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Seeing Red: "Ronda in Releve"

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The HuffPost has revolutionized journalism by taking over the news business. Is fiction next? My new novel, Seeing Red, is being serialized three times a week on the Huffington Post. Here's the latest installment of the book. (Catch up with previous chapters at "Seeing Red on the HuffPost!")

"Ronda in Relevé"

Jesús leaning across the white tablecloth, his face framed by two narrow tongues of flame. The same two candles whiting the coal of his eyes. Ronda, heavy with wine, catching the blinking lines.

Looking away, then looking back again, then playing with the fire. Wondering why the flame burns blue and black at the wick. Wondering why the same lick of flame reaches skyward in a crisp lemon point. Wondering why she can pass her fingertip so painlessly back and forth through the flame, when the same fire, should it erupt unexpectedly during the night, could consume her within minutes in her bed.

"So you aren't going to speak to me any more tonight, is that how it will be?" Jesús' whisper disturbs the flame. And her concentration.

She looks up, pours more red wine, the last of the Barbera, into her glass. As she does, she smiles at him. "I will never stop talking to you Jesús. I just don't know what to say right now."

He reaches around the candle. Takes hold of her fingers. Gingerly, with the flat of his thumb, he rubs the ring finger, the white place in the skin where her wedding ring made its indentation.

"If you really want to come, you know you can," he says. "You would love Spain. The places I could take you, the beaches in the south, they are the most..."

"No!" She pulls her hand away. "Please don't, Jesús. Please don't say any more. We've had that discussion too many times before. I've told you already, I don't belong there, chasing you."

"But you won't be chasing me. Because I am not running away."

The instrumental that is playing, a melody called "Structures From Strings," dies out. Without thinking, she gets up from the table, leaving behind the image of his face, peachy yellow in the candlelight. It is not a face she will ever forget. Nor is it a face that can be mailed in a transatlantic letter.

She carries two empty bowls, each with traces of chocolate ice cream, into the kitchen. It's dark in there, and she's glad. She parks herself by the sink, gives herself the short lecture: we've had a good time tonight. Don't spoil it. Don't push him away.

Out in the living room he is playing another CD. Ottmar Liebert's "Nouveau Flamenco." The CD she bought him so long ago, when she didn't know his taste in music. He laughed when he opened the CD and she was crushed and she asked why and he gave her his sly look and said "because back home, we call Liebert the fake flamenco." And she said "Oh god, Jesús, make me feel bad, why don't you?" but then he had kissed her, so tenderly, and now he actually listens to the CD, or at least he often does when she's around.

Closing in on the sink, she stands, lets the music swell up into her head. She isn't moving from the sink. She pours herself a small glass of water and drinks it, and despite the knot in her throat, she can still swallow. She considers taking a pill, the last Xanex before she has to renew the prescription.

"Ronda, you cannot hide from me in here." He is standing beside her in the kitchen but curiously he isn't grabbing her or coming too near or even turning on the light. His voice is floating in the dark, separate. Like a bell in a lighthouse, he stands somewhere out there in the center of the kitchen, sounding, calm and reassuring.

She drinks an iota more water. "I think you ought to go now," she mutters, putting the words out slowly. As soon as he leaves, she will go upstairs and do yoga. Lately her body has begun to crave the yoga, almost more than the dancing.

He cinches one arm around her waistline. Tries to pull her closer but she won't have it. "No, Jesús. I decided this before you came tonight."

"What? What did you decide?" She hears alarm in his voice and a part of her, the icy heart at her center, is glad. Glad that she will have had at least this small chance to hurt him.

Because she is absolutely certain that sooner or later, he is going to hurt her.

"I decided I don't want you to stay tonight."

"But why? That makes no sense."

"Yes. It does." She inhales, fires the words out. "Because I want the next time we have sex to be when I know you're coming back."

"Ronda." The fear in his voice has turned sharp, a dagger of anger. "You are...you are such an American." That label usually figures as a joke between them, a way of him teasing her for eating dinner before eleven. Usually, he calls her an American in a tone that makes her laugh. But tonight, he is sounding a warning.

He is no longer trying to hold her waist. There is a moment of silence during which Ronda is more glad than ever for the dark. Because she can't see through her tears. The next words she hears come tumbling out in a discontinuous line from his mouth.

"You're telling me that after a year, no, almost a year and a half, after all that time we sleep together and we make the best love I can imagine, the best love of my whole lifetime, and then the last night, the very last night before I'm supposed to leave you for a month you won't let me stay. AH!"

"Six or eight weeks," she squeaks. She hopes by speaking softly the tears won't come. But of course they do. "You said you would be gone at least six weeks Jesús. You said maybe even two months."

"OK, OK, maybe so. Whatever it is, it isn't so terribly long. And why you are so scared I won't come back, I don't know. I don't know what to say to you. Sometimes I just ..."

"I'm sorry Jesús. I'm sorry I'm not more...cool and collected. I can't help it. I just want it to be simple...a clean break."

Jesús makes one angry gesture with his hand, waving her away. Then he leaves the kitchen, babbling angrily in Spanish. She listens for him in the other room. He snaps off the power on the CD and now she is convinced that he has decided to go, that he has accepted her decision. And so easily too.

She is thinking, "please God no, please don't let him go off like this." Icy pins of fear prick the back of her neck. She stands frozen at the metal sink, one hand on the faucet, steadying herself. Get ready, she thinks. Get ready to grieve, to mourn, to wake up every morning holding nothing but your pillow. But instead, the comforting sound of guitar strings flutter out from the living room. His fingers are dancing across the strings again. Relieved, she pulls enough air into her lungs for two people. She dries her eyes on her sleeve. And for some reason, at that moment, she recalls the night that Ben Sr. was leaving. How hard he cried. How he paused in the driveway, rolled down his window, gave her the finger. In the old days, she thinks, when I was married to Ben, I hardly cried at all. Tiptoeing into the living room, she sinks into a dark corner on her hands and knees, feeling the cool wood of the oak floor beneath her. She settles there, in the corner, like a scared animal. Curling her arms under her legs, she buries her face in her thighs. And listens to him play. And tries not to cry.

*****


She isn't sure how or when it happens, but she wakes up in her own bed. She is staring at the white wall, the small brown stain in the corner of the ceiling overhead.

"What if he isn't there when I turn over?" she thinks. "What will I do if he's gone?"

And so for a full minute, she remains where she is, perfectly still, breathing lightly, her cheek resting in the pillow.

Finally she flips over, forces her eyes open. The other side of the bed is empty. But there on the pillow she sees a note, and a wrapped package. Her eyes fill, her throat locks. She pulls the bedcovers over her head. I had to go and ruin our last night. I had to go and ruin it all.

She is lying in a great wash of tears, and her first impulse is to suffocate herself beneath the sheets. But soon she tires of the heat, and the feeling that she has been beaten down. She pulls the covers away, puts her face into the cool air.

There is a sound, a gurgle, then water dripping.

She pops up to a sitting position. It's coming from the bathroom. Water is sloshing around in the tub. Slipping from the bed, she springs across the room in two steps. Explodes through the bathroom door.

"You're...you're here." He is reclining in a tub of frothy bubbles, his face submerged to the tops of his ears. She is riveted to the door, afraid that if she moves closer, he may disappear.

"So don't worry, I will leave, as soon as I have finished rinsing," he says. He uses his big toe to open the drain.

"NO, no," she calls, all of her sinking to the tile floor. "Please. No. You don't have to go. I don't want you to go. "

He eyes her, his lids half closed. Soft bubbles cover the sharp arc of his nose. "Oh, so you changed your mind?"

"I...I'm sorry Jesús," she says, her tears running. "I'm sorry for...I'm sorry for all of this."

She reaches into the froth, touches his shoulder. He sits up, slides his hand up to cover hers, pulls her other arm forward and kisses the shallow well inside her elbow. "Get in here," he commands and she does. He flips the switch on the drain again. The water stops flowing out.

She is wearing only her black bikini panties and a camisole as she descends beside him into the bathwater.

READ THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF SEEING RED on Sunday, March 6, 2011. To read all previous installments, go to "Seeing Red on the Huff Post."