He opened the door at her first quiet knock. A smile split his face. He pulled her into his embrace, shutting the door with the toe of his boot. He was dressed to go out: long sleeved shirt tucked into khaki pants, tall boots, a linen jacket. All he lacked was his Panama hat.
Where were you going so early?
To see you.
To see me?
To see you. You know I can’t stay away from you.
The heat of his kiss left her reeling.
How was the capital?
Same old thing. It was nothing without you.
He kissed her neck, then traced her collar bone with his mouth.
You can’t imagine how much I missed you, he murmured.
One arm tight around her waist, he fumbled behind her to turn the key in the lock. He guided her to the big mahogany bed in the next room, then sat down to remove his boots. A glance at her derailed him. She lay back on the pillows, her dark hair fanned out over the white linen. He lay down beside her and covered her with kisses.
But you will dirty the sheets.
She sprang off the bed before he could stop her and knelt in front of him to remove his boots, smiling up at him through her fountain of hair. He tried to lift her into his arms, but she pushed him back down. She undid his shirt, one button at a time, kissing each area of exposed skin before moving on. He knew she teased him for some private reason of her own. Maybe it was an attempt to gain control over what was happening between them. He himself had surrendered to it long before, content to be carried helplessly along the current of desire.
She allowed him to briefly caress her hips before standing to hang his neatly ironed shirt on the bed post. In one bound he was after her. Sliding his hands across her silk clad bottom, he pressed against her. She pulled away and returned to the bed.
Do you know how much I missed you?
What happened then was what usually happens in such situations. For my father, it was a stunning experience. At thirty-two, he was eight years her senior, and no innocent. After his father died, he threw himself into the improvement of the orchards rather than marrying. He was quite successful. Now his good fortune overwhelmed him; he was overjoyed to have found a love greater than he had ever anticipated.
Unlike my father, my mother was naïve. The penultimate child of a large family, she lived a quiet writing life at home. She had published her first slim volume of poems not long before they met. Observation of her mother, aunts, sisters and cousins had instructed her in the lives of wives. She, too, was overwhelmed by the ardor of their courtship, by the passionate delirium which consumed them. Overwhelmed as well by the sacrifice required of her for it to continue.
Later they slept—a brief, blissful nap. He woke her with a kiss on her brow, another on her mouth.
Her eyes opened a crack, only to shut again.
Maria. He kissed her again. Maria, marry me.
She opened her eyes. And then? If we keep on like this, we’ll have dozens of children to look after. That will be the end of my writing.
Imagine a little girl who looks like you. Or a little boy. I would love them more than my life.
He stretched his arm around her shoulders and drew her comfortably against him.
You wouldn’t want a child who combines the best of us?
I would like to have children some day. What I do not want is to be a wife.
Not even mine?
She sighed. What if I promised to marry you if you gave up your orchards?
Why would I do that? What would we live on?
The proceeds from the sale of the orchards, I suppose.
She waited quietly, relieved to see understanding spread slowly across his face. She stroked his hair back and kissed him.
You know I love you. But to bury myself in household concerns: recipes, ironing, colicky children, dinner parties. She shook her head. I would go mad.
We could get a housekeeper. And a governess. The farm makes a fine profit. You would be free.
Free? And when your friends and neighbors tell you they saw me walking the hills alone, what will you say? And when your mother asks what kind of wife I am, one who does not advance your business by entertaining the wives of your associates, what will you say?
I will tell her the truth: Mami, I married for love. Don’t you want me to be happy? He kissed her mouth, her throat, the palms of her hands.
I’ll tell her the truth: that I begged you to marry me. You know there are ways to limit the number of children. We needn’t have twenty-five.
She laughed. I don’t know if this—her gesture took in their bodies and the bed—will be enough.
You can read me your poetry.
And if another poet wants to read it, you won’t be jealous?
Not if you stay true to me.
Gossip may arise, whether I am true or not.
I don’t care about gossip. I only care about you.
You say that now, steeped in post-coital bliss. You may feel differently later.
He smiled. Bliss is all I need. He turned to kiss her, but she was too preoccupied to notice.
It’s hard to change one’s expectations of another’s behavior. We’re taught to be proper even before we learn to speak.
Please, Maria. We could get a housekeeper. Maybe one of your sisters? His voice trailed off. Her sisters were engulfed in suitors. Or a cousin?
Joaquina? Which one is that? Have I met her?
I don’t remember. She shrugged. Joaquina lives with her mother—my father’s sister—down by the coast. She never replaced her fiancé after he drowned. A big woman, she intimidates many men; she’s a great cook, a wonderful baker.
Her confections could make your lemon and almond orchards famous.
Maria, we need a housekeeper, not a baker. Then you can walk and write and host salons. Though if she cooks as well as you say, she could manage my dinner parties. All you would have to do is attend.
She raised her eyebrows. That’s all? What about hair and nails and jewelry and …
You are so beautiful you don’t need such things. I don’t care about all that.
But others will. The wife of Ramón Santiago is not a lady, they will say. She must have bewitched him.
You did. I will confirm it.
So I could attend dinner parties in a silk chemise?
And a dress. A silk dress. He smiled. Imagine how smoothly it would slide over your skin. Maria, I promise. You can walk the hills—I’ll go with you.
That would defeat the purpose.
We’ll get you a dog. One that needs a lot of exercise. You’ll have time to write. You can host a salon. If Joaquina is not available, we’ll find someone else. What do you think?
I’ll think about it.
My father kept his word.
Of course he did, you reply. A gentleman’s word is his bond. But that is not always true, particularly when it comes to affairs of the heart. Just consider the legions of maidens despoiled and abandoned by gentlemen.
They did not disappoint each other. Both knew what they were getting. My mother made her conditions clear. My father had only one condition. Still, it would never have worked had he gone back on his word.
After they married, they enlarged the side of the house near the orchards. Their bedroom windows overlooked the lemon orchards. When closed, the shutters hid them from the world. Adjacent was my mother’s small study. Her walnut desk beneath the window faced the lane dividing the almond and lemon orchards, so she could enjoy both blossoms in season. Their closets, bathroom, and my father’s office, stacked with ledgers, insulated them from the rest of the house.
Every morning save Sunday, my mother would walk up over the hills and along the cliff path, a two-hour hike. She nearly always went alone. Usually she got up before my father. She made coffee, and sat and edited at the kitchen table while she waited for him to wake up and drink it with her. Then she was off, returning in mid-morning to work until lunch. And she was right. Much was made of the fact that she wandered alone for hours on deserted paths.
I thought I saw your wife walking along the cliff path, her hair loose in the wind, my father’s friends would tell him. Don’t you worry about her up there all alone?
Of course not, my dear friend, so long as you keep an eye on her for me.
At first, my father accompanied her on her walks, but she didn’t like it. Walking early on summer mornings before the heat grew intolerable, they stopped to make love under the crooked pines of the lookout. Enjoyable, but not what she needed. She needed the rhythmic stride of her legs, her arms swinging free, her hair blowing behind her, to empty her mind so she could fill it with verse.
After a few months, he brought home Danilo, a huge black dog, to accompany her on her walks. For her safety, he told her. Smiling, she agreed. Danilo was too friendly to be a good guard dog. He was unlikely to attack anyone, though he might accidentally knock them down by placing exuberant paws on their chests, or smother them with licks of his rough, dark tongue. At least Danilo’s legs were long enough to keep up with hers. The walks tired him more than they did her; he slept the rest of the day, curled on the back step like a lumpy black rug. My mother wrote undisturbed until she joined my father for the dinner Joaquina prepared.
Joaquina had accepted my parents’ offer with alacrity. She came and ordered the household—there were three maids to clean and launder and serve at table. Joaquina cooked lunch and dinner, then sat down with them to eat. She enjoyed having a household of her own to manage. She did not object to sharing it with my mother, who interfered only rarely to suggest a new dinner dish. They were as close as sisters.
If they had guests, as they often did, my mother and Joaquina wore their silk dresses. The narrow dropped-waist dresses fashionable at the time suited my mother; she looked like a girl in them. Invariably my father would run his hand down her back and squeeze her bottom while whispering in her ear, ‘That one’s my favorite.’ Whether she wore the shell-pink dress, the indigo print, or the grass-green dress with narrow lemon stripes, it didn’t matter. They were all his favorites.
My mother conversed politely at the table. When it came time for the gentlemen to withdraw, Joaquina’s interest in baking and recipes helped animate the ladies’ conversation. No one ever asked my mother about her writing: what had inspired a certain poem, how she arrived at a particular turn of phrase. To make up for these stilted dinners, my mother hosted a weekly salon on Tuesday evenings, full of artists and adoring would-be poets, some of whom had even been published. My father always attended, of course, along with any of his friends who were interested.
The year before I was born, Joaquina quietly married Nestor Márquez, the grizzled schoolteacher-poet who had been my mother’s mentor. It was Nestor who originally introduced my parents, when my father made a neighborly appearance at a party celebrating Nestor’s first book. My father had planned to stay no longer than the requisite thirty minutes dictated by good manners, but as he entered the room, my mother’s delighted laugh rang out, and all eyes turned in her direction. She made a lovely picture sitting on the blue sofa: dark hair, white dress, deep, liquid eyes. My father wanted nothing more than to hear her laugh again. He thanked God for neighborly courtesy. Nestor’s shrewd eyes noted my father’s fascinated gaze; he raised his eyebrows in subtle inquiry. At my father’s barely perceptible nod, he led him over to be introduced. My father was relieved at the avuncular manner with which Nestor took my mother’s hand and drew her to her feet.
Maria, my dear, let me introduce my neighbor Ramón Santiago, a great admirer of poetry.
They sat talking on the couch long past midnight, that night and many others as well, which earned Nestor a special place in my father’s heart.
Nestor and Joaquina met in turn at one of my parents’ dinner parties. Love at first taste, my father liked to say. Joaquina continued to bake and cook for us after she married, even as she produced several cousins for us to play with. Inés was promoted to head housekeeper.
Everything went well. Of course, life is never as tidy as planned. My mother wasted some precious mornings watching the sun’s shadow creep across the garden, or chopping onions with the maids in the kitchen.
A few years after their marriage, my mother gave birth to their first child, a son. She nursed me only briefly—her milk did not come in well. My father was eternally grateful for that. He wanted her to himself at night.
She kept a thin notebook on her bedside table to record words and phrases she came up with after my father had fallen asleep. We children spent hours trying to decipher the illegible scrawls on scraps of paper we found scattered around the house. We often woke at night to find light streaming under her study door while my father snored in their bedroom. Still, she devoted her afternoons to me and to each of my sisters in turn, reading to us, playing with us, carrying us around.
We were all very happy, though my father noted that a certain distance had developed between himself and his friends. Ever alert for juicy morsels of gossip, their curious faces were initially intrigued but ultimately disapproving. My mother walked alone every day for hours with only an unruly dog for a chaperone. She hired her cousin to do the work of a wife while she scribbled poetry. Her behavior was simply not that of a proper wife. That’s all there was to it. And what kind of man cannot control his wife? Of course, it never occurred to them that my father did not want to control her.
I told you this would happen, she said, after he related yet another uncomfortable conversation.
It doesn’t matter. I’m happy. We’re happy. Who cares what they think?
You do, she replied simply, stroking his hair back and kissing his forehead.
My mother completed her first book of erotic poems while pregnant with me. It was published on my two-week birthday. Forty days after my birth, friends and neighbors came to greet my parents’ first child. My mother was considerate enough not to mention her poems unless the visitors brought them up first. Every literate person in a hundred kilometer radius had read them. The poems in that first volume were beautiful, evocative, and explicit enough to make anyone blush.
Strangely enough, the publication of her recent poems brought my father’s friends back to him. Once they recovered from their initial shock at what he had allowed her to publish, they agreed that he must be quite a man to have inspired such poems. Privately, they doubted they had ever aroused such passions in their wives or mistresses, much less their maids. Not even the most avid gossip monger could uncover any evidence of impropriety. Indeed, there was no reason to think that she wrote about any man other than my father. So, once again, his friends surrounded him. Perhaps, in an odd way, the very things that people first criticized, then ostracized them for may have saved their marriage. Perhaps, over time, he might have become less forbearing without his newly burnished reputation.
With each birth, my mother published another volume of erotic poetry, until there were four in all. With each volume, my father’s standing in the community grew. Still at it, I see, he heard his friends think as they lit their cigars. He disdained their vicarious smugness even as he basked in the glow of their approval.
My mother slowed down a bit after her fourth child. She was busy. She read to us every night before bed, and sometimes after lunch as well. None of her own poems would do. We were thrilled when, instead of reading, she made up silly poems for us or told stories about the angry-seeming cook with flour on her nose who wasn’t really angry, just overworked.
Overworked Joaquina certainly was. After a few years, she’d grown bored planning and executing meals, and began to experiment with the lemons and almonds that my father grew. Flourless almond cookies light as meringue. Lemon tarts in almond crusts. Frangipani tarts: almond custard topped with cherries or apricots. After tasting these wonders at a dinner or salon, people often asked her to bake for them. Soon she scarcely had time to cook dinner. She hired one, then two, then three village girls to help her. My father built a bakery in the yard, with a stove inside on which to prepare meals. Joaquina’s products were always in great demand, never more so than in cherry season, as the taste of cherries and almonds complemented each other so perfectly. Eventually my father planted four hectares of cherry trees just to supply the bakery.
My mother interrupted her flow of love poetry to publish a book of silly children’s poems, then one of fantastic stories about a large rumpled dog. Then she and Joaquina collaborated on a cookbook: Mami contributed poems about the delicate almond blossoms that herald winter’s end, the fragrance of lemon blossoms, and the faint bitterness which underlies the sweetness of almonds.
By age six, my sisters and cousins and I were allowed to stand in the foyer and watch the guests arrive for her Tuesday salon. Afterward, we clustered outside the closed door, listening to snatches of conversation and poetry. Occasionally my mother was persuaded to read one of her poems. In the hush that fell over the room, her voice reached the foyer clearly.
I want his mouth there.
I want his tongue to encircle,
And he wants
And we want
The Spanish verb querer means both to love and to want.
Quiero … I love … I want.
Quiere … He wants … He loves.
Queremos … We love … We want.
As an adult, I found her poems a seamless meld of love and desire. But back when I was eleven, straining to hear my mother’s voice from behind the closed door, Joaquina emerged from the salon, empty pastry plate in hand, to discover us eavesdropping in the foyer.
All this I want You want. Want want want. What are you kids doing here? She flapped her hand at us. Run along. Go and pee so you can go to bed.
That was the year my father brought me a globe of the world. His semi-annual business trips over the mountains to the capital further enabled him to keep his word to my mother. Considering the glances and caresses they so regularly exchanged, it was a miracle that I did not have a dozen siblings. Or perhaps less a miracle than part of their agreement. Not trusting the discretion of local pharmacists, my father went all the way to the capital to buy condoms. The first few years of their marriage, they made the trip together; he met with bankers and exporters, while she met with her publisher and attended elegant salons. But she begged off when she became pregnant with my sister Carmen. After that, he made the trip alone.
He always returned from business trips with a wooden crate of presents. While we unwrapped our gifts, the thin cardboard boxes at the bottom of the crate were stowed directly into his bureau drawer. He smiled in delight as he dropped a brown paper package onto my mother’s lap. She tore it open to find lace trimmed silk panties, and blushed down to her toes.
What is it Mami? What did you get?
Oh, just something I need, she answered vaguely. We were too excited about our own presents to insist.
The year that he brought me the globe and Carmen a rainbow of colored pencils, he brought my mother a sheaf of thick rag paper on which to write her poetry. My mother normally favored flimsy school notebooks, crumpling and discarding at least ten pages for each one she saved.
But Ramón, how can I possibly write on such beautiful paper? I could never bring myself to throw any of it away.
He was sorely disappointed. Finally she agreed to use it to write out final copies of her poems for them to share. Sometimes, outside their door, we heard him grunt or laugh out loud as she read him a poem. Or kiss her. Eventually, after they used up all the condoms, she would get pregnant again. She always insisted he purchase a new supply before she gave birth.
It was her last pregnancy that killed her. It was obvious from the start that this pregnancy was different from the others. She was huge, and short of breath, and tired. Her hands and feet swelled. She had to stop walking in her fifth month. Always before she had continued until her seventh month, creating fresh fodder for local gossips.
After my brother was born, she bled and bled. We huddled outside their door, listening in terror to the staccato steps and grim voices of the doctor and midwife as they struggled to save her.
I will never forget my father’s ashen face when he opened the door. He seemed to have aged twenty years in one night. He placed her hand on our heads so that she could stroke our hair, as she was too weak to lift her arm. Then Papa picked up each of my sisters so they could kiss her. I clung to her already cool hand and kissed it over and over, sobbing inconsolably. Shortly afterward, she died.
I do not think my father ever re-entered that room. Certainly he never slept there again. My mother was lucky that she never had to write about the loss of love. My father, not so much. He devoted himself to us and his orchards in the grim decades that followed, but there was always a certain hollowness beneath his courteous demeanor.
Years later, Joaquina told us about our parents’ agreement. It was several months after my father died; we had lost Nestor long before. Joaquina outlived them all. One Sunday afternoon, when the entire extended family gathered at the farm, my wife and I, with my siblings and Joaquina lingered at the table over coffee and her brilliant new dessert: cherry almond cookies dipped in chocolate. Everyone else was outside playing fútbol.
I remarked that my father had always been supportive of my mother’s poetry, whose popularity had grown steadily over the years.
Oh, well. Joaquina replied dismissively. He had no choice. He was in love.
And what a lover he was. Carmen smiled slyly. I mean according to her poetry. She looked down with feigned modesty.
We burst into raucous laughter, spewing coffee and crumbs across the table. We roared. Each of us had spent years trying to live up to, or to live down, our descent from most famous lovers in the province. As one, twenty soccer-playing heads swiveled to regard us through the open windows. Miriam, my youngest, came in to share our glee.
After we cleared our throats and sipped our water and wiped our eyes dry, I asked Joaquina to elaborate.
She told us about their visit to the coast before they married.
The two of them traveled down together, unchaperoned, to invite me to come work for them. It provoked a lot of talk at the time, though you could tell at a glance that it was too late to worry about propriety. Later that night, in the bed we shared—it was a small house; he slept on the sofa—your mother confided the details of their agreement.
A verbal agreement, Carmen said.
She really was a feminist pioneer, Miriam interjected. A heroine.
Then he was a feminist hero, I insisted.
Marta, Elena and Inés were the real heroines, Joaquina responded dryly, listing our maids by name. None of it could have happened without them.
Now that the house is a museum, people file through to see the big mahogany bed where her poems and her children were conceived. They imagine her hair spread out over the white linen. (Of course, it is not actually her linen. Her linen was burned.) They inhale deeply, trying to catch the scent of lemon blossoms. Women outnumber men four to one. Old and young. Mothers and virgins. Many cry when they see the bed where she died. They recite her own words back to her, or read them aloud, until they have to be asked to move on, as others are waiting to enter.
They stare quietly at the small walnut desk where she wrote. They gaze at the enlarged photograph of my mother which dominates the study. My mother sits at her desk, her hair gathered haphazardly at the nape of her neck, bent over her work with fierce concentration. In the photo, she has the lush look of early pregnancy. I believe she was pregnant with Mercedes when my father took that picture. I envision him walking over to her afterwards, placing his hands on her shoulders and tipping her head back to kiss her.
In the foyer, the visitors dry their eyes and are comforted with a lemon tart or an almond cookie. They discuss their favorite lines and the poems they read out loud with their lovers.
The salon serves as a gift shop. Of course, all her books are for sale there, as well as boxes of almond and lemon cookies. (Joaquina’s confections are now in demand all over Europe.) Several posters are offered for sale: their marriage portrait, the photograph of my mother at her desk, a framed version of her most famous poem, Quiero, printed on thick rag paper, and a poster designed by Miriam entitled A Verbal Contract. Miriam became a feminist scholar. (When she first told me about her plan of study, I’m afraid I asked rather huffily, Well, when I was at university, what were we, masculinist scholars? Exactly, she replied.) Listed on the poster are the conditions my mother stipulated prior to their marriage. Fortunately we never discussed my father’s condom runs to the capital, or I’m sure they would be listed there as well.
Now that I am a widower, and retired, I find myself spending more and more time on the farm. I help my brother balance the farm books, and my cousins, the bakery books. Miriam and I organize monthly poetry readings in the salon. When I have the energy, I climb to the lookout and walk the cliff walk. The farm has a pleasant ambience, permeated by the aroma of lemon blossoms, the smell of almond cookies, and the memory of a great love.