If his wife hadn’t died, they would have been washing the dining room windows together. But they hadn’t been renting the apartment more than five years when she fell down the steps and broke her skull. Adolfo couldn’t understand why the glass in a window that was always kept closed should get so dirty. He could understand that floorboards might darken after a few months of being walked on, but window glass? It was Thursday, and his daughter Samantha wouldn’t be back from school till after one. They’d eat the same thing they ate yesterday, talk about certain duties Samantha needed to carry out, and then he’d head off to work. How could he feel so tired at the age of only thirty-nine, if most of his time was devoted to intellectual pursuits? If he were a gravedigger or laborer he could understand it, but why should a journalist get up and go to bed in such a bad mood day after day? In Adolfo’s opinion, the two states of being were intimately connected: exhaustion obscured his true personality and made him an irritable soul.
How much he’d love just to break the window so he wouldn’t have to clean it! Two days ago he’d had a conversation with the recently appointed editor of his paper about the new duties imposed on employees of the arts and culture section. It was an unpleasant meeting because instead of limiting himself to the said employees’ new functions, the editor had decided to tell Adolfo every detail of a tryst with a TV actress the previous night. Adolfo had been bored rather than impressed, hoping only that the meeting wouldn’t drag on till midnight. Why had he decided to clean the windows? Why on a given morning should he be disposed to undertake such a task without knowing exactly what for? Really, going to get his hair cut seemed a significantly more urgent matter.
A few minutes after noon, the ring of the telephone distracted Adolfo from his ruminations. It was the principal of Samantha’s school, asking Adolfo to present himself at that educational institution as soon as he possibly could. She told him his daughter had committed an act whose gravity meant it must be taken most seriously. Adolfo put on a white shirt, deodorant, and a dash of hairspray. He was fed up with his disorderly mop. Within a few days, the scissors would take care of that. How could the editor have imagined that a man like Adolfo would be interested in his romances? As soon as a decent offer came along, he’d be leaving that paper for good. In fact, at any moment he expected a call from a friend confirming an opportunity to work as a cultural reporter for a TV channel.
Adolfo descended the three stories separating his apartment from the street without his habitual stop to snoop in the collective mailbox. What could an eleven-year-old girl have done that the head of the school would not want to discuss over the phone? Most likely she’d done some damage to the physical plant that doubtless he would have to pay for. Since the school was only a few blocks from his apartment, it took him just ten minutes to find himself crossing the threshold of the principal’s office. Inside, he confronted an unexpected scene: next to a glass case protecting the national flag from dirt and dust stood his daughter, hanging her head. Opposite, an obviously anxious couple observed her with some curiosity. The principal stepped forward in front of her desk to greet the new arrival. She asked him to stand next to his daughter. This formality put Adolfo in a very bad mood—first the newspaper editor making him a party to his romances, then the stupid decision to clean the windows, and now this. Why did his daughter seem so intimidated? The principal told him what had happened two hours before, during the obligatory 10 a.m. recess. His daughter and another student had hidden in a bathroom stall. A teacher, luckily alerted by the rest of the student body, had found them having sexual relations. The principal asked him to stay calm, although Adolfo had not yet expressed any emotion at all. The parents of the boy who had carried out the sexual act with Samantha were there to answer to the consequences that such shameful behavior could unleash. To judge from their appearance, they had both left work to come to the school. The man was wearing navy blue overalls, and the woman had her hair tied up in a scarf. The principal spoke the words sexual act and shameful with special emphasis. Adolfo, who well knew his daughter’s imperious personality, wondered about her behavior. Why wasn’t she defending herself? The principal explained to Adolfo that, fearing a violent reaction on his part, she had chosen to keep the boy in question as far from her office as possible.
“I still don’t understand what the problem is,” Adolfo said in a neutral tone. His words brought a trace of annoyance to the faces of those present. This was not the reaction they had expected from Samantha’s father. Didn’t he care about his daughter at all?
“But they’re children!” the principal exclaimed.
Adolfo wondered how she could be so young and so old at the same time. He patted his daughter on the head to demonstrate to everyone that he was on her side. How much would it have cost him if Samantha had damaged a piece of lab equipment? Or the case holding the flag, which seemed to be made of very expensive glass? The principal asked where Samantha’s mother was. Her makeup failed to hide the color of her cheeks or the small mole beside her lips. Adolfo chose not to answer. If he revealed Samantha’s maternal orphanhood, the principal would take that for an attempt to plead mitigating circumstances. He had no desire to make things easier.
“Was it in the men’s bathroom, or the women’s?” Adolfo asked his daughter.
“That doesn’t matter,” the principal said. She’d been in this post for two years now, and never been faced with a situation like this.
“In the women’s,” Samantha answered. The hoarse sound of her voice revealed that she’d been crying.
“If it was during recess, and in the bathroom assigned to women, I don’t think my daughter has committed any offense.”
“We have questioned the children, my dear sir, and I must tell you that there was penetration.” Adolfo recalled that the newspaper editor had also called him “my dear sir” before telling him about his affair with the TV actress. Why had the principal said “we have questioned”? How many other people had hounded his daughter with uncomfortable inquiries? Once again he reproached himself for his lack of guts; otherwise he would have walked out on the editor in mid-sentence.
“Are you going to expel my daughter from school?”
“We’re considering that,” said the principal, barely moving her lips.
“When you finish considering, let me know. Good afternoon.” Adolfo took his daughter by the hand and left the office. They walked the seven blocks from school to home in silence. Once inside the apartment, Adolfo told Samantha that she would not go without punishment.
“You have to finish cleaning the dining room windows,” he told her. He had found a magnificent excuse to get out of the task he had taken up that morning on his own initiative.
“Yes, Dad, and you have to get a haircut.”
Adolfo would turn forty next week, and he still wasn’t sure whether or not that was going to depress him. Before leaving, he kissed Samantha on the cheek. The afternoon was turning cloudy. The taxi that would take him to work was about to appear before his eyes.