Departures - Fiction by Geronimo Tagatac
Crows cawing in the warm, Saturday morning air made me edgy. I was nearly out the front door when the phone rang.
“Basilio? It’s Roberta. I’m in Italy.” We hadn’t been together for two years. And yet, the sound of her name and voice brought back the thick texture and smell of her hair and the weight of her against my chest.
“How’ve you been, Basilio?” she asked.
“Nothing’s been quite the same since you left, Roberta. What’s got you in Italy?”
“Just coming to my senses.”
The end of another affair, I thought sadly. “Plan on coming back soon?”
“I just got here. My mom’s friends are letting me use the Alfa. But don’t throw yourself off any low bridges on my account, Basilio.”
“I’m past that Roberta,” I said. Laughing a little.
There was a pause. Then she asked, “Have you seen anything of Dante?”
“ Every once in a while.”
“Spent any time with him?”
“Not much. I see him in the cafeteria sometimes.”
“I left Dante a couple of months ago. I hear he’s taking it pretty hard.”
“Yeah, I heard. How about you?”
“Okay I guess.” Her voice sounded thin.
I’d met her in 1968, at a political study group. I’d gone into the kitchen to escape a leftist Democrat and a Stalinist who were taking verbal chunks out of each other over the issue of “direct action.” Roberta had walked into the kitchen to refill a jelly jar from a half gallon jug of cheap wine. What caught my attention was her belt buckle. It was a square, military buckle, of brass, with a five-pointed star molded into its center. A friend of mine had taken one just like it off a dead North Vietnamese Army soldier in the A Shau Valley. She filled her glass and caught me staring. I had a quick moment of embarrassment, hoping she hadn’t thought I’d been staring at her crotch. She took a swallow of wine and sighed. “The trouble with liberals,” she said, “is that they’re caught in a constipated dialectic between reform and revolution.” That’s when I noticed the color of her eyes and hair. I figured she was in her mid-twenties. I’ve always been a pushover for smart, dark-haired women with light eyes.
I shifted the telephone receiver over to my other ear.
Dante was the big kid who’d thought he’d found in Roberta the woman of his dreams—beautiful, classy, smart, well-to-do. I’d seen the look of awe on his face whenever he looked at Roberta, and I knew exactly what was going to happen to him. It had happened to me two years before, when Roberta ran off to Cozumel. I had a feeling that this was Dante’s first time through this sort of thing. We were both Filipinos; we both suffered from the five-hundred-year-old Spanish virus, romanticism. God have mercy on the poor son-of-a-bitch, I thought.
“Anything I can do for you?”
“Would you mind spending some time with Dante?”
“You mean you want me to take him out for a beer, get him laid?”
“Jesus, Basilio, you don’t have to be such a bastard about it,” she shouted. I could always hear the New York accent when she was upset.
“This isn’t like you. How come so much concern?”
“Maybe I’m getting soft,” she said in a changed voice.
“Okay. What’s his phone number?”
After I hung up the phone, I went out into the back yard, onto the lawn that was sweating into the hot morning air, and thought about Roberta for a while. I remembered the two a.m. conversations, in gritty, twenty-four hour coffee and donut places, the feel of my fingers going over the contours of her face, the pressure of her surprisingly strong arms around my waist. And I pictured the hard, cynical look that would sometimes cross her eyes.
I looked up into the highest reaches of the pepper tree and stared at the crows waiting like nervous question marks against the sky.
Dante was a big man, given to wearing bright, baggy workout pants and high-top basketball shoes. He had a gentle face that didn’t go with the thick, weight lifter’s body. I once tried to strike up a conversation with him at a party and had the impression that he was either very reticent, or the kind of person that you would reach on the phone and wish you’d gotten an answering machine. He always seemed out of his element and trying to figure out what was going on around him. Roberta’s parents characterized him as her furthest excursion into the land of the lowbrows.
I’m still not sure why I decided to do Roberta this favor. Maybe I wanted to reassure myself that, compared to some of her ex-lovers, I’d come off pretty good.
I called around and found out where and when he worked out: the Achilles Gym, at seven in the morning.
It was a storefront setup on the edge of the old industrial area. The monthly fee was cheap and the place had lots of free weights and all the right cable machines. A very serious gym. The dumbbell sets went right up to a hundred and fifty pounds. It was nothing like the well-lit health clubs with nautilus, saunas, and spas. No distractions. It was nearly empty at that hour but I knew what the clientele would be like. They would be people whose minds were centered on iron, the kinds of people who thought their jobs interfered with their workouts. They’d talk in bodybuilder’s jargon about “abs,” “pecs”, “lats,” “curls,” “cuts,” “supersets,” and “pre-exhaustion.”
I bought a single workout pass, pulled off my sweats, and went to work. I was into my third set of bench presses when Dante walked in carrying a silver workout bag. The third set was usually my best. My pectoral, triceps, and anterior deltoids were warmed and synchronized with my heartbeat and breath. It was the set where I liked to slide some real iron onto the bar, the point in the exercise where I felt the smooth, unbroken line that the bar makes, coming down to just above my sternum and then making the half-parabola back up to where my arms were nearly extended. I could feel the air racing through my lungs and the adrenaline colliding, in slow motion, with my bloodstream. I felt the burn in my chest and arms, telling me that the tearing down and rebuilding had started.
I sat up on the bench and watched Dante put on a leather training belt, which had the word “Rasta” embossed in Gothic letters on the back. He went over to the chalk box, chalked up, and walked over to me. It was the walk of stevedores working on the decks of container ships, of men who work around five ton steel hatch covers, and suspended, forty-foot cargo containers that can take a limb off without pausing, or nudge you over the edge of a seventy-foot deep, open cargo bay. Smooth and sure. At that moment, I realized I’d never seen him in motion.
“What’s going on? Didn’t know you were into iron, Basilio.”
“I do my best.” I said, smiling.
“When did you join?”
“Didn’t. Just trying it out.”
“Yeah?” He went over to the weight tree. “What do you want?”
He pulled a thirty-five pound plate off the tree, handed it to me and I slid it onto one end of the bar. He took another plate and slid it onto the other end. I settled back onto the black bench until my head was below the bar.
“Want a spot?” he asked.
“Yeah. Watch me on the eighth rep.”
“You got it.” He stepped behind my head and placed his chalked palms onto the scored section of the bar, just outside of where he knew my grip should be.
I reached up to where the barbell waited on the rack, gripped the chromed bar a quarter of an inch inside Dante’s hands, took a breath, pushed, and nodded. He didn’t need the nod. He connected with the rush of energy that went from my chest, through my arms into the metal. He pulled up with a smooth strength that made the bar float upward until it rested on the ends of my extended arms. I nodded again and his hands came away from the bar like a pair of owls taking flight. He did this so lightly that the two hundred pounds of chromed steel bar and black iron plates, three feet above my face, didn’t waver a millimeter.
I didn’t make the eighth repetition. On the seventh, I hit my dead spot, three inches above my chest. Dante saw it coming, reached out, and with the finger tips of both hands, gave me just the right amount of help. It felt as though a few ounces had melted off the plates, just enough for me to use the last reserves of strength to finish the rep.
We switched off until he’d gotten five sets, then moved on to inclined presses and declines. When we got to lats, I expected him to start with pull downs on the cable machine, but he went over to the chin-up bar instead. He jumped up to the bar with an effortless dancer’s leap. His hands caught and, for a second, his body hung absolutely still in the early morning quiet of the weight room. I heard him take half a breath and watched his back and bicep muscles swell as he rose smoothly toward the bar until his chin paused above it. I heard the air slide out of his lungs as he descended, coming to the bottom of the cycle. There wasn’t any cheat to his form, no shortcuts. Just pure, smooth chin-ups, from top to bottom. He went through ten reps, let go of the bar, and landed so lightly that I could barely hear his shoes hit the floor.
“Yours,” he murmured.
We finished the workout with sets of abdominal exercises on the inclined board and the leg raise apparatus.
After we showered, I took Dante down to the Outland for breakfast. Roberta had been right: he was hurting. It wasn’t hard to get him to talk. He was in that vulnerable stage of loss and his inhibitions were down.
Dante told me that he’d worked at the university cafeteria when he met Roberta. He’d started as the summer pot washer and moved up to full-time dishwasher. The other dishwashers and busboys respected him because he was the only person in the kitchen who could handle Aldo and Bettina, the big, temperamental dishwashing machines. When their conveyor belts jammed or they shut down in the middle of the dinner rush, Dante would climb under their long, steaming, dripping frames and remove a bent spoon or butter knife lodged between a drive chain and one of the sprockets. He would open a panel, and push the red reset button. Then the anxious busboys and dishwashers would smile as white ranks of clean plates, saucers, and hot silverware emerged from the machines.
I let Dante go on. I could be patient, knowing that he would get around to talking about Roberta.
He said that he did well at work, that the kitchen guys thought he was a little crazy but they didn’t think he was a “Baby Huey,” which was what they called big, stupid guys. Mariano, the fry cook, liked him and no one wanted to cross a cook. Dante treated the old man with respect and Mariano responded by teaching Dante how to work the grill. He taught him how to pour pancake batter, in even-sized circles, filling the top of a four-by-three griddle in four graceful sweeps. He showed him how to turn eggs by flipping them a foot in the air, so that they did front flips and landed face down in their pans, without disturbing the yokes.
“All in the wrist,” Mariano told him.
Then Mariano got serious and taught Dante how to throw thirty burger patties onto the grill, toast the top buns, and lay the garnishes on the bottom buns, so that everything was ready at the precise moment the patties hit the medium rare stage.
“Never rush things. It breaks the rhythm. Rushing is for amateurs,” Mariano told him. Mariano said Dante was a natural grill man with a good spatula hand. When Mariano quit, Dante took his place out front, on the border between the kitchen and the customers.
From where he worked, Dante looked out on those smooth, flawless faces and bodies, and knew that he was seeing through a one-way mirror. His eyes would slide over the weave of a turquoise sweater, or a starched, casually worn, forty-dollar dress shirt. After closing time, he would go out into that deserted other place, among the abandoned tables and pulled-apart newspapers, and wade through the alien smells. Dante told me that once he came upon a forgotten art history text lying on a back table. He picked it up and ran his large hand over the colorful binding and hefted its uncommon weight. He opened the book, leafed through its glossy pages, and looked at the reproductions of madonnas, saints, burghers, warriors, and landscapes.
Dante laughed and put his hands together, edge to edge, making the shape of an open book. “That book smelled so good. It was like the paper was made of something really rich, man.” He brought his thick hands up to his face, inhaling through his nose, his eyes closing, and he smiled.
Dante told me he used to notice Roberta making her way along the food counter, during class breaks. Her eyes always seemed somewhere else.
“I could see she was thinking about really important stuff, art, itics, history. Those kinds of deep things.”
Sometimes Dante would try hard to penetrate the aroma of cooking food to catch the smell of her dark, square-cut hair. To him, she was one of the children of grace and learning, of that other race beyond the sizzle, slice, and clatter of his world. She belonged to the soft realm on the other side of the stainless steel, gas flame, and white tile at Dante’s back.
Dante told me he lived in a studio apartment on the second floor of a weathered turn-of-the-century wood frame house, a few blocks from campus. He spent his solitary nights on a second-hand mattress elevated on a door and four cinder blocks.
“I guess I don’t own more than a week’s worth of laundry,” he said, smiling.
He read. Not in any directed or focused way but with the intensity of a man who knows that the pages of books hold the key to something better that he cannot give shape to. He read everything that came his way: car magazines, dog-eared war novels, celebrity biographies. He scrounged most of it off empty cafeteria tables.
“No television?” I asked.
“Cheaper to read.”
I asked how he finally got to meet Roberta.
“At Bagatelle’s, on a Friday night. A bunch of us went to hear a band called Tyrone Tyrone.”
He was there with some of the dishwashers and their girlfriends. When Roberta and her friends arrived and sat down at a table, Dante figured they were slumming. The band went into something slow and Roberta’s friends got up to dance, leaving her sitting alone at a table, her head and shoulders moving to the music.
Ponce, the busboy, nudged Dante with his elbow. “Why don’t you ask the college type to dance?”
“Why don’t you?”
“I’m with Sandra, ese.”
Sandra had leaned across Ponce toward Dante with an earnest look on her face. “Hey, Dante, can’t you see the woman wants to dance. Be a gentleman.”
“I thought you Pinoys loved to dance,” someone else chimed in. “Go on man, it won’t kill you to dance with her. It’s just a dance, ese!” So Dante had said, “Ay, Jesus!” He had gotten up and gone halfway across the floor when his friends broke into applause, and then laughed at his embarrassment. He had expected the dark-haired woman to shake her head and humiliate him, to send him back across the floor, in shame, to his amused friends.
He said Roberta didn’t wait for him to get to her. She stood up and went out to meet him.
“You like taking risks?” she asked.
Before he could answer, she reached up, put her right hand on his shoulder, her left arm around his waist, and pulled him to her.
He had laughed in amazement and she had laughed with him.
As they began to move to the music, she turned her face up to his. “The name’s Roberta and you better be careful.”
“Hey, it’s just a dance. It’s not that big a deal.”
“Yes it is.”
After the dance, she walked him over to the bar and bought both their drinks. Dante simply assumed that it was the way her crowd did things.
She talked, telling him about her three month wanderings through the cities of the Danube, about her affair with the medical director of German sex change clinic. She told him of her one week marriage to a graduate student of history and of their short lives together, living in a run-down flat in San Francisco’s Mission district. She said she knew from the first day they moved in together that it was “impossible.” And Dante had listened, knowing that he was about to do something very wonderful and dangerous. He took in the rhythm of her sentences and the way she pronounced her words. He looked into her astonishing hazel eyes, breathed in the smell of her body, the warmth of her breath. He said she didn’t use her hands to talk, that her movements were all so small.
All through their conversation, he had concentrated on moving as little as possible, sensing that any large motion on his part would shatter the air around them and send them on their separate ways. She took him to her apartment in the first cab he’d ever ridden in.
They stayed together for the whole weekend, going out at odd hours, to eat, or to go dancing. During those hazy, sensual days and nights, Dante knew he was falling into her world, into her.
In the early morning of the second day, after their lovemaking, Dante slept and dreamed he was on a raft in the middle of the lake, near his father’s village in the Philippines. He could hear Mariano singing but he was nowhere in sight. And then he realized that the fry cook’s voice was coming from down under the warm, green water. He saw Mariano’s face just beyond his own reflection and reached down, into the water toward the old man. But when he disturbed the water’s surface, both of their faces distorted and disappeared. He heard Mariano say, in a voice filled with resignation, “Ay, Dante!” When he opened his eyes, he was lying next to Roberta and he could hear a bird singing in the cool darkness beyond the sound of her breathing.
Roberta began taking Dante to political study groups where his broad shoulders, heavy arms, and thick thighs made him feel like a slaughterhouse worker in a room full of skinny-assed vegetarians. He kept as still as he could at those gatherings, taking in the shapes of wine goblets, hand blown glass lampshades, and the soft sounds of restrained conversations about coups, revolutions, and books—always more books. Her graduate student friends and young professors interpreted his reticence, along with his dark skin and build, as validation of his working class identity. Roberta bought the study group books for him and he read them in earnest, late into the weeknights, struggling with the concepts of worker empowerment and with words like, “programme,” “revisionist,” and “lumpenproletariate.” One payday he spent half of his check on a desk encyclopedia.
For Dante, the weight room, with its black rubber composition floors, the stark weight racks, and the solid, muscular bodies must have perfectly counter-balanced Roberta’s world. I think he liked the pure simplicity of the thing, that he loved the escape into the uncompromising ring of metal on metal. For him, it was intellect and iron, knowledge and chromed steel, in perfect harmony.
I sat in the Outland Cafe and listened to Dante. In the pauses between his words, I watched the cooling cream settle into a lighter brown layer at the bottom of his coffee cup, and his uneaten bacon and eggs grow cold.
“When did Roberta leave?”
He started to say something and his hand swept across the table, knocking the clear plastic tumbler of water onto the floor. He bent over to retrieve it and used a napkin to sop up some of the water that splashed across the floor. When he straightened up, I saw that his eyes were filled with the grief of remembering and I felt ashamed. There was a minute of silence, during which the waitress came over, cleaned up the water with a sponge mop, and brought Dante another glass.
Then he told me about it. One day in the middle of June, he said he knocked on Roberta’s apartment door and got no answer. He walked over to the big picture window and looked in. The front room was empty. Roberta’s exotic plants, framed prints, and all her books were gone. Nothing left. He tried calling her that night and got a pre-recorded message. Her number was no longer in service. He spoke to the apartment manager. Roberta had moved out. No, she hadn’t left a forwarding address. He called one of her women friends. She told him she had no idea where Roberta could be. Should he call the police? The woman sounded flustered and tried to reassure him that Roberta was probably okay. Just needed some time and space to herself. Roberta was like that, she said. Don’t worry. Give her time.
A week later, on the street, Dante said he ran into a slim blond man, one of Roberta’s professors.
“Hey, Dante. Missed you at Roberta’s farewell party.”
“When was that?” A terrible stillness overtook Dante.
“Last week.” The man smiled in a way that made Dante want to grab him quickly and smash his face. Then the man’s eyes grew suddenly serious. Perhaps he sensed the danger. But Dante had looked into his eyes and nodded in a way that let the man know that he could go without harm. He watched the man walk away.
I knew exactly what Dante must have felt as he stood there, his face frozen and his insides raw.
* * *
I saw Dante off in the lobby of the Greyhound bus station a few days after we talked. He was going to Denver and then into some place that he’d read about, a resort town in the far reaches of the Rockies.
“I figured it out. I can be a fry cook anywhere,” he said. He reached down and hefted his large, silver workout bag by its shoulder strap. “Books,” he said. “Good ones, too. The desk encyclopedia’s the heaviest one, though.” He set the bag back down on the smooth tile floor and looked at me for a moment. The bravado he’d put on for our parting left his dark eyes, and his face softened. For a moment, I saw what Roberta must have seen in him that first night on the dance floor, at Bagatelle’s. I wanted to take him away from the sounds of the people who were coming and going, into some warm cafe. Roberta hadn’t wanted to hurt him, not intentionally, or maliciously. I wanted him to know that. I wanted to explain that, in her world, loyalty and obligation were always to something more than passion, beauty, or even intelligence.
He must have seen this in my eyes, because his great hands rose, floated out to me, grabbed me by the shoulders, and pulled me to him for a moment. “Ay, Basilio!” he said. Then he reached down and swung the bag by its strap onto his shoulder. He turned and strode toward the gate, in the smooth, unhurried way he’d moved in the weight room.
Watching him go, seeing all that strength beneath his loose-fitting clothes, made my chest ache, as though something had taken flight from the tangled nest of my heart.
Geronimo Tagatac is a first generation Philipine-American. He spent his childhood living and working in the fields and orchards of rural California. He has published short fiction in the “Writers Forum,” “Orion” and “Mississippi Mud.” He currently lives and writes in Salem, Oregon.