by Íris Santos
The story of a woman who comes face to face with her past in the most innocent way.
| Every morning I follow the same routine. No, it's not the kind of routine you're thinking. I need to do everything exactly the same way every single day.
I start by rubbing my eyes clean, until I can see everything sharp and clear, followed by a stretch until my bones crack. I get up slowly because no one likes to feel lightheaded from getting up too fast. Up next is the shower, but before that, I fold my clothes neatly, even if they go into the laundry basket. Every Wednesdays and Saturdays I wash my hair with shampoo, followed by conditioner and hydrating mask, but today it's
Thursday, so it's unnecessary. That's the only contingency I allow myself - oh, that and the dreaded week of every month.
I also have a protocol for dressing up in the following order: first socks, then underwear and the rest of the clothing. Another quirk of mine is that every pair of socks or shoes must be worn first by the right foot.
You can call me strange, a weirdo, a freak, but the truth is, if I don't do things in this order, it's very likely that I will forget something important throughout the day. The protocol must be followed thoroughly.
Going to work, I always go by bus. It's not the best of transports, but for me it's much better than a car. And since I'm so thorough with my schedule, I never lose it.
While in the office, I do not allow interruptions. You'd think I'm a highly placed employee, but I'm a mere secretary who fills forms, takes photocopies, handles checks and serves tasteless coffee to visitors and the CEO. Am I happy with my job? Contrary to what you would think, I am. It requires my full attention and anything that demands organization and mental resourcefulness is something I enjoy quite much.
When I come back home and follow the same comforting routine as always, I exercise. Every day. Sometimes I run around the block, sometimes I do calisthenics. However, I don't indulge in letting my mind roam free for too long. I need stimuli. I need to keep thinking outside myself, beyond the conscience of the ego, beyond me.
Sometimes, I get unknown calls. Being a young secretary, in her twenties and dealing with different men every day has its perks: some men are also young, poised and good-looking, probably rich, but I'd never be interested because a part of me can never again love anyone of the opposite sex.
One of these days, my boss calls me into his office. The room is pleasantly bathed in the soft yellow morning light and the ironwood-colored secretary desk is being showered by tiny specks of clothes fiber and dust.
"Please, sit down." His voice always strikes a lightning up my spine, not in an agreeable way. Being a respectable boss has this sort of chilling effect on your employees.
Mr. Rodrigues is the kind of man who is young, but you can tell by his physique that he will always have a special charm to his aura, a magnet one is born with. His harsh but resolute brown eyes are ordinary, but his defined jaw line, and symmetrical but delineated eyebrows leave you wondering if he's ever this serious or if he laughs when he's at the safety and comfort of his home with his wife and children.
After sitting down as he commanded, I stare at him. Not long enough to feel uncomfortable though. His brown eyes are piercing like the sight of mountain tops, even though they look just like mine. After a while, he breaks the silence.
"How am I to say this..." He looks away and lays his eyes on, apparently, a white plant vase, placed on the corner of the office.
I remain quiet, nothing occurs to me.
"I have an odd request. It's not related to your work here as a secretary, but I don't know to whom I should address this."
I try not to think the worst, but in my mind, like the inevitable reaction to the flick of a switch, I visualize a bed in some cheap hotel - no, he would not pick a cheap hotel - and a pair of robes and matching towels. I keep my face inexpressive as a blank canvas. But he notices a small change in my countenance.
"Oh, no, oh my God. That's not what I meant, Melissa. Can I call you Melissa?" He lets escape a restraint laugh and I feel my tense shoulders slowly resting.
"Wow, you scared me here for a while. Yes, yes, it's fine." I smile apprehensively, not even a bit aware of what was to come next. He laughs with me.
"What I actually need is someone to take care of my baby daughter for an afternoon." Mr. Rodrigues looks at me like he's just requested me to climb up Mount Everest. I stutter though. I consider my previously mentioned fear as something I'd be more prone to do than taking care of a... baby. I, of course, raise an amount of questions so I can escape the task.
"Why? What about a kindergarten? Where is the baby's mother? Don't you have your parents or in-laws to take care of the little one?" My hands sweat. Well, they do sweat all the time, but when I'm nervous they sweat profusely. "I'm sorry, I know it's not my business -"
"No, you have all the right to know. My parents do not live in the country. The baby is still too young to go to kindergarten and my wife is leaving for the weekend. Her father died last night and she doesn't want to bring the baby to the funeral, neither she has the ability to take care of her under such weather." He lays his hands on the desk and purses his lips after concluding the sentence.
I look at him. My mind is trying to keep all the thoughts away and for a few seconds all I feel is my heart galloping and choking my breath.
"Well, uh..." my cheeks burn under the surface, "I'm sorry, my condolences." I look down and wipe my hands to the skirt. How could I deny this favor to this man when his father-in-law's body was still warm?
"I see that you're a little apprehensive. Maybe I could pay you an extra hour for each hour you will be looking after my daughter. She's a very laid-back baby. It will be no trouble, I promise. All you have to do is to give her the bottle when she cries, maybe burp her a little and change the diaper if necessary." When the silence takes over the office I can sense we're both thinking how odd it is that we're in an office discussing diapers and burps.
I sigh. I sigh because I don't think I can escape this as much as I'd like to.
"Okay. I can do it." I give in. It is what it is.
The next day, I feel that my guard is up. The time comes. There's a sort of invisible armor around my ribcage and I'm trying really hard to keep it together whilst I smile to all the clients and visitors. The frontline of my defenses is getting ready for battle.
Here comes my boss. With a trolley. In the trolley is a teeny baby with soft and chubby skin, sleeping like an angel in heaven while I'm here feeling abandoned in hell. In the baby's relaxed and sleepy hand is a squeaky dinosaur toy about to roll off her rounded leg onto the floor. My boss looks content and walks toward me. I already feel my heart pounding in my ears. Somehow, I manage to pull a superficial smile.
"Well, good afternoon, Mr. Rodrigues." My voice comes out whinier than I would have expected. I need to contain myself.
"Hello, Melissa. Here is your delivery." He gaily drives the trolley toward me and I look at the baby. What a bundle of joy. A joy and a fuzzy feeling I can't embrace. "She's already breakfasted, so all you have to do is to keep her company. It's rewarding, I promise. She will be sleeping for the next couple hours."
"Well, isn't she cute?" I speak under my breath to not wake up the baby, but I pull out that whiny voice tone again. I fondle her little rosy cheek. "Oh, what's her name, by the way?"
"Grace. It's my mother's name."
"Oh, that's precious." For a while my fear subsided and I try to focus on being a nanny for the next few hours.
"I spoke to Angelina and she will be here with the baby if you need to go somewhere." He puts his sunglasses on. He looks like a model. "I have a meeting with the Chinese construction company now. Good luck to both of you!" He runs to the elevator and the door shuts behind him.
And I'm here. Left with the baby. And the solitude and dread wrap their arms around me and I feel crushed. But my armor needs to hold until I go home.
I peek at the sweet face of this innocent little being and pray for someone to show around the corner or from the elevator before I start to cry. Angelina, like her name says, pops up from the hall like a divine intervention. I seize the opportunity.
"Hey, Angelina! Do you want coffee?" I don't need her answer. I run to the machine and give her a cup of coffee. She sips.
"Well... thanks, I guess." Her eyes fall onto the baby, sleeping like a heaven sent. "Is this the boss's daughter?" She squats by the baby and rubs her hand on Grace's cheek. I sigh.
"Yes. Isn't she sweet?" I answer while I try to sound as honest as my voice allows.
"A man like that could only give birth to a baby like this. It should've been with me though." After a split second, we crack up. "What's the joke? I just didn't seduce him because I don't have too much time on my hands. Don't you think he'd be drooling over this cleavage?"
Angelina always makes me laugh. She makes work more bearable, but that stubborn attitude gets to everyone, I can't deny. She can easily have all the men she wants, there's no denying in that either. She is naturally graced with wide hips and a large bust. Having Brazilian Indians in your lineage could be a great asset to your physique. If she were to be a model, her silky black hair, falling down her back like a waterfall would never need to be photoshopped.
I, for the contrary, resemble an auburn fox. Not that it means that I see myself as suggestive or mysterious: I'm thin but muscular, my hair is frail and sparse, thanks to months of heavy medication. My skin looks milky-white, my eyes are brown as hazelnuts and my nasal bridge is populated by freckles. Let's be honest though: I am no bombshell; nor am I willing to be.
"Don't you feel like having kids?" Her question pops out of the blue and leaved me unarmed.
"Uh, I never thought much about it," I lie, "but it would be nice to have someone to take care of you when you are old."
"That's right, we need to admit that most of us have kids for selfish reasons, but it would be so funny and cute to have a miniature copy of me." Angelina takes the baby in her arms and I jump off my seat.
"Stop it, put her in the trolley again. We must not wake her up. I couldn't deal with all the crying."
"Jesus, stop being so uptight, it's just a baby. They don't bite-"
"Because they can't." I finished. "I just don't want her crying near me, I have to work. I have to finish these graphics so I can turn them in Monday morning." I react as nonchalant as I can, hoping Angelina doesn't notice I'm tearing by the seams.
"Fine. I'm going to take her to the lounge and play with her when she wakes up. You change the diapers." Off she goes with the baby, before I have the chance to roll my eyes at her. I hope little Grace doesn't poop her diaper to such amounts that I'll have to do the dirty job myself.
I go back to staring at the screen, but I can't focus. I see the numbers, the functions, formulas and pie charts, but they make no sense to me. I can only think of reaching my mobile phone and call Dimitri, my ex-boyfriend. There's something that keeps me holding there, wondering.
But I can't. I can't. I can't. I feel a bitter thread crawling up my throat, aware that my guard has taken a break. I clench my fists. My palms are sweaty and I rest my head on the secretary. I reach to my purse resting on my chair's arm with trembling fingers and take my bottle of Valium in a clumsy move, removing the cap. I shake it a little too violently and swallow the pill with a dry motion of my throat.
My heart gallops like a furious horse, pounding the ground with stiff hooves, my mouth is dry and the Valium is stuck in my larynx, dissolving with whatever saliva I have. I feel the acid eating into my flesh. I walk fast to the water cooler and drink from a plastic cup until I have water spilling down the corner of my lips. While I wipe myself to a napkin, I can't help but fathom the idea that I should call Dimitri. And that's what I do.
Bip. Bip. Bip. A voice awakes in the other side of the line.
"Dimitri?" The Valium is kicking in and I start feeling a little lightheaded and high.
"What did I tell you about calling me? I don't want to talk to you. I think I had made that clear." His voice is stern and harsh. Nothing changed since last year, I presume. I have no chance to reply, he hangs up. I sit there in the chair. I know I won't be able to work at all. My head is trying to bar the memories that try to crash into me like a tsunami, and I have to keep fighting. It's going to be a long day; a long battle.
Joyful voices and a childish laughter break from the corridor and I try to recompose. I look at the monitor and make pretend that I'm working on something.
"Melissa, do you mind if I leave the baby here with you for a moment? They just called from the second floor. Apparently there's a leak in the restrooms. I have to clean that mess."
Great. I shrug. Angelina turns around and there is Grace again, sitting next to me. The elevator door shuts with a mechanic whoosh and silence takes over the reception again. I stare at baby Grace. Baby Grace stares back at me wide-eyed, inquisitive.
"What? Stop looking at me like that. I'm not your mother." I say this more in a way to keep me from feeling rather than to be a jerk. Little Grace cracks into a squeaky laughter. And she pulls a smile out of my lips. Babies can conquer you, one way or another.
I'm thinking about holding her in my arms and kiss her cheeks and smell that baby scent long forlorn to me, but I can't. If I do so, I don't know what will happen with myself. So I keep a distance. I keep interaction to a minimum.
"I'm sorry, little one. If you could only understand what's going through my mind..." I sigh. I just don't feel like crying because I'm feeling high and that will keep me calm and peaceful for the next couple of hours.
Everything is fine for a while until baby Grace cries in a shriek that's capable of stinging my brain like a 5-inch needle. It's been four hours since the boss left, and he must be almost here. Grace is, without a doubt, hungry again.
"Shh, shh." My fingertips touch her cheek while I try to calm her down. Maybe she needs human touch. But that I don't feel close to giving at all. Her whine grows louder to a scream from the top of her tiny lungs. I could feel panicky, but I had swallowed another Valium and my high was prolonged for a more couple of hours. And I had no idea of the whereabouts of Angelina. I call her from the company's phone.
"What?" She sounds hasty and huffy. There's a manly voice in the background.
"Are you still in the second floor?" I ask, feeling a little afflicted with my situation and the reason why I am addressing her when she has so much in her hands.
"Yes. The goddamned infiltration is inside the wall. We have to break the wall and replace the pipe. I'm still here, cleaning. What is it?" I can tell she's breathing heavily.
"Okay, never mind, I can do this." The baby keeps crying loudly and I feel that my skull is peeling off from my brains.
"Yes you can. Even though I don't think I could handle that much crying. Give her the bottle."
"Thanks a lot, Angie." I hang up and look for the bottle. There it is, under the trolley. I mix the formula in the bottle with a cup of hot water from the coffee machine and shake it vigorously, eager to finish with the shrieking.
The moment I was dreading has come. I walk with a full bottle to baby Grace and her cry lowers to a murmur. I have to take her in my arms to feed her. Once again, I find myself holding old memories on the other side of my conscience. Hold it, it's almost over. The boss is almost there. He has to. I involve her tiny body with my nervous but firm hands and lay her in my lap in the angle that favors her to swallow better. Not long ago, I was doing this, every day. I rock her up and down in my arms, next to my breasts that had already fed a child. I swallow up my tears. They threaten me at the corner of my eyes. I sniffle. The rubber tip of the bottle reaches her lips and she suckles quietly in her eagerness. I keep my thoughts at bay. I savor the moment because I know I cannot have another. I walk through the reception, up to the window panel, and watch the metropolis under me. Everything is still. For the first time today, I feel peaceful.
The elevator opens wide. The boss is back.
"Hey! How is the most beautiful girl in the world?" He walks up to me with that happy father smile and I can't help but smile back. We both looks down at Grace, still suckling on the bottle.
"Was she tough to handle?" He touches my arm in a friendly way.
"Oh, no. Not at all. She's an angel, sir."
Baby Grace lets a drop of formula slide down her chubby jaw and I quickly wipe it on the bib. The proud dad looks on.
"You look like you have some experience with babies. Are you a mother?" The question strikes me quite like a shock. I freeze for a moment. I have to answer. I stumble, I stutter.
"No, sir. I'm not. I had to take care of my little sister. You see, I was ten when she was born." I lie with all the cheek I could gather at the moment. "Okay, all set. Here she is, fed and happy." I hand the baby to him and feel like a weight is off my shoulders and not my lap. The weight on my shoulders is much heavier, believe me, reader.
I gather my things and walk out the building as fast as I can without making it seem like I'm running for my life. There's a weight heavying on my chest and I can't breathe.
Panic. Panic does this.
I catch the bus and try hard to keep a blank stare at everything. Nobody cares. Nobody looks at me. I'm a face in the crowd, a face that does not stand out.
I shut the door of my little apartment. I struggle to keep me from falling to the ground. The tears fall down with me and I break into such a convulsion that I truly believe I am about to die from the pain. My heart gains claws, the claws tear into my muscles. My lungs breathe in the sharp air in bits and pieces and it hurts to inhale. I crawl to my bedroom, my knees and hands drag ungainly throughout the floor like a savage beast and I shut the door behind me. I turn the heater on full power and give in to the force of gravity. My head hits the tapestry and I embrace my knees, laying on my side. And I cry. I cry.
I cry until I'm blind by the tears. Soon there's a stain in my light-blue carpet. I'm looking at what's under my bed and I see an album covered in a heavy layer of dust. An album I had promised myself I would throw away. I don't have the courage to open it. I don't need to. My mind, my memories do all the work for me.
It was a happy and torrid Summer day. Dimitri set off to work and I was left at home with Neal. My little Neal. The plan for that day was to leave him at the kindergarten and go to the groceries and look for a job. It was our daily routine. Just one of the many days. But while I was driving on the highway, a great accident took course before my eyes. A small car stopped by the roadside without signalization got swallowed and crushed by a truck with a trailer the length of half a football field that collapsed sideways, all this in a matter of seconds. I pulled over as safely distant as possible, got out and shut the door. I took my phone and called the emergency. I felt nervous, wobbly and my voice fluctuated, but I managed to call. I approached the collision and I could barely tell how many people were inside the small vehicle, but I saw the roof completely compressed and crushed by the truck's tire and I knew right away that whoever lived inside that car, lived no more.
I turned my head and saw a bloodied hand hitting the window desperately. The size of the cabin had shielded the driver, so he had doubtlessly made it by a thread. I ran to the cabin and leaned over the windshield. I pleaded to him to make the effort of winding down the window, but I think he was too weak to do it.
The truth is: the time passed, everyone was dead in a matter of hours. Every single one in that accident. And my baby.
I left Neal unprotected under the scorching Summer sun for more than two hours, while I called the ambulance and the police, testified to the police about what I saw and helped the victims' families. Meanwhile, I was so awestruck by all that was happening that I forgot my own son.
So the police reports followed: I was a murderess, I was a negligent mother, a snake, a careless parent, a baby killer. But no one could really prove I had done anything punishable by law. My trial, my ordeal, my punishment? My own conscience. I live to this day wearing this tight rope around my throat. I spent months and months in a stage of utter numbness, my mind solidified as a rock, I couldn't or wouldn't listen to anyone. The words reached and passed right through me, bearing less meaning than a breeze. I spent months under the eye of a therapist who, in short, fixed nothing. Nobody could ever pull back together whatever was broken in me.
Dimitri and I could no longer move on together. This tragic mishap ruined life for both of us. I crushed our life to mere crumbs, his and mine. He won't speak to me. My name is poison in his tongue, I'm an unspeakable creature who will forever live in his mind. He worked days and days to support a child we hadn't planned and ripped a hole too wide that can never be filled again. No patch can replace what I've done.
This guilt kills me slowly and the pain I carry is a burden patiently waiting to collapse me once and for all.