the whole of it walking my feet off at a fashion show for the Volunteer group I cooperated with, I arrived home with the solid intention of undressing and climbing into bed with a good book.
“You committed so you should go,” was my mother’s response when I told her my change of plans. “To cheer you up, I’ll loan you my new red dress.”
My mother’s red dress was the most gorgeous outfit I had ever seen on her. Made in taffeta that draped suggestively around the tight underskirt, it had a swooping neck and off-the-shoulder straps decorated with red taffeta flowers. With my almost white blond hair, pearl earrings and necklace and a pair of red high heels the result was stunning even under my own overly critical gaze. I stood for several minutes before the floor length mirror, turning this way and that, imagining the effect this vision was going to have on the poor chap who had accepted to be my date. And I didn’t expect much on that score either. After all, what kind of young man doesn’t have anything better to do on a Saturday night than go on a blind date at a party for fifteen year olds? A loser: that is what kind.
My parents drove me to the hall where the dance was to take place which was called –the ultimate of corn- the “Salon Ilusión” (The Illusion Ballroom) and dropped me saying my date could bring me home. I walked into the large dance hall filled with at least a hundred people, with long tables placed around an extended dance floor at the end of which was the staircase, donned in pink and white ribbons, flowers and balloons. The escorts, looking extremely uncomfortable in their tuxedos, were grouped at the bottom awaiting the signal from the orchestra to form a corridor for the descending damsel. Yolanda led me to a table on the left hand side of the room.
“Your date hasn’t arrived yet,” she said, pointing to one of two empty chairs; “his brother said he was held up at the hospital. He’s studying medicine, you know.”
I nodded. She had already filled me in on details such as his studies and his age, twenty five. That, and that he was the older brother of one of her sister’s escorts was all I knew. I sat down at the table, facing the entrance so I might get a look at the prospective date when he arrived and if he was terrible, prepare some excuse to go home early. I must have gotten distracted watching the arrangements for the procession of the fifteen-year-old, because suddenly Yolanda put her hand on my shoulder and the chair next to me was being pulled out.
“This is Fernando,” she said, and I turned towards the man that was taking a seat next to me.
The surprise must have shown on my face. The man looking down at me was not only tall, he also looked like something out of a movie or men’s fashion magazine. He was the most handsome man I had ever met. He had dark hair, a light complexion, large dark brown eyes rimmed with heavy eyelashes and the most charming smile imaginable. We shook hands. His grip was warm and firm and his hand lingered longer than was absolutely necessary while he looked into my eyes. I turned the color of my dress and quickly retrieved my hand to fumble in my purse for cigarettes (in those days it was still fashionable to smoke).
I can’t remember what we talked about, but we did talk, we talked and danced all night. This handsome man was also a fantastic dancer. I was having trouble believing my luck. At about two in the morning I mentioned that I was tired and would like to go home soon. I didn’t ask him directly to take me home but presumed that he would offer upon hearing my comment. But he didn’t. He seemed to act as if either he had not heard me or it had nothing to do with him. I found this both rude and stupid, and couldn’t understand why he didn’t offer to take me home either in his car or in a taxi if he didn’t have a car. By that time, Yolanda had come over to sit with us and when I mentioned the fact that I would like to go home for the third time with the same lack of results, she said her chauffeur could drive, upon which Fernando immediately said he would accompany me.
I was confused. If, for a while, I had thought he was being rude and really wanted to get rid of me, when he jumped at the opportunity to accompany me with Yolanda’s chauffeur, it could only mean he was interested in me, so why hadn’t he offered to take me home himself?
When we got to my house, he asked for my phone number which he wrote down on a slip of paper, and then stretched out his hand to say goodnight. After having been fondled and mauled by teenage boys since the age of thirteen, this was a second surprise: not even an attempt at a goodnight kiss? If I was surprised then, imagine the incredulity when more than a month went by without the least intent until finally one night he actually asked for permission to give me a kiss. Something like that stands out in one’s memory. It was in the kitchen after a dinner party at my parent’s house. I was sitting on the kitchen table sipping a glass of water and he was standing in front of me, looking into my eyes. When I said “yes” that he could kiss me, I remember thinking how strange this man was to me and to everything I had experienced with my teenage boyfriends. And then he leaned forward and lightly touched his mouth to mine, lingered for a moment and then pulled back and smiled. It all seemed very strange; I had no idea I was to spend a large part of my life with the man who had just kissed me.
Today I can appreciate how slim were the chances that we would meet, let alone marry and have children. I did not want to go to the dance and wouldn’t have if my mother hadn’t been such a stickler for manners and the proper thing to do. Later I learned that Fernando had not planned to come either until his brother read him his horoscope that morning which predicted that on that date he would meet the love of his life. It was to prove the horoscope wrong that he went to the dance.
So we met, but from then on everything could have gone wrong. The first misunderstanding about my getting home from the dance points to the fundamental class difference between us. I grew up surrounded by people who had money, beautiful homes and fancy cars. My boyfriends from the age of sixteen all had cars and all had money to take me out to a restaurant, to invite me to the movies, to pay for a taxi. How could I ever imagine that this handsome young man of twenty five, practically a doctor by then, had neither a car nor the money for a taxi and was, in fact, so broke that night that when he ran out of cigarettes he had to go and bum them off of his younger brother in order to be able to offer me one.
We also might never have gone out on our first date. He had asked for my phone number, but two days later, when he decided to call me I had taken a friend to the airport and gotten trapped there by the security measures set up for the arrival of Nehru to Mexico. I spent sixteen hours in the airport and when I finally got home, learned that Fernando had called six times, the last being approximately four hours previously. I feared he would never call back, thinking no doubt that I wasn’t interested in talking to him and simply had told the maid to tell him I wasn’t home. In panic (after all he was the handsomest man I had ever dated, he was also the only man I had ever dated everything previous having been boys), I raced for the telephone directory and looked up his last name. Unfortunately it was amongst the most common of Spanish names and there were over eight pages of it. I had no idea what his father’s first name was so he could have been any one of the one thousand two hundred and forty six people with that last name. I knew it was hopeless even as my finger trailed down the interminable list hoping that some detail would give me the correct name and number. Then the phone rang. I grabbed it. It was him.
Much later I learned that he had not meant to call back after having been denied me six times. His aunt had warned him the day before that my father would never allow such a relationship given the different backgrounds of our families, and he had decided that six unsuccessful phone calls simply confirmed his aunt’s suspicions. He wouldn’t have called back if his best friend had not insisted he give it one more try.
I explained why I hadn’t been home and he asked me on a date the following Saturday: a picnic with some friends. I was not going to be in Mexico City on that date having promised my family to accompany them to their country house three hours away. After trying unsuccessfully to make another date (my life suddenly seemed terribly complicated) it occurred to me to invite him and his friends to Valle de Bravo for the picnic, if they didn’t mind the drive. They didn’t and we had our first date. On the way back, Fernando began whistling beautiful, romantic tunes. He was a good whistler too. Then he stopped the car suddenly, got out, walked over to the garden fence on the other side of the street, picked a rose and brought it to me. I think I suspected in that moment that the relationship might get serious. A year later we were married.
That was almost fifty years ago. Now, he is married to someone else and I live in France, and my daughter has just told me he has cancer. Our lives are winding down. As far as I know I don’t have a terminal disease today, but I am pushing seventy… And as I say that, I have to ask: Is that true? The term “seventy” has no reality inside of me. It doesn’t feel like what one thinks it will feel when contemplated from forty or fifty. Seventy… I realize that I look at little old ladies trundling down the street and think to myself: I am getting there, but it doesn’t feel true, not even if my ankle hurts when I walk, or my knee coming up stairs or a wrist if leaned on a bit too hard. But … seventy? A meaningless word.
But when someone as close as the father of my children is experiencing what perhaps may be his final destiny, it makes me stop and wonder where mine lies and how long it will be before it too is announced. In the meantime, I gaze out the window at the gathering mist and feel there is something definitely misty in my heart today.