I didn’t expect to fall for Gabriel.
I resented him at first. He had everything. A beautiful home, wealth, connections to the powerful, a job studying and curating his passion, a seemingly never-ending supply of books, music and artwork to fill his home with, and of course someone else to clean up after him. That was my job.
I spent a short time in his penthouse each week, cleaning and working. Gabriel Ortega had this private sanctuary where he could ignore everything happening out there in the streets. The rest of us weren’t so lucky. We couldn’t afford to be apathetic.
So when I saw the chance to use my employer’s connections to my advantage, and obtain key information the Anchurian resistance could use to their advantage, I didn’t hesitate. I took it.
I thought I was quite clever. I wasn’t the soldier my brother was, but I was striking a blow against tyranny in my own way. Then I noticed the art book.
Gabriel would always leave the book open on his coffee table, and always to a different painting. As each day went by, it almost felt like Gabriel was using that book to communicate with me. If not me specifically, than to the universe at large. The pages he left open were the cry of a lonely man, an intellectual artiste with more art history knowledge than friends. An attempt to project an idea from the book out onto the world, or at least onto his home, like a magic grimoire. The day after I stole copies of his information, I noticed the painting he had left open on display:
Mary Magdalene, about to be stoned, only the savior was standing between her and certain death at the hands of the mob.
I got chills, thinking about this painting he had chosen for me to see when I arrived. This wasn’t like his previous choices. Was he trying to tell me he knew what I had done? That he was the only thing keeping me alive now? Was it a threat? A promise? An offer? A request?
I was never arrested. I kept doing my job, following Gabriel’s cleaning instructions and answering his little notes. It seemed like as normal a relationship as an employer and employee could have. But the paintings told a different story.
I got to know Gabriel through those paintings. I learned that it was no accident those papers had been available. Maybe it was no accident that I, personally, had been hired. Gabriel hated the current regime as much as we did, perhaps not for the same reasons but enough to want to end the horror. He knew who my brother was and the work he did. Did Senor Ortega hire me specifically because of my brother? Or did he notice the connection later?
We played the game again. Information was left out, a vague invitation or insinuation for something more. I took what was needed to the resistance. Not wanting this source to run dry, I took more care in how I cleaned and interacted with his home. I did my homework too, Gabriel Ortega. I know you better than you think.
I knew what made him tick and what he wanted before I took a step into his apartment. Every action I take, I know if it will please him or leave him cold. I know how he likes to come home to find the lights on. I know he’s lonely and finds comfort seeing that someone else, even a maid who may be a spy, has been living in this apartment. I know he’s a romantic, despite his loneliness, and that his love for art and culture is primarily driven by how it connects him to people. I know he feels nothing for modernist art, its cold colors and sharp lines feeling alien and isolating. I know he prefers deep, rich tones and forms that remind him of the people that made them. Knowing all this, I make choices that keep him happy, and keep information coming that I can pass along to my brother.
I don’t always then reply to his notes the way I honestly feel. I make a conscious choice to respond in ways I know he will be moved by.
But as this goes on, I learn things about Gabriel I wasn’t aware of. Or perhaps I simply become more sympathetic to the Gabriel I already know. Either way, I find myself making those choices not just in the hopes of getting the information I need, but because I want to make Gabriel happy. I want this sad, lonely man to take comfort in the brave thing he’s doing for Anchuria. I want to continue sharing this world with him, and doing our secret work together. I’m not a femme fatale or a Salome, I’m a partner.
Am I making the right choice? My brother is now in jail, I don’t need to continue playing nice with Gabriel to get information on the regime. If I want, I can now respond honestly to his naive musings on art or his ignorance to the suffering of those less fortunate. The former sanctuary of this apartment from the turmoil outside is being shattered each time I come in to work, with gunfire and the sounds of conflict growing louder. When I approach the window, I can see the violence, and I catch my own reflection watching in horror. I live in that horror almost the entire week. Tyranny has become routine and yet here, in that brief moment before nightfall, I am surprised by it, only because until now the apartment has felt like a world unto itself. Am I just playing this game with Gabriel in a vain attempt to hang on to that feeling?
If I am playing this game for Gabriel, then what will happen when I finally do begin responding honestly. What will happen when he learns that, even as I appreciate art as he does, I care more for the people locked away from his world? When he learns that I would sell his art, no matter how pretty, to feed those in need? Then again, can I trust that Senor Ortega has presented an honest self to me too? Does he know I have a soft spot for naive, clever men? Does he want to keep his partner in espionage feeling superior and eager? Does he have the same questions?
Regardless of what happens to Anchuria, what do I want for me after this is over?
Once, he had invited me to play a game of chess with him. I’d make my move once a week, and see his corresponding move the next time I come in. It ended about as well as you’d expect, with the rules being thrown out the window in order to communicate something else. Awhile back he invited me to play another round, I had opened by cheekily hiding the black queen. The regime couldn’t take me, and I would bend the rules to keep myself and those I loved safe and free. I hadn’t given our failed game much thought until today, as I try to decide how to proceed in our relationship. While I debate how to respond to his notes, and even whether to leave the lights on the way he likes, I pause and notice the board. Ortega has hidden the black king.
Another message, in some ways just as naive as everything Gabriel believes and says. The pieces remain in place, and will for weeks after, no doubt. Even with the rigid system of the chess board in place, the king and queen disappear to their own world, and by doing so, the warfare normally defining the board never begins. Sure, we cannot actually stop the war that is coming to Anchuria, but here at least the black queen is free and, if she chooses, does not have to be alone.
I leave the lights on.
If you’d like to read another player’s look at the events and choices their Angela experienced, Mattie Brice has written a piece here.