Read about the author of this story, Paz Marquez Benitez, here and the book "Fourteen Love Stories" here.
Alfredo Salazar turned to the right where, farther on, the road broadened and entered the heart of the town—heart of Chinese stores sheltered under low-hung roofs, or indolent drugstores and tailor shops, of dingy shoe-repairing establishments, and a cluttered goldsmith’s cubbyhole where a consumptive bent over a magnifying lens; heart of old brick-roofed houses with quaint hand-and-ball knockers of the door; heart of grass-grown plaza reposeful with trees, of ancient church and convents, now circled by swallows gliding in flight as smooth and soft as the afternoon itself.
Into the quickly deepening twilight, the voice of the biggest of the church bells kept ringing its insistent summons. Flocking came the devout with their long wax candles, young women in vivid apparel (for this was Holy Thursday and the Lord was still alive), older women in sober black skirts. Came too the young men in droves, elbowing each other under the talisay tree near the church door.
The gaily decked rice-paper lanterns were again on display while from the windows of the older houses hung colored glass globes, heirlooms from a day when grasspith wicks floating in coconut oil were the chief lighting device.
Soon, a double row of lights emerged from the church and uncoiled down the length of the street like a huge jeweled band studded with glittering clusters where saints’ platforms were. Above the measured music rose the untutored voices of the choir, steeped in incense and the acrid fumes of burning wax.
The sight of Esperanza and her mother sedately pacing behind Our Lady of Sorrows suddenly destroyed the illusion of continuity and broke up those lines of light into component individuals. Esperanza stiffened self-consciously, tried to look unaware, and could not.
The line moved on.
Suddenly, Alfredo’s slow blood began to beat violently, irregularly. A girl was coming down the line—a girl was striking and vividly alive, the woman that could cause violent commotion in his heart yet had not place in the completed ordering of his life.
Her glance of abstracted devotion fell on him and came to a brief stop.
The line kept moving on, wending it circuitous route away from the church and then back again, where, according to the old proverbs, all processions end.
At last, Our Lady of Sorrows entered the church, and with her, the priest and the choir, whose voices now echoed from the arched ceiling. The bells rang the close of the procession.
A round orange moon, “huge as a winnowing basket”, rose lazily into a clear sky, whitening the iron roofs and dimming the lanterns at the windows. Along the still densely shadowed streets, the young women with their rear guard of males loitered and, maybe, took the longest way home.
Toward the end of the row of Chinese stores, he caught up with Julia Salas. The crowd had dispersed into the side streets, leaving Calle Real to those who lived farther out. It was past eight, and Esperanza would be expecting him in a little while; yet, the though did not hurry him as he said “Good evening” and fell into step with the girl.
“I had been thinking all this time that you had gone,” he said in a voice that was both excited and troubled.
“No, my sister asked to stay until they are ready to go.”
“Oh, is the judge going?”
The provincial docket had been cleared, and Judge del Valle had been assigned elsewhere. As a lawyer—and as lover—Alfredo had found that out long before.
“Mr. Salazar,” she broke into his silence. “I wish to congratulate you.”
Her tone told him that she had learned, at last. That was inevitable.
“For your approaching wedding.”
Some explanation was due her, surely. Yet, what could he say that would not offend?
“I should have offered congratulations long before, but you know mere visitors are slow about getting news,” she continued.
He listened not so much to what she said as to the nuances in her voice. He heard nothing to enlighten him, except that she had reverted to the formal tones of early acquaintance. No revelation there, simply the old voice—cool, almost detached from personality, flexible and vibrant, suggesting potentialities of song.
“Are wedding interesting to you?” he finally broke out quietly.
“When they are of friend, yes.”
“Would you come if I asked you?”
“When is it going to be?”
“May,” he replied briefly, after a long pause.
“May is the month happiness, they say,” she said with, what seemed to him, a shade of irony.
“They say,” slowly, indifferently. “Would you come?”
“No reason. I am just asking. Then you will?”
“If you will ask me,” she said with disdain.
“Then, I will ask you.”
“Then, I will be there.”
The gravel road lay before them; at the road’s end, the lighted windows of the house on the hill. There swept over the spirit of Alfredo Salazar a longing so keen that it was pain, a wish that that house of his, that all the bewilderments of the present were not, and that this woman by his side were his long-wedded wife, returning with him to the peace of home.
“Julita,” he said in his slow, thoughtful manner, “did you ever have to choose between something you wanted to do and something you had to do?”
“I thought maybe you have had that experience; then you could understand a man in such a situation.”
“You are fortunate,” he pursued when she did not answer.
“Is—is this man sure of what he should do?”
“I don’t know, Julita. Perhaps not. But there is a point where a thing escapes us and rushes downwards in its own weight, dragging us along. Then, it is foolish to ask whether one will or will not, because it no longer depends on him.”
“But then, why—why—” her muffled voice came. “Oh, what do I know? That is his problem after all.”
“Doesn’t it—interest you?”
“Why must it? I—I have to say goodbye, Mr. Salazar; we are at the house.”
Without lifting her eyes, she quickly turned and walked away.
Had the final word been said? He wondered. It had. Yet, a feeble flutter of hope trembled in his mind though set against that hope were three years of engagement, a very near wedding, perfect understanding between parents, his own conscience and Esperanza herself—Esperanza waiting, Esperanza no longer young, Esperanza the efficient, the literal-minded, the intensely acquisitive.
He looked attentively at her where she sat on the sofa, appraisingly, and with a kind of aversion which he tried to control.
She was one of those fortunate women who have the gift of uniformly acceptable appearance. She never surprised one with unexpected homeliness nor with startling reserves of beauty. At home, in church, on the street, she was always herself, a woman past first bloom, light and clear of complexion, spare of arms and of breast, with a slight convexity to thin throat; a woman dressed with self-conscious care, even elegance; a woman distinctly not average.
She was pursuing an indignant relation about something or other, something about Calixta, their note-carrier, Alfredo perceived so he merely half-listened, understanding imperfectly. At a pause, he drawled out to fill the gap: “Well, what of it?” The remark sounded ruder than he had intended.
“She is not married to him,” Esperanza insisted in her thin, nervously pitched voice. “Besides, she should have thought of us. Nanay practically brought her up. We never thought she would turn out bad.”
What had Calixta done? Homely, middle-aged Calixta?
“You are very positive about her badness,” he commented dryly. Esperanza was always positive.
“But do you approve?”
“What she did.”
He was suddenly impelled by a desire to disturb the unvexed orthodoxy of her mind. “All I say is that it is not necessarily wicked.”
“Why shouldn’t it be? You talk like an—immoral man. I did not know that your ideas were like that.”
“My ideas?” he retorted, goaded by deep, accumulated exasperation. “The only test I wish to apply to conduct is the test of fairness. Am I injuring anybody? No? Then, I am justified in my conscience. I am right. Living with a man to whom she is not married—is that it? It may be wrong, and again, it may not.”
“She has injured us. She was ungrateful.” Her voice was right with resentment.
“The trouble with you, Esperanza, is that you are—” he stopped, appalled by the passion in his voice.
“Why do you get angry? I do not understand you at all! I think I know why you have been indifferent to me lately. I am not blind, or deaf; I see and hear what perhaps some are trying to keep from me.” The blood surged into his very eyes, and his hearing sharpened to points of acute pain. What would she say next?
“Why don’t you speak out frankly before it is too late? You need not think of me and of what people will say.” He voice trembled.
Alfredo was suffering, as he could not remember ever having suffered before. What people will say—what will they not say? What don’t they say when long engagements are broken almost on the eve of the wedding?
“Yes,” he said hesitatingly, differently, as if merely thinking aloud, “one tries to be fair according to his lights—but it is hard. One would like to be fair to one’s self first. But that is too easy, one does not dare—”
“What do you mean?” she asked with repressed violence. “Whatever my shortcoming, and no doubt they are many in your eyes, I have never gone out of my way, out of my place, to find a man.”
Did she mean this irrelevant remark that it was he who had sought her; or was it a covert attack on Julia Salas?
“Esperanza—” a desperate plea lay in his stumbling words. “If you suppose I—” Yet how could a mere man word such a plea?
“If you mean you want to take back your word, if you are tired of—why don’t you tell me you are tired of me?” she burst out in a storm of weeping that left him completely shamed and unnerved.
The last word had been said