It was as if the wine suddenly went off. It was a Rioja. Strong red wine, she had always liked it. She liked how it smelled. How it tasted. She had first had it when she and Laura traveled in Spain one year while they were in grad school. No money, no good clothes, it was travel on the cheap. Trains, hostels, local restaurants, and bars where they could drink and eat depending on the kindness of strangers.
It was in one of those bars, with hams hanging from the ceiling and kids running around and that golden light that bars in Spain have, at a table with...could she remember? Was it Australians or was it the night with the Germans? Australians she thought as she looked at Laura ten years later, in a bar on Chicago's North Side, a bar she knew, Laura with a Rioja too. She suddenly realized that the only thing they shared anymore was the kind of wine they were drinking.
Why? She had looked forward so much to this night.
Was it that they both were older? Thirties, not twenties? Or that ten years had changed both in ways that would make the girls in the tapas bar in San Sebastian look over and not see them if they were sitting nearby. Women, she thought, are invisible to Girls.
She sipped the Rioja in the bar in Chicago and tried to think of herself drinking her first Rioja with the four Australians in Spain. She wasn't happy then. Not sure of herself. Not sure of anything. Academic achievement was but a passing boost to self confidence. Yeah, she was smart, it was nice that others thought so too. But, she had always known she was smart, a masters and doctorate wouldn't make her smarter or make her more comfortable with herself.
What would, she wondered?
Had they slept with the Australians? She hadn't, she was pretty sure. Not slept. Not been with. Probably she had let one of them kiss her and probably touch her, but no more. Laura had definitely slept with one of them. Laura had been so slutty in Europe. Well, they both had. They had no money, they had no boyfriends, the boyfriends they had had were throwaways. Who cared?
Now, back here now, her wine tasted awful. Laura, newly married, could talk of nothing else. She, newly divorced, could think of nothing less interesting. She wanted them to talk about movies and books and how much they loathed Hillary and loved Obama, about ideas and be passionate because they both were so smart. It had been fun talking about important things with Laura. Not how Josh was turning out to be a slob of a husband, and wasn't nearly as romantic as he had been. About how sex was kind of boring and that she had decided to get pregnant by May so she could have the baby in the winter and have something to do.
She had a sudden memory of having breakfast the next morning in San Sebastian by herself. Laura hadn't come back to the hostel. It was a small coffee bar crowded with Spaniards, or Basques as an old lady told her. The senora was sitting at a small table next to her drinking from a small cup of very strong Spanish coffee, and they talked in rudimentary Spanish. She was very old, very old, widowed, smartly dressed and came there every morning. The conversation started like this:
You are so beautiful, the widow said.
Don't thank me, thank your mother. you are so beautiful, you must look just like her.
Why do you say that?
No man touched that face. Your mother's touch could only have done this.
My mother is dead. She died when I was ten.
Oh, you poor girl. Oh, your poor mother not to have seen you as you are. Come sit with me. Let us not talk of mothers or sadness but of love romance and men.
Are they three separate things?
Of course, she said, we think we love, we hope to have romance in our lives always, and we are confronted by the tragedy that we depend on men for all three.
She remembered laughing. Laughing long and hard and the old lady laughed with her.
She looked at Laura. Laura's back turned completely to her as she chatted with a rather good looking younger guy who was dressed as if he had just come from a Cubs game...baseball cap, Sammy Sosa vintage jersey, vacant expression. She rarely saw Laura anymore and this was a night for them to recapture their relationship. Grad school, Europe, living near each other for years but not seeing each other much as jobs and travel and fiancees and husbands intruded.
Was she aggravated at being ignored? Had the wine turned because of her anger? Was she reacting to the change, the time change, the what Josh did and said and thought, trumping what Isabel Allende said at the book signing that Laura couldn't come to because she had to drive out to the suburbs to visit Josh's sick aunt. The aunt who hadn't even come to their wedding or sent a gift?
Annoyed yes, but mostly she was tired. Tired of it all. Tired of how it was all turning out. She wished she could talk to the old widow she had met in San Sebastian. She must be dead by now. But, of course, she wasn't, she was alive in her memory. As was the Laura of old. What a difficult thing life was turning out to be. She put her hand to her neck to feel her heart beating. She breathed. She thought of her mother. Had she touched this face and made it what it was? Was she beautiful? If she was would she ever be able to acknowledge it? Did it matter?
She swirled the wine in the glass, and took a larger drink than was her norm. It burned her stomach as it went down. It tasted of Spain and the bar and she remembered thinking that morning of how bad a bad kiss was. Ten years. The widow's voice came to her. What else had she said that morning?
She had said: beauty is God's gift, happiness is life's, go live and be happy. Do not depend on a man for happiness, but you can find happiness in a man.
She smiled to herself. Laura turned and shouted to her above the juke box: this guy can get us Cubs tickets!