Dancing With Orange Blossoms, Chapter One

. Chapter One

Susanna Avila

 

The last time I visited Barcelona, I was alone. Susanna was dead. I had returned to our beloved city after her death knowing I would find pain, but hoping the numbness would fade as I remembered Susanna in the places we had visited. Instead, I found that the city, too had died. The warm glow of Gaudi’s lanterns had turned garish, the music on the Plaça Reial harsh. The city we both loved had abandoned me. It had stolen the memories of Susanna and taunted me with them like a word on the tip of the tongue. The city that belonged to everyone, now belonged to everyone but me.

The part of Spain I lived in, Andalucía, had become Susanna’s home after she left Barcelona for warmer weather. I lived in her world as I lived among her people, and I loved them for the way they reminded me of her. This land had nourished many civilizations over the centuries, and millions of people had lived, loved, and died here. I, too, would be one of those who lived and loved, but I would not be the one to die. I loved the ancient feel of Spain, and, at times, Spain made me feel two-thousand years old: ageless and timeless. I wanted the memory of my love for Susanna to span two-thousand years more and be recalled by someone like me in the far, distant future.

After a week of wandering the streets we had strolled together, I found myself late one night at a familiar table on the Plaça Reial. I didn’t recall walking there. It had been our favorite destination. We used to begin our nights out with a late supper there, then we would stroll the streets until the nightclubs came to life, and dance until the sky turned pink with sunrise.

I closed my eyes and imagined Susanna sitting next to me. I breathed deep and recalled the fragrance of the orange blossoms she wore in her hair on our first visit. It was spring and everything was in bloom and Susanna wore a tiara of orange blossoms bought from an old woman on the street. Memories flooded my mind as Susanna’s world surrounded me as a dream surrounds the dreamer. For a moment, I breathed the same air Susanna breathed and walked the same path Susanna walked. For a moment we danced among the same orange blossoms we had danced among in those perfect days when we were the only two people in love in the world. My dream world slipped away as my waiter approached.

“May I bring you something to drink, sir?”

“Rioja. Gran Reserva.”

“Very good, sir.”

He opened the bottle at the table and filled my glass. He smiled as I nodded my approval.

I looked after him as he left to tend another table and I wondered if he had served Susanna and me. Perhaps. I had always left the ordering to Susanna since she was Catalan and spoke the language better than I.

I nursed my wine, a sip now and then, and as the evening progressed my gloom disappeared. Maybe it was the good wine and fresh air, a favored destination, and memories of her, but the numbness gradually faded and left me feeling better than I had since arriving in town. I felt the change and smiled again. I leaned back and looked around, the tables were full, people mingled and chatted, drank beer and sipped wine. It’s funny how that works. When you’re down and alone, the world feels down and all you see is frowns on the faces around you, if you even notice the world around you. But when your mood finally lifts and you smile again, and sunshine returns to your face, the world around you takes shape once more, our smile lifts.

As I mused on my changing emotions it came to me that I had not been mourning for Susanna, but for myself. I had selfishly blamed her for dying and leaving me alone. I yearned for her return because I missed the past, and the further in time her death receded the more I built our time together into something fantastic and extraordinary, rather than human and ordinary.

We were deeply in love, but we also argued and grumbled like any other couple. We had our likes and dislikes, and compromised when necessary. I disliked television, but she would watch almost any show, laughing and sobbing as the plot dictated, while I sat next to her, reading, writing, offering tissues. She disliked the cold, but tolerated my love for it. I kept the bedroom window ajar in winter. She set the electric radiator close to her side of the bed, wore thick pajamas and socks, and pressed against me for warmth and still grumbled that she was cold. The memory brought a grin to my face, and the waiter grinned, too as he passed by my table. The memories came freely now and I began to jot notes in my journal. I planned to write about Susanna someday. I leafed through the pages, stopping to read notes I had written many months after her death.

“Susanna’s death leaves me forever in love with a delicate, elfin woman whose memory is woven into my soul. The almost saint-like image of her raven-headed beauty and parchment-white skin that dazzled me as much as the smile that graced her rose-kissed lips will remain fresh in my mind as a vivid memory of the love that sprouted from a chance encounter on a crisp, autumn day two years ago.”

I considered the life I had led in Spain and the people I had known, and as I did so, my thoughts returned to the time when I learned what it meant to love a woman and found myself changed by Susanna, the woman who taught me how to love, and how to live.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

As shadows lengthened in the approaching twilight and the sidewalk thickened with townsfolk out for a stroll before dinner, I left the base and headed for my apartment across town. I considered taking a taxi, and paused at the taxi stand, but changed my mind before the cabbie could turn the key. It was only a few blocks further than a mile, and I didn’t want to spoil my joy riding in a taxi that reeked of stale cigar smoke. I wanted to breathe fresh Spanish air and feel the wind on my face. I wanted to smile at passers-by and wink at beautiful women. I wanted my smile to be met with smiles, and I laughed at the thought of the looks I might receive as my spirit spilled over with happiness.

A woman was the cause of my extraordinary joy, a woman I had met on my way to work that morning. A thrill tingled along my spine when our hands touched as we reached for the same apple nestled among two dozen other apples in the wooden box on the vendor’s cart. I drew back and apologized. I had glanced at her as I reached for the red fruit and found myself facing a startlingly beautiful woman. I couldn’t help but stare until she lowered her eyes like a bashful child. As the vendor looked on, I drew the apple from the box and offered it to her. She smiled as she placed it in her handbag and said, “Gracias.”

Her pale beauty startled me. Her white skin contrasted with her black hair like the edge of a dark cloud backlit by the sun. She drew a coin purse from her blue clutch but I shook my head and paid the vendor for the apple. She smiled and again thanked me. She spoke for a moment with the vendor, who nodded and smiled as she spoke, then turned and walked away up the street, shopping bag on her arm, and gathering her wrap about her neck. She looked back at me and smiled briefly before she stepped into an apartment building next to the Matador Club and disappeared from sight, leaving me disappointed and my chest feeling hollow.

I was smitten. I had been unable to tear my eyes away from hers. They seemed to speak to me, like she was encouraging me, urging me on. To what, I couldn’t say, but I knew there was a reason we had been brought together; I don’t believe in accidents. She had turned away quickly though, and I wondered if I had crossed a boundary. The vendor had smiled at the interaction between us and said it was romantico when I insisted on paying for the apple. Maybe she had not liked the thought of a romantic overture by a man she did not know. Whatever she thought, for the rest of the day, I clung to the memory of her eyes, and the sweetness in her voice as she thanked me for the apple.

I was determined to see her again. Something seemed to have passed between us that I didn’t want to let go. I didn’t want to regret not knowing if she felt the same way. She would likely have a daily routine. I would walk by the vendor’s cart at the same time every day. But, why had I not seen her before? What if she were only visiting and would leave in a few days? What if she had already gone? The thought depressed me.

I pushed the thought aside as I walked into the ten-story, beachfront residential and shopping complex I called home. Phillipe, the ancient, white-haired building manager, nodded to me as I crossed the lobby. The equally ancient elevator, almost as unhurried as Phillipe, crawled to the ninth floor and spit me out at my apartment door. The two-bedroom apartment was small, but what it lacked in size, it made up for in glorious views of the Gulf of Cadiz and the Atlantic Ocean. Evenings at home I spent in a deck chair reading and sipping sangria and watching stars appear as the sun dipped below the horizon. Occasionally, aircraft carriers and other US Navy ships visited the nearby American Naval Base on their way in and out of the Mediterranean Sea, bringing five-thousand or more thirsty Sailors to the city for a few days of liberty. Decent folk stayed home for those few days. A guy couldn’t compete with shipboard Sailors whose pockets bulged with cash, and who easily outspent locals for beer and barmaids.

I tossed my ballcap onto the bed and undressed. I refreshed in a shower, luxuriating in the hot water. I was hungry and my stomach grumbled so I cut the shower short. I toweled off while looking in the mirror and wondered if my hair would be considered blond or dirty blond. Maybe I’d ask my barber; I needed a haircut anyway. I brushed my hair, then rummaged through my closet for a decent pair of slacks and a shirt, slipped on a pair of white socks, my last clean pair, and stepped into my boat shoes.

I was meeting Frank Bailey for dinner. He would give me hell for the white socks. Going out with Frank meant having a good time. He had an irresistible charm that drew even men to him. I wasn’t immune. Women swarmed him for his golden boy aura. I didn’t care for swarms of women. I usually ended up tongue-tied in a group of one. That seems odd for a man who grew up with only sisters, four of them, but they did all the talking while dad and I, silent spectators in a women’s household, watched TV. I was, however, involved with a woman, Daisy, a British expat, who worked as a bartender at the Hotel Playa de la Luz. We usually met after she finished work. After a few drinks and tapas, we’d go to my place or hers. Her apartment sat above a muscatel bar in Chipiona, a little village several miles up the coast. We had greeted more than one sunrise sipping muscatel on the balcony overlooking the mouth of the Guadalquivir.

I picked up my wallet and keys and put on a jacket, took one last look around the living room, locked the door, and left. I could feel how spare my wallet was through the pocket. Payday was a week away. I could have withdrawn funds from the bank, but habit made me pinch a penny until Lincoln shed tears. I didn’t have much choice anyway; I was saving money to fly to Annapolis to see my folks for Christmas.

Downstairs, I nodded to Phillipe as I crossed the lobby. He wished me a good time. I had had plenty of good times in this town, and talked a good story, but I nursed my drinks and hadn’t been drunk in a long time. I learned my lesson about hangovers early in my Navy career and had no desire to repeat the past. I’m the sentimental type, a hopeless romantic, and prone to tears at sad movies. Drinking to excess would only make me a tearful drunk.

The sun had set, and colored lights strung in the trees lining the streets came on and gave the atmosphere a Christmas feel. Evenings were festive and merry, and people crowded the sidewalks arm in arm, talking and laughing. I turned into an alley and walked a little way before passing beneath an arch in the old city wall, and entered a residential neighborhood. I enjoyed walking the residential streets when not in a rush. People were friendly and used to seeing me, and called out to me like a neighbor. The narrow, cobblestoned streets, barely wide enough for a car, and the two and three story houses on either side, meant footsteps echoed up and down the street. People peeked from windows and balconies to see who was passing. Spanish folk in general are friendly and will strike up a conversation with anyone with the desire to chat. Nobody stopped me that evening though, and I strolled along lost in thought and letting the fragrance of Spanish food cooking away in cozy kitchens fill my head.

The clear night and cool weather refreshed me as much as the shower and I walked along in a good frame of mind. A half-smile followed me as I thought about the apple lady and what I would say when next I saw her. I had pushed aside the fear that she had only been visiting and I wouldn’t see her again and felt confident that she’d be there. That was me, confident and optimistic. Sure, there had been disappointments in my life, but who hadn’t experienced the crashing of dreams and desires? The good things in my life far outweighed the disappointments and I felt blessed in so many ways.

I stepped from the curb and crossed the street and the Matador Club loomed before me. I walked in and looked around but didn’t see Frank. It was a little early for him to be there so I sat at the bar to wait for him. Hunger pangs rumbled my stomach again, and I wanted some tapas to tide me over. The bartender had her back to me as I took a seat. When she turned to take my order, I found the apple lady smiling at me.

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