With Gardenias in Her Hair


Osgood Stanch lived at the Rosy Skies RV Ranch in Surprise, Arizona. He owned a pinkish one-bedroom park model, but never spent any time in it. Instead, like so many claustrophobic RV owners, he sat in a once white, molded-plastic lawn chair and conversed with his neighbors. Many were transients, except for Delbert Shue who owned a fifth-wheel, three spaces down.

Osgood had been a high-school history teacher, and he loved to pontificate on various subjects to his listeners. Today, a cloudless, birdless, crystal blue sky winter day, Delbert Shue was the only listener handy.

“Just look at this,” said Osgood, holding up the newspaper. “Them Iraqis are calling us Crusaders.”

Indeed, an insurgent group, taking responsibility for a car bombing, had denounced American troops as “Crusaders.”

“I’ll tell you about Crusaders,” said Osgood Stanch.

When Osgood Stanch said he’d tell you about something, it was the cue for Delbert Shue to take a nap.

“They did something horrible, that  no American soldier would ever think ‘a doing. In about 1200 A. D., French and Spanish courtiers, returning from the Crusades, invented the concept of ‘romantic love.’”

Osgood Stanch’s genial wife, Helen, had died three years ago, and he hadn’t missed her, yet.

“Aw, granted, it’s a silly notion based on physical beauty and exaggerated courtly behavior, but most women believe it. True, women’s libbers, from the ‘80s onward, have tried to annihilate male chauvinism and defeat the precepts of chivalry. But still, no one in the West marries to consolidate a fortune or increase a family’s land-holdings or form a defense alliance. It’s all done for ‘love.’

“Now, the English language is noticeably deficient in describing ‘love.’ The Greek is better:

“There’s agape: the love a mother has for her child. It is unrequited; the baby has no faculty for returning this love, and cain’t possibly earn the parent’s affection; it is all instinctive intuition.”

At this point, Delbert Shue gave out a snuffling snore, but Osgood took no notice.

“There’s philos: brotherly love.” Osgood continued. “This is love, er, perhaps better, ‘respect’ for one’s fellow man.

“Then, there’s eros: the love of a man for a woman. This is the basis for romantic love, and invariably involves sexual intercourse. Sure, love leads to marriage and the sex which produces children, copulation, is ritualized with weddin’ vows to protect the vulnerable mother and unborn children. Thus is established the institution ‘family.’ However, if it’s only sex, in the immortal words of Tina Turner: ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?’”

Delbert Shue remained curled in a fetal position in his plastic chair, blissfully asleep. But another listener had taken Osgood’s declamation all in.  It was Hortencia Tijeras-Villalon, who was staying in the little drive-it-yourself RV next to Stanch.  Her knitting was boring her, but overhearing Osgood’s harangue reminded her of her aunt’s story. When she was a little girl, there was great alarm in the family because Aunt Pérdita had fallen in love.

*       *      *       *       *       *       *

The crystal blue sky was pale and cold; the brilliant sun gave light, but no warmth. The Northern Sonoran Desert was freezing in the winter, but that allowed a long walk to be a bit easier.

Pérdita Tijeras crossed from Mexico to Arizona in January 1942, when she was eight years old. With her, came her parents and siblings, her aunts and uncles and cousins, all seeking work in American war-effort factories in Phoenix.

When Pérdita applied for school, the teacher gave her an examination. She held up a card with a picture of a cat and the letters: C-A-T.

El gato!” said Pérdita enthusiastically.

“No!” said the teacher sternly. “What is this one?”

It was a picture of a house, but Pérdita instinctively knew not to say “la casa.” Perhaps, it was a trick question. She puzzled and puzzled over the letters:  H-O-U-S-E. Then it came to her:

José!” she answered, brightly.

“No!” the teacher said again.

        Mamacita did not speak English any better than Pérdita but she understood “No!” was a rejection. She took Pérdita back home and taught her to cook and raise plants, to take care of an H-O-U-S-E and how to make a man happy.

At sixteen, Pérdita  married Rodrigo Jarales, pig farmer. They moved to the Guadalupe neighborhood of Mesa, east of Phoenix. Rodrigo was a good man, if not handsome, and seemed to love his pigs above all else. He often slept in the pig shed rather than in his own bed. This left Pérdita alone all day to tend to her garden. She raised jalapeños and tomatoes, squash and beans, onions and flowers. Among her favorite flowers, was a bush which produced gardenias almost year-round.

At twenty-two, having been in a loveless marriage for six years, Pérdita began looking for adventure. There was a small burning sensation in her lower abdomen, something like a glow and something like a thrill which beckoned to be satisfied. She had heard, from some friends, of the bus that ran along Highway 60 to the city of Globe. Saving money she earned from selling eggs, she soon had enough for the bus fare. On one hot, summer day, she walked the mile and a half to the highway and flagged down the bus.  She had never imagined the beauty of the scenery along the Apache Trail Highway, past Superior and then along the steep and rugged Queen Creek Gorge walls.

Globe was a busy copper-mining town in 1956. The Mexican community was all abustle. Pérdita found a Mercado and a cantina. She browsed the marketplace by day, but secretly kept the idea of exploring the cantina by night. She would be far from the eyes of her neighbors, and the thrill of a clandestine tryst nearly overwhelmed her.

It was not until September of that year, that Pérdita could act upon her fantasy. On Saturdays in the fall, Rodrigo drove his spring piglets, fattened up for six months, to the market. He then bought cerveza and proceeded to get drunk.

One Saturday night, she bathed, but had no perfume. She oiled her hair and pulled it back severely into a bun at the nape of her neck. She left two tendrils of ebony hair curl in front of each ear. From the farmyard she chose two gardenia blooms and placed one behind each ear. This would be her most enticing fragrance. She left the farm and Rodrigo sleeping, and boarded the bus for Globe. The rugged canyon vistas were not visible in the dark, which only added to the intrigue. This was no sight-seeing tour.

Paquito’s Cantina was ablaze with light and accordion music and laughter when she walked in. The air was smoky. She was the best dressed woman in the place, with her spotless white blouse and flowing, full skirt.

She approached the bar, afraid to take a table, and ordered the only alcoholic beverage she knew: tequila. The bartender looked at her sidewise with suspicion, but produced a tiny glass. Into it he poured a vile-looking, yellowish-brown liquid to the very brim. Before she could lift the glass, a firm, warm hand took hers, and when she turned, a handsome man shook his index finger in a negative gesture.

The stranger was dressed all in black, with silver collar tips and a large silver belt-buckle shaped like a horse-shoe. There were four rows of silver studs running down the outer seams of his tight-fitting trousers; silver, filigree embroideries on his shirt. He had a friendly smile, showing one, incongruously gleaming, gold tooth. He produced a salt cellar from nowhere and sprinkled some on the back of his hand, between forefinger and thumb. He licked the salt off his hand, lasciviously, and downed the shot of tequila in one gulp then bit into a lime quarter from a bowl of slices on the bar.

“That is how one drinks tequila,” he instructed. “But a lady should drink a new mixture called a ‘Margarita.’”

He escorted her with an exaggerated, courtly manner to a nearby table, occupied by two dirty, sleeping miners. He ordered the drink over his shoulder.

“Get away from this refined civilization, you lazy borrachos.”

         He said his name was Juanito, which startled Pérdita who was about to use the alias ‘Juanita,’ herself. She wondered if this stranger had had the same idea! He asked hers, and she fumbled a bit, but came up with ‘Rosarita.’ He asked where she was from, as he didn’t recognize her.

She said “Mesa.” He was taken aback.

“You come from a city called ‘Table?’” he asked.

She smiled, and explained that the Anglos called low, flat-topped mountains ‘mesas’ and that was the origin of the name:

“A mountain not a table.”

He said he was from Guadalajara, where he had once been a bullfighter. It was a lie of course; he was a guitarist with a mariachi band. There were other similarly-dressed band members, with their instruments leaning against the wall. They played for a nearby Mexican cocina restaurant that catered to the white miners and tourists. But they didn’t play at Paquito’s, they were here to relax.

The sweet-tasting drink trickled down to Pérdita’s inner glow, and set it ablaze. It made her speech come smooth and frequent. Juanito was easy to talk to, and they laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. No one else in the bar paid them any attention. They, too, were enjoying themselves. It was Saturday night, after all. The little itch in her abdomen grew with each laugh they shared.

When the hour grew late, Juanito graciously accompanied Pérdita to the bus stop, and the evening was ended. She rode alone, her head resting tiredly on the window. She had a smile on her face the entire time. Was it induced by the effect of the alcohol? Perhaps, but happiness was hers, nonetheless.

All that week Pérdita fretted about what to do next. Rodrigo would never know– his brain was too weak. But there was guilt. Should she follow her inner urges and return to Paquito’s on Saturday? Would Juanito even be there? And if she did not return, would he be looking for her and eventually give up? Would he start seeking the company of another fair maiden?

The sex drive—what the biologists call “the reproductive imperative,” is very strong. It is, perhaps, the single most demanding life force, connected as it is with the perpetuation of the species and controlled, not by will, but by hormonal chemicals, Osgood Stanch might say.

Pérdita determined to return to Globe the following Saturday. She could not help herself. Once she had decided, waves of hot blood seemed to pulse through her veins. This feeling did not subside the next Saturday, or on subsequent Saturdays when she returned, each time to Juanito’s friendly conversation, each time with gardenias in her hair.

It was inevitable, of course, but one Saturday toward the end of October when Juanito was accompanying her to the bus stop, he suddenly grabbed her by the waist and kissed her. His pencil-thin mustache tickled and his tongue flicked seductively on her lips. Now Pérdita was more than smitten– she was in love.

It was already predestined. The next time they met Pérdita would give herself completely to Juanito. As he held her chair at the table, she whispered into his ear:

“Tonight, I am yours, entirely.”

Juanito, el catrin, (the ‘dancer’) had made yet another conquest. He knew this simple girl would respond eventually, if he proceeded slowly and carefully.

After one drink, he suggested they stroll in the moonlight. He took her some distance from Paquito’s, where the light and the musica falling out of the cantina windows were dim. There, in a bare patch of the desert, he took his broad sombrero and brushed away small rocks, cactus spines and thorns. He took her mantilla and spread it on the ground for her to sit. Soon, at the height of their embrace, Juanito reached beneath the folds of her skirt, and she moaned. Quicker than Pérdita thought possible, he was out of his tight pants and on top of her. But in their ardor, Pérdita’s naked lower half had slid off the small shawl and was resting on the desert soil. As Juanito porpoised over her, the sand and dust became intermingled and ensnarled in their mechanism of love-making. His cog in her sprocket became more and more painful. Juanito was determined to finish and did. But, Pérdita was, by this time, rubbed raw in the most intimate part of her anatomy. She began to cry, softly. Juanito, disgusted and disappointed, mumbled curses as he redressed. He left her; flinging a gesture of resignation behind his back.

Pérdita readjusted her clothing, and began the long walk to the bus stop, alone and frightened. The last bus left at midnight, and she hoped she had not missed it. Her hair was disheveled and the gardenias, bruised and forgotten, were left to mark the site of their intimacy, like a shrine to the dead.

Throughout the long ride back to Guadalupe, Pérdita wept and wept from the pain between her thighs, which was a constant reminder of her lost fantasy. There remained the long walk from Highway 60 to her home. Each step became more agonizing then the last, as the folds of her vagina were rubbed and scratched from dust and sand. She bathed her red and swollen lips, then took a kitchen knife and cut off a leaf of aloe vera plant and applied the soothing juice. It took six leaves before she felt any relief.

All that week, Pérdita mourned her lost love and nursed her vulva back to health. A double humiliation. Perhaps God had seen her sin and this was her penance. But, in her simplicity, Pérdita could not have been more wrong. God had much more punishment to mete out, if, indeed, it was God’s doing.

The Mexican community of the 1950s had a strong sense of unity, born out of enduring prejudice.  The grapevine of gossip was its most deadly tool. It did not take long before Pérdita’s indiscretion in Globe was made known throughout Guadalupe. Her neighbors, her parents, her aunts, all were appalled at her behavior. Had she no regard for the honor of the community?

Worse, was Rodrigo’s reaction. Rodrigo, who had never cared for anything but some filthy hogs, was aghast because his wife had been unfaithful to him. That was hardest for Pérdita to understand. Padré Arturo from the Church had no sympathy, only more guilt.

One day, when the sky was crystal blue, and the sun gave off light but no warmth, Pérdita Jarales-Tijeras was found dead. She had taken a length of rope far into the desert and threw it over the arm of a tall saguaro, and hung herself. Her private parts had not yet healed from the chafing.

*       *       *       *       *       *

Hortencia Tijeras-Villalon remembered this story of so many years ago. She had to agree with Osgood Stanch. Some idiotic rules, advanced nearly 800 years before, had led Pérdita to seek romantic “love.” Those same rules had led Rodrigo Jarales to believe he had the “love” of his wife because of a ceremony in Church one day. Neither was true. The intimate love Rodrigo withheld from her, led Pérdita to seek it from Juanito. But that sex was not at all satisfying for either. And now, after so much had been lost, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”


copyright 2009 Wesley E. Swaincott


2 Responses to “With Gardenias in Her Hair”

  1. Mothers Says:

    […] With Gardenias in Her Hair           O … […]

  2. suegma Says:

    Poor poor Perdita. Good story to read to a teenage girl. Well done.

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