I never knew, will never know, if Felipe was guilty as accused or framed as he claimed. What I do know is that he was a friend at a time in my life when I was very short on friends. When we met, I still considered myself an ex-pat, was still married to a Mexican national, and though I was living and working back “home” in Seattle, I still had not made a definitive decision about the permanency of the move. But life has an odd way of turning us about.
I had landed a job in an English language school for internationals that encouraged teachers to participate in field trips and other social events. Being about the same age as my students, this was not only enjoyable but also filled a void in my life at a time when my husband had not yet made the move stateside and I knew almost no one in the city. As I was moving the few belongings I'd brought with me from Mexico City into an apartment near the school, I found a discarded sectional in the basement parking lot. After some serious scrubbing and lots of disinfectant spray, I had a faded velour sofa and was ready for my first class party.
I think my students felt sorry for me. Felipe’s first gift was a used hide-a-bed sofa. He insisted he was redecorating. He said it pained him to know his teacher was sleeping on the floor. I tried to explain that I was a backpacker, that I’d spent a good number of years in Mexico and Venezuela sleeping on floors, that it was good for my back. He didn’t listen.
Felipe was a big man, a weight lifter. His second gift was the remaining months on a year-long health club membership. He wasn’t using it, he claimed. He didn’t like their weight room. Unaccustomed to Seattle winters, I was happy for the chance to exercise indoors.
Felipe’s third gift still stands in my bedroom. Frugal as I am, I’ve been unable to rid my life of a perfectly good 3-legged antique dresser. It’s a massive 5-drawer affair in dark mahogany with small brass medallions in the center of each wooden drawer pull, pillars on the front corners and heavy turned legs. By some feat of physics, it manages to stand solid despite a missing back leg. My husband and I joke that perhaps it wasn’t termites that ate the fourth leg, that perhaps the fourth leg was where the cocaine was hidden, that perhaps we should take off the other legs to check that they’re solid.
Thirty years have passed since that lonely young woman received three generous gifts. My first marriage ended, I made the decision to repatriate, I remarried, life went on. Last weekend my husband and I began a search for new bedroom furniture fearful that our old brass bed might soon collapse under the weight of our two hundred pound latex mattress.
“Are you sure you want to get rid of it?” He nodded toward the dresser.
“I’m tired of the old monster. It belonged to another life,” I said.
“I’m not sure how we'll get it out of here,” he said.
“Take the legs off?” I suggested.
“Might find enough in there to pay for the new furniture,” he said.
For thirty years I’ve stared at that dresser remembering Felipe’s generosity and wondering about his guilt or innocence. I know he was incarcerated. I don’t know how long he served. I don’t know where he is today. But I do know I will always remember his jovial laughter, his kind friendship and his 3-legged dresser.