Ferociously Italian, insolent and orange-lipped, she occupied her table with her knees crossed and her hands clasped together. I watched her from across the terrazzo surrounded by sea, the water gray-green, bronze bodies thrashing in the white waves pounding the beach. I felt weak, admittedly, my digestion coursing a black highway to a squalid burning inn, its shutters shaking. In addition, a small swarm of golden bees buzzed around my head, perhaps drawn by the scent of my honey-and-ginger shampoo, though one would imagine them more on the ball than that. The woman’s black hair flexed as the gritty sea breeze flew at her, shaking her umbrella and lifting a serviette off her table and into the air like a paper airplane. Her orange lips parted to curse the inconvenience. I smiled, but I doubt she had acknowledged my presence there, let alone noticed me smiling. Annoying small birds hopped about my feet, hoping for bits of the unfinished croissant left in the plate. The idea of crumbling it in my fist and feeding the little wretches occurred to me, but a painful spasm tore through my bowels. Never again escargot. Never again, I thought. I feared the worse, yet did not want to leave without somehow connecting with this woman.
I was the green-tinged pasty tourist, hurling pebbles at the chateau’s curtained windows. A waiter who walked with a murmur of sluices under his white shoes stopped at my table and gazed at me, his brown eyes soft with indifference. Around him the air was oddly motionless. I pointed at my empty glass and for a moment he resembled a hare paused in the gorse. I am thirsty, I told him. More than thirsty, I added. He nodded, took my empty glass, and departed wordlessly, though a glance over his shoulder suggested I could be made meat if I failed to respect the codes of the resort. Meanwhile the woman sat there reapplying her lipstick. Now she had on dark shades reminiscent of Jacqueline Onassis. A scent of extinct perfumes tickled my nostrils; no other patrons inhabited the space at that moment, thus no other suspects existed save this mysterious and yet not so mysterious woman. I had a brief vision of her dancing to klezmer music among the tables. And yet the sea breeze dominated the soundscape. Certain air focusses your seeing, if not your hearing. I could not dream more beautifully or frighteningly than my reality. What did that say about me? What did that say about my reality? Listening to yourself can be a lonely and deranging business.
The waiter returned, a man of average countenance, not the face of a prince or an artiste. And yet he seemed capable of extreme violence, as many of us do. But I didn’t want to test this hypothesis. Rectitude persuades the ambivalent, I thought, glancing toward the woman — veritably la donna immobile. She had known and loved everyone, ergo her ennui. Her knife-edged spirit shredded the idea of grace. Notice the shifting sentiment. It should happen right about here, if we are to believe the aestheticians. But what do they know? The waiter spoke, not loudly and in no way forced, but I thought of the endless egoism of young men and their unforeseen possibilities, their ironic smiles. Signorina! I wanted to shout. Salve! Salve! At this shaky stage of temptation, I risked sidelining my zeal if I couldn’t shed my childish tics and fears. The waiter, having brought me a Dubonnet on the rocks, lingered by my table. This is how you work? The harmonics of the breeze notwithstanding, songs of dying and death came to mind, dirges. Why so dark in the brightness of the afternoon? I thought. I offer myself readily to the experiments of scientists behind the scene, the white-coats inducing this feeling of helplessness with electrical currents or gases or other novel means. As for the woman, had I approached her would she have recoiled? Sweat now beaded my brow. My viscera made a last appeal. Such is the lot of the snail-eater, I thought. In any event, I had to run.