Desserts on a Tray

This is a Mexican re-imagining of Rebecca.

“Men are simpler than you imagine, my sweet child. But what goes on in the twisted, tortuous minds of women would baffle anyone.”
Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca

 

The morning of the funeral, I circled my childhood bedroom in a terry cloth robe. Pacing between the closet and the bedspread, I added and subtracted touches on two perfect outfits. One launched my escape, the other cinched my fate. The first: raw denim jeans with a fashionable tear, a sheer long-sleeve blouse with bohemian sleeves, crisp white Keds and a gold tassel necklace. The second: a black boatneck dress with a hem below the knee, black leather pumps and freshwater pearls. The bare legs were a question mark—it was too warm for tights, but I was too young for pantyhose. Summer was fading, the air smelled like pines. My tiled balcony reflected the morning sun, casting the flowers on my silk duvet in an orange glow. I could almost taste the dew on the secret garden that lulled me to sleep. What sort of woman would I be if I remembered my dreams?

I walked to my vanity and slid the newspaper off my laptop. Chewing on my index finger to spare my manicure, I googled Should mistress go to wife’s funeral? According to the internet, I was the first person in history in this predicament. It’s typically the man who dies, leaving behind two bickering women at his wake.

If Alfredo had died, my choice would have been simple. I would have never disrespected Pilar de Leon in public. That chapter in my life would have ended in silence. Our affair might have been an anecdote revealed on my deathbed.

The first time I saw Alfredo de Leon he was luminous. A sturdy man who seemed too rugged for the classroom, he had reddish-brown hair and perpetual stubble. Pushing the lectern aside, he circled the front of the room, occasionally remembering to write on the chalkboard. He spoke about Aristotle and Plato with such passion, you’d think they were personal friends. He interrupted himself while he lectured, adding topical references to ancient theories and then belittling his attempts to entertain us. It would have been embarrassing if he had been less handsome. When he leaned towards me to pass out the syllabus, I inhaled his woody cologne and saw the chest hair escaping his undershirt. I wanted to run my fingers through the tuft, to press my palm on his neck and push him towards my chest. My face burning, I sat on my hands for the rest of the class and tried to listen.

Every girl in class had a crush on Professor de Leon, but as the weeks passed, he became my obsession. I brought him my best work, my shortest skirts, coffee and pastries to his office hours. He smoothed over his eyebrows with his thumb and ring finger, grinning as though my adoration were a burden. My phone recorded his lectures and played them as I went to sleep. I wanted to accompany him to a grocery store, asking him to point out the things he liked aisle by aisle. Pieces of his biography came together through the internet. I read everything he’d ever written and recorded the personal details he revealed in a red notebook. Favorite fruit: apricot. Color: blue. Philosopher: Locke. He said he had started training for triathlons to counteract his sweet tooth, but his wife took up the hobby with more talent and now he mostly cheered from the sidelines. He said he only accepted friend requests from his students after graduation. His wife was friends with an older cousin of mine, and she accepted my friend request without incident.

Pilar de Leon was attractive and content. Some have said we look alike—thick chocolate hair, round eyes, upturned noses and pale skin, though I have more freckles and I’m ten years younger. She posted about her cycling team, pictures of herself traveling to races and reminders to contribute to local charities. On my cousin’s birthday, Pilar de Leon posted photobooth pictures of the two of them wearing plastic tiaras at a wedding, captioned “To my dear friend, a queen through and through, I wish you a day full of joy.” I called my cousin to congratulate her, and I asked about Pilar de Leon as discreetly as I could.
“I loved the flashback pictures your friend Pilar posted of you.”

“A million years ago. Hold on to your youth, prima. A few seasons pass and suddenly your friends are señoras.

“I’ve never heard you talk about her. What is she like?”

“Pilar is the most elegant person. Extraordinarily calm. She never complains, even when she ought to. Her taste is exquisite and she’s a wonderful hostess. She’s too lenient on the children though, she says they get enough discipline in school. And she’s lost too much weight recently, if you ask me—all she eats is little leaves.”

They were a beautiful couple, and I had to take a bite. Alfredo kept a picture of his wife on his desk. My mother had told me that wives of handsome men insist on this gesture, as if they could guard their husbands with their two-dimensional eyes. As my fantasies grew, I thought seducing Alfredo de Leon would prove I was different. Our affair would be the secret I kept in a locket while I smiled at parties.

I wanted to distinguish myself from my friends while generally doing what was expected of me. I drank Irish coffees and was featured in a local style blog. I watched films with subtitles and smoked imported cigarettes. But it was as though our lives had bumper plates—no matter how we rolled the ball, we ended up in the same place.

Most of my friends found their husbands in high school. As a teenager, I complained to my mother that my classmates were choosing their boyfriends over everyone except their fathers. She told me, “Prince Charming doesn’t exist. A smart woman picks her project and shapes him into the man she wants to marry.” I pointed to my throat and gagged. My mother playfully slapped my hand away. “You are too pretty for the obscenities you pick up from American television. Do you want me to take away your SonyTV?”

I ranted about the absurdity of alluring pimply boys who started sentences with, “Mi papá dice…” For what? So they could pay for our taquiza and stick their dry thingies in us? That part I only wrote about in my diary. Where my mother and friends saw potential, I saw expiration dates. Sweaty boys destined for baldness and beer bellies. My friends, after I refused dates with their boyfriends’ cousins, said I was getting a reputation for being frigid, or worse, a lesbian. “If you keep this up, you won’t be invited to parties,” they said. I flat-ironed my hair and wore shoes that gave me blisters, smiling for the photos we were starting to post online.

If the tragedy of my life is that I always wanted to want something different, my consolation is that of all the desserts on the tray, Alfredo de Leon chose me. I visited his office twice a week. The books on his shelves smelled like fall leaves and chocolate. The wooden chair I sat on was so old it was kind of cool in a postmodern way. One day, I asked him if professors scratched their names into their desks the way students do. He said he didn’t know, so we crouched under the desk and looked. They did. I could tell he wanted to kiss me when I suggested we add his name. He said we’d have to think of a pseudonym and that became a running joke between us. He asked me to call him Alfredo and address him as tu. Whoever cleaned his office did it poorly. Whenever I moved something off his desk, like a pencil cup or paper weight, the dust around it was illuminated. Alfredo tightened whenever I disturbed his belongings, but he laughed when I said his neatness did not include cleanliness. One day, I asked him if I was his best student.

“It’s uncommon to meet such a cosmopolitan young woman with a passion for the classics.”

“You’ve ignited my interest. The way you make it seem so relevant to our modern political systems makes the texts come alive.”

He asked me for feedback on his lectures, and soon he started sharing his notes with me ahead of time, practicing his jokes. We agreed I made him funnier. I recommended foreign films. He said his wife fell asleep halfway through “Les Enfants du Paradis.” We got drunk on big ideas. When I asked him brilliant questions, he often said, “No one has ever thought to ask me that before.” With the spring semester ending, the coming heat made me impatient. As I fantasized about him, I vowed to challenge him the next time he said it.

“No one has ever asked me that before,” he said.

“Not even your wife?”

“Pilar is busy. She’s always floated above it all. She’s incredibly clever but I wouldn’t describe her as curious.”
“She’s not curious about you?”

“After so many years, you stop asking each other impractical questions.”

I noticed the picture of his wife was missing from his desk. “I would never stop asking you questions. You’re endlessly fascinating to me.”

I knew if I let him self-deprecate, I’d lose my chance. I crawled on top of his desk the way I’d seen someone do in a movie. My right knee was lodged into the spiral of a notebook. I focused on the sweet taste of his tongue to distract myself from the pain. I cupped the bottom of his chin with my hand and claimed my victory. He reached under my skirt and grabbed onto the scoop of fat below my butt.

The first time we made love in his car, he admitted to liking the syrupy ballad playing on the radio. He softly sang the clichés in my ear while he entered me, and it was silly and gorgeous, like seeing the best movie never made. The song became my ringtone when he called.

In my mind, Alfredo belonged to me, only existed when he was in front of me. The thought of his wife was only tolerable because they had gone through law school together. She bore his children and managed his house. She kept his and her father’s books, kept his dinner warm while he kept me. Our affair was proof that she wasn’t perfect, proof that I had something to offer.

When the semester ended, we continued meeting in his office after hours. I told my parents and my friends I was working on an independent research project. When they asked me about it, I started talking about the intellectual history of anti-intellectualism and they quickly changed the subject. Alfredo and I took a trip to a research library out of town. We had sex in the stacks and then two more times at the hotel. He learned to lie; I learned to bite my cheeks to hide my smile. I was in the backseat of a car with my mother, thinking of Alfredo’s taste on my mouth, dumbly applying and reapplying Chapstick.

“What’s wrong with you? Are you in love?” She asked.

“No, I’m just thinking of a joke,” I said.

“What’s the joke?”

“I can’t explain it, you had to be there.”

Alfredo had seen the spark in me and devoured it. What I wanted from the world revealed in a man. Sex with him was an indulgence. My body melted between his arms. When he called my name, I thought finally finally. As he kissed my navel and navigated down, he savored me like a tiramisu, a tres leches, a Sacher Torte.

I excelled in academics and I thought it made me smart. All the stories said adultery would end in tears, but the lives of the women I knew showed we are capable of breaking our own hearts. The danger in seducing a married man is that if his wife dies unexpectedly, you’re the one waiting in the wings.

My mother took me to the Austrian Tea Room before my fifteenth birthday. Walking through the doors was like stepping into cotton candy. Waiters in white gloves glided through the room with dessert trays. To order, one merely had to point. The skylights tinged the room mint green. Buckled leather chairs were tucked into marble tables. My feet brushed the red paisley carpet. My mother ordered a Sacher Torte to share: a spongy chocolate cake moistened by apricot preserves, served with unsweetened whipped cream.

“Your father and I are proud of the woman you’re becoming. We would like to offer you a choice. We could host a traditional quinceañera in a banquet hall, or we could travel together to Europe this summer.”

It was a simple choice. I had recently learned the word bourgeoisie and I sprinkled it over everything. I teased my mother for reading society magazines every week, deeply embarrassed that my baptism and First Communion had been featured in Gente Bien.

“Every article is exactly the same,” I told her.

“Yes, but the pictures are different.”

My family traveled to London, Paris, Monaco, and Vienna that summer. On each leg of the tour, a Spanish-speaking guide escorted us around the city. In Vienna, we waited in line for a slice of cake at the Hotel Sacher, and we agreed the Mexican version was better. “Our cream is fresher,” my mother said. She savored the hotel lobbies and the buttery meals. My father revered landmarks and snapped photos of paintings. I relished the city streets, imagining the lives of the women who passed me. I studied what they wore and how they walked. I dreamt of being a fashion designer with a lover in every city. We purchased souvenirs to remind our friends and family we had been overseas.

Back in Monterrey, I learned dreams recounted in memory lose their shine. I’m ashamed to admit it: the fantasy of the trip ended when I saw the society magazines stacked on our entryway table. Drowsy with jet lag, I flipped through the pages of Gente Bien and saw one of my classmates, Mireya Dominguez, transformed into a celebrity. To think before our trip, I had sent my regrets with glee. The three-page spread immortalized the best night of her life, detailing her choice of venue, gown and menu. Quotes from her parents praised her selflessness and beauty. I hid the magazine in my bedroom, memorizing every detail. I could picture myself more clearly at Mireya’s party than in Europe, where I had actually been.

My friends accepted my souvenirs as they traded anecdotes from all the parties I missed. I laughed at inside jokes I didn’t understand. When I told stories about Europe, they didn’t come out right. My body felt empty, the anticipation of the trip behind me. I had traveled ten thousand kilometers and found my world unchanged. After Mireya, the prettiest girls in my generation got their own glossy spreads, pleated between bridal showers and weddings. I hid the depths of my ingratitude from my parents. For the rest of the year, I sulked in secret.

Six years later, as my friends and I prepared to graduate college with decorative degrees, the society pages marked our next milestone in lace. As save-the-dates trickled in for my friends’ weddings, my mother was perpetually trying to find me a chaperone. She didn’t know I was dating a married man. “If a beautiful woman shows up to a wedding by herself, it is assumed she is on the prowl,” she said. She shared my academic achievements with aunts who asked me if I had met a nice man yet. “They all have wives and girlfriends,” I said. If I wore a spectacular dress to a wedding, my picture might appear in a magazine collage. I searched for something different, but nothing satisfied me until Alfredo.

—-

On the morning that changed everything, the sound of Alfredo’s ringtone woke me. I knew something was wrong. He spent Saturday morning with his children—two boys he was raising to be kings among men. I tapped the string of emojis that identified him, and I crawled under the covers so my parents wouldn’t overhear. His voice sounded the way a black hole looks.

“I don’t know who else to call. Pilar, Pilar… had a terrible accident.”

“Oh my God. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“This isn’t real, this isn’t happening! I just saw her this morning.”

I’d never heard a man wail before. How could I abandon him? “I’ll stay on the phone with you until you get there.”

I heard the sound of traffic behind him, and then sirens, as he rushed to the scene. When he hung up, I wondered, “Why did he have to call me?”

I was a zombie the rest of the day. I couldn’t burden anyone else with the news, in case they guessed my role in the relationship. I checked Pilar’s social media accounts—for four hours it was as though she were still alive, as if at any moment she might post that morning’s training time, a selfie with her cycling team. Then the tributes started pouring in. My cousin posted, “Pilar was always an angel. Every day she graced us and now she is welcomed in heaven.” Everything I knew about Pilar de Leon made it seem inevitable that if a drunk driver were to mow her team down in the national park at dawn, she would be at the front of the pack, setting the pace.

Alfredo called me whenever he peeled away from family. He said people were pestering him with their opinions, and he was too tired to think. “I need someone else to decide. There are too many choices, and my brain hasn’t caught up. What if I pick wrong?”

“I don’t think there are any right choices here.”

“Everyone is pestering me with their agenda. Her body, the kids, the funeral. Pilar and I never talked about any of this.”

“You’re asking me to decide?”

“Tell me what I would do. If I could think straight.”

“Alfredo, I don’t have what it takes to deal with this situation. I’m in over my head.”

“Please. We’ll take it one step at a time. Just tell me what the man you knew would have done.”

The burden of responsibility corroded any lingering desire. I told myself I could extract myself when Alfredo calmed down. We decided Pilar would have wanted to be an organ donor. Parts of her body went to eight different people, including her retinas. “How can a country that can perform medical miracles still have drunk drivers?” Alfredo asked. The casket would be closed, walnut. Her body would be cremated and kept in La Purisima. The children would go back to school on Monday. I would call the funeral home.

Pilar’s death made the front page of the newspaper the next day. Athlete, Mother of Two Slain in Drunken Crash. The obituary I edited was published the following day in the paper. Glossy magazines are no place for death.

I had two semesters left in school, but the morning of Pilar De Leon’s funeral was my final exam. If I could have confided in my mother, she would have told me that a young widower does not stay single for long. If not me, some other dessert on a tray would come to satisfy Alfredo’s appetite. Life had revealed a way to savor my lover in public without ruining my figure with a baby. I could step into something beautiful someone had already built.

Going to Pilar De Leon’s funeral was the first public step down the aisle. I could choose to zip up the black dress, to stand in the back pews with my classmates, listening to Alfredo’s eulogy with tears in my eyes. I could shake my professor’s hand at the wake and volunteer to be his teaching assistant next semester. I could listen to teary phone calls and distract him with my body in secret. After a sensible amount of time had passed, we could be seen together in public. I would prove to Alfredo that I was someone worth needing. The story would continue the way stories continue. And soon, I would get my own glossy spread. Alfredo and I would invite Pilar’s parents to our wedding. The magazines wouldn’t mention her, but in the shared memory, I’d be the heroine who stitched a man’s heart back together after tragedy, the selfless bride who raised his children. This is my chance to be somebody.

I came close to leaving my lover on the bitterest day of his life. I almost blew out his light. But my imagination failed me as it fails me now. Where would I have gone in the jeans? The movies, the mall, somewhere I had been a million times. Pilar’s death implicated me in their love story. Unlike hers, my abandonment of Alfredo would have been intentional. I would have watched his story play out from behind a screen as someone else stepped in to repair him.

I inverted my cruelty and convinced myself into compliance. Failing to rise to this occasion only proves how ordinary you are. I reached for the newspaper on my vanity and flipped to Pilar’s obituary for guidance. I told myself minding her men was the price of her forgiveness. Her familiar smile in front of crushed velvet seemed to say, fair is fair.

I put on waterproof mascara and packed tissues into my purse. I stepped into the black dress, stretching my arms behind me. It would be the last time I zipped up my own dress. I smoothed the wrinkles around my hips. I clasped the pearl choker around my neck and combed my hair into a low bun. I slid my bare feet into the black pumps and slipped into Pilar De Leon’s life.

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