Alfred Mendoza Sneezes
By Nirmala Iswari
Alfred Mendoza had been waking up in the wee hours of the morning only to sneeze continuously for several hours. For the first couple of days, Mrs. Mendoza attributed her husband's fits of sneezing to an attack of cold. She made her husband a bowl of hot soup, at times hot chocolate, to alleviate the discomfort. The wretched Mr. Mendoza, having sneezed for hours on end, gratefully got back into bed, bundling himself with a blanket that was used no longer for purposes of warmth, but comfort.
Alfred Mendoza worked for an insurance company about 45 minutes away from the apartment where he lives with his wife. Around five years before he bought a car at his wife's insistence. The car inhabited the apartment's basement parking lot for most of the time since Mr. Mendoza rather enjoyed taking the bus, and Mrs. Mendoza, despite repeated claims to the contrary, had never really learnt to drive.
"What's the point of buying a car if you never use it?" Mrs. Mendoza asked when her husband arrived home one rainy night, soaked from his walk from the bus stop.
"I didn't want a car. You did."
"Why do you insist on taking the bus?"
"I like the bus."
"You have a car!"
"I like the bus."
Mr. Mendoza lay in bed, visualizing the blue walls of his small office and the glass that tempers the glare from the sun outside, and was glad to be away from it all. He could remember precisely what the bin under his desk contained the last time he was there because he spent a long time staring at it. A girl he had gotten to seeing in his morning bus stopped showing up that day. He stared at his bin, going through the many possibilities that might have caused her disappearance.
The girl used to be there every morning when he arrived to catch the 7.45 bus, sitting on the metal seat of the bus stop. She would be peeling an orange and reading a newspaper or a magazine or a book, so preoccupied that she didn't notice anything around her. She popped slices of orange and spat out the seeds into a tissue in her hand mechanically. Her eyes never strayed from the pages on her lap. Watching her was exciting for Mr. Mendoza. He couldn't explain why, though. He had such dreadful times at the office sometimes, and there was also the time when his wife forgot his birthday, but then he saw her and these things suddenly didn't matter. It wasn't romantic or sexual, that much he knew. He wasn't attracted to the girl; the feeling was more of a rush, a thrill. Her presence became something he looked forward to. On his way to the bus stop Mendoza would guess at the girl's outfits. There were several that she wore quite often – out of fondness, he supposed. Mendoza never said a word to her, nor did he wish to. What mattered to him was the excitement, obscure though it was, that the girl's presence brought to his mornings. The day she disappeared, Mendoza remembered, was the day he began sneezing.
"How many times have I told you to have those books taken out?" Mrs. Mendoza sweeps into the room like a little storm, carrying a steaming bowl of something.
Mr. Mendoza blows his nose as he tries to recall the dress the girl was wearing the last time he saw her. Was it green or blue?
"It's those books under the bed that make you sneeze." Mrs. Mendoza's voice swells. She seems to be speaking to the books, as if they can hear her and understand how contemptible she thinks they are.
Alfred Mendoza remembered those books. They were the comic books of his childhood, bought with money meant for his violin tuition fee. He had never been good with the violin anyway. And it was the sense of incorrectness that had made the comic books so gratifying – the sense of excess, of luxury. With the comic books, the little Mendoza built an empire under his bed. The feeling of victory that surged through him after his mother tucked him in and closed the door of his bedroom was indescribable. He would read the books assisted by a torchlight in the darkness of his room just to savor the adrenaline, the thrill that came from the possibility of being found out. That gave the books their flavor.
Afterwards he had forgotten about the books, largely because he didn't have to keep them secret anymore. His mother found out and laughed about the whole thing, musing whether forcing the violin on him had been a bad idea. And for years he hadn't felt about anything in his life the way he left about his comic books. Until the girl in the bus stop happened. Many things made him happy, probably content, but this was different. Content is when you come home knowing everything is in order: you get by just fine, there is dinner waiting on the table, and you will sleep and wake up to another day with something to do. But contentment quickly becomes bland. How would it matter if you die today or tomorrow or the day after? And that was the thing: it should matter. The comic books made it matter somehow – and the girl in the bus stop. They made Mendoza feel like he lived in a world that was quite other than the one in which everybody else lived. He created that other world - the world in which he mattered, in which things were significant because he thought they were.
"Are you still in bed?" Mrs. Mendoza entered the room again, this time armed with a broom, which was aimed doggedly at his books under the bed. Alfred Mendoza sank deeper into his blanket and sneezed.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 3 Jul 2009