by Michael Bradburn-Ruster

Often they would come to the enclosed garden for Saturday or Sunday breakfast, to sit between the wall cloaked in ivy and the oddly delicate plants with cordate leaves that shivered like strips of paper in the strong draft flowing perpetually from the kitchen door, mysteriously skirting the table where after ten o’clock the sun spread a delicious circle of refuge and release from the week’s tedium and strain.

Elena gestured discreetly for Peter to remove a little streak of food from one corner of his mouth. He did so peremptorily, without his customary playful pretense at embarrassment. Perhaps because there was a game at the university that morning, the restaurant beyond the kitchen as well as the sunlit patio were empty save for themselves and one other table along the opposite wall where a woman and two men were talking about a park near San Antonio.

“It’s a decision,” Elena concluded, “you’ve got to make, no matter how unpleasant it may be.”

Peter cast a vexed glance over the rim of his cup. “But not now. Not on a peaceful morning with the sky smiling like this, when I’ve vowed to let nothing disturb me.”

Elena was gently insistent, her full lips contracting as if to compress her words. “But I know you: you’ll let it go on, hoping it’ll go away, until at last—”

“I just can’t believe it,” Peter sighed. Then, more eager to bury the subject than to assuage her concern, he offered, “I’ll talk to him next week.”

“You’d better do more than that.” Her dark brow was drawn taut above her sunglasses, the light gleaming against her fresh skin. “There are discrepancies he couldn’t possibly explain away.”

His hand fluttered. “I don’t think we have enough information to be jumping to conclusions.”

“Well, you can saunter if it pleases you, but that won’t alter the facts: it’s quite conspicuous.”

He said nothing, thankful that she stopped short at irony, that she had never chided him in all these years for not paying closer attention to the books.

“Alright,” he said, shoving his plate slightly forward, as if laying down a bad hand of cards. He stared at his last morsel of potato and egg with something like distrust.

Her tone was tender when she spoke again. “It infuriates me, Love, to see him repay you like this.” There was a glint like a speck of light fallen into burgundy, before her fingers plunged briefly into her hair.

“Well,” he said feebly, aware that he no longer cared.

They were silent as the waiter brought more coffee and removed their plates, Peter smiling softly while the fellow joked about putting the last bite in a bag to be taken home. When the waiter disappeared into the kitchen, it was as though he had neatly cleared away nearly all the tension that had hovered about them like persistent wasps. There was only a trace now, a sort of vapor or veil clinging to his breath. Peter looked down at his hands, strangely pacific as they lay curled in the light before him. He felt envious toward them, lying there so wonderfully thoughtless and passive. Overhearing a snatch of conversation from the distant table, he glanced over to the man who was speaking, a slender figure with long chestnut hair tied neatly at the back, whom Peter had earlier assumed, quite confidently, to be a vegetarian, some sort of purist. It surprised him, now, to hear the man talking about sport fishing in the Gulf, while drawing a cigarette from his pocket and reaching across the table for an ashtray.

Peter turned back to share his surprise with Elena, but she did not seem to notice the return of his attention. He watched her face tilt upward, and sensed in spite of her dark glasses that her gaze was directed just above and beyond him. Instantly her brow became smooth, her full lips relaxed, curling into the faintest wisp of a smile. He was certain that behind the dusky lenses the haze of trance had drifted into her eyes, the familiar look that in its outward aspect was indistinguishable, identical whether her abstraction was provoked by memory or anticipation: it signalled only that the horizon of the present had been crossed, that her mind now floated among shadows of what had been, or apparitions of what might come. For some reason he saw her leaning once more against the side of that huge ferry—what was it, eight, nine years ago?—unaware that he was watching her as she looked out over the Aegean, thinking perhaps of the accumulated centuries of voyagers that had preceded them, and at the same time dreaming of the narrow streets, the beaches, the pungent allure of Naxos that lay ahead in the crisp light. There is some bizarre sense, he thought now, in which the past and the future are inextricable.

Her voice came unexpectedly.

“That tree behind you,” she nodded. He leaned back, craning his neck to stare up into the branches of a tree roughly the size of a person, the foliage of which seemed relatively healthy, though the glossy leaves partially concealed a scattering of rather stunted oranges that apparently no one in the restaurant had considered worthy of plucking: they hung like small deflated balloons, their rinds puckered as if from intense heat, or perhaps merely from having been left to desiccate slowly on the branch. “Somehow it reminds me,” she mused, “of the tree I used to climb as a girl—except that one was so much more dense and tall. I think I told you this: my brother and I would climb up to sit and watch the people pass by below, on the road to town. We couldn’t be seen unless you peered deeply into the branches.”

Peter nodded. “I remember. Your favorite tree. Sometimes you would climb up there to read, because otherwise they always found some task or chore for you …”

She smiled. “Right, but when my brother was with me we would just spend hours watching the people go by. He made little seats for us out of gunnysacks, and what was so marvelous was being able to sit there in comfort and secrecy, unseen, as though we were two wild birds.” With a sip of her coffee, she seemed to look directly at Peter, although he could not see the pupils of her eyes. He wanted to ask her to remove the glasses, feeling for a moment as if she were up in that tree looking stealthily down on him, even though he knew she wore them only because her eyes had become increasingly sensitive to direct light. “What struck me later was that in all that time I never witnessed anyone betraying themselves, never saw the masks peeled away. That wasn’t my motive, of course; what we sought was something else, but …” Her brows arched suggestively. “I might have had all sorts of entertaining stories to tell, don’t you think? I mean, wouldn’t you imagine that in passing along what they thought was a deserted road, well isolated from our house by trees and distance, a whole troupe of people would eventually have committed an array of embarrassing acts? Some fine lady shamelessly scratching herself, one of our upstanding local politicians furtively conversing with a notorious scoundrel, a priest arranging a passionate tryst with some eminent virgin, an exchange of suspicious bundles maybe … But none of that.” A tired fondness lurked behind her voice. “It was such a small town, perhaps people just learned to live more transparently.”

“Or with such opaque hypocrisy,” Peter suggested, “that they managed even in solitude to convince themselves of their decency.” He meant to elaborate, but felt the malicious bloom of his wit wither before the frown that formed above her sunglasses.

He was aware that what bothered her was not so much his cynicism (as insincere as it was habitual), but his predictability: he could never bear to let a shred of ingenuousness remain unchallenged, lest the merest hint of innocence threaten his sense of intellectual maturity, turning him into a foolish accomplice in some sanguine offense against the orthodoxy of disenchantment. Such reactions had by now become automatic, divorced from his real feelings; and although she had come to expect them, they invariably provoked in her a faint spasm of disappointment.

Deciding to ignore his comment, she continued: “The only thing I ever saw of note was a very old couple my mother and I had often run across in the market or at Mass. Beyond being remarkably reticent and impassive in public, they were a perfectly ordinary old couple, though perhaps a certain frailty, a particular complexity and depth marked the pattern of their wrinkles. At a glance you might have believed they had never touched each other, except perhaps when their fingertips met over a slice of bread, or a key was passed from one to the other. Yet one day when I was alone in the tree they came down the road toward town, pausing under the tree as if on impulse, though it seemed like something they had done forever. They inclined toward one another a little stiffly, and then began to exchange the most tender, lingering kiss I had ever seen. She whispered something to him that I couldn’t hear, and after a moment they moved on, their hands grazing just once, ever so slightly.”

He smiled briefly, feeling guilty about his last remark, careful now to show her he was not impervious to the charm of her story. But something else had struck him as more important. “I don’t suppose you ever knew what sort of tree it was?” he wondered, anticipating a casual shrug or shake of the head.

“Oh … Never forget.” She tossed back her head, tiny sparks of sunlight scattering through the dark threads of her hair. “A pomegranate tree. And we had to be so careful whenever we ate them, because the stains are merciless … My mother would be furious when we came in with little flecks and blotches on our clothes. She was about to prohibit our climbing the tree entirely when we at last learned the secret. She had us bring a few pomegranates to the house so we could see how to eat them neatly. Of course, they never tasted so good that way, but we discovered how to handle them without making a mess, so in the end we could keep on eating them in our—”

“Why did you never tell me this?” he demanded, surprised at his own vehemence.

She raised a swift hand, gesturing for him to speak more softly. The two men and the woman at the far table were disagreeing about the weather in Phoenix, apparently oblivious to the heat in Peter’s voice.

“I think I must have,” Elena responded, emphasizing her tentative tone with a single, gradual nod, “at some point or other.”

Peter’s hand tensed as it tapped the table. “You mentioned a favorite tree: you never told me what kind it was, never said pomegranate.”

Across her lips there passed something like a stifled kiss, fading as quickly as it had arisen. “It doesn’t matter, Love, you know it now.”

“Oh, but it does,” he insisted. His green eyes were two scoured stones. “I have images of you that I conjure up and keep. Like movies no one has ever seen. And all of a sudden they’re flawed … all wrong. It’s like finding you’ve miscounted the steps in a staircase you’ve been climbing all your life—suddenly go tumbling through the air without the faintest—”

“Well, I’ve told you now, in any case.” Her voice sounded strangely bruised, discolored. “So it’s really not important.”

His hand flattened, cleaving to the hard warmth of the table. “But you loved them,” he said, as if beseeching her for some favor. “How could you never tell me?”

Her face had surrendered to a blank repose: there was nothing left to say. Her smoky lenses glared imperturbably at him, mocking his irritation. They were, he felt, emblematic of the fact that she was hiding from him, that she presided over a vast treasury of experiences to which he would never be allowed access. He lowered his gaze in frustration, only to discover that he was staring at that Victorian ring with its three garnets set amidst a silver floral pattern. It had graced her finger since their marriage eleven years before, yet he had never realized that the gems were exactly the color of pomegranate seeds. She had longed for the ring, had chosen it rather than something more conventional. And now he knew why. Suddenly the lovely piece of jewelry became repulsive to him, a cruel reminder of the world that lay behind her, the continuity in her life that he would always be denied, the seed of her present being that lay concealed beneath the rind, the leaves, the canopy of her past, the vigilant eye of a little girl defying him from a fastness of shadows and foliage.

“I wonder what else I don’t know,” he murmured as he counted out the money, the bills agitated in the kitchen breeze, trembling like the delicate leaves he glimpsed out of the corner of his eye. “… How often what I think I know about you is actually lacking some crucial detail, the single particular that would reveal the true dimension of all the others?”

After a long silence she said darkly, “I think you’re more tired than I realized.”

It hurt him that she spoke with such sadness; sarcasm he could have dismissed. He wondered how many hours or days would have to pass before the sorrow would leave their voices, knowing that even then it would linger more deeply. For he realized that what had years ago been a delight to him—the awareness that no matter how well he might come to know her, she would remain a mystery—had ended up causing him a vague but undeniable distress, as if by not fathoming her he had failed in the one genuinely urgent and intimate endeavor he had ever undertaken. She no longer seemed enchantingly limitless, but had become, without changing, frustratingly insoluble.

They rose from the table with the graceful and effortless accord of habit. Yet as they walked along the shady brick lane and passed through the empty restaurant, he felt mildly unsteady, out of step not only with her, but even with himself. His mind groped among formless and innumerable betrayals. He was not thinking of other men. There had been, he knew, quite a few, but he was not concerned about them. It was only the nameless things that now seemed truly essential.