by Cheryl R. Pace
We are nestled in an alcove next to a window at his favorite neighborhood bistro, La Maison. We have just finished our chicken dish. Both my belly and my ego are pleasingly swollen, for he feeds and compliments me at every turn.
“Your reading tonight was superb.” The wire rim glasses and Nehru shirt render him a bohemian scholar. “Such prose I’ve rarely heard.”
His eyes are limpid brown pools. His voice, plush and velvety. And even though I doubt his observations about my work, I bask in the rich liquidity of them, how they wrap their impossibly warm and reassuring arms about my chilly writerly insecurities.
Embarrassed, I babble about the food – still intimate, but less personal.
“Chicken Cordon Bleu,” Dr. Ian Mathews, Professor Emeritus in Contemporary American Literature informs.
“You said you liked the chicken casserole. What you were relishing was in fact Chicken Cordon Bleu.” I like Ian’s preciseness, how words and their correct use matter to him.
I am enjoying the meal, the man, the crackling chatter of the fire in the fireplace, the clink of cutlery on china, the conversational high and low tones. Not even the worry of a possible stray piece of Caesar salad lodged between my two front teeth could diminish this transcendental moment. I run the tip of my tongue over the smoothness of my teeth, just in case.
“Transcendental what?” he asks.
A very bad habit I’ve acquired, this thinking out loud.
Although I am lulled into happy complacency, I know that the man sitting across the table could be my undoing. He is dark and dangerous and is as tempting as the final course before me.
“This dessert has been called Heaven in Your Mouth, and it comes from Tuscany.” Ian cuts a slice of tiramisu and lifts it to my lips. “Open,” he says, suggestively.
I know he has brought me here to seduce me. That this “business” meeting is not about me, or about my work, but about him. And although I prefer carpenters to gentlemen, the smell of honest sweat to cologne, a simple meal of bread and cheese or even the sharp scrapings of hunger to such opulence, I’m not immune to feelings of fullness, satiety, warmth.
“Your story tonight spoke of the evils of money. Your primary character refused to be bought and sacrificed her art to poverty. You can do very good things with money that you can’t without it,” he says. “For instance, the Meadow’s Endowment to which you’ve applied would permit you to write to your heart’s content, and in Tuscany.”
His finger tips lightly play upon the inside of my arm, tapping out some sensuous Morse code. If we sleep together, I will have his vote for the endowment. Already the other committee members have quietly said that my work remains unrivaled, that only Ian remains uncommitted. The café dinner crowd subsides and all but a few lovers remain. Their bodies link and their eyes lock and it seems I must go or surrender. He pays the bill and escorts me to my car. We linger beneath the night’s sky illuminated by a wash of stars and diluted milky lamp light.
“I live just over there,” he indicates with one raised finger. “In Tarrytown. Come home with me. We could have a glass of Merlot and discuss your scholarship.”
Ian leans down to kiss me, to seal our agreement, but somehow my legs buckle and I stumble sideways so that his lips miss mine and merely graze my cheek. It is an awkward moment. One which might be softened with a joke, reversed by my taking his hand or speaking of my willingness, but I cannot. My throat’s constricted and the words to secure my future have disappeared. All of them, gone. The air is very still and my heart stops while he waits for minutes longer. Then the stern vertical crease between his peppered brows deepens with disapproval. He mumbles his good-byes and vanishes.
I drive home in my aging Volkswagen which shudders, rattles and bumps along, spewing its exhaust upon broad, magnolia-scented lawns leading up to grand pillared porticos. Soon this neighborhood gives way to smaller yet still respectable limestone bungalows with tasteful gardens, shuttered windows, and bricked walkways. In another ten minutes or more I’m on the fringes of my apartment-choked road speckled with porn shops and liquor stores. I wonder how in an instant you can change the course of your whole life. One moment you hold all possibilities in your palm and in the next – poof – they are gone and you are starting over. Upstairs at my fourth-floor window I look through the vinyl slats at the chain link face hemming our property and out into the street lined with telephone poles and trash receptacles. To think my view might have been from the terraces of Umbria. D. H. Lawrence once said, “It’s queer that a country so perfectly cultivated as Tuscany still has so much room for wild flowers.”
Queer indeed, I think, running my index finger along the edge of a dusty sill. It’s also been said that in the Tuscan spring entire fields are alive with sunflowers, poppies, vivid yellow Spanish broom, and cornflowers. And I have written about these fields, again and again, from the dark and dreary confines of this very room. I must remember, I must never forget, that while the window looking out remains open, I will continue to write from wherever I am. And that he with me would have closed that window, closed me.
A dog barks and awakens a baby whose plaintive wail comes from the household next door. I can hear the banging of pots as someone probably heats water for the baby’s bottle. A gravelly voice booms up from the floors below, “God damn it, shut the f— up!” followed by a pounding on the wall which reverberates up and sends little clouds of plaster spilling down from the ceiling. I settle my forehead against the chill of the pane, wait for the quiet to overlay the noise, as it always does, wait for the view out through my window to yield to another, look for the sublime sites and listen for the soothing sounds which only deprivation can conjure. The moment lasts, longer than I can bear it. The bleakness stuffs itself into my pores, buries me completely, blots out the light, and saturates the senses. And after a while, it comes. Never right away, and not before I am hopeless as the landscape about me. With this utter, final despair comes joy, and this time the form joy takes is the complicated flavors of Tuscan tiramisu, miraculously as sweet as ever, lingering upon my lips for me to savor, for me to revel in, for me to claim.
Beautiful, Cheryl, and how sad that for so many women, this is not fiction.
Yes, Karen–sad. But I believe as in this story, in real life women are finding their way forward.