by Phyllis Carol Agins
Five hours in the Mediterranean sun, and she’s not waiting for anything special. Not for finding lifetime love or even a quick affair after the end of her decades-long marriage. Hours walking and her feet hurt, even though she’s worn her sensible Birkies.
She’s strolled through the Old City, dodging the Monday tourists the tour groups have deposited in front of the flea market that once a week fills the ancient Cours Saleya. Unlike the tourists hungry for a piece of history, nothing in the market has pulled her to take out her wallet and count Euros in her high school French. A day in the sun, her straw hat wicks moisture from her hair; sweat floats at her waist. She hopes her deodorant is working.
Without deciding, she moves from the brilliant light of the market to the angular, shaded streets of the medieval town. The houses fold inward, continuing their centuries-old conversations. Potted flowers and washed laundry wait for any breeze. Faded yellow and orange walls pull at her sides, while the smell of urine sometimes finds her as she turns a corner. All she wants is a cup of good American coffee, larger than the silly espresso that restaurants serve. Coffee that will last more than two sips.
Finally the tall chair, the metal table, the waiter who seems to understand what she desires, with an enthusiastic “Oui, madame, un café American.” Her feet rest on the wooden bar; her hat dries in the shade. Finally a taste of coffee on her lips, just before her body moves in a dance she’s never known and lights swirl behind her lids.
There is her husband, who kissed her shoulder and promised to love her forever. But the undeleted e-mails tell the truth. Then the whispered phone calls. And his final “I’m really sorry” as he studies the wedding band that she’s thrown at him. She sees her son, who doesn’t understand why his parents can’t declare peace like nations that have had enough of war. Her lawyer, who declares his dedicated support and skims her calf with fingertips for emphasis. Someone laughs. Is it the secretary, who seduced with youth the ultimate gift? Making Carla the cliché—the longtime wife left for the young lover.
No, just her friends with their laughter and intact lives, who pushed glasses of champagne into her hand. Christening this French escape with hope. Wishing her well on this new journey, where beginnings wait around the corner or hide under stones on the Mediterranean beach.
Where should I look? she wants to ask. Who will be my guide? The question lingers between the skipping lights, and she reaches to grab the answer.
A part of her feels the pavement—her shoulder, her head. She can’t control her arms, her back, trembling to that unknown rhythm. Some voices reach her from far away, the tones muffled with batting. A hand pushes her onto her side. Someone cries, “Her tongue,” and she wondered if she’s forgotten to brush her teeth. Warm water floods her legs. And again the urine smell, stronger this time.
“Don’t move, madame.” A voice tries French, then Italian, finally English. “We’ve called the ambulance.”
“Has this happened before?” another demands, searching for the answer or maybe a way to shield himself from the contagious unknown.
Slowly she finds herself. She shakes her head, knowing that blood has crowned along her forehead, running a predestined path down her cheeks.
Stroke. Whispers find her. Epilepsy. Perhaps a growth, she hears.
“She’s probably dehydrated,” someone offers. “Tourists never drink enough.”
A woman with a poodle kneels, pressing a wet towel to her face while the dog nestles against her leg. The woman hides the now red towel, kisses her hands as if they’d been friends forever, and then smoothes Carla’s skirt along her knees. She wonders where her left shoe has landed.
Someone lifts her head gently to let it rest on a rolled-up shirt.
“What’s taking the ambulance so long?” a man asks.
“Maybe the streets are too narrow.”
But there are the experienced hands. The brace against her neck. The cuff tightening on her arm. The voice that asks gently, “You’re American, I think.”
How do they know? She thinks they’ve read the clues on her sandals.
“Carla.” He is using her name, her pocketbook tucked under his arm. “We’re going to take you to the hospital.”
Even before they lift her into the ambulance, the restaurant owner appears to wash her blood from the street. Off the metal base of the table, diluting it with his tub of soapy water so it will be swept into the ancient drains. She watches from the edge of the ambulance while she balances there, the stretcher wheels collapsing before rolling forward. The owner finally spills sand on the blood that remains and sweeps it to the curb. Red sand now. Tourists step around the mess she’s made, keeping their eyes from the ambulance.
“Nothing to worry about,” the ambulance driver says, climbing into his seat. She hears the click of his seat belt.
When the woman with the dog kisses her cheeks in a solemn good-bye, Carla whispers. The woman leans forward to catch the words.
“I’ve forgotten something,” Carla says again.
“No, you haven’t, ma puce. You have your hat and your bag.”
Before closing her eyes, Carla points to the last of her blood piled in the street.
Category: Fiction, Short Story