(best read with Coffee Liqueur—maybe straight scotch and Double Chocolate pound cake)
“I'll drive,” she said. I got in on the passenger side. “Push the seat back. The boys sit in the back and I use that seat as my office. Oh, sorry for the mess.” She was embarrassed—but not enough to refuse me the ride.
“No problem. I’ll put it in the back.”
“Where to? Arby’s?”
“No. This is for your birthday…Let’s go down to Subway.” She smirks. I know she’s impressed with my debonair style.
Subway shares a row of shops—Subway at one end, a rug shop, an office, a tanning salon and Ted’s Grill. We park in the middle of the strip. She crosses past me walking toward Subway. I grab her hand and pull her in the opposite direction. I could feel her hand shiver, her eyes dart around—who saw that?
“I’m not buying you a sandwich for your birthday. We’re going to Ted’s.” She doesn’t know whether to laugh or run away. A restaurant versus a sandwich shop. Hmmm.
“I have neighbors. Someone’s going to see us.”
“I have to be above reproach.”
I whisper, “You are above reproach…and, you should leave him.” We stare at each other. She measures me.
“Well, I’m not going to do that…the boys.”
“The boys need…” I think better of it. “This is your birthday lunch.” Her nose wrinkles, her lips purse. Her eyes stab me. At least she doesn’t stick her tongue out at me. “What?” I say. “Birthdays are for celebrating.” ‘I’m going to celebrate. You can come along for the ride,’ I think to myself.
“But you don’t understand. I’m a good girl. I have to be above reproach.”
“You are.” I show her my file folders. “This is a business-birthday lunch.” She shakes her head. I’m incorrigible. That much we agree on.
I open the door for her. The hostess calls me by name; the bartender smiles and says, “Hey”—by name, too. She is shocked. “What? They’re my friends.”
We are ushered to a booth. She sits down but doesn’t slide in. I chuckle as I slide across from her. She scorns. “I don’t eat red meat.”
“The salmon is wonderful.
She orders a hamburger. I order the salmon. I open the files on the table. We’re doing business. I have some of my stories and photos of my water project.
“Israel, Egypt and…Jamaica.” She smirks, again.
“Yah. ‘Have water problem…will travel.’”
“Not really. Old TV Western.” I cut a bite of salmon and put it on her plate. “Taste it, you’ll like it.”
Her shoulders slump like a recalcitrant teenager. Now I chuckle. She looks at me and smiles, then puts her hamburger together.
“Try the salmon first.”
“I will.” She picks at it. Her fork goes back for a real bite. “Good.”
“Would I lie?” She works hard not to look at me.
The waiter brings a pastry and places it in front of her.
“Hey, they’re not going to sing. That’s it. That’s all.”
“I don’t eat pastries.” She picks at the chocolate with her fork. Trying hard not to, she smiles.
“How long has it been?”
She looks at me. ‘That’s a question?’ her face asks.
“How long has it been since a man held you in his…heart?”
She starts to respond then hears the question. She looks hurt. “I’m not sure he ever did. You don’t understand. You weren’t raised like I was. I mean. I was raised very conservative. I was taught to believe that the bible was divinely inspired. …And, I believe that…my father told me that marriage is sacred. I can’t take it lightly.”
“In a way, yah. You don’t understand.”
“You’ve trapped yourself.”
“It would kill my father.”
“What’s it doing to you?”
“I’m tough. I’m hard. I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself. I’ve learned.” She stiffens and sits up straight. I fight to keep a blank face. I don’t believe a word. Her chest heaves and shudders. Suddenly her eyes are glossy. She fidgets to keep mascara from getting in her eyes. A lot of fuss, I think, for such a tough person. I pay the check and leave a good tip. We get in her car.
“Hey, you should see my grandfather’s carving.”
“The one you watched him make?”
“I don’t have time.”
“Go straight here.” She drives to my apartment. At the door, I turn the lock then stop. “I want to show it to you like I came to know it. Close you eyes and I’ll draw a picture in your mind of what it was like.
“Boy, is that a come-on. Close my eyes?”
I can see her considering. She does that thing with her eyes—no funny stuff. How strange. I should have thought of that. It’s one thing to present like a four-year old. It’s something else to still think like one. I look at her to explain—her eyes are closed.
“You’ll meet my grandfather and see his work through the eyes of a four-year old,” I said. Sounds like an ad for a travelogue.
“I’m going to lead you by your hands.” Obediently, she puts out her hands. Inside we navigate to the middle of my empty front room. Holding her hands I start.
“The street where my grandparents live is much like neighborhoods all around Oakland. There is a line of craftsman homes lining the long straight street, each a unique design. It’s house—driveway, next house—driveway all the way down the block.
“My grandparent’s house looks like a very large box…like a three-story home. But, it’s not. It’s a boxy, clapboard with a turret in the corner, then a small window and a large stairway that goes up to what looks like the second floor—but it’s the first, and only floor. The third floor is actually the huge craftsman roof. What looks like the first floor is actually the basement. When you climb the stairs you come to a porch and face a large pane-glass window. The oak front door faces toward the side of the house.” I turn her to face the imaginary door. “When the door opens you can smell my grandmother’s cooking—frijoles, enchiladas, pollo con molle. She tells me how happy she is to see me—‘Oh, Mama loooves you.’ She tells me how happy she is to see me and that I must be hungry. Lunch is ready. It’s 10 a.m. I’m not really hungry.
Mama—we call her Mama Keke—Mama Cake. Her name is Kete, a nickname for Catalina. My oldest cousin couldn’t say Kete and said Keke. The name stuck. Papa is Papa Pepe—Pepe is a nickname for Jose.
Mama has a habit of saying everything in Spanish then translating to English for us grandchildren. I’m never sure what language I’m hearing or understanding. Today I’ll be staying overnight. We put my things away. My mother slips away. She thinks I didn’t notice. Here, I’m a very quiet child—everywhere else I can talk for hours. Papa is a stocky, grey-haired man with short wirey hair and a wisk-brush moustache. I cringe when he hugs me and buries his moustache in my cheek. It scratches.” She smiles. “Keep you eyes closed. That’s why years later when my daughter cringed I shaved my moustache.”
“You had a moustache?” She smiles.
“A full beard, then moustache, now I’m naked.”
Her eyes open.
“Close your eyes!” She does.
“They are. They are,” she protests. “When do we see the carving?”
“Are we there yet?”
“It’s next. Hang on.”
“Papa’s laugh is a loud hefty rolling bellow. He says something to me, but my ears are deaf from the laugh and my cheek is burning from the scratchy moustache. He puts me down and leads me by the hand out the back door and down the long wooden stairs to the back yard.
I stay close to the house on the way down, always leading with the same foot down each tall stair. The wooden arm rail scares me. There’s a huge cactus directly below with broad leaves and huge spike thorns.
If I was with Mama, we would go to the back of the yard for a chicken. She would go in, bring out a protesting clucker to the chopping block and after the thud of her ax I’d see the headless chicken run around the pen. To me, that was always great fun. The chicken would run around in a big circle, stop, and fall over. I would laugh and squeal. I squealed a lot in those days.
But today, Papa takes me to the garage. Because he didn’t have a car, it was his studio/workshop. The garage is a small narrow building. It has a hip roof but from the front the façade makes it square at the top. There are two big doors that open out. Each door has three lights across the top—but they are painted opaque on the inside.”
“Oh. You would call them little windows. But you can’t see inside.
“Papa puts a key in a big round lock on the right hand door and opens it. The left hand door is locked in place. Inside you can see a work bench against the wall, a narrow aisle runs the length of the building, and on the left near the door are stacks of ‘glue-ups’. These are mahogany planks—all different sizes, stacked to the rafters with small boards between them so they can breath. Half way down on that side there’s a small work space with a small table saw and a jointer. Beyond that are rough boards. Some still had bark on them.
I used to laugh at those. I said they weren’t boards yet—but still trees.”
She smiles. I think she sees the 4-year old, and no longer me.
“There are two stools facing the work bench against the wall. One is higher than the other and has a small back rest Papa boosts me up on it. I can see the work bench—kind of a bird’s-eye-view. ‘¡State y mira!’ he commands me. (Stay still and watch.) He knows that he really doesn’t have to say anything. My eyes are wide, catching whatever happens on the workbench.
He has already secured a large blank panel on the bench. He puts pegs in holes on the bench. He told me that the dogs will hold the board in place. But I didn’t see any dogs—lord knows, I looked. I loved dogs and wouldn’t have missed them if they were there. The pegs held down a skinny board that pushed against the panel. Another board was held by the pegs on the other side of the panel. But between the board and panel were two long wedges jammed tight opposing each other.
I could see the outline of the scene Papa would carve traced onto the panel.”
I lead her to the front of my mantle directly in front of the carving. Letting go of one hand I stand behind her and speak over her shoulder. She seems quite comfortable with the arrangement. I guess she is enthralled with the story, so, I go on.
“The tracing paper drawing was taped on the wall above the panel as a reference. I thought they were as pretty as the carved panels. But I didn’t realize how delicate they were. They would turn dry and brittle then disintegrate. In the weeks before, I had watched Papa draw the trace at his drafting table in the house. He called it ‘drafting table’ but it was always warm in the house—even near the table. Papa called the drawings ‘one-lines’. That really puzzled me, especially having recently been taught to count by my big sister.”
She laughed. I found my hand was resting on her hip.
“There were a lot of lines all over that sheet. In college an architecture professor required us to do ‘one-lines’—a drawing using lines all the same darkness and thickness. Of course, I knew what that was.
“Papa selected a very sharp knife from a wooden rack of assorted knives and gouges on the wall. The knife—even small as it was—looked menacing. The blade sank deep into the wood. Actually, the carving is several optical illusions. Nothing is as it seems. Here, give me your hand.”
I placed my hand under hers; spread my fingers so that her hands and mine were like a single hand. I traced with our fingers the line Papa cut around the figures on the panel.
“Papa outlined the whole image then chipped away small flecks of wood leaving the figures as sort of an island in the middle of the panel. It was a picture of a man and a woman dancing—but in an impossible pose. He had loose clothes on; she had a tunic and bare legs. Her shoes were slippers with long ribbons laced on her ankles. She was leaning far over, her hands above her head, her other leg straight out in the opposite direction. The man caught her with his arm on her waist.
“It reminded me of playing with my father where I would try to dash past him and his powerful arm would haul me in. Great fun. Lots of squealing.
“The lady didn’t seem to mind being caught. But her eyes were closed; her arms up and graceful. The man’s arm almost rested on her waist. His other arm stretched out straight like her other leg. I couldn’t figure out how this was much fun. But I did think the picture was pretty.
“Now Papa started the first illusion. With a gouge, he started to peel wood away from the island. This would become the background. The cuts get shallow as he moves farther away. Then, they get deeper as he moves to the edge of the panel. There he forms a frame for the picture. You can see it clearly, but you can only barely feel it.”
I run our fingers over the boarder frame.
“Feel the background.” Our fingers glide over the open areas. “See how uneven it feels?”
“Yah. It’s not flat.”
“Right. But in a minute you’ll see it looks smooth and even—flat. He cut about an inch from the top and sides. Feel the edge.”
Our fingers dance.
“How soft!” she says.
“Yah, but it looks tough.”
“Hard. Lines look tough.”
“What’d I say?”
“My bad. OK. For the next several weeks Papa carved the details of the dancers’ bodies. The greater the detail, the farther they are from your eye.
“He carved finger nails on the finger tips. Ears. Eyes. Brows. The muscles of the lady’s legs. The drape of their clothes. And, the hair. When I feel my hair I can’t feel the part. But when you feel, here, you can feel the part and the hair.”
“He cut about an inch from the top and sides. Feel the edge.”
“I can feel my hair.”
I turn her around. She drops her hands. My hands start at her temples and work over her scalp. I can feel the waves and curls.
“I wonder if someone carved your hair?”
“It’s wirey…was that a compliment?”
“Well, …more a statement. If I complimented you I’d say something like, ‘A guy could get lost in your eyes. They’re like the sky on a clear day.”
I take her hands and close our interlocked hands over her eyes and turn her around. From behind her I whisper in her ear, “Are you ready to see the carving?”
“When the carving was completed, Papa invited the family over for dinner. There was so much noise—everyone talking at once. I wondered who was listening?
“The carving on an easel was hidden under a sheet in the corner of the room.
“Papa would take all the grandchildren and sit us on the sofa. In his strictest voice he would say, ‘Sit up straight. Shoes off the couch!’ This was hard for me. I wasn’t four feet yet. I climbed up on the sofa, sat down, then used my heel against the piping to push myself back against the back cushion. But, if I was sitting up straight, my feet would be on the couch. So, I would move down and hang my feet over the end of the seat cushion. That meant that my body was lying down but my neck bent so my head rested against the back cushion. Then Papa would play classical music. This could be anything from Bach to Montoya.”
“He was a great Spanish Gypsy guitarist in the mid-20th century. He and Segovia were the greatest. Papa loved them. We listened to hours of guitar recordings. Dinner was our parole.
“After dinner, just before dessert, he would unveil the carving with great fanfare. He was a great showman. This time he explained that, ‘Yeppy watched me carve this.’ Yeppy was my nickname. I was so proud. He made it sound like I had carved some of it.
“The sheet came off…And, this is what we saw.”
I part our hands like the doors to the workshop and fold our arms on her belly. She leans back into me and lets me hold her.
“Oh! It’s beautiful.”
“Actually, it belongs to my daughter. Remember how your cousins were upset when the furniture that your grandfather made was divided up?”
“Yah.” I could feel the pain shoot through her body.
“Dividing my grandfather’s work was sort of like that. Everyone had their favorites. We all loved this one and the one my sister got. So my mother chose this one not for me but for my daughter. I’m just keeping it for her until she asks for it. Very clever. Those who wanted to complain didn’t.”
“It is beautiful.”
We stand, excited, together. It’s too frustrating. I take one hand and turn her. “May I have this dance?”
“This dance? May I have it?” I hold her hand and put my other on her waist. Her other hand automatically finds my shoulder.
I rock and sway, my hand on her hip guiding her in mirror image. We salsa. She starts at me delighted, but apprehensive.
“Let yourself go. You’re good,” I encourage. She smiles and I turn her under. On the other side my hand catches her belly as I walk around her. She counters my walk. I pull her close, my arm pulling her close, my hand locking on the small of her back.
“Huh? For what?”
“Relax.” Her body slacks into mine. “To dip.” My hand on her back pulls her toward me. My other hand, gripping hers lays her back. My back hand pulls her up and she snakes back upright. She squeals like I did when my father caught me. Both her arms are around my neck. Mine on her back. She realizes it would be a perfect moment for a kiss. There is panic in her eyes.
“I could get drunk on your perfume. Be careful. I’m a cheap date.”
“You know I love you.”
“Well, I need all the loving I can get.”
We smile. I hold her tight. I feel her fingers on the back of my neck.
“Hey, while you’re here you should see the portrait my mother painted of my daughter.” I lead her to my bedroom. The painting is still in a cardboard wrapper with my other art works, stacked against a wall. I lean it on top of my desk against the wall.
“She made it from a photograph she took during one of her summers at Grandma’s. She’s about 10 or 11 here.” The photo is wedged in the bottom corner of the frame. “I love the almost primitive feel of it.”
“That’s your favorite, isn’t it.”
“Yah. It’s great.”
“Have you done portraits of your boys?”
I look at her as she sits next to me on the bed. She looks back to say, ‘What’s on your mind?’ I start to speak, but hesitate. I slip one arm under her knees, the other around the small of her back and pick her up. It’s almost as if she expected me to.
“Having fun?” she says.
I step back from the bed, then forward. My knee plants in the middle of the bed and I ease her head on to the far pillow. I pull her far knee up and over me as I lie in close to her. Now my fingers caress her neck. Her eyes blink slowly and a soft smile crosses her face. She knows she’s in control.
“Is this your fantasy?”
“Fantasy. Yah. My fantasy.”
“What is it?”
I nuzzle her nose and stare into and passed her eyes. “I used to play a game with my daughter when I had difficulty getting her to sleep. I’d gaze into her eyes and say, ‘Look into my eyes. You are feeling sleepy. Very sleepy!’ Then I’d start to fall asleep. She’d giggle and call me silly. It’d take me an extra half hour to get her down. But it was great fun.”
She laughs a little laugh of satisfaction. I peck her lips softly. I’ve crossed the line. Her eyes open wide, then go deep with worry.
“This is my fantasy. But my hope…It would be wonderful to wake up and find you next to me. But, it would be fantastic to go to sleep holding your heart.”
Her eyes study mine. The worry vanishes. Her pursed lips smile. If she was free….
At the door as she leaves I turn her once more. We hug. I almost pull her off the floor. She pulls me in close.
Outside we are friends. She waves as she drives off. I watch her car disappear around a corner. I stand for a while, her perfume clinging to me.
I’m in love but I know I’m not even ‘the other guy’. We are two people caught in an impossible pose.