Aquí Por Ti
Claire roused slowly to church bells, harsh and sonorous. Good-natured greetings and shouts in Spanish floated up the four stories and through the open window as she placed a moka pot on low heat on the scuffed stovetop. Moving to the window, she pushed the frayed curtain aside and peered past the pulley clothesline with its t-shirts and towels lolling in the breeze, to the narrow cobblestone street below. Here she was, in a small medieval town in the Rioja region of Spain, her first trip off the North American continent. Breathing in the crisp morning air, she congratulated herself for eventually giving in to Jon’s proposal for this autumnal trip to Spain. She had initially said ‘No’. Of course, she had. This was an expensive endeavor. As the sole breadwinner, she needed to be careful. But Jon had been gently relentless in his pursuit to persuade her, certain that all they needed was a long holiday together, three weeks in Spain, to ease all the little aches and pains of any relationship after two years. Claire finally agreed, even if she wasn’t so certain that the aches and pains were particularly little, she was willing to be persuaded otherwise.
The coffee bubbled. She quickly took it off the burner and poured a small cup. Anyway, those little aches and pains haven’t been an issue here. Like his contributing to household expenses. Or not. And his porn habit, which was something she really could not bear. Well, he gave that up. He gave it up easily. He had said, ‘Babe, if it bothers you that much, I’m done with it.’ Considerably more savvy than Jon as to where and how information is stored on a computer, and with occasional snooping, Claire felt assured he was keeping his promise. She sipped the scalding espresso and sat at the tiny table, feet propped on a wobbly chair. Any relationship is about compromise, right? About working things out. He was a good man. After all, he never complained about her. He seemed perfectly happy with her and her various quirks, such as her social awkwardness, her annoying obsessive tidiness (it even annoyed her at times), and her rumpled appearance. Behind her the bedroom door creaked.
“Damn. That coffee smells good.” Jon walked up and put his arms around her, nuzzling the back of her neck. “I don’t know what it is about you, Catooshka, but I’m wild about you, my brown-eyed girl.” He poured espresso into a cup filled halfway with milk and sugar and sat down across from her. The small, clean but cluttered apartment they rented belonged to an artist who let it on Airbnb. “Well,” he said flipping open his laptop, “Let’s just see how many people are following us.”
“Following you, love. Not me.”
“Okay, Catooshka, following me. Six hundred and counting, to be precise.” He grinned, scanning his posts. “Hey, check this out! Lisa liked our photo.” He pointed to an image he had posted the night before of the two of them lounging outside a two-century old winery built of stone and oak, cradled in sunlight, drinking deep red wine. “She says we look like the happiest couple alive! How about that? Hey Catoosh, what should I reply? We are, right darlin’?”
“You bet!” Her pitch higher than normal. She stood and turned, ostensibly to put her cup in the sink. Really? Are we? Am I? The questioning, the doubt, rose instantaneously. Following in its wake, the all-too-familiar chastisement: Here I go again! Why am I so hard to please? Claire had grown up in a small Iowa farming community where both parents had been cautious, tight-lipped, always on guard for the next calamity, seemingly blind to anything that indicated life might be on their side. She might have fled Iowa at eighteen to go to college in Oregon, but she hadn’t altogether put that attitude behind her, hard as she had tried. “Close that up, Jon. Let’s go and get some breakfast and talk about the rest of our day.”
“Sure, babe. Just give me a few more minutes.”
“Jon? Jon Briano?!”
Sitting at an outdoor café, having just finished their breakfast, Jon swung around in his chair. “Marc?” he said. “Marc Osborne, you savage! By god, what the hell are you doing here?” The men shook hands and Jon gestured for the two men to join him and Claire. Jon ordered more coffee for everyone and dove into introductions. Marc and Jon had worked for several years together at Focus, a monthly photography magazine in Portland, Oregon, Marc as a photographer, Jon as an editor, at least until the magazine had closed two-and-a-half years ago.
His platinum hair short and sleek, Marc leaned back, a loose smile on his lean face. “We’re living in Barcelona and lovin’ it. We just completed a photo shoot nearby. Mateo here is masterful with wardrobe and design. After this, we’re headed back to Barcelona.”
Tucking a thick swath of unruly hair behind an ear, Claire listened contentedly while Jon — his blue-gray eyes flashing, his smile winsome — engaged the two men about the fashion shoot and their lives in Barcelona. Smart, witty, well-read, Jon was genuinely interested in people and he kept conversations lively and entertaining. Five years Claire’s senior, at thirty-six, Jon exuded an ease and a confidence foreign to her. His receding hairline skillfully tucked beneath a scuffed baseball cap, casually cocked back, he soon had the entire table laughing.
Beside these tallish, lithe men, Jon appeared small, compact, like a French bulldog rollicking with two greyhounds. Peeling the sweaty back of her t-shirt away from her skin and fanning it, coaxing in a breeze, Claire mused, I wouldn’t even be here, in Spain, meeting Marc and Mateo, if it weren’t for Jon.
“Yes indeed,” said Jon, breaking her reverie. “Aquí por Ti, that’s how we met. You remember them, don’t you, Marc?” Marc didn’t, but no matter; Jon continued with his jaunty story. “Well, they’re this dedicated group of folks who serve the underserved Hispanic population in Portland. And Claire is their bookkeeper/fundraiser/all-around ‘keep-us-solvent’ person. That place couldn’t run without her! They had a fundraiser a couple of years back and Arnie Cox was going to shoot it, gratis—you remember how he loved anything Spanish—”
“Didn’t he claim to have been embedded with the Sandinistas for months?”
“That’s him. He dragged me along and I met Claire that night.” He caressed her arm and gazed at her. “And buddy, my life has never been better. This girl and I can have fun in a paper sack.”
Claire, too, would never forget that night: the bright and fierce spark that had been lit dancing to Latino music on the grass, shoes kicked aside, under strung, sparkling lights. From the moment Claire met Jon, she felt an inexplicable pull: he was like no one she had ever known before. Several months earlier she had ended a four-year relationship — after more than a year of anguished procrastination — that had been more fraternal than romantic. Sure, stable and safe, but ultimately boring. With her gangly features and owlish gaze, she had never been the gal guys would fall for. So when Jon began to pursue her — fervently and passionately — the effect was intoxicating. He texted her sweet, endearing texts, three to four times a day: babe, i’m having a hard time tearing myself away from you … i already long for you. He made dinner most evenings and would rub her feet while they talked. Their physical chemistry was luscious, soulful and luminous.
“Claire?” Jon nudged her.
“I was just saying,” Marc went on, “that to be the accountant for Aquí por Ti, that can’t be an easy job, even if it is a noble mission.”
Claire laughed a short, abrupt squawk. “No kidding. Noble and rough. That pretty much describes my work.”
Jon protested. “Don’t let her kid you! She keeps that place afloat. This girl knows money! Hey, what’s so funny?”
Chuckling, Marc turned to Mateo. “I can remember Jon bragging that he’s never balanced a checkbook in his life.” He smirked. “I assume nothing there has changed.”
Claire blushed. She felt she ought to defend Jon, but mercifully Marc steered the conversation elsewhere, asking Jon what he’d been doing since Focus closed.
“Damn, Marc, it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I needed to get out of that rat-race. I drew unemployment for as long as I could while developing my own business: freelance editing educational and marketing materials.”
“A variety of organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Gates Foundation. More importantly though, I’m writing screenplays. I have two screenplays out now, one with a studio in Vancouver and the other, my agent in California has sent out to two interested parties.”
Claire did not want to hear this. Not again. Not for the hundredth time. She flagged the waitress, “¿Señorita? La cuenta, por favor.”
Speaking in soft, lyrical Spanish, Mateo complimented Claire on her español. Continuing in Spanish, he asked her where she had learned to speak so fluently. With his softly-gazing, intelligent eyes and his circumspect demeanor, Claire felt an affinity toward this man. They conversed about Mateo’s family in Seville, the places she and Jon had visited in Haro and where they were headed next, the beach town of Sitges.
Claire nodded and smiled while Mateo extolled a hike in the hills above Haro, but inwardly she bristled as she overheard Jon wax on about the work he would ostensibly be doing for the Gates Foundation in Seattle. How can he so blatantly, so inaccurately, portray his work life? He would take some bland email exchange with someone he had reached out to in a given organization and blow it up in his mind to be a solid contract, a done deal. In the beginning, she had believed him along with everyone else when he described these exciting, upcoming projects. Who wouldn’t? He was so smooth, so convincing. His stories were believable, she now understood, because he believed them himself. He did work, just not for any big-named organizations. And when he did, he asked to be paid in cash, so much cash that he’d recently bragged to a friend that he had $11,000 stashed away. For Jon’s sake, she too wished these stories were true. She did. Still, she was tired of hearing them. She pulled her purse into her lap and reached for her wallet.
Jon reached over and picked up the check. “Hey Catoosh, let me get this one.”
Claire tilted her head, perplexed. He hadn’t objected once during this trip when she had paid for their meals or lodging. Oh right! They were with others: that’s when Jon preferred to pay. At home, he frequently and graciously would pay for the entire table, with cash, always Franklins. And Claire had never seen him pass a busker, or a panhandler, without tossing them one or two twenties. He was generous, everyone agreed, but…Claire had wondered, on more than one occasion, why then didn’t he help out with household expenses? After all, he had moved into her house. Just like that. One day she came home from work and there were boxes everywhere: lining every room, all of the hallways, sending her cats into a frenzy. Jon was cooking dinner, and when she looked dumbfounded, he just laughed. Didn’t she remember? They had talked about it! What was the point of him paying rent on that stupid studio apartment? They were for real, right? They ought to live together. Claire couldn’t bring herself to argue, at least not outright. She always froze in the face of tension with a loved one, her mind becoming a cold, blank screen, her ability to speak dissolving. What did she know? Maybe she wasn’t remembering the earlier conversation accurately. Maybe she had somehow indicated she was okay with this idea. Clearly his nonchalance and spontaneity were a welcome antidote to her tendencies toward caution and overanalysis. Maybe this really was the next step and she was just being a coward. Besides, the smell of French onion soup had lilted the air. Jon had taken her in his arms and brought his lips to hers.
He now beamed at her, then grinned at his amigos. “The only Spanish I know is aquí por ti, which means I’m here for you! Right, Babe? Hey, call our waitress over. Let’s get a photograph of the four of us! The sun is shining, this plaza is magnificent. We’re friends on Facebook, right Marc?”
Claire knew Jon didn’t care much for hiking, so she appreciated his willingness to hike the trail up into the hills behind Haro that Mateo had suggested. In her knapsack, she packed a bottle of Tempranillo, plastic cups, some crusty bread, cheeses and slices of cucumber and red pepper. Jon graciously took the pack and carried it up and through the scrubby, hilly terrain.
The afternoon sun, lolling in a cerulean sky, bore down bright and benevolent as, damp with sweat, they reached the lookout. From the village, church bells tolled three. The view of the Rioja valley, teeming with vineyards and scattered villages — as Mateo had promised — was breathtaking. They spread a small blanket on the dry, brittle grass, sitting amidst the buzz and hum of circling insects, and opened the bottle of wine.
“Thanks for dragging me up here, babe. I would have never done it had you not insisted. And just look at us! Having the time of our lives.”
Smiling dreamily, Claire sipped her wine. “It is perfect, isn’t it. I’ll never forget this trip.”
“Catooshka, how did I ever become so damn lucky? I must have done something right in my last life to have ended up with you.”
“Clearly, you had to have been a saint. For at least your last ten lives. Probably more. Perhaps Saint Amand? I think I read somewhere he’s the sacred protector of the vineyards. Nah… not him. Who’s the saint for the pigs? I know there must be one—”
He affectionately squeezed her thigh. Then he lifted her shoulder-length hair off of her damp neck and blew. “No, it’s true. I’ve never known anyone as compassionate and as kind as you are. As beautiful.”
“Oh Jon, I’m not beautiful.”
“Of course you are! And I want to buy you a ring.”
She laughed. “I don’t wear rings. I haven’t worn a ring since I went steady in high school.”
“Catooshka, love-of-my-life, I mean it. I want to buy you a ring. This is your first trip abroad, and our first trip abroad together. You deserve something beautiful to remember it by.”
His loving gaze, his fervent words, the wine, the ocher landscape, the hot, fragrant breeze, all harmonized like a five-piece jazz band, playing a sultry, dizzying tune. Reveling in feeling feminine, cherished—oh just say it, she chided herself—loved. Her face opened like a soft, pink peony. “That’s so sweet of you, Jon. Thank you,” she whispered, placing her palm against his flushed cheek and bringing her lips to his.
Back at their little apartment, where a light breeze and strains of someone strumming a guitar drifted in through the open window, they undressed one another and stepped into the shower. Soaping each other’s bodies, Jon turned Claire and pressed into her from behind. He slowly, tenderly, washed her breasts, belly and buttocks, lingering here. And there. With her head back, her breathing shallow, she reached back, feather-stroking his groin before enclosing his cock in her hand. The fun continued into the bedroom, where they rocketed — one closely behind the other — into a capricious, other-worldly, boundaryless communion. Aquí por ti, baby. Aquí por ti, he whispered. Hours later, they rose, dressed and went out for tapas. Both were famished.
“Claire, I say we cancel our flights back and stay here. Whaddaya say?” The mid-morning sun hung lazily in a thin blue sky laced with clouds the color of dove eggs. At their favorite outdoor café in the village plaza, Jon sat stretched out, drinking espresso, munching on churros, reading his phone.
She smiled and stood. “How about we go for a walk instead? There’s so much to see!”
“Ah, babe. We’ve already seen everything in this podunk town that I want to see. I just want to get out of this crazy sun and sit somewhere where I can use my laptop. You go on. Catch me around happy hour.”
“You can do all of that online stuff at home, Jon. We’re here. Let’s be here. Together.”
“It’s too bloody hot to walk and I have a shitload of emails to respond to. Business doesn’t stop just because I’m overseas. I’ll catch ya later.”
She shrugged and kissed him. As she walked away, she wondered, Really? Work? What kind of work? And how much work can you really get done here? She congratulated herself for not lugging her laptop along. Work?! While in this marvelous, magical place? Not a chance. But then again, I have a real job with a steady income. He doesn’t need me to remind him that he doesn’t, she told herself. So lighten up.
As she crossed the wide cobblestone plaza, she took it all in: the rambling, lilting conversations. The faces and their welcoming smiles. The unfettered air, the sizzling sun. The laundry hanging off balconies; the omnipresent aroma of garlic, onions and ham cooking. As she walked, the heat and the rolling unevenness of the cobblestones pressed up through the thin soles of her sandals. Turning down any side street that looked enticing, Claire could not remember ever feeling this light-hearted. She stretched out her arm and let her fingertips graze the coarse and rugged stone row houses that stretched up beside her. She turned a corner. Shrouded within a gray stone wall, a small window displaying some rings caught her eye. Claire stopped and peered through the dusty glass.
She ducked as she stepped through the narrow doorway and into the cool, tiny store. No more than six people could have squeezed into this small room, with its low ceiling and thick walls. Greeting the clerk warmly, a sparrow-boned woman with a soft, obliging smile, Claire chatted with her over the counter as she browsed the jewelry under the glass. A bright diamond ring winked at her. Pulling her gaze away, Claire scanned the other jewelry. But her eye kept returning to that ring. She had never imagined herself wearing a diamond, but its elegance and luminescence enchanted her.
“Por favor, ¿puedo probarme ese anillo?” Claire pointed to it.
“Por supuesto, por supuesto, señorita.” The clerk reached in and delicately picked up the ring. “Este, ¿sí?”
Placing the ring in a faded cloth, her head down, the small woman polished the ring slowly and reverently before handing it to Claire.
The ring had tiny black diamonds encased in the gold band on either side, as though they were a chorus supporting the diamond diva at the center. Claire slipped it on: it fit the third finger on her right hand perfectly. The clerk explained that this was a very special ring. Designed by a woman who lived alone, far up in Las Alpujarras. Her family has resided in those mountains for centuries. She made no more than one or two rings a year, and one like this? Black diamonds? She had not seen in over a decade.
Claire smiled timidly at the clerk, who complimented her on her lovely, graceful hands.
“¡Tiene unas manos tan elegantes y bonitas, señorita! Perfectas para este exquisito anillo.”
Elegant. Exquisite. Those were not words that Claire would have ever applied to herself nor to something that she would wear.
She stretched her hand out. Her slender, pale hand was, she had to admit, it was suddenly elegant. Even in the dim light, the ring twinkled. But no. No. She was down-to-earth, unpretentious. Pragmatic. She was a bookkeeper! Bookkeepers don’t wear diamonds. Claire took the ring off, thanked the clerk, turned and walked resolutely into the sunshine.
The next morning, Claire appealed to Jon again. “Won’t you please come exploring with me?”
“Nah. Maybe tomorrow. I’ll meet you back at the apartment, Okay? And hey, take some photos, will you? I’ll post them!”
Once again she left him in the plaza to drink his coffee, enjoy his churro, and to dally online. She strolled by a mother soothing a crying baby. Some steps later, she passed a group of men hunched over a table, sipping sherry and talking heatedly. She nodded to a woman walking by humming, carrying a basket of bread on her head. Peering into an alley, she watched a group of scruffy kids romp and play in the midmorning sun. She turned a corner and found herself on the narrow side street that housed the jewelry store, Calle la Paz, printed in faded, grayed paint high up in the corner of the stone building.
She lowered her head and entered the cool, cave-like store. Smiling timidly, she asked to try the ring on again. It’s so lovely. It’s just so lovely.
Then came a whisper, so faint, so soft. Like wisps of hair caressing her cheek. Es verdad, lo soy. Y tu también lo eres. It’s true, I am. And so are you.
She glanced at the clerk. Had she heard that?! No, clearly she hadn’t. Obviously I’m just imagining things. As Claire tilted her hand, the diamond seemed to flash a violet hue, like a subtle smile, accentuating the small black diamonds.
Estoy tan contenta de que me hayas encontrado.
Whoa, what? You’re happy I found you? Shaking her head, as though waking from a dream, she took it off, thanked the clerk and left. The rest of the day her thumb kept caressing where the ring had been.
Over dinner, at a crowded, smoky, boisterous tapas bar, redolent of fish and garlic, Claire spoke up. “Remember the ring?” she asked shyly.
“The ring? Oh sure. Yeah.”
“I’ve found one. I’d like to show it to you.”
“I can see why you like this ring so much,” Jon said as Claire showed it to him.
As Claire delicately placed the ring on her finger, a comforting warmth spread through her hand, traveled up her arm, filling her chest. Followed by words as tender as a seabreeze, Somos perfectos la una para la otra, ¿no? Stretching her hand out so Jon could admire it, Claire smiled, agreeing: We are perfect for one another.
Jon did not touch the ring nor did he take her hand to admire it. “Yeah, it’s something,” he said, his voice thick with hesitation. “But okay, just tell me how much the bloody thing costs.”
Jon leaned back, eyebrows raised.
“About 2500 dollars.” The air in the store was dense, stifling.
“Are you bullshitting me?!”
Claire blanched, pulled the ring off, handed it back to the clerk, apologizing profusely and was out the door. Jon followed right behind her.
“For Christ’s sake, Claire! What were you thinking?!”
“You said… I mean, you’re the one who…”
“Yeah, but I’m not made out of money! I was thinking more like $800. Yeah, $800 max. That’s a lot of dough!” He called back to her. The sidewalk was too narrow for them to walk, comfortably, side-by-side.
“And don’t go all sulky on me.”
Claire chided herself for being utterly inept. Once again, unable to speak up, unable to bear the thought that she might hurt or offend someone she loved, she followed in his wake, enduring a torrent of emotion: tidal waves of confusion, grief, shame, all violently swirling around, kicking up flotsam and debris as though from the depths of some unnamed ocean.
Later that afternoon, after the siesta, when the awnings were rattling up and people were returning to work, Claire left Jon with his laptop at the kitchen table with the understanding they would meet in an hour in the plaza. This time she didn’t urge him to come with her. She went alone to Calle de la Paz. The slight clerk smiled and immediately took the ring from beneath the glass. Even in the dim light, the ring sparkled. Claire plunked down a credit card.
“No necesito una caja. Me lo pondré, gracias.” No, she didn’t need nor want a box for it — she just wanted to wear it.
Walking back to the square, there was a lilt to her step, a sheepish grin on her face. She was astonished by what she had just done. All of that money?! Just for a ring?! She couldn’t take her eyes off of the glittering gem as her hand swung softly at her side. Yes. This ring. It beamed back at her. I’m thirty-one, she told herself, fully-employed, with benefits even. I own my own home. Okay, thanks to great-aunt Ada’s inheritance, which gave me the down-deposit I needed. But I’m paying the mortgage, so it’s mine. Why shouldn’t I have this beautiful ring?
Taught to be wary of impulsive decisions, Claire now realized that the two big ones she had made in her life — suddenly packing up and leaving Iowa on a moment’s notice and now this extravagant purchase — rose from someplace deep within, bringing with them upheaval, yes, but also a sense of opening. Of expansion. In both instances, the minute she stepped through to the other side of the decision, she felt a resonance, an assurance as to the rightness of her choice. Now, as then, she felt more carefree, more joyful, than the Claire subsumed by all of her daily, responsible and predictable tasks.
The ring caught the light as she waved at Jon sitting at their favorite table in the square.
She sat down across from him, giddy, her face luminous, beaming a soft moon smile and held out her hand. The diamond flirted with the sunlight.
“Really, Claire?” His expression was quizzical.
“Yes, really. I certainly would not have been looking for a ring if you hadn’t suggested it. But this one. Jon, I had to have it.”
“But can we afford this right now? Twenty-five hundred? Really? Y’know, we’re gonna have some pretty hefty bills when we get home…”
“We will. And I’ll just deal with all that when we get home.”
“It’s not like you, Catooshka to—”
“It isn’t, is it! But isn’t that great? Maybe this is who I really am. I don’t know how to explain it, Jon.” She stretched her hand out, the light scattering off of the gems. “Once I tried this ring on, my hand felt naked without it. It felt like we belonged together. I actually longed for it. When have I ever longed for anything? I couldn’t tell you. So when you said you wouldn’t buy it, I had to ask myself: does that mean I can’t?” Looking him square in the eye, she continued. “No, of course not. And so I did.”
“Huh. Well, Ok. I’m glad you did, if it means that much to you.”
But the rest of the day he was cool, even sullen.
They left Haro and headed down the coast to Sitges. Over the next few days, Jon frequently took Claire’s pale willowy hand to admire the ring. At a small restaurant, watching the colorful beach crowd, waiting for their dinner while sipping sangria, Jon smiled. He took her hand and with his thumb moved the ring so that the diamond reflected the evening glow and shone a brilliant rose-gold.
“It’s gorgeous, Claire.”
She smiled. “It is.”
“Here…” He took her hand and draped it over the blue tablecloth, next to her glass of wine. Grabbing his phone, he took a number of photos. He showed them to her.
“I have to say, you have exquisite taste in jewelry, darlin’. It suits your hand perfectly. It makes me wish I had gotten for you. I should have….”
Claire took his hand. “Jon, no. Don’t go there. It’s fine. It really is. In many ways, I think I needed to give this ring to myself.”
He shrugged and began tapping the keyboard of his phone.
“What are you doing?”
Their waitress showed up with plates piled high with steaming langostinos and mussels.
“Just posting the photo to my Facebook page.” He smiled broadly and picked up his fork. “Will you check out this sizzling montaña of seafood!”
The next morning while Jon was showering, Claire glanced at his laptop on the kitchen table. It was open to his Facebook page. There it was, the photo of her hand, the ring and a long string of comments below it. Jon, what a wonderful gift for Claire! Good for you, man! Or A ring?! You, Briano? Well, well. You’re a lucky son-of-gun to have lassoed that gal. Claire scrolled up to see what Jon had posted beneath the photo of her hand: I found the perfect diamond to give the love of my life.
Jon walked in, a towel around his waist. “Hey, Catoosh. Let’s pack up. We’re headed out to that other village today, right? What’s it called? Let’s get out of here before it gets too hot, okay? … Hey what’s wrong?”
She turned and stared at him; inside, thick strands of dark emotions whirled. She wanted to speak, but couldn’t. She squeezed her eyes shut and pointed to his laptop.
“Oh, that. Hey! Did you read all of the wonderful comments everyone said? How happy they are for the two of us?”
She grimaced. “You told them…you gave…” The words came out disjointedly, her voice unnaturally high as she choked out, “the ring…to me?!”
Jon shrugged. “I probably implied that, yeah.”
Shaking her head, she said, “No. No, Jon, no…you didn’t just imply it. It…it’s what you wrote.”
“Well, I told you last night I wanted to give it to you, don’t you remember?”
“So…are you telling me…you will give it to me? That you’ll pay for it?”
“Catoosh, babe. I wish I could, but nooo… I wasn’t planning on doing that.”
“But you’re willing…for people to believe…that you DID give it to me?”
“What would it hurt if people believed that?”
“What would it hurt?!” Had he really just said that?! “Jon! It’s…it’s a lie is what it is.”
“You could look at it that way. Or you could look at it this way, Catoosh. You wanted me to give it to you, right? I want to give it to you. So, let’s just tell people that I did. And if we say it enough times, over time, it will become the truth.”
The cold, blank screen crashed, heavily, defiantly, into place. She couldn’t stop it this time: she went mute and numb. All she could muster was to slowly shake her head back and forth as Jon went to gather his things.
As they strolled through a small town in the Penedès, Claire registered little of the plazas, cafes, or wineries they visited. Keeping as much distance as she reasonably could from Jon, she bristled. How the heck am I supposed to handle this one? Sure, I could ask him to delete the post, but whoever has seen it has already seen it. How am I supposed to respond when the topic comes up back home? Watching Jon interact with a clerk behind a register, getting the young woman to laugh, Claire thought: Just say it enough times and it becomes the truth?! What universe do you live in? You make yourself look generous and gallant, and I get stuck either backing it up, being complicit, or making you look like a fool. Making us both look like fools. To your friends, for god’s sake! To mine!
Over the following days, Claire’s agitation waned and in its stead, she found herself thinking, I can’t undo what he’s done, so, why worry about it now while we’re here? Sunny Spain. The air, the landscape, so lush and inviting. The people, so kind and gentle. The food, absolutely divine. Speaking Spanish and being understood! And here I am with a man who is sweet, attentive, charming, and who is crazy about me. So he told a little lie on Facebook. He’s not malicious. He’s never been. A fumbling idiot sometimes, yes. Malicious, no. And I’m not going to ruin my only vacation this year by sulking. She felt rather proud of herself coming to this happy conclusion, as though she had once again thrown off the yoke of her parents’ grim outlook on life.
Late one afternoon, they returned to their hotel. While Jon napped, Claire pulled out his laptop to send an email checking in with their friend scheduled to pick them up from the airport. On an impulse, she checked his browsing history. Recently deleted. Her chest clenched. How she hated doing this, but she had to: she had to know. She delved into his cache and his cookies and there they were — the old familiar porn sites. Her heart sank; she slumped in her chair. Hadn’t he vowed he would stop? Yes. He had. And he’d been so calm, so caring, so ardent in his assurances. All men do this, but sure, Catooshka, babe, if it upsets you this much, I’ll quit. I promise. It won’t be hard. For you, I can do anything … That’s what he had said. Right. And then three weeks later, he had suggested they take a trip to Spain.
She knew all too well what the fight would look like if she confronted him. His defensiveness, his excuses. I can’t face that: I can’t face him. I just can’t right now. She found a piece of paper and scribbled: I’m going for a walk. I’ll be back after dinner. She grabbed a jacket, her purse and left.
Within a few blocks, Claire entered a sea of people: people talking, laughing and milling along the walkway at the upper edge of the vast beach. Couples arm-in-arm or parents with young children tumbling about paused at the colorful open kiosks selling t-shirts and kitsch. The air was redolent with the aroma of seared meat cooking as the afternoon sun haloed the crowd. Claire walked on, unmoved, her thoughts ricocheting, her reality splintering into innumerable shards.
Her phone buzzed. Jon. She squeezed the power off button with a vengeance and shoved the phone deep inside her purse. Passing rows and rows of beach umbrellas and sunbathers, Claire fumed. Here we are, in Spain, on this vacation that was supposed to bring us closer together, and not only does he break his promise and…she shuddered thinking about the sites she knew he had visited. She debated just taking the car and going to Barcelona by herself. Their flight was in three days. Meeting him at the airport? A public place. After she’d left him stranded? Ugh. That wouldn’t work.
Impatient with the slow-moving crowd, Claire stepped into the street. A scooter whizzed past her, screeching its horn. She stumbled back, breathing in sharply. A couple meandered in her direction, as though they had all of the time in the world: arm-in-arm, eyes only for one another. A mischievous grin on his face, he whispered something in his partner’s ear and her face beamed as she smiled back at him. Behind her sunglasses, Claire could not take her eyes off of them, while her heart split asunder. That used to be us. That’s what we were supposed to continue being. What happened?! Tears slid down her cheeks as she turned and headed toward the beach, anywhere where she could get away from the pain. Gone was the maze of beach umbrellas; instead, tangles of people walked, played, hung out. Light shimmered off of the scalloped waves and the gentle wash of ocean against the shore was mesmerizing. Claire’s breath slowed. Her frenzied thoughts loosened their grip and for a moment, her mind quieted. In the silence she heard: Aquí por ti. ….. Aquí por ti. Glancing at the ring, she laughed. Wiping the tears away with the back of her hand, she decided she truly was going bonkers. Yet, the words — slow and lyrical, murmured like a lullaby — were soothing. A soccer ball barreled her way. She reached down, grabbed it and tossed to back to a scruffy group of pre-teen kids.
A tall girl pulled away from the others who were scurrying around the ball, resuming their makeshift soccer game, and approached Claire. She squinted up at Claire and timidly asked, “Are you American?” When she heard yes, she became very excited. Waving her scrawny arms, she beckoned for a college-age young woman in a spaghetti-strapped, short sundress, to come join them. The two girls were sisters and the elder was headed to Colorado to study for three months.
“I like practice the language, English, with you, yes?” With a dash of baby-blue eyeshadow that matched her dress, she flipped her dark ponytail deftly and smiled shyly.
Claire smiled. “Por supuesto. I’d be happy to.”
“Ahh, you speak good Spanish! Muy bien. Come.” She grabbed Claire’s hand and pulled her over to a motley crowd gathered around a large picnic table. In Spanish, the young woman, Adriana, introduced Claire to her mother, her aunt and her grandmother. Her mother, a nervous, slight woman sighed in relief when Claire addressed them in Spanish as she buzzed around the table like a hummingbird, setting out plates and bowls. The aunt, round-faced with a toothy grin, was a younger replica of the grandmother, who sat intently crocheting, her lank hair twisted in a knot at the nape of her neck.
In broken English and with a wide sweep of her long arm, Adriana explained, “See the rest of the people?” indicating a group of slouching men cooking meat over a low grill, smoking and gesticulating broadly; another group sitting, playing cards; lanky teenagers sunbathing; and a tribe of sun-streaked kids careening around. All were friends or family.
Claire turned to the three women and asked if she could help. The mother shook her head rapidly, No, no, while the aunt nodded, giving Claire a basket of garlic bulbs, instructing her to break them up into individual cloves. The cloves would be strewn down the middle of the picnic tables for people to grab and rub on their bread, followed by seasoned sliced tomatoes and olive oil. Claire sat, happy to be doing something; happy to be out of her head; happy she didn’t have to make conversation but instead could listen to the aunt and the grandmother’s rapid-fire banter, complaining about two of the aunt’s brothers who had refused to show up, and—according to the very vocal aunt—were lazy and vulgar anyway. Peeling the papery sheathes back and dislodging the cloves was simple, uncomplicated. Adriana would bounce over, speak some with Claire, then get pulled away by friends who were clustered on blankets sunbathing. Upon hearing children shouting, she glanced up to see a small troupe of sand-covered kids chasing the rapscallion who had jumped upon, thus squashing, their precious sand-village. Breathing in the briny air, her hands deep in the white papery shards, Claire basked in the lilt and legato of the people speaking and moving around her.
Adriana’s family was adamant: Claire must join their feast of gazpacho, tortilla omelette, empanadillas, bread and salads. All were charmed by her fluency and wine flowed. As the sun nestled into the horizon, sending out long fingers of gilded light, someone pulled out some wireless speakers, hooked up a phone and soon music tumbled around them. Claire tossed her sandals to the side and joined the others, all ages, dancing on the warm sand.
“Catooshka!” Jon jumped up to greet her when she opened the door, “Where the hell have you been?! I’ve been beside myself with worry!” Jon reached out to hug her. She moved past him and into the living room. “Hey? Is everything okay? You smell like smoke.”
“I met some people down at the beach.” Feeling the sand between her toes, her fingers sticky from a scrumptious almond-filled pastry, her soul humming, Claire sank into the sofa, closed her eyes for a moment and smiled.
Jon arched an eyebrow. “Really? Who?”
“Just some families enjoying a beautiful day.”
“Why didn’t you call if you were having such a good time?”
Claire shrugged. It had never crossed her mind to call him.
“Hey, Catoosh, look, I’m sorry. If what I wrote on Facebook bothers you that much, well, hey sure. Let me pay half. Would installments be okay? Say $50/month?”
The ring? Facebook? What? She fingered the scrap of paper in her pocket with Adriana’s email, recalling her promise to email her. “No. No. Don’t worry about it.”
The next morning beneath a steaming hot shower, Claire watched, with sadness, as grains of sand washed off her body, swirled on white porcelain before flowing down the drain. Like the vivid visceral memories from the unexpected and enchanted evening on the beach, against her wishes, all was vanishing. It was now in the past. She shuddered when she remembered discovering the porn. If I stay with him, then I have to accept that he views porn. I have to accept that he’ll lie about it; that he easily lies about other things when it suits him. That’s the choice, she told herself beneath the pounding water. If only he’d leave me…that’d make everything so much easier.
She turned and let the hot water pound her neck, her back. Well, if Jon’s a shmuck, then I’m a chicken-shit for not having the courage to confront him on his dishonesty. Or a louse for not wanting to believe he’ll do better next time, which for sure is what he would swear to do. For not even wanting to try. Why can’t I turn away from his loving attentiveness, his devotion, when these other qualities are part and parcel of the package? She turned off the water and grabbed a towel.
“Catooshka, love of my life.” He knocked at the bathroom door. “I have coffee for you, just the way you like.”
She dressed quickly, haphazardly, and trudged to the kitchen, accepting the cup of coffee Jon offered her. He brought his lips to the back of her neck and, against her will, she felt the tremulous thrill of pleasure he could always give her.
“It’s our last full day in Sitges, darlin’. After this, it’s off to Barcelona and the airport. And then back to our boring old life in Portland.”
At that moment, all Claire wanted was her boring old pre-Jon life in Portland: her home tidy, her cats in her lap. She drank the coffee in a scalding gulp.
“Whatever you want, we’ll do it. Anything. You just name it. Why, I’d climb a montaña for you, Catooshka.”
She snorted. “Let’s just hang out at the beach, okay?”
Laying on a towel on the hot sand, hidden beneath her hat and sunglasses, Claire sank, letting the ground absorb her weight, its granular warmth seeping into her bones. Another couple, obviously American, plopped their blankets down nearby. Jon came to life: engaging and delighting them with his wit and his humor. Within a couple of hours, Maya and Alex had agreed to join them for dinner. Claire welcomed the idea, relieved she wouldn’t have to try and converse with Jon by herself, knowing he would easily carry the evening’s conversation.
Sitting outdoors at a small seaside restaurant, as everyone extolled how marvelous the paella was, Claire watched Jon draw out their lives, how they had met in Seattle, working for Starbucks, recently relocating to New York.
“My agent was just in New York….” Jon offered. “I’ve got a couple of screenplays out.”
“Excuse me, I have to use the restroom.” She took her time in the ladies room, lingering, wanting Jon to get as far as possible through his well-honed spiel. As she approached the doorway to the patio outside, she could see their table. Jon, animating, engaging, at the center of a little universe he created. His great strength lay in pulling people into his orbit.
“I’ve ordered dessert, Catooshka,” he said when she sat down. “Your favorite, flan.”
He took her hand, offering up the story of how they had met at the Aquí por Ti fundraiser. While this story was true, she didn’t want to hear it again. Maybe never again.
“That’s what I always tell Claire,” he beamed. “I am aquí por ti. Spain’s been good to us, right Catooshka? To us and for us.” He played with the ring and smiled into her eyes.
“It’s a lovely ring,” Maya purred. “Are those stones black diamonds?”
“They are,” said Claire.
“The minute I saw it I knew Claire had to have it. I bought it for her in this little shop—”
A laugh stumbled from Claire’s lips, causing her to choke and cough as Jon patted her back and went on about the charming shop where he had bought the ring. Did she imagine it or had the diamond just flashed a streak of crimson into the air?
“You did not!” She turned to Maya thinking, Okay! It’s time to be a fool. “The real story is I fell in love with this ring and I bought it for myself.”
Jon blanched, signaling the waitress for another round. “What will you have, Alex? Maya?”
They shook their heads; it had been a lovely evening but they had to get up early in the morning. Alex pulled out his wallet. Jon waved it away, handing the waitress his credit card. “No, no. This one’s on me.”
Alex and Maya departed in a flurry of goodbyes. The waitress returned with Jon’s card.
Claire sipped from her wine glass. “You’re so right this time, Jon.”
“What do you mean?” He said, pouring intently over the bill, getting out his phone and playing with the calculator.
“This one is on you. This and the rest of it.” Claire raised her wine glass as though in a toast, looking him straight in the eye. “Here’s to all of it, finally, being on you.” She took her purse and shawl and wandered back toward their hotel, leaving Jon sitting, gazing blankly, pen in mid-air.
Lois Dubois, the pen name for a writer living in Bellingham, Washington, has published in the Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Arts Exchange and the anthology So Much Depends Upon… She is currently working on a multi-generational, historical novel of a Missourian farming family.