Cora Gutierrez distrusted good news. So on the Friday when she learned her temporary lectureship in Environmental Studies at Cal State Long Beach was renewed for another year, her future snarled like an angry Doberman.
Not that she was unhappy. She laughed with delight when her friend Paula, the program secretary, gave her flowers. Knowing she could still pay tuition for her seven-year-old son Mauricio at the Catholic school in the neighborhood brought a satisfied smile to her face. She didn’t even mind that the department chair, Professor Bob Fennel, hugged her much longer and more tightly than he should have.
But when the letter from the bank arrived the following Monday, Cora was relieved. The logic of the situation had worked itself out and the world was rebalanced around the bleak axis of reality. Because fate was fate, bad news followed good news.
Cora had planned to pay the mortgage for March, but it was impossible. Once she’d laid out money for utilities and food and the car—and for the minimum credit card payment on the outrageous balance left behind by her husband Oscar before he ran off with some whore from Oshkosh—there wasn’t much left.
She’d written the bank stating that if her teaching position were renewed, she would try to make a double mortgage payment. The bank always gave them breathing room before. Oscar had made the monthly payments; he said everything was fine. “The bank is cool with us,” he boasted. “I’ve got it all under control. Between your salary and my disability checks, we’re cool.”
The letter said all was not cool. Delinquencies stretched back over eighteen months. The condominium was under water. Cora’s credit rating had slipped far below what the bank wanted for its mortgagors. The bank regretted “deeply”—the word pounced at Cora—that it was necessary to take action.
Cora nodded as she put down the letter. Foreclosure. It just had to be.
• • • • •
Cora was reluctant at first to accept Professor Fennel’s offer of help. The Fennels had a mother-in-law apartment in the backyard of their two-story home. The professor’s mother-in-law had passed away a year ago, and the Fennels decided to rent the place out. They would let Cora live there for minimal monthly payments until her finances were under control. Mauricio would have to leave St. Maria’s Catholic School, which was too bad, but this was an emergency.
The apartment was small but comfortable. Mauricio liked his tiny bedroom, which had been the sewing room. Cora’s bedroom window looked onto the Fennels’ large backyard, where avocado trees lined a brick wall on two sides and a purple-flowered jacaranda strutted lasciviously.
Mrs. Fennel was also a professor, but unlike her husband, she traveled much and said little. She drank a lot of red wine judging from the recycling bin filled with bottles whenever she was in town. She dressed impeccably. Cora noticed her expensive shoes more than anything.
Cora was surprised by how much privacy she and Mauricio had in their new apartment. She saw Bob Fennel almost not at all when she was home, and when she was in the department, he talked with her as he always had—too cheerily and with a look of expectation. After a few weeks, Cora allowed herself a small luxury: she thought things might work out.
“It’s almost too good to be true,” said Cora to Paula over lunch one day. “I can’t believe my good luck.”
Paula had worked for Cal State Long Beach for more than twenty years. She was one of those senior staff members who always knew which office to call and what form to fill out. She reminded Cora of Radar, the character in M*A*S*H who knew his commanding officer’s order before he gave it. Paula had advised her against accepting Bob Fennel’s offer.
“Good. I’m glad for you. You know, he has a reputation.”
“I’ve heard rumors,” said Cora. “And he is creepy. But it’s probably best for temporary instructors not to know too much.”
“Maybe. You let me know if anything funny happens, okay?”
“I will. And thanks for looking out for me.”
• • • • •
That evening, Mauricio had a high fever and vomited several times. Of course, thought Cora—something bad had to follow her good fortune getting the apartment. She didn’t want to be a panicky parent, but her son did seem very sick. She remembered growing up in Los Angeles and her parents’ reluctance to take their children to the clinic because of medical bills. Her youngest brother Carlos had lost hearing in his left ear due to a minor infection that should have been treated earlier. She’d pledged never to scrimp on medical care for her son even if her health insurance paid only a fraction of the costs. She bundled Mauricio into her Hyundai and drove four miles to the clinic on West Boynton. After a forty-five-minute wait, they saw a middle-aged doctor whose frown might have been etched with a Bowie knife.
Ten minutes in the exam room, another twenty waiting for a prescription, and they were back in the car going home. She carried Mauricio into his bedroom. She knew she couldn’t do that much longer; he was a growing boy. As she felt his burning forehead, she remembered she needed to call her younger sister Bianca. Maybe she’d come over tomorrow and stay with Mauricio while Cora was at work.
She decided to take a shower and try to sleep. She assumed she’d be up at least once with Mauricio during the night. She also knew she’d have to get up earlier than usual to work on her lecture on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a new subject for her, and it was almost certain the fifty-something guy in the front row of her class would defend the oil companies; she needed extra preparation.
Ray Damaske was a soft drink salesman who’d been downsized. He was bald, overweight, always smiling. He’d been out of work almost two years and decided to return to a long abandoned bachelor’s degree. He wore his conservative views openly but good-naturedly, and often assailed the class with quotations from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Cora liked Ray, but she never understood how someone who’d been cut to the bone by corporate economic policies could defend them with such glee.
After getting out of the shower, Cora looked at herself in the mirror and shrugged. There were faint lines around her eyes; the skin on her neck was no longer as taut as it once was. She’d been through this inventory before—thirty years old, one miscarriage, one healthy boy, weight still okay. Her long legs were still, well, long. Oscar once told her that with breast implants she would look as good as the nude dancers he and his pals watched at Gringo’s Bar. “That bastard,” she said out loud as she toweled off.
As she opened the bathroom to let steam out, there was a knock on the front door. She quickly put on a bathrobe. She wished it wasn’t the very short robe Oscar had given her, but it was the only one handy. She drew the robe more tightly around her neck when she opened the door and saw Bob Fennel.
“Professor Fennel. I’m surprised to see you.”
“So, Cora. I know it’s a little late. But I saw you leave with Mario, and I wondered if everything was okay.”
“With Mauricio,” said Cora. “Mauricio.”
“Mauricio. Right. Should have remembered that. So sorry.”
Fennel had the habit of turning sibilants into whistle-like bursts of air. It wasn’t a speech impediment, just an annoying detail that Cora couldn’t overlook, like a bright crimson wart at the tip of someone’s nose. She hesitated. “Everything’s fine. He has a fever and an upset stomach, but it’s nothing serious. This will probably be the worst night for him. Thanks for asking.”
“Sometimes people need backup. They need security, assistance.” Again the whistling sibilants.
“I guess that’s true.”
Cora expected Fennel to sweep her body with his eyes, but he looked only at her face. Then he looked down, like a shy schoolboy. Had it been in the afternoon and had she been fully clothed, she would have invited him in. After all, he was her landlord, and a generous one to boot, as well as a colleague. But it was ten thirty in the evening.
“Well, I’d better get back. I was writing a paper on the environment in the former Soviet Bloc,” said Fennel at last.
“I have some work to do too. For my lecture tomorrow. But I’m going to try to sleep first.”
“Right. Yes. No substitute for a good eight hours. Well, let me know if you need anything.” Fennel turned as if his black penny loafers were on swivels.
Cora locked the door. What to think of Fennel’s visit? A genuine attempt to help? Maybe she was too suspicious, especially of men. He hadn’t approached her, hadn’t even ogled her. He still looked like a trained sea lion expecting a treat, but there was something else, something troubling. She’d have to think about it more. Now it was time to dry her hair, check on Mauricio, slip into her nightgown, and fall into bed. It was eleven by the time she pulled the bedspread back and slid under the covers.
Mauricio was up at two. He felt nauseous but couldn’t vomit. Cora brought him into bed with her. He tossed around for twenty minutes before he fell asleep. The next thing Cora knew it was five o’clock. Mauricio still slept soundly, so she edged out of bed and went to make coffee. Soon she sat at the kitchen table looking over her notes.
She looked up; she’d forgotten to call Bianca. She would wait until six, though she was tempted to call right then. Bianca had far more time than she did. She’d married Jesus, a car salesman, who wouldn’t let his wife work outside the home. They had no children and seemed in no hurry to have any. Bianca spent the day looking perfect, doing a little housework, shopping, watching soap operas. Mauricio adored her.
“Bianca? It’s Cora. Sorry it’s so early. Did I wake you?”
“Yes, you did. What is it, almost six? That’s okay. Jesus sleeps like a rock. Is there something wrong?”
“Just a little emergency. Mauricio’s sick. Can you stay with him today? Hopefully just today.”
“Sure, I can do that. I could probably be there by eight thirty. Is that good?”
“Wonderful. Thanks so much.”
“You could use another man in your life, Cora. You know that, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t know that.”
“But a man can be very useful, you know? Around the house and whatnot, you see what I’m talking about, girl.” Bianca laughed.
“Well, maybe I should rent a man for the day, huh?”
Cora smiled at her sister’s gentle harrying about finding another man. At least she did it with a little humor. Her mother’s sharp-tongued comments were more irritating, like Fennel’s sibilants, or automated telephone calls offering to melt her mountain of credit card debt.
Once Bianca was situated and the school was informed of Mauricio’s absence, Cora was in her Hyundai. It was reassuring that Mauricio already seemed a little stronger. She doubted he could go to school the next day, but tomorrow she didn’t have to lecture. She could work at home and tend to her son.
• • • • •
At ten she stood at the podium of a small lecture room. Her course on Contemporary Environmental Issues had thirty-five students. Many were older than the normal college student and almost every one worked in addition to going to school. She liked teaching students whose life situations mirrored hers—negotiating education, work, and family in a tense balancing act. It was more real, more authentic. It was a good sign that of the students who had showed up on the first day of class, all but two remained. The department took note not only of temporary instructors’ class enrollments but also how well they retained students.
Cora took pride in approaching environmental issues from a cultural angle. She’d started the class quoting the poet Wendell Berry: “Neither this world nor any of its places / is an ‘environment.’ ” The idea was that “environment” was a human invention for which nature had little interest. She also stressed writing. Many of her students had science backgrounds, and Cora was determined they should improve their command of the written word. Environmental “science”—any discipline arrogating the word “science” to itself—was as dependent on cultural values and linguistic conventions as the humanities were.
Cora felt confident about her lecture. Despite only a few hours of sleep and the anxiety of knowing her son was ill, she felt alert. She was thankful she’d had time to look through her notes. She’d revised her account of the ecological impact of the oil spill, and her conclusions were now more coherent. Even then, as she began her background narrative on oil spills in American history, she felt a nagging concern, like the rub of a brake pad on her bicycle tire when it was misaligned. There was something she should be worried about, but it had nothing to do with the lecture. Once she started on the events that led to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, she knew what it was: Oscar.
When Oscar disappeared four months ago she’d been enraged. But more disturbing than Oscar’s ditching her for some bit of white trash was the massive debt he’d left behind. She agreed with her mother, who, with characteristic charm, said “good riddance to bad rubbish.”
But Oscar was still Mauricio’s father. Mauricio asked about him all the time at first, and she’d said all the right things. Daddy wasn’t mad at Mauricio. It was Mommy and Daddy that had a problem and Daddy needed to sort things out. How long was a little while? asked Mauricio. About as long as it takes to build a fence, said Cora. Is the fence done yet? asked Mauricio. And so it had gone, until Cora dropped the fence story and admitted to Mauricio she didn’t know how long it would be. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him he might never be back.
Cora was at the point in her lecture where she discussed BP’s initial attempt to soft-pedal the scope of the crisis to the media. As she laid out the details, a part of her mind rehearsed the early days of her relationship to Oscar. She was just eighteen, rebellious, driving around East Los Angeles with her girlfriends on an August night, when she met Oscar. He was twenty-one, tall, raven-haired, as exotic as the toreadors she once saw on a family vacation in Mexico City when she was fourteen. He came from the working class, listened to Los Lobos, wore multiple tattoos, and smoked cigarettes. He was also as quick-witted and intelligent as any man Cora would meet at the university. He was the first and only man she’d slept with. They were married four months after they’d met. Her entire family protested.
The first year of marriage was hot and carefree. Oscar worked construction and Cora was pregnant five months after the wedding. Oscar’s already considerable prowess with his friends only increased when he was seen with his beautiful and very pregnant wife. Then the miscarriage, which brought on a heavy fog of depression for Cora that nobody could penetrate. It was a time of reassessment. Once she felt better, she raced through an undergraduate degree at Cal State L.A. Oscar was uncertain about her breakneck approach to school, but then education was women’s work. For his part, he had enough money saved to pay the tuition and buy a small condominium. He could handle all of it.
Cora gained entry into a doctoral program at UCLA with full scholarship. As her star rose, her relationship with her husband began a six-year long slide. The longer Cora sat at her laptop writing seminar papers the greater Oscar’s distance became. More and more, when she slipped under the covers at midnight, Oscar grunted, turned away, ground his teeth. An adventurous lover had become as cold as a dead-end trail of clues in a murder mystery.
When Cora became pregnant with Mauricio, Oscar was uninspired by his second chance at fatherhood. He was injured at work, drew workmen’s compensation, took several part-time jobs, and finally gave up, laughing at how easy it was to “con the state” by drawing unemployment and disability payments. His visits to Gringo’s increased just as his circle of friends widened to include characters Cora thought were outright dangerous. She had arguments with Oscar about bringing them home late in the evening to drink, smoke grass, and watch TV. There was now a child in the house, after all.
Oscar ran up debts from all-night binges and gambling on dogfights. The checks Cora thought were being written to pay the mortgage and credit cards remained unwritten. Later Cora chided herself for not noticing. Years ticked by like seconds. Between finishing the dissertation and caring for Mauricio, then scrounging around for teaching positions in the Los Angeles area, there was no time to tend to her husband’s feeling of being superfluous. When she landed her first serious teaching job, a temporary lectureship at Cal State Long Beach, her elation was as great as Oscar’s disinterest, which was mighty.
How long will Oscar occupy my mind? thought Cora as she turned to the last page of her lecture. She concluded with a short narrative of what might have happened to prevent the BP fiasco. Not just more corporate responsibility but also more effective government regulations were needed. But was strong public oversight possible when anti-government hysteria ruled the land? She always ended her lectures with questions. It was up to students to decide. The ensuing discussion was spirited and Cora could see her lecture had been a success. She dismissed the class, reminding them they had a heavy reading load the following week.
As the class filed out, she noticed Ray Damaske still seated. She thought it strange he’d said nothing during the discussion.
“Ray, I’m surprised you were silent today,” she said cheerily.
Cora’s friend Nadine, an art historian, had once shown her a photo of a sixteenth-century sculpture at the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy. It depicted a porcine dwarf resembling a drunken, naked Bacchus perched atop a tortoise. With his stubby legs and paunch, Ray reminded Cora of that little Bacchus. The fluorescent light played more than usual off his shiny forehead.
“I’ve been thinking about where this country is headed,” he said, frowning.
Cora had another class at one. Her normal routine was to hurry to her office, close the door, turn off e-mail, and eat a tuna salad sandwich and carrot sticks while looking over her afternoon lecture. Today she decided to stay a few minutes and chat.
“Seems that how we think about freedom is up for grabs,” he said.
“I think you could say that, yes. Do you have anything specific in mind? The oil spill, for instance?”
“That’s part of it. The reading you assigned this week has me thinking. When the oil industry and the politicians that support it say ‘freedom’, do they mean everyone’s freedom, or just theirs?”
Cora nodded. Ray’s ability to connect the dots always impressed her. He was a smart man whose talents were wasted listening to right-wing talk radio.
“I’ve lost my health insurance,” he said suddenly.
“Oh my,” said Cora. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“I can’t pay the premiums any more. My wife and I have used up all the savings. My 401k, her little nest egg. I’ll have to withdraw from classes. The main thing is I can’t provide for my wife any more. And she has a heart condition.”
Ray’s face clouded. He was about to cry, which made Cora feel panicky. Part of her wanted to reach over and hug this distraught Bacchus, but the internal yellow caution light a young woman in academics needs started to flash. Physical contact of any kind, especially with a male student—and a married, fifty-something male no less—could have consequences far beyond a simple empathetic hug.
“Ray, maybe things will turn around for you. I heard today that unemployment has come down a little.”
“But economists say it could take years to get back to the employment levels we had before ‘08. And most companies will want to hire younger people anyway—and on a part time basis, so they don’t have to pay benefits.”
After a few more minutes Cora looked at her watch and apologized. She really needed to look over her notes for the next class. She felt horrible leaving Ray sitting in the empty room. He told her he would stay for just a few more minutes. He had to pick up his wife and take her to the doctor.
• • • • •
During lunch and lecture and the ride back home she thought of almost nothing but Ray. She was relieved to find that freeway traffic wasn’t too bad; she’d beaten rush hour by forty-five minutes. Mauricio was much better when she got back to the apartment. He was sitting in his bathrobe watching a television show, and Cora could see his normal color had almost returned. She wanted Bianca to stay so she could make dinner for her and have a chat, but Bianca had to leave.
Cora made soup for Mauricio, whose appetite was surprisingly good. By nine, she had him tucked into bed. At nine-thirty she sat under the hanging lamp over the kitchen table reading for a lecture she would give the day after tomorrow. Again she found her mind drifting to Ray.
Two short knocks at the front door. Somehow she knew who it was. When Fennel asked to come in, she said okay without thinking. She had good reasons to say no. She was working. It was late. She was exhausted. Maybe her feelings about Ray’s predicament made her unwilling to refuse Fennel. He sat in the chair that had been Oscar’s favorite. Again he was shy. Again he had the look of expectation. Then he blurted out that he was leaving his wife and moving out of the house.
Oh no, thought Cora. He wants me to hold his hand. Or he’ll hit on me, now that he’s declared his freedom.
“I’m so sorry, Professor Fennel,” she said. She thought of her expression of sympathy to Ray earlier in the day. She’d meant it then, but not now. Now it was her sense of self-preservation speaking. Sympathy was a purely tactical maneuver that bought time.
“Call me Bob,” he said, fingering the armrest.
Cora had as much difficulty calling Professor Fennel “Bob” as she had swallowing her mother’s chop suey when she was eight. Her mother had forced her to eat it, which she did, only to vomit all over a new white tablecloth.
“Okay … Bob,” she said.
“I know it seems inappropriate for me to tell you this. But I’m not speaking here as your department chair. And you always seem so simpática.”
Cora hated it when Anglos used Spanish words with her. She was born and raised an American. English was her first language. She had never thought much about her ethnicity. Nor had Oscar, despite the barrio-boy image he paraded.
“Could I have a drink of water?” asked Fennel.
When Cora handed him the water he cleared his throat. The words were out by the time she sat back at the kitchen table. “You see, I’m gay.”
“Oh?” She couldn’t think of anything more to say. Why does that matter? occurred to her, but it seemed rude.
“I’m moving in with my lover, Damon. We’ve been seeing each other for four years. I’ve never told anyone until I told my wife last night. And now you.”
Cora’s first thought was that she’d just heard dangerous personal information about her department chair that only made her position as a temporary instructor more vulnerable. But that was more like scud before a storm. The main event, the storm, was her anxious realization she might have to leave the apartment. If the Fennels were divorcing, what would happen to the house and the mother-in-law apartment? Who would keep the house? If Mrs. Fennel had it, would she still rent to Cora at a loss? What if there were new owners? What would they do?
She almost didn’t hear Fennel say, “I just had to stop living a lie. I’ve been in the closet for twenty years, at least. Twenty years. It felt so stifling. Like I couldn’t breathe. I thought I’d feel such liberation telling my wife. But she screamed at me. It all happened while you were at the emergency room with Mauricio. She called me scum, filth. She threw her wine glass at me. I felt so low. So I chose you as the second person to hear my news. Because you have something about you, a non-judgmental aura, maybe that’s it.”
She still didn’t know how to respond. Then, as if she were talking to the easy chair in which Fennel sat, she said, “It’s not easy for a man these days.”
Fennel looked at her questioningly.
“To come out, I mean,” said Cora. “But also just to be a man, whether gay or straight or in between.”
Fennel nodded. He looked down at the faded parallelograms of green and blue on the carpet. He pressed his fingertips to his forehead.
How sad, Cora thought. For the second time today, I’m in the presence of a grown man about to cry. Now she understood Fennel’s look of expectation. It wasn’t sexual desire but longing for understanding. Again she felt a strong tug of compassion, but her internal caution light blinked even more rapidly than when she’d talked with Ray. She made a quick decision. Ignoring the light, she stood up, walked over to Fennel, leaned down, embraced him. Then she stood and said, “Now you have to go, Bob. I still have a sick child in the house, and the last two days have been tiring. And I have some work I want to finish tonight yet. Come back tomorrow if you like, and we can talk more.
• • • • •
A few minutes later she sat alone at the kitchen table. She closed her book. Her concentration was shot. She felt almost too tired to think about the precariousness of her situation. She would have to start looking for a new apartment, just in case.
She looked at the kitchen counter and saw the small cardboard box Bianca had left. “Mom’s cleaning out her basement. She thought you might like to have this,” her sister had explained.
Cora had forgotten all about it. She got up, opened the box. It was her mother’s cheap plastic Christmas crèche, the one from the tiny stucco house on West Sierra where Cora grew up. Cora took out the barn and the manger. All the figures were there—the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the animals, the shepherds, and the three wise men, the Magi, bearing gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. She used to play with the figures, especially the bearded and turbaned Magi, rearranging them to tell stories.
Her thoughts turned in quick succession to Ray, Fennel, and Oscar. All had their own stories. All were in her life, even through absence. Like the Magi, they were intelligent, though they were anything but kings, astrologers, or magicians. They were fallen Magi. Modern Magi. They came not with gifts but with troubles. Loads of them.
She returned the figures to the box and turned off the overhead light. The apartment was dark except for the streetlight’s pale yellow swath on the carpet. She thought of Mauricio. Would he end up like the other three? Confused, feeling inadequate, oppressed? She would do everything in her power to prevent that. Whatever it took. She would see to it that her son would someday bear gifts.
But now she needed sleep.