Today's Reading

I'd been giving this some thought. I'd never heard of my father having other children, but one could never be too sure with men. It wouldn't surprise me if he'd started a new family here. After all, he'd left my mother twenty-five years ago to pursue his dream of owning a cacao plantation in Ecuador. It was inevitable that he should have found someone else to share his bed. The incident aboard the ship left no doubt that someone wasn't pleased with my coming. The question was who.

During the drive, Aquilino inquired about María Purificación's passing, shaking his head and clucking his tongue in apparent disappointment. It was surreal to talk about my own death, to hear my name repeated as though I weren't present. I wanted to scream at the injustice of it all. I wanted to demand an explanation on Cristóbal's behalf, but instead, I played along. I needed to make him believe I was my husband.

I looked out the window. Guayaquil was far from the village I'd envisioned and more modern than many towns in Andalucía. We drove past the river—the Guayas, he said—toward a quaint neighborhood along a hill stacked with colonial houses bursting with flowerpots in balconies and entryways. Aquilino said it was called Las Peñas and the hill, Santa Ana. The serpentine, cobbled streets reminded me of the small towns near Sevilla. The realization that I might never return to my country hit me for the first time since I'd left. Even more heartbreaking was to think that Cristóbal would never explore this new place with me. I stared at my hand, empty without the warmth of his.

Incomplete.

We stopped at a light blue house with a mahogany door and entered. In all likelihood, Aquilino was a bachelor; there was not a single feminine touch in his parlor. No flowers, no porcelain objects, no embroidered linen. Instead, stale landscapes hung on the walls and the life-size sculpture of a Great Dane stared back at me.

A door on the far side of the parlor opened and a girl with cinnamon curls entered, drying her hands on a lime apron. Her dress so loose it swallowed her.

"Lunch is served, patrón," she said with a soft voice.

"Gracias, Mayra."

The table in the dining room was much too large for just one person. My eyes set on the colorful dishes awaiting us. The girl called Mayra had prepared us fried sea bass, rice with calamari, and plantains—which they both called patacones.

In the last week, I'd skipped several meals—I couldn't eat after the nightmare I went through on the Andes—but today, I was ravenous.

Aquilino gestured for me to sit down and he took the spot at the head of the table while Mayra served us. Although I was curious about Aquilino, I didn't ask him anything. I feared that if I spoke too much, he would discover my secret. So, I said as little as possible, answering the maid with single syllables, nodding often, and shaking my head when appropriate. This seemed to suit Aquilino just fine. Like my husband, he said very little. I'd also gotten into the habit of coughing frequently to make my voice hoarse.

"Are you all right, Mr. Balboa?"

Great. The lawyer was going to think I'd contracted influenza as well.

"Yes."

I returned my attention to my plate. It was odd but impersonating a man was giving me a freedom I'd never had before. As a woman and the owner of the only chocolate shop in my hometown, I'd always been a tireless hostess. It had always been my job to make my guests feel at ease, to be the peacemaker if there was a disagreement. I often anticipated everyone's wishes (More wine? Another piece of chocolate?) and avoided uncomfortable silences. But today, I was free to enjoy my food without looking over my shoulder to make sure everyone's plates were full.

"Just wait until you try Mayra's dulce de higos," he said. "She picks them from the backyard tree."

Mayra set a bowl in front of me. My mouth watered at the sight of fig preserves swimming in syrup. A slice of white cheese rested on the saucer.

"What is this syrup?" I asked, savoring the spicy, cinnamon-tasting juice.

"Panela," Mayra said.

If I could find a way to mix this with chocolate, I'd have a winner.

After devouring the dessert, Aquilino guided me toward the parlor, pointed at a stiff velvet couch, and sat across from me. He picked up the cigar box and offered me one. I hesitated. I'd always been curious about this mysterious male habit, but I wasn't sure I could deliver a proper exhalation. Cristóbal sometimes produced immaculate, blue circles, a source of ultimate pride for him.
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