The Girl Who Ate Oranges
I borrowed an old black suit from Noriega for the funeral. I’m a few centimeters taller and my mismatched dress socks showed self-consciously between the hem of the pants and my old cream Converse. There was no body, only Noriega and I and a bottle of cheap whiskey.
We met at a bar, all dim red lights and loud unfamiliar music and dense clouds of cigarette smoke punctuated with accents of hash. I sat on a bar stool and ordered a beer, nothing fancy, just whatever bland watery brand they had on tap and ate the salted almonds given to me by the bartender.
Two seats down from me an unremarkable girl sat with a glass of red wine, peeling an orange with her fingernails, leaving the bright colored peels in an ashtray already filled with cigarette butts and olive pits. I sipped my beer, watching as she ran the long nail of her thumb under the spider web white veins left behind, turning the orange in her small hands.
Head tilted, she held the orange close to her face, looking away only to flick the sticky white skin into the ashtray. And when her fingernails pierced through, she brought the orange to her lips, gently sucking away the juice and when she’d sucked the skin dry, she continued peeling away the white.
I finished my beer and turned back to the bar to motion for another.
She eyed the orange suspiciously one final time before breaking it in half, and swiveling her stool towards me, offered me half without a word, and I took it. She put a cigarette between her lips, leaving the other half of the orange on the bar next to her glass.
That was how we met. She came home with me that night and stayed with me for six months in my rented apartment, the unremarkable girl dressed all in black. Dark curly hair and blue eyes and freckles. On closer inspection she was beautiful, extraordinary, but from a distance merely plain and petite with rosy cheeks.
When I think back, I smell oranges and smoke. We will call her Maria. The girl who ate oranges.
At the time I lived in one of those old European apartments that could have been in any city in Western Europe: tall windows that opened onto a terrace, barely two feet wide, a drafty apartment, with flickering lights and high ceilings and wooden floors. I found it by chance. A red sign with white letters advertising an apartment for rent on a narrow dark street near the center. My new job gave me very little time to work out living arrangements and I was living in a hostel that smelled of unwashed feet but at least the beds were clean. I called to see the apartment and later that day, an old man in slacks and an olive cardigan walked me up the stairs that smelled of frying oil and detergent and he unlocked the apartment with a disinterested smile, standing in the living room smoking a cigarette as I wandered the large unfurnished apartment. I took it without hesitation. I didn’t even think to check the water.
Lying next to me, her face close, eyes wide. I brushed the hair aside. This close her freckles made her look like a child.
Where are you from?
She rolled away, reaching for a packet of cigarettes on the floor beside the mattress.
She lit a cigarette with a match, blowing smoke in my eyes.
Does it really matter?
She smiled, running her free hand lightly across my chest.
I watched the ash fall from her cigarette to the sheets but she didn’t seem to notice and I brushed it away with my free hand, staining the sheets.
When she moved in, she brought only a faded army duffle bag and a rickety blue bicycle. Her bag contained a black silk kimono, four black and two white t-shirts, black lace under garments, a grey jacket, and a book of poetry in a Nordic language I could not recognize. She was wearing a black cashmere sweater and a grey scarf. She left her bag by the door, kissed me on the lips, and sat down in the tattered armchair in the corner, the only piece of furniture that came with the apartment, and took an orange from her bag. It was September and the bars still had tables lining the sidewalks.
Maria, beautiful Maria. Like a dancer she would stand on top of the green tiled kitchen counter, balanced on the tips of her toes, her perfect arches and the pale pink soles of her feet, and search, nimble, tiny, the dark corners of those cabinets. Her red toe nails like drops of blood against her white skin.
In those six months, I never saw her eat anything but oranges. Every morning, I would go off to work, and she would take her bike to the fruit stand and buy a kilo of oranges in a brown paper bag, and when I came home her bird-like body, legs tucked under her in the corner chair, her chair, and she’d be peeling an orange, and I would make dinner, or go to some nameless bar with Noriega, the poet, and eat a simple dinner, a thin steak with greasy fried potatoes or an omelet. Some nights she would come with us, and sit, drinking red wine, occasionally joining our conversation, but more often just staring into the smoky air, a cigarette dangling from her lips.
And I fell in love with her, Maria, beautiful Maria. Like a crazy girl from a song I no longer remember.
In the morning, I would wake up to the sound of that plastic alarm clock buzzing in my ears from the floor beside the mattress, Maria sitting on the edge of the mattress, her chin resting on folded knees, watching me.
I don’t want to.
I rolled over, burying my face in the pillow that still smelled of oranges and sex.
Get up, you have to go to work.
Can’t I just stay home? I’m tired and my head hurts.
My complaints muffled in the pillow, her laughter like sunlight and smoke. I’ll make a pot of coffee while you shower.
I rolled over again, looking up at her from the pillow, one eye open.
But the water’s cold, I complained, rubbing away the hard sleep crystals that had formed in the night.
She laughed again and stood, her body naked and pale and perfect, and watched me for a moment before turning and walking from the room.
From the bed I could hear her open the balcony doors. The striking of a match and the hiss as she held it to the tip of her cigarette.
Anyone could see you, I yelled, rolling over and stretching, hearing vertebrae crack, one after another, all down my spine.
So? It’s warm today. The water won’t be too cold.
I kicked my feet out from under the sticky sheets, onto the cold wood floor, overturning an ashtray and just barely missing a wine glass, still full, from the night before.
Up, up, she yelled out onto the balcony, her voice lost in the movement of a passing car.
I pulled on a pair of rumpled pants lying on the floor where I’d dropped them the night before and walked into the kitchen.
She stood there, cigarette between her pink lips, curls a messy crown around her pale face. She’d already lit the water heater, I could see the small blue flame and she was filling an Italian stove top espresso maker, using a tiny spoon to scoop cheap coffee grinds into the metal filter, spilling grinds all over the tile counter. I yawned and she turned to look at me before turning away to strike a match and light the front burner of the stove.
You’re not going to shower? she asked, wiping the palms of her hands on her bare hips. I shook my head. She took the small pot from the stovetop and walked to the sink.
The blue flame in the water heater expanded, roared, clicked, when she ran the water from the faucet to fill the pan.
She moved so gracefully around the kitchen, making tea and coffee and sometimes even toast with olive oil and salt.
She waved me out of her way as she moved to reach two mugs from the cupboard, standing on the tips of her arched feet.
Sit, sit. The coffee’s almost ready. And wash your face. You look dead.
She dropped a mint tea bag into the boiling saucepan and as the coffee bubbled up a minute later, the smells of coffee and mint mixed in the air.
I kissed the top of her head before going into the other room to find her packet of cigarettes, left crumpled on the table.
You shouldn’t smoke, she said hearing the match flare.
A moment later I heard her switch the burners off with a plastic click. Her footsteps made no sound on the white tiles of the kitchen floor. She came into the room and handed me the small chipped white mug of coffee, placing an already opened tetra bric of milk on the table in front of me and I poured a thin stream through the cut in the waxy box.
She stood above me with a mug of mint tea in her left hand and stole the cigarette from between my lips with her right.
Hurry up or you’ll be late for work.
And what will you do all day while I’m at work?
Waltz, she said and walked into the bedroom.
Why is it always raining in my dreams? Maria’s naked back framed in open green balcony doors. Hair wet, head bowed as she tried to light a match.
The smell of damp discarded cashmere.
The sound of the rain hitting cobblestone below.
Saturday she took me by the hand and we walked the narrow streets of the center, pushing past the stream of tourists moving in the opposite direction. Where had we planned on going that afternoon? Did she whisper in my ear as we lay in bed, there’s someplace I want to show you? Or did she just take me by the hand?
On an empty pedestrian street she stopped unexpectedly outside a dusty Chinese market with plastic jewelry hanging in the display case.
Wait here, I’ll be right back.
I smoked a cigarette alone on the sidewalk, shifting my weight from foot to foot until she came out a few minutes later carrying a pink plastic bag with a bottle of wine that I took from her and we continued walking.
There’s this place, where the nuns live, she began. They live together behind thick stone walls with no windows, a place like a prison, because they’ve taken a vow never to be seen. I’ve always wondered what they look like, these nuns. Is their skin puffed and white and waxy? Do they ever get to see sunlight?
We walked quickly. I listened to her, not paying attention to where we were walking. Just her voice and the plastic handle of the heavy bag digging into my right palm. I didn’t recognize that part of town.
What are they called?
Who? The nuns? Who knows. She shook her head.
Continuing as though I’d never interrupted, The priests must take their confession through the walls. But what can they have to confess, these women who spend their days baking and praying? I wonder, can they see the priests? Can the priests see them?
She stopped and looked up at me through her dark thick eyelashes. It was warm and the air smelled like summer, like sunshine and fallen leaves, even though it was already October. She let go of my hand to fish a packet of cigarettes from her bag.
Have you ever been to confession, she asked head tilted towards the ground as she lit a cigarette with a tiny red lighter. I shook my head.
Grandmother used to make me go even though my parents never had me baptized.
She took my hand again and we started walking.
They bake cookies and cakes and sell religious postcards. The money should go to the poor but I’m sure the priests keep it.
She slowed when we reached an empty triangular plaza, no cafes, no tables or chairs or open balcony doors, just a few tall plane trees in a line and an empty bench. Two homeless men sat together resting their backs against the red brick wall of a building without windows, its shadow filling the plaza. For the first time, the air felt like fall. We watched as one tore open a tetra bric of white wine with his teeth. He took a swig, coughing wine, before passing it to his friend.
Could you imagine living like that? Locked away. I want them to look like ghosts, dissolving, with translucent skin, you know, like those fish at the bottom of the ocean who can no longer see. How do you think you would look if no one could see you?
She walked past the two men without looking at them, down six steps, into the alley that ran along the wall, stopping in front of heavy tall black double doors. She pressed the button on the graying intercom.
But I’m sure they’re solid and bluish white like lard. She dropped her cigarette to the ground, crushing it with the toe of her worn black cloth shoes.
A woman’s voice squeaked high pitch nasal static through the intercom.
We want the cookies.
The door clicked open and the intercom buzzed. Inside was cool and dark and stone, a room of shadows. Maria didn’t bother to flip the blinking orange light switch beside the door.
It will only make a racket, she shrugged.
I could hear water running, echoing in the quiet, water falling on stone falling on water. Through the dark reception, eyes blinking, I followed her over the uneven stone floor into a tiny courtyard where bougainvillea grew up the uneven wall. Fallen paper magenta flowers swirled in the water of the simple stone fountain.
Wait here, she whispered on tiptoes letting go of my hand and I sat on the corner of the fountain and watched her walk down the wooden steps, out of the light and into another dim room. The water in the fountain was green and moss grew along the edges. There were no fish swimming in the water.
What do you have, I heard her whisper, leaning toward the revolving wooden door built into the stone wall and the cracked static voice from the intercom’s muffled response I couldn’t understand.
I craned my neck to watch as Maria reached into the back pocket of her jeans and quickly dropped the crumpled bill on the revolving door, which worked like a lazy Susan, and saw her jump back in surprise. A minute later she was standing before me in the courtyard with another plastic bag. In the sun, her dark curls looked almost golden.
Let’s go, those women are evil, trying to snap off your hand when you pay.
We followed the laminated arrows out to the door.
Let’s find a place to sit. I’m thirsty.
She kept the box of cookies wrapped in its plastic bag close to her chest as we walked, once again, past the homeless men, back towards the center.
When someone is gone, you begin to compile list of everything you remember so that they are never really gone. This is one of those lists.
She had a bicycle, a blue old-fashioned bicycle, with a wicker basket in front, which she kept in the hallway outside our door, unlocked.
The way she lit a match, left eye closed, and smoked but always forgot to ash.
And at night she would boil large pots of water on the stove, filling the cracked porcelin bathtub and sit, flushed cheeks, the small steamy room, letting the ash of her cigarettes fall to the water with a hiss, and the air would smell of perfume and oranges.
In those six months, Noriega was our only friend. It takes me a moment to recall how we met him. It seemed like one day he simply appeared, as much a part of our lives as that apartment. A quiet man, with dark messy hair and a constantly shadowed face, high cheekbones and gray skin and dark romantic circles under his eyes.
He spoke in slow, accented English.
At bars, while Maria and I drank red wine, he would order whiskey on the rocks and sip his drink in a way that made you think he was barely drinking and then you’d look up and his glass was empty and he was already standing at the bar ordering another.
A poet. While I was at work, he would sometimes stop by the apartment. I never found out what they did or what they talked about. But I think it was good for her, having someone to keep her company.
I remember coming home one afternoon, early, unexpected, and the walk up those spiraled stairs around the skeletal cage of an elevator, the squeaking of my sneakers on the marble, a baguette held in my left hand, keys in my right palm, up four flights to the heavy wood door. And behind that door, I saw them, two fragile figures dressed in black.
That is how I learned they saw each other when I was at work.
He was sitting in a chair facing her and she was gesturing animatedly with her hands but speaking in soft whispers. When she turned and saw me in the doorway, her hands dropped to the table, and Noriega stood and gave me a hug and offered me a drink and a cigarette. I sat down knowing I’d ruined something I would never understand.
Thinking back, we met Noriega at the bar with its high ceilings and its reclining marble statues, the bar at the fine arts school where Maria sometimes modeled. I always wondered what figures were drawn from the hazy image of her boyish body. Without curves or shadows, her body made up of simple straight lines, what could be drawn? What details did they pick up on to make her look real?
That day I was meeting her after an evening class. She hated long poses. They made her bones ache. She was sitting with a man I didn’t recognize, sipping a glass of wine and peeling an orange, her feet tucked up underneath her. I paid the one euro entrance and met them at their small round table by the window. And I remember Maria looking up at me, a cigarette burning between her fingers, as though she didn’t recognize me. We’d been living together for two weeks.
Noriega extended a hand, introducing himself, and offered me a cigarette from a crumpled pack resting on the table, which I accepted so as not to appear rude. In those early days I rarely smoked. They switched from Spanish to English when I sat down.
How the two of them met I never found out. I never asked. Was Noriega, who never showed much interest in art, in her class, staring up at her standing so naked on a podium in the center of a bright circular room? Did he approach her at the bar where she sat alone, waiting for me to arrive?
I never got the impression that they had known each other from a time before.
He ordered another whiskey, and a glass of wine for me.
Terrible service, he said with a shrug, but such a beautiful room. This last part said looking at Maria.
Maybe I should have been jealous, but seeing them together, I never was. Maybe something in me was already broken.
When I got home, Noriega was sitting on the second step. He looked up and almost smiled.
Let’s get a drink, he said, standing.
Sure, let me just run upstairs--
He shook his head, taking his woolen cap from the pocket of his jacket.
Let’s just the two of us go, and he walked past me, stopping and turning only once he’d gotten to the door.
Are you sure?
She’s not feeling well. Don’t worry, I put her to bed.
But Noriega just shook his head. Leave her be. She’ll be okay in the morning.
Noriega didn’t explain and when I came home there was an empty bottle by the bed and Maria was asleep, snoring softly, blankets kicked to the floor.
Even though the city had turned grey and cold, Maria wanted to sit outside. She said she liked the way the air smelled in winter. But it didn’t feel like winter to me. Winter smells of snow and damp wool, not dried leaves and chirping birds. We sat on aluminum chairs. Maria ordered a bottle of wine, I ordered a plate of sardines. It was Noriega’s idea to meet there—he said it was famous in the twenties when writers still mattered—but as always, he was late.
Maria fingered the edges of her scarf. Where you’re from does it snow?
I waited for the man in a pressed black jacket to pour our drinks. Yes, sometimes. It snowed more when I was younger.
She nodded. I miss that. Did you make, she paused, men out of snow? What are they called? Snow men, like they do in movies?
Yeah, and snow angels, where you lay in the snow and move your arms, like wings.
She smiled at the pavement. Yes. I miss that. Where I grew up, there was this town in the mountains, with a blue lake. I remember drinking vin chaud. I remember…
But that was all. She lit a cigarette and said nothing until Noriega joined us, a quarter hour later.
One Sunday morning I woke alone, and still undressed, moved slowly through the apartment. And there she was, smoking a cigarette, the balcony open despite the cold, a pink and white cardboard box sitting on the table next to an overflowing ashtray.
She motioned to it in her distracted way, ash falling from the tip of her cigarette to the table, and I sat down and removed the twine and inside sat a small pinenut tart, crisp and golden. She smiled and continued smoking. She presented it to me as a cat presents its owner with a dead mouse and she watched as I poured myself a cup of coffee and ate, cutting the tart into pieces that crumbled under my fork.
When she could not sleep she paced the living room in nothing but her underwear, drinking wine and smoking, the sound of wood aching under her steps.
Most nights she had trouble sleeping and I would fall asleep to the sound of her echoed footsteps. A pause. The striking of a match. A sigh. A deep breath. Her resumed footsteps.
At night the cold never seemed to bother her.
When the alarm rang, waking me, I could still feel Maria’s leg pushed against mine, not just the warm indentation on the mattress.
Well, this is a first.
I didn’t know this would grow to be part of the routine, days where she would refuse to move or say more than a couple of words. It would happen once every other week, and later, once every week. But that first morning, I thought she’d finally decided to spend a day in bed.
I turned on my side, her eyes were open and she was awake, and kissed her forehead.
Would you like some tea?
She nodded but didn’t say anything.
I left the mint tea on the floor next to the bed, kissed her again, and left for work, and when I returned that afternoon, she was lying there, staring up at the watermarks on the ceiling, the mug of tea cold but untouched.
I sat on the edge of the mattress.
Are you okay?
Do you want me to fill the bath?
And she nodded again.
On afternoons when I did not work and the sun was still warm, Noriega would join us and we’d sit on the stone wall of a square named after an obscurely important date I never understood and we’d drink large brown bottles of beer and watch the kids below kick around a football, and on his more jovial days, Noriega would join in with the grace of someone who’d once played with regularity. Maria would peel her oranges with such care, leaving tiny piles next to her on the wall that she would carefully collect and deposit in the green metal trashcan on our way home.
Noriega and I sat on the dusty living room floor, legs stretched out. He reached into the breast pocket of his white dress shirt, and with the crinkle of plastic, removed a ball of hash wrapped in the stiff plastic from a pack of cigarettes.
From the bathroom, door open, I could hear the water slap the porcelain every time Maria moved.
I have a book for you, Noriega said as he untwisted the burnt plastic.
By who? I asked, standing to get the bottle of wine from the kitchen. Our glasses on the floor were nearly empty.
A man I knew when I was living down south. He held the ball of hash to the lighter’s flame, letting it soften enough to crumble between his fingertips. I sat back down, refilling both our glasses.
When were you living down there?
He shrugged, once again holding the hash between his fingers to the flame.
A couple of years ago. I moved for this girl who was at university there but she ended up meeting someone else, someone older, with a motorcycle and his own flat.
He smiled slightly. The soft pads of his thumb and index finger were stained dark brown from the hash. Pass me a cigarette.
He broke off the tip, letting tobacco drop to the floor.
But I ended up meeting this guy, this poet, one afternoon, waiting for her to get out of class.
He rolled the broken cigarette between his fingers, covering the broken pieces of hash in his outstretched palm with loose tobacco.
Anyway, when that girl left, he let me stay with him for a couple of months. He had this big flat on the main plaza and there were always people coming and going, sleeping on the floor, that sort of thing.
He covered his palm with his other palm, flipping his hands slowly, and peeling back the right hand, used the hash stained left thumb to scrap the rest of the hash and tobacco from his palm. He picked the lighter up from the floor and I watched as he lit the hash once again, resting on its bed of tobacco, rubbing it into the tobacco with his thumb to mix them together.
I was at the book market today and found a collection of his poems. It’s in my bag. Take it. It’s for you.
Noriega brushed his free hand again his thigh before reaching into his breast pocket for a blue pack of rolling papers. I watched, leaning back and sipping from my glass.
He used to take me to gypsy bars. He always said to be a poet you have to learn from the gypsies. I never really understood what he meant though.
He laid a crumpled rolling paper on top of the hash and tobacco and once again flipped it into his right palm, spilling more onto the floor. The broken tip of the cigarette he’d set aside he used as a filter, rolling the spliff around it, tucking the thin paper with his short dirty nails.
Why did you move here?
He shrugged, running his tongue along the gum.
Too many drugs down south.
He put the spliff to his lips. I could hear Maria moving around in the bathroom and the water pouring down the drain.
Too many drugs?
Too many drugs, he repeated, leaning back on his elbow.
Maria appeared, wrapped in a white towel, her hair dry and pulled up in a messy bun.
Anyway, it’s in my bag. Take it. I think you’ll like it, he said, sitting up to pass me the spliff and to peel a loose strand of tobacco from his lip. Maria stepped around us to go into the kitchen.
In November, we went to Amsterdam. When I suggested it, she lit a cigarette and asked, But what is there that is not here?
She spoke like that sometimes, her English crisp and unnatural.
But she turned to me and shrugged those bony shoulders. We went the next weekend and while we were gone, Noriega stayed in the apartment.
My little Maria looked so foreign in that city of blond giants.
She wore black gloves with the fingertips cut off that I’d never seen before.
In the breast pocket of Noriega’s suit I kept my only picture of her. Back turned to the camera—she hated cameras and photographs—she stares out at a canal from a bridge, her rented silver bike leaning against the low stone wall.
I never showed her that photograph. She would have torn it to pieces, I’m sure.
At night we ate dinner sitting on a red blanket on a sliver of grass along a canal and she poured red wine into plastic cups and I ate salted fish and a baguette. She peeled oranges to the light of passing houseboats.
And though I had never seen her smoke before, I watched her roll the most delicate spliff with those equally delicate fingers. Nothing like Noriega’s loose messy spliffs that left tobacco sticking to your lips. And when we smoked, she curled herself into the space between my arm and body, because it was cold, and her jacket wasn’t thick enough for cold Northern European fall.
After she was gone, I asked Noriega if she’d said anything, but he just shook his head and lit a cigarette, avoiding my eyes.
The wide boulevards of the center narrowed into the winding twisting maze of darkened streets that lowered to the immigrant district and the white faces slowly replaced with dark Turkish men smoking cigarettes outside corner kebab restaurants; Central American children running into the empty streets to chase escaped dirty footballs; Senegalese women, babies resting on their hips.
A round man with wire rimmed glasses smoked rose flavored shisha from a green glass water pipe, painted with golden swirls, on the sidewalk outside an Egyptian restaurant.
Have you ever smoked shisha, I asked, handing Maria back her cigarette as we passed.
Once or twice.
We should go. You’d like it. I’m sure Noriega knows a nice spot.
She nodded her head slowly but we never ended up going. Maria continued to lead the way down the narrow streets I didn’t recognize. Noriega had called, telling us to meet him at a bar I’d never heard of.
How do you know where we’re going?
Noriega brought me once when you were at work. He likes to write there in the afternoons. It’s quiet.
She flicked her cigarette into the street.
Maria slowed outside a bar with tall windows on the corner of a characterless street. Past rickety glass double doors, the walls were lined with mirrors and smoke hung heavy in the warm sticky air. It felt like 19th century Vienna, or what I assumed 19th century Vienna felt like. Over the stereo, a woman’s voice singing in French mixed with the voices of people at tables and from the sound of her voice, mixed with subtle electronics, she must have been singing of lost or impossible love.
Maria took my hand and we walked past the small crowded tables, searching among the faces of strangers for the one familiar face, which we found, sitting with his shoulders slouched against the back wall of the enormous room, one foot on his chair, sipping a glass of red wine, smoking a cigarette.
Seeing us, he sat up, raising the hand that held a cigarette, motioning us over.
After we’d sat, a red faced waiter appeared with two empty glasses, which he filled, dripping wine on the table. He disappeared again amongst the tables before I had a chance to ask for a menu.
To friends, I said, bringing my chair closer to the table and raising my glass. Noriega clucked with disapproval.
Bad luck. You must make eye contact, like this, he said lifting his glass, to friends.
His dark eyes, like espresso, no pupils or else, all pupils, stared into mine over our glasses and as they came together, our glasses made the dull clink of thick cheap glass. He kept looking into my eyes as he held his glass up to his lips.
I put down my glass to search the table for a packet of cigarettes, reaching over the table for Noriega’s blue L&Ms but the pack was empty and Maria and I had shared her last cigarette on the walk over.
I pushed my chair back and stood.
Where’s the tobacco machine?
Noriega motioned with his head towards the door.
I slid the heavy coins into the slot of machine, selecting the brand that Maria always smoked and reached down for my change and the cigarettes. I glanced over my shoulder before stepping outside. The street smelled of kebab and I leaned against the building, lighting a cigarette.
A man peeing behind a white car smiled at me and continued peeing. Looking away quickly, I took one final drag of my cigarette before dropping it to the ground and stepping back inside.
When I returned to the table, Maria’s distorted reflection in the tobacco stained mirror smiled crookedly.
I laid the packet of cigarettes flat on the table and sat down. Maria lifted the green bottle to refill Noriega’s glass, leaving a burgundy smudge on the white marble.
Did you hear about what happened?
Noriega was looking at me. I shook my head, reaching for my glass.
A car bomb went off in the center. Two people were killed.
Are you serious?
He nodded, his eyes dropping to the table.
He shrugged his shoulders. It’s been all over the news. The metro’s been shut down.
When did it happen?
Sometime this morning. Maybe eleven.
Maria picked up the packet of cigarettes and peeled away the rest of the plastic wrapper. She crumpled it loudly in her hand before letting it drop like air to the table.
Do you have to talk about this?
She bent her head towards the candle in the center of the table, pushing her hair back to light the tip of the cigarette. She looked up, exhaling smoke, and stared at Noriega and he just shrugged his shoulders, reaching past the candle for the cigarettes.
I thought you should know.
Who cares? It’s all the same anyway.
He shrugged again but didn’t say anything. I wanted to ask him more but instead drained my glass in small continuous sips.
When the waiter appeared, this time with an appetizer menu, Noriega didn’t bother to look at it and ordered another bottle of wine and a plate of green olives. Maria began peeling an orange.
Reaching into the leather bag next to him on the seat, Noriega removed a flat brown paper bag. He pushed it towards Maria but she didn’t touch it and so he looked at me.
I found something I thought you might like.
I peered into the paper bag and inside was a record. I slid it out. An old Donovan record I had never heard.
It’s good. And your apartment is always so fucking quiet.
He smiled and lit another cigarette before the waiter placed a fresh bottle of wine on the table, pouring the last of our bottle in Maria’s empty glass before taking it away. He forgot to bring the olives.
At home, Maria took the record from me and placed it on the record player in the corner of the room, carefully lowering the needle.
We spent Christmas, the three of us together, without a tree. Noriega and I ate Chinese food out of opaque plastic containers and we sat in a circle on the floor and I tried to show him how to eat with chopsticks. There were no presents, just bottles of cheap red wine passed around to fill tiny glasses.
I woke late in the afternoon to the sound of a cork popping in the other room.
Maria smiling in the middle of the living room, kimono limply hanging from her shoulders. She clutched the heavy black bottle in two hands and poured champagne into her mouth.
Still smiling she kissed my lips, standing on the tips of her toes.
A knock on the door and she handed me the champagne and fluttered to the door. Noriega, a black knit cap pulled low over his forehead, a pink box wrapped with twine in his outstretched hands.
She threw her arms around his neck, kimono parting.
He lit a cigarette, motioning for me to unwrap the pastry box.
For the Three Kings, he said, taking the champagne, as my eyes rested on a wreath studded in green and red candied fruits, filled with thick white cream.
Maria was sitting in her chair in nothing but black lace, peeling an orange, when Noriega rang the buzzer. Through the open balcony doors you could hear the cars upsetting puddles as they rushed down the street. I remember feeling like the rain would never let up.
I don’t want to go, I said through the intercom. It’s cold. And wet. Come upstairs.
I buzzed him in but Noriega didn’t move.
Coño, how do you think I feel standing down here? Let’s go. I’m hungry.
Maria got up and went into the kitchen, leaving the peeled orange on the table. I could hear the water running into the sink, filling the saucepan with a hollow metallic echo.
I turned away from the door. You’re not coming?
The sound of a match being struck.
No, I think I’ll take a bath. Go. Her head peeked in from the kitchen doorway, her curls covering her face.
Are you sure?
She smiled. Go. Give him a kiss for me. Her head disappeared again into the kitchen. I could hear the cupboard door open with a squeak.
I turned and held down the grey button of the intercom.
I’ll be right down.
Downstairs, Noriega leaned with his shoulder against the glass of the front door, only the side of his pale face visible, a cigarette between his lips, wet hair flat against his forehead.
Let’s go, he put an arm around my shoulder shaking me lightly. I know a great spot. He was smiling. Spiciest food in town. I promise.
I shook off his arm to open Maria’s red umbrella, which I held above us. Except for the occasional prostitute, the streets were empty. Noriega just waved away their whistles, clucking and shaking his head ever so slightly.
You picked a beautiful night.
You’ll love it, I promise.
Huddled under the single umbrella, we moved away from the center, down crooked slanting streets I was beginning to recognize towards the immigrant district. It was Sunday and all the shops closed. Only the bars were lit and filled with people, still wearing their jackets. The rain had washed away all the urine and the city almost smelled clean for the first time in months.
Water sloshed between my toes, trapped inside my canvas shoes.
We should have taken the metro.
Can’t smoke in the metro, he said handing me the cigarette he’d just lit.
He shrugged and put it between his lips. Don’t worry, it’s around the corner.
We walked past the tall green glass windows of Noriega’s favorite bar. The tables were full. Everyone looked so warm, laughing, smiling, inside, their mouths moving, only the sound of rain.
As we approached the corner, Noriega rested a hand on my back, steering me left, up a dark street, the bulb of the street light blown.
Across the street a tattered red awning promised the Rose of India.
Here we are.
He flicked his cigarette towards a puddle but the rain put it out with a hiss before it landed and I closed the umbrella, shaking it twice. He held the door open with his left arm to let me pass and followed behind, whispering in my ear, Promise, spiciest food in the city. Probably in the whole country.
The empty restaurant smelled of pappadam, of coriander and cardamom and turmeric and frying oil. The man at the door greeted Noriega by name and led us to a booth in the back of the restaurant.
Noriega ordered us each a beer before we’d even hung our wet jackets from the backs of the empty chairs. I wanted to slip my wrinkled feet out of my sneakers to let them warm and dry but didn’t, even though the restaurant was empty and no one would have known.
The Indian names on the plastic menu were translated into awkward misspelled English descriptions.
The waiter returned, placing a large glass ashtray in the center of the table before pouring our oversized beers into small glasses. I let Noriega order. The translations on the menu made my head spin and so I drank the beer, wishing he’d ordered wine, my fingers clenched, pale, around the cold glass.
Samosas. Chicken tikka. Chickpeas. Lamb curry. Naan. Basmati. And a J&B.
The waiter repeated everything after him but kept the little pad tucked into the pocket of his apron.
A feast. My team lost today, Noriega said, raising his glass after the waiter had left.
I laughed. Noriega’s football team was always losing. I raised my glass, careful to meet his dark eyes.
To your team.
By the time the chickpeas and curry arrived, we were both drunk. The curry, red like a city bus, burned my chapped lips and the waiter kept returning to refill our glasses.
After we paid the check, Noriega wanted to get a drink around the corner, but I shook my head and opened the umbrella.
When I came home, leaving Noriega at the metro station, I found her, not in her chair, but in the bedroom wrapped in her red wool blanket. She looked up at me, standing in the doorway, shoes still on, until finally she extended a hand, Please come to bed, I’m cold.
I slipped out of my wet shoes and left a pile of damp clothing next to the door.
She did not have trouble sleeping that night.
In the morning I took the metro to work and when I came home she was gone.
I remember the feel of her papery lips on my stomach, just above my belly button.
I remember the way her spine curved to the right and the sound of her voice as she said my name in the dark and the slightly perfumed smell of her hair after she’d taken a bath.
She left everything but the poems. The poems she took with her. Even her bicycle was there, resting against the wall next to the door, a brown paper bag filled with oranges still in the basket.
I waited for two days. Two days and then Noriega come to stay and we shared the bed, the large mattress on the floor, the lingering scent of oranges clinging stubborn to the sheets. I stopped going to work.
He would play the Donovan record and in the early afternoons, we would walk down those winding stairs and eat at the bar at the foot of the building, the construction workers in their blue dust stained suits filling the tables around us.
And after they had left, we would remain at our small table with its orange tablecloth and switch from wine to whiskey. The afternoons passed in a haze.
It was Noriega’s idea to collect the ash from all the ashtrays in the apartment. By hand, we removed each stamped out cigarette butt and then emptied the ash into a cleaned out jam jar and with that jam jar, we traveled up the mountains. We sat on the train passing a bottle of J&B between us, even though I do not typically drink whiskey, and we traveled up the hills around our city. And when the train finally stopped, Noriega made us get off so that he could smoke a cigarette and we both used the cold tiled rest room, steam rising from the urinals.
I told Noriega about the mountains and the lake and he nodded.
I wore his rumpled suit on the train. He wore an equally rumbled grey suit but at least his socks matched. We brought no luggage, just a white plastic bag with a bottle of whiskey and a ham and cheese sandwich, which we broke in two.
Maybe Maria didn’t love him either. Maybe it was Noriega who loved her. Maybe it never mattered either way.
He didn’t look at me. Just took a swig and cursed softly in Spanish. Outside the windows, the green mountain dropped down towards an empty valley where sheep stood like rocks, dotting the countryside.
I saw her that morning. He shook his head and handed the bottle back to me. That was all he said. We did not mention it again.
We found that mountain town by accident. Whiskey almost finished and bladders bursting, we stepped from the train onto the empty platform, the air cold, the sky the color of slate roofs.
From the train station that smelled of wet cement, we walked up the hill to a deserted town of narrow winding cobblestone streets.
At a bar that night we ate crayfish, picking apart their tiny boiled bodies, letting pieces of red shell fall to the floor, mixing with olive pits and used toothpicks and crumpled grease stained napkins. We were the only customers and the waiter ignored us, watching the football match on the television above the bar. He left the bottle of whiskey in front of us.
We spoke little.
And we spent the night sharing a bed in a small hotel with tiled floors and a floral duvet. She had been gone a week. The hotel had once been a monastery and its restaurant, a stable.
We stood, staring across at the villas on the next hilltop, across the cold rocky river.
It was Noriega’s idea to jump the stone wall. I followed with hesitant movements. Thistles caught my ankles, piercing through my thin socks. Pricked by a thistle, married in the year. And halfway down, he stopped abruptly and sat on the damp grass and reached into the pocket of his jacket for a cigarette. I sat next to him, our shoulders brushing, and unscrewed the red cap of the whiskey bottle. He handed me a cigarette.
I don’t know how long we sat there, passing the bottle between us, looking at the river below, but at some point, Noriega stood, and reached a hand down to help me to my feet. I replaced the bottle cap and we continued down towards the water.
When I slipped, a hole hidden in the long grass, Noriega held out his hand to steady me and we continued our walk with fingers entwined.
The steep hill came to a gentle end and we stood at the rocky ledge over looking the quick moving water. Noriega took the jam jar from his jacket pocket and handed it to me. I handed him the bottle of whiskey in return.
There was nothing to say and so we said nothing as I let her ashes fall into the water below and from the corner of my eye I saw Noriega cross himself quickly. He handed me back the bottle and lit us both a cigarette. We stared at the space in front of us, passing the bottle back and forth, the cold February sun falling.
Noriega finally took my hand and led me stumbling up the hill. I remember trembling slightly from the cold, the sun already behind the next hill.
I don’t remember the walk back to the hotel. I remember the hotel manager, a short man with graying hair, looking up from the guest book and smiling at us as we walked in. I remember the warmth of the hotel lobby and an older British couple already sitting at a table in the restaurant. I remember the room key in my hand and Noriega’s hand on my shoulder.
I remember falling asleep with Noriega next to me.