After spinning once in the full-length bedroom mirror, Pastora returned to her vanity, took out a dark brown pencil and added a Cindy Crawford beauty mark above the left side of her upper lip. Then, worried that the mark was too prominent, she added a third layer of Revlon “Plush Red” lipstick for balance.
She was overdressed. Her electric blue, floor-length gown was startling even in her temporary university apartment, which she’d decorated with an abundance of peacock feathers, bright scarves, and pillar candles. She’d spotted the dress in a Spiegel catalog and couldn’t stop herself from ordering it.
She took a sip of ice-cold, effervescent Cava, leaving the imprint of her lips on the glass, and after throwing on one more swipe of Revlon she grabbed her purse—an obnoxiously large, black, nylon Prada an old director friend given her—and slipped into her Max Mara wool wrap coat, which she’d gifted to herself after she landed the title role in the Glimmerglass Opera Festival’s performance of Vivaldi’s Griselda. She bought herself a coat, a fashionable hat, or bulky piece of jewelry (which warmed her heart, if not her body) every time she had to perform somewhere cold, which, for a Seville girl like Pastora, was most places.
Pastora dallied long enough to be sure her cab was waiting before descending to the ground floor. She had heels on, a strappy gold pair; she refused to wear boots even for the iciest of sidewalks. As such, she planned on trotting right from the front door of her building into a warm cab. She’d used so much hairspray that it would take an avalanche of Rochester snow to even dent her hair. She’d swept it up and out of her face with mousse, emphasizing a loose part that sent her expensive, ruby-glossed curls flowing over her shoulders just like the Pretty Woman’s.
In the cab, Pastora was hit, suddenly, by hesitation, the exact feeling the Cava had been medicating against. She’d never answered a newspaper advertisement of any kind, particularly one for a date. But during her temporary exile in Rochester, she’d become increasingly lonely.
She knew from experience to avoid dating within professional circles. This had less to do with messy break-ups and more to do with jealous directors refusing to cast women who were involved with someone they knew. In Pastora’s experience, a director needed to believe that he could have her in order to give her the attention she needed to really inhabit her role. She found it disgusting, but she’d learned to manage the system. As such, she preferred the romantic company of men outside of the opera world. She liked to discuss movies, politics, adventure, and cuisine with men who weren’t snobs. Not all men in opera were snobs, but there was certainly a connection.
So, one evening while reading Rochester’s evening paper, the Times-Union, she’d indulged in a perusal of the “Personals” section. She’d just seen Pretty Woman, which had inspired a trip to the salon, so when she spotted the heading Richard Gere Look-Alike it gave her pause. She read the advertisement:
Successful, handsome, professional SWM, young 40, athletic, enjoys fine dining and the arts. Seeking nonsmoker, curvy SLF, 20s to early 30s. 4752.
Though she’d never answered a personal ad, she had enough girlfriends to know what the acronyms stood for, and she smiled at how perfectly she matched the description. She was a nonsmoking, curvy, single female. And though she was Spanish rather than Latina, she assumed that the “Richard Gere Look-Alike” would be satisfied.
So, she’d called the paper’s personals’ line, entered 4752, and left a message with her number. Richard, whose real name was Samuel, returned her call the next day, and they’d agreed to meet at Clusone’s, an Italian restaurant that Pastora had yet to visit in her brief time in Rochester. Knowing he was interested in Latina women, Pastora deepened her Spanish accent on the phone call. She’d been in the United States since she’d come to study at Julliard over a decade before and her accent, though present, was light. But Pastora could accomplish many things with her voice and returning it to its ancestral timbre was one of the easiest.
When the cab arrived outside of Clusone’s, Pastora laughed heartily, causing the driver to flinch. She had a full bark of a laugh, a single, sharp note that traveled far. She was supposed to be resting her voice, but how could she stop herself from laughing? Particularly when she’d worn an evening gown to a cheap, brick, corner restaurant, its neon sign blinking a sad hello as she exited the car. She’d thought the fact that she’d ordered the gown from a catalog would offset its ostentatious length and color. But she hadn’t anticipated that a two-hundred-dollar mail-order dress would be too expensive for a date with a man who loved “fine dining.”
The awkwardness of it made Pastora smile. She delighted in the butterflies that flew into her stomach as she pulled open the restaurant’s door. The host, a young African American man with a fake Italian mustache stuck to his face and nametag with the name “Giovanni,” looked at her like she was lost.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Hello Giovanni. I’m meeting someone,” she said with a smile. “Perhaps he’s already here? Samuel?”
The host’s eyes grew as he did nothing to hide his surprise. She hoped this wasn’t a sign that Samuel was ugly.
“Right this way, madam,” he said.
“Giovanni” led Pastora through the main dining room. She felt sandwiched in by the overbearing crystal chandeliers above and the inappropriately thick green carpet beneath her. They wove between tables and past an alcove where a tired-looking string quartet played “Bella Notte” and over to a corner table covered with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and an electric candle, where a pale, long-limbed man sat swirling a four-olive martini.
“Samuel?” she asked, waiting for him to stand.
The man looked up, startled, and Pastora immediately knew two things:
First, Samuel was disappointed.
And second, he was a homosexual.
Pastora felt an affinity with homosexual men, or least those she knew, because they, like her, were always extremely aware of how they looked to others. Every move was practiced, every expression considered. Some crumbled under the weight of this self-consciousness, but Pastora also knew that it was necessary. As a woman and as a performer, she needed to know how she looked from every angle, particularly how she looked to men. It was necessary for her career, and for love, but it was also vital for her safety. The gay men she knew were the same.
Of course, Pastora knew that this was also because she only met homosexual men in the arts, who, like everyone in the arts, were especially dramatic.
Pastora refused to make guesses about people from their mannerisms. She knew how easily such things could be manipulated. Her ability to sense Samuel’s inclinations had less to do with his comportment and more to do with the way his eyes hungrily followed watched Giovanni rather than her.
She cleared her throat to regain his attention, and Samuel’s pale cheeks flushed as his eyes once again met hers. She waited for him to rise and take her coat, but he remained seated, the long fingers of his right hand wrapped around his martini glass while those on his left nervously tapped against the table, making little squeaks against the plastic tablecloth.
Pastora removed her coat and passed it to Samuel, who grimaced as his hands touched its cold, wet fabric. He flopped it atop his own coat, a vinyl black trench, in the empty seat next to him.
She pulled her own chair out, taking the opportunity to look around the room as she did. The restaurant was about three-quarters full, light business for a Friday at 7pm but understandable in the gloomy November weather. All eyes were on her, and she couldn’t help but bark out another laugh, which made those staring either flinch or quickly avert their eyes.
“What’s so funny?” Samuel said with a nervous smile as she sat down across from him.
He was a bit handsome, though the Richard Gere comparison was a stretch. Like Mr. Gere, his hair was expertly styled: a moussed, premature grey obviously accentuated by a silver rinse. And like Mr. Gere, his nose was broad across the top and his eyes were very dark, which conspired to give him a blandly attractive look, like a cartoon prince. Unlike Mr. Gere, however, Samuel appeared to be short. Pastora, who was 5’7’’, stared slightly down at him across the table, and seated she didn’t even have any help from her heels. And where Mr. Gere was casually stylish, Samuel looked uncomfortable in his ill-fitting woolen suit, perhaps because he hadn’t unbuttoned the lowest button of his tight, short-armed double-breasted jacket.
“I’m a little overdressed,” Pastora said, meeting Samuel’s eyes. He broke eye contact and looked her up and down, and that look of disappointment persisted.
In the shallow part of the ocean of herself, the part just behind her eyes, his disappointment made sense. It was even a little bit funny. Logically, she could say to herself that she showed up for the date, that the man was a homosexual and thus wasn’t attracted to her. Or, if she was wrong, then he just wasn’t attracted to her. These things happened.
But in the depths of her, too far for her to even bother searching for it, a flare shot up, hot and bright over the dark water.
Was she too fat? Had he seen her upper arms wobble as she removed her coat? Was she too loud?
Perhaps he thought she was trying too hard. Was she? When had she decided to color her hair red and have it styled like the Pretty Woman’s? Was it after she’d read about him being Richard Gere, after she’d thought that a man who thought of himself as Richard Gere would want a woman that looked like Julia Roberts? She’d thought it was before, but now she wasn’t so sure.
“So,” he said, and sat up straight, using his hands to clasp the stem of his martini class in a prayer, “I’m Samuel. Very nice to meet you.” He reluctantly unclenched one hand from the glass and stretched it towards her.
He did a good job of looking sober, but the ‘R’ of his ‘very’ betrayed him. It stuck on his tongue as if he were having trouble moving it enough to make the sound.
“Pastora,” she replied, lightly grasping his wet hand.
“So,” he said again, “you have to tell me what’s up with your name. I thought maybe I’d misheard it on the machine, but it’s Pastoral? Like the countryside?”
Pastora laughed again, and Samuel blinked in lazy surprise. Pastora knew every eye in the place had snapped back to her. She smiled widely, held up a finger for Samuel to wait, and took a sip of the lukewarm tap water that was sitting in front of her. The glass was sweating, causing the top edge of her paper napkin to disintegrate. She knew how to make a man wait, even a gay one. As the prospect of romance decreased, her curiosity increased. Was he looking for a woman to serve as a disguise? Was he in denial? Was she wrong?
“It’s Pastorah,” she said simply. He waited, thinking she would say more after her big sip of water, but she simply smiled. She would treat this like an audition. In an audition, she had to make the director—gay, straight, male, female—desperate to find out more about her. For the older men, this meant they fell in love a little bit. For the women, this meant friendship, or respect. Sometimes even jealousy. In her experience, women were confident enough to be jealous. Some even used it as fuel. Whereas jealousy made men cruel.
“What does that mean?” Samuel asked, swirling his martini now, drops spilling out and running down the glass, hitting his hand and then continuing to drip, making pools of salty gin on the table.
“Don’t you speak Spanish?” she asked. “You said in the add that you were interested in a Latina?”
She’d caught him off guard, and he blushed for a moment before hardening his face. “I’m just attracted to Latin women,” he said, his voice a note lower than it had been just moments before, his face adopting a sort of aggressively masculine sneer.
“Ah, I see,” she said, taking another sip of water.
He continued to stare, intrigued if not interested.
“It means shepherdess,” she said as she returned her water glass to the table.
Just then, she felt a shift in the air to her left, and a paper menu was unceremoniously tossed down in front of her.
“I’m Luigi and I’ll be your server tonight,” an unseen man said from somewhere behind her. An arm appeared to her left, brandishing a large plastic pitcher of water. The arm moved towards her water glass and refilled it. As little ricochets of cool water splashed her face and bosom, she had to restrain herself from asking for sparkling.
“These glasses,” the unseen Luigi said, “are from the village of Clusone in Northern Italy. They’re real crystal, made by the same manufacturer as the famous Clusone’s chandeliers. Can I get the lady something else to drink in a crystal vessel tonight? We have a special on fuzzy navels.”
Though the line had been rehearsed, Pastora was charmed by the restaurant’s pride over its crystal. Pastora turned, twisting her neck to see the waiter. He was tall and slim, fine-boned, his hair a very un-Italian shade of red and his face dominated by a long, striking nose. It turned up slightly at the end, giving it a strangely erotic aura.
“Hello Luigi,” she said. “Could I see your wine list?” she asked.
Luigi cocked an orange eyebrow. “It’s on the bottom of your menu, under the pop.”
Pastora turned around again and caught Samuel with his glazed eyes on “Luigi.” She looked down at the menu and there, under the soft drinks, were three options: house red, house white, and house rosé.
She knew that she should order hot water with lemon. She was in Rochester because of a medically required break from performing. A procedure to remove polyps on her vocal cords had required extended vocal rest, so she’d taken a position as a Visiting Lecturer at the prestigious Eastman School of Music for the academic year. Despite Eastman’s reputation, it wouldn’t have been her first choice, but she’d been in the area over the summer performing with the charming Chautauqua Opera and while there had struck up a friendship with a director, Roberta, who worked at Chautauqua during her summers and taught at Eastman the rest of the year.
She decided to be bad for the evening. Her voice was progressing well, and she’d limited eating or drinking anything acidic (outside of the occasional glass of cava), so she could afford a cheat. She just hoped the “house” wine wasn’t local. Pastora tried not to adhere to snobbish stereotypes that followed performers, particularly opera performers, but she allowed herself snobbery with wine, though if pressed she’d attribute it to her European origin rather than her profession. New York was proud of its wine, but Pastora found it best used as a base for sangria.
“We’ll have a bottle of your house red,” she told Luigi, deciding that if she were going to enjoy this date, she’d need more than two glasses for assistance. Samuel looked happy with his martinis, but she’d order a glass for him in hopes of maintaining some level of decorum.
Amoebas of pink blossomed on the fare skin of Luigi’s cheeks. “It, um, comes in a box,” he said quietly.
She looked to Samuel to see if had an opinion about this, but he was staring at his martini glass, watching the olives swirl with the manic boredom of a child in a doctor’s waiting room.
“Do you have a carafe?” she asked hopefully.
“Yes!” Luigi said. “Well, we serve family portions in beer pitchers. Is that okay?”
She would take it in a pickle jar. “Fabulous. Could you bring some bread as well?”
“It’s fifty cents a roll.”
The mention of price seemed to enliven Samuel, who shot Pastora another of the sneering looks that he’d used to describe his love of Latin women.
“Give us a half dozen,” he told Luigi. “And I’ll have another martini.”
Another shift of wind told her that Luigi had left them. Pastora settled into her chair, which was surprisingly comfortable. She adjusted her necklace, a string of Tahitian black pearls that she’d bought herself when she’d landed the role of Mary in the San Francisco Opera’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. It wasn’t a great part, so she’d compensated.
She returned her attention to Samuel, whose look of masculine nonchalance had slackened into drunken disregard. When he noticed her eyes on him, he gave himself a slight shake and looked up at her.
“So Pastora,” he said, this time the “T” betraying his drunkenness. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Seville.”
His brow furrowed in exaggerated interest. She knew this look well. Men usually wore it while trying to get her into bed. Once again, she wondered if she’d been wrong about Samuel.
“I’ve not heard of it. Sivia, you said? Where is that?”
“In Andalusia,” she said, desperate for the wine to appear.
“Ha!” he quacked, a slight slur making his voice strange. “I knew you were fucking with me. You do look like a princess though.”
“Andalusia. Isn’t that where Cinderella is from? Or is it Rapunzel?”
“Cinderella is French. Rapunzel is German. Andalusia is in Spain,” she said.
He looked at her, obviously confused.
“It’s a region,” she explained. “Like Appalachia, or New England. In a way.”
She realized she was being a bit harsh, so she added, “Though it is beautiful, like a fairy tale.”
“Oh. Oh, I see,” he said, like he suddenly understood something. “That’s why you’re so pale!”
“I thought you were light for a Mexican.”
Pastora wasn’t sure if she should be offended. There was nothing offensive about being from Mexico, but the way he said it sounded off somehow, like she was the butt of a joke that she hadn’t heard.
“I told you I was Spanish,” she said, trying to meet his eyes. But his were too unfocused, and it was clear if they didn’t eat something soon, she’d lose him to drunkenness.
“I thought you meant Mexican. There are so many seasonal workers here from Mexico, I just assumed that’s what I would get if I put ‘Latin’ in the personal ad,” he said, looking over her shoulder, perhaps anticipating the bread. Or the next martini, though his wasn’t yet empty.
“Isn’t it past the season, though?” Pastora asked, curious as to whether he’d expected a seasonal worker or wanted a seasonal worker.
“Just,” he said, still staring over her shoulder. Pastora glanced back and saw “Giovanni” laughing as he grabbed handfuls of silverware from a basket under his podium and placed them atop its surface. A party of nearly a dozen people stood in front of the podium, their shared curly dark hair, olive skin, and familiar body language signaling a large family. Giovanni’s smile revealed sweet, innocent looking dimples, which in turn gave his eyes a twinkle.
She looked back to Samuel, smiling, and found his face flushed red once again. Embarrassment quickly hardened into defensiveness and Pastora, not wanting Samuel to feel judged, softened her expression and repeated her question.
“But it is past the grape harvest, right? Do the seasonal workers stay all year?”
Momentary confusion passed through his eyes, and as she watched them Pastora noticed his long lashes, which framed bright blue eyes that matched the stripes on his poorly-knotted tie.
“Yes, but I’d heard that some of them stay and try to find some extra work,” he replied, and the way he’d said them concerned her. “If you’re not a seasonal worker, what do you do?”
There was something hidden in his question, but Pastora didn’t have time to ponder it, as Luigi, having apparently just refreshed his cologne, appeared behind her once again. She felt the pitcher of wine graze her head as he reached over her to place it in the center of the table, the basket of bread perched atop it. He then reached over her once again to set down two glasses.
He finally moved to her left, where there was plenty of room for him to stand, and placed a new martini in front of Samuel, who sucked up what was left of the one in his hand, olives and all. He then, chewing aggressively, handed the empty glass to Luigi.
“Can I take your dinner orders?” Luigi asked, staring down his suggestive nose at Samuel.
Pastora clicked her tongue to get his attention. She would have cleared her throat, but the doctor had forbidden it. She figured if she was going to keep laughing and drinking, she was going to have to follow some of the other rules.
Luigi either didn’t hear her or ignored her, so Pastora spoke up. “I haven’t had a chance to look at the menu yet, but could we start with a salad?”
Luigi glanced at her, then back at Samuel, as if waiting for approval.
Samuel nodded at Luigi, who then asked him what dressing they would like.
“Ranch,” Samuel said.
Luigi turned to go, and Pastora called after him, “Could you bring the dressing on the side? And also bring some olive oil for the bread and for my salad?”
He left, and she wasn’t sure he’d heard her, but she wasn’t shy about sending things back. And though she wanted to be angry, Pastora knew that if she got angry every time someone looked to a man to answer for her that she’d spend most of her time filled with rage.
Samuel took an indulgent sip of his new martini while simultaneously reaching for a slice of bread, so Pastora waited until he finished and then took the bread basket from the top of the wine “pitcher” and set it to the side. She then poured herself a nearly overflowing glass of wine.
“Would you like some, Samuel?” she asked, reaching for a slice of bread.
“I’ve already got,” he said, mouth full.
“Of wine, darling,” she said.
“Oh!” Samuel said. “Yes, I’ll have a sip.”
Pastora poured him a glass, filling it a third of the way, and then placed it just beyond his bread plate, hoping he’d get distracted and eat some more when he next reached for the glass.
She took a sip of her wine. It tasted cheap, but still enough like red wine that it pleased her. The feeling reminded her of something rather sharply, and she abruptly grabbed her purse.
“If you’ll excuse me, Samuel, I’ve just got to powder my nose.”
She waited a moment for him to rise with her, but he did not, so she pushed her chair back and stood. Everyone who hadn’t noticed her before now had the chance to see her floor-length gown and wildly moussed hair in full. Eyes followed her all the way up to Giovanni’s podium.
He greeted her with a smile.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“May I use your telephone?” she asked, keeping her voice quiet.
“Of course, ma’am, there’s one in the hallway. By the restrooms.”
He pointed to his right, to a small hallway. At the end of the hallway, she found a payphone between one door reading “Bella” and another reading “Bello” and Pastora wondered, with a smile, where unattractive people were supposed to go?
She dug a quarter out of her purse, inserted it into the phone, and dialed her friend Roberta.
“Hello?” Roberta asked, her distinctive New York squawk carrying out from the phone and into the hallway.
“Hi, it’s me,” Pastora said.
“Story! How’s Richard Gere? Tell me he’s swept you off to Paris for the weekend!”
Roberta operated by her own set of rules and as such called Pastora “Story” even though Pastora didn’t enjoy or acknowledge it. Roberta was one of those people who copied the irritating habits of others and somehow made them charming in her appropriation.
“I’ll have so much to tell you tomorrow, but for now I wanted to let you know that I’m pretty sure I am going to drink an entire pitcher of boxed wine and I am definitely sure that I want to go home alone, so if I don’t call you back by 10:00pm from home please dial the restaurant. Are you free to do that?”
She and Roberta, both being women in the performing arts, knew how men could get, particularly with alcohol involved, so they’d started checking in with one another on dates and after rehearsals. Though they’d only been friends for a few months, they were already dear to one another. In fact, they’d so enjoyed working together when Roberta directed Pastora in the titular role of Verdi’s Griselda that summer in Chautauqua that Pastora had introduced Roberta to her old friend Fernando, who would be serving as the artistic director of Seville’s new, soon-to-open opera house, Teatro de la Maestranza. As a result, as a part of the opera house’s opening, Roberta would direct Pastora in a new, all-female version of Pastora’s favorite zarzuela, Ruperto Chapí’s La bruja. Pastora’s first major role had been as Blanca, the titular witch, back in Seville as a teenager. In this version, she’d be playing the lead male role, Leonardo, a man who falls in love with a witch. The jota he sings at the end of Act I was one of the most famous jotas of all time. They were keeping the production a secret but had been practicing once a week ever since Pastora started teaching at Eastman. Though she couldn’t sing in full voice during her vocal rest, they could review the music and also work out the blocking well in advance of any rehearsals.
For Pastora, it would be a homecoming. She mostly performed in the United States, with occasional jaunts to Europe and South America for brief runs, but she hadn’t performed in Spain since she’d been a teenager. Then, she’d performed in zarzuelas at various festivals, one of which had caught the eye of a Julliard scout. Performing in a Spanish zarzuela in her hometown of Seville, particularly one directed by a woman, would be extraordinary, and she was savoring the anticipation she had for it.
“A pitcher?” Roberta keened. “Darling, when you said Italian, I thought he’d take you to Lugano’s or maybe Trattoria Vittoria! You’re at Clusone’s, aren’t you?”
Pastora stayed silent, allowing Roberta to build to her point. The woman loved nothing more than constructing a scene.
“Oh my God you’re at Clusone’s and you’re wearing a gown, aren’t you? And jewels! You’re wearing jewels at Clusone’s! I’m dying. I’m dying! Oh, to be a fly on the wall!”
Pastora laughed along with her, knowing Roberta to be less of a snob and more someone who loved the awkward humor of everyday existence. Roberta was an exceedingly kind and keen-eyed woman, but she would laugh at anyone’s expense if they looked foolish enough.
“So, I’m gathering the date’s a dud. Get blitzkrieged, Story. I’ll check up on you in a bit. If you go missing, I’ll make Daniel drive me around in the Bonneville until we find you and then I’ll drown the bastard in Clusone’s alfredo sauce!”
“Thanks, mi amór!” Pastora replied, still giggling at Roberta, and imaging her harassing Daniel, her long-suffering boyfriend. “Speak to you soon.”
“Be safe! And don’t order their seafood!” Roberta screeched as Pastora put down the phone.
Pastora returned to the table, smiling at Giovanni as she passed his podium, earning a shy look from the host. She blew a kiss at the string quartet as she walked by, breaking the meter on their “Mambo Italiano” as each of the four of them responded in their own enthusiastic way. When she arrived at their table, she once again waited for a moment to see if Samuel would rise and pull out her chair for her, but he was in the middle of dipping a roll into an open foiled packet of butter and didn’t seem to notice her return.
She sat down, took a heavy drink of wine, and refilled her glass.
Samuel, hearing the glug of wine being poured into the large crystal goblet, looked up. His eyes were no more focused, but he hadn’t gotten any more drunk.
Pastora’s subconscious had been working at something, and as she sipped her wine and regarded Samuel’s oddly guilty expression, it began to move to the fore.
Before she had the chance to speak, Samuel erupted.
“The waiter got inpatient, so I ordered you the shrimp alfredo!” he exclaimed.
Pastora flinched, spilling a drop of wine onto the checkered tablecloth. Why was he yelling at her? And surely the waiter hadn’t had a medical emergency? Then she realized that his drunkenness had simply deprived him of the ability to control his volume and his words. He probably thought he was whispering with erudition.
Pastora was not pleased with his order. But she also realized that they weren’t likely to actually dine if he had anymore to drink.
“Would you like some more wine?” she asked as he took a sloppy sip of martini. She took his lack of refusal as a yes. This time, she filled it to the brim.
Pastora saw his mouth begin to move, the wheels slowly starting to turn in an effort to get something coherent out of his drunken face, and she held a hand up to stop him. It was her turn.
“Samuel, were you perhaps hoping to employ a young, female, Mexican seasonal worker?” This was what her mind had been working on. “Or did you just expect to date one?”
His face turned red again, a deep crimson, and he seemed even further from Richard Gere than he had initially.
“Why? Are you looking for some work?” he asked, embarrassment smothered by something else. Something that, to Pastora, looked a lot like hope.
She wasn’t looking for work. But she sensed that this was a conversation requiring a fine balance.
“Perhaps,” she said, and put her wine glass to her lips to stop her mouth from giving her away.
“Well, if you are…” He faded, then took another sip of martini, which he washed down with a heftier slurp of wine. He was steeling himself, pushing himself to say something.
“It’s just that, I do have a job. For a young woman. You’d still be okay, probably,” he said with a sweep of his hand towards her. Pastora coughed, but stopped herself from responding, particularly as he seemed to think that was a compliment. She nodded, trying to appear warmer than she felt.
“It’s relatively short term, and you’d be done before the next harvest season.”
“Oh, that would be nice,” Pastora replied, unable to help herself. She quickly returned to drinking.
Samuel’s mystery was becoming easier to solve. He needed a young woman for a “short term” job that she’d finish in the next—when was harvest season? —oh yes, in the next nine months or so.
“I’ve got a budget of ten thousand dollars,” he said, in a spit-filled whisper. As if the sheer amount of it must be whispered in hushed tones.
I’ve made more in a weekend, she wanted to say, but she just popped her expressive eyes in what she knew looked like thankful, feminine surprise. Pastora was pretty sure she knew what he wanted to buy, but what she didn’t understand was why.
Just then, Luigi swept by to deliver their salads. Both were absolutely covered in ranch dressing, though hers had a small plastic cup of olive oil on the side. Pastora thanked Luigi and then delayed him by asking him to refill her wine.
As he did, she curved her left arm out, knocking her salad fork to the floor behind her. Instinctively, Luigi bent to pick it up, giving Samuel a full view.
Pastora knew lust, even at its most guarded. And the alcohol had significantly dampened Samuel’s guard. He took in the full view of Luigi’s posterior and then flicked his eyes back to Pastora’s, realizing his mistake.
“So, it isn’t just you who wants to hire this young woman. This young Mexican woman. It’s you and your—significant other?” she asked.
Samuel blanched and looked dramatically to his left and right to see if anyone was listening. Pastora’s entrance had caught the other diners’ eyes and her laugh had caught their ears, but by now they’d all returned to their own lives.
“Yes. Tim,” he said. He seemed to be trying to whisper, but just as his heavily moussed hair had begun to slightly sag to one side, his lips didn’t seem to be hitting in the way they were supposed to, and everything came out in a kind of loud, foggy slur.
“He’s much younger than me. I don’t really want kids, or I hadn’t thought about it…I’m not paternal. But he wants kids.”
He said he wasn’t paternal, but Pastora could tell that it was one of those things men said because they feared vulnerability. Anyone out doing something like this, whatever this was, believed in the result. In that moment, Pastora felt desperately sad for Samuel. To have such a simple dream and to have it be so unattainable. Pastora had always had big dreams and she’d always achieved them, but no one stood in her way. Or if they did, she could move them aside, or move around them. But what did you do if your very being opposed your dreams?
She corrected herself. It was, rather, the way that society treated his being that opposed his dreams. Who was she, who was anyone, to how or whom a person should love? To say whether there was one way to raise a child?
She nearly reached out to grab his hand, though she’d have to compete with the one glass in one and the martini in the other. But then, she had another thought.
“Did you want her to believe you loved her? That this was a romance?” she asked.
Samuel simply blinked at her, his hair losing another few millimeters of air.
“If I’d wanted you from the beginning, would you have told me about the money? Or even if you told me about the money, would you have told me about Tim?”
She could hear the anger entering her voice. She said Teem instead of Tim, her accent sneaking in.
If Samuel noticed her anger, it didn’t change his demeanor.
“We did think it would be easier that way,” he said, taking a swig of martini. Then he shuddered, took a sip of wine, and shuddered again before continuing. “It would be easier if it seemed like a romance. If it was a romance, for her. You know, I could buy dinners and then she’d eventually get pregnant. And then, you know, I could offer to keep the baby.”
Pastora poured herself another glass of wine, giving herself a moment to calm her growing anger. She filled the crystal to the brim and then declined to fill Samuel’s. She placed the plastic pitcher on her side of the table.
“So, are you interested?” Samuel asked, leaning back. So relaxed, suddenly, Pastora noticed. The burden of the secret was off his chest. And somehow, he thought, after all of that, that she might want to…want to what? Carry his baby for money? Or did he think she was so stupid that he could explain his deception to her and that she could still, somehow, fall for it?
“You didn’t tell me what you do, did you?” Samuel said, talking like he was on a date now that the date had died. “I’m sure you could use the money. It would be…it could be a simple situation.”
Pastora was in a rage now, staring at the drunken man with an infuriating mixture of anger and pity. Is this the world we have created for ourselves, she wondered, that the oppressed can only get what they want by oppressing those even further below? Or was this just a symptom of a world presided over by men? Would any man, straight or gay or in-between, use a woman for his own purposes when push came to shove? To them, was a woman’s worth only her ability to bear their children?
Wasn’t this the oldest question? Pastora thought.
Eve’s first thought upon leaving the garden, when she wondered what lay over the next hill, was to set out to explore, her curiosity untamed by serpent or man. But Adam and God held her back, demanded that she be fruitful and multiply.
She narrowed her eyes at Samuel. A hot wind, smelling of oranges, of birds’ nests, of ink and raw meat, trickled into the room and billowed up behind Pastora, making her dress swirl around the base of her chair. Others felt it, too, and looked up from their alfredo, from their hamburgers, from their wine and cocktails and friends and lovers.
Pastora took a hefty swig of wine. The taste bloomed in her mouth, turned into something full and complex. She felt the wine wash down her throat, fill it up. She was going to stand, to leave Samuel with his sadness, but she needed to get rid of her feelings. She grabbed a roll, wet and sticky, and took a bite. It was sweet in her mouth, and she followed it with another, bigger gulp of wine, the food and drink combining to make something greater, something that spread to the tips of her fingers, to the base of her spine.
She stood suddenly, knocking her chair to the floor. She looked Samuel square in the eyes.
“Let me show you what I do,” she said.
Pastora grabbed her purse and rifled through it. She always carried the music for whatever project she was working on in her bag, so that she could review notes or lyrics or blocking when she had a free moment. She pulled out her score of La bruja, her fingers quickly finding the pages she wanted. It was the zarzuela’s most famous song, its jota, “No extrañés, no, que se escapen.” Until now the song been performed by a man, of course. It was a lament for the singer’s homeland, which he—now she—may never see again. The song’s power, according to its lyrics, is that it “es alegre ó triste según está quien la canta,” or, roughly, “is joy or sorrow depending on its singer.”
Pastora walked purposefully to the string quartet, who had stopped playing when her chair hit the floor. She handed them the sheet music and waited to see if they could pull it off. All four peered at the pages and then nodded, eagerly accepting the challenge.
Pastora was a coloratura contralto, and her voice, only just now reaching full maturity in her early thirties, had always been notable for its blend of depth and agility. As the original piece had been meant for a tenor and was written in D major, Roberta hadn’t needed to make many adjustments for it to work well with Pastora’s instrument. She had large range and the song’s highest note, a G, wasn’t a stretch for her.
She had the eyes of every person in the restaurant. Above her, the chandeliers swayed gently in the hot wind, their clinking song like summer crickets. She walked to the center of the dining room, directly in front of Samuel, his embarrassed face matching the red boxes on the checkered tablecloths. She set her feet, aligned her throat and spine and lungs and the crown of her head to give her sound the clearest path out into the world. Pastora knew that to weave her spell she would need to sing the original Spanish, and that she would need to pour everything she had into each note so that Samuel—and everyone else in attendance—could feel what she felt. She thought about home, she thought about beauty, she thought about sadness, and anger, and love.
Then, she motioned to the quartet, swaying her hand to set the beat, and as they began to play, she sang:
“No extrañéis, no, que se escapen
suspiros de mi garganta,
la jota es alegre ó triste
según está quien la canta.”
These sighs that pour from my throat are not unexpected. This song is joy or sorrow depending on its singer.
Irritation melted to fascination in the eyes of the other patrons. Vicious whispers reversed their course, becoming sharp intakes of breath. Forks were dropped, as were jaws.
The wind blew harder through the restaurant, catching Pastora’s dress once again, transforming her from a jewel into a flock of storming bluebirds.
“¡Ay, canto alegre de mi país,
tal vez ya nunca te vuelva á oir.
pero si acaso no te oigo más,
siempre en el alma resonarás!”
Oh, glad song of my homeland, I may never return to hear you; but even if I never hear you again, you will always echo through my soul!
“Esta es la jota de mi país,
que á todas horas me gusta oir;
sigue con ella y ya verás;
al fin y al cabo te alegrarás.”
This is the song of my homeland, a song I love to hear at any hour; keep singing and dancing and soon you will see; by the end of the day you will be joyful.
In the original zarzuela, Leonardo would join the chorus once again after his final verse and the song would end on a sentiment of happiness. But Pastora was singing to relieve her sadness, and she wanted to leave them with the feelings they had given to her. They’d stared, they’d whispered, and they’d laughed. Samuel had deceived her; he’d attempted to exploit her. She would leave them her sorrow she wouldn’t carry that. Not for them.
The wind blew harder as she sang. It caught her dress, her hair, and finally her voice, amplifying it beyond its already sizable volume.
“Como los pájaros cantan
las penas de sus amores,
así canto yo la jota
para aliviar mis dolores.”
Just as the birds sing away the sorrows of love, so I sing this song to relieve my sadness.
She felt her anger and sorrow leave her through her voice, which pulsed with energy. The rest had done wonders for her vocal chords, and as she sang, she began to feel that her range had expanded, that she could hit any note she aspired to. She caught the eyes of quartet players and swirled her hand, signaling for them to go up, as she repeated the song’s key phrase.
“Como los pájaros cantan
las penas de sus amores.”
Just as the birds sing away the sorrows of love.
“Sus amores” ended on a high-ish F, towards the top of a contralto’s strike zone but not particularly high. Though it came out powerfully, Pastora signaled to the quartet again. Higher.
She sang the climactic portion again, now in a higher key, and the chandeliers began to sway in earnest, their gentle clinking now a shimmering chorus of harsh yet melodious crashes.
“Como los pájaros cantan
las penas de sus amores.”
She fixed her eyes on Samuel, pushed the weight of her voice towards their table. He sat there, transfixed, his head leaning back as if forced there by the velocity of her voice. She couldn’t believe how open her voice felt, how free she felt to hit any note. She signaled the quartet again. Higher, higher, higher!
The wind caught tablecloths now, sending rolls, pieces of wet lettuce, butter packets and napkins flying about the room. Thawed cannoli flew through the air like starlings; pre-made lasagna swooped from one table to the next like seed-stealing cardinals. People began to murmur, a hissing mixture of wonder and fear. Pastora threw every piece of herself into the notes. She went higher, and higher, like the birds she sang of. She pushed out the sorrow of her love.
Finally, she caught the word once more, “amores,” and flew into a powerful melisma, sending her voice higher, hitting every note on her way upward. As she sang, the wind caught each note and blew it around the small restaurant. Each note found a matching crack in a piece of crystal, and as she continued upward, glasses began to explode on each table. She opened her throat further, shooting her notes like bullets.
Screams pierced the air as Clusone’s famous glasses burst, table by table. Samuel’s eyes widened impossibly as his martini and wine glasses shattered simultaneously, coating one hand in gin and the other in red wine. Pastora reveled in their shock, spinning as the wind blew crystal dust into the air around her.
She spun at the center of a tempest of her own making, her notes floating higher still until she landed on the highest C the human ear could process. Already impossibly loud, she grew even louder, crescendoing beyond her small audience’s comprehension. Tables shook, and the remaining glassware exploded, goblets popping like champagne corks.
She threw every sliver of the false hope she’d had for this date into this final note, every shard of pity she had for Samuel, every dagger of anger she had for how he’d planned to use and discard some young woman. The note transformed into a roar, and that roar caught the chandeliers, causing them to burst like icy fireworks. The exploded in unison, showering Pastora and the restaurant’s patrons in crystal dust. This was finally enough for the quartet, whose instruments skidded to a halt as their mouths dropped open in wonder.
Pastora’s voice, now unaccompanied, pulsed with one final surge of energy and then she closed her mouth. The loss of her voice left the room bereft. Everyone stared, dumbfounded, coated in crystal dust, wonder, and shame.
Pastora, having made her point, looked at Samuel one final time. His unmoving eyes were leaking tears. She’d delivered her sorrow. It was his now. She turned decisively, and strode towards the exit, her dress billowing behind her as she walked. She didn’t want to leave her coat, but she felt as if bending over the table and grabbing it would distract from the grandeur of her performance, so she hoped someone would hang onto it until she could return for it later in the week.
Pastora walked past Luigi, who was staring at two pulverized water glasses in wonder, and Giovanni, whose silent mouth was moving as if to speak, and out the restaurant’s door.
Heavy snow fell upon her and cooled both her mind and her skin. She reached the corner, wiping melted snow and crystal dust from each arm and then shaking out her hair. Pastora signaled for a cab.
Then she opened her mouth wide, and she laughed.
About the Author:
Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, Dr. Mike McClelland is originally from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He has lived on five different continents but now resides in Illinois with his husband, two sons, and a menagerie of rescue dogs. He is the author of the short fiction collection Gay Zoo Day and teaches creative writing at Eastern Illinois University, where he is the fiction editor of Bluestem Magazine. His creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, WIRED, Boston Review, Vox, The Baffler, Fairy Tale Review, and a number of literary magazines and anthologies. Find him online at magicmikewrites.com or @magicmikewrites on Twitter and Instagram
*Featured image by Goran Tomic