Wednesday, 4 April 2012

My Love Affair with an Older Man

The Memory of RosesI suppose all writers have favorites among their characters. It’s only natural that some of our inventions should resonate more in our minds and emotions than others. So it is that I fell in love with an older man. Ian McQuaid in The Memory of Roses is a man I’d like to meet outside the pages of fiction.

Ian is an American archaeologist who works in Greece.  He always wanted to be an archaeologist even when he was a boy. His father wanted him to be an engineer but Ian persisted against all odds and went on to become world-renown in his field.

Even as a young man Ian has a brilliant mind but, like many highly intelligent men, he isn’t very bright about women. And so, as often happens, Ian ends up married to the wrong woman. It takes him years to realize that his marriage is a sham.

Ian is forty-two and recuperating from a serious illness on the Greek Island of Corfu, wondering what to do about his dysfunctional marriage, when a young Italian artist, Maria Calbrese, walks into his life and shatters his complacency. Their love affair rocks him to the depths of his soul.

I suppose what I love most about Ian is his vulnerability. That, and his sense of what is right and moral. He is at heart a totally decent man.

In the scene below, Ian meets Maria for the first time.

It was on June eleventh that he met her. He had gone to Adriatika for his evening meal. It was a week night and he had lingered over his late afternoon swim. By the time he arrived, the few other diners were well into their meals.

“What have you for me tonight, my friend?” he asked.

“Ah! You are in luck. We have Rabbit Steffado and I have kept a portion back for you.”

Ian settled into his chair at his regular table and opened his book. He had long had the habit of reading in restaurants until his food arrived. It kept him from feeling lonely.

He heard a commotion at the door and glanced up from his book to see a stunning young woman in conversation with Yiannis.

“Of course you are not too late, signorina,” Yiannis was saying as he showed her to a table. “We always look forward to your return in June. Did you have a pleasant journey from Venice?”

“Pleasant enough, Yiannis. I hope you have some of your Rabbit Steffado for me tonight. I’ve been looking forward to it for months.”

“Alas, I am afraid the last portion has just been ordered by someone else,” he said, nodding in the general direction of Ian’s table. “But I have a very nice fish if you’re interested.”

“Hmm. I’ll think about it. Meanwhile, if you could bring me a pitcher of your good house wine…”

“Of course.”

Ian went back to reading his book. Suddenly he sensed that he was not alone. He looked up to see the woman who had just entered the restaurant standing at his table, a brimming pitcher of wine in her hand. She was tall and full breasted, her long ebony hair swung loosely to her shoulders and her eyes were dark and lively. Her face could have come from a Botticelli painting, beautifully oval, classically Italian. She wore a low necked blouse that seemed to fall off one shoulder and a full skirt that emphasized her small waist.

He realized, with a shock, that she was speaking to him in English and that he had not heard a word she’d said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said I assume you speak English since you are reading a book in that language. If you’d rather, we could speak in Italian. My Greek is a bit primitive.”

Confused, Ian managed to stutter, “English will be fine.”

“Good. I have a proposition for you.” She smiled.

Ian thought, whatever it is, the answer is yes. He merely nodded.

“You,” she resumed accusingly, “you have ordered the last portion of Rabbit Steffado. I have been looking forward to Rabbit Steffado for months. I propose that we should sit together and enjoy that rabbit together. There is always enough for two in Yiannis’ portions. Meanwhile we can order some of Catarina’s eggplant and a salad to start, and,” here she held up the pitcher, “I already have the wine.” She waited expectantly.

Ian threw back his head and laughed for the first time in months. “Please,” he said, getting up quickly and pulling out a chair for her, “Be my guest. I am Ian McQuaid.”

Over the eggplant she told him she was from Venice and that her name was Maria. “I always spend six weeks here at this time of the year. And this is my favorite restaurant on Corfu. I always came here on my first night back.”

They worked their way through the appetizers, laughing and chatting about their experiences on Corfu as if they were old friends.

 The rabbit arrived at the table, steaming and aromatic in its rich sauce. Maria ladled it on to their plates. “So what brings you to Corfu?”

 Ian somehow didn’t want to admit his recent illness to this young woman who was the picture of health and vitality. “I was working on Crete and I just decided to take some time off. A friend suggested Corfu.”

 “What do you do on Crete?”

“I’m an archaeologist. My special area is Bronze-Age societies, the Minoans in particular. Knossos, on Crete, is one of the best preserved Minoan sites in the world. I’ve been working there, off and on, for some years.”

“You’re an American, aren’t you? Your accent isn’t British.”

“Yes. I’m a professor at Stanford University in California. But I spend half of every year in Greece.”

They continued to chat and laugh their way through the rest of meal. Ian could hardly take his eyes off of her. She was so utterly alive. Her mobile face telegraphed her every thought and mood. When she laughed at his stories her whole face lit up. When she was serious, her eyes held the reflective calm of a mountain lake. He found her utterly entrancing. By the time they had finished dessert he was wondering how he could prolong the evening, how he could arrange to see her again. 

Then he reminded himself that he was still married, that he had no right to become involved with this young, vibrant creature sitting at his table. And that surely she would have no interest in him, a middle-aged man, graying at the temples and many years her senior. Regretfully, when Catarina began closing the shutters, he moved to pay the bill. “Please allow me,” he said. “You have given me so much pleasure tonight.”

She nodded and rose to leave.

Outside the restaurant, she paused, confused, and looked around. “Where is your car?”

“Actually, I don’t have one. I haven’t found much need for one here. I walk everyplace. The house I’m renting is just up the hill a mile or so.”

“Please let me drive you home,” she said. “I insist. It is small payment for that lovely dinner.”

Ten minutes longer with her, Ian thought. Ten minutes more of her lovely voice and beautiful face. “Of course,” he responded.

She drove efficiently and competently. He watched the shadows and light fall on her face as she navigated the curves of the narrow, winding country road.

“Turn here,” he instructed as they reached the open gates to the property. She came to a stop at the circle in front of the villa. The fountain was splashing, its dolphins alive in the moonlight.

“What a beautiful spot.” She said. They sat in silence for a moment, neither quite willing to end the evening.

“You could come in for a brandy,” he suggested.

They got as far as the front door. Later, they could neither of them remember who moved first. They were in each other’s arms, tearing at their clothing, stumbling up the steps toward the bedroom. Frustrated with their slow progress Ian swept her up into his arms and carried her to his bed, covering her with his body. They made love wordlessly, frantically, as if their very lives depended on their being together in this way at this moment.

When the storm had passed, Ian tried to speak. “I had no right to do this,” he said. “I’m married.”

“Of course you are,” she replied. “No man as attractive as you could be single. Not at your age. I came to you willingly. I asked for no commitment. We have here and now. We have tonight. Let’s not ask for more.”


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Blair McDowell