Long ago, when I was twenty-one and living in a foreign city by the sea, a male friend came to visit me. He was taking a trip before deciding whether to marry the girl he was seeing. Not many people I knew then had the money to fly to Europe just to decide such a thing, but Jonathan was the only child of a dentist from Queens and a piano teacher from Italy. Not having other children, they always doted on him. In college, he had his own car and a fancy guitar that his father had purchased on a holiday in Madrid.
Jonathan was generous, and, beyond that, I think he was aware of his good fortune: of being tall and lean, handsome, and American-born. When I knew him well, when we were both studying in Michigan, he used to lend people his station wagon and cooked, what seemed to me, elaborate meals: tempeh stir-fry, roasted chicken with new potatoes and string beans, once a perfectly braised beef tenderloin.
When Jonathan wrote that he was coming to see me, I was thrilled. I’d been away from the States for six months and, while loath to show it, was desperately homesick and lonely. I was sharing a flat with two Spanish men and an Italian girl, all of whom were art students. Lis, the girl, was around my age, while the two men were older—close to thirty and way past an age to be living the way they did, without a hot water heater or a functioning stove. Jonathan, upon arrival, charmed my roommates—they liked his South American Spanish—and then immediately took me to dinner at a proper restaurant. We ate scallops from Galicia, and he asked me what the hell I was doing in such a flat and what was going on with my hair.
What the hell was I doing there? Well, working to pay the rent, I informed him.
Jonathan’s first week in Spain I spent teaching my English classes and he spent with my two male roommates in the seaside town of Cadaqués. When he returned on Friday, he told me my roommates were awful drivers, slobs, and possibly pornographers. I told him I already knew all of that and that we should go have a drink. While we drank watery beer, I explained I’d cut my hair short after my boss at the English school had tried to slip his hand between my thighs.
“I don’t see the connection,” Jonathan said.
“It’s a long story, but it has to do with self-perception,” I said.
“Well, now it just looks like your hair is growing out badly.”
Jonathan tried to fix my hair. Despite the conditions—dull scissors, drunkenness, and poor lighting—he, with his long fingers and careful diligence, did a decent job. I don’t have the cheekbones for a pixie cut, so I didn’t look very beautiful, but I did look less dowdy. My male roommates were still in Cadaqués for the remainder of the weekend, so Jonathan and I didn’t have to share a bed. I thanked him for the haircut and said goodnight, having left him fresh sheets on one of the men’s beds.
We slept late on Saturday—later than either of us felt comfortable with—so, despite our sleepiness, we got ourselves together quickly and walked down to the sea. It was November but sunny and warm. Not warm enough to swim but warm enough to walk barefoot along the beach.
“When are you coming home?” Jonathan asked me.
“I’m not,” I told him.
“But you’re living under a fascist regime,” he laughed.
We left the beach and went looking for shops. Jonathan wanted to buy Louise a
“I like your jacket!” he said.
It was a bright-green boiled wool jacket that I’d purchased with my first paycheck that September.
“It’s from the big department store,” I told him.
Jonathan patiently wandered in and out of small boutiques. He carefully unfolded silk scarves and held delicate ballroom dancing shoes in his palm. The salesgirls adored him and glared enviously at me.
“How is it,” I asked in the street, “that you speak Spanish so well?”
“My father’s brother is a psychoanalyst in Buenos Aires. I spent a few summers there as a kid,” he told me.
I wasn’t sure what seemed more exciting to me—having an uncle who was a psychoanalyst, or having family in Buenos Aires.
After a few more stores, a glass of wine, then a stop for coffee, Jonathan had finally decided he was going to buy Louise a skirt. We had seen two that he thought looked like her. I couldn’t imagine any boy buying me clothes. The boy I was seeing had bought me a Velvet Underground record and a garlic press, both of which I was tremendously pleased with.
I ordered us two more glasses of wine and asked what was going on with Louise anyway. She and I had never been close, although I guess, sociologically, we could have been. Our backgrounds were similar, but we weren’t much alike. She was a student of architecture; actually smart. I was a poet, someone who flirted with smart men but couldn’t compete with them in terms of practical knowledge or career opportunities.
“There are things I can’t abide,” Jonathan said.
He went on to explain that Louise, despite her round, womanly hips and sexy grin, was a big-time domestic disaster. On cold winter evenings in Ann Arbor, she would head out to the grocery store and come home with a head of cauliflower, some oranges, and ginger ale.
“What meal can you possibly make out of that?” Jonathan asked me.
Even back then, twenty-five years ago, I knew that sort of thing was of no importance. Not in love. Plus, buying nothing useful was something I would do, and I certainly hoped someone would eventually marry me. But back then, I just listened.
Jonathan went on to explain that it scared him, Louise’s Catholicism, her being from that big brood of children, her siblings always being around the house.
“How many are there?” I asked. Just to let him carry on.
“Ten,” he said. “She is number three.”
I didn’t mention that I was the oldest of eight, although Jonathan must have known that. But I did pay and say, “So, the skirt?”
The shop with the skirt was the first one we’d been to: a tiny, cave-like space near the harbor. But the walk back went quickly as Jonathan continued with his apprehension about Louise. Unsurprisingly, his mother didn’t like her.
“She likes you,” he insisted. “And Michael Casey.” As if to imply it wasn’t about Louise being Catholic. “She just doesn’t put my mother at ease.”
At the shop, Jonathan chose a black-and-white checked skirt, a short, simple A-line with tiny flecks of fuchsia ribbon woven into the fabric.
“It’s perfect,” I told him. The clerk, who didn’t even know Louise, agreed.
“Hey, would you try it on?” Jonathan asked me.
It was only once I saw myself in the dressing room mirror that I wished the boy I was seeing did buy me clothes.
I came out very slowly. Jonathan was sitting on a stool shaped like a spool of thread.
“It looks fantastic on you,” he said.
When I folded the skirt and rested it in the counter, Jonathan told the clerk, thank you, but he wasn’t going to take it.
“Do you mind looking one more place? Maybe I can find pottery,” Jonathan said.
“But the skirt was perfect!”
“Perfect on you,” he answered, and I felt at once elated and vile.
That night we made dinner for everyone—my roommates and the boy I was seeing. Jonathan kept refilling wine glasses and telling jokes involving Cortázar’s cat. He was drunk and laughing with my roommate Lis when I went to bed.
The next day, we walked Jonathan to the train station. He shook the hand of the boy I was seeing and told him “Take care of her for us,” as if performing some sort of diplomatic duty on behalf of the men of America.
I hadn’t been prepared for the possibility of any kind of winter in the Mediterranean, but it was gray and full of low-grade sadness. My shared flat was far from the beach, and it was easy to forget that, just a few weeks prior, people had been bathing in the sea. All around our neighborhood, someone had pasted flyers with a blurry picture of a man with a chiseled face and a thick mane of wavy black hair. The flyer explained, in both Spanish and Romanian, that Anghel Cojocaru had last been seen on my street November 11th, the day Jonathan had left. An entire month had gone by.
One Tuesday evening, as I walked home from teaching English to small, smocked children, I saw that new information had been handwritten onto the flyers: an offer of reward money, 20,000 pesetas, for any information. By that Friday, someone had scribbled Anghel’s height and weight across all of them: 1.67 m, 55 kilos. Despite the blurriness of the picture, the thick mane of hair had led me to believe that Anghel was young, robust, vibrant, but the realization he didn’t weigh much more than I did depressed the hell out of me. He might have been much older than I had thought and possibly very sick. Throughout January, more details were added: “hazel eyes,” “slight limp,” “last seen wearing brown leather jacket.”
It was the 55 kilos that really got to me, though. Once I even cried over the whole thing. The boy I was seeing held me, but he wasn’t clear as to why the man’s weight was so devastating to me.
“He’s just so tiny,” I sobbed. It was after sex. Nothing could console me.
By February, there wasn’t much space left on the flyers to add new information, and after a while they began to peel at the edges. The boy I was seeing suggested that maybe Anghel had been found, and I even tried to believe him, but I wrote to Jonathan about how worried I was about the fate of my tiny Romanian neighbor. My male roommates were smoking lots of hash and sorting through some very shady pornographic photography that winter, so it was good that I moved to a new neighborhood, closer to the sea, with the boy I was seeing and two girls from the island of Minorca.
Jonathan, it turns out, didn’t marry Louise. He married another Catholic girl, this one from Brooklyn instead of Massachusetts. Over the years, I’ve heard Brigid can’t cook or clean either and that Louise became an architect and married a different boy from Queens, and they do have a whole brood of children.
After Jonathan’s visit and that first, sad Spanish winter, I married the boy I was seeing and didn’t return to the US for many, many years. My husband hadn’t liked Jonathan or his visit, but that isn’t why we lost touch. I felt uncomfortable about the way he had spoken about Louise and guilty about having tried on what was to be her skirt, so once I was married I stopped writing him letters.
But, just last summer, I saw Jonathan again, some twenty years on.
I was with my friend Chiara in Palermo, Sicily. We are both divorced and have sons the same age, so we often holiday together. Thank god, Chiara could do the driving; the detours and those dusty roads were too much for me. Each day we did a new excursion: the catacombs, ancient ruins, a beach. On our last day, we did the ruins at Segesta, which included a hilly climb up to an ancient Greek temple, an amphitheater where the boys called out soliloquies to an imaginary crowd, and a bright, white cafeteria full of screaming children and mothers ordering pistachio pastries and lemon gelato, before collapsing onto plastic chairs.
I was tired of the sweets and the heat and the pistachio everything. The boys weren’t tired of the heat or the sweets though, and after our long walk through the ruins they pointed out what they wanted from behind the glass counter: a tiny brick of figs, biscotti with pistachio and almonds, marzipan shaped like an apricot, complete with a bright-green leaf. Chiara was in the restroom, and I was trying to figure out how many lira the sweets cost, when someone said, “Veronica?”
A slender, dark-haired woman stood behind me. She looked very tired and frail. Her hands trembled as she searched in a tiny leather pouch for coins to pay for the two espressos, but the woman’s gaze was unwavering.
“I’m Laine. Laine Fines, Jonathan’s mother,” she said.
I handed the paper bag of sweaty sweets to my son and collected Laine’s espressos.
“Yes, yes you are,” I said, guiding her towards an outdoor bench, away from the cafeteria’s fluorescent lighting and hysterical families.
Once seated and settled, Laine took a sip of her coffee and motioned at the other cup.
“Drink Jonathan’s. He’s asking questions up at the temple. He’ll take forever, I’m afraid.”
I first met Laine when I was nineteen. She and her husband had come to visit Jonathan in Ann Arbor, where I had run into them at the butcher shop. She ended up inviting me to dinner, which Jonathan was cooking of course. That was the first time I ever drank wine with adults. Dr. Fines insisted that Jonathan drive me home that night, even though it was only a few blocks back to my dorm. It was Michigan in March, freezing once night fell.
That summer, I visited Laine and her husband in Queens, bringing wine and a fat bouquet of peonies. Laine said that another time, the next time, we would go to the city, visit the MoMA.
“You had a boy, just one?” she asked.
“Yes, Luc,” I told her. “That one there, with reddish hair.”
Laine sipped her coffee. I had already finished mine. She was unhurried, steady now.
“I always thought Jonathan would have girls,” she said. “He and Brigid don’t have children.”
I had more pedestrian topics in mind, some simple questions about how long
Jonathan and his mother had been in Sicily, how long they would be staying, or where else they would go, but I stayed quiet.
“I always liked you, Veronica. You know before Jonathan I lost two daughters?”
I could see him coming down the hill by then—relaxed, elegant, oblivious to his mother’s discovery in the cafeteria. He was wearing navy-blue Bermuda shorts and a white linen shirt, the clothes of a man wise enough not to have had children. His hair was still thick but completely gray.
“One at birth, the other at six months.”
I knew that once Jonathan reached us the conversation would change. That we would all reunite—Laine, Jonathan, Chiara, the children—and make plans to meet in Palermo and eat pizza in the street. He would diffuse and deflect.
“I didn’t know that, Laine.” I took her hand, making sure Jonathan hadn’t seen us yet.
Chiara and her son left that night, but I agreed, without much persuasion, to stay on with Luc, Laine, and Jonathan. We spent two days in a town called Erice on the top of a cliff overlooking Tapani. Early in the morning it was so misty you could hardly see ten feet in front of you, but as early as nine the sun was unbearable, bleaching the stone streets. Laine and I visited the minute churches, then we read and played cards until late afternoon when the sun shifted and infused the town with a peach light. Jonathan took Luc back to the catacombs, my son’s favorite place in all of Sicily. Luc told us all about the mummies and Jonathan talked about the ticket taker, a mummy himself.
“That guy must be 100 years old,” Jonathan kept repeating to me, his mother, and the girl at the hotel reception.
Our last night, we all stayed up late playing spades, drinking coffee and brandy in a tiny square. Luc, about to turn nine that month, fell asleep in my lap. Jonathan covered him with his jacket. Laine bummed cigarettes from the guys who ran the bar. For the first time in months, I felt a hint of cool, autumn air. In the morning, the four of us squeezed into a taxi. Laine’s suitcase was heavier than Luc and maybe even than Anghel Cojocaru, Jonathan laughed. It was cruel, I realized, how the lost souls of the world were so entertaining to him, but I was touched that he remembered that detail from my letters, from that first, gray Mediterranean winter.
Jonathan chatted to the driver the entire hour-long ride to the airport in Palermo—food, football, something about highway construction. Laine closed her eyes and stiffened ever so slightly at the sharpest bends as we descended. Feeling ill from the stuffy car and lack of sleep, I stuck my head out the window, searching for a trace of the cool salt air.
When we parted inside the tiny terminal, I could still see the sea just outside the airport window, the water almost reaching the narrow service road. I kissed Laine’s papery cheek. Jonathan squeezed my son’s shoulder and repeated his strange paternal phrase, this time to my son, “Take care of her for us.”
Madeline Beach Carey is the author of the story collection Les filles dels altres. Her work has appeared recently in El Món d’Ahir, de/rail, The Alameda, RIC Journal and The Sultan’s Seal.Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she lives in Barcelona. www.madelinebeachcarey.com