Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard…hard by the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. And Ahab spake unto Naboth, saying, Give me thy vineyard that I may have it…and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or…I will give thee the worth of it in money…. And Naboth said to Ahab, The Lord forbid it me…. And Ahab came into his house heavy and displeased because of the word which Naboth had spoken…. And Jezebel his wife said unto him,…I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite…. And the men…witnessed against him… saying, Naboth did blaspheme God and the king. Then they carried him forth out of the city, and stoned him with stones, that he died. 1 Kings 21: 1- 14
School had ended some hours before, and the night was silent. La Asuncion arose, blurred through the haze of an early winter. Encompassed by a wall of rude brick, a new construction was slowly rising beyond our school yard. The men worked busily every day, sometimes throwing dirty words at the girls playing in the courts; but now, far into the night, only red and yellow lanterns could be seen through the fog.
The night was full of fog and pain. I felt that obnoxious inner pinch, strong enough to be recognized and hated, but not so brutal as to bring the blessing of tears. My throat hurt. I was anxious to explode, but I could not. The mist merged the lines of La Asuncion, a mass of darkness down the hill from where I sat. My pain clung to me like my old dog—faithful and unwanted. I held in my fingers a letter written on millimetered paper with a red line on the left margin, handwritten in beautiful capitals and straight, clear strokes. I lifted my eyes, wondering if Don Julian was still sitting by my side. He was. His sight was lost who knows where, passing beyond La Asuncion, beyond the school yard, beyond the constructions, beyond the faint line of the mountains beyond me.
Don Julian was in his late twenties. He had become a priest a few years ago, “because I needed to find myself,” he said. He taught religion in La Asuncion to the fourteen, fifteen and sixteen-year-olds. He had previously taught in a boys’ institute. The first day of class he remarked with his broad grin that it scared him to teach in our all-female school. La Asuncion was run by nuns, and Don Julian was to be the officer of the masses and the spiritual guide of the students. We giggled during the first days of class. It was a novelty to have a man—a young man—within the walls of our secluded school.
Midway through the second month of school I raised my hand in class.
“Yes,” he smiled.
“How can we be ourselves when other people do not like us?” I asked bluntly.
The whole class burst out laughing. Don Julian’s smile disappeared. He closed the textbook and mumbled something I did not hear. It was okay; I had gotten used to teachers not answering my questions. Shortly after, the bell rang, and Don Julian came up and asked me to step outside with him. My classmates giggled again. They called me “Aristotle” and “philosopher” and made fun of my thick glasses and my fat behind.
“Why did you ask a question that did not have anything to do with the lesson?”
I felt a splash of red covering my cheeks. ” I don ‘t know.” My body was sweaty.
“Would you like to know the answer?” His smile was back.
I lowered my eyes and passed my hand over the back of my brown uniform, tucking my behind as strongly as I could underneath it, an instinctive defense against mocking. “Yes,” I mumbled. “Come tomorrow after class to my house,” he said. “I’ll be waiting.”
To be something, to be himself, and always at one with himself, a man must act as he speaks; he must always be decisive as to what course to take, he must take that course proudly and follow it to the end. Rousseau
Of course I went to the house of Don Julian. I went that evening and many others. He lived on the fourth floor of number seven at the Plaza San Fernando. A dark stairway led to his entrance. Don Julian would open the wooden door that led to his’ “castle,” greeting me with a smile and a “Come on in. This is such a solitary castle.” His house was chilly and old, as one would expect of a priest’s house. He then led me to his living room, which was always in penumbra. He would sit on a couch woven with deep green designs and shades of brown. I usually sat on the rug. We drank a cup of coffee and talked. He made me walk cliffs of thought that gave me vertigo. He pulled dozens of books out of the cracked wooden shelves and read passages from them out loud. Many of the readings I did not understand, but I never told him. Many books had names difficult to pronounce; many were so yellowed and brittle that their corners crumbled at the couch of Don Julian’s hands. Sometimes our discussions would go beyond my imagination and I would yawn. Then, Don Julian would make a dirty comment about Mother Teresa and I would giggle for the rest of the evening. But during all the meetings he never answered my question, the one I asked in class. I forgot it after a while.
We built our own world inside the walls of his “castle.” My friends became a foggy reminder that I had an outside life to live. I shared with Don Julian the deepest secrets of my fifteen-year-old soul. His house looked every day brighter. The walls felt warmer.
One evening I talked non stop while he smiled. I told him that I had wanted to be a pirate when I was younger. I fancied myself traveling and having no home or land to call my own. (It was a line from a comic called Capitan Trueno I used to read.) I imagined myself dressed with a green scarf on my head and owning a parrot. I told Don Julian how I had confessed my ideas of being a pirate co Mother Teresa and how she pinched my arm so hard that I cried while she whispered in my ear, “You have too many birds in your head.” Don Julian laughed mildly.
He was good to me. He always counseled me not to worry about Mother Teresa or the other girls in school who made fun of me. “Just be strong, dammit,” he shouted one day. The coffee got cold in the cups that evening. I rested my head on his knees. He placed a very cold hand over my forehead and made the sign of the cross. It was so unexpected that I shivered. Then, in a soft and loving voice, he blessed me, “En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo…”
I lifted my face. He was looking beyond the coffee cups, beyond the pile of books, beyond the window.
In making the authentic man a lover, I will make him a good man-such is the cure for isolation. Rousseau
It was a foggy night—a fog that covered La Asuncion in soft layers. I held my letter up to Don Julian and exploded, “I can’t stand this. My best friends, my only friends, Marta and Monica and Alicia. They say I have six months to change. They say I can’t talk to them or go out with them for that long. They say that after the six months if l have changed they’ll be my friends again. Cerdas—they say that I don’t fit in their group, that I’m too ugly and that guys don’t want to hang around them because of me. They say I’m a bookworm, and besides, they say that the worse thing is…is…that I hang out with the priest. They say that’s sickening.”
Don Julian slowly turned around and looked at me. His eyes were green and wet—maybe the reflection of the lights through the mist. He grabbed my arm. “Come on, let’s walk. I’m freezing.”
Beware lest an unjust government, a persecuting religion, perverse customs, should disturb you in your home…. Protect yourself from the annoyance by the rich and great; remember that their estates may anywhere adjoin your Naboth’s vineyard. Rousseau
“Do you remember the question I never answered?” Don Julian asked suddenly, “the one you once asked in class?” I did remember. “Let me answer you now. You are too young to believe me at this point. But there will come a time in your life when the way people react towards the person you are will cause you so much pain that you will start to put layers on you—like a shield, or a wall, or the layers of an onion. You will have to hide yourself and adjust to others. It is the law of life. Many people have to do it so that they don’t end up locos. You will do it too.”
The night rested. La Asuncion was dark, surrounded by a humid haze.
I turned around. I looked at him. He was a head taller than me, but at that instant I felt big and bitter. I wanted to cry like crazy but I could not.
“No!” I shouted.
“You know…” I tightened my lips and half-closed my eyes. “I swear to you this day upon all the sacred books of the world and I cross my heart that I will never, never, never put a layer over who I am. I am going to show my insides to the world. I am going to trust people even if they hurt me or don’t like me. I swear, I swear, and I swear.”
He held me close, his wet cheek against mine. I still could not cry, so I borrowed his tears.
Three weeks after that hazy night Don Julian was summoned to the office of Mother Teresa. He disappeared shortly after. He never said good-bye even though he had something of mine. He took with him my only refuge—my Naboth’s vineyard.
It is ten past twelve at night. I’m staring at the pen running over the paper. I am also trying to count how many layers I have acquired over the years. I have started to cry. I am crying the tears that I never shed eight years ago. I still owe Don Julian those tears.