If his wife had not been dead, they would have cleaned the dining room windows together. They had only been renting the apartment for five years when she fell down the stairs and fractured her cranium. Adolfo didn’t understand how a window that was never opened could get so dirty. He could see how the hardwood floors would become scuffed after months of foot traffic, but the windowpanes? It was Thursday, and his daughter Samantha would not be home from school until after 1:00. They would eat yesterday’s leftovers, talk a bit about her responsibilities, and then he would head off to work. How could he feel so tired at the age of 39 when he spent most of his time dedicated to intellectual pursuits? If he were a gravedigger or some other sort of manual laborer, he would understand, but why should a journalist wake up every morning and go to bed every night in such a bad mood? In Adolfo’s opinion, both moods were intimately bound: exhaustion dimmed his character and turned him into an irascible being.
He would much rather just break the windows than clean them. Two days earlier, he’d had a conversation with the recently-appointed editor-in-chief of the paper where he worked about new responsibilities for the cultural page’s staff writers. It turned out to be a rather disagreeable meeting, owing to the fact that instead of talking about the matter at hand, the editor had decided instead to give everyone the details of his nocturnal adventure with a certain TV actress the night before. Adolfo was more bored than impressed, and he would have preferred that the meeting not last until midnight. Why had he decided to clean the windows? Why, all of a sudden, was he ready to take on such a project without knowing exactly what the cause was? In any case, visiting the barber for a haircut seemed like more urgent business.
Shortly after noon the telephone rang, distracting Adolfo from his ponderings. It was one of the directors of the academy where Samantha was a student. She asked Adolfo to come down to their campus immediately, because Samantha had committed an infraction so great that they simply couldn’t treat it lightly. Adolfo put on a clean white shirt, deodorant, and a bit of hairspray. He was fed up with his disorderly hair. But a pair of scissors would be able to solve that problem in just a few days. How could the editor have ever thought that a man like Adolfo would be interested in his romantic conquests? As soon as he got a better offer somewhere else, he would leave that paper for good. In fact, any day now he was expecting a call from a friend of his about the possibility of working as a cultural reporter for a local TV channel.
He hopped down the three flights of stairs that separated his apartment from the street without stopping, and—as was his custom—peeked through the building’s collective mailbox. What could an 11-year-old girl have done that was so bad the director would refuse to discuss it over the phone? Most likely it was some act of vandalism, which would of course be billed to his account. The school was only a few blocks from his apartment, so ten minutes later found him knocking on the director’s office door. Inside he was met by an unexpected scene: next to a glass case that protected the national flag stood his daughter, her eyes on the floor. On the opposite side of the room, a man and a woman looked on with a mixture of distress and curiosity. The director of the school stepped out from behind her desk to greet Adolfo, and then asked that he take a seat next to his daughter. The protocol put him in a very bad mood: first his boss subjecting him to his romantic pursuits, then the decision to clean the windows, and now this. Why did his daughter look so intimidated? The director then went on to explain what had happened two hours before, during the mandatory ten o’clock rest period. His daughter had locked herself in a bathroom stall with another student. A teacher, fortunately alerted by some of the other students, had found them in there having sex. The director then asked everyone to remain calm, even though Adolfo hadn’t yet expressed any feelings either way. The parents of the other student were also there, to take responsibility for the consequences of an act so scandalous that it could potentially be their undoing. Judging by their appearances, they had left their jobs to come be at the school. He was wearing navy blue overalls, while she had a scarf tied in her hair. The director was pronouncing the words sex and scandal with particular emphasis. Adolfo, who knew his daughter’s imperious personality well, was intrigued by her behavior here. Why wasn’t she defending herself? The director then explained to him that, fearing a violent confrontation, she had decided to have the other student involved wait in a separate room.
“I’m afraid I still don’t understand the problem,” Adolfo said in a neutral tone. His words seemed to provoke a slight bit of irritation in the faces of those present. They had been expecting a different reaction from Samantha’s father. Wasn’t his daughter’s welfare important to him?
“They’re children!” exclaimed the director.
Adolfo wondered how she could be so young and yet so old at the same time. He caressed his daughter’s hair to let them all know that he was on her side. How much would he have had to pay if Samantha had broken some piece of lab equipment? Or the glass case protecting the flag, which looked quite expensive indeed. The director then asked where was Samantha’s mother. Her pearly makeup couldn’t conceal the color of her cheeks, or a small mole at the corner of her mouth. Adolfo preferred not to respond, figuring that if the director found out about Samantha’s maternal orphanhood, she would consider it as an extenuation of her conduct. He was not about to make things that simple.
“Was it in the men’s or women’s bathroom?” Adolfo asked his daughter.
“That’s not important,” replied the director. She had been at this job for two years now, and had yet to find herself faced with a situation such as this.
“In the women’s room,” responded Samantha. The seriousness of her voice showed that she’d been crying.
“If it was during rest period, and if it took place in the women’s bathroom, then I don’t see how my daughter has broken any rules.”
“We have interrogated the two children, and I want to tell you, my good sir, that there was penetration.” Adolfo recalled that his boss at the paper had also used the expression my good sir before telling him about his adventures with the TV actress. But why had the director used the word interrogated? How many other people had harassed his daughter with uncomfortable questions? Once again he cursed his lack of assertiveness: if he’d had the nerve, he would have stood up and cut the director off right there.
“Are you going to expel my daughter?”
“We’re considering it,” she said through tightly pursed lips.
“When you reach your decision, do let me know. Good afternoon.” Adolfo took his daughter by the hand and together they walked out of the office. In silence they crossed the seven blocks separating the school from their apartment. Once at home, Adolfo informed his daughter that in no way would she go unpunished.
“You’ll have to finish cleaning the dining room windows,” he said. It was a wonderful pretext for quitting the job he’d started himself that very morning.
“Yes, father. And you have to get a haircut.”
The following week, Adolfo turned 40, and he still wasn’t sure if that would be a source of depression. Before he left for work, he kissed Samantha on the cheek. The afternoon sky was growing overcast, and the taxi that would take him to his office was about to appear before his eyes.