from The Orange Window
By Valerie Coulton
M. was impatient with my research and my distraction, which he considered inextricably linked. My offering of a slab of buckwheat honeycomb only sweetened his diatribe, as he sucked the chambers and chewed their wax. We agreed I would present my research at month’s end without fail. On my way home, stopping before a window to consider a pair of lilac gloves, I saw her reflected, exiting a shop across the street, on another man’s arm. The lilies in her free hand caught the light, momentarily illuminating my own face in the milliner’s glass.
M’s intentions were excellent, he assured me. “But one must proceed in these matters with the utmost caution. Lonely women, isolated from the world, must be treated delicately. Their minds have developed in a kind of vortex, which gives way to the most exaggerated notions of romance at the least word from a stranger. But of course, you know this already,” he smiled, depositing an olive pit in his palm.
By accident, I discovered his small package, returned for lack of postage. Homely and intriguing, it sat on his doorstep with script crawling across its immaculate label. An extra flourish in her final consonant. Giving a last unhopeful knock I turned back into the alley, cooling now in the late afternoon.
M. went to great lengths to hide his obsession. He borrowed my botanical books and The Questions of Zaran along with several volumes of sonnets, in an amusing effort to throw me off the scent. His quickened steps down the alley, across two squares lit with flowers, and down the palm-lined boulevard to the post office became an almost daily event. Still, he lingered at the edge of El Sueno’s mosaic tile every evening, engrossed in The Sixth Question, or The Seventh, sipping sherry and tugging at his moustache.
M’s translations were laborious and troubled by his lack of affinity for cinema. “I can’t understand,” he mused, as we paused at his corner, “why anyone would wish to spend an evening, or an afternoon, for God’s sake, in a darkened room watching melodrama. And frankly, I’m surprised you disagree with me, given your penchant for the natural world.” I could see the crumbling moon reflected in a third-story window above his head, my will to argue dissolving in that humble light.
M. became morose without explanation. Naturally I surmised the cause of his melancholy, but now suspect I was quite wrong. Our meetings became less frequent and were marked by his obsession with the details of his early life, which he now examined solely through the lens of Zaran’s Questions. My calm exterior hid a burgeoning sense of betrayal as time passed without his confidence.
M’s trips to the post office ceased, as did his frequent book borrowing. Yet his high spirits persisted, marked as always by the gay impatience and curiosity I had come to expect from him. That autumn we dined together often, and he surprised me with a homemade cake on my birthday. Between rum-soaked mouthfuls we debated the last Question, which continued to trouble him despite my efforts to illuminate Zaran’s argument with examples from my own experience. “No, I simply can’t agree with you,” he said, laying down his fork, “although I grasp the elegance of your argument quite clearly. The collapsibility of time is so crucial to the Question that it can’t be ignored by your father’s umbrella. You must find another way to convince me, and I don’t think you you’ll be able to.”