Maria Tompkins knows that the world is not a kind place. But she also knows that it can be a beautiful one. The first secretarial job she gets is not good. But she takes her blue clothbound volume with her to the shabby apartment, and keeps it on the bedside table with a wobbly leg, and reads it in the evenings. She had told her mother that the book had been a school prize. She had been afraid, otherwise, she would have been asked to give it back. But Miss Clifton had inscribed the frontispiece, and Miss Clifton had always been kind, and responded to Maria’s questions with sparkling eyes.
The second secretarial job is, if anything, worse. (Mr. Henley, of the first, wouldn’t write her a reference; but then she wouldn’t stand for his hand up her skirt, so there they were.) The third is better. Maria brushes out the skirts she cannot afford to replace, and keeps her head down, and writes to Miss Clifton. You entered my life in a casual way, And saw at a glance what I needed. There were others who passed me or met me each day, But never a one of them heeded.
She buys herself flowers, sometimes, and this is how she meets Inocencio. She does not learn his name, at first. But one Friday, after she has passed the florist’s with no more than a wistful glance, she hears the shop bell behind her.
“Hey!” He comes panting up to her, a bouquet of riotous yellows and purples in his hands. “You forgot your flowers.”
“Oh.” She is conscious of blushing. “I haven’t… that is, I can’t…” She can’t afford flowers and a new coat for her mother, but she can hardly say that.
“Maybe I gave them to you by mistake,” he suggests, ebony eyes dancing. And before Maria can respond, he is half-jogging away from her, towards the shop. She doesn’t go in again until after her Christmas bonus (she has her pride.) When she does, he introduces himself with a grin that belies his name. They are married in the spring, by the priest who listened to all Maria’s questions not only with patience, but with joy. Her mother does not come. Miss Clifton does. Give me the love that so freely gives, And laughs at the whole world’s blame.
For several years, Maria is so happy that she sees only the world’s beauty. She keeps her job, and Inocencio keeps his. She cannot help thinking, sometimes: Mother wouldn’t like it. But then, her mother doesn’t visit anyway. Inocencio’s mother clucks and fusses, but she kisses them both soundly when she comes to visit, and always leaves them with piles of tortillas, so Maria concludes that she can’t really mind. Neither Maria nor Inocencio does the dusting. Sometimes, they borrow a car from his brother, and drive to the sea, and spend a weekend in front of the vast horizon. And — arms and lips to love me / Throughout the wonder watches of the night — Maria is happy.
Maria knows what happens to secretaries who let themselves get pregnant. So she decides to quit before she can be fired. She works as long as she can, but before she has to let the seams of her skirts out a second time, she hands in her letter with an apologetic smile. Unofficially, she takes on some of the bookkeeping for the florist’s. Old Mrs. Gonzalez, with her fading eyesight, is happy to be spared the work. And Maria is very good at it. She is paid in the extra that goes into Inocencio’s paycheck, and in bouquets of flowers, riots of color in their tiny apartment. She is paid, Maria thinks, in kindness and beauty.
Their son is beautiful, too; beautiful as the angel they name him for. And Maria takes Gabriel to museums, and teaches him to love the stars. And she is happy. And then Inocencio becomes ill. She tells herself she has always known that the world is not kind. Miss Clifton and Mrs. Gonzalez are kind, and Inocencio’s mother is kind, but the world is not. Maria hides her tears as much as she can. Inocencio’s brother drives them all to the sea. It is only a few weeks later that he dies. See now; I will listen with soul, not ear. What was the secret of dying, dear?
Maria loves her son, and so she puts herself to the business of building a life for the two of them. If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew… She takes back her maiden name, and she takes her fulsome letter on its creamy paper, and she gets the job at Lockheed. She is little more than a secretary, of course… but she clings to that little, and at lunch and in the evenings, she fills journals with her drawings. She works on drawings that will build her son’s future. And then, just as the whole universe is opening to them, Gabriel dies, and Maria is left alone on the naked shingles of the world. And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Her second husband is not a kind man. This she learns quickly. And she rereads her Browning. Where the apple reddens / Never pry— / Lest we lose our Edens, / Eve and I. But — this Maria admits to herself — she had been very lonely. And it is easier to deal with the men at the office, with a husband conveniently at home. Even if he sometimes drinks too much. Even if he is not kind. Even if she spends too much time telling herself that he is not cruel. Maria has always known that the world is not a kind place.
When Mr. Simmons bends over her at lunch, Maria slams her journal shut and scoots her chair away on instinct. But then, he says: “I’m sorry — may I see the drawing of the thrust chamber?” Maria, with shaking hands, opens her notebook and shows her boss’s boss her rockets. Two weeks later, she isn’t a secretary anymore. It is six weeks after that that she makes an appointment to see Mr. Simmons.
“Well, Mrs. Flynn?” asks Mr. Simmons. “What do you have for me?” She stares at the corner of his office, at the philodendron climbing exuberantly out of its pot, and tries not to cry.
“I’m very sorry,” she says.
“Whatever for? The drawings are very good. I imagine it’s not easy, adjusting to the office.” Mr. Simmons sighs. “I’d offer to have a word with Jenkins, only I’m afraid it would do more harm than good…”
“I’m pregnant.” He is silent for so long that she looks down at him, and finds him staring at her, his fountain pen balanced between two fingers.
Mr. Simmons clears his throat. “I see,” he says. “And do you… I could write you a check and mark it down as a bonus, if you…”
“No,” says Maria sharply. “No, I want… But you’ve vouched for me.”
“If anyone tries to fire you from under me,” says Mr. Simmons, “just let them try.” She does start to cry, then, and Mr. Simmons sits up straighter in his leather chair. “You’re not leaving, are you?”
Maria shakes her head. “You won’t regret it, Mr. Simmons.”
“I’m sure I won’t. Now have a handkerchief; I won’t have you leaving my office in tears and giving me a reputation as an ogre.”
Despite everything, Maria does love her second son, her Garcia, named for her first husband, the father he should have had. He is both beautiful and kind, and also, Maria thinks, far too intelligent for his own good. But then, that is what her own mother said about her. When he turns seven, she cries, and tells him about Gabriel. Before he turns eight, Maria discovers bruises on his wrist. Children of yesterday, heirs of tomorrow, what are you weaving? Labor and sorrow? She leaves with him that night. She reads him poetry, and teaches him the names of the stars. She hopes the world will not be cruel to him. But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learned the worth of scorn, / You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn.
It is that that is her favorite poem. She quotes it to Garcia, when he is old enough to be indignant that her work has not been better rewarded. “You may tell that German College that their honor comes too late!” And really, Maria thinks, she has not been as ill-used as all that. She has known great happiness, as well as sorrow. She has done good work. She has loved the world, and helped it, at least a little. She’s not sure that there’s much more to ask, really.
Maria is glad that the world has changed, though. She is glad that what was ordinary for her — just something to deal with as a working woman — makes Lorena wrinkle her nose in sympathy and indignation. She likes Lorena, despite (or, she admits to herself, perhaps in part because of) the fact that the younger woman will melodramatically declaim the most sentimental excerpts of Maria’s old book of poetry. She reenacts “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight!” for them both one evening, and Garcia catches her laughing in his arms, and tells Maria that they’re going to be married. Push gaily on, brave heart… Maria allows herself to think that, after all, the world where they are working is not so unkind a place.
On the whole, she is glad to have time to know that she is dying.
“We’ll name her after you, if she’s a girl,” says Lorena.
“You’ll do no such thing!” protests Maria. “Give her her own name. Whoever she is, let her grow up to be herself.”
Lorena sniffs, and shakes her head, and says: “Middle name, then,” and Maria laughs.
“Garcia, you’ve married a woman as stubborn as you!”
“More so,” says her beautiful son, and puts an arm around her shoulders, and kisses her, and really, thinks Maria, the world can be very beautiful. None of her poems agree about what, if anything, comes after death. But they all agree about love.
He cannot take the book of poetry with him, of course. He takes nothing with him. But it is one of the things that he thinks of, in the nights and days afterwards. One of the unbearable things is that they have been left among the relics of a shared life. Iris’ storybook will still be on the bedside table. Lorena had persuaded him to leave their wine glasses in the sink, to come to bed. Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light. Can he still believe that? He is far from sure. He sits under the vast arches of the São Paulo cathedral, the columns that soar as if weightlessly towards the bright vault of heaven, and still he cannot breathe easily. Mad with demand and aching with despair, It leaps within my heart and you are — where? God has forgotten, or he never knew — this want of you.
It is easier to be in dark spaces, where nothing asks him to hope.
“Garcia Flynn?” At first he thinks it’s a hallucination, and then he thinks it’s a trap. She tells him impossible things, the luminous woman with the tragic eyes. He opens the journal, in part, because it reminds him of his mother’s notebooks. (Those too are among the abandoned pieces of his life; he and Lorena had been going to donate them to an archive, but now…) Garcia Flynn stops, and pages back to a spread of pages that is layered like a child’s scrapbook with newspaper clippings… and with a very familiar pencil drawing. He turns over the diagram of a combustion chamber and finds, impossibly and inevitably, a line of poetry: Reach me down my Tycho Brahe, I would know him when we meet…
“Flynn,” says the woman opposite him, “are you listening?” He manages to nod, and her face softens. “I’m telling you,” she says, “that we can find a way to save the people we love.” He runs his fingers over his mother’s handwriting. The world may not be a kind place, but sometimes, it can be astonishingly beautiful.