Julie allowed her mobile phone to keep ringing. She had put it on silent but vibrating mode.
It was the twelfth time in the last hour that Frankie had tried to reach her. Not that she was counting. Okay, so she was counting.
Burning her husband in the crematorium had shocked her into rethinking her affair with Frankie. It was one thing to enjoy sex with her lover while her husband was at work or at home. It was quite another thing to see her husband being fed into the oven, with the flames rushing up to devour him.
She cried then, not the tears she pretended to shed in the funeral parlor, but real tears, tears of repentance, tears of guilt, tears of – yes – love.
She loved her husband. Yes, she did. It was the sex that made her cheat on him. The sex he never really gave her.
With him, it was always let’s do it, there it’s done, good night. With Frankie, it was always let’s do it, yes, but later, much later, meanwhile let’s kiss, fondle, touch, talk, enjoy the moments before I enter you, before I give you what you’ve been asking for for a whole hour now. With her husband, it was him loudly snoring immediately after, but with Frankie, they were always awake for yet another hour, talking about things that seemed to matter at that time though she could not really recall them now, except that she would reveal to him all the childhood anxieties she had, how she hated her parents, how she thought that they did not bring her up secure and happy, how they denied her all the pleasures of childhood, how she wanted to take her revenge on them by being principal of an elementary school that was secure, predictable, and solid because it had not changed at all but had stuck to the old ways of doing things, the way she herself had been brought up, how she had turned away anything that would disturb the universe of her school, like all those newfangled ideas about why children should be allowed to be themselves and about how the classrooms should not be designed like a college classroom with the professors talking down to students who would dutifully take down notes, how she had kept the school alive through her insistence on the old and time-tested values, how her job was her life, how Frankie was now her life, how she wished she had not married so young or at all.
She didn’t remember anything that Frankie told her, except that Frankie talked about killing her husband and then killing his wife and then the two of them going away to Hong Kong where they would live happily ever after.
She thought that it was just idle talk after one of their simultaneous orgasms.
Then Frankie did it. He went one day to the fourth floor of the parking garage of their condominium, waited until her husband had opened the trunk to put in his briefcase – which was what he did every day without fail on the hour – then stabbed his neck once, then his back, then when her husband managed to turn around, his chest, repeatedly, surgically, unhesitatingly, coldly.
Frankie left the parking garage as quietly as when he had walked through the fire exit from the second floor, where he had parked his own car. The guards thought that he had come to pick her up again as he usually did on Saturdays or on days the husband was away on a business trip. As the car exited the parking garage, they did not peer through the heavy tint to see Frankie’s hands all covered with blood. Her husband’s blood.
The driver of another car came upon the bloodied body of her husband. Miraculously, her husband was alive when he was brought to the emergency room. Alive, of course, was a figure of speech. He was in some sort of coma. He was kept alive by a multitude of tubes and drugs. The doctors argued about his being clinically dead, but Julie was too distracted to make the decision to pull the plug. She had to attend to a number of other serious matters.
She gave the guards a couple of hundred thousand each to keep quiet. She said that she did not want a scandal. Not the scandal of a murder, but the scandal of a prim and proper school principal having an affair with a married man.
She asked her two maids to give large envelopes of money to cops if – when – they came around to ask about the murder.
The case was not even reported in the newspapers. The police reporters got their share of the cash given to the cops.
Even the reporters stationed at the emergency room received gift certificates redeemable in appliance stores.
Only the doctors and nurses could not be bribed, but they were too busy with too many patients to worry about one stabbing victim.
Eventually, the line on the electrocardiogram went flat and her husband was pronounced dead, really dead.
The coroner erased the cause of death written by the doctors (“internal bleeding secondary to multiple stab wounds”) and simply wrote “cardiac arrest” as the cause of death. A month later, he and his entire staff went on a Mediterranean cruise.
The funeral parlor received a huge grant for its satellite building.
Everybody had been hushed up. Nobody else found out about the murder.
But today, after going to confession, she felt strangely peaceful. There was something about the voice of that priest. She couldn’t see him well through the perforations in the confessional box, but she heard his voice. It was a soothing voice. Almost familiar.
* * *
It was the usual regimented quiet after the Monday morning flag ceremony. Julie had trained her teachers well, and the teachers, in turn, had trained their students even better. All the students queued as they were supposed to, alphabetically within the grade levels, and walked to their respective classrooms in the kind of order that she wanted. No getting out of line, no talking, no veering away from procedure. Nothing to disturb the school universe.
Procedure. This was how Julie called the discipline she required of everybody in school. The teachers had to submit their lesson plans for the week two weeks in advance. The students had to be on campus ten minutes – not earlier, not later – before the bell rang. The parents who had brought their children to school had to be out of the campus five minutes – not later than that – before their children lined up for the opening assembly.
There was always an opening assembly. She wanted the children to know that, on Mondays, there would be a flag ceremony, where everyone would put their right hand on their chest and sing the national anthem, recite the patriotic pledge, and sing the school hymn. Yes, the school hymn with hand on chest!
On Tuesdays, everyone would do calisthenics. Sound mind in a sound body, Julie would keep repeating over the public address system, counting from one to eight and backwards to one.
On Wednesdays, everyone would pray. Julie was nominally Roman Catholic, since she was baptized when she was an infant, when she had no religious freedom. She went to church every Sunday, because her husband wanted her to. She did not really understand why people had to stand, sit, kneel, sing, nod at each other, or whatever, but she wanted her husband not to know that there was something wrong with their marriage. Besides, it was good for the parents to see her being pious.
Pious she was not, but during the times when there was no one in the principal’s office, she would read the Bible. She had read the entire book once, from cover to cover. Nowadays, she would play a game with herself. She would randomly insert a bookmark, point her right index finger with her eyes looking up at the portrait of the school’s founder – a young mother back in the fifties who wanted to have more children than the dozen she already had – and read the verse that her finger landed on. She used that verse as others used a horoscope or a fortune cookie.
She also knew that people had to have their faith or they would, as a Russian novelist once put it, be allowed to do whatever they wanted to do. She could not have that. She believed with her entire being that, if students and teachers and parents followed procedure, the world would be a better place in the future.
The Wednesday prayer was not Catholic, but ecumenical, all inclusive. Julie would intone, “Lord God, Yahweh, Allah, Jehovah, you have many names. We call on you to guide us in following procedure. Amen.” That was it. No long, memorized prayers that no one really understood. Nothing that she felt would offend anybody’s religion.
On Thursdays, everyone would stand silently for three minutes (no more, no less), thinking of whatever they wanted to think of. Julie would have preferred that they thought of nothing at all, since that was what she learned from a television show about meditation, but she didn’t know how to impose that, particularly on teachers who had to think of what they would do the moment the children would be inside their classrooms. So she contented herself with the three minutes of silence.
On Fridays, everyone would do what professional singers and theater performers did before performances – vocalize. She once tried having everyone do what she read on the Web –massage the temporal mandibular joints, stick out the tongue, yawn, sing “Ahh” going up and down the scale – but too many students ended up laughing. She now merely asked everyone to shout as loud as they could, then to whisper as softly as they could, then to sing the first two verses from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Five Hallelujahs made her Fridays. Even if they were sung off-key. Even if they were not exactly the lines of Psalm 117.
Saturdays, of course, were not for the children but for Frankie. She would tell her husband that she had to catch up with work in the school, but she would really either spend the whole morning in bed with Frankie or watch a movie with him on the days she had her period.
Sundays, after the obligatory Mass with her husband, were for pretending to like pottering around the house.
There was one thing she liked about her husband, though, that she did not get from Frankie. She and her husband would have seemingly endless arguments about some verse in the Bible. Like her, her husband loved reading the Bible. Unlike him, she looked at the Bible as a literary text and not as a religious document. Their intellectual debates were the closest she got to having simultaneous orgasm with her husband. In fact, it was the closest she got to having an orgasm at all with him.
Julie was beside herself. Everything had been planned, all details had been agreed and written down, the school was ready for the recollection.
She had convinced the parents who were not Catholic that the recollection would be good for the children. She had told the priest not to insist on anything remotely peculiar to the Catholic religion. She wanted merely that the children would learn to pray to some transcendent being. The objective was spirituality, not religion.
With barely an hour to go, the priest called in sick. He was profuse in his apologies, but Julie wouldn’t hear of it. She implored the priest to come in, even if he had very high fever and some rashes. What did she care if the priest died of dengue or lupus or whatever it was that he had caught? She needed a warm body to stand in front of the children in the auditorium and make them pray.
The priest said, not to worry, he was sending a priest who was certain to give the principal what she wanted. His name was Father Romy.