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Departures… Fiction by Geronimo Tagatac, Part 5

(Departures . . .)

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.

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