(Photo courtesy of Flickr/Protoflux)
By Ricardo Segreda
Gladys Barlow, 42 and a Cincinnati native now living in Quito, Ecuador was staring out the window of her suite, ruminating about her last fling with a married man. She was, in fact, hoping that it would be her last romance with any man, at least for the next few years. However, that is what her supposedly last relationship with a married man, shortly before she left Cincinnati, was meant to be. And it wasn’t just a married man, but her best friend’s husband, Joey, whom she didn’t even find all that attractive.
He had a charmingly devilish smile, that’s all, along with a flair for jokes. It was the third time in less than a year she had a fling with some other woman’s man, but Gladys never got caught and in the moment with Joey, when he passed her a joint, she was struggling to get over the last man she was with, and she told herself that this was no big deal…
Enough. That’s why she had to leave Ohio, why she had to leave the United States, and go far, far away from it all. She had a dream about Ecuador shortly after her last break-up, a country she knew little about, and after studying a website entitled “International Living,” decided that Ecuador was far away enough, and exotic enough, for her to put everything behind her and begin life anew.
Everybody at the department store where she worked as a supervisor, was startled when she gave her two-weeks notice: Ecuador?! Gladys?! Gladys seemed so happy at her job, where she was popular with her co-workers, at her church, where she taught Sunday school, and most of all, with her circle of friends, male and female.
Of course, people wondered why a woman as tall, pretty and slender as Gladys never had a boyfriend, or girlfriend for that matter. Some would even try to set Gladys up with other friends they knew whom they were convinced would be a perfect match, but she always declined, stating that she wasn’t ready for a relationship.
The reality is that all the nice men her friends presented to Gladys struck her as boring. She’d been this way since junior high school, when she found herself pining for those moody guys in dark trench coats and black nail polish, rather than the boys in the Christian youth group that her religiously observant mother preferred she socialize with. She didn’t let her mother know, of course, mindful as she was of her mother’s frail mental health after Gladys’ father ran off with his secretary years earlier.
It wasn’t until college, however, that she actually had a relationship (and lost her virginity), when she fell in love, deeply and sincerely, with a charismatic (if extremely cynical) art instructor 20 years her senior and married with four children. The oldest of whom, named Gwen, happened to be Gladys’ age, was enrolled at the same institution, and had taken a liking to Gladys, largely because she projected onto Gladys an impression of wholesomeness, perhaps because Gladys, a soloist in the college chapel choir, sang traditional hymns so beautifully.
It was not long before Gladys become Gwen’s confidant, relating to her about Gwen’s unhappy home life, the constant arguing between her parents. And all the while, as Gladys and Gwen’s friendship developed, Gladys pursued her relationship with Gwen’s father, very discreetly of course; for Gladys, her reputation and her passion for her instructor mattered equally in importance.
Consequently, when this man, near the end of Gladys’ freshman year, abruptly and without explanation ended the affair, she literally had nobody to talk to. Gwen noticed that Gladys’ familiar smile seemed much more forced. Though it greatly upset her Gladys’ mother that her daughter would not be attending her own alma mater, she agreed to let Gladys transfer to a university three counties away, accepting at face value Gladys’ claim had a superior Business and Management program.
So began a pattern in Gladys’ life of seeking out men, usually married or involved with somebody else, and/or with anger management issues, whom she knew were wrong for her. It always ended badly, of course, but somehow Gladys always covered her tracks, but as usual, that left her unable to talk about it with anyone. Thus, nobody except the various men she loved and who then broke her heart ever knew the real Gladys, especially at the various, mostly mainstream Protestant, churches she attended.
Ecuador was going to be her fresh start, her new beginning. For one thing, she didn’t believe Ecuadorian men were her type; they looked far too different from the men she more commonly dated.
Until she met Rogelio, that is. Rogelio Orozco, the young lawyer of indigenous heritage who helped her obtain her residency visa…and a genuinely nice guy, the sort she never payed attention to much back home. But Rogelio was different. He had the affect and manners of a Victorian gentleman; he’d hold open doors for her, he’d insist on paying when they’d meet over lunch to discuss paperwork, and most of all, he’d address her as Doña Gladys. How charming!
Gladys didn’t want, however, to think of their relationship as anything other than professional. But she couldn’t help herself. While having a cappuccino at a café in the Centro one day she began to wonder if maybe what she was looking for all along was a man like Rogelio. He was ten years younger than Gladys, as well as two inches shorter, she was white, he was brown, but more than anything, their backgrounds were completely dissimilar. She grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, while Rogelio grew up in Ecuador’s Andean sierras. Gladys decided that she was going to erase such notions from her mind and finish her coffee.
The afternoon arrived when Rogelio texted her on WhatsApp to inform her that residency had been approved, and that furthermore, he wanted to invite her to dinner at a gourmet restaurant in order to celebrate the good news. The feelings for Rogelio she tried to disregard welcomed themselves back into her heart. She looked for her best dress.
Over drinks and salmon that evening, Rogelio shared with Gladys the details of his childhood, growing up barefoot in a dirt-floor home in the sierras with six other siblings, but how his father, recognizing that Rogelio’s natural intelligence, took on extra jobs so Rogelio could attend a Catholic boarding school in Quito. Rogelio excelled in his classes, and through the intervention of compassionate nuns and priests, he was able to obtain scholarships for two of his sisters. The three of them graduated from universities, with Rogelio going to law school.
Gladys was moved by Rogelio’s life story and was eager to share her own, though she thought it was bland by comparison. Gladys grew up comfortably middle-class in Cincinnati. However, though the first 10 years of Gladys’ life were happy, all of that changed when her father, whom she adored, left to live with his secretary, with whom he had been having an affair for over a year. Gladys’ mother fell into a deep depression and for much of her childhood the roles of parent and child were reversed as Gladys took it upon herself to ensure that mother was happy. Since Gladys’ mother was deeply religious, Gladys followed her example in order to please her. Consequently, being involved with a Christian church has always meant so much to her.
Rogelio then revealed that he had his failings as a man; he was involved with young woman eight years before and got her pregnant. His daughter, whom he is raising as a single father, is the center of his life. This revelation nearly made Gladys cry; indeed, Rogelio is indeed the sort of man she always wanted, only she didn’t know it. Rogelio then asked Gladys if she had ever been married.
“No,” she said, before adding that she’s had a few romances – only a few – in her lifetime, but that they simply didn’t work out, that’s all. She stumbled in her attempt to be vague about the details of her relationship history, before steering the conversation towards her career, her hobbies, and her political views.
Later that evening, after he drove Gladys back to her building and as he was walking across the parking lot to the reception, he told her that he enjoyed their time together and that she could call him at any time, for any reason. Gladys stopped, locked eyes with Rogelio, and then kissed him, a gesture he received willingly, if passively.
“My daughter is waiting for me.”
“I understand,” said Gladys.
They held hands for a minute before separating, with Gladys nodding a “hello” gesture to the doorman on the way to her apartment.
She could not believe what happened to her. Gladys felt like a new human being. She threw herself onto her bed and stared at the ceiling, feeling that this was much too good to be true. Was she dreaming? How could somebody like her deserve somebody like Rogelio? Then she wondered what would happen if Rogelio would ever get to know whom she truly was? She debated in her mind whether she should ever tell him, or whether she should lie. After all, she was always good at covering her tracks, and here in Ecuador, it was unlikely that anybody would ever find out anything about her. Plus, once she married him, her named would be Gladys Orozco and how many other women in the world are named such?. Consequently, anybody in Ecuador attempting even a Google search on her would end up empty-handed.
She drifted off to sleep peacefully enough, but the next morning she woke up with serious misgivings over what transpired the night before. Was she crazy, Gladys wondered. She had only been in Ecuador three months, and here she is getting involved with a man, when the whole point of coming here was to avoid getting involved with anybody. Plus, there was the vast disparity his world and hers. Her Spanish was barely at the basic conversational level, and she could not imagine ever reaching a level of fluency that would allow her to interact freely and deeply with the local culture. Besides, who would accept her.
Plus, she knew no matter what, she’d always be alone. Gladys could keep the secret of her personal history to herself, but it would always shadow her heart, or she could tell Rogelio everything, and risk losing him. And even if he were to forgive her, she is not so sure Rogelio’s extended family might if they ever knew.
Gladys logged onto her Netbook, checked her stock portfolio to calculate how much passive income she’d be receiving for the rest of this year, and then headed out to the café and meditate on what she should do.
The café faced park where boys were playing a round of soccer. Gladys watched them without thinking of anything in particular as she nibbled on an empanada, and sipped an Americano. She had given up on trying to analyze or understand her life, and wanted only a vacation from her own thoughts.
“Can I join you?”
The voice was distinctly gringo and male. “My name is David.” She turned and was immediately taken by this tall and handsome all-American type, who looked about her age, and notably fit. “I’m newly arrived and haven’t learned much Spanish yet.”
“Have a seat.” There was a vibe about David that made Gladys feel at home. It was not long before David went into the story of his personal history; two failed marriages, several broken engagements, a son he never sees from his first marriage. For the first time in her life, Gladys opened up about her life; all those dysfunctional romances with unavailable men, many of whom were married to friends of hers.
Late-morning coffee with David turned into drinks and lunch with the man, followed by more drinks, followed by an invitation to visit the Airbnb rental where David was staying. She accepted. It was not until after they made love that noticed the wedding ring on his nightstand. David fumbled as he tried to explain that he is actually on his third marriage, but he and his current wife are legally separated, and a divorce should be forthcoming soon.
Gladys, overwhelmed with emotional pain, said nothing. Rather, she quickly dressed, ran out to the street and hailed a taxi, asking the driver to take her to the Centro Historico, as she had planned on doing that morning. But now she had this burden to put out of her mind. She had done it before, however. Now that she knows where David lives, she would simply avoid going near him, and eventually she’d forget about him. Him and Rogelio, both.
Though she was not raised Roman Catholic and had little familiarity with its practice, once she was in the Centro Historico, something deep in her motivated her to visit all the historical cathedrals, chapels, and churches in the popular tourist vicinity, many of which were built during the Counter-Reformation.
Something about all that antiquity, something she’d never seen in Cincinnati, resonated with her, as if she had been here in the Centro Historico a long, long time before, perhaps in a previous life. Her last stop was the large and legendary Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, with it breathtaking gold-plated interiors. As she waked in she felt that there was something waiting for her, something she had to see.
And there was; on the inside, to the right, was a massive mural depicting that depicted sinners in Hell, their respective vices, such as sloth, envy, pride, vanity, usury, greed, gossiping, inability to forgive, profanity, impiety, despair, dishonesty, adultery, lust, and their corresponding punishments, such as having one’s flesh being perpetually seared, or the tongue being impaled on a stake.
Gladys stared at this mural for what felt like an eternity, heart began to beat against her breastbone, and she even felt a drop of sweat run down her forehead, yet she couldn’t turn away. Then she remembered that she had seen this mural in her dream about Ecuador, the one that prompted her to move here.
She walked out of the Compañía de Jesús. It was dark now. Over in the corner of the Plaza de Independencia she saw an open-air bus, known as a “Chiva” in Latin America, carrying young revelers wearing masks, dancing to a loud, thumping beat. Gladys recalled hearing that it was the Day of the Dead, a sort of Ecuadorian Halloween. As the bus turned the corner and pulled closer, some of the revelers called out to her, inviting Gladys to climb on board. A young man with Mexican-skull face paint extended his hand out to Gladys. She grabbed hold and was now on the bus with the other passangers; young men and women, some as witches, others as ghosts, others as demons, and some as Incan warriors.
They were dancing, gyrating, laughing, sharing glasses of aguardiente and beer between themselves. Gladys joined them for a little while, but then opted to rest against railings of the bus and observe the streets they passed. As the bus wound through different neighborhoods the night got darker and colder, the streets more deserted…except for the women, whom she knew. They were her friends in the States, the ones whose trust she had betrayed by entering into relationships with their boyfriends and husbands, standing under streets lamps, waving at her. Some had their children with them.
The bus pulled into a long, dark tunnel and the music abruptly stopped. But Gladys felt no fear. She simply stared into the darkness and with her skilled contralto voice, she sang.