(Departures . . .)
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.