By S.D. Jones
I fell in love as she brought us daiquiris on a silver platter held above her head.
She was breathtakingly, unbelievably beautiful. Her hair was a rich, onyx black; her eyes were deep storms; freckles lay like constellations across her nose. And she was less than three feet tall. Not that that was part of it. Her height wasn’t a factor in my attraction. Or maybe it was; it’s just that she was beautiful, and I fell in love as she brought us daiquiris.
‘Don’t stare,’ my wife said.
She had mistaken my love for curiosity. Maybe she mistook it for disgust. I stared because I loved the way the waitress walked, the confidence of her steps, and I loved that she was bringing me a good, cold drink on a hot afternoon. My wife didn’t see that. She saw me looking at a dwarf. How could I tell her that I wasn’t staring because of her height, but rather because I needed to, because pulling my eyes away would tear my heart apart at the seams?
She held herself with such exquisite poise; the balance of the two drinks on the wide platter was perfect. She wore a white tuxedo jacket that accented the depth of her eyes and the curves of her breasts and thighs. And we were her destination. She was barely sweating though the afternoon air was sweltering, even in the dappled shade of the Habana Vieja courtyard.
She was beside us. Her head of thick black hair reached just over her waist. She focused on the drinks, placing each of them on the high ceramic table without spilling a drop. I wanted to say something; I wanted to make her smile, make her laugh, make her love me, but there was nothing, in all decorum, that I could do. She nodded to my wife and then to me and turned away, back to where the other waiters lounged and smoked cigars. As she reached them, my heart broke. The waitress was no longer a part of my world; I was no longer part of hers. A rift had opened between us. I took a sip of my drink. It, too, was perfect: white rum, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup shaken over ice and served in a delicate, chilled glass. It dissolved the taste of tin that had lingered in my mouth.
My wife watched as I drank, and frowned as I placed the glass down on the table. I wonder what she had found in that sight to irritate her. I could only guess. All I could do was guess. It would have something to do with what she had said the night before. Exactly what it was, I couldn’t say. I think there was a time in the past when I wouldn’t have had to guess, when I would have known with certainty what she felt, but now I couldn’t tell.
My wife, too, had been changed by the arrival of the waitress. Or maybe just my understanding of her had changed. It’s true that she seemed different. I knew that I could no longer anticipate her moods, her thoughts, her feelings. I couldn’t make her smile with just a few words. Where she had been my significant other, my life partner, the woman I saw each morning and each night, now she was a stranger, just a woman that I had shared my life with. Had it always been this way? I hadn’t thought so. I thought that we had been close, unbelievably so. I tried to think, but even that was difficult in the heat. It was the waitress. She had changed everything with her presence. Maybe her arrival had made it that I had never known my wife; her presence had distorted our history, pushing back my reality — the reality in which my wife and I were a perfect, happy couple — and had set down another truth in its place, like the unrolling of new foreign rug in the place where a comfortable but worn one had previously rested.
“How much longer are we going to sit here?” My wife said.
Again there was something I couldn’t understand. She seemed to be saying that there was somewhere else that we should be, something else that we should be doing. But what could we be doing but sitting in a shady courtyard drinking daiquiris? Wasn’t that enough? I was in love, but wasn’t she at least content?
“Didn't you bring your book?” I asked. I regretted the words as I said them. They sounded dismissive. And though I could now feel an ocean of distance between us, I didn’t want to do anything to push my wife further away.
There was a time when we could sit at a cafe or bar for hours on end, not speaking, lost in thought or reading, happy in the knowledge that the other was near, within distance of an outstretched hand. Usually it would be cold outside, and we would be huddled together, having found an intimacy that didn’t need words. That was happiness for me. Or it had been.
When we were at bars we would mostly have a few drinks. We would read, and when we could no longer concentrate on the pages of our books, we would put them down and talk. That was what I had tried to say when I asked about the book; that there had been a time when we were happy. I was trying to ask where it had gone.
“It’s too dull,” she said. Her hand rested on the paperback we had bought at the outdoor market the day before. It had been unbelievably warm on those cobbled streets. I had loved seeing all the books piled up high; all different languages, authors, editions. I spoke with a bookseller for a while, a man younger than me but who was so quick with wit and language; his words spilled from his mouth like marbles falling from a jar. He told me the books I needed to read, and I felt his excitement as he talked. He felt, truly felt, what he said, and I loved every word. It made me feel young. When I showed my wife the books she didn’t say anything. She wasn’t excited about them. But she took one from the small pile before we left the hotel that morning, and so I thought that everything was normal.
Our waitress was watching us. She was checking if we needed anything else. I wanted to call her over, to ask for another drink or her name, but I couldn’t. I was too much in love.
Did I feel like this when I first met my wife? I couldn’t remember.
I couldn’t even remember where we’d met.
It had been at university. I remember now. I hadn’t been much back then — not respected or rich — though I think that I was happy.
She’d been walking as I read on a patch of grass. I’d called out to her. She was wildly beautiful. She had thick brown hair and chestnut eyes that, when she turned them to me, cut me to my heart. She asked about the book I was reading, and I was glad, because I wouldn’t have thought what to say. It was a John Irving, I think. The book. I think I enjoyed his writing at the time. But then tastes do change. Take wine for an instance. I used to only drink Pinot Noir — when I met my wife I drank beer — but then I moved on to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache. Then I drank by region. Only reds from the Côte de Rhone, then only from Bourgogne, nothing but Bordeaux. I had a Spanish phase, nothing but wines from the La Rioja region. Wines from the Hunter and Barossa Valleys in Australia. South African wines. Then back to France. For a while I would only drink a expensive Syrah from a small vineyard in Côte de Provence, of all places. Now I generally drink a blend, or a glass of crisp rosé when it’s warm and the feeling is right. A white with lunch. A cocktail in the early evening. A toddy when it’s cold or I feel ill. They say that your tastes tend towards the stronger as you get older, and I admit that I agree. The same thing happened with cigars. I used to smoke a Connecticut leaf when I first started appreciating that half hour of freedom that smoking gives you. Now I go for a stronger darker leaf, usually in a thinner roll, for the flavour, and because maintaining the image of masculinity is no longer a concern of mine. So, too, have my taste in authors evolved, well I say evolved, probably just changed, transitioned. Now I’ll read mostly short stories; Carver, Chekov, Munro. Hemingway fell away with the thick cigars. Even here in this place.
I’m not saying there’s that change with women, those changing passions with partners. But the thought that there might be scares me.
No I don’t think I loved her from the start, the woman that would become my wife, not in the same way, not straight off. But I was entranced. She had such a sharp mind, such ready wit. She was well read and knew what she wanted. And I happened to be something that she wanted. Isn’t that the greatest aphrodisiac of all?
We moved in together after I left university. We shared a one bedroom apartment next to a liquor store. People shouted in the streets out front during the night. She was finishing her PhD. I was trying to write. Then my grandfather passed, and suddenly things changed. I was a wealthy man. We traveled for a while. Anywhere you could think of we went, just the two of us; Russia, Kenya, The United States, Argentina, Croatia. It didn’t matter where we were as long as we were together, Vonnegut’s nation of two. Yes, that was love. It had been there.
But that was what…? Twenty years ago I think.
I had some successes, yes. My real estate investments did well. So did my commodity speculations. I never did write much of anything.
And now? Cuba. Havana. I don’t think it was a conscious move to recapture the past. But it was somewhere we had always wanted to visit together, somewhere that our conversation had always brought us back to. One place we had missed.
“Well then what do you want?” I asked. Again I sounded too accusatory, like a fist balled in anger.
“I don’t know. Something. Something different. I can’t just sit here and watch you drink in this..” She waved her hand dismissively at the courtyard, taking in the columns, the thick green plants and my waitress standing at the bar, “…this circus.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t think I do.”
I took a sip of my drink, then another larger one. I placed the empty glass carefully down on the table’s delicate ceramic tiling.
We had visited the city. We lunched at a café on the water, watched the waves splash up over the cement walls of the Malécon. We visited Ambos Mundos, walked around Hemingway’s room, saw his hunting photos, his bragging letters. I stepped into the Floridita, packed with American tourists, and stepped right back out. In the evening we had dinner on the rooftop of the Inglaterra. A band was playing Rumba music and several beautiful people were dancing on the sandstone flooring. We stayed and drank cool drinks in the heavy, evening air. At the table next to us a party of four had arrived. Two men, English tourists by their look and their manners, and two women who did nothing but smile and move their bodies to the music. They were prostitutes, that much was clear. They seemed so happy. They jumped up from the table and danced with wild skill, their hips swaying in perfect unison to the music. They would return, breathlessly, to the table where the men were waiting, and speak in clear, loud voices. When the group was told to leave the prostitutes just laughed and rushed out into the night. The men followed. Later the women came running back, heading straight to a point in front of the band where they could dance again. They gestured to the musicians who laughed and played with new energy. I don’t know what happened to their men. The women didn’t look like they needed them; they were having too much fun.
I wondered. To smile, to laugh, to enjoy oneself so readily, so wholeheartedly. That was something I wanted. It was something both of us used to do. Yet somewhere, sometime, it had become impossible for us to show ourselves to each other. To be so happy requires total openness, and I wasn’t sure we had that anymore. Suddenly there was a distance between us, filled, not with secrets, but with ignorance.
There was the death of the woman from her work. That had been what had first shown me the gap. The distance. This was when we had been living in England. In the countryside near Oxford. My wife had come home one evening, after dark. She was upset, crying. She told me that she had to go to a funeral, that of a close friend, a woman who had been fighting uterine cancer and had succumbed to the illness. I continued to hold her, my wife, but I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say. The blow for me wasn't the death, but the fact that I hadn’t known this woman existed. Her name was completely unknown to me, yet she was clearly an important part of my wife’s life. The tears, which my wife rarely shed, testified to the depth of feeling she felt towards the woman. I had tried to comfort her, but I still couldn’t think of the words to say. All I kept thinking about was the distance between us. I felt guilty for thinking of myself at such a time.
After a little while my wife got up from the couch and went to bed. I stayed in the living room, not knowing what to do. I should have followed her, I suppose. Instead I poured myself a drink. There is something about a having a drink; it always gives you something other to do.
The realization plagued me. I took time to think. I questioned myself. I wondered whether I had listened to my wife. Had she not felt like she could tell me about her life outside of our shared home? Either way I looked at it there was a rift between us that should not have been possible. I tried to forget. I let myself believe that everything was okay, that we were still a united pair. Us against the world.
But it had become clear that the distance was still there. The waitress showed me that. The more I had ignored it the more it had grown. And the waitress that had shown me that I could be in love with someone else. The beautiful dwarf who I wanted nothing more than to hold and touch and caress, had shone a spotlight on the corruption of my marriage.
“So are we going to talk about it?” My wife asked. She avoided my eye, instead looking over at the bar.
“If you’d like.”
We had been sitting in our hotel room. This had been the night before. The room had high ceilings and dark wooden walls. A fan spun quickly above our heads. Out of the half open, green balcony doors we could hear sounds of the city. My wife was sitting on the edge of the bed in her thick robe. She looked beautiful; she still had the same elegance, the same assertiveness as when we had met. She was staring at nothing. I was in an armchair reading Tolstoy with a glass of dark rum in my hand.
“Are you happy?” She asked. The unexpected question broke the deep silence that had lowered itself over the room.
“What? You mean here? Yes, I think so.”
“No I mean are you happy?”
“Oh. I see what you mean,” I said. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t feel up to the conversation. I wanted to just say yes and return to my book but I knew that she wouldn’t be satisfied with anything but a considered answer. “I guess I’d need some time to think about it.”
“Is it that difficult a question?”
“Sometimes I’m not so sure.”
“Well, are you happy?”
“No.” She said it slowly, the intonation in her voice making it clear that she was sure of her answer. She looked defiant, as if it had been a difficult but necessary confession to make. Which I suppose it had been.
I sat in silence for a while. It wouldn’t do to respond too quickly. I wanted to shout, of course, and a part of me wanted to leave. I wanted to continue reading my book and pretend that I hadn’t heard. Instead I took a drink of my rum and waited.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?”
Again I waited. I looked around the room, at the shadows that draped over the furniture, and felt the stillness of the air. I’ve often felt that you can notice the moments in your life that mean something. There are those that we imbue with meaning when they have none, that are just a continuation of a decision made long before, but the moments that really matter, those have something to them, those we can feel, like the feeling you get when you know that your life is changing.
“So what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there something I can do?”
“I don’t think so.”
So I didn’t do anything. I sat and waited. I suppose there were things I could have done then, to alleviate the feeling of pain; I could have gone over to her, could have held her, but I didn’t. Instead I sat and drank my rum. And after she looked away, and I started reading again. I heard the rustle of sheets as she slid into bed. I kept reading. A few hours went by. After a while I got up and lay myself next to her, on top of the covers, careful not to make a movement that would wake her. From the sound of her breathing I could tell that she was asleep.
The waitress stood between us. Her hands were down by her sides, her demeanor was almost military. I looked over at my wife, who shook her head slowly, almost imperceptibly. I felt another moment; another moment of change, another moment that truly meant something. I looked back at the waitress and then to my wife once more.
‘Yes, another daiquiri.’
The waitress nodded quickly and turned back towards the bar. I watched her walk, hoping that I was wrong about her significance and the significance of the moment. When she finally reached the bar I turned away from the waitress and looked back at my wife. I had expected there to be anger in her expression but instead there was only sadness.
“So that’s it?” she asked.
I continued to look at her and thought about the years we had been together. I thought about who we had been and who we were.
“Yes, I suppose so,” I said.
I had made a decision. The decision to stay and have a drink. And so my wife, who was now more of a stranger than a partner, stood up. She looked down at me and suddenly I felt very small. I looked back up at the woman I had loved and watched as she turned her back to me and walked away across the stone floor of the atrium towards the doors that led out into the street. I sat and waited.
Eventually the waitress came back with the single drink balanced on the silver platter. I tried to smile, but I couldn’t, so instead I watched as she put the drink down. I watched and, when she was gone, took a long drink. I thought about nothing. I felt the heat of the afternoon and listened to the sound of traffic. There didn’t seem to be anything left.
The waitress was talking to one of the bartenders — a man who must have been six foot six and thin as a sapling. Her head was tilted upwards and her hair cascaded down her back. He, too, wore an impeccable tuxedo. His skin was a deep mahogany brown and his cheekbones stood out sharply from his face. He stood bent over her and there was a tenderness in his expression that sent pangs of jealousy down into my stomach.
She looked happy with the bartender. I watched as they walked away together until they were hidden behind a set of corinthian columns. As I turned back to my drink that was still cool to the touch, I knew that there was nothing left of my love for her or of my marriage.
S. D. Jones is a Swiss/Australian writer currently living in France. He has recently completed a MSt in Creative Writing at Cambridge University and is working on his first novel. Examples of his work can be found at STORGY Magazine, Typishly Literary Journal, Short Fiction Break, and at the Esthetic Apostle.