“Tipped paint splatters
Tenor boldly serenades
Treasured dinner platters
Transformation fully made.”
-old family saying
Salvador wants to blame everything on global warming but the summers have always been hot in the desert. I’m preparing things for our guests but he’s still running around in the boxers he bought from an expensive art boutique in Paris years ago. He’s claiming it’s too hot for clothes.
Covered in tiny yellow butterflies, the silk design looks less like a masterpiece and more like he’s got a problem with incontinence. At his age, it’s a miracle he doesn’t.
“You need to get dressed, Sal. They will be here any minute.”
“What? You don’t think they’ll like my fancy pants? I know you do.”
With this, he tries to do a little dance gyrating his hips toward me until something seems to catch and he winces. He braces himself against the kitchen counter and his cheeks flush red. I don’t laugh or ask if he’s okay. Long ago I learned his ego bruises easier than one of our garden tomatoes and with guests on the way I need him in a good mood.
He should be using his carved wooden cane but he’s often too proud. Despite his age, his lean body still contains hints of strength and youth. I can almost see the man he used to be and it gives me hope. His blue-grey eyes catch mine and I see hurt and maybe hesitation behind them. The pain of aging feels unfair and undignified. I wink at him and force a smile.
“Get dressed, Mr. Cassanova. Save the sexy for later.”
This does the trick and he saunters away into the bedroom the best he can with a slight limp. I consider crushing up some pain pills to put in his dinner but I think a few glasses of wine may have the same effect. We’ve got a lot riding on this evening and everything needs to go as planned. One misstep and we will have to abandon everything and start over.
Sprinkling a dash of fresh pepper on the top, I smile at the masterpiece waiting for our dinner guests—my grandmother’s rather unorthodox bean and rice casserole which takes an entire day to make. I slip the blue cast iron pot into the oven to keep it warm, take off my flowery apron, and stand in front of the hallway mirror to apply some pink lipstick and a little mascara.
Although my long silver hair looks stunning braided into a crown on the top of my head. I frown at the uneven tone of my skin and the way the wrinkles around my faded hazel eyes and mouth make my features appear sunken. I’ve never gotten used to seeing myself like this.
Salvador wraps his arms around my waist and nuzzles my neck. My body reacts to his touch, as it always has, and I breathe out loudly in fake annoyance. He laughs and steps back. Watching him in the mirror, I see him put up his wrinkled hands in surrender and then let them drop. When he speaks his voice is breathy and low. There are careful layers hidden behind his words and I wonder if he’s having second thoughts.
“You can’t blame me, Toba. You look so good in that dress. I want it to be just us.”
My emerald green dress has a plunging neckline and shows off all the parts of my body he loves so much. He leans against my back and reaches around to playfully tug on the intricate thick golden chain around my neck. I want so much for this moment to last but I can’t trust those feelings. Tonight needs to happen for everything to be okay again. One more time.
“You’ve seen me wear this dress a hundred times, Sal. Now, let’s look at you!”
Spinning around I face him and examine his white linen pants and rich burgundy silk shirt with tiny brass buttons. He’s swooped back his unruly grey hair with gel taming it to the sides of his head, but I know it won’t stay down for long. Our outfits go well together and I pull him beside me and turn back to the mirror to take us both in. We are a stunning pair for being in our 70s and I know it will put us at an advantage tonight.
The doorbell rings and Sal pulls me to him for a quick kiss. There’s homesickness in the way his lips press into mine, and I know it’s been too long since I’ve allowed myself to sink into him. There’s been too much to organize and sort through. I’ve barely kept it together, but tonight will change it for us. Hope makes me feel bold as I kiss him passionately on his neck.
“Tell them to go away.”
His voice and body shudder. For a moment I worry he’s forgotten where we are but then he smiles and his hands travel along my body tracing the curves until he reaches the places he likes best. Does this need to happen? Is he trying to tell me he doesn’t want to go through with it? It’s been so long since I’ve seen such clarity and passion behind those cloudy eyes and I want to send our guests away and simply be devoured by him. The doorbell rings again and I hear Frida’s soft voice.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Reality rings through me and I reluctantly pull myself from Sal’s strong arms. He looks like he may cry so I grab his hands in mine and squeeze them. If I could freeze time I’d lock us at the doorway with passion flowing electrically between us, but I can’t. Tonight is important. I will him to understand the message in my eyes and then kiss him quickly on the cheek.
“Later, my love.”
My voice cracks. Tears threaten to erupt and I pinch my forearms hard to bring myself back to this moment. Draping purpose around my shoulders and swallowing hard, I step around him and open the door to our guests.
His voice trails behind me and the word lands on my shoulders pressing so hard I stumble in my flat ballet shoes as if they are the six-inch stilettos of my youth. Sal says nothing more and I wonder if perhaps I’ve misread his intentions. Maybe this was a mistake after all.
“Hello!” I say. “Welcome to our little home!”
Frida and her date stand beaming in the doorway with a bottle of wine and a bouquet of fresh colorful tulips. I chose Frida for her stunning curves, gorgeously thick black hair, and rich brown eyes. She’s wearing a white linen dress and I realize how perfect she will look standing beside Sal. It feels almost like fate and it eases some of my anxiety.
Her partner for the evening, though, surprises me. From our conversations at the coffee shop, I expected her to be attracted to the artsy kind with glasses and wild hair. Instead, this tall dark man looks like a supermodel complete with a dimpled smile and incredibly deep brown eyes. I blush a little as he steps forward and kisses my cheek.
Frida follows behind him and kisses me as well. The rich rose scent coming off her makes me wish I’d thought to spruce myself up a bit more. I probably smell like food and perhaps Sal’s musky aftershave. They are an extraordinary and glamorous pair.
“This is my dear friend, Diego,” Frida says. “We met on holiday in Rome last year and haven’t tired of each other yet.”
Diego winks at her and then turns his attention back to me.
“We are so grateful you invited us to your home. Frida can’t stop raving about her new friend and her famous artist husband.”
With a look of fake embarrassment, she playfully punches him on his tanned muscular arm. I straighten my back and remind myself of my mission. Play the part, Toba. You are fully capable of this. You’ve done this many, many times before. You can do it again.
“Don’t mind him, Toba. He’s just jealous I’ve been talking about someone other than him.”
“Guilty as charged.”
They both laugh and I join in and take the bundle of beautiful flowers from Frida and place them in an empty vase just inside the door. Sal has disappeared. This doesn’t work without him and I feel panic squirming inside my gut—a swarm of wild cicadas chirping “danger, danger.” I hate this feeling.
What if he’s forgotten they are here? What if he’s gone to the studio to paint or climbed the ladder to the rooftop garden? What if it’s not a good day after all? His memory has been slipping more and more. I need him alert and strong tonight.
Sal appears in the doorway to the kitchen holding a bamboo tray with four crystal wine glasses and a bright silver bottle opener. Winking at me, he crosses the cozy living room and places it on the wooden coffee table. There’s a look of triumph in his eyes at the look of shock in mine. He remembers.
“Thank you,” I say. “Diego and Frida, I’d like you to meet my husband Sal.”
Diego crosses and the two shake hands, but Frida looks a little starstruck. She hasn’t moved and I savor this moment. My words have worked on her. The spell is cast.
“I’m…I’m…oh, my goodness, listen to me babbling. I’m sorry. I’m just such a big fan of your work and I can’t believe I’m finally meeting you.”
“Well, I hope I’m not a disappointment to such a stunning woman as yourself.”
Sal steps forward takes her hand and kisses it gently. Frida blushes and Diego pulls her to him with a giggle. I get the sense he’s jealous of her obsession with both of us and that’s understandable. It’s far worse than he can imagine, however. I swallow back regret and shame. There’s no time for that.
“You are everything I thought you’d be and more.”
Frida’s cheeks are pink and her voice sounds a bit shaky. She stares around the room at Sal’s paintings, her eyes wide and filled with tears she doesn’t even try to hide. His artwork has this effect on most women and I watch a small smile cross Sal’s face. It’s always nice to be appreciated.
Diego offers to open the bottle of wine and Sal nods, taking my hand and sitting with me on our stripped green couch. Frida walks around to look closer at “Midnight in the Garden” and then “Dinner for Two.” Diego removes the cork and pours four glasses of a strong-smelling red wine. Sal squeezes my knee.
After passing a drink to each of us, Frida and Diego sit in the two antique chairs across the coffee table and we all stare at each other. Youth and beauty radiate from both of them. It’s an almost tangible thing in this dim room—a glowing warmth I feel calling me. I deserve to feel this again.
There’s a brief moment of silence, but Diego laughs and fills it with his confident, booming voice. He’s a man used to having everyone looking at him with a strong jawline and a head full of luscious deep, black curls. Confidence mixed with the arrogance of old money.
“You’ve got a beautiful house here, Sal. It’s quite a bit away from the world though, isn’t it? I suppose that’s on purpose. Wanted a break from the big city life? All your adoring fans?”
With this, he gives Frida a little patronizing glare but she doesn’t notice. She’s staring back and forth from Sal to his paintings. Her eyes are glassy and she’s barely blinked.
“We chose this location for the stunning views of the night sky. There’s nothing else quite like it,” I say. “Perhaps you saw it when you drove in?”
Diego nods and then goes on and on about telescopes and seeing the Aurora Borealis from his yacht. I’m more interested in the way Frida’s looking at Sal. She’s barely sipped her wine and she’s holding tight to the arms of the chair. Her soft voice cuts off Diego in mid-sentence.
“Have you painted the sky, Sal?”
Everyone looks at her and she blushes. Her red lipstick has left a slight mark on her glass and the dim light of the room makes her thick hair appear shiny and wet. Sal smiles gently and avoids looking at either me or Diego.
“Yes, I’ve painted many versions of the night sky. Hundreds, maybe thousands.”
Frida leans forward and I almost laugh as she presses her breasts together unnecessarily. There’s no denying her beauty in any setting but she seems to be untethered. This is happening far faster than it should.
“I bet they are wonderful.”
“Would you like to see one?”
The timer I set in the kitchen dings right on time. Sal finishes a second glass of wine with a huge gulp. Memory seems to be returning to him. He knows what’s happening and appears to be playing the part a bit too early.
“Why don’t we eat first,” I say.
Diego nods and adds, “Yes, I’m rather hungry.”
He pulls Frida’s arm but she doesn’t move. It’s as if the world has shrunk down for her and all she can see is Sal. An artist and a muse.
As familiar as the scene is for me, it never gets easier. The gravitational pull of Sal’s magnetic energy feels electric and I have to shake my head to avoid allowing jealous thoughts to take form. Play your part, Toba. No second guessing or stopping it now. One more time.
“Diego, would you help me set the table?”
Without a word, he looks from Frida to Sal and then follows me into the kitchen. I hand him the deep blue starry napkins and point to the small round table outside on the veranda surrounded by strings of white globe lights. He blinks back tears and doesn’t move.
“There will always be a Sal to take her from me.”
He’s not talking to me, but I understand the feeling. If I didn’t need Frida so badly I’d happily end this all right now. This isn’t something I accounted for, his feelings, and I feel a bit ashamed of myself for not realizing it before this moment. He will suffer from tonight, yes, but men like him always bounce back. He will be fine.
“He’s an old man, Diego. You are handsome and strong. You have nothing to fear.”
My words seem to have shaken him back to life and he looks at me as if he has no idea what I’m talking about. He laughs, grabs the pile of silverware sitting on the counter, and walks smoothly out the back door. Far off in the desert, I hear the howl of a lonely wolf calling for its pack.
I watch Diego from my place in the kitchen as he gently sets the table with careful attention to detail. A graceful man with long limbs and manicured hands. There’s an ease and beauty about him and I realize I’d have fallen hard for him in my youth. He stares up at the night sky and scowls.
“It’s not so great.”
He’s mumbling when he returns to grab the bowls and the basket of fresh-baked bread. I can tell he’s unnerved far greater than even he himself understands. Perhaps he feels the danger sparking around him but can’t name it.
Purposely I move into his path and smile at him holding the dutch oven in my hand. Tilting the lid, the strong spicy scent of the dish spills out around us. He returns my smile.
“That smells wonderful.”
“Thank you. It’s a family recipe passed down for generations on my mother’s side. I’m the fifth woman in my family to make it and it’s only for special guests like you, Diego.”
This compliment seems to have brought back some of his joie de vivre and he takes the heavy dish from my hands outside to the table. Frida and Sal join us moments later and I can tell she’s on the hook. A few more well-placed words combined with the food and we’ll have her.
“What did you think of my Sal’s work?”
Frida and Diego greedily spoon the food into their mouths while Sal and I watch. It’s working. They seem mesmerized and although I can’t be sure, I think Sal’s already feeling better. He touches my leg under the table. Diego begins talking with a mouthful of food.
“Forgive my manners, but this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten and that’s saying something. I’ve eaten at the finest restaurants in the world and nothing compares. I’m serious. You could make a fortune on this dish.”
They always want to make money off of it. I’m disappointed by his predictability, but it’s Frida who matters right now. Smiling, I repeat my question.
“What did you think of my Sal’s work?”
Her dark brown eyes look up and meet mine for the first time since starting dinner and I can see the start of the change in them. They are smokey and the pupils shrunk so small you can barely see them, a tiny seed in a murky sea.
“Oh, it’s just about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The phoenix…the moon…I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I wasn’t prepared for any of this. It’s just so…overwhelming.”
Frida begins to cry and Diego looks alarmed but can’t seem to stop himself from spooning the food into his mouth. Frida scoots her chair back and walks around the table until she’s standing beside Sal’s chair. It’s time.
“Would you like to watch me paint something?”
Sal stands and squeezes my left hand. Neither of us like this part, but tonight will be the last time. We’ve agreed on just one more painting. One more canvas covered in blood. One more shot at youth. This time we won’t waste it playing and traveling. We will have a family—a daughter to pass things onto. We will be smarter and more careful. One more time.
“I’d like nothing more.”
Frida’s crying harder now and her voice cracks, but when Sal takes her hand a rush of happiness causes her to visibly relax. He guides her down the winding path behind the house to his studio. She will give her life for us. For Sal. She will be his muse. Our sacrifice. Another great work of art.
Diego continues to eat but panic has set into his eyes. I move so I’m sitting on the table beside him and begin to sing. The rich tenor of my voice spills out around us, following Sal and Frida to their tasks, and flowing out into the desert in all directions. It’s a visible mist now and Diego breathes it in.
He’s smiling by the time I walk him to his car. There will be no memory of visiting us and he’ll forget about Frida too. Tomorrow will be a new day for him, for all of us, and I kiss him on the cheek. He pulls me into a tight embrace.
“Goodbye, dearest Diego.”
“Goodbye, my love.”
There’s no confusion on his face. He’s forgotten already. I watch until the red taillights of his silver car disappear over the horizon and then spin in a circle. The aches and pains of aging are already fading and I can’t wait to jump into Sal’s arms and make love in the morning.
One more time.
Author’s note: The process of writing continues to both amaze and delight me. I started out with an idea of an elderly couple needing to sell a forged piece of art to not lose their house. The husband perhaps has dementia. However, as I started to get to know Sal and Toba, something far more sinister appeared to be brewing. When the ending hit me I was again surprised by it and I had to go back and rewrite the beginning to match. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did writing it.
Short Story Challenge | Week 33
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about a dinner party. We had to include phoenix, canvas, homesick, evening, spicy, rooftop, cicada, orthodox, ding, and spruce.
Write With Us
Prompt: An interrupted journey
Include: butterfly effect, vulture, cramp, industry, purge, scruple, snorkel, snitch, warning, useless
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows
- Week 25: Chocolate Kisses
- Week 26: The Island
- Week 27: Take Me By the Hand
- Week 28: When the Snow Falls
- Week 29: Stitches in the Woods
- Week 30: The Peacock Effect
- Week 31: New Experiences
- Week 32: Blood Moon Messenger