I See You Wear a Ring
Her eyes could grab you by the throat and . . .
In Spain, Ben dreamed of azure, humid skies. He had to laugh to himself at that, exclaiming aloud, “I can’t believe I’m homesick!”
“Eh? Oh . . . Nada, nothing important.” The bartender shrugged narrow shoulders and turned automatically to the Espresso machine when the hissing of hot air stopped. He took the two tiny cups of steaming café con leche and set them before an older couple drinking quietly at the end of the bar. Ben had noted them on entering. They had a dignity that showed through their stiff expressions. When they looked at each other, warmth leaked from the corners of their mouths and eyes despite their extreme efforts to rein it in.
Ben studied them through lowered lids. The old man had a soft-looking beret that reminded Ben of movies about the French Underground during World War II. It was blue, with a small red button on the top.
Watching people. Ben, curious about everything outside himself, did it a lot. Especially in a strange place like downtown Madrid. Ben swept his gaze around the room; took in his surroundings so as to commit them to memory. So that one day he could close his eyes and recall the entire scene. Potted plants hung from carved wooden hooks that seemed to grow directly out of the old, plaster walls. The ceiling hung low enough to provide a feeling of safety; not so low as to seem a cage. He tried to find the speakers that played a constant stream of low volume, classical music. But the decorator had done his or her job well. The rich gleam of well-polished and antique mahogany warmed him as much as a sunny day at home. Of course, he knew Madrid had experienced much culture in the last centuries, including this one. Still, it surprised him to see the autographed photos of famous composers and instrumentalists on the walls of this tiny, out-of-the-way coffee bar. People he thought of as faraway and isolated did indeed visit tiny establishments in Spain. Arthur Rubinstein, looking pensive and a touch imperious, stared out from his position of prominence atop all the others.
Rain tap, tapped the outside picture window of El Café Soto Mesa. A desultory sprinkle that—combined with the cold, wet air—succeeded in soaking those walking outside but didn’t really count as rain. Ben tried to fool himself into believing it to be the same as one of the light tropical showers back home in Puerto Rico. He knew the illusion would shatter the moment he walked out the door, as the temperature hovered around 6º Centigrade.
Sipping at his cooling café con leche, Ben, as a matter of habit, did the conversion in his head: 6 X 9/5 = 54/5 = 10.8. Add 32 to the whole thing and you get 42.8º Fahrenheit. Cold. Not cold to a New Yorker, perhaps; to a thin-blooded, transplanted California boy, Hell began with a “C” and featured snow every evening on the dot. A kind of Anti-Camelot.
Ben let a not-too-covert glance slide on over to the woman who sat with demure grace on the extreme right end of the coffee bar. Though clothed in a thick, brown wool sweater, mutely colored scarf, and a bulky, ankle-length wool skirt, she radiated an air of . . . Ben searched his culture-fuddled mind for words. An air of tranquil beauty. The woman possessed a quiet self-esteem that said, “I know who and what I am and accept all.”
She crooked a finger at the man behind the bar. He walked to her, leaned forward, attentive. His hands occupied themselves with towel and cups, but his eyes cried with joy at being given the legitimate excuse to focus on the woman. “¿Sí?
“Déme otro, por favor.” She tapped the rim of the small coffee cup with a slender finger. The sound of her fingernail tinked in the quiet. Smoke trickled from her nose; she shooed it away with a small, two-fingered wave. As she spoke, she focused fully on the small man before her. With this attention, she granted to him a level of humanity that many in the service industry never experience. His face shone; had he a tail, he surely would have wagged it. He moved to fill her request. Another coffee.
As she waited, she hummed a low snatch of a popular tune making its rounds on the radio. Her voice was velvet rubbed by a baby’s palm—punctuated by the soft clink of the cup on the tile bar. A moment spent staring at the milky brown surface. Ben’s stolen glances told him that she was narrow of face until one climbed up to the prominent cheekbones. Her pale skin looked as soft and delicate as the fragrant petal of a white rose and showed not a blemish. A Romanesque nose betrayed her heritage: strong and straight, but not too large. She had straight, black hair that swirled around her strong shoulders, stopping at the middle of her back; when she moved her head, the dark curtain fell like a slow ocean wave. Though hidden by the thickness of her sweater, the very fact that Ben could trace the curve of her breasts meant they must be substantial. Ben had never felt attracted to large-breasted women before. But something about her poise and self-acceptance, her classic, old-world beauty . . .
Too bad she smokes, he mused. Not a surprise: It seemed every man, woman, and child in Spain had the habit. Ugly. His grandmother had died of cancer. Ben’s earliest memories of Gammie included waves of choking blue-grey smoke that writhed around his head, held him in a breathless embrace. He’d always hated the fucking things.
He caught himself staring as she tapped a length of ash into a porcelain ashtray on the bar. He turned away, taking another internal snapshot of the moment so he could examine it later in life: Her elegant features wreathed in soft spirals of grey; the freshness of her appearance; the gray smudges that stained the otherwise spotless porcelain. In Madrid, all the faces he’d studied looked bored, as if each person had been, done, and seen it all. Her innocence, her newness combined with the elegance, poise, and self-acceptance, all her qualities made her alluring to him. He couldn’t deny the desire he felt. But he didn’t want it.
Ben remembers pain, remembers rejection after rejection. As an American in Puerto Rico, he had always received attention, but rarely trust or intimacy. People there viewed him as they would a rare bird: interesting, but don’t touch. That and with the contradictory stereotypes that, 1. All an American wants is pussy; yet, 2. Americans make the best husbands. . . . On the island where he now lived, exotic beauty walked every minute, every inch, every dream, but—except for once—it had always stayed away from Ben, for all the apparent fascination he held for others.
An optimist despite his failures in that department, Ben knew he wanted to meet the woman.
“So why am I just sitting here on my butt, staring none-too-surreptitiously at this Castilian beauty?”
“¡Ai! Perdón. Ahora estoy hablando a mi mismo. No me da otra cerveza.”
The bartender shrugged his famous shrug and didn’t even ask what the hell the tall American meant about serving him a beer: He was drinking coffee. A new customer sat, claiming the smaller man’s attention; the bartender turned his narrow back to Ben. He had a large mole on his neck. It looked as if it were trying to take over the man’s head.
Christ! thought Ben, Talking to myself now, but out loud! He shook his head, rubbing a finger on the tiger embroidered into his jeans. The silky feel of the thread forcibly reminded him of home.
The night before, he’d gone to a disco called Ubangi. Though it bore an African name, the hotspot specialized in Salsa and Merengue imported from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Pseudo-tropical decorations covered the walls and the waitresses all wore Tahitian sarongs. On entering, Ben had thought he must be crazy: he hated Merengue and Salsa! Homesickness can manifest itself in the oddest ways.
All night, he’d played the wallflower, getting steadily drunker as the music screamed and pulsed. Several whores approached and he almost went with the one whose low-throated “¿Vamos?” stirred his blood through all the alcohol. But Ben had never paid for sex before. Too cheap or too afraid of what he would think of himself in the morning; whatever the reason, he had kept both his money and his dick in his pants. Ironically, he wanted that no-strings luxury of release without promise.
Ben looked out the large front window and watched the rain. Watched the woman. Watched the bartender and his mole. Watched the other customers. The old couple had their heads bent together. They smiled, as if on cue; the woman laughed, but low, and glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Ben cut his eyes away so she wouldn’t catch him and then feel self-conscious. He would swear that they had turned 20 before his eyes.
He watched the woman. Wanted her. Ached to feel her finely sculpted lips on his (the color of her lightly applied lipstick brightened her otherwise black and white appearance). And suspected he would never do a thing to bring about such an occurrence.
Why? Only moments before, his homesickness had again twisted his guts like an ulcer. Why? Why not go ask the woman’s name? Why not see if she would answer “yes,” and the fantasy could come to life?
The reason had a name and a face and breath. Mirabel. A name, a face, a lovely, throaty laugh, the memory of which made Ben’s heart ache. She was the one exception to that damnable Puerto Rican rule of look but don’t touch; the one woman—exotic and beautiful and 100% puertorriqueña—who had viewed him as a rare bird and said, “Ooh! I love birds!”
Ben missed her, more than he was prepared to admit, even to himself; he’d never felt so lonely in all his life. Not when he left his parent’s house, not when he first moved to the strange and beautiful island of Puerto Rico.
He missed Mirabel.
He wanted this woman, here, now.
Dichotomy on the fucking half shell.
He touched the tiger again. Mirabel said it was her favorite animal, and that was why she had decided to sew it into his favorite pair of jeans. Now, he wondered if it weren’t some sort of thread-based spell, woven into the fabric of his being.
When Ben left for his one-week vacation in Spain—gift of his brother in California (Promotion Director for a radio station, Jase claimed that the vacation giveaway contest had ended before all of the vacation prizes could be awarded. Right. But Ben was not one to refuse such a gift; he knew he would never spend that kind of money on himself.)—when Ben left, the tears had fallen, flooded both their faces like the torrential downpours that inundated the streets. He remembered thinking how much he would miss her; he remembered coming that close to canceling on the same day as the flight. For two weeks they’d fought about the trip; its mere mention could throw Mirabel into hysterics.
Deliberately, Ben removed his fingers from the thread and forced himself back to the now and the here. On the shelf behind the bartender, Manuel de Falla stared out of a sepia-toned photo. The narrow chin and overlarge head made the composer look like a Warner Bros. cartoon character. When Ben had discovered the small establishment the day before—looking for a comfortable place to escape the frigid, morning air—the bar-owner’s, bleach-blonde, former wife had told Ben that de Falla had been her grandfather’s teacher. Impressive, if true.
Brooding, he tried not to think of the woman behind him. The women behind him, as it were. He tried to inject into his thoughts visions of fidelity and happiness.
When that didn’t work, he turned, caught her eye, smiled, registered a small thrill when she returned it with interest. Then he concentrated on not thinking about Mirabel.
That didn’t work either, but his charm machine—ineffective as it usually was—seemed to be running on 10 cylinders instead of its usual 3 and a half. He probably could stop it if he wanted to. But he didn’t.
Ben had always felt trapped by his desires. The veracity or falseness of his feelings could be argued: that a person created his or her own snares. More than once, in fact, Ben had held one-sided arguments with himself. He never reached any conclusive resolution, as he debated either side of the issue with equal facility.
In California, Ben had had few girlfriends. Women for whom he’d felt great lust, sure, though the names of his adventures would not even fill one page of a book. Like many men, his groin wouldn’t let him just say no. So, experience he had some. . . . But a beginning does not create permanence; something always turned him away, and his adventures remained short trips into uncharted areas and never became extended explorations. Ben didn’t know whether the lack was his or theirs. That is, he hadn’t known at the time. His transfer to Puerto Rico marked the start of a small self-knowledge.
If a relationship could be said to have a weather condition, he liked his hot and humid. Hot he had experienced in California; the humid he’d missed—never knowing—until his relocation.
In the Caribbean, he learned that passion sizzled, a wet and fiery thing. Sweat and tears and fluids. He learned that he needed that liquid blaze—like putting hot salsa on a burrito.
Women in Puerto Rico were like the island’s weather: sultry and stormy—or on the verge of—and wet; the perfect balance to his own cool, dry calm. He made the generalization with the experience of only one woman under his belt (as it were), but he felt the accuracy of it every time he turned on the local TV or heard his neighbors fight. Tears, screams, slaps. The physicality of the emotions awed and frightened him a little.
Passion must boil and burn.
“Think about it,” he demanded under his breath, “a cold sweat represents fear, terror. Cold tears? False, unfeeling. Cold body fluids, death.”
Heat cooked. Bubbled, caused reactions. Heat could be anger; it could also be the strength of love. Yearning.
Ben turned completely around on his bar stool, looked directly at the woman. Her eyes, black from ten feet away, locked with his. The heat grew in his belly. Standing, Ben moved with the stilted non-grace of desire. He left his normal timidity sitting on the stool. Non-verbal communication raced from one mind to another. Ben had felt this synchronicity of desires before and knew that he and she would be together. The knowledge of inevitability helped calm his jumping nerves.
She drew a deep breath and her chest expanded minutely. The understanding in her eyes mirrored his, as he knew it would. The bar had quieted. Or Ben’s ears had put out “Do Not Disturb” signs. Separated by most of a room, they still seemed surrounded by a zone of silence, in which they stood at ground zero.
Ben stepped forward once. She did as well. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“¿Como?” She tilted her head and a small smile played on those sculpted, roseate lips. Her pale skin knew no wrinkles.
He switched to bad Spanish and tried again, “What’s your name?”
He berated himself for not taking his company-paid Spanish lessons with old Sr. Monet more seriously. She rattled out a reply in a lovely accent that softened all the ses almost to shs. Castilian Spanish sounded like the pouring of a dark, thick liqueur; Puerto Rican Spanish, a lively dance. After three years of the latter, the former struck him as refined, exotic, and beautiful . . . but incomprehensible. He understood a tenth of what she said instead of the normal fifth. From of her river of words, he fished out no more than her name: Lilliam.
Ben put his hands up, palms forward, looking for all the world like a crossing guard stopping traffic. “Hold it. I know Spanish, but not that well. Not yet. I’ve lived in Puerto Rico a few years, only. You need to slow down a little for me, please.” He used his already raised hands—raised his eyebrows, as well, questioning—to gesture at one of the three tables that stood along the west wall.
He got to her chair a fraction of a second before she did and pulled it out; pushed it gently in as she sat. The scrape of the metal-capped legs on the terracotta floor echoed loudly in the small space. As she settled into place, laying her small purse on the table in front of her, Ben went to the bar and retrieved his half-full cup. He checked hers, saw that it was empty, gestured to the watching bartender that he bring another. The man smiled, knowingly (damnit), and turned to his preparations. Ben cursed himself for worrying about the expense, then erased all thoughts of money, took a deep breath, and sat across from her. He folded his hands together on the table that separated them. Its surface chilled his hands and, through the inadequate sweater that he wore, his forearms. Ben felt his brain settle into the listening-time attitude that he had quite perfected in the last few years.
“Pardon me,” she began again, “I was telling you that my name is Lilliam and that your face looks quite familiar to me.”
It sounded like a pickup line. And but for the fact he wanted to pickup on her, he would have believed it so. Also, it was conceivable that she had seen his face: the fortunate result of having a hobby turn lucrative.
He smiled, “Could be. I made an album with a group by the name of . . .”
“‘Descalzo and the Spics’! Very popular here for awhile. I’m sorry now that I didn’t buy the CD.” She laughed, and the freedom of it gave him an instant erection.
“That’s OK,” he replied, “I’ll send you a copy.”
“No, no,” she protested. She leaned forward in her seat until her heavy breasts rested full on the table. He didn’t think that she was wearing a bra. Her dark eyes speared him upon their arrow-sharp gaze, “I must pay.” A potent silence punctuated her unsubtle statement. It held and grew between them, expanding into a frank, protecting cushion of sexual tension.
She interrupted the first breath of his reply with another laugh. He’d never heard such a sound—as if that moment of joy existed solely for her pleasure, and she reveled in it. She ended with another wrinkle to her longish nose and a small frown that revealed a tiny scar in the corner of one lip. “Isn’t ‘spic’ a derogatory term?”
“Yeah. And in Puerto Rico, where I live, so’s ‘descalzo’; that’s me: I always play barefoot. Once, we got fired from a wedding gig because I refused to put on shoes. In general, the only people to run around barefoot in Puerto Rico are the homeless. I don’t know about here. We picked the name as a joke; never expected to have it be the title of our 15 minutes of fame.” He shook his head, tilted down, laughed at the floor, “‘Barefoot and the Spics,’ what a name!” The warm, earth-toned tiles couldn’t see the humor and remained blankly silent in the face of his self-amusement.
He looked up in time to see Lilliam’s open smile. Oh, man! She unconsciously straightened her wind-tossed hair with a slender hand. Long fingers swam through the black waterfall that flowed down her back.
“Look,” Ben began, “I don’t believe in— How do you say ‘subterfuge’ in Spanish?”
“Excuse me?” When puzzled, Lilliam had a way of simultaneously tilting her head and wrinkling her nose that made her seem all of 10 years old.
“Suterfuga? Suterfujo? You know, when you have a secret or hidden agenda.” He explained with his hands as well as his words, a habit he’d picked up from the arm-waving Puerto Ricans in the last three years.
“Ah!” A light went on in her dark eyes, looking like a bright bulb behind a dark lampshade. “Subterfugio.”
“That, yes. Anyway, I don’t believe in subterfuge or dancing around the point—” His stomach twinged, and Mirabel appeared before him with an angry, pointing finger. He paused, cleared his mind, finished, “—I want to go home with you.” He sat back in his chair. She wouldn’t refuse. He already knew. That first look. That first time that their eyes had met.
She laughed. Absolutely without cruelty. The same joyous sound as before, but warmer. “Of course, yes, but what about your girlfriend? What of her?” She loosened the wrap at her neck. A long neck. The scarf settled itself in the large valley between her breasts, looking, to Ben, smug about its current resting place.
A bouncer from Uruguay had been seated next to Ben on the flight to Madrid. The short, over-muscled youth had befriended Ben, informing him, re: women in Spain, “No one cares whether you’re married, single, whatever. Everyone wants the same thing.” Ben, listening with only half an ear, had smiled in polite agreement, not really believing the young man’s statement.
Then, just that morning, Ben had read a startling—to him—ad in the Classifieds: “Young, pretty, married woman seeking an older, established man for an irregular relationship. Must have own house and car.” Even for a Los Angelean, the ad struck the upside of weird. It also proved, once again, that Ben didn’t know as much as he thought; perhaps the bouncer had spoken no less than the truth.
Ben, finally running out of detours, considered Lilliam’s question, Yes, what of her? What of this woman to whom you speak of love? This woman you tell yourself you love! Are your words so cheap?
“I— I—” he stammered in English. Then switching to Spanish, “What makes you think I have a girlfriend?”
She laughed again, still warm and bubbling. He couldn’t get enough of it. He wanted to dive into the wetness of it. Swim in the joy of it. She put a hand to her pale, slender throat and rubbed one finger there before answering.
“Such a reaction! If I had not already guessed, surely I would do so now.” The bartender approached and set two of the small cups on the table; the saucers clattered against each other. As he arranged the cups to his liking, Lilliam shook a cigarette from the box on the table and removed her lighter from her purse. Ben plucked the lighter from her fingers and lit the cancer stick, thinking, What we’ll do for lust! and mentally shaking his head in wonder. Ben had not asked for another café con leche but decided that now was not the moment to object. Perhaps the little man had counted on this reluctance.
Lilliam took a sip of smoke, another of coffee, sighed with pleasure, and returned the cup to its saucer, while twin, gray tendrils crept out of her nostrils. Her tongue flicked out and licked a trace of coffee from the corner of her mouth. Ready now, she answered, “I should stay quiet, but I will tell you.” She turned away for a moment, a thoughtful look on her face. When she swung around to face him again, she had a liveliness in her eyes that sent sparks flying in Ben. The strength of her gaze held him as if with tiny, powerful fingers; the world could end, now, and he wouldn’t look away from her to watch it happen. Couldn’t.
“I am like your Sherlock Holmes, yes? You have read those stories? Such a cold man, but undeniably brilliant—both the character and the writer. The good Dr. Watson injects a ring of passion, as does the need of Mr. Holmes intellect. I like that: controlled wildness.” She paused and took a drag on her cigarette. Never before had he considered a woman with a cigarette sexy. Things change.
“So,” she continued, “I see you wear a ring. Wide, heavy gold, and with a large stone, your birthstone? I think, yes. A sapphire. It rests comfortably on the ring finger of your right hand. It looks as if you have had it a very long time. Gift from your Mother, perhaps?”
“Yes. Yes, it was: my 18th birthday. How did you know?”
She shrugged; her mouth turned down in a tiny, not unhappy frown. “I didn’t, but it looks like something I would give a son, were I to have one.” With a careless twist, she removed her scarf and draped it across the high back of Ben’s chair. It was proprietary move that said quite clearly to any who witnessed, This one is mine. Ben couldn’t object to the presumption; indeed, he couldn’t stop looking at Lilliam. Drinking her in like one of the thousand daily cafés con leche he consumed. He imagined he could smell the steam rising off her, like a hot liquid in cold air.
She smiled at him, so direct and so open was her expression that he felt his heart explode; his groin swell. She had perfect teeth; he wondered how she managed to keep them so white. The cigarettes couldn’t help.
“To continue, then: on the little finger of your left hand, you wear a ring of silver filigree. It is delicate, such as a woman would wear. It does not strike me as something you—a masculine-appearing man—would buy. Also, though it is much smaller and would seem less intrusive than the other ring, you twist it every time you look in my eyes. It makes you uncomfortable. A gift from her.”
“Well . . . maybe it is a new ring, and I’m not used to it yet.”
“That is one explanation, but it does not reverberate with the sound of truth in me. And I have more still to tell.”
Ben sat back in his chair, captivated now by her words as opposed to her face or body.
“Your face wears the brown of many days in the sun, yet your upper-lip looks pale. So, you recently shaved a mustache. Perhaps you had grown tired of it. I, however, hate kissing a man with a mustache and know of other women who feel the same; I believe your girlfriend demanded its removal.”
“Oh, for . . .”
She held up her hand to quiet him. “Two more things only.”
Ben caught himself fiddling with the silver ring and forced his hands apart. “Go ahead.” He felt strange, being . . . dissected by this woman—uncomfortable because of her perspicuity. Yet, she piqued his interest, without a doubt.
“On the right thigh of your blue jeans someone has embroidered a tiger. Very beautiful.”
“Someone did what? I don’t know that word.”
She made needle and thread motions in the air, “Embroidered, sewed.” She pointed to clarify, “The tiger.”
“Oh, that. So?” He almost choked on his casualness.
She shrugged. Ahh, but ‘tis obvious, my dear Watson. “You are an American in your late 20s. You have an air of independence, self-sufficiency. You said that you live in Puerto Rico, but your tanned yet obviously light skin and the ease with which you butcher my beautiful language tell me that it is not because you have family there, or are from there. Men sew, just as women push noisy lawnmowers, but I am betting a woman did that.” She pointed at his crotch. The bulge there answered, Yes, a woman did this. She finished, “And, because I don’t believe you still live with your family, I don’t think it was your Mother who sewed the tiger.”
Ben smiled, sure he could trip her up this time. He was beginning to enjoy this game.
Lilliam put a casual hand on his thigh before he could speak. Light fingers stroked the embroidered tiger as if it were real. Ben found his voice had all but fled. Clearing his throat, he said, “Well, maybe my Mother bought the jeans, did the tiger, and sent them. FedEx.”
She smiled, nodded. “Yes. Except that the material of the jeans is old and about to wear through at the knees. You have had these jeans a long time. But look at the tiger. The thread is shiny and unworn.” With the tips of her two fingers, Lilliam rubbed the tiger again, and Ben had to suppress an unexpected groan. “It feels new. Thus, I deduce a girlfriend.”
Neither wanting it to end nor to give in to her deductions, Ben countered, “None of that is conclusive. Couldn’t take it to court. Everything could be explained another way.” He couldn’t think of one at the moment, but given time . . . “Besides, you said two things.”
She sipped from her cup. Though her smile tried to hide behind the rim, it was unsuccessful.
“You are correct. None of this is conclusive, and yes, I did mention a second reason for my knowing.” She set her cup down on the table between them and put both her hands flat on her thighs.
Lilliam studied him a moment. Her look landed on him like a physical thing. Like a soft, warm wind. Or a precious bird. He watched her contemplate, decide.
“I am a witch.”
They walk, arm in arm. A kind of dance; a joy that manifests itself as movement. Minuet to miss the puddle, waltz to weave around the hurrying businessman. Their eyes too, dance. They sparkle with the music of the senses. One pair to the other, they flick, the brief, sparking radiances meshing, furnace hot. One two three.
When they speak, their voices emit from deep within their chests. Bass, alto; bassoon, clarinet; cello, viola. The sky is clean and free of rain. Some of the heat the two generate must have filled the day, for it is warming now. Not warm, but warming. They walk on streets that shine, smooth as satin.
An urge propels them into a doorway, where they kiss in a wild frenzy of complete abandon. Without shame, they press their groins together and writhe with desire.
Lips, teeth, and tongue search a bare throat. Caress it, lick, bite, and taste it. Hands seek warmth beneath a shirt and “Oh!,” the touch of cool flesh to hot. In living these moments, they change. Twine. Join. Forever.
On the long plane ride home, Ben used the time to reflect on her first words after their long walk through the shining streets of Madrid. Spoken on the threshold of her tiny, fourth-floor apartment, they had cut through the roar of midnight traffic on Calle del Arenal far below. “I will not be responsible for your happiness or lack,” she said, breath huffing from the climb. Her eyes, lashes lowered and moist, searched his face for reaction.
He opened his mouth to speak and, instead, took the key out of her hand and slotted it into the keyhole. The door squeaked a greeting to her when it opened.
A haze surrounded them so that all else but they seemed at one remove from reality. Their darkness had lit the night. In the foyer of the tiny apartment, they advanced, parted, advanced.
His reply, a deep breath, scrambling for oxygen after a particularly deep kiss; he gasped, “Of course not.” But these were words spoken more from common sense than belief. Unconsciously, he flexed the finger with the silver ring. She had insisted—even before leaving the Café, even before he thought to do so—that he not remove it.
He gulped air again. The cold rushed down his throat and gave him enough clarity to focus on these words she deemed so important.
“Of course not,” he repeated; even he could tell that he sounded like a stage manager reading the lines of an absent actor.
“No,” she said, “you do not understand. My power draws you. I, as well, but my power holds you stronger than I can control. Understand that no one can hold who does not wish to be held. If you lose yourself in it—in me—you will, in a sense, fall under my spell. If this happens, it happens from your internal desires and not my own.” She buttoned and re-buttoned his shirt, seeming—for the first time that night—at a loss. Nervous. Before she turned to enter the apartment proper, she said, “Your well-being is your responsibility.” Now it was she whose words sounded scripted as opposed to lived.
He followed, taking the silver ring from his finger and dropping it in his pocket with the wad of bills and jangling clump of pesetas. Her rooms smelled of cigarettes and were filled with small wooden carvings that looked like icons or idols. Black lace draped the windows, and the lights that she flicked on glowed but did not brighten.
He had never looked back.
They had had quite a week. He never did get to El Prado, the famous Spanish museum; the memory of Plaza Mayor on a sunny day and with the hand of someone special clasped in his would remain with him until he died. The guitar-band with folk-dancers and singers still spun and flashed and sang behind his eyes and ears.
The day before he was to leave, she borrowed a car from a friend (A man. Ben had nearly bitten off his tongue from all the questions that he didn’t ask.) and took him to the arid hills of El Escorial. As they stared out at the bleak landscape, each lost in thoughts of parting, she spoke in a low voice. “Your Hemingway wrote of this place.”
“Yes.” He had looked around him at the forbidding clusters of grey rocks and dry pines. Even through his shoes, the dirt felt stiff, and he could see Robert Jordan—Old Ernest’s protagonist—dying at his feet.
The drive back to Madrid had been filled with desperate talk. Neither wanted to make a claim upon the other. And, yet, both recognized that what they so studiously avoided had already occurred. Too late, now.
On the long plane ride home, Ben twisted the newly replaced silver ring. Around and around until he felt he must have worn a groove in his finger.
Just a fling. No more.
It’s not as if Mirabel and I are married. I can do what I want. “Yeah, and if you believe that, I have some prime land in Chernobyl that you might want to buy.”
“Pardon?” His seatmate, a dowdy-faced Englishwoman wearing a dress blooming with large, blue flowers, took off her headphones to ask.
“Oh, sorry, just talking to myself.”
She replaced the headphones and chuckled at what she heard.
The image of Lilliam danced onto the movie screen before him, nudging aside an overdeveloped and paid screen star. His neighbor’s movie continued being about an older woman seducing a younger man. Ben’s changed. Mesmerized, he watched. Lilliam put a hand out, whether to push him away or draw him close, he didn’t know. Mirabel appeared suddenly and turned on him burning and hateful eyes. He’d always loved her eyes. Their gentle brown gave lie to the fiery personality within. She put her hand out in imitation of Lilliam. Come. Go away.
“Would you like dinner?”
Ben awoke with a start and pushed his hair out of his eyes. “What?” The dream rode before him, his eyes open and awake.
“Dinner, sir? We have chicken, filet mignon, and vegetable lasagna.”
Airline food made him ill. On the way over, he’d made the mistake of eating breakfast. Then spent the next three hours before landing running to the bathroom every ten minutes. “Just give me some apple juice.” Besides, even the best food did not rest well on a stomach already stuffed full with guilt.
The flight attendant finished setting the plastic tray on his neighbor’s tray table and presented him with the plastic facsimile of a smile she’d learned in modeling school and said, “Certainly sir.” She popped a tab on an aluminum can, poured, and, “Would you like dinner?” to the next victim in line.
I have no reason for guilt. So why do I feel guilty? I have no reason for regrets. So why do I feel this wrenching ache? I have no tie to this woman. So why does each mile more feel as if I’m leaving life behind?
Ben rearranged his long legs as best he could, turning a bit to get another inch or two of length; he leaned his head against the hard, cabin wall. Closing his eyes to it all, he let the constant vibration of the engines soothe him. He slept a restless sleep. The ring on his finger turned and turned.
The trip, long by any count, measured in years rather than miles.
Ben felt guilt at times. And he never forgot her. Lilliam, eyes couched in a smoke of desire and cigarettes. A witch, she had said. Casting a spell. Lying back on a high feather bed with iron bedposts. All seduction and joy and passion. The tropics didn’t have a lock on hot and wet.
But a spell? Sometimes he laughed. Then, one afternoon, sitting in the midday sun and drinking a Medalla, he realized that not a day had passed without some thought of her. For years not a day had gone by that some stray wisp of memory didn’t float across his consciousness. From the gasp and growl of her climax to the jasmine scent of her soft skin. He had the smoky taste of her hungry mouth on his tongue. The afternoon sun of old Madrid still blinded him. He watched her finger stroke her throat in thought. When he realized all this, he said aloud, “I’m bewitched, it’s true.”
The blue water of the pool sparkled. The backyard lawn of his and Mirabel’s weekend house in Cayey glowed, so green it was. After the water company had raised the rates (making Puerto Rico’s the third most expensive water in the world), he often thought about not filling the pool, of paving over the thirsty grass. But now, those same familiar, miserly contemplations were entirely crowded out by his unexpected thoughts. Ben looked at the sky, eyes wide with wonder. Glad he was sitting, he rocked back from the sudden impact of years.
Mirabel exited the kitchen through the open sliding glass window, sexy as always in tiny black bikini bottoms and no top. Her breasts bounced, and he marveled that they were as firm today as when they’d first met. Two kids and 22 years. She must be doing something right!
“You said something, querido?” When alone, the two spoke a curious, private language—part Spanish, part English, part invented slang and idioms. Their kids, gone now, understood and spoke this mishmash as well, though they preferred Spanish or English exclusively; depending on the vagaries of the winds, Ben supposed.
“No,” Ben answered, “just thinking out loud.” His eyes slipped over her as she put a glass of diet soda on the short table next to his recliner. Her skin, sheathed in sweat from her workout, remained as silky smooth as the day they’d first made love on the beach in Fajardo. Though the days of modeling were long behind her, she maintained the same exercise regimen. It showed. “You are so beautiful. So beautiful.” He reached out and rubbed his hand up and down her slick thigh, amazed at her ability to stay so fit. Amazed at his ability to attract such a stunning woman. A rush of desire fell straight from his thoughts, right into the crowded space of his swim trunks. He twisted his body away from his lovely, beloved wife, not wanting to confuse himself with passion.
Mirabel, not noticing anything untoward, giggled like the child she would ever be and caught his hand in hers, “Ai, Papi— So you think, Gracias a Dios.” She squeezed once on his captured fingers and released a tiny sigh of contentment. “Hey! Ven conmigo. Join me in the pool?” She transferred her hold to his wrist and pulled until his arm lifted away from his body. Life and merriment all packaged in a tall drink of water who looked too glamorous to have ordinary, simple “fun.”
“Thanks, no.” Retrieving his hand, he twisted the now-worn, silver ring. A thrill of guilt coursed through his body, deflating the visible sign of his arousal. He continued, “No, I think I’ll go inside. Take a nap or something.”
Mirabel threw a curious look his way—a nap? At one in the afternoon? She laid the back of her hand against his forehead, examining him for fever, insanity, or unhappiness. Feeling no more heat than the bright sun, seeing nothing unusual in his green eyes, she said, “Bueno, ‘stá bien, mi vida. Que descanse.” Okay, my beloved. Rest. Turning away, she stepped to the pool’s edge and dove into the chill, blue water. Refraction stretched her already long and slender form to an impossible length. Ben watched for a moment, then stood, spun on his heel, and went inside the sliding glass doors to the master bedroom.
Fan-blown air washed over his face, drying the sweat. Ben lay back on the bed and remembered.
Mirabel—though an extremely perceptive woman—had never known a thing. All these years, Ben had kept hidden the feelings, the event, the memories. He couldn’t get over how simple it had been. Still was. Ben shoved a pillow up under his sweat-damp head and rolled over on his side to stare at the bright yellow and red tapestry on the wall.
That obvious, Ben thought, as obvious and out there as the yellow and red in that fabric. That’s how apparent he felt his thoughts to be. Large and wide and loud.
Experience told him otherwise. She never knew. Didn’t know. Would never know. Experience told him that her hot jealousy would have destroyed the both of them the moment she discovered, or even suspected, that his heart had once been in someone else’s hands.
Ben never “cheated” on her again. Not physically. He’d never felt the same attraction to any other woman as he felt to Mirabel . . . or Lilliam. He avoided the advances women throw at handsome, maturing men as he would a barrier in the street. Nothing personal, just step around.
He never cheated on her physically. In his mind, Lilliam danced and ran and panted and laughed and smoked and groaned with pleasure. He could see the two of them making love, Lilliam leaning over the sink and bouncing on her toes and shouting “Sí amado, sí.” The image looked as fresh today as had the reality. It and others made a porno-palace of his mind. Even when making love to Mirabel—whom he loved for realsy and truesy—the barest hint of a Lilliam-type smile would tease him in his mind. Mirabel could never know those extra bursts of passion came from her sparking his memory of another.
The wind rose outside and Ben reached a long leg out to the wall switch and flipped off the overhead light with his toes. Rest his aging eyes.
Rolling to his back again, he stared at the ceiling fan, chuckling, “A witch.”
The fan threw his words back at him in an infinite series of sibilant whispers, “witch, witch, witch, witch . . .”
His chuckle died in his throat, leaving a dry, sour taste. He was thirsty. “I forgot my damned soda by the pool.” But lethargy, inertia, memory bound him to the bed. He could not rise, could not escape.
The phone rang, shattering the whickering quiet. Ben jumped a foot off the bed before leaning over to retrieve the receiver.
A world flooded through eyes, ears, mouth. Powerless, Ben waited for the sensory overload to pass. After an eternity of seconds, he heard the voice.
“I think you must be a witch, too.”
“Pardon me?” Ben wondered if simple fantasy could create aural hallucinations.
“Twenty-two years, six months, and I cannot forget you. I cannot have a normal relationship. I cannot marry. I cannot flirt. I have reached the point that I cannot even sleep with another man any longer. What in god’s name did you do to me? I even learned your dreadful language, somehow hoping you would return.” She spoke in heavily accented English. He would not have recognized her voice at all but for the smoky undertone that had never left his memory.
“Good Christ, Lilliam! Lilliam?” His shout echoed off the white plaster walls of the room. Lowering his voice, he went on, “Lilliam, what are . . . ? Where did you get my . . . ?”
She spoke with desperation, an urgency that both amazed and flattered him. “Ben, those things are unimportant. I must see you. I’m on the island.”
After Ben had put away his guitar permanently (professionally) due to the less than lukewarm reception of his third album with “Descalzo and the Spics,” Mirabel had relaxed her attitude of constant, watchful jealousy. As the years passed, and she saw Ben happily settled into the life they made together, she put away her fears that some beautiful, young fan or business associate or secretary would take him from her. Eventually she understood—understood in her heart—the truth: he didn’t want anyone else.
Ben stared at the phone in his hand, as if it had come alive. He couldn’t have been any more flabbergasted were that the case.
“I’m in the Caribe Hilton, room 1640. I will not leave here until you arrive. You must come!”
He had a picture of her in his mind. As real as if they had parted just yesterday.
“You’re here?” He felt stupid, repeating the question, but he still couldn’t believe it.
“Here. Waiting.” Behind her words, Ben heard the theme music from Noticentro, the channel 4 news.
Mirabel loved him. She trusted him. Finally and forever. He had labored for years to earn that trust.
“I may be a couple of hours.”
“Hours, days, I will not leave.” Her voice held in it a tired desperation that did not match the lyrics that his memory of her sang.
Hanging up the phone, Ben thought long. Granted the luxury of ease, his mind concentrated on the one thing only. No mess of job or children to interfere. Mirabel though . . .
Two decades Ben had spent, assiduously avoiding any situation that might give him the desire to lie. Always a victim of his own desires, Ben had reached into his very soul and turned some over-flowing nozzle to “off.” A difficult process and a long trip. Both begun on an innocent-seeming vacation; begun because of a single, impossible to repeat affair. Now the cause of all that arduous self-“improvement” had found him.
He went out to the pool. Mirabel stroked from one end to the other, smooth and easy. “Honey, me voy para San Juan. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” He could have shouted it from the bedroom. And perhaps that would have been better: in person, he had more opportunity to say the wrong word or use the wrong expression. He had to see her. Remind himself of what was worthwhile in his life. It was frightening how easily the lie fell from his open mouth.
“¿Oh? ¿Que pasó?” She shook crystal drops, like diamonds, from her long, black hair. He was struck for the first time how like Lilliam’s it looked. How did I never notice that before? Mirabel always maintained that she looked like a skinny, pathetic dog when her hair got wet. Ben knew—and had frequently told her—she always looked as lovely as the new day. Dry or wet.
He needed to answer, not stare, “Francisco wants to license one of my songs to Luis Enrique and I need to check the arrangement.” He hated how easily the lie slid from his lips. He would need to call his agent, Francisco, in case it ever came up. Francisco would—unfortunately—understand, all too well. He had always been the traditional Puerto Rican male, believing that his hormones excused the most abhorrent behavior.
“When do you think you’ll return?” A drop of water slid into her eye and she gave her head a fierce shake to get it out. Her breasts floated free in the water. “Not too long, I hope. I’m making spaghetti.” She had such a lovely, throaty voice. It surfed the low mountain breezes with grace. “¿Mi vida? You okay?”
He rubbed his eyes as if tired. “Yeah, yeah. Already thinking about the arrangement. Been awhile since I worked. Have to get my head back in the music. No mas que two or three hours.” His voice caught in his throat and the thought came very clearly: I may be about to ruin my life. With malice aforethought. I wonder why.
“Be careful.” She pointed her finger at him and lowered the thumb like the hammer on a gun, “Be good or I’ll kill you.” The joke they’d started at the beginning of their marriage didn’t strike him as funny now.
My, how he has changed.
My, how she has changed.
Inside we are the same.
Inside we are lovers, meeting as if for the first and 10,000th time.
Standing side by side at the window and tense from top to bottom, we watch the browned children playing far below in the lowering light of the setting sun. Beach fun, sand, waves. Such thoughtless passion in them. We envy the children that. We envy them their guileless ability to be naive.
“What are you doing here?”
“Hello to you, too.”
“I’m sorry.” Ben turned away from the window and walked to the bed. Nothing there for him—he didn’t dare sit. He returned to his place by her at the window. The reflection that greeted him had a slight pot belly and his shirt jutted out to cover it. In the distance, far off to the right, traffic raced along the busy airport road. Wow! Ben, thought, 22 plus years and I don’t know the name of that road.
He turned his thoughts back to his reflection. My mind has a potbelly too, I think, it doesn’t bend at the waist so easily. It’s not all muscular and attractive. Not so flexible as once before.
“I’m sorry.” He swiveled slowly to face her. “You can understand if I’m a little shocked. I never expected to see you anywhere but my dreams.” He ran his eyes over the face that had never left his dreams.
She had aged. Who hadn’t? But well, quite well. The narrow face was a bit fuller than before; shallow wrinkles gave proof of time’s passing.
He looked at her hands. No ring. He hadn’t expected one, but checking was a habit as automatic as looking both ways when crossing the street.
“I know. I do know,” she said, nodding her agreement. She smoothed her Renaissance-style peasant blouse with a nervous gesture, her always-pale skin hard to see against the off-white fabric.
The silence came between them like a wall. Ben didn’t think he could climb it; didn’t know whether he wanted to. He stared out the window and remembered the innocence of his own children; of himself, one day long ago. Had he ever been as free as the shouting, jumping, running, trouble-making sprites below?
With a loud click, the air-conditioner turned on at the same moment Lilliam began to speak. Both she and Ben jumped in surprise.
Lilliam laughed first and the first chunk of tension broke away; the wall became a low fence. She had almost the same all-or-nothing laugh; it rang with the overtones of more knowledge than one would wish. He looked at her for a moment over his shoulder. A shadow lay across her face, covering some of the age, but never hiding the life within. Covertly, he watched her stroke her throat (as he remembered), thinking about what to say. His eyes moved downward. Breasts, still full and high. Waist, a little thicker than his dreams, but were they to meet for the first time today, he would want to stare and stare. She still had long, beautiful legs and her knee-length, earth-colored skirt showed them well. Her hair, now, that had changed. It was tied up and back, almost severe; no more freefalling waves of dark water. A great deal of gray showed.
Her sudden laugh brought him sun-drenched days, wandering like lost children along the winding streets of Madrid. True, he thought, her outburst did not sound so free as it had, but the joy in it still gave him an erection. The last bricks in the wall between them fell away.
Madrid in autumn with Lilliam. Squinting into the far past, he thought he could just see it again. He could smell the fish at the store in the corner of Plaza Mayor. He could hear the street-guitar player, as black as her former hair, and singer, as white as she, alternating between the Beatles and the blues in the Royal Park.
Ben shook off the memories. Softer this time, and with something like foreknowledge, he asked, again, “What are you doing here?”
When she spoke, it was with that fluid Spanish that ran through the river of his dreams rather than the English that she had used up to now. Her silence gave as much as her words. “A witch can go anywhere and be useful. So I did; I was.” She crossed, stood behind him, reached tentative arms up and wrapped them around his chest. Ben tensed but did not move away. Past rushing to trap him by his desires. The children 16 floors below became his own; a live memory of happy years spent growing and laughing and being. But he didn’t move away.
Lilliam rested her cheek on his back; where it lay, a pool of warmth grew. Her words matched the rhythm of the air entering and leaving his body. She continued, making a story of her life, “Before meeting you, I had lived all my adult life in Madrid. I found it easy to be happy there; fulfilled. Men enjoyed me as much as I enjoyed them. ‘No strings,’ you Americans are so fond of saying. More than that, the life in the city kept me interested. I could always find something. Then, when you were not there.” She shook her head, leaned her forehead against the rough weave of the black linen shirt that he wore. “Everywhere I went ended up the same. I could feel happy for a few months, then a blackness that I’d read about but never before felt would enter me.” Her voice hitched, she continued, “I would move, and repeat the process. Everywhere, anywhere.” Finally, she sobbed and Ben turned within her loose embrace, honestly unsure whether that uncontrolled weeping was coming from her or his hallucinations. She had always been so self-assured, self-possessed. Sufficient unto herself, the thought of her crying over a man didn’t fit with his image of her. He wondered if, for all these years, his memory could have been faulty. Still, he put his arms around her, not knowing what else he could do that might help.
The track of tears under her eyes caused a kind of heat in his own.
“Everywhere I went, you weren’t. I saw a Ben-sized absence every time I turned my head; every time I got off a bus or train or plane in a new city. Finally, I had to come find you.”
Locked into her sadness, Ben stood still, waiting for he knew not what. Her arms around him felt like steel bands of desperation; the terrified grip of someone going down for the third time. On his chest, the same warm pool grew.
“I’m married.” Unnecessary. He cursed inside. Redundancy pissed him off, especially when it came from him. So, too, cruelty.
After all her words, he was surprised that this admission/declaration/warding off didn’t push her away. Instead, her breath undid the careful ironing of his shirt. “Of course you are. And very happy too, I think.”
He laughed and the years slipped away. “Okay Sherlock, is this an assumption or more of your ‘witchcraft’?”
“Neither.” She stepped out of the circle of his arms and straightened her blouse. His back and torso felt the absence of her encircling arms; his chest felt the absence of her face. But he breathed easier. He could feel faithful when they didn’t touch.
“Neither,” she repeated. “You wear your happiness like a shirt; a suit of armor, perhaps. Anyone can see it” She stepped to him again and ruffled his thinning, brown hair. “Is your wife a witch, as well? You are so well protected from me. From any trick or spell.”
Ben frowned, sighed, inclined his head enough that she didn’t have to strain to run her strong fingers through what remained of his hair. “Protected? I’ve never forgotten you. Not a day goes by without a movie of you running through my head.”
Her smile had more pain than any kind of triumph. “After you first left, I had a lover. In Paris. I felt so desperately unhappy, that I began then my odyssey to find happiness.”
A stab of jealousy went through him, followed by, What claim have I? How can I feel jealousy? He ignored the question, knowing that jealousy had its own inexplicable logic. Her voice had nothing to hurt him. She wanted to tell him a thing that happened; not injure him.
“We were together constantly at first, a fifth floor walk-up in Blvd. St. Germaine de Pres. Within a month, he had begun a series of casual affairs. I knew but didn’t care. We— It was so cold in Paris. Colder than Madrid. I’d never been anywhere else and I still remember waking up one June morning and thinking, How can they stand it here? So cold.” She shivered where she stood. Memory or the too-high air-conditioning, Ben didn’t know.
“After a few more weeks, I saw that he cared for me in his own special way. He enjoyed being with me, but—” She shrugged, turned away, leaned herself against the wall. The air-conditioner clicked off and left them in utter silence. Even the soft rasp of her fingers rubbing her throat echoed loud in the quiet room.
Ben waited, knowing she had more to say, but not knowing how to help her say it.
“But, you see, I didn’t care. Not about his affairs; not about my steadily declining interest in sex; not about him. I felt so alone. Even when we were in bed together. Our apartment came with bed, sofa, gas range, but someone had moved all the furnishings from my soul. The sound of my heart beating echoed in my breast.” Her eyes turned to Ben’s and the pain surged out in waves. “When I left him, he wept. Professed his love, claimed the affairs were only to get my attention. Probably true.”
“I’m not sure I understand.” Ben put a hand to her full cheek and caressed it with short, gentle strokes.
She leaned into the caress and played with the floppy collar of his shirt. Finally she answered, “I am an attractive woman; this is not anything new to me. I can pick and choose among dozens of men. I don’t believe in promiscuity, but I have no doubts as to my own beauty.”
A finger to his lips shushed him. “Don’t,” she chided, “I do not search for compliments. I want you to see what has happened to me. To my life.” Pausing, she frowned to herself, then made a correction, “what I have allowed to happen to my life. We are all, after all, responsible for our own happiness. Ironic that I was so sure it would be you who would end up hooked on the impossible drug of unfulfilled desire.”
With slow steps, she moved to the small chair at the room’s dinette set. “Sit, I will order café con leche. You still enjoy this, yes?”
“I need to keep it down: the heart, health, all that. But I guess one won’t hurt.” He took the chair she offered. The hard rattan dug into his back.
She nodded, “This is true, one won’t hurt.” Her eyes found his as she picked up the hotel phone. One won’t hurt, but it might kill. He watched and listened to her beautiful voice as it ordered two coffees and a fruit salad with two forks.
“I should thank you,” she said, picking up from her previous thoughts, “I have seen much of the world in what really was a search for and escape from you. England is a funny place, don’t you think?”
The change of subject caught him unprepared, “Well . . .”
She waved a hand, “So repressed on the one side. Yet, they can be as silly as the most ridiculous clown given the right chance or impetus.” She thought for a moment and nodded agreement with herself, saying, “They are an opaque people.”
“True. Of most of humanity, I think.”
“Oh no,” she shook her head vehemently. “You are quite mistaken about that: you Americans are so transparent and free. I envy you that. The freedom to be silly at a moment’s notice. I think we Europeans are overly-impressed by our own history. It makes us stuffy.” She took his hand from across the table. It was cold because the glass of the table was cold. In spite of that, her warmth spread through him. Such heat. It surprised him. Suddenly, he no longer knew the outcome.
Driving here, he’d prepared himself to submit to his desires. In the room, his resolve had strengthened and he’d decided, No, I can’t do this. Then yes, then no. Now, he didn’t know.
“Irony. How I’ve come to appreciate it. I could have any man I chose except the one I chose. He already was taken. In his shadow, all the others seemed insubstantial and empty. Soulless containers of lust and scent and deception.”
A large inhalation raised her breasts into a position of prominence. With her breath, he felt breathless. An abrupt constriction gripped him around the heart and lungs, cutting off all air. He struggled to breathe, smelling the freshness of her breath as she exhaled. She must have stopped smoking, he thought, now she’s the perfect woman.
“I want to,” he said, “I do. I have dreamt of this moment for 22 years. But I can’t; I came here with every intention— I thought my desire would rule me, but now I—”
Stretching her arm across the small table, she shushed him again with a gentle palm.
“I know. I know.”
Someone next door turned on their television and the opening music from a popular novela blared through the thin walls. From the street, Ben still heard the ever-present sounds of traffic racing toward Viejo San Juan.
“Yes, I know,” she repeated. Tender, so tender. The air conditioner kicked in again. The channel next door was changed to CNN. Someone in the hall dropped or kicked a room service tray. And people lived, loved, fought. This small world, bounded by four walls, this tiny universe shook from the buffeting winds of loss, regret.
As tenderly, he removed her shushing hand. As tenderly, he brushed splayed fingers down her soft cheek. As tenderly, he spoke, from low in his chest and with the painful strength of truth. “Good bye Lilliam. 22 years is long enough for both of us. Too long to carry this obsession any further. Perhaps we can both grow up now; not be ruled by dreams. I think that must be what you want me to understand. It must end. Good bye now.”
Tiny points of liquid light appeared in the corners of her eyes. She pressed his still-tracing hand to her cheek. “Yes. Obsessed. My love will not go away with the wave of a hand, but you are correct: It is time to close the book.”
He pulled back and stood from the chair, moved across the small room to the door. His steps faltered for a moment and he began to turn.
“No,” she said, her voice breaking once behind him, “good bye and no more.”
He turned the knob, cold in his hand. The mechanism sounded thunderous in the quiet. Stepping through, he closed the door to her room. Softly, but firmly.
He heard the faint rhythm of sobs; they matched the beat of his heart.
He went to the elevator.
He passed a liveried waiter. The man pushed a room-service cart set with two cups, two saucers, and a small pot with steam spiraling out. A colorful fruit salad in a cut-glass bowl completed the tableau.
He stepped through the opening doors and felt more than heard them close behind him.
Love is a many splendored thing.
Love is never having to say you’re sorry.
Love, love me do.
Love makes the world go round.
Love me, love my dog.
. . . and in the end, love is as capricious and uncertain as life.
They never saw each other again.