Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador
"I was standing next to the bus driver and sneezed just before we came to Amsterdam Avenue and 79th Street where I got off. He had to have heard me, and the fucking traffic light was red, so we weren't moving. So this woman, who has to be in her late 60s, looks up at me and says, 'God bless you.' I know I would have said something to him if he sneezed a foot from where I was standing."
"What does that have to do with the fact that you were following me around the museum all afternoon?"
The bus driver thing bothered me. Incidents like that, indications of the rampant growth of incivilities in the world, the lack of manners and humanity, inflamed my natural outrage.
I'd read Gibbon's, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in college. I suspect the moral and spiritual decay of the Roman Empire began with some gladiator not responding with an appropriate social amenity to one of Rome's more notable citizens.
"I was definitely not that obvious."
"Like a lap dog in heat," Sonia said.
I always wanted to act as though I was more experienced with women than I am. I guess most men want that at some time in their life, to pretend to be more than they are and have the charmed confidence to get women to believe that fabrication.
Sonia was pretty, with deep, revealing curves. There is usually more to a woman's aura than her sexuality, but not so much with Sonia. This was a physical attraction and nothing more. No emotional desire, no possible longing to spend the rest of my life walking hand-in-hand with this stranger.
"You thought I was going to be another one of your conquests?"
"I've never thought of myself as conquesting. You're pretty, and walking up to a stranger is never easy."
"So, no conquesting?"
"I've been with some women. More than most, fewer than many." I'd heard that line in an old French movie.
"I don't like men following me."
"Then how are they supposed to meet you?"
"It's wrong. It just is."
"It may be impolite, and could be suspect, but it's not necessarily wrong."
"Now you're nitpicking," she said and unlocked the door to her apartment.
"I'm telling you, you would be following you if you were me," I said and followed her in.
"I don't know." She walked to the window and lifted it as high as it would go, stretching out her body and making the pretense of looking down onto the street below.
It was a late Atlanta afternoon, with baking streets and August air seeming to evaporate before you could inhale. It had been my home from birth and the land of my forefathers. I felt a special kinship to Georgia, as if my family were some of its original founders and I the inheritor of its uniqueness.
"I just wanted to meet you."
She pulled up her skirt, revealing her sandals and calves. "I think my ankles are too big. European peasant stock, generations cloying their way across Europe, planting wheat, corn, sorghum, and cattle. What do you think?"
"Your ancestors planted cattle?"
She moved to the chair across from me. "I just want to see if you were paying attention."
"You think I wasn't?"
"To my breasts. Yes."
Sonia had a habit of patting down the material across her midsection so as to tighten the material over her breasts, an inauthentic gesture and a cue I had seen before.
Her apartment was as small and unkempt as mine. If we wound up dating, she could sleep at my place and I could come here, and we could both feel as though we'd never left home. "Can I have some water?"
She got up, went to the kitchen, and returned with a tumbler half filled with water. She held it out to me, just far away enough so I would have to move forward to grasp it. "Carlos will be here in half an hour."
I brought the glass up to my mouth. The rim was stained with an opaque film. "Should that mean something to me?"
"A long time ago, we had sex."
Though she was Italian, her accent was part French and some other dialect I couldn't quite identify. Possibly Spanish. But she was all shape and form and scent. And opacity.
"I'm guessing Carlos' conquest didn't start in a museum?"
"Does that bother you?"
"Is that why I am here? A spectator to a spectacle?" I had always wanted to watch another couple of women go at it, though not where I hadn't slept with at least one of them first.
She was wearing only a skimpy, tattered, dark blue T-shirt whose bottom crested at the top of her hips. Her tanned skin and dark hair and indifference made up the rest of her costume.
"All Carlos was good for was fucking. We never made love. Carlos, handsome as he is, is not capable of such an emotion."
"But he will be here, and so will I?"
"Not to worry, I'll do my best to keep you two apart."
"You want to see how I will react when Carlos walks in? That's why you invited me back to your apartment?"
"Once, when I was in Rome—it was a long time ago—my older sister and I were wandering around and got separated. I was a teenager and climbing steps in front of a plaza and thought I was being watched. This boy couldn't have been more than fifteen or sixteen. In Italy a boy that age is already an experienced womanizer. Except his eyes were as virginal as yours."
"What was he staring at?"
"He was staring, just like you in the museum, at my backside. He was in a courtyard leading to the plaza, this scrawny beggar boy eyeing my buns."
"You do have a great ass."
"Carlos, must have thought so, too."
"I walked right up to him and asked him what he wanted, but he spoke no English."
Why was she compelled to confront this kid, as though she had no idea what was on his mind or stirring in his pants?
"But of course I could see what he wanted," Sonia said.
"A trophy for the mantelpiece in his villa no doubt."
"You know, I don't appreciate your sarcasm. Americans are too sarcastic."
"I don't appreciate the fact that some illiterate beggar got a look at your buttocks with so little effort, and Americans—you speak of as though you're not one of us—have more remarkably redeeming qualities than the rest of humanity put together."
"So, I looked around the courtyard, stepped into the shadows, bent over and flipped up the back of my cotton dress."
"How did you know he wasn't going to stick a knife in your back or something more poignant up your ass?"
"That's it, I just knew."
Sonia was all about the world she created for herself and defensively self-absorbed. She was the raison d'être of her own existence. Without a story, real or imagined, the Sonias of the world can't feel or hear or connect.
I doubted Sonia was capable of sustaining a genuine, loving emotion. Often, these past few years, I thought the same of myself.
"Unless you're lying, Carlos will be coming through that door, and the moment will be lost forever. So we can wait for Carlos, or you can jump up on the couch over there, turn and bend over for as long as you think I can stand it, and we'll have it over with."
"Is that all you want from me?"
I got up and walked to the front door. "I'll stand right here. It's as far away as I can get, unless you want me to leave?"
"I don't know what I want."
"Fine, then don't fault me because I do."
"Which is to sneak a peek at my bottom after just meeting me?"
"Would it help if I knew Italian? If I were vulgar? If I were sixteen instead of twenty-six?"
"Sonia, we've only known each other for two hours, and in that time I introduced myself to you, hopefully behaved like a gentleman, took you for a walk, bought you a cup of coffee, and while that entitles me to nothing more, I now find myself in your apartment being regaled about the legend of your buttocks and how they conquered Southern Italy. Would you be as tolerant of me if all I talked about was how my cock conquered Spain?"
"I suppose not."
"Now, get up there and do whatever it was you did in the shadows of an Italian church, and then we can wait for Don Juan to arrive and see what develops."
"You're very cute when you get upset," she said.
The only thing not upsetting was the certainty Sonia would never be the love of my life and, quite possibly, of any stable man's life. "You're stalling."
"So I am. So I am," she said, and in one fluid motion she hopped up on her tired chocolate-brown couch, gave me one last look as though to freeze me at a safe distance, turned, bent over, and pulled her skirt down over her hips.
She was wearing cocoa-colored panties cinched tightly between two magnificent butt cheeks. Her legs were lean and taut. The flare of her hips accentuated the tightness of her 20-something-year-old buttocks.
She held it for another moment, stood up, and turned with an air of benign satisfaction. "There."
I came over to her. "Let me help you down."
She looked down at me but didn't move. "So?"
"If I were an artist, I would beg you to pose for me. I only wished you hadn't told me the story of the Italian peasant boy."
Sonia dropped into the couch, looking as though she had lost everything.
I was jealous, but not in my normally possessive way. I wanted to possess the flesh of this woman, nothing more.
She had made little attempt to shy away from me when I approached her in the museum. She had accepted my invitation for a walk. She was friendly, and her suggestion that we go back to her apartment after we had coffee to drop off her shopping wasn't made in any provocative manner.
"Of course, there's no Carlos," she said as if confessing to her priest.
I sat down next to her. Her hand was close to mine. I didn't reach out to grasp it. "Then why the story?"
Without looking at me. "It made me feel safer with you."
"So safe you pulled up your skirt to prove your point?"
"Anybody can see my buttocks at the beach. It's no big deal."
The doorbell rang. We were both surprised. She got up and answered it.
"Peter," she said, greeting him warmly. She introduced me, though not as I would have wanted. "This is Jonathan, a friend of mine."
"How are you?" he asked me in a tone of practiced indifference.
Peter was a tall, lean, aesthetic man in his early 50s. "You're not really interested in how I am, are you? I mean you don't really care one way or the other?"
"Why did you say that?" Sonia asked, more upset then curious.
"It's pretty obvious Peter there is uncomfortable with me being here with you."
"All he asked was how you were?"
"But that's not really what he meant."
"You read body language, do you?" Peter chimed in.
"Only when it's as obvious as yours," I answered in an uncharacteristically deprecating tone.
Sonia was as surprised as her friend. "That's horribly rude of you."
Peter made himself comfortable in the withered leather chair across from me. "How long have you known Sonia?"
"Not as long as you have."
"We just met, and I don't understand why Jonathan is behaving so badly."
"Then you don't know who I am?" he asked me.
"Peter, it's not necessary." Her voice was now subdued. She no longer stood erect, and the spirit in her brown eyes had subsided as if someone had dashed them with a bucket of cold water.
"Would you like me to leave?" Peter asked her.
"It might be better if I do. I think I am the intruder here," I said, getting to my feet. I was angrier at myself than at Peter, whoever he was. "And I had no right to say what I said even if it were true."
Sonia came to my side and held my sleeve. It was the first physical contact she made. "I'm sorry."
"I am, too." I wasn't.
"I don't think Sonia wants you to leave."
"She said she was expecting Carlos, an old lover, then confessed her involvement with him was a lie. There was no Carlos. In spite of her denial, that's who I expected to walk through that door. Sonia likes to throw words and pretensions around for effect. I don't have the patience for games, so maybe this wasn't the place for me from the start."
"Sonia, what do you want to do?" Peter asked as only an older brother could.
Sonia migrated toward the kitchen, burdened, as if she were faced with a life or death decision. "There is no Carlos," she repeated.
"But there is a Peter," I said.
Sonia knotted her arms across her chest. "He's just protecting me."
"Because you can't protect yourself, or Peter doesn't trust your judgment in men, or what, and why do you need protection?"
"He's gay, Jonathan. Peter is HIV positive. He lives in the building and has been one of my very, very dear friends for years."
Because of her distortions, I couldn't even muster a grain of genuine sympathy for his circumstances. "I'm sorry to hear that you're ill."
"Dying," she corrected. "Peter's dying."
"But that really doesn't answer my question to Peter."
"Your right, it doesn't," Peter said. "Sonia?"
"I have some red wine in the refrigerator. I'll bring it out."
Upon closer inspection, his gaunt appearance, his mannerisms, fit in with the stereotypical gay man. And he was handsome. A man who might have been a successful model in his younger years.
"Why the teasing and taunting? Do you want me to think you're a tease? A cock teaser? What?"
"It's just me. Don't pay any attention to what I say."
"That kind of advice is a little late," I heard myself say bitterly.
"Here," she said setting down the silver tray.
"One of my prized possessions, like Peter over there, who can't help himself or his body language." She handed him a goblet of wine, gave me one, and raised the third to her lips. "A toast to the courage to go on. To friends who comfort. To the understanding of strangers."
"To self-restraint," Peter added, causing Sonia to pause just before she sipped her wine.
These were friends who had shared happiness and grieving. Their toasts revealed more in a sentence than I might have divined in a month of passionate, seamless dates with this woman. "It's quite good."
"Sonia's a frightened little girl."
"Who tries to make men turn away from her by being threateningly sexual?"
"By testing them?" he answered.
I shook my head. "By deceiving them. She paints herself as a caricature of distrust. The man who tolerates that is actually not the one to be trusted."
"I didn't mean to deceive you."
"Did you let the boy in Rome look at your ass?"
Peter turned questioningly to Sonia. "Did you tell him that?"
"If she hadn't, why would I make it up?"
"He's right, Peter. There's no reason for him to lie."
"Is there any reason for you to lie?" I asked Sonia.
"Is there?" Peter added.
"I don't know," she answered in a whisper.
"Don't be too hard on her, Jonathan."
"You of all people should be less tolerant of language filled with time-killing deceit."
I felt a gush of air vent from my spirit. I had followed this pretty young girl with the most natural, if selfish, intentions. I did not portray myself otherwise and stumbled into what was feeling like her emotional death spiral.
This situation was too complicated, and all I could imagine was the woman sitting across from me had suffered some terrible abuse as a child, had never recovered from it, and her only defense was pushing away or victimizing the least abusive man who crossed her path.
Payback, or a defensive mechanism impossible to breach.
"Jonathan's right. I'm having a very hard time with him," Sonia admitted.
"Do you like him, because it's obvious he likes you?"
Sonia's eyes were filled with fire and tears. "I ran away from the boy in Rome when I noticed him staring at me."
Peter sipped his wine. The tension eased. "Sonia's a lot more than a pretty face and a wonderful figure, Jonathan."
"You know, I think I should be going, but I want to stay and make love to Sonia, order dinner, make love to her again, then hope for a light misty rain this evening so we can take a walk locked in each other's arms," I said, being equally deceitful.
"Wow," Peter said, turning to Sonia.
With her arms crossed below her chest, her long blonde hair was a tangled torrent flooding down over her hunched shoulders. She looked so small, so vulnerable. She wove her web because it was all she knew to do. Her only way to protect herself from further pain.
And now she was exposed. She had become the collateral damage of her own strategy.
I reached over and shook Peter's hand. I wished him well and asked him to excuse my belligerence. It was not directed at him, only the threat I first thought he represented. I was halfway to the front door, though undecided how I should say good-bye to Sonia, when she asked me to call her.
"I don't know your phone number."
"He doesn't know your phone number, Sonia. Do you want to tell him, or do you want me to do it?"
"You're making fun of me."
"I'm trying to help you as you've helped me. Honey, I'm never going to have another lover. I'm never going to have another man's strong arms shelter and protect me from my own insecurities. I'm never going to feel the wonder of sex or the beauty of next year's holiday season. We both know that. I don't want to get maudlin here, but you have so much ahead of you. Why don't you take the first real step here with Jonathan? He seems like a good enough sort."
"Thank you, Peter," I said.
"Sonia's a dear friend, and a very, very special person who just needs to believe in herself and let down her defenses."
At that moment she looked more like she would have preferred to be anywhere but here, being exposed for who she was and who she wasn't. The same was true of me. I am no hero. I'm no crusader, no white knight who swoops down and saves the damsel in distress from her own, self-destructive instincts.
A woman who wore her sexuality so openly must have had more conquests than I could imagine. You can't be that physically expressive and be so pretty without drawing men down from the rafters, or mostly up the gutter.
"I think Jonathan should go."
Peter asked her, "Why?"
"Because I think that's what Jonathan wants to do."
"Is that what you want him to do?"
"I want him to do what he thinks is in his best interest."
Peter turned to me. "You aren't just going to walk out, are you?"
By nature or unfortunate circumstance, Sonia was a natural temptress, a woman who identified herself through her sexuality. I distrusted that. Her baggage would be crushing, and would take a lifetime to work through, with no guarantee of meaningful success.
And I was not really interested in taking her in my arms because I suspected there was no one there to hold.
"I know you have her interests at heart, Peter. And I was out of line to have said what I did to you. But I also have my best interest at heart, and the way I'm feeling now, I would rather go than stay."
Sonia didn't look at me, but Peter was visibly disappointed.
"I understand. I think Sonia does, too," he said and walked me to her door. "You know where she lives. You know her name. You know how to contact her if you change your mind."
"Thanks for your understanding."
"There is no danger here, Jonathan. Just a lost, unsure little girl."
"Sonia has a terrific friend in you."
"We watch out for each other."
"Good luck," I said, made it down to the street, and took a long, deep breath. I was instantly relieved, as though I had barely avoided something that would distort and consume me.
I will always remember Sonia as a woman moist with urgent sexuality. It defined her, penalized her, cursed her, and offered her crippled soul up to those equally needy and manipulative.
So often in life you have to know when to pick up your chips and cut your losses.
I didn't feel like I owed Sonia any explanation and was immediately grateful for Peter's honesty. I hoped losing him as a dear friend would be a wake up call to her, and hopefully not plunge her into further emotional anguish.
Peter helped me trust a little more in Sonia. In a strange and unexpected way, he made me believe a little more in the good in myself, too.