Sarah fidgeted in her seat trying to find a more comfortable position than her current one. Anyone who pretended otherwise was a damn liar. Being in different countries was thrilling but getting there was another matter altogether. Most of all she loathed those twenty-somethings with their enormous rucksacks and thermal socks, smug oh-so-worldly looks on their faces as they navigated Charles de Gaulle and Gatwick with the ease of a man sliding the morning paper across the breakfast table. Of course, Sarah was herself twenty-something for the moment. In fact, this trip was her father’s idea of a stellar 30th birthday gift: Paris, London, Madrid. Ten days, all booked and paid for. He had even taken the trouble of looking up Ella, her cousin who lived in Madrid, having gone native during her junior year abroad. Everyone in the family was duly scandalized. A man was involved of course.
Ella was a straight ‘A’ student at Bryn Mawr and not exactly sheltered when she went to Spain. She’d always been the wild one, the id to Sarah’s super-ego. All through high school, Ella was the subject of many a late-night hysterical phone call between Sarah’s mom and her Aunt Sam. It was always something; and Sarah had come to expect the hushed, late night phone calls. Ella was sleeping with her SAT tutor. Ella had tried cocaine and admitted as much. Ella had driven all the way to New York city to meet some guy she met on the internet. But the granddaddy of them all was Spain.
Ella had been there less than six months when she met some rakish type with the perfect playboy name of Francisco. He was supposedly quite wealthy, but nevertheless, everyone in Sarah’s family suspected that he was only after a green card and would probably dump her before too long if a wedding didn’t happen. But he didn’t dump her and they didn’t get married. Instead, Ella stayed in Spain and lived with her Spanish playboy. Sarah occasionally exchanged email with her but they hadn’t been close before Spain and she had no expectation that they would be now. But all the same, Sarah was staying with her and her boyfriend for two days, then off to Paris and finally London.
“Let loose a little while you’re over there,” her Dad had encouraged, when he dropped her off at the airport last night. “Have some fun.”
Sarah ignored the implication. She knew what they were all saying. That she’d driven Paul away; that she was rigid and cold and that it was no wonder she was headed on a solitary vacation instead of her honeymoon. She’d just about had it with people and their shifting expectations. All her life, she was praised for being so steady, so reliable, and so responsible; and now all of a sudden that trait was converted into a fault. Paul, when they’d first started dating, said he liked that about her. You know exactly who you are, he’d said. That’s rare. It made her proud to hear him say it; she did know who she was and she was satisfied. Paul seemed satisfied as well – they dated for five years when he proposed and wedding plans were moving full-steam ahead when he asked her to meet him out for an early dinner one night.
Sarah had been distracted when she got to the restaurant and impatient for the meal to be over because she’d planned to spend the evening with a book of table settings, choosing the perfect one. Paul was supposed to be spending time with his brother who was in town for a convention. She hated it when he changed plans at the last minute like this. As soon as she sat down, she knew something was wrong, but she waited for him to start.
Are you nervous about the wedding? He didn’t look at her when he asked the question, and sounded much too casual. Sarah felt the first sliver of worry.
No, she said. Why? Are you?
At that he looked up, and Sarah could see that he was worried too, though probably for very different reasons.
Mostly I’m nervous that you’re not. That you’re so freaking calm about this.
That doesn’t make any sense, Paul. Why shouldn’t I be calm? I want to marry you. I love you.
But this isn’t about love. You can love anyone. It’s about saying you’ll love someone forever. If that doesn’t make you nervous, I don’t know what will. He leaned across the table.
I’m not saying I’ll love you forever, Sarah said. I’m saying that I’ll commit to trying to love you forever.
Paul let out a brief laugh. Wow, he said. I don’t know why I expected something other than the pragmatic and sensible answer from you.
I don’t know what the matter is, Paul, but . . .
I know you don’t, he said. That’s the problem. Sometimes I think we speak entirely different languages you and me.
By now, Sarah was looking about the restaurant, hoping he wouldn’t make a scene. Hoping he wouldn’t get up and leave her sitting there looking like a fool.
I think perhaps you’d better be direct about what you’re trying to say, Sarah told him, keeping her voice steady.
What I’m saying is that I think I love you but I have doubts. What I’m saying is that I want you for once, to not make me feel like I’m crazy for not being more like you. To show me some sign that you’re scared or uncertain, or . . . fucking human.
It had all been downhill after that. They argued in circles, all the while keeping their voices down and abruptly stopping and starting so their server wouldn’t overhear them. The crux of it, as far as Sarah could tell, was that Paul was not comfortable with the fact that she was who she was instead of some flighty, overly emotional twit who became an adorably jittery bride as the wedding drew closer. He was suspicious of her calm and her poise because he lacked both. When he dropped her off at her apartment – they were still living apart because Sarah believed cohabitation before marriage made matrimony less likely – she had an inkling that the wedding would be off. And it was. There was one more tense meeting with Paul during which he handed her a check for twenty-five thousand dollars to cover all the cancellation costs. When Sarah paid off the vendors, she sent him in the mail, the exact difference which was a balance of nine thousand three hundred thirty-seven dollars and sixteen cents.
Last week was to have been their wedding and by now they would have been in St. Barts sunning themselves on the beach. Sarah had stashed all her wedding scrapbooks in the back of her hall closet. She’d toyed with the idea of tossing it all out but couldn’t countenance the thought of all that waste.
It was just before nine a.m. local time when they touched down and Sarah waited for most of the other passengers to disembark before getting out of her seat. No point wrestling through the narrow spaces with families carrying infants, people who seemed surprised that they were expected to disembark. Once outside, she cleared customs with no problems. Using her rudimentary Spanish, she managed to smooth over the difficult patches in the conversation and communicate that she was doing little more than passing through. She had one piece of luggage and one carry-on. She didn’t plan on shopping much, nor on going out at night, so there was no need for very much more than the four pairs of comfortable slacks, three pair of shoes, two dresses and assorted undergarments. And of course, her toiletries – in Europe you never knew what you were getting; products with the same name by the same manufacturer could well have a completely different formula.
As she collected her luggage, Sarah wondered for the first time whether she would recognize Ella when she saw her. Pretty Ella, their grandmother called her. Because she was. Dark hair, olive complexion and frank hazel eyes. When Sarah last saw her, she had the build of a thirteen-year-old boy though; narrow hips and an almost completely flat chest. It was chic to be thin in most of Europe and in the States of course, but if there was one place where Sarah would not have expected skinny girls to catch men’s attention, it was Spain.
Sarah turned and struggled to compose her expression. Ella was no longer a skinny girl; but that was because she was hugely and obviously pregnant. Wearing black capris and a white tent-like blouse that did little to conceal her abdomen, Ella had one hand on her hip and with the other was waving frantically to catch Sarah’s attention from behind a barrier where a few other people waited for their friends or family. Her hair was long and pulled back into a ponytail which she slung over her shoulder, and her face was a little rounder. But she was still Pretty Ella. Sarah smiled and went toward her.
“Oh my god, I thought I might have missed you,” Ella said as they embraced.
“Francisco is terrible about time and told me the airline said you’d land at eight-thirty and here it is almost ten . . .”
“There was customs to get through,” Sarah said. “I haven’t waited at all.”
“Oh thank god,” Ella held her back and looked her over. “You look exactly the same. It’s so good to see you!”
“You too,” Sarah looked pointedly down at Ella’s stomach.
“Surprise,” Ella laughed. “No one knows of course. I thought I might have her first and then pop down for Thanksgiving to give Mom and Dad a fright and a gift all at once.”
That was precisely an Ella kind of thing to do. Who else could undertake weekly conversations with their parents and not mention that inside her, as she spoke, their grandchild was kicking.
“So I suppose I’m enlisted in this conspiracy,” Sarah said.
“Of course,” Ella laughed again. “Otherwise the surprise would be ruined. And you’ve always been a good sport about these things.”
Sarah said nothing. Yes, she’d always been a good sport about Ella’s escapades. When they were younger, she could always be counted upon to reveal nothing. Unless life and limb are at stake, Ella would say. It was just about the only time Ella ever took notice of her – when she needed a secret-keeper. For other things – friends and fun and parties – she had more choices than just about anyone; certainly more than Sarah had ever had.
“Now let’s go see where Francisco’s gotten to,” Ella said. “He’s like a child, I swear. So easily distracted.” She had picked up a slight accent; the lilt of an expat whose social circle includes few native English speakers.
When she reached for the carry-on, Sarah turned so that it was out of her reach.
“It’s a little heavy,” she said. “Never mind, the suitcase weighs nothing at all and it’s on wheels, see?”
“Oh, don’t be a worry-wart,” Ella said. “Here, pregnant women drink wine and climb trees if they want. Give me that bag.”
Sarah reluctantly handed over her duffle and Ella slung it over her shoulder. She spun in a circle and yelled out Francisco’s name while Sarah stood by, mortified. But apparently no one else thought anything of it; passers-by just went on with their business as though they hadn’t heard a thing.
“Ai dios mio!”
A man emerged from the crowd, carrying two small coffee cups in a carrier, and immediately extended a hand to Sarah. She took it and he leaned in, kissing her on both cheeks. He smelled like cigar smoke and salt water, a combination that was surprisingly pleasant.
“Sarah, this is Francisco, my recalcitrant chauffeur,” Ella said, and the way she pronounced his name made it clear she was still smitten with him.
“Hello,” Sarah smiled and looked at him full on for the first time.
Francisco was, quite simply, a beautiful man; so much so, he was almost a cliché. A mane of jet-black hair, long enough to fall into his eyes, the shadow of a beard that betrayed him as someone who did not work for a living and dark, deep-set eyes fringed by lashes no man had any business having. He wore a white linen shirt untucked over khaki pants with brown thong sandals. His forearms were strong and covered with a layer of dark glossy hair that made you want to reach out and stroke him. Embarrassed by the thought, Sarah looked away.
“Welcome,” he said.”Ella has been like a jumping bean, waiting for you to get here.”
“No I haven’t.” Apparently he made Ella blush too.
“And so has the baby,” Francisco reached out and stroked Ella’s stomach then seemed to remember the coffee. “Here, for you.”
“I thought that was for me,” Ella said, flirting.
“No, none for you. Too strong I’m afraid. But after the long flight, I imagine Sarah could use the pick me up.”
“Thank you, But I don’t drink coffee.” Francisco’s face fell and she immediately changed course. “Except for when I fly across the Atlantic.” And he was beaming again.
He took custody of the bags and walked ahead, deftly managing to drink his coffee at the same time. Sarah took an exploratory sip and made a face.
“He likes it strong,” Ella said rolling her eyes. “You’ll get used to it.”
Their car was a small Fiat. Of course. And there was much ado about getting the luggage to fit. It made Sarah feel like an uncouth American, taking up all that room. Finally, they were on their way.
“So what do you do, Francisco?” Sarah asked, trying to make conversation.
Francisco laughed as though it was the most amusing thing that had ever been said in the history of humankind. “Well last week I was a poet and this week I am a sculptor. But your cousin says I am terrible at it, so perhaps I will change my occupation.”
Ella playfully hit him in the arm. “Francisco works with his father managing his family’s business ventures,” she said.
Sarah smiled uncertainly. Obviously this was some kind of inside joke and she was not privy to the punch line. She looked out the window, taking in the scenery, glad that the countdown of her time in Spain had begun and she would be here for now less than two days.