“What are you writing?”
The young man clapped the notebook closed, looked up to find her smiling down at him, felt his stomach do somersaults. “Nothing, really.”
“It must be a bit more than that,” she said, twisting the cap off a bottle of water. “Or you would not be blushing.”
The young man’s face grew warmer. “Only a small story. To pass the time.”
She took a sip, twisted the cap back onto her bottle, and said, “About what?”
He said, “Something that will never happen to me.”
“I see,” she said, resting one knee on the bench, her legs forming a number four. “May I pry?” she said.
“You may,” he said.
She joined him on the bench, one foot tucked under her. “Something such as what?”
“I’m embarrassed to say.”
A little girl, age ten or twelve, ran by holding aloft a stick from which a long streamer trailed behind. Charging across the street, she disappeared behind a church. The streamer snaked after her.
“That beautiful church was built over three hundred years ago.”
“Yes,” he said. “Though it is missing something.”
“Missing what?” she said, stretching her arm towards him across the back of the bench.
“Whatever it is you call the thing that is missing.” He pointed. “A steeple? A pyre?”
“Yes. I see now. It seems to have broken off.” She ran a hand through her hair, turned her gaze back to him and held it. “And if I pry long enough?”
“Then I will likely tell you.”
She smiled. She looked to the church, snapped her fingers, and said, “A spire.”
“Yes. That’s what it is. A spire.”
He looked to the missing spire. Then to her.
“How long must I pry?” she said.
“If you must know –”
“I must –”
“– It is about a spark between two people. A beautiful woman and a plain man. Much like you and me.”
“This is embarrassing?”
“Like you and me. I like the woman already. I disagree with the description of the man.”
“I imagine he would be flattered. Yet this man is uncomfortable with flattery.”
She tilted her head, furrowed her brow. “Why?”
“He believes in the literal definition of the word. When flattered, he is only reminded of his shortcomings.”
She drank from her bottle and smiled, her eyes on him, his on the missing spire.
“You are not warm?” she said, touching his jacket, and though he was warm, and the sun was warm, her touch generated heat.
“Many important things are in the pockets of this jacket. A dictionary of translation. My passport. An extra pen.”
“Tell me what happens with the plain man and the woman.”
“The beautiful one?”
Now she almost blushed. “Yes, that one.”
“By coincidence, they meet again.”
“They have met before?”
“Twice. First at the hostel, where they spoke briefly as they registered at the desk, having arrived within moments of each other. Then, later that night, as they each wandered the streets of the town alone, they met again.”
“So far, the story is familiar.”
“The rest will be new, I imagine. This time, the third time, the young man is sitting on a bench in the Zocalo, much like this one, in fact, when, suddenly, she sits down next to him. She has not seen him, not yet recognized him. It is pure coincidence. He turns to her and says, ‘Why do you do that?'”
He smiled. “That is just what she says, in the story. And in the story, he responds, ‘Walk away. Without saying goodbye.'”
“This bothers him, in the story?”
“He wonders if perhaps it is something they do in Denmark. She is from Denmark, you see.”
She propped her hand under chin. Her eyes shone. “I doubt that has much to do with it. I happen to know quite a bit about the women of Denmark. I imagine she felt her company was not desired.”
“Because when they meet, he lets the conversation flounder?”
“Is this the reason, in the story?”
“In the story, there is something she does not know. It’s that the plain man, thinking himself plain, is allowing her an opportunity to end their encounter.”
She drew her arm back and furrowed her brow. “Why would he do this? Is he not fond of her?”
“He is quite fond of her. But is she of him? Perhaps her interest is only casual. This is what he is trying to determine.”
“Is he blind? This is a terrible way.”
“No no. You misunderstand. It keeps him safe.”
“I think so.”
“Well that’s not attractive. Of what is he fearful?”
“Of pain. Of reaching for something, only to feel it wriggle away. He thinks he would rather know nothing than pain.” He paused. “Are you fond of toreador dolls?”
She laughed, turned to follow his eyes to the vendor silhouetted by the Mexican sun. The vendor approached, saying quince pesos to whoever would listen.
“Senor, uno toreador, por favor.”
The vendor continued down the line of benches full of people.
“Beautiful lady, in thanks for your company, I offer you this handsome and fearless toreador doll.”
She cuddled the doll against her cheek, laughing. “Muchas gracias.” She straightened the toreador’s suit. “I think I am rather fond of the man in the story. I wonder if some of the same character can be found in its author.”
“Perhaps. But the man in the story is not nervous. And his demeanor and personality make up for his lack of looks.”
“Then he is not plain.”
“Then I am a poor writer.”
The little girl with the streamer ran by again. She was laughing hysterically, chased by a little boy, also laughing hysterically.
“How near are we to the end of this story?” she asked.
“Quite near,” he said. “The conversation has reached a possible floundering point, and the man must decide –”
“Hey. What are you writing?”
He looked up from his notebook, and there she stood. Her voice was different. Less coy, more distant. But there she was, and the coincidence amazed him.
“Nothing really. Just a story.”
“Yeah? What’s it about?”
“Huh? Oh, it’s uh…about something that will never happen.”
She took it differently, as he had said it differently. Without confidence, and seeming to flounder.
“So what’re you doing?” he said.
“Just checking out the town, I guess. I might get something to eat. Have you seen a place around here?”
“Might be expensive here. In the Zocalo.”
“Yeah.” She scratched her head. Looked around. “Nice church.”
“Yeah,” he said. He considered mentioning the missing spire.
“What time is it?” she said.
He checked his watch. “Five-thirty.” He squinted at his watch, as if there were something peculiar about it. He knew he should say more. He wished he were writing.
She glanced around at nothing in particular. She made a sound like hmm, and walked away.
A moment later, he realized she had gone again. He watched her walk away, watched her blend in with other bodies bustling through the Zocalo. As she disappeared, he felt something. He did not like what he felt. He was accustomed to feeling nothing, and nothing was better than what he felt.
The little girl ran past once more, the little boy following. The boy caught her streamer, took it and ran. She chased him, and as they laughed, an old man lowered himself onto the bench.
That evening, in a little place that served coffee and beer, the young man sat at a table with his notebook. He ordered a beer, using only one Spanish word. He opened his notebook, blacked out the last word he had written, and began to write…
” – he must admit that there is another kind of pain. A kind that does not hit you like a stone and fade, but that plants itself inside you. Feeds on you. Grows until it consumes you.”
“He had better admit it, because she is waiting for him to do something and this may be his last chance.”
“He will remind her that his stay in town was to be brief, and that he must leave San Miguel de Allende that evening.”
“She will be disappointed.”
“He will see this in the way she drops her eyes and hooks her hair behind her ear, much like you are now. And he will ask her how long she had planned to stay in San Miguel.”
“Because San Luis Potosi, where he is going, is also beautiful, and he wonders if she has seen that town.”
“And if she has not?”
“He will ask her to travel with him.”
Her eyes exploded, and she smiled. “Then it is a happy ending?”
“It could be. It’s not yet written. Not in this story.”
“I think she will travel with him.”
“Then, yes. It is a happy ending.”
featured image: travelersguidemexico.com