(c) Chuck Teixeira, 2017
Miquel, my Venezuelan jefe, was drop-dead gorgeous. He had not come to Colombia as a refugee – he had merely seized an opportunity outside his country despite his mother’s reluctance to see him go. Then, as the economy at home collapsed with the price of oil, he became the life-line for his family, sending essentials not available in Caracas, Maracaibo or elsewhere.
Good looks aside – to the extent one can put looks aside – Miquel was also the only manager who had advocated for my hire, and the only one who greeted me with soft eyes my first day at work. Not surprising, then, that hope soared when, early on, he clarified that the boys in the photo on his desk were his nephews, not his sons – hope that soared then quickly sputtered.
Anyway, I had not come to Colombia to fall in love. I was going to teach English, put a dent in my inability to speak Spanish, then return to California. The early allure of proximity to Miquel and his explicit request notwithstanding, I refused to commit to more than the six months I had mentioned in my application.
Then barely three weeks into the job, I was in Miquel’s office, apparently being threatened with dismissal. One of my students, Dayro Usnavy, had complained about a conversation in class concerning family and friends. I had asked him how long between his first making a friend and his first bringing the guy home to meet family. Dayro answered, never, he could never trust people outside his family, so he kept them away from his home.
“What happened next?” Miquel said. The top two buttons of his white shirt were open. There was a brown leather rosary around his neck, a gift from his current live-in girlfriend, a former student at our school.
“I asked Dayro what it meant to be a friend – or have a friend, something like that.”
“He said you pressed him on a subject that made him uncomfortable.”
“The topic of the exercise was personal relations.”
“I know,” Miquel said, his eyes not as soft as I’d known them. “I’ve taught that lesson. Its purpose is to enable students to discuss in English things they may want to say about family and friends. The purpose is not to pry into parts of life the student is reluctant to discuss in any language.”
“A lapse in rapport, sorry.” I hoped that concession would satisfy Miquel and end the inquiry. It didn’t.
“The school can’t afford to lose a single student because of the peculiarities of a temporary teacher, especially a student like Dayro Usnavy, whose family is big in city government.” Peculiarity was a little strong, I thought, or worse a euphemism. “And I can’t afford an interruption in my income,” Miquel continued. Suddenly, I was a threat to his job. Then he landed the belly blow. “There are too many people depending on me back home, including my mother, who relies on me for the heart medicine she can’t get there.”
“I get the picture,” I said. My peculiarities were killing his mother.
“One last thing,” he said. “The student thinks he heard you moaning over his ass when he bent down to pick up the pen you had dropped while illustrating the zero conditional.”
“Not true,” I said firmly.
“In Colombia, you can still get away with that, but only if you’re a priest and only in the sacristy before mass.”
“Not true,” I repeated, still pretty certain.
“I’ll give you a pass this time,” Miquel said, “You’re holding up the Novena in the conference room.” Then he turned to other work on his desk.
I felt angry and powerless. I had a strike – maybe two — against me though I had done nothing wrong. I didn’t want to go to the Novena. I didn’t want to spend who knew how long Christmas Eve hymning and praying before being served a slice of cake with caramel sauce. But I didn’t want to bolt either. If I quit or got fired before six months, the school would dock my final paycheck for the amount it had spent on my work visa. Anyway, it was only Miquel who was turning into a jerk. I hadn’t yet developed opinions about anyone else on staff.
Although many employees had gone for the day, there were about fifteen people around the conference table. The school director was leading the prayers. Most of the other participants were young women who worked reception and administration and older women who swept and mopped the place. My anger notwithstanding, I didn’t have to decide on passing or praying, because the recitation progressed by people raising their hands, getting a nod from the director, and continuing where the previous reader had left off.
About half-an-hour into the service, Miquel joined the group and started leading hymns. He had a beautiful, strong voice that seemed to animate every one. Even I relaxed and looked for a chance to join in. My chance came in a passage from Vespers with the noun, “el rocio,” the rustle of angels’ wings. When I finished reciting, I collected a few approving looks, though none from Miquel, who sat with eyes closed, apparently deep in prayer. Here was a guy clearly going to hell, a guy comfortable with both salvation and sin. I enjoyed neither.
After the Novena, Miquel called me into his office again.
“I’m not sure you understood what I was trying to tell you before.”
“I think I understood,” I said then added impatiently, “What should I do to prove it?” Finally I snapped, “I think you’re trying to bully me into a corner where I’ll make a terrible mistake.”
“I’m not bullying you.” Miquel smiled and touched my shoulder. “I’m really glad you accepted our offer. But, in the future, please bear in mind that Dayro Usnavy is a slut. We’ve all had to do a lot more than moaning to keep him happy here.”
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Recently retired from the practice of law, Chuck teaches English in San Francisco. His work has appeared in numerous publications. Some of his fiction has been collected inSierra Showdown: A Triptych and in Against Slander: Three Admonitions. Both books are available on Amazon.com.