Friday, March 4, 2016

Stoned Love by Michael McCarthy

Michael McCarthy's character sees a Greek couple relaxing by the pool and imagine that they represent his and his girlfriend's future.

How the hell am I going to tell her?

There's an old couple, mid seventies at least. They're like us, not age wise, but in their habits. Every evening we all wait until the other hotel guests have gone in to get ready for their evening meal. Then we go into the pool. That is me, my girlfriend and the man. He reminds me of a Greek shipping magnate. Maybe it's his chiseled features, deeply tanned, dried out skin and floppy, grey, slightly too long hair. So we swim, the three of us, I'm usually in the middle, for some reason, while the man's wife sits on a lounger, swathed in some garish, multi-coloured voluminous garment, reading a book through her huge wrap around shades under that old beehive hair style, a wobbly, towering edifice of rigid, sprayed, blonde locks, like the leaning Tower of Pisa.

She's a voracious reader. I don't know what she's read since I first started observing them, but I do notice that every evening she has a different book. There's something about measuring your life by the number of books you've read or even that the type of books you read has some bearing on your longevity or your health. Yes, it's ill formed as far as theories go, but I'm working on it. Every now and again the man's wife looks up and watches her husband, sometimes they exchange glances. I don't detect any great feeling in these glimpses, but they seem to be important to them.

My girlfriend usually stays in the pool longer than me. I try to at least equal her time in the water but I just hit a block and then I give up. I think I've got the lowest boredom threshold in the history of mankind. I get out first even before the man, giving my girlfriend a brief wave.

Finally, the high point of my day comes. My girlfriend steps out of the pool, Aristotle carries on swimming inexorably. My girlfriend is smiling, she's got one over on me, again. But that's OK, we're not competitive. She stands in front of me and smoothes her hair back. She's got a vulnerable sort of face. More so, inexplicably I feel, when she smiles. Which she does, a lot. Anyway, that's my signal to go to the bar. I love this sequence. I don't want it to end. From the second she looks at me and everything that follows until we go to our room, I would like it all to be on a continuous loop like Groundhog Day.

I go to the bar and order two large ouzos with ice. I always have a chat with the barman during the day, usually about football and I always leave a tip. He, in turn, is very generous with the ouzo. I look around just as my girlfriend is bending over her beach bag. She pulls out our books and puts mine on my lounger. I watch her fiddling around with the contents of her beach bag, taking things out and rearranging and laying things beside her as I carry the glasses over. I always get the same feeling at this moment, I have to bite my lip to stop the tears. She looks up, sliding on her sun glasses and gives me an innocent wave. She always does that.

How the hell am I going to tell her?

As I sit down I hand her her glass and she grabs and twists the tip of my nose. We clink glasses, smile and open our books. This is what I call my ouzo moment. Sheer perfection.

Well, it was.

I can't concentrate on reading today, my eyes keep wandering over to Ari and his wife. I bet they've been married forever. Children, grandchildren maybe even great grandchildren. I bet he's opened bank accounts for all of them. He looks like a typical pater familias. I can see him sitting at the head of a long table groaning under the weight of a boozy banquet in a big, tree shaded garden, dispensing words of wisdom to his family members. Holding court with a glass of red wine, his wife beside him cradling one of the small children.

Then it happens, I suddenly find myself locking eyes with the woman, after we'd both been watching Ari. I nod at her, feeling embarrassed. She gives me a funny look, I feel and goes back to her book. She can sense it. Body language reveals more than we realize, so say the experts. I lean back and watch her through half closed eyes and catch her staring at me. As I return to my book I notice Ari is floating on his back. He'll do this for a short while before getting out. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes he wades to the side and hoists himself out of the pool. The skin on his body is brown and leathery and is hanging from him like it's melting in slow motion. I can see he was once a well built man. He's short and stocky with an intimidating barrel chest and a big gut. He's got a stern, arrogant expression on his face, a 'don't fuck with me' manner. My girlfriend, well she's more than that, we've been together more years than we haven't, has still got her nose buried in her book. She told me it's about a small boy whose been kidnapped. She finds stories where children are the principal characters riveting. To be honest, she's a bloody diamond. I'd be lost without her. Then again, I've always thought of women as the stronger sex. She's got her towel, Fulham Football Club, she's a big fan, draped over her shoulders. Her book is balanced on her knees and she's holding her glass balanced on the book. There's a light welcoming breeze, so the glass serves as a paper weight.

I hope the breeze is the prelude to some rain, just to break the intense heat we've been labouring under. I'm no great sun worshipper, give me the shade any day of the week, but my girlfriend, she loves it. That's why we're here. I'm reading a book about the Stones, the millionth, probably. I'm a sucker for books about the rock star heroes of my generation, especially Mick and the boys. I think as long as the Stones are around everything in my life will be OK. Even they can't keep going forever though.

My glass is half full and I want to down it in one and order another. I think I should resist the temptation, my girlfriend wouldn't like it. She's not a killjoy. She'd be right though. When I start, I find it difficult to stop. Ari is squatting in front of his wife with his back to us. He's gesticulating excitedly about something, while his wife is trying to attract a waiter's attention. She must have succeeded because she's now holding two fingers in the air. Her book is in her other hand and I can just make out the cover from here. I can see a picture of what looks like a woman in a huge, flowing green dress, standing on the battlements of a castle. I think her hand is shielding her eyes as she stares into the distance. I have a feeling, longing.

Just as Ari sinks slowly onto his lounger the waiter arrives with a small tray and two long glasses containing a dark liquid and a portion of what looks like peanuts. Ari hands the waiter some money and salutes him. They each take a glass and then, as if by mutual agreement, raise their glasses, smiling. I can't believe it. I wave back awkwardly. Ari then pulls a pile of papers out of a plastic bag, slips on his black rimmed glasses, and starts thumbing through them.

Are they us in the future? Can't be.

This feels like a film, where something happens that is the prelude to an unpredictable series of life changing events. Or the truth leaks out. Now what? My girlfriend reaches out a hand and scratches my head but she never lifts her eyes from her book.

How the hell am I going to tell her?

Today is the first day for ages she hasn't made a reference to her figure. Up to now she's always left her towel at the edge of the pool so she could wrap herself in it, preventing anyone looking at her body. Today she doesn't care, she's much more relaxed. It makes me think of my physical deficiencies. I'm no oil painting, anymore I should say. My girlfriend always used to tell me I was good looking. Used to. But now, she always says, that was never the attraction for her. I'm still fit, but I can feel the passing of time. I'm still slim, but I've got the beginnings of a pot belly. My face is well and truly ravaged, but I've still got my hair, all grey now. And, well, I'm worried. Worried sick actually.

I glance up, Ari is ploughing through his papers like a man possessed. Although she's past her best, she's not the only one, Ari's wife still exudes class and an acceptance of her deterioration. I can't see much of her face or body but she's got something she'll never lose. Bearing.

I notice the way she looks at Ari. You can tell a lot by the positioning of the head. She takes it all in, his barely concealed frustration with his own mortality and the fact that his wife is no longer the Roman goddess of her younger years. That's it, I'll call her Diana. Diana can read him like a book. She knows he still considers himself a potent and virile force. A macho.

Time waits for no man, Ari.

She'll always be there for him. Will he for her? My girlfriend is tolerant. I've seen that look in her eyes when I drink too much. She'll never leave me. She'd do anything for me. I would for her. Now more than ever.

She's reading and sipping her drink. She's in her own little world. I bet it's a lovely place to be. I should know. I'm in it.

Ari would leave Diana, his ego demands it. He would consider himself helpless, Just one more fling, I bet he's had more than a few, before he slides into his dotage. But the likes of Ari always need one more one last time. Do Ari and Diana see themselves in us? Maybe that's why Diana gave me that funny look. No. She knows.

My girlfriend is turning the pages faster now and she's finished her drink. I really fancy another one, it seems appropriate somehow.

'Fancy another one?' I ask her hopefully.

She looks up immediately.

'If you can't over-indulge on holiday, when can you?' She laughs.

She knows I'm dying for one. I head for the bar, the bar man is under siege, but as soon as he sees me he prepares two very generous ouzos. Furthermore, he indicates payment is not necessary. I smile. I won't forget that. I bring the drinks back. My girlfriend takes hers absent mindedly, but then remembers and we touch glasses. It's funny, I've been taking her for granted for ages, but since we arrived here, I've changed for the better. She notices it. She would have waited for ever.

Better late than never. Is that really true, if it's too late?

Ari is waving his arm like a drowning man, trying to attract the waiter, their glasses are empty. He's just not the type to go and get his drinks. He has to be served. I bet he'll have to pay. Eventually the waiter notices and after another prolonged wait, brings their drinks over. I think he made Ari wait, deliberately and Ari does have to pay. In fact he almost throws a note at the waiter and waves him away imperiously. I see Diana's lower face tighten. Ari's definitely got previous in his dealings with staff. Diana doesn't like it. Not one bit. I bet he's more than capable of throwing the odd tantrum. Maybe not just the odd one.

My girlfriend's coming to the end of her book. I don't have to look to know. I can hear how rapidly she's turning the pages. I don't want that book to end. She's forgotten her drink, I'm tempted to pour some into my glass.

There's a tear running down her cheek, for some reason.

No! It's not possible. It must be the book.

I look over at Diana. She's glaring at Ari. He's cursing and screwing up pages and hurling them in the vague direction of a rubbish bin.

My Stones book is laying face down on my lounger. I'm enjoying it. I'm at a crucial part where they're about to go into tax exile and record my all time favourite Stones album, 'Exile on Main Street.' Maybe if I never finish it, I'll...

Diana's becoming increasingly distracted by Ari's behaviour. She should be used to it by now. She ought to concentrate on the many high points I'm sure they've had. All she's got to do and him as well, if he could spare some of his precious time, is to reminisce about all those children.

My girlfriend and I even got around to even talking about talking about having children. Was that a conscious decision? I would say sub-conscious.

I'll have to read back over what I've read today. Supposing I don't?

My girlfriend won't need to. Nor will Diana. Ari won't care. I wonder if he's ever a read a book. I can't imagine it somehow. Maybe he reads to his grandchildren. I can imagine that, but with one eye on his watch.

How the hell am I going to tell her?

I think she already knows.

She'll bring up the subject tonight.

She's made of sterner stuff than me.

8 comments:

  1. Excellent, strung out tension. The story engaged me from start to finish, and my mind will continue to dwell on the what ifs. Thank you, Mike - a great read,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I'm left to wonder about time and ages. The narrator sounds like someone of my vintage, who in 2016, who would be way too old to contemplate parenthood. Confused.

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  3. Hi Ceinwen, many thanks for reading and for your kind comments, i´m glad you enjoyed it.i look forward to your next story.
    regards

    Mike


    Hi Doug,
    i suspect we are of the same vintage!
    thanks for your careful reading and interest.
    the narrator doesn´t say when he had this conversation about children.
    regards

    Mike

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  4. Engaging story, Mike. So true about graying couples clinging to routines. The characters are real and the narrator is thought-provoking. Nicely done.

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  5. Hi Nancy,
    thank you for reading and taking the time to comment, much appreciated, like Ceinwen I look forward to your next story
    regards

    Mike

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  6. What's he going to tell her? He's living guilty under the weight of a historical fling? A great device seeing your future in another couple - yet in the end Ari was so different from the narrator - in not being tortured by self examination.

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  7. Hi Frank,
    he´s going to tell her he´s ill. Thanks for reading and making a good couple of points.
    regards

    Mike

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  8. Gabi: I do like this elegant story. Many of us know about the changes in longlasting relationships: We have observed a lot of Aris and Dianas, we have read a lot of novels about relationships, we discuss relationships among (female) friends; deep in our hearts we know about the state of our own relationship and yet we are not sure wether we want to be aware of it.(Alcohol as an attempt at covering up, the Stones as an attempt at pain-killing?)
    Mike´s story makes us share these ambivalent, unwelcome feelings with the narrator and? his friend. The author has picked out the moments that might suddenly decide about the future. I think it was a very clever idea to put the "How the hell am I going to tell her?" at the very beginning and once more near the end of the story because this crucial question involves the reader from the start. And indeed, is he/she going to tell her/him at all because all kinds of consequences are to be considered? Do both of them feel the need to tell the partner - by the way - w h a t ? There are so many possibilities! Fascinating!

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