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Painted Cabanas

Charlie Hudson

I cherish the middle of April in this small town of Tirrenia when sunshine takes full possession of the sky. Flowers open and businesses calculate their potential take from thousands of tourists who will make their way to the sea. Dozens of workmen come, sometimes three generations worth, to clean and rake the sand, place new cushions in the chairs and paint the cabanas in chosen pastels or vibrant primary colors. There is little paint to remove since the winter rains and winds strip the old away and leave the wood a gray surface that waits for the new to be applied.

The crowds have not yet appeared, especially not early in the morning or in the sunset hours when I like to walk and find shells which will later be broken into fragments by summer visitors. I had observed this ritual for two seasons when Ryan found me.

He said it had taken him a year, four months and some days in addition to almost thirty thousand dollars to track me down. How like him to reduce my refuge to practical numbers. He said I could come home now – everyone had forgiven me. He didn’t ask if I had forgiven them.

“What could you possibly have been thinking of to run off with some gigolo? Or was he a drug dealer? Geoffrey was a bit confused, not to mention that I don’t understand how you managed to get a work visa,” he said in exasperation when I finally agreed to meet him. I knew he would never go away otherwise.

I had given him directions to the trattoria and watched from the doorway as he strode up the short path without a lingering glance at the postcard perfect, vine-covered stucco building, nor, God forbid, a moment to enjoy the nearly lake-like still sea that bounced back the azure sky. I accepted his dry kiss to my cheek. It was past the leisurely lunches served with ceramic pitchers of local wine and not yet time to begin dinner preparations, so we sat alone at one of the tables in the glass-enclosed section. Soon Roberto and Massimo would replace the large panes with screens and colorful awnings that would shield diners who wanted fresh air and shade simultaneously.

“I have an acquaintance who has a nephew who has connections for the visa,” I answered with no intention of discussing Angelo. “And my passport is valid for another six years.”

Ryan held his wineglass in his left hand and impatiently rocked the thumb and little finger of his right hand against the edge of the table in a silent rhythm. “Damn it, do you know we weren’t even sure if you were still alive? Dad kept people at the State Department spun up for weeks, Mother was completely beside herself and they were both furious with Geoffrey for allowing you to pull a stunt like that.”

“I sent the card from Athens to let you know I was okay,” I said. “And by the way, what exactly does ‘beside herself’ mean? I’ve never understood how one could do that.”

“Oh Jesus, Christine! This is so typical of you,” Ryan snapped. “Can’t you be serious for a few minutes?”

He drained the glass of Chianti, grabbed the pitcher and refilled his glass. Despite the fact that his light brown hair and mahogany eyes made him a younger version of Father, that gesture was distinctly Mother’s. Except that she preferred gin.

“I can be as serious as you would like,” I said calmly. “It’s just that then you’ll have no excuse when I say things that you don’t want to hear.”

I looked at him over the rim of my glass. It was heavy and hand blown by a cousin who owned a shop in the next village over. It was a pale green, elongated triangular shape with a short stem. I loved the simplicity of the line and the feel of it in my hand. I wondered briefly how many gallons of wine I’d drunk from the cousin’s creations.

Father’s look receded from Ryan’s face and for at least a minute or two he was the same brother I knew before we accepted the respective roles laid out for us. Before the boarding schools, the prep schools, the honored alma maters, the proscribed circle of friends. His voice lost the demanding tone of the fledgling captain of industry negotiating multi-million dollar deals. Or were they billion dollar deals?

“Why, Christine? Just tell me why? You had everything you could want. How could you walk away without so much as a good-bye?”

I smiled at him. How long would I have my Ryan to talk to? “Geoffrey was too busy to notice, Father was in Hong Kong, Mother was at a spa in Switzerland and you, I believe were leading the hostile takeover of some company or the other. And just out of curiosity, what is it that I am alleged to be doing? I can’t imagine Father hasn’t come up with some sort of story.”

The corners of his mouth turned and he might have smiled if he hadn’t remembered that he was here on a dire matter. “You were suddenly taken with an unquenchable thirst for ancient architecture. There’s enough of that in Europe to explain lengthy absences.” He pushed back from the table and extended one leg in a stretch. “So is that what this was about? You were feeling neglected? You wanted somebody’s attention?”

“I rather like the idea of an extended architectural tour,” I said and took another sip of wine. “And does it matter why I left?”

He sighed and shook his head as if to emphasize my unreasonable question. “Yes it matters. I didn’t fly over here just to bring you home. I really want to know why.”

I reached out and ran my finger along the curved handle of the rooster shaped ceramic wine pitcher. A splotch of purple-red was smeared on the lower half of the beak spout. “Tell me, how hard did Geoffrey fight you to determine who was going to show up?”

Ryan looked away. He was an accomplished dissembler now, but perhaps he would do me the courtesy of the truth. Two gulls skimmed the waves and found nothing to justify a plunge into the water. A couple sauntered along, their arms wrapped around each others’ waists. I waited patiently since I didn’t particularly care one way or the other. My question had only been to make a point.

“I got the report about this place only a few days ago,” he said and allowed his eyes to meet mine. “It was a bad time for Geoff and I told him I would come instead.”

That was the truth in a sense. “It’s too early for the yacht and I don’t think it’s polo time yet, but I suppose he could actually have a board meeting to attend,” I said, not unkindly.

Ryan let his gaze traverse the dining room and then returned to me. “Christine, if you want a divorce, no one will object. It’s hardly a rarity and it would be a damn sight less embarrassing than this.”

I swirled the wine left in my glass. “Careful, Ryan. Appealing to the need to uphold the family name isn’t the best approach. Would you like something to eat?”

He shoved the chair back, walked to the wide window and stared out. The couple had removed their sandals and was standing at the edge of the water. I often stood that way and enjoyed the feel of the sand washing from beneath my feet as grooves deepened with the pull of each wave.

“No, I don’t want anything to eat,” he said without turning. Are you going to give me some kind of explanation or are we going to play games?” His voice was not angry. He was still my Ryan.

I leaned forward until my arms rested on the table and spoke to Ryan’s back. “We used to like games. Do you remember how we played Hide and Seek at the summer house with all those great hiding places? But you always found me so I guess things haven’t changed much after all.”

Those had been the days when I didn’t understand that some children actually spent time with their parents. I assumed everyone had nannies, maids and chauffeurs to take care of them; that holidays were meant for huge catered parties and the house filled with the appropriate cast of the wealthy. I had Ryan who made me laugh, showed me how to feed carrots to the pony, explained that Father was away on business and that Mother had some important charity work or had a headache. It took me a long time to realize why she had so many headaches.

Ryan turned and walked back to the chair. He bent slightly and grasped the back of it with both hands. His tanned face hadn’t yet developed the wrinkles that would qualify him for distinguished. “Christine, we’re not children anymore. We’re adults with adult responsibilities. And why did you bother to marry Geoff in the first place? There were half a dozen suitable men. Father called Dr. Steinmetz when Geoff told us you weren’t coming home. He said you apparently hadn’t made as much progress as he thought.”

Ah, Dr. Steinmetz – of course he would have been consulted. Those years of sessions that had begun at seventeen, was it? No, maybe sixteen. It was the fall, the September right before my seventeenth birthday when I discovered the mistress Father kept in town. When I discovered that Mother knew, had perhaps always known and shrugged it away as did her friends as merely a part of their world – our world. All those sessions when Dr. Steinmetz tried to help me deal with my hostility; my issues of teenage rebellion and hormonal reactions of a girl becoming a woman. He was a caricature prop, socially endorsed to minister to well-heeled angst. That too, if articulated, would be labeled as a hostile thought.

I filled both our glasses again and motioned for Ryan to return to the window with me. We moved without speaking and his left hand lay loosely against his side. I wondered if he wanted me to take his arm. He stared out, not demanding a quick answer, but probably not seeing the workmen at their task. Or perhaps he was assessing the market value of the properties in view. The couple walked further down the shore with sandals dangling from one hand and the other hands clasped together. Were they early travelers or villagers who wanted nothing more than a stress-free afternoon? Were they newly in love? If not, how had they kept the desire to stroll in a languidly, adoring manner?

I sighed gently, not in despair, but in the reflective way that I had adopted during the past several months. Why had I married Geoffrey?

“I genuinely thought that Geoffrey had some substance to him and I knew he wasn’t at the top of Father’s choices. After all, the Wagners barely made the list. Oh yes, and Geoffrey was quite charming in the beginning.”

I leaned my head on Ryan’s shoulder and remembered how quickly Geoffrey’s interests had merged with Father’s – how easily the money and power had drawn Geoffrey to him. It became obvious that Father decided it would be better to include Geoffrey in the circle than waste time grumbling because I declined to marry his first pick. And I even more clearly remembered the sight of Geoffrey and Karen together in the satin sheeted bed when I unexpectedly returned to the hotel suite. Slender, chic Karen – a golden image to my darker one, but the same well-toned body; hair cut so perfectly that an ardent tumble hardly disturbed it. Unless, of course, I had disturbed them before the ardent tumble occurred. I hadn’t asked for details.

I sighed more deeply and spoke quietly, but without the whine of other women I knew. I was philosophical, not pouty.

“I got so tired of it all, Ryan. The emptiness, the lies, the polite denials of genuine feeling. Don’t you ever want to run away from it?”

Ryan shifted slightly and I lifted my head. “Christine, Christine, you’ve never been willing to accept that there’s a price to everything. You can’t possibly be happy here, living like this and working in a restaurant for God’s sake. I know the money is gone – that was part of the report.”

He didn’t look at me directly, but he did put his arm around my shoulders and his voice was still the one from the early summers. He didn’t understand, but he wasn’t angry with me.

“All you have to do is come with me tonight and we’ll be home by morning. You can stay with Geoff or divorce him. Father will take care of it whichever way you decide. You can get involved with Mother’s charities or pick one of your own or start a foundation if you’d rather. That should fill enough of your time and let you concentrate on worthy causes.” He would be certain that his reasoning was all I needed to restore my senses.

He was right about the money. That had been gone for more than a year. We had come to this warm village, the village of Angelo’s relatives. I loved the feeling it evoked in me that first morning when I walked along the beach. We rented a house and let the weeks slip by, but then the cash and jewelry were gone. Angelo regretfully, but firmly explained that while I was a beautiful lady, he thought my decision to remain in Europe came with a certain continuing monetary arrangement. He gracefully offered to take me to the airport in Rome if I wished. His aunt and uncle who owned the trattoria felt badly that Angelo was of such a nature and they were puzzled when I asked if they could help me stay. They welcomed me into their business though, arranged for a tiny apartment that I preferred to call cozy, and embraced me into the large family without further question.

“I’m not going back with you, Ryan,” I said and straightened up. “Tell Geoffrey he can file for divorce if he’d like and send the papers here. I’ll sign them, but if he shows up, I’ll go somewhere else.” I took a tiny sip of wine and let the liquid rest on my tongue for a moment before I swallowed it.

Ryan stiffened and the exasperation returned to his posture, his voice and his eyes. He shook his head and searched my face for a clue as to how to get through to me. “Christine, don’t you think the ‘poor little rich girl’ role is a bit extreme? You may be having a good time wearing gypsy clothes that look like they came from a movie wardrobe and learning the local Italian dialect, but the fun will wear thin soon and Father might not be in a good mood when you finally decide you’re tired of playing peasant.”

I smiled at him. “I can always join the Peace Corps.”

I had wanted to do that once, but Father had forbidden it and bought me a new Corvette as a distraction. He had given Mother a new Mercedes and himself a new mistress that same month.

I relented when an expression close to pain tightened around Ryan’s mouth. After all, he was the one who had flown across an ocean. I touched his cheek with my fingertip and spoke softly.

“I know you don’t understand and I’m not sure I can explain it, but I need you to at least believe that this is what I want to do. I don’t know when I’ll come back – maybe not for a while. I’m happy here, or if it isn’t happiness, then it’s a comfortable calmness that I don’t want to trade. I’m sorry that I’ve upset you because I didn’t mean to, but if you’ll admit it, the truth is that you’re the only one who really does care.”

He started to protest and I think it was the honesty in my eyes that kept him from telling the lie that would have slipped automatically from his mouth. I wouldn’t force him to say the words out loud, but I didn’t want our parting to be mired in the hypocrisy I had run from.

He shrugged away whatever sentence he had planned and sighed as I dropped my hand. “They’re first class tickets.”

“What else would they be?,” I replied with a grin.

He stepped up and put his half-filled glass on the table. “What do you want me to tell them?”

I placed my empty glass alongside his. “It doesn’t matter. Package it however you wish, however it will play best. What time is your flight?”

He glanced at the exquisitely crafted gold watch on his wrist. “I leave from Pisa in two hours and then I think I have a two hour layover in Rome.” He searched my face looking for the instrument to tear down my stubborn refusal. “Is there anything I can say that will make you change your mind?”

I shook my head slowly. “No.”

Ryan offered his arm. “Then walk me to the car.”

We strolled into the empty parking lot and the driver was well trained. He cranked the car, got out, opened the back door and stepped far enough away to not hear us.

Ryan turned toward me and brushed back a strand of hair that had fallen across my forehead. “Write or call occasionally. I’ll send money.”

I squeezed his arm lightly and smiled. “Don’t. I’ll keep in touch, but I won’t need anything else.”

He reluctantly loosened my grip and swung into the car, but paused before the door was shut. He leaned out as if to say something and then hesitated. He threw a kiss on two fingers instead and I returned the gesture. He nodded to the driver who closed the door with the heavy thunk that comes with a luxury automobile.

I watched them drive out of sight and then returned inside and stood at the window again. The gulls and the couple were gone. The only movements were that of the workmen and the lapping waves.

Massimo had once remarked that the cabanas could be repainted quickly since there was little need for preparation. Unlike the stone dwellings meant to last generation after generation, they were built to be used for a few years and then replaced. A new coat of paint each spring was the only requirement. A team of two men – one younger than the other – perhaps a father and son – put the finishing strokes on the end wooden structure and it now shown brightly in turquoise and sea green stripes. Another spring, another renewal.

That’s what I couldn’t explain to Ryan. I knew that if I left with him that I would be like the cabanas – not properly prepared and with only a fresh coat of paint. The winter storms of the life I was supposed to lead would tear it all away and I would be one season closer to the collapse that comes from flimsy construction.

Ryan was right in that I no more truly belonged in the place I had elected for my own escape than I did in the place I had run from. I understood that as surely as I did that it wasn’t time for me to accept the airline ticket Ryan had bought, certain of my willingness to accompany him.

Could I find the strength I was searching for in my daily walks along the beach or in the chaotic chatter of the crowded trattoria as I moved among laughing patrons? Perhaps not, yet for now it gave me what I needed. I would spend coral-colored mornings and enjoy lavender-streaked sunsets with the feel of sand beneath my feet and the sea breeze teasing my hair. I would spend my evenings in the warmth of those who embraced the pleasure of a good meal and flowing pitchers of wine and I would lock those images and feelings deep within me.

By next spring when the workmen came again to transform the empty beach I might also be gone, renewed in the way I wished to be. Or maybe not. I didn’t know yet.

The End