GLUTEN AND OTHER ABOMINATIONS
The baroque soprano's long, black hair snaked across the kitchen sink, which I'd just cleaned. I hate these damn musicians. Especially the lutenist, who goes into rages if anyone leaves the lid off his precious little metal box of Lapsang souchong. He also persists in leaving the toilet seat up, which I find offensive to women, and he's a food snob. Pesto should have pine nuts in it, he said after I'd made it without because the damn things are so expensive. Not always, I'd said. The old recipes don't have pine nuts. His eyebrows zipped up his high forehead, as if I didn't know my business as a caterer.
And then the food restrictions of this snotty little group! The soprano can't eat raw onions; the actress is a strict vegan who thinks that drinking milk is as bad as eating meat (because you're raping the cow!); another won't eat gluten and wants everything bland and well-cooked; someone else likes everything raw, so that it's impossible to make one meal that everyone can sit down and eat civilly together.
After one particularly disastrous dinner, during which the soprano claimed to have ingested a piece of raw onion in her potato salad—although I had made hers specifically for her—I slapped the crè me brûlée (no eggs, no dairy, disgusting!) on the table so loudly they all looked at me. Then I took refuge in the library with a glass of red wine. The owner of the place found me taking big swigs and deep breaths when he came through after dinner.
"Sorry," Alex said as he sat down beside me. "I know, they can be a big pain in the butt, can't they?"
"Yeah." I was surprised that he could see right through me.
"Spoiled trust-fund kids, most of them," he said, smiling. He was an attractive man in his sixties, bald, with warm blue eyes.
"Wait a minute." He went to the kitchen, came back with a glass of wine for himself, and closed the door. "Well, not Megan. The actress. She's just crazy. Not sure why she's here. But most people in early music have money."
"They do? Why is that?"
"I guess because they wouldn't go into it otherwise. There's not much demand for their services. Not many baroque concerts."
I sipped my wine and looked at him. "Oh."
He frowned at me. "You look tired, Annie. How's business?"
I shrugged. "Not great. Hasn't been much of a year. A few weddings, mostly gays."
He smiled. "They're the only ones who want to get married now, huh?"
"He's doing all right." The thought of my husband made me tear up for a moment. To distract myself I said: "And what is it with this gluten thing? People have been eating wheat for thousands of years. All of a sudden every other person thinks they can't eat it."
We both started to giggle.
"You can't let them upset you," Alex said, looking at me calmly. He rummaged in his pocket and handed me an actual handkerchief. "I know it's harder for you because you have to deal with their nutty food phobias, but believe me, they get to me too. We both have to put up with a lot of shit because we need money. Sure, I'd rather be up here by myself, but I have to rent this place out to musical groups and such a few weeks a summer or I couldn't pay the taxes."
"Oh," I said. "Sorry."
"Don't be. Week after next I've got a yoga workshop. You interested in catering that?"
I tried not to sigh. "Sure. If they're not all vegans."
Alex smiled. "Relax. You need to get out more, Annie. All work and no play makes Annie a dull girl."
"How am I supposed to get out? I'm always working..."
"Right now we could go to Brio's, have a drink. Leave your car off at home on the way, tell Eric, then I'll drop you on the way back."
"Come on." He pulled me up.
"I haven't put the dishes in the dishwasher..."
"I'll do it in the morning."
We walked out around the trust-fund babies, who seemed to be discussing some thorny musical subject. The actress was studying her green fingernails. They all looked up at the two of us in surprise, probably because they thought of me as the help.
* * *
The road to Phoenicia wound slowly down the mountain. Alex took it pretty fast, so I tried to keep up with him. I'm from New York, like a lot of people up here, and I didn't even drive until we moved up here full time ten years ago, when Tim was twelve. I remembered what a funk he was in, screaming that we were ruining his life by taking him away from his friends in the city and plunging him into this wilderness. I was scared too, scared of the isolation, of bears, of having to learn to drive at thirty-nine before I could even look for a job. I got used to it, but I still find nature pretty wild and scary, particularly at night. The headlights catch glistening little eyes staring out at you. Deer nestle in the underbrush and may decide to bolt out in front of you at any time. I'd hit a doe once, going home at night, and had almost lost control of the car. This time the wild critters all stayed put, and I sighed in relief when we got to our rambling old house by the road in Chichester.
I walked through the kitchen, where the table and nearly every available surface was covered with cookbooks, novels, and mail—the last because I'm on the list of every left-wing cause in the country.
In our room Eric was sitting up in bed, bare-chested in the heat, watching a video. His cane, an elaborately carved reproduction of an old Catskills walking stick, stood by the bed.
"Hi, honey," he said, smiling and patting the bed beside him. "You're early."
I sat down tentatively. "I'm not through yet. Alex wants to talk to me about a wedding. We're going to Phoenicia." I couldn't bear to tell him that I just had to get out.
He made his funny face, in which he purses his lips and scowls. "I'm sorry you have to work so hard."
I leaned over and kissed him and ruffled his grayish-blond hair. He looked completely normal, as though he was waiting for me in bed the way he always has when I have to work late.
"I'm free all day tomorrow," I said.
"Good." He turned the video back on, which I took as a cue to leave.
Alex and I drove on to Phoenicia. It was Saturday night so Main Street was jumping. We parked over by Mama's Boy, then walked to Brio's. The outside tables were all taken, and as we worked our way in, we saw that the inside ones were too.
"Damn," Alex said. A waitress motioned in the direction of the bar. "That's going to be even louder. Do you mind?"
"No," I said, although I did, thinking I'd like to keep what's left of my hearing.
We wove our way into the bar and sat down at a table in a corner a few feet away from the counter. The noise was deafening. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror over the bar, saw that my shoulder-length brown hair had gone noodle-limp in the humidity and that I looked grim with no makeup. I tried smiling and the effect was better. A woman at the bar with pulled-back blond hair smiled back, apparently thinking that I'd been smiling at her.
I ordered a margarita. Then I noticed that the bar was packed with women. "What is this, Ladies Night Out?"
Alex began to chuckle. "You really don't get out much, do you?"
"I told you. I haven't been out in a year."
"Saturday night is lesbian night in Phoenicia."
"Of course." I began to laugh.
The margaritas arrived and we tried to have a conversation over the din.
"Is Eric able to work at all?"
"Well, he's started to make furniture. Turns out he's always wanted to be a cabinetmaker and he's good at it. He's sold a couple of pieces."
"But he's not...he's sold the antique business?"
"It's on the market. Too much lifting. And standing. He can't do that anymore."
"That's tough. But he still lectures?"
"If he doesn't have to travel too far."
He looked at me steadily for a few seconds. Perhaps he was feeling sorry for me because I was now the chief breadwinner, and a glorified cook at that, but it was more likely he was thinking of sex. People have been looking at me like that for the past year, ever since Eric had his stroke. At first I never thought about it. I was just glad he was alive, happy to cuddle with him and no more. Eric's all right down there, and the doctor cleared him for sex. But when we start, he stops at a certain point, and then he just concentrates on me. He's afraid, it's obvious. But we can't seem to talk about it.
The joint was jumping. It wasn't just the ladies at the bar. Kids shrieking in the dining room. Waitresses passing with loaded trays, flirting with the bartender. Somewhere under it music pulsed, but it was impossible to tell what. We started to talk about Alex's career—he's a violist—but I could hardly hear him. Something about the difficulties for musicians in the Catskills, Woodstock impossible, opportunities at Glimmerglass drying up. Finally we gave up and nursed our drinks. Then he excused himself and headed for the men's room.
I sat and felt sorry for myself, glancing occasionally at the bar, at the laughing women, who were obviously having a good time. Serves you right, some impudent voice said in my head. Sex was one thing we'd never had to worry about—it just happened like clockwork. Sure, I'd lost some libido with menopause, but Eric hadn't. I remembered our trip to Rome several years before, after a bumper year of antique sales. We'd had an argument by the Tiber because, he said, I was such a damn tourist—all I wanted to do was go out and see old stones, when we were in one of the most romantic places in the world. His idea of a vacation was to spend the morning in bed making love, not trudging through the Forum in the hot Roman sun. We'd sat there so long that a scam artist had walked by a couple of times, trying to get money to fill his gas tank so he could get back to Paris. We'd ended up laughing and going back to the hotel to bed.
I studied the women at the bar, wondering idly if life was any easier with a woman. Lots of short hair, of course, but not on all of them. Like the woman who'd smiled at me. She had strawberry-blond hair, probably her own color, tied up in a ponytail. She was drinking her beer, deep in conversation with the woman next to her. But then she looked over at me, smiling when she saw I was looking at her. The next thing I knew she'd hopped off the barstool and was on her way over to my table.
"Hi," she said, standing there in white shorts and a blue tank top that clung to her very shapely breasts. Youngish, late thirties, maybe forty. She looked me over and said: "Why don't you ditch the old guy and come with us?"
I couldn't help laughing. "He's not old. But if he's old, then so am I." This wasn't really true because Alex was probably at least ten years older than I.
She shook her head and her ponytail switched around. "You're not old. You have beautiful eyes."
"Listen, I'm not..."
"Queer? You can say it." After a moment: "You know, most women are bi."
"Not me." I smiled. "I'm very happy with my husband."
"Oh. You mean...him?" She nodded toward the bathrooms in the back. "Sorry."
"No, he's a client."
"You know, you look familiar. What do you do?"
"Catering," I said, wondering why I was continuing the conversation.
She grinned. "That's it. Didn't you cater Sally Herman's wedding?"
"I'm Carrie," she said, stretching out her hand to take mine.
I tried to avoid her gaze by looking around for Alex, who could come back at any time. But I ended up noticing her white throat and the curve of her breasts that were at my eye level, since I was sitting down. I looked up and met her eyes. It was nice to have someone looking at me so attentively, even if it was a woman. I felt like I was blushing, that a wave of heat was forking through me.
Fortunately, Alex came back just then, and Carrie went back to the bar, tossing me a smile over her shoulder.
He gave me a tongue-in-cheek grin as he sat down. "Sorry. Did I interrupt something?"
"Probably a good thing you did. It's the first time a woman has ever come on to me."
"I'm surprised. You're an attractive woman and there are a lot of lezzies up here."
We tried to continue our conversation, but the noise was getting louder, so we left. Carrie waved a nonchalant good-bye.
In the car I started to laugh, peals of laughter that went out through the open windows and made the people walking in the festive Saturday-night crowd turn and look at us as we drove past.
"Well, guess I was right to take you out," Alex said. "You've forgotten all about the trust-fund kids, haven't you?"
"Yes, I guess so." I managed to stop laughing but I was still smiling.
* * *
We started back up the mountain, through the summer night. I noticed sounds I hadn't heard coming down here, like the wonderful August drone of the peepers. A breeze had sprung up, ruffling the leaves of the big old-growth trees on both sides of the road. Somehow I'd shed the stress and fatigue that usually weighed me down by the weekend. I didn't feel like an old lady anymore. Actually, I was feeling horny. A plan was taking shape in my mind.
"So you won't need me tomorrow?" I asked Alex as I got out.
"No, can't afford it. I'll make them pasta. Gluten-free, of course."
Our little house was dark except for the light in the bedroom at the back. I went into the hallway and rooted around in the bottom drawer of a bureau where I kept out-of-season clothes until I found my old Victoria's Secret nightgown. It was white, demure, and cotton, unlike the sleazy stuff they stock now. I slipped out of my sundress and underwear and put it on.
There was no video noise from the bedroom. I was afraid Eric was asleep. But when I went to the door, there he was, still sitting up in bed, reading a copy of Maine Antiques Digest. He grinned when he saw me.
"Hi. Haven't seen that one in a while."
I realized that I hadn't been very attentive about my bedtime appearance since his stroke—I'd taken to wearing ratty flannel pajamas, since it's usually cool at night up here, even in the summer. So maybe I wasn't helping the situation either.
Eric looked happier than he had when I went out. I noticed that there was a copy of his monograph on the Hudson Valley painters on the bedside table, which I hadn't seen for a while.
"Tim called," he said.
"How is he?"
"Fine. He's spending the weekend with a girl named Susan in Point Reyes."
"North of San Francisco. Job's going well."
"He's all grown up. A job and a girl. What else is there?"
"And"—Eric waved a letter in the air—"they've asked me to talk on Thomas Cole at the Clark Museum in November."
"That's great. See, things are working out."
"How about a glass of wine?"
When I went out to get it, I put Ella Fitzgerald singing "Embraceable You" on the CD player, turned down low. He was smiling when I came back in, as though he could see through my subterfuge.
"None for you?"
"I just had a margarita at Brio's."
His smile disappeared. "Brio's? You went to talk business at Brio's? You can't hear yourself think there, much less talk."
"Alex thought I needed a drink. I was upset about his current bunch of Juilliard brats."
Eric's greenish eyes bored into me. "Should I be concerned about your friendship with him?"
"Of course not." I sat down on the bed, hoping this wasn't going to get us off course. "He has a girlfriend. And I have you. And I knew you wouldn't want to go to Brio's on a Saturday night."
"Fair enough." He reached over and pulled me to him. "Of course you need to have a life. I know this period has been tough for you too. "
We smiled at each other and kissed. I laid my head on his chest while he stroked my hair. He smelled of Ivory soap, a barely perceptible scent that took me back to my childhood. I smelled like the coconut milk and seaweed flakes I'd put in the damn crè me brûlée, but he didn't seem to mind. I thought of Carrie and how sexy she'd made me feel. Then the old chemistry took over, and we made love just as we used to before the stroke. Gently at first, then lunging together passionately toward the end. The fear had gone.
And he didn't die.
Paula Paige has studied with Richard Bausch and Frederick Busch. She won the 2010 Our Stories Gordon Award for her flash fiction piece "Mosiach is Here." Most recently, she was shortlisted for Glimmer Train's February 2014 Short Story Award for New Writers, and First Runner-up in Red Hen Press's 2015 Short Story Award, judged by Sean Bernard. She was an adjunct professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Wesleyan University for thirty years. In 1991, she was Writer in Residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. Her two translations of nineteenth-century Italian literary fiction were published with Northwestern University Press. She loves traveling, especially to Rome or Paris, to maintain her fluency in French and Italian.