A short story I wrote many years ago has been published. Yay! Many thanks to the editors of The Ekphrastic Review. It's a great relief to see it available to read with the image that inspired it. More writing with visual inspiration can be found on ekphrastic.net.
Concierto, photography by Pete Turner (USA) 1975. Album cover for Concierto by Jim Hall (sextet, USA) 1975.
Heather met Andrew Saint-Fleur, III. over a bottle of gin at a fraternity party at Stanford. He was finishing a law degree, and she was in her last year of anthropology in the college. Some months later when he proposed, she gave him a practiced smile and accepted. She was relieved. With the idea of marriage came direction, though her mother had other ideas.
“You have a degree, now. You can do whatever you want,” her mother said when her oldest daughter showed up wearing the engagement ring. She walked back and forth, gesturing with both hands for emphasis. “Get a job, see the world. Why do you want to waste yourself on a frat boy?”
“I want to be married.”
“Oh, that’s foolish!” her mother cried. “You’re smart and pretty! You can have anyone you want, do anything you want.”
“I’m not that pretty,” she said. “Besides, he comes from a good family, and his job pays him more than I could ever make.”
“You don’t have to marry into a holier-than-thou family to earn a decent living. You can make your own way in life.”
This was a standard phrase of her mother’s with good reason. After the death of her husband, she had moved to California, raised three children alone—gone to work, cooked countless tuna casseroles, patched hand-me-downs—and became a person Heather could only admire and never imitate because she knew her own limitations. Now each week her mother and her gaggle of friends got together to do yoga and talk about empowerment. She was like the neighbourhood gypsy, all in flowing, soft, purple things and shawls smelling of patchouli left in the air wherever she’d been and wandered away.
In a rare outburst, Heather said, “I want a good life for me and my children. Getting married is the only way that could ever be.”
“I see,” her mother said gently. “If you do marry that man, I just hope it’s not for the sex. It wears off in no time.”
Heather was horrified. Drew was nothing like her father, a good-looking farmhand who’d proposed to her mother in a field on bended knee, a beer in one hand and an engagement ring in a paper bag in the other.
Sex was not the reason, but money was. It was only part of a more complex set of circumstances, a collage of pieces that formed a picture of how she imagined herself to be. The role of sparkling hostess of dinner parties, luxurious lady of the mansion, a woman of taste and refinement—they were all within her and waiting for the right opportunity to shine. Everything she’d ever wanted was now within reach, and it looked nothing like the small, plain life she had growing up. Stability was another reason. She loved him enough, she thought, and didn’t want to struggle the way her mom had.
Marrying Drew would realize this dream.
In the waning months of her senior year, she left the engagement ring at home for safekeeping and treaded carefully through narrow passageways and ruins in southern-central Mexico, part of a university-sponsored excursion for anthropology majors. Digging with a trowel or a pickax in an ancient ceremonial centre, she and other Americans worked alongside students and professors from the University of Guadalajara. At first, she barely tolerated the hard labour, the sweating bodies of strangers, the dirty nails and the bruises. Quickly the work became natural and methodical, and when she found broken cookware from commoner households of Mesoamerica, the others hugged her and treated her to dinner in a local town. This pleased her enormously.
That was how she met Carlos. Within one day of their first meeting at the dig, his face seemed to mirror hers, and their voices combined in a familiar harmony. On weekends at night she and Carlos went out with the other diggers—talking, laughing and telling stories. While they danced, they shared secrets. By day they explored outside the city places covered in trees, covered in birds, and on a break in digging, they took to side streets where scents of chocolate mixed with cinnamon or pepper with chilies came from open windows, and people called to the diggers to come in and eat.
On the day she was to leave Mexico, he was waiting for her outside the university dormitory. In darkness, the rain, incessant against the windshield on the highway since leaving Guadalajara, had changed into quiet drizzle by the time they arrived at Teotihuacán. With a single mission, they climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, rising above stone tombs of ancient ancestors. A liquid dawn appeared on the horizon while in deep shadow of the ruins they held hands. Finally, morning came luminous and blinding. The warmth of late spring crept over the land. A sudden blade of wind blew through her hair, and she shivered. They looked at one another. Miraculously, after all they’d been through, his face had not changed, but perhaps their hearts would break from loss. This thought played out in her mind.
He must have understood because he cooed, no, no, and held her, smoothed her hair and touched her face.
“Carlos,” she said.
He kissed her for the first time, the only time.
When they parted, he gave her a book of Mexican poetry. On the inside flap, he had inscribed the words, Joy is a stream that flows from the mountains of primeval sorrow. The falling tears of the great Inca Creator, Viracocha, are drops of rain falling to the earth. Sorrow is the source of life itself.
When Heather returned to the States, Drew’s mother, Mrs. Saint-Fleur, hosted a garden party to announce her son and daughter-in-law’s new home, only two blocks from their Victorian mansion. Several wise investments and tax breaks had made her wealthy in-laws even wealthier. Though they feigned modesty, Heather recognized the supreme confidence they held in their ability to control their world and understood it to mean a great deal more. Those at the party who were unaccustomed to privilege—she and the servants, she imagined—were excluded from discussions of money and intimate conversations of property and tax shelters. Still, in her renewed hopefulness, she reserved judgment; though she had kept her mother from coming by saying it was a small gathering of his side of the family.
To her friends, her good fortune was astounding. Life had dealt her a succession of achievements that they’d only dreamed was possible—marriage to a wealthy man and now a home to call her own. There had been no effort, Heather told them. It was meant to be. Some things are like that. She hadn’t told them how she’d molded her appearance and opinions to reflect Drew’s tastes.
For the party, Mrs. Saint-Fleur had spent all day in the kitchen, orchestrating the selection and placement of food to best enhance visual presentation. The spread was magnificent— gorgonzola cheese, pesto spread, and smoked salmon with capers—food she’d never tasted, but was excited to try. Mr. Saint-Fleur raided his own stock of alcohol, carefully choosing the Courvoisier, an old scotch, and an assortment of Sauternes and dry red wine. To his wife’s horror, he pried their guests with his favourites.
Heather had no complaints about her in-laws. The Saint-Fleurs regularly hosted extravagant events, including the wedding, at their expense, and she was grateful to be free of worry over money, a feeling she’d rarely experienced growing up and getting through school on loans and a part-time job.
Drew Saint-Fleur, her husband, strode toward her with a highball in hand and began speaking, almost shouting at her, beckoning her wildly, slurring his words and saying, “Baby, come here, come here.”
For a moment, she could not hear him and merely observed him as a stranger, distant and unconnected, and wondered momentarily why she’d married this man, of all people, a guy who’d been arrested for DUI, though that was a few years earlier with his fraternity brothers and nothing had happened since.
Drew’s mother intercepted her son and silenced him with one harsh word, “Now!” She led him indoors, he with an amused look on his face.
Heather did not care about Drew’s occasional public drunkenness. She could accept rare binges in social settings for the sake of a good life the rest of the year. Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, intimidated her.
“Jennifer…oh, heavens, I mean Heather,” Mrs. Saint-Fleur summoned her as she might one of her servants with a distracted wave of the hand.
Mrs. Saint-Fleur had no memory for names, which didn’t seem to bother her. She was impossibly groomed and seemed capable of strolling through a hurricane without having a hair slip out of place. She’d learned that this woman had no fear of even—in her mother-in-law’s words--the most vicious attacks on my character by a small cadre of women at a local Rotary Club meeting. Her mother-in-law had responded in her usual way, flashing a brilliant smile and suggesting the offending individuals had misunderstood.
Heather wished she could be more like her. She felt a cool hand wrapped around her wrist and thought she could overpower this woman, if she had to.
“Come with me,” Mrs. Saint-Fleur said. “I want to introduce you to Mrs. Garamond— who has momentarily disappeared—there she is—because she’s from Pennsylvania, which isn’t far from your home in … Where are you from?”
“Illinois,” she said.
“You grew up in a small town,” the woman said and laughed in a way that let Heather know she felt sorry for her.
Heather felt the stab of insult and distractedly fished a tissue from her purse. “Have I offended you?” Mrs. Saint-Fleur said and waved her hand as if waving away a fly. “But you’re family,” she said and leaned in to embrace her briefly.
“As I was saying, Mrs. Garamond is from Pennsylvania and is the second cousin of Drew’s high school sweetheart, Julia, who spent most of her childhood here, which is how we know her parents. Julia’s father and my husband worked together in real estate for many years and to this day do everything together, play golf, go to the investment club meetings and so forth. We all thought for certain they would eventually marry. Then that awful McCoy boy stole her away. Broke Drew’s heart. He’s still very sensitive.”
Drew’s mother paused to retrieve a mint from a flat, gold case she kept within reach. An awkward moment passed, and Heather said, “We never talk about that.” “
Of course, you don’t,” Mrs. Saint-Fleur said, snapping the case shut. “But I am certain you will be kind enough to humour him when he gets in one of his sour moods.”
She understood perfectly her future mother-in-law’s tacit message. No reconciliation would be possible with this woman who seemed intent on directing her daughter-in-law’s new life. Without some kind of agreement, even her home would be no sanctuary from the unceasing prodding only a few short blocks away. She felt a wave of fatigue wash over her. “You look pale. You should lie down.”
“I guess I am tired,” Heather said.
She retreated to the salon where she lay on the chaise-longue. The draperies had been pulled back, affording her a view of the action on the patio and in the yard. Mrs. Saint-Fleur strode about, gesturing around the yard, no doubt speaking about her possessions. Never one to discuss ideas or politics, she could be overheard talking about people—whether they were upstanding or trash—and things—vacations, cars, clothing. Anything that could be bought was an opportunity for boasting. Arrogance veiled in an innocuous discussion of money.
Heather took pleasure in gazing at the lush yard lined with reddish terra cotta lanterns the Saint-Fleurs had picked up on their annual trek to Mexico, or Mayheeco, as Mrs. Saint-Fleur was fond of hearing herself say. As in, we went to Mayheeco and for an entire week sat on the beach under blue canopies drinking margaritas.
In Heather’s chest, anticipation rose to the edges of her teeth and to the tips of her ears. Teotihuacán. Her mouth formed the word without a sound. City of the Gods in the far-flung countryside.
One of her mother’s platitudes—things people say and don’t follow—came to her then: The thing you resist is the very thing you need to find the courage to do.
Courage was a thing Heather had seen, but not experienced. When her brother organized rights protests and marched in the streets of Washington, D.C., she knew she was witnessing courage. When her sister became a high school history teacher in Chicago, she knew it was courageous, too. But she wasn’t like them.
What did she know of great courage? It took all her resolve to have a graceful conversation with her mother-in-law. Her courage in Mexico had been without thought, as if being there was meant to be. Where had it gone?
After the party, the feelings stirred by her mother’s warning grew. Sadness weighed on her, yet she remained firmly reconciled to her commitment. She cared for Drew—a watered down sensation, not the ardent clarity of love—had taken the vows and promised herself to leave behind all selfish acts from that time forward. Each day she would start again and try to rouse herself to be a better wife and person. As if to cleanse her spirit, she sent the book of Mexican poetry from Carlos to her sister for safekeeping with other pieces of girlhood—her beauty contest crown, fairy tale books from childhood, old photographs. To her amazement, sending away the cherished objects of her past like scraps of paper blown in the wind only frustrated her efforts.
Her heart remained painfully remote.
At first, Drew reacted with concern and patience to the changes in her temperament. He told her, “You’re so listless. Are you depressed?”
She told him she was happy.
“Maybe you’re ill,” he suggested.
She said she felt fine.
“Maybe you’re pregnant,” he tried.
His concern slipped easily into complaint. She was too passive, almost bored, in lovemaking. She’d stopped cooking for him on weekends when their cook had time off. Hunger was foreign to her, though he took her out to eat at gourmet restaurants. She was shrinking before his eyes. There was definitely something wrong with her.
At night she slept fitfully between exhaustion and wakefulness, dreaming of a passionate reunion with Carlos surrounded by palm trees and tropical blooms. She surprised him by wrapping her arms around him from behind and pressing her face into his damp neck, coloured a high burnished sheen. His nape smelled of lime and warm, sweet grass, hers of coconut and passion fruit. She wasn’t shy. She didn’t feel guilty. When you’ve found someone under the coarse, laborious conditions of a dig, you toss out fear and regret. You have a bond few could understand.
He ran his hand through his dark, curly hair and rested his head in her lap where she stroked his cheek. She dreamed of him looking up at her eyes calmly and curiously, as though at a placid pool of blue water, contemplating something shiny within, something like a treasure he wanted to have and cradle in the palm of his hand forever. There they recounted faithfully everything they’d experienced since they last met. Every exacting, unpredictable moment.
Whenever she woke at dawn, she rose from her husband’s bed and looked out at the bay from on high. She could still recall standing in the ether of the great Pyramid of the Sun. The clear blue of the sky, vast like an ocean, and the russet skin of Carlos, as permanent and real as the earth itself.
One day after Drew had left for work, she went to the Mission District, a section of San Francisco she’d never seen before, something her sister would have done without hesitation and something she would never have done before Mexico, before Carlos. The story, if she met anyone they knew, however unlikely, was she was planning a special meal for Drew and had to go to that neighbourhood to find the right ingredients. No one would doubt the dedication of a wife.
Along each avenue, around each turn, she expected to see Carlos. Instead she discovered vibrant murals, music bouncing out of the open windows of passing cars and shopkeepers peppering one another with jokes. The unexpected newness of the air—auto repair shops and next door a tienda latina, the tangled odors of engine oil and cooking beef and dry, pungent spices—quickened her heart.
As she wandered, the fragile honeycomb of her memory of Mexico began to rattle. Panic rose in her throat. If she could not conjure the feelings of Mexico into reality, that time with Carlos could be reduced to something in the past, a brief period in the timeline of her life, a footprint on the beach entirely wiped away by foam and water. Perhaps it wasn’t real. It was all just a game she’d played in her head, not unlike her adolescent imaginings of a mythical prince.
On a corner, a crowd had gathered in a parking lot where a Mariachi band dressed in charro suits and enormous hats was tuning instruments. The music began, and the people threaded out of the crowd to dance. The happiness, the dancing, the strumming guitars—it was exhilarating! She danced with a stranger, and they laughed. An hour passed, and the sky began to mist. She was covered in rain, covered in wildness, and she felt the nearness of Carlos.
The music stopped. It was time to leave. The people dispersed, and she followed them reluctantly to the street. The sunshine returned. For some time, she wandered, disheveled and grinning, the embodiment of her joy like a blaze for all to see as she stopped in shops to buy ingredients for her husband’s special meal. Eventually, she did not know how, she found her car and drove home.
At home her days were divided into daydreams and household distractions. Her husband’s voice, like a wooden bell, barely caught her attention. Finally, she conceded to his demands and went to the doctor, who prescribed lithium for a brief time to lift her apparent sadness. The peaks and valleys of her moods became like gentle backcountry roads, those safe spaces of home. To her relief, the sour taste the drug left in her mouth diminished her husband’s desires.
Shortly after another doctor’s visit, she learned she was pregnant. Her pregnancy was greeted with zealous joy by her in-laws and quiet congratulations by her mother, who added, “You will now be bound to your husband permanently as if you were in chains.”
For the first time in Heather’s life, the opinions of others mattered little. Pregnancy had made her special. It was something she was doing on her own, something brave she alone could do. No one else could have this baby for her.
Her newfound self-confidence changed her. Whenever she entered her mother-in-law’s home, she floated in gracefully and announced her decorating plans for the nursery, the type of delivery she would have and the girl she’d hired to help with the newborn. So convincing was she in this role that no one told her what to do, and this pleased her enormously. Her confidence ebbed and waned, a circumstance her mother-in-law seemed to exploit to her advantage. Heather calmly retreated into thoughts of the baby to conjure her own contentment. She had her sister return the box of treasured things and grew content in remembering her childhood—before marriage, even before Carlos—and in knowing that it would never change.