When he traveled abroad to research his travel articles he liked to keep his anonymity, especially in the small cafes and shops he haunted. He never liked explaining who he was or what he was doing. Last year he’d been in an unexpected argument about politics. The café owner had asked him to remove himself. The incident still bothered him. He vowed to be even more careful in his wanderings, whether they were her or abroad. Hearing her say the words: “The blueberries look good, Ash, don’t you think so?” so matter of factly in the market along with his name was unsettling and at the same time very appealing and a bit sexy.
Under his breath he said “damn her.” He remembered a few of the shoppers had looked at him, and then at her wondering at their relationship. He made a mental note to remind her again about how to behave when she was with him in public. He didn’t dislike women, on the contrary he was quite fond of them and enjoyed their presence, but he still liked to do things his way as unobtrusive as possible.
He couldn’t very well leave the market without drawing further attention to himself. He had no choice but nervously watch her study the blueberries, ready to make a hasty retreat if necessary. She selected a carton, placed it in her shopping cart then strode off.
He didn’t think she said the words about the blueberries intentionally, she wouldn’t. Everything she said had that same matter of fact quality, whether she was ironing his shirts or preparing a meal. “Ironing’s done, Ash.” “Meal’s done, Ash,” emphasizing his name which was really Ashton. He remembered the first time they’d met when she’d rounded a street corner in the old part of town and almost bumped into him. “Watch it there, Mister,” she had said.
The sound of her husky voice made him want to bump into her again. Here was someone, he thought, who knew how to be assertive, yet not unpleasant. A change from what he usually expected a stranger to say.
“Well…,” she had said.
“Yes…,” he had said.
“Do you like fruit?” she said.
“I never thought about it.”
“You should,” she said. “I’m on my way to get some fresh strawberries. They’re very good here.”
“I’ll remember that,” he had said.
“See that you do.”
She was tall, nearly six feet and quite attractive with long black hair and almond-shaped eyes. He’d never bumped into a woman as tall before. The sensation was one he wanted to enjoy.
She was a good cook, a ballet dancer in bed and sometimes an erratic driver who liked to point out the passing sights. He also knew that she’d never leave him for an unpublished poet like Solange had. That wasn’t her way. He’d even put off his latest travel plans to the coast of Albania to be with her so he could plan their much discussed trip to Toledo.
Two days after their meeting at the market they met again, passing each other on the sidewalk. They each nodded.
“If you’re not doing anything tomorrow night?” she had said.
He’d easily accepted her invitation and found her receptive to his presence. Her friends thought their initial meeting portended well for the future.
At first he could find nothing wrong with anything she did. He was ecstatic that at last he’d found that someone. And besides, she always smelled nice and fresh, much different than the muskiness of the foreign women he’d met on his travels.
She liked to introduce him to her friends by using his full name, Ashton James Watson, world traveler.
“It’s a very old name,” she had said to anyone who listened. “I envy your history, Ash. My family is quite commonplace compared to yours.
“I want to take you home to meet my family,” she said one day while they sipped white wine at a café overlooking the river. “I think they’d like you. My father always dreamed of traveling. I have too; there are just so many intriguing places, Tangiers, Hong Kong. Malaysia, Singapore, and of course Spain.
“This is the best place to enjoy wine, Ash, don’t you think so? Absolutely the best way. This café has a certain ambiance.”
She drew out the sound of the last word so that is sounded like aaammbeeance. Obviously pleased with her pronunciation she sat back and took a deep breath, eyes surveying the river.
“Don’t you love it here, Ash? I think this is the best time of day to enjoy things. I never realized how beautiful the river could look. Do you have a favorite one?”
At that moment he didn’t care about rivers, he only wanted to look at her and how the light fell about her like a translucent shield. In spite of himself he knew he was terribly in love with her for that one intense moment, a moment he would never forget.
“I’ve put you in my journal. Do you mind?” she said with a questioning frown.
He remembered she said the words with the same authority as when she’d asked him to put out mousetraps, quizzing him later on whether a mouse had been caught, or whether the lids on the trashcans were tight.
“Not at all,” he said. “I’ve never been put into a journal before.”
“A first for you, is it?” she said in a playful voice.
“I’ve been the subject of gossip, but never in a journal.”
“I can see how that might happen,” she said with a smile. “Was the gossip true?”
“I hope so,” he said.
“Did you have a reputation?”
“I like to think so.”
“Good for you,” she said. “Did you have a special lover?”
“I might have.”
“What was her name?” she said. “I want to know more about you.”
He knew that if he answered he would give up another piece of his life. Something he never wanted to do again after Solange. For a moment he was silent. Her stare made him feel uneasy as he struggled for the answer he knew he must provide.
“Her name was Solange. I met her in Tangiers. She left me for an unpublished poet named Raoul.”
“An intriguing name. I’m sorry about what happened. I hope you got good and drunk.”
“I did and I soon forgot her,” he said.
“I had a lover, too I guess,” she said. “Like the best of loves, our affair was so brief it couldn’t tarnish, which was probably for the best. We’ve seen each other a couple of times since then. Time enough to reminisce, but not enough time for things to stick.”
She grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly.
When she suggested they move in together at his townhouse, the choice had been easy.
“Do you know there is more than one View of Toledo by El Greco, Ash?” she said to him as she looked over the rim of her coffee cup. They sat on his balcony that overlooked a park. Her lips were wet; the long fingers that gripped the porcelain cup were delicately tanned like a marshmallow held toward the fire for a few seconds. “Someone told me that once after I’d spent a whole morning studying the picture at the Met. The whole experience seemed so cheap somehow.”
“I see how it would,” he said.
“I can hardly wait,” she said. “Just the two of us, incognito, having coffee in an out of the way cafe in Toledo. At last I’ll be able to see about this El Greco thing for myself.
Haven’t you ever wanted to find an answer to one of those big questions of life?”
“I never thought about it.”
“You need to, Ash.”
He let his gaze shift from the finished crossword to the flower garden below. The body of a swallow lay on its back in the yellow iris.
“It was the only painting I ever really liked. Domenicos Theotocopoulus. El Greco,” she said as she put her empty cup down on the edge of the table. “I remember the name from an art history course. It was just a slide, Ash, but I never forgot it. Then I found it in the museum.”
Her voice trailed off as she watched a three-legged dog hobble across the lawn with something white in its mouth. The dog dropped it and started to tear it apart.
“Oh, God,” she said. “That’s my tampon. He’s been into the trash again. Do something.”
She shouted at the dog and reached for the coffee cup. She threw it. The glass shattered on the walkway below. The dog looked over its shoulder and then trotted away.
“What did you do that for?” he said. “That was an expensive cup. Now the set is incomplete.”
“I think what the dog did is disgusting. And look at the lawn.”
“I’ll clean it up. There’ll be nothing to worry about then. The evidence will be gone. Nobody will see your true blood. Dogs do things like that. In Europe—”
“Fuck you, Ash. I told you always to check the trash cans.”
She sat down not looking at him.
“You can be such a prick, Ash. A real prick. I’m not sure I want to go to Spain with you now.”
“What about El Greco?”
The phone rang and she rose to answer it.
“That must be Vivian,” he said looking at his watch. “She’s late this morning.”
She turned as if to speak, crossed the living room and yanked at the phone. She faced the wall and paced back and forth in a semi-circle, her free hand twisting the cord.
He reached for the newspaper and opened it pretending to read. By tilting his head slightly down and to the left he was able to hear her words.
“Oh, yes. Really? I think so too. It had to be. Is that right? I didn’t know. He’s the usual. It’s tempting. That would be fine. Bye.” She put the phone down. “It looks like lunch,” she said, “Then the beach. I have to get ready.”
“I thought you said you were going to play tennis with Rachel?”
“I changed my mind.”
He put the newspaper down and followed her into the bedroom. She loosened the belt of her robe and it fell open. She reached for a yellow blouse from the closet and studied it. He came up behind her and slid his hands over her body.
She pushed him away.
“When I was in the South Seas,” he said “I heard about this love ceremony. The man takes the woman to a hut, once inside they sit facing each other and get their legs locked together in a crossed position. Then they touch foreheads and start rocking and grinding together until the blood runs, by that time they are delirious and they go down on the ground. Before they know it they start making love.”
He glanced outside. The dog had picked up the rest of the tampon and was walking toward the bushes with it.
El Greco would have to wait.
Richard Lutman has a MFA in Writing from Vermont College. He has taught composition and literature courses at Rhode Island Community College, Fairfield University, The Learning Connection in Providence, Rhode Island, and short story classes as part of Coastal Carolina University’s Lifelong Learning program. He has published over two dozen stories. He was a 2008 Pushcart nominee in fiction and the recipient of national awards for his non-fiction, short stories and screenplays. His first novel is due out in April of 2016.