Luis Vela had adopted the Cadets Decalogue of the Army of his country as his model for conduct and manners.
“One day, you’ll outrank your father,” his mother had proclaimed when he entered a military academy at eighteen. After he had graduated, however, he declined to volunteer to fight in Western Sahara to defend the Spanish colonies there against the Moroccan invasion. He realized, then, that he loved everything military except going to war. His father had reached the rank of colonel before he died, but he, an only child, at fifty-eight, wore on the shoulder pads of his uniform the emblem of captain. Now, it was too late. All he could do was to conceal his past evasion, which went against the dictum of the Decalogue: To volunteer for all sorts of sacrifices, requesting and wishing to be appointed to see the riskiest action and hardship.
On Saint Valentine’s Day, in 2008, Captain Vela was strolling on the streets of his city under the rain. As a young officer, he had managed to obtain a teaching position and stay in Madrid. He taught Military Rules of Conduct and Civility to soldiers in the Military Reserve. Shy of six feet tall, he walked in his uniform, which he wore only on special occasions, smelling of Old Spice aftershave lotion and forcing himself to maintain his military composure. He fantasized the day’s magic would lead him to meet a woman and fall in love. But in the evening, he was still alone, unlucky, and weary. Raindrops splashed on top of his umbrella, slid down its curve, dripped onto his boots and pooled to the ground. “Monotony and loneliness,” he murmured to himself.
At some point, his wandering took him near the Casino Militar, an elegant Officer’s Club, which had served as a place where he could show he knew how to behave like a gentleman. He would show up in his uniform, a dapper officer, play pool with his peers, and dance with some of the ladies who admired him. Conscious, though, of his popularity being lately at a low level there (although he couldn’t see the reason for it) he stopped abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk; then he turned around and walked in the opposite direction. He now moved fast under his umbrella, as someone propelled by fear, oblivious to the crowd moving along the sidewalk and the window displays of gifts for St. Valentine’s. Something made him remember that the Café Paradise was nearby. He liked this café, always animated. He would often go in and enjoy a drink, sitting at the counter and watching the activity.
That evening, he entered the Café Paradise. The place was busy. A couple of ladies turned their heads to glance at him with a touch of admiration on their faces, and he felt gratified. As he looked around to find a seat, he saw a thin, serious man with a white goatee and a sullen appearance, wearing a light brown corduroy jacket, sitting alone at a table for two by a big window. It appeared that the only space available would be at his table, but Vela got the impression of something odd going on with the man occupying it. He hesitated to approach him and ask whether he would mind sharing his table; he looked like a wasted man. Not knowing what to do, he involuntarily shook his umbrella, which he was carrying half open, and a few drops of water scattered around; some reached the man’s jacket.
“I’m sorry,” Vela excused himself.
The man made a gesture to indicate he didn’t care at all.
“As a matter of fact,” Vela finally ventured saying, “I meant to ask whether you would mind sharing your table.”
Vela became aware of an on-and-off beeping noise that seemed to come from the man’s chest. Did it come from his lungs? Should he enter the trenches? He wanted to run away.
“I am not a talker,” said the man in a grave tone of voice.
Vela coughed twice.
“I see. I don’t talk much either,” he said politely as he sat on the other chair with caution.
They exchanged a brief look at each other and both quickly turned their heads to look out the window as if expecting to spot someone in particular. Outside, it was getting dark. The street lights were not on yet.
A waiter hurried to their table.
“A cup of coffee, please,” Vela ordered.
He noticed his tablemate was drinking coffee too.
The two men cast another quick look at each other. Vela estimated the man could be in his late fifties. But he looked so gaunt! For a while, they remained silent, both turning on and off their heads to view the outside. When the waiter came back with the coffee, they took a lengthier glance at each other.
“Are you married?” the man now asked.
Luis Vela felt the impulse of getting up and leave, but instead, he said, “No.”
Two young women sat three tables away. They talked and laughed loudly, drawing people’s attention. One was petite, pale, with delicate carmine-red lips; the other, had a chubby body, round face with fleshy lips, and short, lemon-colored hair. Both wore colorful, low-cut blouses.
“Two hookers. Don’t you think?” the man wondered, pointing to them.
“Maybe that’s what they are,” Vela replied.
“It’s a shame. The women I meet don’t put up with my problem,” the man said abruptly.
Vela was taken aback.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve got fibrosis of the lungs,” said the man looking at Vela directly.
For split second, Vela held his breath. Was it compassion or intrigue that he felt for the other? He wondered.
“How long have you been sick?”
“As a young man, I worked as an apprentice electrician, but I had to quit due to shortness of breath.”
Both men seemed to have forgotten each had claimed he was not a talker. Vela clicked his tongue; then he took a sip of coffee.
“As a young man did you say?”
“Yes. I get a pension. I live alone. My name is Ramiro.”
Vela let a touch of compassion settling in his chest.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Ramiro.”
They shook hands. He now fancied Ramiro as a wounded soldier, someone in need of his help. He took another sip of coffee, appreciating the warm feeling in his mouth.
“How do you handle things, you being sick, Ramiro?”
“I take walks.” Ramiro did not hesitate.
A fit of laughter shook Vela’s chest. Perhaps all this was a joke?
“You mean… You just walk around?”
They looked directly at each other. Vela read in Ramiro’s face that he was serious about what he was saying.
“You would be surprised if I told you the kind of things one can see by strolling in the streets,” Ramiro added.
What things might Ramiro meant, Vela couldn’t imagine, for he had wandered the streets all day long, before entering the cafe, looking for love and finding nothing but loneliness. Bemused, he shifted his head away from Ramiro and looked around. A mature woman wearing a hat sat on a stool at the counter. At that moment, she lit a cigarette. “Why is she alone?” Vela wondered. Then, he turned back to his companion.
“Don’t you get tired of walking, Ramiro?”
“I don’t fatigue if I stop and rest once in a while.”
“I see. Now, let me introduce myself: I am Luis Vela, an Army captain.”
“Please to meet you. You wear your uniform with nobility, Captain.”
Vela took the compliment as a matter of fact.
“Are you retired?” Ramiro asked.
“Not yet, but pretty close. Like you, I live alone. Would you like another cup of coffee?”
“I only drink one cup a day. Thank you.”
Another moment of silence fell between them. Vela gazed again at the woman by the counter.
“Do you enjoy watching people, Captain?” Ramiro asked after a minute.
Luis Vela, feeling a little embarrassed, turned his attention back to him.
“I’m sorry, Ramiro; I got distracted. I was just wondering who could that lovely lady at the counter be?”
“I see. Who knows?”
Ramiro himself began to glance around.
“Captain, please, look at those two,” he said, pointing to a young couple who sat at a table a few feet away from theirs.
Vela looked at them. He thought she was pretty, and he, in a Navy officer uniform, seemed to have eyes only for her.
“What about them?”
“I wonder whether this is their first date.”
“What makes you think so, Ramiro?”
“Well, she appears animated, and he composed—”
“In matters of love, some people are luckier than others,” Vela cut him short.
The Decalogue, after which he had modeled his conduct, indicated that one should feel glad about other officers’ successes. But at that moment, noticing happiness in the Navy officer’s countenance while he, Luis Vela, remained sitting there, across from a sick man, he felt as if he was the wounded soldier.
“By the way,” Ramiro interjected, “I wonder, Captain, why do you stay single?”
Luis Vela reflected for a short while. Years ago, he had married the daughter of a Portuguese military surgeon who at the time was living with his family in Madrid. He had met her at the Officer’s Club and found her charming and elegant, always dressed like a princess. But she turned out to be a capricious woman, and he soon realized he had made a mistake by marrying her. He divorced her after four years of marriage. The Portuguese family went back to Lisbon, and he never heard about his ex-wife again.
“I was married for some time, although we had no children,” he answered.
“Did your wife die?”
Vela set his elbows on the table and his chin on his intertwined fingers.
“We divorced. It’s all forgotten now. I was thirty-two when we got married.”
But he recognized a sense of loneliness invading his soul. Currently, he was eager to make acquaintances, to find love.
Ramiro began to play with his cup of coffee, rotating it clockwise over the saucer.
“How do you handle things, Captain?”
A touch of sarcasm in Ramiro’s question did not pass unperceived by Vela. But how was he handling his life?
“I don’t do much; I go hunting quails occasionally with a few old friends.”
Ramiro looked askance at Vela, who drew a wry smile.
“Just women friends, no obligations. As I said, I live alone, not far from here. I come to this café once in a while and spend some time socializing.”
Now, Vela began playing with the coffee set in front of him, tinkling the spoon against the cup handle.
“Earlier this afternoon, I met Lola,” Ramiro snapped.
Vela stopped playing with his cup.
“Is she pretty?”
“I like women with wide hips.”
Vela’s eyes perked up. He called the waiter.
“Two more coffees, please,” he ordered. But Ramiro shook his head.
“No more coffee for me, thank you,” he said.
“Lola is my type of woman, Captain,” he went on. “She has a plump body, like a quail. Do you get it?”
Vela liked Ramiro’s comparison.
“I love everything related to quails.”
Both men exchanged a complicit glance.
“But the fibrosis in my lungs get in the way,” Ramiro spoke again.
“Ah! I’m sorry.”
Ramiro’s fingers drummed on the table while Vela could hardly hide his interest in the unfolding story about Lola.
“Lola landed in Madrid last fall from Colombia.” Ramiro seemed to read Vela’s mind.
Ramiro appeared eager to share his story.
“She was a single mother, living with her mother somewhere in rural Colombia. Both her mother and her child were killed by guerrilla militants in a quasi-random shooting while they were searching households because one of their members was missing. She found herself with no income or savings; she was alone and desperate to find a job. She found on the Internet an opening with a house cleaning service here, and she came with a work permit.”
Vela noticed Ramiro appeared fatigued at this point. To give him time to recoup, he turned to look at the two giggling women. The chubby one was retouching her fleshy lips with lipstick. He imagined Lola on her.
“Is she young?” he then asked.
“About fifteen years younger than I,” Ramiro said. “She was doing fine until last month when she was laid off,” he added.
Ramiro’s sharp nose, sucked cheeks, thin mouth, and long goatee now triggered a feeling of estrangement on Vela.
“You can’t help her?” he asked.
Ramiro shook his head.
“Lola doesn’t have any funds, not even to pay her rent,” he said.
“There you go! You could take her home, couldn’t you?” Vela said, opening his arms in a gesture of benevolence.
Ramiro leaned back.
“I am a sick guy, but not a lecher,” he said, his hands trembling. “I don’t take advantage of homeless women!”
Vela realized there was energy left in his sick companion.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to offend,” he said.
Ramiro brought his face forward, closer to Vela.
“I’m disgusted at my condition,” he whispered, and Vela heard the whistling from his chest more clearly than he had before.
Ramiro leaned back again.
“I spotted Lola in Casa de Campo Park near the entrance to the zoo,” he said. “I suppose you know hookers hang around that area?” he added.
“I approached her. She was on the verge of becoming a hooker on this St. Valentine’s Day; she desperately needed money,” Ramiro continued.
“Did you stop her?” Vela asked.
“I thought of bringing her home, as you have suggested, but it’d have been unfair.”
Luis Vela mentally searched for an item in the Decalogue that related to the issue Ramiro was facing but found none, which was disappointing for he had hitherto thought the book was thorough in matters of human conduct.
“This is a free country; you can enter any lawful deal,” he said and took a deep breath, believing he had just come up with something righteous and profound.
“But I’m sick!” Ramiro shouted.
He is a wounded soldier; he should be excused from participating in combat, Vela repeated to himself.
“Of course, you owe to consider the condition of your lungs before taking any action,” he said.
“You hit the nail on the head, Captain. That’s my dilemma. I know sex will worsen my condition, but, on the other hand, not acting like a man will hurt my feelings.”
Vela now felt a bit of admiration for him.
“How can I help?” he wondered.
“Well, Captain; my dilemma is my dilemma.”
At that moment, the two happy women laughed uproariously.
“Speaking of skirts,” Vela shifted the course of their conversation to give Ramiro a respite, “between those two women, which one do you like better?
“The same one as you do, Captain,” Ramiro quickly answered.
“But you can’t possibly know which one I like better of the two?”
“Yes I do; I read it in your face while I was describing Lola’s features to you.”
Vela had no choice but to admit his companion’s keenness on that.
“However, I married a slim woman,” he declared.
“Perhaps that’s your dilemma, Captain. You married a slim woman, but you are attracted to the chubby type, like the one there, with dyed blond hair.”
Vela didn’t reply. He shifted in his chair as someone feeling uncomfortable. He checked his watch.
“I must go,” he cut short.
He got up, grabbed his umbrella, flicked his cap under his arm, and checked his uniform was correctly buttoned.
“It’s been a pleasure, Ramiro.”
“Same here, Luis; Captain Vela,” said Ramiro. He made a gesture of getting up from his chair.
“Please don’t trouble yourself,” Vela pleaded.
They shook hands, and Vela walked toward the exit with his habitual composure. On his way out, he heard Ramiro calling his name.
“Please, Captain, remember me, in case I die in combat as a good soldier.”
Vela noticed Ramiro’s shadowed eyes.
“I left my phone number written on a paper napkin, in front of you. A captain must always look after his soldiers, Ramiro.”
Captain Vela stepped outside. It had stopped raining, but some streams of water ran along the curbs toward the street drains. Although a chilly evening, there were people everywhere: in and out shops, cafes, movie theaters, subways. As he walked home, a short distance, he became conscious of a strange cacophony going on in his ears: Ramiro’s lungs whistling, the two festive women laughing, water drops still splashing from the eaves down to the sidewalk. After a short while, though, these noises stopped, and a sense of loss came over him; he missed Ramiro’s company. He wondered whether he had ever talked with anyone as intimately as he had just done with Ramiro. However, he also wondered whether he could ever have Ramiro as his friend. For Ramiro did nothing but wander through the streets; he was a sick fellow, a decayed man at the end of his rope, while he, Captain Luis Vela, was a healthy and well-mannered gentleman.
When he got home, he took his uniform off and got into his pajamas. He moved into the leaving room, served himself a shot of whiskey, and sat down in front of the TV. He hoped watching sports would distract him, so he would quit thinking about Ramiro. All in vain, for Ramiro’s image, with his difficult breathing and his dilemma about Lola came back to haunt him. Unable to concentrate on anything else, he turned the TV off, served himself another drink, and, lying on the coach, gave himself to speculate about Ramiro and Lola until he fell asleep.
When he woke up next morning, Friday, it was past ten. He thought about Ramiro again and wished he would ring him. In fact, more than anything, he wished to hear about Lola from Ramiro. While trimming his mustache in front of the mirror, he fancied Lola: with short, robust body, shaped like a quail, and smelling of wood. He envisioned her as still young, with firm breasts, solid thighs, and buttocks, and felt sexually aroused. He wished Ramiro would call him and introduce him to her. He made a cup of coffee for himself and sat down in the kitchen to plan his weekend. He thought of going to the military stables and spending some time horse riding. He started packing his pants and riding boots when the thought of maybe meeting Ramiro wandering the streets entered his mind. He got up as if in a hurry, changed into casual clothing, grabbed his coat and leather cap from the hook, and left home.
Outside, a warm winter sun bathed the buildings and pavement, which appeared cleaner than usual due to the prior day’s rain. The streets were not busy at that hour. He walked slowly and aimlessly. His wandering took him to the Officer’s Club. He felt tempted to get in and have a martini at the bar, but he quickly gave up this idea, afraid his presence there would trigger less of a wave of admiration than it once did. Instead, he kept on walking as he had done the day before, St. Valentine’s, under the rain.
At dusk, he found himself roaming in Casa de Campo Park, near the zoo. He was thinking of Lola, of the Lola he had forged in his imagination from Ramiro’s description of the real person. He surreptitiously studied each hooker he came across from the corner of his eye, hoping he would recognize Lola among them. He felt possessed by an overwhelming sense of responsibility, thinking he, an Army officer, had an obligation to save her from falling into a depraved lifestyle—to have the determination to solve problems; he remembered the Decalogue said. Suddenly, it dawned on him that Lola might have moved in with Ramiro the night before after he had left the cafe. This thought exasperated him. Instinctively, he left the area, rushing like someone who is late for an appointment, and took a taxi to Café Paradise.
Inside the cafe, he went to the same table he and Ramiro had occupied the day before. Ramiro was not there. For a split second, he thought: he is dead. He looked around searching for some familiar faces, but he only recognized the waiter who had served his coffee. His presence, though, gave him confidence that people do not die as quickly as he had just thought Ramiro would have died. He was ready to leave when his eyes fell on a hunched, little figure, sitting at a table in a distant corner. He got closer to it.
“My good Lord, Ramiro. It’s you!”
Ramiro’s eyes were alert, and he seemed happy despite his distressing breathing.
“Luis, I mean Captain Vela, I’m glad to see you again. Would you join us for coffee?”
Vela was startled. He took his hand onto his chest, feeling his heart suddenly pounding hard.
“Is Lola here?” he asked in a weak voice.
“She’ll be here shortly to pick me up. She moved in last night. I’m a happy man, not wandering the streets anymore.”
Vela wanted to run away, but his legs did not obey his command. He felt sick in his heart. In split second, he collapsed onto the floor. The same waiter called an ambulance, and the paramedics drove the captain to the nearest hospital.
Two weeks later, still convalescent from a heart attack, he continued ruminating, obsessed about Lola and Ramiro, waiting for him to call, waiting to hear more about Lola. One evening, when he had gone out for a walk in his neighborhood before dinner, his phone rang. He thought it would be Ramiro calling. It was Lola.
“Hello, I’m Lola. Ramiro died last night of a heart attack,” she said point-blank. “Your number is on his phone.”
Vela found himself overwhelmed by inexplicable guilt.
“I was expecting his call—”
“I know. He was going to call you in the morning, but he died in his sleep.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about you, Lola.”
“I’ve met his sister; she’s good to me. His funeral is in two days.”
“How can I help?”
Vela tried to regain his habitual demeanor, to block his guilty feeling.
“Ramiro spoke highly of you, Captain.”
“Anything you wish, Lola—”
He couldn’t talk; his heart was beating hard, his breathing accelerated.
“I’m only thinking of my mother and my son and of doing justice.”
“I’ll do anything; I’ll take you back to Colombia if that’s what you want.”
He now was talking rapidly, as in a whisper.
“Why?” she asked, “Why would you do that?”
Luis Vela held his breath for a few seconds.
“I think…I love you,” he stuttered.
“You have never seen me!”
“Ramiro described your looks. I can imagine—”
“Would you help me to find those who kill my family?”
Lola’s voice sounded like a challenge in Vela’s ears.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the two guerrillas who killed my mother and my son for no reason at all.”
Vela felt trapped.
“I’m a man of principles,” he managed to say, a bit angry.
“I know where to find and fight them,” Lola added.
“I hate war.”
He thought about all the times he had in the past refused to volunteer to fight, and his teeth gnashed.
“Yet, Captain, war is what we have in my town in Colombia.”
“I hate fighting,” he said, and his voice sounded strange to himself.
“Then, Captain, you should follow your principles, and I my woman’s instinct.”
Suddenly, Captain Vela felt hopeless, perennially lonely. He stood alone on a sidewalk of a downtown street in Madrid, near home, holding a silent phone in his trembling hands, grasping for air, aching in his heart, losing his faith in the model Decalogue but having no clue of where to turn to find some satisfaction in his life.
Jose L Recio was born and raised in Spain, where he studied medicine. Later he and his family immigrated to California, where he has lived and worked for many years. He lives with his wife, Deborah and their whippet, Fino, in Pasadena. Lately, Jose Recio finds more time available to dedicate to his main interest, creative writing, and his work begins to be published (Los Acentos Review, LasdosCastillas.net, and a poem forthcoming at Cecile’s Writers.)