I: Twenty-One

Card from Cuernavaca

Six months anywhere is enough to begin to complicate life. By that time, if you stay in one place, you are bound to know people too well for things to be any longer simple. Well, that winter one of my pupils fell in love with me. She was a woman in her thirties, to whom I had been giving lessons two afternoons a week. She lived a secluded life with her old aunt, no doubt on a small income. And she had never been married because, since childhood, she had suffered with a heart ailment. She was a very delicate little woman, ivory-tan in color, with a great mass of heavy black hair and very bright but sad eyes. I always thought perhaps she was something like Emily Dickinson, shut away and strange, eager and lonesome, as Emily must have been.

But I had no way of knowing she was going to fall in love with me. She read and spoke a little English, but she wanted to be able to read big novels like Scott’s and Dickens’s. Yet she didn’t pay much attention to her lessons. When I read aloud, she would look at me, until I looked at her. Then her eyes would fall. After several weeks of classes, shyly, in a funny little sentence of awkward English, she finally made me realize she must be in love.

She began to say things like: “Dear Mister, I cannot wait you to come back so long off Friday.”

“But you have to learn your verbs,” I’d say. “And it will take until Friday.”

“The verbs is not much difficult. It’s you I am think about, Mister.”

She seemed almost elderly to me then, at eighteen. I was confused and didn’t know what to say. After a few such sentences in English, she’d blush deeply and take refuge in Spanish. And all I could think of to tell her was that she mustn’t fall in love with me, because I was going to New York as soon as I had saved the fare.

The little lady’s eyes widened and her face went white when I said it. I thought for a moment she was surely going to faint. And one day she did faint, but it was not, I suppose, for love. It was while we were going over conditionals, sentences like, “I would write if I could,” when she simply keeled over in her chair.

Her old aunt and the servants had told me that that might happen almost any time. Strains and excitement upset her. So after that I was never sure as to the safe thing to do when I found her looking at me. She might faint if I held her hand—or she might faint if I didn’t.

But all things end in time. When I came to her house one afternoon at the class hour, I was very sorry (and ashamed at my feeling of relief) to learn that she was quite ill with a heavy cold. She remained in bed several days. I took her flowers and sat with her, surrounded by little bottles and boxes of pills. When she was better, her aunt carried her away to a lower and warmer climate to convalesce. I never saw her any more. But she wrote me a card once from Cuernavaca, and signed it just, “Maria.”


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.