“I could be a teacher,” Alicia says, “I studied in France.”
“Do you speak French?”
In the end, that’s almost what they do. It’s a little hard at first. Julio steals more food than he’d care to admit – “they won’t miss it,” he tells Alicia and she gives him a bit of a look but the look turns into a smile and the smile turns into a kiss – and Alicia has to sell a couple outfits in her suitcase, but Diego’s money lasts a while, enough to pay five train fares, and when they’re sufficiently far away, in a little town called Cesantes near Pontevedra, Julio charms the landlady of a boarding house into letting them stay until they get their feet under them, and he does actual honest work, sweeping and mopping and dusting and polishing the five pieces of silver cutlery the landlady treasures more than anything else, and she says his manners make it seem like something grand. He tells her he used to be employed in the hotel that belongs to Ignacio’s father, which, in his personal opinion, señora, is certain to surpass that old Gran Hotel in Cantaloa (deteriorating under new management, you know how it is) any day now in quality and quantity, and Alicia stifles a laugh.
While they stay in the boarding house, Julio spends his days in chores and errands and “a young man like you shouldn’t have any problem carrying this for an old woman like me, no?” – and Alicia looks for work. She can manage accounts, she can speak French, she studied humanities for upwards of four years in university (Julio has never had a friend who attended university before) and her father had her helping in the direction of the hotel long before that. She has her diploma – most recently sewn into the lining of her suitcase, because it reads in proud calligraphy and a neat signature Alicia Alarcón Aldecoa. But the companies that have sprung up in the village (big and small) are not interested in hiring a young woman with experience and no credentials, and if they are it has more to do with her looks and she leaves on the spot. (Alicia’s calm with Diego’s pistol in her handbag.) Business that’s well-connected might recognize her. There’s a schoolhouse – on the other side of town but still near the sea – and the schoolchildren are a good deal closer in majority to five and six than sixteen, but when she appears in her hat and gloves they don’t turn her away.
“Good day,” Alicia says, adjusting her hat and beginning a variation of a familiar spiel: “I’m new to Cesantes, I have some business experience and I can teach French or literature, or anything, really, if you have an opening; I’m a quick study –”
The principal she speaks to looks harried in the extreme. “You seem like a respectable woman,” she snaps, and Alicia smiles a little uneasily, trying to agree with breezy confidence. The principal continues flatly: “Can you read, count, and do sums.”
She’s a little taken aback. “Well – yes, yes, I can, certainly. I also –”
“Good. We have an opening,” says the principal, and this is how Alicia ends up teaching primer ciclo. She comes back shaking her head and smiling, and finds Julio scrubbing the counters in the kitchen.
“I’m astonished,” she teases, “imagine how the Gran Hotel could have looked if you applied your talents,” and Julio pushes his hair out of his eyes and looks up offendedly but can’t seem to find a better defense than to say he told the abuela he would help, and she nods with mock solemnity before he breaks into a grin and says at least now he’s gone the job can go to some self-respecting villager who upholds the time-honored values of hard work and ambition and surely the hotel will start to run so much more efficiently with an employee that actually does something that all the Alarcóns’ financial problems will be fixed even without poor Javier getting married. Yes, surely, Alicia agrees, that’s how it will be.
They have a few books in the little school to teach the children learning to read, and one of them is a translation of Aesop’s Fables. There is no dedication on the title page, but neither has her mother torn out the title page to conceal the handwriting. Alicia’s memories of her father have undergone a great deal of revision, and revulsion, but she remembers being read to. She picks the book up and writes the first few sentences on the blackboard in powdery chalk. At the end of the week she gets her wages. It’s the first job she has ever had. Before summer comes the two of them are renting the smallest of cottages, and Julio (with a glowing reference from the old landlady and parting kisses on both cheeks) has started work at a nearby restaurant. He brings flowers and leftovers back for Alicia with the same grandiose gestures, and in the evenings after dinner Alicia grades the children’s scattering of homework with little check marks and carefully-written comments and corrections, and shows the more outrageous answers to Julio because she gets a sense of victorious satisfaction out of making him laugh. When they go to bed Alicia lays out her clothes for tomorrow and Julio opens the glass door of the lantern to blow out the candle because they don’t have enough money yet to use them for heedless purposes, and as the remaining tendril of smoke curls into the darkness he wonders what it would be like to have children of their own.
The word want and its derivatives acquire fresh significance. “Let’s,” says Alicia. “Only if you want to,” says Julio. “Would you like that?” “Do you want me to?” “Not if you don’t feel like it.” “I would, just… just maybe not now.” “Yes, I want that.” “I don’t want that.” To say I want you would be more like te deseo but te quiero means I want you and I love you all the same.
They don’t know anything about paying telephone bills, but the first Saturday in their new home the phone rings and they look at each other and then Julio picks up, holding the phone between them as they lean close together to hear.
“I’ve been demoted again,” says Inspector Ayala, having failed to make the necessary arrest in a case of matrimonial desertion. “I hope you’re very happy.”
Julio covers his mouth with his hand so as not to laugh, and is about to say some iteration of “we are” while also making a cruel and undeserved remark about Hernando and the word ‘agente’, when Alicia beats him to it. Unnoticed, there are tears in her eyes. “Thank you,” she says, “thank you, you don’t know what you’ve done for me, thank you so much.”
The day they arrived in Cesantes, Julio started calling himself Julio Olmedo again, for the first time in at least five years, and for the first time in twenty-seven, Alicia introduced herself as Alicia Fernández de Olmedo, and it was really as simple as that.