My Best Oasis
I am as nervous as a man at his first wedding.
The church is filled with flowers, hard to tell in the dim light, but their fragrance gives them away. The congregation's hushed. They could be holding their collective breath. I know I am.
And now the music resumes as I turn to face the aisle. My bride and I have been through so muchat times I doubted I would ever see this day.
Rosemary and I had been married for six years when I first saw Anja. We were at a grocery store and I saw a girl standing in the produce section, holding a pomegranate. She was studying the fruit, holding it to her ear. Her ear. Her face held such a look of concentration that I wondered what she must hear.
"Hon," Rosemary called to me. "Grab some oranges, would you?"
I shuffled to the citrus fruit, my eyes still on the girl, when a familiar figure hurried to her side and grabbed her arm. "Anja! Do you like pomegranates? That is so weird! It's the one fruit I love that nobody, I mean nobody, gets! You are a genius! An exotic fruit genius." He kissed her on the mouth.
It was Henri Salazar.
Henri and I attended the same grammar school. We'd never been what you'd call best friends, though I was always amused to see him. Over the years he'd become closer to my wife, so much so that now one might say he was more Rosemary's friend than mine, but it was he nonethelesshere, in this market glued to that winsome girl listening to the impossible fruit!
So now I knew two things about her: 1) her name was Anja and 2) she was with Henricrazy, ridiculously lucky Henri. He spotted me almost immediately.
"William! Hey, Will! What are you doing here?"
I felt my face grow hot. "Shopping," I said, grabbing a couple of oranges. I smiled at Anja. She flipped her long hair behind her and smiled back. She was wearing red lipstick. I used to ask Rosemary to wear red lipstick, but she said it was too dramatic. She preferred a glossy pink. "Hello," I said to Anja. "You're not actually out in public with this goofy character, are you?" It sounded lame even to me, like something an old uncle would say.
"Do you like pomegranates?" She held hers out to me. I wanted to touch it, but could only manage a nod.
"William's one of my oldest friends," Henri broke in. "We met when we were, whatfive? Six? I actually have a picture of him at my first grade birthday party!" We laughed, a bit too hard I thought. "So, where's your better half? Where's Rosemary?"
I kept my eyes on Anja and jerked my head toward the bulk food. "I think she's over there."
"William? William!" Rosemary's voice sliced the air between us. With great effort I tore my gaze away. "Over here, Ro," I called back. "Come look who I found!"
"Oh! Henri!" Rosemary shoved her cart toward me and wrapped Henri in her bosomy hug. "How are you, honey? And who is this?"
Anja extended a small brown hand. She wore no jewelry. I thought that odd at the time, as I was used to Rosemary's habit of putting a ring on every finger and bangles on both wrists. "Hello. I'm Anja."
"Anja? How do you do. I'm Rosemary, William's wife." She said it like it was a challenge and stepped back to get Anja's reaction.
Rosemary was a little overweight. Now, when I say 'a little overweight' I'm not using that as a clever way of hinting that she's fat. She is really and truly a beautiful, full figured gal. Just looking at her always makes me want to put my head on her chest, breathe in the flowery perfume she wears. Anyway, Rosemary is under the unfortunate impression that all men want to be with women who are thinner than she is. Ha! What women don't know about men!
Anja looked younger, fresher than Rosemary, but with charming gravity she confessed, "Henri says the most wonderful things about you! I'm practically jealous, you know!" And then she gave her a conspiratorial smile; completely ignoring what Rosemary feared was the obvious fact that she had married someone much too good looking for herself.
That was the first time I met Anja. Of course, since she was with Henri, I would have met her sooner or later, but I always think of how she was standing there, listening to a pomegranate and then she treated my wife so kindly. Of course I fell in love with her. She was that kind of girl.
After that we were invited to dine with them at Anja's apartment. She lived in the city, not far from where Henri lived. We'd been to Henri's dozens of times; I wondered why we weren't eating there.
"Welcome! Welcome! Let me have your coats!" Anja greeted us. Rosemary and I could smell the garlic and tomatoes that heralded a pasta dinner and we signaled our approval to each other.
"This is for you." I fumbled with a bottle of wine.
"Oh, thank you!" Anja touched my hand when she took it from me. "You didn't have to do that."
Nor did she. I could have kissed her upturned palm. "Rosemary picked it out," I said, looking away.
Henri burst in from the kitchen. "Hey! You made it! Follow me. As usual, all the action is in the kitchen, know what I mean?" We all laughed. "Will, help me grate the cheese?" We trooped into the little kitchen with its stained linoleum floor, as if many dinners had been cooked and spilled there. The windows were fogged with steam. Beneath the largest window, Anja had crammed a tiny table and two chairs. A lump of Romano stood in the table's center on a sheet of waxed paper. Henri pulled out one of the chairs. "Here you go."
I perched on the edge of my seat and tried not to sweat as I pressed the hard cheese against a thin metal grater. I could feel everyone watching.
"Can I see the rest of your place, Anja?" Rosemary was suddenly curious.
"Sure! Not much to see, I'm afraid, but c'mon." A draft swept through the room as they left.
"So, what do you think?" Henri asked. He was pouring the wine and trying hard not to appear too pleased with himself.
"About what?" I grunted.
"Anja, of course! Isn't she something?"
"Man, I forgot what a chatterbox you are! I'm gonna go find Rosemary."
I nodded again.
"Here." He put a glass of wine at my elbow and left.
I wiped my sleeve across my forehead and took a big gulp before returning to my task.
Anja walked in. "Well, Henri sent me in here to check on you! Actually, I think he was trying to get rid of me. Everything okay?" She smiled at me so sweetly. I've never been moved by anyone but my wife before and I truly did not know what to do, so I kept on grinding that cheese. She moved closer. Her hand touched mine, this time with purpose. "Take it easy. We aren't eating that much spaghetti, Will."
I blushed at the sound of my name on her lips. "Sorry."
"You're very thorough." She laughed at me and suddenly I laughed too. After all, it was just dinner with friends.
"You have a great place," I said with relief.
She shrugged. "It's okay. There's room for a studio and it's close to the water." She took a drink from my wine glass. "That's all I want."
"You have a studio by the water?"
"No!" she laughed. "I mean, I have a studio upstairs and this house is close to the river!" We laughed some more. "You're funny!"
My comical success emboldened me. "So, how long have you been living here? And why haven't I seen you around before?" By which I meant, how did Henri have the incredible luck to meet you first?
"A year and I never saw you before either."
"I guess you'll move in together now."
She frowned. "That's a weird thing to say!"
"The next man I live with will be my husband!" And she smiled again, so I knew she wasn't mad.
God, I thought, that would be one lucky man!
I read at their wedding. Doing a reading is the kind of honor you get when you're someone who isn't important enough for a big job, but still deserves to be recognized. (Actually, Rosemary should have had the honor, but Henri knew she'd never stand up in front of everyone.) It was pure torture, like watching a tidal wave approach with your arms full of hamsters. Fortunately, I hide my feelings well. Anja was radiant and Henri was, well, he was Henri. He swayed a little with excitement, as though drunk with the pure good fortune that was his! Happy Henri!
Rosemary and I danced one slow one, but that was all. She didn't like her dress, her hair. She criticized the food, then jammed three pieces of wedding cake into her purse.
They came to our table to say goodbye. Henri was on fire. I could tell he was insane about Anja, the way he kept repeating himself and smiling till it looked like it hurt. He hugged Rosemary, hugged me. He could afford to be generous. I turned to Anja. Anja. In her face I saw a curious longing. She watched Henri and Rosemary.
I stood and held out my arms. Anja pressed herself into me. I could feel the laciness of her dress, the pearl buttons running from her neck to just below her waist. If I wasn't holding my breath I'm sure I would have fainted from the smell of her perfume.
Then the happy couple left for their honeymoon and I busied myself with my own life so that for a while, it was as though they didn't exist. I loved my wifecomfortable, adoring Rosemary. When I was with her, I never felt the shortcomings my older brothers lorded over me or the disappointment with which my parents treated me. To Rosemary I was smart, worldly wise. Maybe this was the basis of our love and maybe it was flimsy, but it had seen us through seven years by the time my friend Henri married. Not to be outdone, I threw myself into an amorous mood.
Then a postcard arrived from Mexico. Rosemary sat in the living room turning it over in her hands. "Well," she said, "I wonder..."
"Wonder what?" I asked, while the old uneasiness settled around my shoulders.
"Why theyI mean what sheoh, never mind."
"Is it from them?"
"I thought you liked them. Henri."
"I love Henri! You know that. It was nice of them to think of sending us a postcard. She's a very nice girl. Do Henri a world of good." She tried to hand me the postcard but I shook my head so she went into the kitchen and stuck it on the refrigerator with a magnet in the shape of a tiny hot dog.
Like I needed a reminder!
Henri asked me to be their first child's godfather. They didn't ask Rosemary to be godmother, but she didn't take it as an insult. "Henri has a sister who's a practicing Catholic. She should be godmother, not me!"
"We're both practicing Catholics," I said, foolishly stirring the pot. "Why me and not you?"
"Oh, don't take it so seriously," she said. "You don't really have to do anything."
How could she say that? Rosemary and I had no children and here was this absolute siren of a woman asking me to take responsibility for the spiritual life of her first child! What could be more serious? The weight of Anja's trust was almost too much to bear. But I couldn't, I wouldn't explain that to Rosemary.
We saw them regularly, the Salazar'slittle June and Henri and of course, Anja. When I wasn't purposely not staring at her, I was thinking of her. Or purposely not thinking of her. I forced my thoughts back to current events, the book I was reading, work. Carrying my secret love became an act of will. No one would knowcertainly not my wife, definitely not my friend, nor the wife of my friend. I behaved in a carefully detached manner, allowing Rosemary to choose their Christmas gifts, accept or decline invitations and invite them to our house in return.
Only when I was alone, would I indulge in thoughts of Anja. Once driving to the drugstore to buy tampons for Rosemary, I closed my eyes at a red light and imagined kissing her mouth. My heart pounded, the blood rushed to my ears. I nearly fainted. Then the driver of the car behind me laid on his horn. Ha!
Time passed, as it does. The Salazar's had a second child. Anja was thinner; she cut her hair short.
I heard Rosemary one day, on the phone. "Sure, Anja. I'll tell him. No, you know Will! He won't mind a bit." When she hung up she told me to go help them load a truck. The Salazar's' were moving.
This was bad news for me.
I hurried over, throat tightening, palms damp. I worked all day with Henri. He talked and talked about getting out of the city, raising his girls in sunshine and fresh air. "Where are you moving to?" I finally blurted out.
"Orchard Glen! Twenty, fifteen minutes away?" Henri looked up with a sudden grin. "Did you think we were leaving the country or something?" He laughed.
I staggered for a moment, like I'd dropped a weight. I didn't speak again until Anja came out. She handed us glasses of iced tea. Henri took his into the garage.
"So how's it going with two?" I murmured, leaning against the truck, wanting to keep her next to me.
She glanced around. "Two is twice the fun, isn't it?" I fumbled with my glass, nearly dropping it. "Will," she continued, "I want to thank you. You've been a great friend, a real true friend to Henri."
"Oh, well, I don't thinkwe've known each other for a long time. And I never mind helping. You know that." I took a chance. I risked looking into her eyes and in that moment everything went silent and I knew.
Anja blushed and looked down. "Meeting you has been one of the pleasures of knowing him."
She spoke so quietly I thought I might have imagined it. I cleared my throat.
"I have some books I'm not going to take. Would you like to look through them, in case there are some you want? I'd be grateful"
I swallowed. "Rosemary will kill me if I bring home more books."
"Ah, she's not a book person, like us then?" I shook my head. She pulled a small volume from her pocket and handed it to me. It was a copy of The Razor's Edge. "Books and plants are riches to me. I'll always love books and plants!"
The book she'd given me was a dark green cloth cover. I stroked its worn spine. So we had that in common now, a new connection made. "And music," I added. "Don't forget that."
"Oh, yes! And music!" she agreed. She nodded at the book. "You'd probably prefer history or something nautical..."
I touched her shoulder. "Actually, I love Somerset Maugham."
Anja held me with her eyes. "I'm crazy about him."
And then I was sure. She loved Maugham and she loved me. It's strange how this knowledge lifts one's spirits, brings even the most menial task alive.
Now when we saw the Salazar's, I hugged Anja hello. I closed my eyes, inhaled her scent. I noticed the care with which she dressed, the way she served my favorite foods. We never spoke about it, but I knew she knew. It had gone from being my burden to being one we shared. I was sure she dreamed of me as I did her.
For five years we went on happily enough.
Then, sometime in the sixth year, things began to change. For one thing, the children were growing up. No longer babies, they went to school all day. Anja took a job. Henri kept threatening to move the family to another country next, Italy or somewhere, but they remained in their little country house. We didn't worry. We knew he was just talking.
Just when I was relaxing, when my guard was down, Rosemary grew restless. She decided we should buy a house in the country too, only not the same country where the Salazar's lived. In fact, she decided we should move in the opposite direction. And she began talking about renewing our wedding vows.
She was stealing me away and nailing my fate to me. I couldn't explain my reluctance now. I had grown used to keeping things to myself.
Rosemary actually planned the ceremony with Anja. Anja picked the music, Rosemary the flowers. They chose her dress together and the suit I was to wear. It was awful. They even chose the romantic bed and breakfast where we would spend our 'wedding night'.
We had one final supper with the Salazar family. It was spaghetti, just like that first time. I asked for the cheese to grate and Anja shooed the others upstairs to sit by the fire and tell stories while we finished fixing dinner. "Go, go! I'll keep William busy." I thought I saw her wink at Rosemary.
My own eyes gave me away.
"Will?" Anja said, rummaging in the cupboards for the old metal grater. "Are you excited about?"
I laid a hand on her shoulder. "Here," I whispered, "Let me." I reached over her head for the grater and held my breath. This time her perfume penetrated. Anja just stood there, looking up.
"It will be all right, you know."
I nodded. Her voice was placid, her manner so calm! We wouldn't see each other for weeks now, maybe months!
"Just as we willed this to remain silent we can will ourselves to continue with our lives." She glanced toward the stairs that led to the living room and the happy noise we heard coming from our families. "We can do no less for them."
"But how can you justI mean" My voice broke and I had to stop.
Anja walked to the sink, wiped her hands on a dishcloth. "If I hadn't married Henri, I wouldn't have met you." She looked at me, hard. "And you were already married."
I sank onto a kitchen chair. This room was much larger than the first kitchen, less steamy from the heat. I shivered. "I can't imagine never meeting you."
She sat across from me. "Me neither. Remember that first time? In the grocery store?"
"You were listening to a pomegranate!"
"That's right!" She laughed. "Didn't you think I was nuts?"
"Kind of." I laid my hand on hers. "That's when I fell in love with you."
"How long have you been married?"
Ouch. "Six years longer than you."
"Then you know about the desert."
"Everyone is out there, looking for something and it's really the same thing."
"You mean love?"
She nodded. "But we look for it in people; sometimes in pets or in things. And it's really God's love that we seek. All love is His. And all love is the same. So God teaches us this, hones us, by opening a desert before us."
"You mean like the spiritual loneliness that monks and nuns experience?"
"Sure. Everyone experiences it. But the question is: what do you do when you're in the desert?"
"I guess you look for an oasis." I smiled at her hand, still under mine.
She nodded. "And how do you tell the difference between a mirage and an oasis?"
I stiffened. "Are you saying we're just a mirage?"
She shook her head. Very gently, Anja went on, "Everything is a mirage except love, and all love is God. God is the oasis. He gave us these people to love," again she glanced upstairs. "This is what we're supposed to do. We can't let Him down any more than we can let them down." Now she stood. "But your love will always be my best oasis. I'll carry it forever, here." She touched her heart.
I wanted to scream, No! It's not enough! I want you and damn the consequences! Damn them! Damn us! I don't care anymore! But I just sat there and watched her leave to join the others. I don't remember the rest of that dinner. The ecstasy and the annihilation of our candor eclipsed everything else about that night.
Two months later we moved here, to a little town north east of where we were. It doesn't matter where I go, my desert follows me just as my oasis does, tucked away like a childhood dream, to be taken out on Christmas eve, or maybe on my birthday. The desert is quite vast, and my comfort so small. And yet, I ended up here, offering comfort to another if I may.
My bride is sailing down the aisle, light and blissful as a girl. She is a woman loved, a woman sure of the man who waits for her. When she reaches me I lift the veil and kiss her lips. Then Rosemary and I turn and together, we face the priest.