Friday, April 19, 2013
Her name was Quita which was wrong in the first place. She was five feet eight, had a big-boned rather heavy body, and a mass of beautiful red hair. Her real name was Beatrice Katherine Grimes, but a childhood spent in Chile had given her the nickname “Quita”, which in Spanish is a syllable added to a word to form the diminutive, or “Little One”.
I had heard about Quita long before this particular summer. She originally had lived in the other oil camp I had lived in, and in those monotonous little communities personalities are sorted and picked over as vegetables or trifles found in a bureau drawer. This sorting of names is a daily practice among the women who weary of the routine of living day after day in the never-changing summer, looking at the oil flares and the flat dry plains, and who tire of finding constructive occupations for their thoughts. Yes, I had heard about Quita, who thought she was better than other people and who hated Texas Toolpushers. Quita was from Boston.
I got my summer job in the port camp this year and after the first night spent in my boss’ home I was to live in bachelor quarters, a fact which terrified and thrilled me. It was actually the first time in my life that I was to live alone, working, and more or less supporting myself. The second day after my arrival in June, I loaded two suitcases, hatbox, pocketbook, and other odds and ends into my boss’ car and moved. None of this living with the boss and his wife. I was going to be independent and live my own life.
Bachelor quarters consisted of a long living room with a refrigerator at
one end of it, two bedrooms, one double and one single, and a bath. Quita was there to greet me, the only other occupant of the house. She had been transferred from the other camp a few months before. She was very pleasant and took me completely under her wing, showing me where everything was, lending me extra towels, explaining about the Trinidadian maid Theodora and how one had to prod her a little to get work done; she offered to make me a drink, wanted to help unpack. I was touched and utterly unprepared for such a pleasant greeting, and this impression lasted at least three weeks, until I realized that many of the snide little stories I had heard before had basis in actuality, and some of the opinions I formed were worse that what I had heard,
The first thing that developed in our relationship around the house was a kind of holy awe as if there were relics around somewhere. I lowered my voice unconsciously to match her low well-modulated Bostonian accents, I didn't sing around the house, I hardly ever sat with my feet comfortably placed on the table, a most enjoyable position for reading, I told no humorous anecdotes without the feeling that I had laughed in church. In effect, it was almost a maiden-aunt-young niece relationship. I say maiden aunt, for Quita, had almost passed the gay-young-thing stage. She stated her age as 29, but it was a matter of common speculation (even, I found to my horror, among the men) as to what it really was, the average guess starting upwards from 35.
Another development which hit me before I knew it was the realization that this was Quita’s house. Besides the original table, sofa, and three chairs supplied by the Company, everything else was Quita’s. There were bookcases filled with Quita’s books, there were three pleasant reading lamps, Quita’s pictures including a Dutch plate, a photograph of Naples and five Japanese prints (which I loathed) of Quita’s; a hot plate, silver, dishes, linen, cards, glasses, coasters, candlesticks, silver trays, ashtrays, flower bowls (filled every other day), figurines, all Quita’s. It was like visiting and being kindly allowed to make oneself at home. Being only a three month "guest" I had no desire to charge the status quo of the living room, nor had I the wherewithal had the urge hit me. Later on in the summer I considered myself fortunate for having five objects in the living room which were unquestionably mine. There was a beautiful shiny white goat skull, affectionately named Concepción, which I had acquired at a picnic and had placed on the bookcase; there was a small table which Father, living at an adjoining camp, had had made for us; there was a copy of The Prophet which my college roommate had sent for my birthday; a record player loaned by a boy who was vacationing in France, and finally a small pile of records which I had accumulated to keep myself from going mad. (I have a complex I develop readily if there is no radio or Victoria in the house where I reside) . These were my squatter’s rights.
I also had the bedroom with the twin beds. There were pink and blue curtains and matching bedspreads left by some thoughtful school teachers the year before. The material resembled pastel paramecia crawling about and I never felt quite alone in the room until Betty came and we dared speak of the taste of the school teachers in a derogatory manner. Quita, of course, had the single room, which had her bedspread, curtains and rug, sewing machine, extensive silver dresser set, more books, more Japanese prints (and a water color by Degas which I adored). This room was rather sacred to me and if I went in to borrow her suede brush or shoe polish I honestly believe I tip toed.
She was quite a conversationalist and condescended to tell me about things going on around camp, the latest rumors about everyone from the highest brass down to the lowliest office clerk, the amusing little events that went on in her office. (Mine was quite inferior. We were Industrial Relations and handled nothing but the native day labor. In fact, we were in an old office with no air conditioning.) She told me about childhood experiences, life in Boston, life in Panama. Quita was A great name dropper. She would chat on about the New York boss by his first name and spend hours on conversation about Jinx and Spelly, the former being a childhood pal and as anyone knows, Jinx Falkenberg, the famous model. The latter, good old Cardinal Spellman, was a cousin, and such fun at cocktail parties. One resigned oneself to this as much as the casual “This dress was such a bargain. I found it at Sak’s marked down from $140 to $30”. One simply contented oneself with listening and saying “Oh”, “Yes”, “Really?”, “I beg your pardon?”, “No, thank you” and other such stimulating rejoinders.
Since Quita made coffee for breakfast, sandwiches and iced coffee for lunch, sandwiches and a highball for supper, and since I had all my meals at the mess hall, we saw very little of each other, except for and hour after lunch when I usually took a siesta, from four to six in the evening, and sometimes after supper.
Socially we traveled in different sets. I felt as though she smiled benevolently at my running around with the “children”. I didn’t mind at all. The “children” ranging in age from 24 to 30, were wonderful people, and Quita associated only with a few married couples whom I found extremely dull.
Just before the second housemate came at the beginning of August I felt as though there was a shifting of feeling. I had the nerve to play Gypsy music before seven o’clock while Quita was drinking her third cup of coffee and smoking her fourth cigarette. (She reached for a cigarette when she opened her eyes in the morning, a habit which left me gagging, as I cannot stand cigarette smoke on an empty stomach.) I got to singing softly in the shower, and slyly putting my feet on the table when Quita wasn’t in the room. I even bought cheese to put in the ice box and replaced a high-ball which I usually didn’t want with a refreshing cold American beer.
The ‘children,” three boys from Texas, one from Kentucky and one from New Jersey, used to pick me up from work occasionally for a drink before supper, and a few times they invited Quita along. This generosity didn’t last too long after a few dry anecdotes told in a modulated voice pitched just low enough not to hear it. Besides, Quita’s background in Chile, Panama, Venezuela and Boston, she had gone to college and worked some years. She was intelligent, a good hostess, cultured, as she thought people should be, and had had some interesting experiences. However, none of this aided Quita in telling a good story. Beside her indistinctness of tone, she barbed her remarks often, especially in the presence of men, I noticed, and to top it off she spoke down to us. Obviously it made for uncomfortable moments in which I invariably found myself putting nickels in the juke box, doing party tricks, or getting horribly witty over nothing to cover the raw edges of the conversation. After a few attempts at gallantry, and especially after Betty, the second housemate appeared, the “children” gradually stopped inviting Quita to go along. This made for a situation on the home front, divided the house, gave us long dissertations on the rudeness and ill bred behavior of men… and women, and made feelings more strained than ever. But the events after Betty’s arrival would take pages more and I should really content myself with putting the first phase of acquaintanceship on paper. A landmark had passed, an unforgettable one at that. In October when I wrote her a polite note upon reaching school again I felt almost as though I’d written a bread-and-butter letter thanking her for a most lovely summer spent in… her house.
(This remembrance was written in February 1950 for an English class at Hood College. Quita is also mentioned "Summer of '49" - SFS)