It did not occur to Ed to protest, or to file a lawsuit, or to build a movement of students to lobby for him. That would be distasteful to him. Lilia had the skills to do it for Ed, but he would not ask her or allow her to fight for him. He knew, in a vague way, that he was out of step with the rest of the department, with the rest of the university, but he had never spent time thinking about it. The university wasn’t the place for him anymore. He strongly doubted that there was a place for him in Chile.
At first Lilia couldn’t believe that Ed was just going to leave his job, walk away from his salary, and reduce his pension to a pittance. She urged him to at least try to do what Sergio wanted him to do, and she pledged to find people to help Ed develop research ideas that would appeal to corporate funders. She herself would help him rewrite his curriculum to come up to Ministry guidelines. She could not understand Ed’s point that he would never be happy prostituting his talent and skills, as he labeled it, in hope of keeping his job. She told him that he could still do his own research on the side, and teach first-year university students who weren’t yet locked into state-mandated practical curriculum.
But Ed did walk away, and he didn’t have another job. His children were disapproving, Lilia was angry, and his wife’s family took to whispering about the state of his mental health. He had never given himself time to develop friendships, so he had no one to talk with. He spent the first months after he cleaned out his office going twice a day to the pool in his condo building. It had been thirty-plus years since he had swum at all, and he was stiff and awkward in the water. But slowly, slowly he began to be more comfortable and to move more easily. While he was swimming he didn’t think about anything. The pool was on the 25th floor of the building; it was surrounded on three sides by glass walls, and the high roof had large skylights. In a month he was swimming a mile during each workout, and he had lost 20 pounds.
When he wasn’t swimming, he lay in a deck chair by the side of the pool and watched clouds. Sometimes he re-read the science fiction novels he’d loved as a boy and as a young man, before he went to graduate school and his life was too busy to read anything but the scientific literature on yeast. The science fiction comforted him. Reading them, those early sci-fi novels of the 1950s and 60s, where science solved all problems and the future was lustrous, he forgot the last 40 years of his life. Perhaps because of this, it seemed natural that he would return to Seattle. After two months, he was sure of it. Lilia was still angry and the children didn’t need him. Lilia spent at least half her time in Europe anyway. He would live with his parents and share the burden of their care with Nancy, his sister. She had been taking care of them alone for the last five or so years, as their strength failed. He could be useful again.
Besides, Chile wasn’t his country. Ed thought back over the last 30 years and told himself that it had never been his country. He had Lilia and the kids, and his job in Chile, but now all that was over. His true country had been his family and his work. He knew nothing about the politics, and little about the country’s history. The kids could visit him when they wanted to; Lilia, too, if she ever wanted to. He was going home. When he told Lilia that he was going, she predicted he’d be back in months. She reminded him that he always found his parents difficult to be around for more than a few days. But she didn’t beg him to stay. Ed was mildly surprised at that, at how lightly their 30 years together could float away, at how they could let it do that.
When Ed called Nancy to tell her he was coming home, he didn’t say it was for good. He told her he had retired early and could spend time now helping out with their parents. Nancy said he was welcome, of course. It would be good for their parents to have Ed around for company. They now had a housekeeper who also cooked and did personal care, but errands, groceries, house maintenance, arranging for doctors’ visits and outings, and general oversight were Nancy’s purview. She would be glad to share these tasks with Ed. She had two teenagers and a husband, and worked full time as a gardener at the University of Washington.
Ed packed light. He was surprised at that too, that he needed to take so little with him. He found his goodbyes easy to do; his children, his wife’s family, the doorman of their condo building, a couple of his former colleagues, a few of his students who had kept in touch over the years. There wasn’t anyone else. He said that he was going to spend some time with his parents and sister, help out for a while. Lilia took him to the airport, and their goodbyes were short. On the long flight, as he tried to sleep in his tiny seat – Ed was a big man -- he had a sudden memory of his first plane ride to Chile, when he was coming to meet Lilia’s family, interview at the university, find an apartment, and make wedding plans. He was 26, with a new doctorate in biology, a swimmer’s strength and physique, and a loving fiancée waiting for him when he landed.
He had been sitting next to a Chilean, a slight, grey man in his 60s who spoke English well. The Chilean, Julio, said he was going home to live after 43 years in Seattle. He emphasized the 43 years as if he himself could hardly believe how much time it had been. He had worked for a big parking garage company as a bookkeeper for most of those years. He was a US citizen, had Social Security and a pension, and had already bought a house, as yet unseen, in the small town 50 miles north of Santiago where he had grown up. He said he had no family left there, but friends from his youth still lived in the town. He thought he’d finally have time to write poetry. He loved to read poetry, he said, but had never had time to write while he was working.
Ed asked about his wife and children, and he remembered the look on Julio’s face: a grimace. Julio said he was divorced and his children grown and out on their own. They would be staying in the States, he said. Ed asked if he would miss the States. Julio paused a long time, and then said, “I don’t know what I miss. I don’t think I can find what I’m missing. It’s not in the States, and not in Chile. Maybe I lost my place.”
Julio said no more about himself, and began asking Ed about his reasons for traveling to Chile. Ed talked of Lilia, his job prospects, and his happiness. He was normally more reserved, but he was brimming with joy and was delighted to share it. He said goodbye to Julio and went out to meet Lilia and all her family who were standing at the gate with welcome posters and flowers for him. Lilia was nearly jumping in her excitement to see him. The happy group swept him up with them, and he didn’t see Julio again until they were standing at the baggage claim carousel. Julio was by himself. He caught Ed’s eye, and gave him a small wave. Julio mouthed something before he turned back to the carousel to look for his baggage, but Ed could not tell what he said. He lost sight of him after that.
When the plane landed in Seattle, Ed walked alone to the baggage claim.