Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Scars on Her Face

I met Carla Montejo in San Antonio, at La Tuna. It was an outdoor cafe that served beer under the pecan trees. La Tuna was an island of pleasure and ease in the brutal heat of south Texas.

So I went there on a Friday evening after my week at the newspaper. Carla was sitting at the picnic table waiting for my approach.

"It's not polite to keep a lady waiting," she said, with an arched eyebrow.

I walked up to her. "We haven't met," I said.

"But you have been watching me," she said.

"I ... "

"What do you want?" she said.

She looked at me. She had strong black hair cut in bangs over her eyes, and these sculptured eyebrows, which were too perfect. Her skin was white, as if she avoided the sun.

"My name is Fred. Me llamo Federico, si entiendes."

"You think I am Spanish?"

"I don't know your people, but I think you are intelligent and beautiful."

"Intelligent?" she asked. "How can you tell?"

"Well, maybe I'm wrong, but I am a confident man. I trust what I see -- you are educated."

"I'm a librarian," she said.

"Exactamente," I said. "May I join you?"

We drank beers at the picnic table, and became acquainted about her family and mine, about her work and mine. Carla had always lived in San Antonio, except for five years in Atlanta, which she hated. She had a difficult relation with her parents, an ex-husband who was no good -- and a very beautiful teenage daughter, she said.

"My daughter is not ugly like me," she said.

"You're not ... " but I stopped. This was a trap. A woman doesn't say she's ugly. If I were to deny her ugliness, it would be as wrong as saying it was true.

"I was in a car accident twenty years ago, when I was in college. Take a closer look at my face," she said. I leaned across the picnic table, coming near. "You see," she said, using her fingers to outline the scars on her face, the fine tracery of many stitches, the result of three surgeries.

She had no eyebrows. What looked so perfectly arched and symmetrical from a distance had been drawn on her face, just so, just right. Every day, she looked in the mirror and put on her face like that.

"You're not ugly," I said. "I noticed you across the patio. It was your hair and your eyes that I saw. " But I couldn't say more, because of this trap, because of what other men had told her, when her stitches were raw and painful.

She could have been sweet and tender as a maiden, but she was scarred and ugly.
Mexican matrons talked behind her back -- que lastima, she'll never get a husband. Friends came to see her in the hospital, but they avoided her later. I could see all this, and knew that she would be telling me this, in long talks.

We began to go out together. She made me strong, and I began to care for her. I liked her size and her height. We went to movies and poetry readings. I was proud to be seen with her. We walked together in a careful way. If we were in the lobby at a concert, I was glad to be noticed by other people.

She invited me to her apartment for her cooking. "I want you to eat at my table. I will make beans better than anyone you know."

"Good Mexican food? I love it," I said.

The beans were like velvet. The tortillas were wrapped in embroidered cloth napkins. The table was heavy oak. The windows were covered with wooden shutters to banish the heat.

This is what I wanted to learn. Carla knew how to live in south Texas. Her apartment was cool and her skin was white.

I wanted to learn because she and I would be together in this country, meaning I would stay somehow. At least that's what I was thinking about when we sat on the couch after dinner.

But she was too quick, too observant, "Fred, what do you want?" she asked.

I felt invaded, nurturing a thought that needed time to grow. "Paloma... dulcita ...."

My endearments aroused her in a flash of anger.

"You won't ever love me, I'm not pretty enough for you," she said.

I was done for and I knew it. I began mumbling excuses and making signs to leave.

"You're a coward," she cried. "You have no guts. You looked me over and then you changed your mind. What kind of man are you?"

What kind of man? A man who was out of his element and needed a cigarette or just some space. I began heading for the door.

"Get out," she screamed, and she picked up my shoes and threw them at me while I opened the door. "Zapatos, la tuya!" she cried in triumph.

I got to my car , walking in my socks, and I left. I mean, I really left -- Carla, my job at the newspaper, San Antonio, South Texas altogether, and the blasted heat most of all. I didn't stop moving until I got back to the West Coast.

But she was right. I was a coward. She was all in, and I was dithering. I played it safe. I wanted to be careful. What kind of man is that?

STORY TIME. It's story time at Frog Hospital. Last week's story, the "Ten of Swords" was a huge hit and many readers asked for more. There were also several pointed inquiries about how to get a hold of Sheila, the woman who lives on Beaver Marsh Road and reads Tarot cards. I have forwarded those inquiries to Sheila.

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