Part Five: Love, Hate
Let me make it clear that I am not a drunkard, or even a heavy drinker, and that any attempt to portray me as one or the other is nothing less than a vicious, and baseless, attack on my good name.
And I trust that there will be no doubt in the mind of any who might seek to slander me that, if rendered the object of a verbal assault, I will not only stand up for myself, but that I will, indeed, stand up by myself, if perhaps a little shakily, crossing the room in a straight line, if not by the most stringent of standards, to confront my foul-mouthed foe.
I will ask my detractor if, after a day’s work, more often than not grueling in nature, I do not have the right to indulge my craving for a few glasses of wine, say a heady red or an aromatic white.
And as my antagonist splutters some half-baked excuse, pleading that their judgemental gaze was aimed not at me, but at a whisky-sodden lost soul sitting behind me, in silence I rehearse the phrase that I will not be lied to, but relent to invite my new-found, and forgiven, friend to a bottle or two, as the evening, still tinged with sunlight, has scarcely begun.
You, Stella, with your sheepish grin, bobbed hair, and sturdy build, open up to tell me that you are forty-one, and divorced, and by now the sole owner of an end-of-terrace house in a nondescript suburb of London, in a land where lace curtains conceal a cesspit of dubious antics, with some all too near the bone, and then you go on to say that you cannot stand your temporary job as a legal secretary, with each hired hour given more grudgingly than the one before, but that you are hopeful of being offered, and before too long, a better post, with a higher salary, by the same firm.
The free flow of her frankness by now unchecked, Stella divulged that, transcending any sea change between nine and five, after years of being bogged down in a swamp of her own making, she felt closer than ever to a rebirth.
That early autumn, shielded in our snug haven from the bracing wind outside that heralded many colder days to come, but that still had the power to force many a day-worker, eager for home, into an ever-brisker walk, Stella took her cue from me to sip her chilled wine, perhaps more than candor or trust the mainspring of the words that she confided to me.
Holding forth, Stella disclosed that while she was of the view that Steve, her ex-husband, had more often than not been selfish, not all of the blame for the break-up of their marriage could be laid at the door of his ego, as she too had not been free from fault: her bouts of moodiness; her fits of jealous rage; and her low libido, though any lack of passion on her part was to be explained not so much by a fear of intimacy as by her former spouse’s clumsy love-making and poor personal hygiene.
She could not begin to understand how her love for Steve had festered into hate, and not some random, short-lived feeling, but a loathing, bottomless and endless, for the whole of his being, and that would have made her rejoice had she awakened to find him a corpse, lying in bed beside her.
Later she would joke that, day in, day out, she had often wished him the most painful of deaths, but that she had restrained herself from pouring bleach into his staple bowl of health-giving soup.
In the end, she had been saved from temptation, and a long prison sentence, by Steve’s tongue-tied admission that for the last six months he had been more than just friends with Deborah, a nineteen-year-old trainee in a shopping mall beauty parlor, and by his insistence that, no matter how much his scorned wife might protest, he had resolved to set up home with his fresh-faced lover.
Turning down my offer of one more glass as, mindful that she had been late on the previous two occasions, she would have to rush off to her evening photography class at a Further Education College down the street, but that the following Thursday she would be sure to accept my offer, Stella recounted that, forced to be brief, right up until Phil’s appearance, life had dashed her dreams, and that Steve's departure had induced in her a crisis that no number of mellow soundtracks, jasmine bubble baths, or Chinese takeaways, with extra ginger and not so much chili, could begin to assuage.
Not that I was ever to find out the full extent of the transformation that Phil had effected in her life, as the Thursday in question, Stella was not there, and nor on any of the other days that I made my way to the same bar, hopeful, but in vain, that yet more words entrusted to me would lay the ground for a friendship that would endure.
Back in Argentina, to which, in the pursuit of a romantic quest, I had transplanted a goodly part of my life and where, for all the hairpin bends of daily existence, an azure sky for the most part reigned supreme, I would while away the afternoons, wondering whether, in her search for love, Stella had routed the demons of hatred that lurk in every human soul.
Or were love and hate as much a part of each other as the Indian curry, replete with wholesome ingredients, that she prepared for Phil, and the minute traces of arsenic that she might well be adding, on a regular basis, to her signature dish?
But whether my worst fears were fanciful or well-founded, I could not banish thoughts of this virtual stranger from my mind, on occasions picturing her holed up in some cell with barred windows, and on others conjuring up images of her savoring her chilled Chardonnay at a candlelit dinner, although not on day release, as not a moment’s freedom would be granted to a cold-blooded murderess.
As for Amalia, keen to take her English to ever-greater heights, and one of the students I took on once back in Buenos Aires, she was, she maintained, a dab hand in the kitchen but, apart from a pinch of Himalayan salt and a sprinkling of Cayenne pepper, she strove to ensure that her creations retained their natural flavors.
The dishes that had met with the greatest success were her chicken and mushroom pie and her lemon cheesecake, and she told me that, before too long, she would invite me, along with some of her friends, to dinner at her rambling home.
An only child, at the age of twenty-seven, she had inherited the fourteen-room villa, with its extensive garden, from her parents, both of whom had been killed outright when a blinding storm, that came out of nowhere, had propelled their four-by-four into the wrong lane.
An orphan of considerable means, two months after the funerals, Amalia left for London and, enrolling in a number of English courses, she could hold her own in even the most challenging of conversations.
We had arranged to meet at a small, somewhat faded, café and, the better to enjoy the balmy evening, we sat outside, forced to raise our voices when the din of the street drowned out our hushed tones.
It was not that I fancied myself a shrink but, as Amalia nibbled unenthusiastically at her cheese sandwich, I proposed, so as to get to know her better, that she range over those things that she loved, and those that she hated.
Rising to my challenge, she confessed that nothing exceeded her aversion to bats, and so I would run no risk, when invited to dinner, of finding bat soup on the menu, and then she reeled off a litany of hatred that appeared to know no end:
Rome in the summer, Paris in the winter, pickled gherkins, all kinds of seafood, any dish with celery, all garments that revealed too much of a cleavage, wardrobes that smelt of mothballs, women who pouted and men with reedy voices, the raucous sound of brass bands, the sorrowful strains of the accordion, the cruel remembrance of Wednesday afternoons, the unsettling scent of honeysuckle.
An?, finally, she unleashed,
“And I hate you.”
“But why do you hate me?”
Erupting into gales of laughter, she screeched,
“Of course I didn’t say that I hate you. What I said is that I hate youth.”
As her lips curled upwards in a wistful smile, I could not help but notice the faintest suggestion of crow’s feet that framed her vexed eyes.
“And why do you hate youth?”
“Because I feel that it has deserted me.”
For all my assurances that time had made no inroads into her beauty, she swept aside my drift and, having settled the bill, exclaimed,
“I’ll be off, before you try to ferret out my loves, all of which turned sour: those days with Marcos, walking hand-in-hand through the lavender fields of Provence, and I agog with desire, but back on home soil he dumped me; Juan, who smelt alluringly of licorice but who, going all pious, left me to join the priesthood; my parents who just a moment before their doom, might well have been singing some tender duet, the wind caressing their hair.”
Her outrage trouncing her regrets, she seethed,
“And why am I wasting a second on you, a quack counselor at best, and at worst a sadist, jabbing his fingers into my open wounds? Just so you know, this is our last class. Tomorrow I leave to live in the States. As for that dinner, I’ll have to be your long-term debtor.”
Placing my fee on the table, and planting a travesty of a kiss on my left cheek, she was, in no time, swallowed up by the night.
Sitting there alone, I was pained by my awareness that I had caused her distress with a mere parlor game.
Of course, were Amalia to find herself strolling down the streets of Los Angeles or New York, lapping up a foreign tongue from every nook and cranny of her new home, she would have no need for me, but I suspected that her version of events was an elaborate hoax, and that she would continue to sit, without giving me another moment’s thought, within the confines of her walled garden.
Whatever the truth, in a bid to steady my wayward thoughts, I ordered my first drink, but no sooner had I raised the glass to my lips than a car drew up to the kerb and, getting out of his vehicle, a man as low-slung as a slug asked me if I knew the way to a certain elusive restaurant.
Pointing towards a gaudy frontage, I said that I did, and that I had eaten there many times, until the establishment had changed hands and, in a day, the steak, once so succulent, had been served up dry and tough, and those longed-for gems of chips brought to the table soggy and tasteless.
His voice, charged with emotion, seemed close to breaking as he implored,
“Don't tell me that their creamy mashed potatoes are no more.”
To let him down lightly, I replied,
“There’s another place down the road that does a great line in all vegetables,” but, far from thanking me for my advice and moving on, he sat down to face me, hurling at me words that at first I was sure I must have misheard,
“Are you an alcoholic?”
“What did you say?”
“I’m sure you heard me, but I’ll ask again. Are you an alcoholic?”
“What makes you ask me that?“
“I’ve a sixth sense when it comes to drunks.”
Straining to make out the specks of eyes in the tiny blob of self-righteousness before me, I aimed to cut him down to size with,
“Your radar is having an off day then, as this is my first drink.”
“But how many did you have at home, on the sly, before you got here?” he fired with such defiance that I was taken aback by his sudden air of deflation as, his insect’s wings of shoulders slumping, he came clean.
“It’s that first shot, that leads to all the others, that has been my downfall, an addiction that has lost me not only the devotion of my wife who treats me these days with ridicule, but also the affection of my children who have come to regard me with utter contempt.
As for myself, I have never been true to my feelings, alien to me as they lay in cold storage, with drink my illusory source of warmth.
I don’t have long, and so I have returned to the haunts of my youth, to search for the key that will open my freezer door.”
In a pang of pity, I touched his thread-like arm but, far from being consoled, he hissed,
“And I have the bad luck to run into a fellow-drunk like you.”
Torn between a spit and a kiss, I could offer nothing more than their twisted fusion in a tell-tale grimace.
“Why the hell give me that dirty look?”
Grabbing his hillock of a head, I threw him into the path of the oncoming traffic, and hollered,
But I did kneel down to wipe the sweat from his brow, before standing up, and walking away, to my mind at least, in a straight line.
Part One: Plummeting Like Lead
Part Two: The Tree
Part Three: The New World
Part Four: The Cricket
"The Power of Prose"