How Eliana and Roe Met

Photo by Diane Arbus
Photo by Diane Arbus

We called them The Twins although they weren’t sisters and didn’t appear to be that much alike when you got invited to sit at their table. The only ones who really enjoyed that were those of us who hung out at Rolf’s between auditions or shoots. With their well-cut, old fashioned hats and suits they elicited whispers and looks but we were arty types, people who risked our psyches every day for our dreams. We could find virtue where others saw irrelevance or annoyance, I thought, and wished to be tolerant. I was pulled to them. I found their generousity of spirit a balm after the hurt left by my parents’ disapproval of my career choice.

Eliana and Roe, short for Roella, told someone who objected to their always snagging the corner table they were cousins of the owner by marriage and thus, entitled to it. When asked later about that, they denied having said it. They could be outrageous like that,  but with elan. They were a fixture at least three days a week around lunchtime.

They had lived together for twelve years, since their husbands passed away. Eliana was from Argentina and Roe, from Pittsburgh by way of Germany, but they had each ended up in Seattle. They looked like over-dressed, snooty dowagers even when trying to be friendly, Frank said. No, said another, more like two worn out basset hounds in discarded vintage wear, a new guy said, and that sealed his fate, never allowed at our lunch tables again. There may have been some truth in it; we just didn’t want to be unkind to two people who adored the arts and expressed genuine interest in our affairs, creative and otherwise. Besides, I appreciated their decided flair and was intrigued by their togetherness.

Frank and I had been close like that once, two peas and all that, but by then less so. He was an actor, I, a model, both of us struggling but determined. I was succeeding a bit more; he was becoming harder to enjoy. We often met at Rolf’s after auditions, joined at times by Viveca and her insufferable boyfriend, Mr. Harper, a supposed playwright. When he saw The Twins, he said, “Lesbians, what else?” with a dismissive flip of his hand. They were theatre people; I in a way was, too, with my play acting for cameras. We lived in altered realities and felt removed from mainstream earth people. But I didn’t think The Twins were gay. No matter; I was on a sharp learning curve those years.

After the older ladies had chatted several times with us, then asked to join them twice, they told us the story of how they met thirty years before. Roe first gestured to the waitress for a big pot of coffee and cookies for all. Eliana lit her first cigarette, then turned to Roe, the inscribed sterling silver lighter aloft to fire up hers. They seemed to inhale at the same time, sat close together, their lotioned and buffed fingers poised in the air.

“I was to meet a neighbor downtown at Pike Place market but she never showed,” Eliana said with a soft, lilting accent. “So I was musing over vegetables. Hills of tomatoes, mounds of green and yellow beans and bunches of radishes that looked so perky with those red skins and hard, white hearts. I was reaching for the biggest bunch on the top near the back of a wooden box and my hand collided with Roe’s. She was after the same bunch!”

Eliana looked at Roe and Roe raised her eyebrows.

“I saw them first,” Roe continued. “I eat a few radishes daily, with or without salad. They keep my palate fresh. They bring a little spice. I’ve found more ways to use an odd radish here and there so when I see a perfect bunch–”

“And when her hand hit mine, it quite hurt. ‘Pardon me, so sorry’, I said, but Roe still didn’t back away. I grabbed hold of them, gave them a yank and took them to the cashier’s table. Roe followed.”

Roe elbowed Eliana.”I was not about to let her get away with those. ‘Wait a darned minute’, I told her, ‘we have some business to discuss. First dibs when I saw them before you got your paws on them.’ But she did not relent. The cashier was annoyed, there was a line behind us and we were fighting over a bunch of radishes.”

“So we split them!” Eliana said triumphantly.

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“Equitable arrangement,”Frank noted.

“So you just shopped together?” I encouraged them as I eyed the plate of lemon bars. I was trying to avoid the extra pounds that sugar loves to leave me since I had more “go-sees” for modelling jobs in the morning. But hunger was gaining and food shopping sounded adventurous.

Eliana stubbed out her cigarette and took a lemon bar, nibbled a bite, then broke off a piece for Roe, who took the entire bar. Eliana shrugged. “Not at all, dears. We two some spicy Italian sausages at a food stand and sat on a nice painted bench on the street. The weather was so blue and sunny it demanded we bask in it and talk. We chattered on for a couple of hours.”

Roe took another cookie and placed it in Eliana’s hand. “We hit it off. Same age, similar tastes. Both our husbands were in business–mine ran a paper products company; hers owned import/export–and we all became fast friends.”

“Well…not exactly. Raoul was not the social type. Arnie was more of a conversationalist. A braggart compared to my humble love. What an odd couple.” They both giggled. “They mostly got along by playing cards and smoking cigars as they listened to music. Thanks goodness, they did both like a little jazz.”

“Big band, usually. Arnie started to appreciate tango near the end and Eliana taught us some gorgeous moves…” Roe was perilously close to veering into full nostalgia but snapped out of it. “She and I sat in the kitchen after we cleaned up and enjoyed a couple coffees, planned our next outing. So it went from A to Z like that: strangers to very best friends. And when our husbands died, I sold my house and moved into her bigger and, I must say, smarter house. Consolidated assets in a few ways. We live quite nicely, thanks to Eliana’s business profits and my financial acumen.”

“Yes, a good German, she has to be practical about everything and it’s worked out so well. I would have been a sorry old lady without Roe there to keep my spirits up. Raoul was such a lovely man. But Roe will quite do for companionship and sheer entertainment.”

Frank was on his third lemon bar and I was getting resentful. He leaned closer. “They didn’t die at the same time, did they? I mean, that would be hideous. They weren’t so close, you said.”

I kicked his leg under the table and snatched the last cookie.

Eliana’s eyebrows dipped further down and her round face caved. “How odd to say that! Yes…they were in an auto accident. On the way back from Spokane. Arnie had a convention to attend and Raoul went along to see an old friend from Buenos Aries who taught at university in Spokane. It was a four-day event. On the way home a truck–what did they call it? A nightmare.”

“Jack-knifed, El… a Mac truck jack-knifed and the driver lived, even with spilled gasoline that caught fire. Our husbands did not.” Roe looked down at the napkin she had folded into thirds, and now into halves and sighed.

Frank and I didn’t know what to say. He really could go too far, say things off the cuff as though he was in improvisation class. That was what did us in.

“My apologies,” he said, chagrined.

“No matter now, dears, we have gone on well enough,” Eliana said. “So tell me about your ‘go-sees’, Marisa. How many today?” She lit another cigarette and inhaled lightly, licking a lemon bar crumb off her peachy lower lip.

“Only two. I have a chance with the make up company but not, I doubt, for the swimsuit ad. Not their type.”

Roe looked shocked. “Not their type! What can they want when you are blue-eyed, raven haired, ivory-skinned skin and svelte?”

“I second that!”

Frank still admired me some days but who cared?

Roe lit her own cigarette this time and leaned forward to pat my hand. “They’re missing out. You must know you’re quite the beauty. Why, you could be Eliana’s lovely granddaughter with your coloring and style.”

Frank about choked on his coffee–he was going to say something stupid about my style, I knew it– but then spotted Viveca in red heels as she strode in with Mr. Harper. He excused himself but first bent over and told me he’d call after his hot audition the following week. I smiled to assuage his insecurity.

“Hi, Twins!” Viveca called out and the women returned the greeting. They didn’t care for her so much, they told me. Viveca was so addicted to the sound of her own voice they hardly got to speak. They liked having an exchange with others.

“Anyway, as Roe was saying. My daughter, Maria Teresa, she married a Brazilian and all three have moved there.” She produced an embroidered handkerchief and dabbed her nose.

I stayed another half hour, listening to their stories about being young wives and mothers (Roe’s sons lived in Alaska and New York; she’d visited but they were so busy), telling them about my modelling jobs and going to the Black Forest in Germany the previous year. That made Roe so happy–she had lived the first five years of her life just fifteen miles from there–she offered to buy me lunch the next Monday, which I agreed to since it was a gracious gift.

But when I entered Rolf’s with a bouquet of flowers, The Twins were not there. Roe was, sitting at their spot as usual. She was shredding her napkin and letting her cigarette burn away in the clean glass ashtray. I sat opposite her and she startled.

photo-Wikipedia
photo-Wikipedia

“What’s up? Is Eliana not able to come?”

“Eliana sends her apologies. She’s at the travel agency. Then visiting a realtor’s office.” Roe placed what was left of the napkin over her mouth to stifle a cry.

“What? This doesn’t sound good.”

She crushed the cigarette. “No, not so good! But I should have known. She has been talking about going home awhile –missing Maria Theresa and little Arianna.”

“You mentioned the grandchild last week. I thought Eliana looked sadder than usual.”

“Than usual?”

I felt like an interloper. What did I understand about the ladies and their concerns? They knew so much more about life. “I mean, Eliana always seems melancholy to me…and then when you said that, she sort of teared up.”

Roe slowly pulled another cigarette from its package and rooted for a lighter in her crocodile handbag. I got a matchbook from my purse and lit it for her, thinking cigarettes were more like accessories.

She smiled at me. “Eliana’s a real class act, you know, much more than I am. And a good heart. My very favorite person after my husband.” She turned to look out the window at the congested street and took a deep drag and coughed. “But we all have to do what works best. Right? Right.”

For the first time I saw remnants of the woman she must have been, someone who worked very hard and kept a firm hand on things, was a devoted but realistic wife and a stern, loyal mother. Someone who cared about quality in food, in possessions and endeavors, and certainly people. All kinds of them, even us young adults with our arrogant self-delusions, our fragile egos. Roe could not feasibly have a breakable heart. She was far too accepting, and more yielding than apparent, in the end.

“Lovely flowers, so kind!” She sniffed them. “Now how about lunch?” She pushed the ashtray away. “Nasty habit. I think I”ll stop if she…goes.” She closed her eyes a second, then raised her hand to the waitress, shaking her wrist so that her gold bangles rattled pleasantly. “Don’t tell her I got emotional. She will go if she must, but you can’t really sever deep ties like we have. Now tell me about your week. Trips coming up? Maybe next year an escape to Brazil! We’ll both go, shall we?”

Anything seemed possible with the marvelous Twins. Gratitude filled me. I threw all caution to the wind and ordered a burger with avocado and bacon. I split it with Roe, then we each had chocolate mousse.

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A Letter from the Hinterlands

DSCN0774It peeked out from the mail pile like a lost missive, a thing out of time like a telegram. Who wrote longhand anymore? It belonged to a woman, perhaps. She studied the letter a good long moment, then slit the sturdy flap with her jeweled letter opener. It annoyed her that her hands trembled but this was no ordinary communique. Regina couldn’t read it yet. She sat on the bench by the door and closed her eyes.

Kat and Frederick, who all knew and touted as Derick the Great or just Derry then, had moved after they’d married. All the way to New York, upstate as evidenced by the postmark. Regina had been glad of their exodus, so relieved that she had thrown a small but lively party, inviting all the people she liked best. She didn’t say why she was cooking Cornish hens for eight at eight; she didn’t have to. They drank a lot of wine and danced to music that each person brought, then sank into the sofa and chairs, quiet. Regina didn’t whine or snivel and make a scene. The gathering was too good for that. But they saw that Derry’s photo was turned face down on the mantel, his small bird paintings studies removed from the wall between the windows. When everyone slunk out, smiles drooping, Regina changed into her pine green fleece robe and stoked the fire. There was nothing too wonderful left, she had thought. There were only days of stressful, possibly meaningless work. And nights that hit her like an anvil upon flimsy silver.

He didn’t write but once, a long year after the move, a brief email that told her he had found a better job, a curator position. All  because of the recommendations she’d slipped him at Kat and his wedding.

Derry had worked with Regina at the Montblanc Gallery for over a year before they became more than friends. Then, fireworks that ended with a jackknife dive into love. When he wrote, she’d deliberated for days what to say, how to stay neutral, how to not feel as though she was being mauled by a cougar again in the middle of a wasteland. She changed her email address.

After that, she felt better. It showed her she was strong enough to avoid his reach or better: she no longer felt compelled to love him. It was a choice to say “yes” when you know it has to be “no” and she had a strong will. Regina was not going to let it soften and fail when the man did not even live within her orbit any more. Did not need her now. He had Kat, his childhood buddy. She was rather high-handed, a reasonably decent patron of the arts and became his most adoring wife. They had made a pact as children, he’d told Regina once, but never did he expect her to show up and finally make good on it. Nor did Derry expect to be torn between two women so different that it made his want to split into two men.

“I see,” she said.

She had just had dinner with him, so unsuspecting had she been. But he’d brought here there to tell her about this decision: engagement to Kat.

She cleared her throat to avoid choking. “You chose a well-trained, sweet little creature when you could have had a wild girl, a changeling sort that you seem to like a lot, a crazy adventure that could still take you to the edges of mind and body and bring you back howling and happy. You could have had me and we might have made all things possible.”

She put her fork down very slowly.

He’d studied his red napkin squashed beside a silver-rimmed plate. Derry had splurged on her with great food before rotten news.

“Yes, I know, I know. I know! But Kat and I want other things–they make good sense to me. They add up to a life that’s familiar and solid and that’s good, too. Different than what you and I’ve had but still good!”

“But better? Better than us?” she’d asked, the words verging on a harpy’s screech.

She could feel diners glance at her as she stood up. She pushed her chair back under the table with a delicate movement, patience and kindness registering on her exotic–that’s what Derry said–now sadly uneven features. Regina decided that moment that he just didn’t have what it took, the verve, the spontaneity, the capacity for the sort of love she had to share. It helped her to leave the plush room and him without shedding a tear or stumbling, without leaving a mess.

After the wedding, to which she’d RSVPed “that’s a negative”, she’d waited on the church steps behind a few of their friends. She could almost touch him as the photographer took a hundred pictures to immortalize his decision. He was surprised to see her but Kat didn’t even register her presence

“Reggie,” he said, although he didn’t say it aloud, just shaped her nickname.

She’d reached forward and gave him an envelope which enclosed her letter of recommendation for further gallery or museum work, or whatever he felt utterly sensible. And then she left her heart teetering on a ledge somewhere she couldn’t name. She thought she might scream but it dissipated as she drove the long way home, past woods and the river path they’d walked and the osprey nest.

Regina watched tree branch shadows interrupt the stream of light that fell on her feet. The letter felt cold in her hands. She took it to the dining room table so she could lean on it, then opened it before it froze in her shaking fingers. She’d not stop until she was done.

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Dear Regina,

It has been a long while since we have communicated–three years, is it?–and I am compelled to reach out. I am hoping you will see fit to read the entirety of this; it isn’t long and I get to the point now.

Frederick is ill. In fact, he’s more than ill, he’s become heartsick…a respiratory infection visited its wrath upon him two months ago, but he recovered eventually. 

No. It’s you, Regina, that’s stymied his return to a full and happy life, and so, I am asking you this one favor now.

He is not creating work anymore. He must have your counsel, needs your great hope in him. He won’t listen to me, says I don’t understand. Please come and see him. Show him he can paint again. Convince him he is worth more than a good paycheck. Explain that he’s just lost his way like artists can and do sometimes–you know how it is, but I do not! I so hope you can find the compassion to come, to remind him of his true nature.

I will be forever indebted to you for this. I know it will be hard for you. He has too much pride to ask for you but he needs you before he falls into further despair. I will fly you out as soon as you can come.

With hopeful anticipation,

Katerin

Regina stood up.

“Well.”

She walked around the living room, into the kitchen where she got a glass of water, then circled back to the letter and picked it up and read the last two paragraphs. She went to her desk and took out a pen and paper with a grey and burgundy chevron design on the edges.

Derick/Frederick, known to we who know you as Derry!

Get ready because I’m coming. You just hit a nasty snag. I’ll give you three days to pick up that paint brush and make one stroke on paper or canvas. After that you’re on your own in the great wide wilderness. We all have to test our survival skills sooner or later. Ultimately, alone–but luckily I’m offering absolutely free assistance this one time. Consider it a delayed wedding gift.

Ever Reggie

She tore Kat’s careful letter in half. Kat had Derick and far better handwriting but she, Regina, had some moxie and forgiveness. She could possibly be an urban warrior of the heart. She went to the hall closet and reached behind her coats until her fingers found Derry’s two small bird paintings. Two ospreys in flight and a heron at watch over the river. Regina thought it time to give them back their spot on the bare wall.

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