Saturday, April 1, 2006

Prof. Trout contemplates fourth marriage in La Paz cafe

I sat in the back of the restaurant, waiting for her. Dirty tablecloth. Plastic flower in a collins glass with marbles in the bottom and greasy fingerprints around the edge.

I wore jeans and my tweed jacket and white shirt. I had a real flower pinned to my lapel, purchased from the woman in a bright wool sweater and bowler hat who stands outside my hotel silently proffering her sad blossoms. I buy a flower from her every morning and she never smiles. I'm never surprised, though nevertheless disappointed, when I find myself in a place where people are less friendly than the Midwest. Which is most everywhere. Exceptions include Italy when you're traveling with a baby, or the North African neighborhoods in Paris. Also Istanbul where shopkeepers invite you to tea ceremoniously before applying their low-pressure sales pitch. Midwesterners truly are affable, even when they are politicians stripping money from family planning clinics or killing school lunch programs. But then our states are no more red or less blue than the dream coasts when you consider the incredibly small percentage points on either side of the division, which is largely fictional to begin with. New York and California have Republican governors, don't they? I'm sorry for the digression. My thoughts are a mash.

But back to Bolivia, which is something else altogether. I haven't really been able to consider where I am. The implications of the Morales presidency, the left-swing of the Southern Cone, the newfound impotence of US influence in the region under Our Great Chimpanzee's administration, etc. None of this is evident on the street of another great and poor South American city. I'd love to learn what it's really all about, but then that's not why I'm here and I fly home tomorrow.

And so I sat in the restaurant, nervous, recently patched-up ticker all atwitter, recalling my first date in the Princess Cafe where I waited for Jeanne Blunkhorst before the homecoming dance, similar tweed coat borrowed from my musician father and similar sad flower pinned to the lapel. My hands, then and now, sweating profusely.

I sipped my Nescafe noisily.

There's a certain moment when you are surprising someone when you see, etched on their face, the effect of your ruse. You know immediately whether or not they appreciate the surprise from that subtle expression. And they always work to smother this expression immediately, so you have to be vigilant. I craned my neck waiting for Shirleen to arrive, desperate to see her before she spotted me so that I could read how she truly felt about my arrival.

It's a funny thing. I've found that by nonsensically stalking a woman half my age round the world, ironically, that I'm something of a realist. How did I expect it to end? Well, there was the cheep copper ring I'd bought at the mercado. Fifteen bolivianos. "Marry me," I imagined saying, "If your finger turns green it's a sign destiny." Do I really need a fourth marriage? Have I the audacity? I propositioned my third wife after knowing her only a few days, though she did take more than a week to answer. And that had been my longest marriage. I thought of my second wife and her request for a detente in D.C.

And then I saw her. She was wearing one of those fuzzy sweaters with horizontal stripes in primary colors that have become all the rage here, though it's mostly NGO people, aid workers and tourists. The colors mimic the traditional dress of the Quechua and Amayra. She craned her neck and looked through the crowd at the door, studying the tables. She looked down at a note in her hand. I'd left a message with her roommate saying that an old friend was in town to surprise her.

"Professor Trout!" she said when she saw me. I could read her lips across the room. I beamed and leaned back in my chair, spreading my arms in a gesture of welcome. Her expression was plain joy. Wide-eyed, genuine surprise. She was the child at Christmas receiving the unexpected gift who--despite not getting what she had wanted--is nevertheless pleased with the acquisition.

My unreliable ticker pulsed in perfect meter now as she threaded the tables. Her hair was longer than before, un-fluffed, flat and windblown. Her cheeks were likewise red and windburned and she had the healthy burnish of a backpacker on her post college tour. She looked ten years younger and five years wiser all at once.

We both ordered the lomo montado and lingered over a bottle of Chilean Malbec. Breaking convention, we finished with a couple of bottles of paceña, a beer that is surprisingly good. The steak lacked the hearty character of an Argentine cut or the flair of Brazilian grill, but it was nevertheless good and served as the ideal foundation to our commiseration.

"I'm delighted that you came," she said, earnestly. But the delight was clearly tempered by her absorption in her new life. I didn't admit that I'd come solely to see her. I lied and said that I'd been invited to speak at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. This wasn't far-fetched as I'd written two novels set in South America and Shirleen had read them both. I fingered the copper ring in my coat pocket. I enjoyed our conversation, not the least for her gushing over my advice.

"You were right, of course," she said. "I needed experience. I needed distance. I'm not sure I still want...or even be a writer. I'm doing an article on spec for Mother Jones, though. I've written a short story, but I won't show it to anyone. But for the first time since the divorce I feel like I'm on track again."

After she said this she leaned over and kissed me full on the lips, lingering so that I could feel the breath from her nose on my cheek. It was at this point that I almost proposed. But I hesitated. I leaned back and offered a parental smile. Something felt wrong. I realized then that while I was enamored of Ms. Tomasetti, I also didn't feel it would be fair to weigh her down.

We finished the lunch. I didn't linger. I handed her the ring almost as an afterthought. "Here," I said, "I picked this up yesterday in the mercado. A souvenir."

We embraced at the door. "Thanks again," she said, beaming. She didn't inquire about my fake lecture or offer to meet again. We were friends, no longer lovers. Another of my delusions punctured, collapsing like that little balloon they dragged through my arteries.

The angle of sunlight is strange on this side of the equator. I stood in a splash of it on a busy sidewalk for the longest time. I figured this would be the last I'd see of Shirleen, though my regret was leavened a bit by the notion that, despite the strange circumstances, I'd served her successfully in my capacity as a teacher.

Tomorrow I return home.

No comments: