Wednesday at Chaucer’s I was digging through the fiction for a Christmas Eve book. Pulled Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights from the shelf when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Startled, I turned to face an older man in a gray sweater, the kind with a ribbed neck, and a salt and pepper beard.
“What do you think of this?” he asked, holding a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees.
“Haven’t read it.”
“Not a fan.”
He frowned and I added, “Too macho.”
Chaucer’s is a small bookstore with shelves so tight they leave little space for the reader. The air was heavy with perspiration and the frenzied angst of holiday shopping.
Searching for something to lift my weariness and take me to another world, I wanted to fall into a printed page. But the man beside me would have none of that magical trip, bumping me every time he pulled out a book. Never a sorry. Finally I put Hardwick back into her niche, tired of the stranger’s presence.
I’m tall, nearly six feet, about his height. He was familiar the way my grandfather was familiar in black and white photographs. A strong jaw ready to bite. I touched his arm, vestiges of my Southern upbringing. A gesture I make when not quite sure how to react or what to say. His wool sleeve scratchy.
“A couple of doors down,” I said.
“Want a cocktail?”
“Maybe. Let’s get a coffee first.”
So unlike me. Agreeing to share time with a man I found intrusive. A man I wished were years younger. That I too were younger. We weaved our way out the narrow aisle past customers waiting for their books to be wrapped. The cool air felt fresh. We walked over to Renaud’s, ordered and sat outside at one of the bistro tables across from each other. He faced Harry’s Plaza Cafe and I, the Santa Ynez Mountains. In the light I could see deep, leathery lines crossing the man’s forehead. Traces of long hours in the outdoors before sunscreen.
“Cappuccino, nonfat milk, and an espresso,” the waiter, possibly twenty years old, announced.
We tasted our coffee.
“Why are you staring at me?” he asked.
“You know why.”
“I do,” he said, sliding his palms over the table’s surface as if smoothing cloth. His hands blocky and thick, freckled with brown spots. Like most of the guys I’m attracted to, he had dark, intense eyes. I imagined his body muscled and tan early in life when women and late nights were routine.
“Do you live in Santa Barbara?” I asked, twisting my napkin into a paper Twizzler.
“Just looking for a stiff drink worth a buck.”
Behind him the mountains were long and patched in green. There were palm trees and blooming aloe vera. Tubular orange clusters dangling from the stalk. The medicinal plant with its healing virtue was not for me. My stomach was queasy, the way it groused when I took aspirin without saltines. Why was I sitting here with an old man from god knows where? A pretender. Why didn’t I leave?
“Are we going to Harry’s?” he asked.
“Did you win a look-alike contest in Key West?”
“I am Hemingway. The writer too macho for you.”
He never broke cadence, never slipped from behind the mask. Played his role with absolute authenticity.
“You’ve been dead, what, fifty plus years,” I said. “Why are you here?”
“I’ll tell you in Harry’s.”
Curious, I finished my cappuccino.
He stood and offered his hand. I took it, unable to resist an hour in a bar with a man who called himself Hemingway. Better than a live manger scene.
He opened for me a door to what seemed like the 50s. Red leather booths with padded backs, enough room for parties of six or eight. On the walls the past lived in black frames. Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Dean Martin watched over every whiskey and gimlet served. My man Hemingway was in his milieu. Loud and assured, he sat on the crimson stool.
“Two gin martinis with crisp cocktail onions. Coat the bottom with vermouth.”
I pulled out my credit card to start a tab.
“My treat,” I said. “So why are you here?”
“I need a drink.”
The bartender placed two napkins before us, turning squares into diamonds with the Harry’s Plaza Cafe logo of gold and red parallel to each other. Two martini glasses, frosty with condensation, appeared.
“Why are you still here?”
He took a sip and closed his eyes.
“Atonement,” he said.
“Everything. I was a devil.”
“By all accounts,” I said.
“My sins were”–he paused as though standing at his typewriter hunting for the exact word–“substantial.”
“Women you loved and women you didn’t love?”
I considered myself somewhat of a MeToo, TimeOut feminist but sensed my body falling under the spell of a man who discarded wives and lovers. Being handsome and talented got him what he wanted. His biography from a long-forgotten literature class came back to me. A narcissist shadowed by depression. A genius who could not abide his aging body and loss of literary strength. At first he failed at suicide and entered Mayo Clinic. He was released and succeeded on the next try. A toxic male, the last man I should be attracted to. Yet there I was drinking martinis, believing then not believing that I was boozing with Papa.
“Tell me about ‘Hills Like White Elephants.'” He speared the onion and held it to
the light. Concentric circles winding into perfection before he snagged it with his teeth. He gripped the bar and turned to me. I felt tingling warmth the way I do late at night under cover with my fantasies. His lips parted, ready to speak, but dangled me in silence. Uncomfortably long. I knew he knew I could be his.
“She wanted a baby. I didn’t.”
“My writing never is. I was betrayed once and vowed never again.”
“So you became”
“the betrayer,” he finished.
I reached for my second martini. His admission hung between us. My breath was audible. He didn’t move. The quiet became surreal. Finally, he raised his head, staring at his reflection behind the liquor bottles.
“I betrayed myself,” he said.
His eyes lost their intensity, moist as though he were no longer dead inside. I reached for his arm. This time because I wanted to show comfort, let him know his wandering was not in vain.
Image – Wikicommons [[File:Hemingway typewriter studio FL1.jpg|Hemingway typewriter studio FL1]]