Darn that Rachmaninov. Especially on Thursdays

Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounters”, directed by David Lean.

How a brief encounter can change a life, especially if it’s Thursday and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto # 2 is playing on the soundtrack. It’s in a train station where Alec and Laura meet. She has something in her eye and he gets it out. Of course that is what a doctor would do, and since he is a doctor, he does just that. He is a general practitioner come to Milford for a day of work at the hospital and she is a housewife come to town for some shopping and a movie. It is a Thursday and she’s happily married until he tells her, “You can never be dull.”

For several Thursdays they meet in passing. Then suddenly one Thursday the doctor and the housewife, happily married, are having way too much fun as they set off for the movies. On the way back to the train station, he slips his hand around her arm. Then it is tea as they wait for their respective trains. He talks about his desire to make the world a better place. Then there’s that damned Rachmaninov and you know there’s unhappiness in store for her. And possibly him.

“May I see you again? Next Thursday?” he pleads. She resists, then relents. She watches his train leave, realizing how dangerous things may be getting as she speaks his name to herself. “Alec.”

Laura, it would have to be a Laura, takes her train home and her boy has had an accident. She feels guilty. But the accident is not serious. She confesses to her husband that she met a strange man and offers to invite him to dinner to show her husband it was harmless. Her husband seems not to care, saying that it would be an inconvenience. Why don’t she invite him to lunch?

Alec doesn’t show the next Thursday afternoon as she waits for him, half-hoping that he will not show. She goes off to the movies, then it’s back to the train station and tea. She leaves the station to catch her train. As she takes one last look around her, she sees the good doctor running toward her. “I’m so sorry,” he says. Of course, he is. They always are in these kinds of movies. He explains why he is late and she is relieved. Now her walls drop like the walls of Jericho.

The next Thursday they are at the movies and then a lake. They take a boat and are on the water. And there’s Rachmaninov. And they are having a bloody good time.

Tea again in a boat house and they are quiet. Then he says the words. You know, the words that always doom happily marrieds to a life of unhappiness. “I’ve fallen in love with you,” Alec the doctor says to Laura the housewife, and now they are desperately doomed people. You know it, and they know it. And the fun they’ve had is over.  Just misery and betrayal.

Why must these kinds of movies be so sad, so tragic? Why couldn’t it be two unmarried, readily available people, falling desperately in love, who have the encounter that becomes a lifetime of happiness? Oh, we’ve seen that movie before too and it is “Love Story”. The woman dies at the end, and it too is sad.

That they are unmarried and happily in love doing all the things that happily-in-love people do, that is what Laura dreams about as she catches her train for home. But the reality is that now her life is a lie. And it is a Thursday lie, this lie she tells her husband. She calls a friend to cover for her. “And I’ll do it for you,” she promises at the end of the telephone conversation.

Another Thursday and the two lovers are together again, having dinner in a hotel dining room. No sex as far as we know, but they might as well have had sex for all the guilt she is feeling. The two go off into the country for a drive. He talks of his love for her and they are on a bridge. This kind of thing always seems to happen on bridges, and a bridge in the country on a lovely afternoon is the best place for it to happen. The next thing you know it is night and they are saying their good nights, longingly. It is such a desperate kind of good night.

There’s that Rachmaninov and it is hard to resist Rachmaninov. Especially if it’s night and it is raining and you are in need of refuge from a marriage that has become, of all things, boring. She misses her train and follows him back to a nearby flat where he is staying with a friend. She runs up the stairs and knocks on his door. He opens the door and invites her in.

She is about to fall into Alec’s arms when suddenly his friend returns and comes in the back way. She leaves without being seen. But the doctor’s friend picks up her coat and hands it to Alec and says, “You have hidden depths.” He says other things, showing his disapproval. Alec follows Laura, leaving his friend’s disappointment behind him.

The next scene we see is Laura running down the street. It is night and there’s Rachmaninov. She’s missed her train and telephones her husband to tell him she will be late getting home. She lies. She is with a librarian friend whose mother is ill, She hangs up and wanders the streets for three hours and then she is back at the train station. The doctor shows up and they argue.

“Could you really say goodbye? I love you, Laura, and I shall love you to the end of my life. This is the beginning of the end of it all.” It is a desperate speech. He tells her that he will be leaving England and soon unless she tells him to do otherwise. She doesn’t. They both know that it is the only way out. But let’s have another Thursday. She takes the train home, and again there is Rachmaninov playing that damned Concerto # 2.

The following Thursday there is again a drive in the country and more Rachmaninov. Then they are having tea in the train station, struggling to get up the courage to say goodbye. And having tea, there is all this sadness filling the movie. You just know that this can’t end well. You’ve seen enough of these movies and they never end well. “I do love you with all my heart and soul,” Alec says to Laura one last time. “I want to die,” Laura says to her doctor.

A woman acquaintance of Laura’s intrudes and forces herself on them. She joins them for tea, interrupting their sadness with her talk. She can’t seem to stop talking. Alec gets up to catch his train. As he leaves, he squeezes Laura’s shoulder for one last goodbye. Then he walks out of the station. It’s over, but how can it be over? Laura’s heart is dying, and when the woman goes to the counter to retrieve her tea, Laura leaves the station. She starts to jump under a train, possibly his train, that is passing but she doesn’t. She returns to the station and almost faints.

Then she is in the living room of her home with her husband and Rachmaninov is playing and her husband comes over to her in her chair where she has been dreaming. He says, “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.” He doesn’t say, “Back to us.” He says “Back to me.”

David Lean’s first movie that he directed totally alone is over. It is the beginning of David Lean’s ascendancy and Noel Coward’s decline. Already we see the potential of what is to come.

How I Really Met Your Mother

Jack scoped out The Dancing Leprechaun with his usual scan, checking out the terrain. He wasn’t looking to make a connection of the female kind. If he ran into an attractive someone, he would introduce himself, then make a go for a weekend date. Wednesday nights were for a bull session with three former college buddies.

You could tell the Dancing Leprechaun was an Irish pub by the decor on the walls. Posters and paintings and photographs of great Irish folk the likes of Yeats, Lady Gregory, Joyce, and the Big Fellow, Michael Collins. In the middle of the floor stood a statue of the Irish Hercules, Cú Chulainn, brandishing his broad sword.

Jack was the last to arrive at their regular booth. After four hi-yas, they started talking NFL draft and Stanley Cup. In no time, Jack finished off a burger and was ready for a second Guinness. Looking for a waitress, he turned around from his seat in the booth. Across the room, he spied a brunette in a yellow dress as she and three of her friends entered the pub. It was like a bomb detonated inside him.

He had to meet this woman. While some other guy might have hesitated, Jack didn’t. And he wasn’t about to wait till the weekend. He had to get to know this woman immediately. He got up from his seat and told his buddies he was calling it a night.

George looked over at the woman’s group and grinned. “Hmmmm. You may be messing where you shouldn’t be messing. It looks like they’re both with somebody.”

“That never has stopped Casanova before,” Dan commented.

Horst said. “You remember what happened the last time.”

Jack laughed. “That was then; this is now.”

Jack walked over to her group and introduced himself to the brunette and her friends, looking directly into her eyes and smiling. “Can I buy you a beer? I mean the four of you.”

“Don’t see why not,” the brunette said. “My name is Ashley.” She reached over and shook his hand. She wasn’t what you would call the kind of beauty you would see on television and in the movies. She had other qualities which gave her face a glow, but it was her beautiful brown eyes and the spirit behind them that reached deep inside Jack, a spirit that had known great pain, a spirit that could love deeply. “This is Helen.” She pointed to the other woman. The curly guy was Doug, the blond Thomas.

“Five beers please,” Jack called out to the waitress. Then he motioned to a table. “How about there?”

“Sure,” Helen winked, then pushed blonde hair strands out of her eyes. “Anything for free beer.”

Jack eased into the chair between Ashley and Helen. “What brings a party like you guys to a place like this?”

Ashley laughed. “Doug here wants to marry me. I’m trying to decide. What do you think?”

“If you have to ask a stranger, I’d say you shouldn’t.” He lifted the icy Guinness bottle and drank from it.

“But I’m rich.” Doug gave Jack a smile that didn’t feel like a smile. “And I love her. That should count for something.”

“Then I guess that settles it,” Jack said. “Right, Ashley?”

Ashley smiled and said, “I haven’t said yes yet.”

“You will,” Doug said to her, anger in his eyes.

Helen changed the subject. “What about you? What do you do?”

“I’m single. I write poetry, and I teach high school English,” Jack said.

“Poetry?” Thomas asked. “Write us a poem right now.”

“Oh, it’s not that easy,” Ashley said. “I’ve tried.”

“Let me see,” Jack said, looking at Ashley. “Tell me a favorite thing of yours.”

“She has this pillow she really loves,” Helen said. “We used to be roommates, so I know all her secrets. In case you wanted to know some.” Jack could tell that Helen didn’t like Doug or Thomas and she was going out of her way to flirt with him. If he had been after her, it would have been easy.

“Don’t,” Ashley said to Helen.

“Aw, c’mon,” Doug said. “You never told me about your favorite pillow.”

“And I don’t intend to,” Ashley said. “Now.”

“In that case, I won’t ask,” Jack said. “Maybe I can write a poem for you some other time.”

“No,” Thomas said, downing the last of his beer. “I think you should do it now.” Then he called for another round of beer. “This time I’m buying, okay. The poem will be your way of paying for our company. Right, Dougie?”

“I don’t really care for your company,” Jack said softly. “It’s the company of the women I want.”

The waitress sat the five beers down on the table.

“Helen said, “Calm down, tigers.”

The waitress left.

“So you’re a poet?” Doug asked.

“That’s me,” Jack said, then drank from his bottle.

Doug went for a put-down. “Must not be many bucks in that line of work.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised how well we poets do.”

Thomas snorted and spilled some beer on Helen. “Thomas, you shit,” she said and jumped up. “I’ll be back in a moment, darling,” she said to Jack.

“Bitch,” Thomas said, watching her stalk away to the bathroom. “Dougie, why don’t we get out of here?”

“What and miss Mr. Poet’s rendition of the poem he’s about to do for Ashley’s pillow.”

“Doug,” Ashley snapped. “What’s got into you?”

Doug leaned forward toward Jack and glared. “Oh, I’ve just become a poetry freak.”

Jack smiled and looked at her and took a sip of his beer, then said to Doug, “You wouldn’t know a sestina from a sonnet if you saw one.”

“Guys,” Helen said, sitting back down at the table. “Let’s be civilized.”

“If we were civilized,” Jack said, “we probably wouldn’t be here, snarling at each other.” Everybody laughed.

Doug smirked. “Shouldn’t of let you get under my collar.”

Ashley breathed a sigh of relief, then leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips. He kissed her back hard, showing the rest that she was his woman. But Jack noticed her body wasn’t into the kiss.

“It’s okay, man,” Jack said. “Seems to happen all the time to us poets. Guess it doesn’t take much to bring out the Neanderthal in us guys.”

“That’s my last name,” Thomas laughed. “Neanderthal.”

“You can say that again,” Helen said, rubbing Jack’s left foot with her foot under the table. But Ashley was the one he wanted.

“Neanderthal,” Thomas repeated himself. “Sorry, guys. I got to go to the little boy’s room.” He slid out of his chair and headed to the men’s room.

“I got to go pee too,” Doug said and stood up. “Now y’all behave yourself, you and Helen.” Then he was gone.

Helen moved herself closer to Jack and pushed her hand between his legs. Then she said, “Damn, I gotta go pee too.” She got up and rushed off.

Ashley smiled at Jack. “Well,” she said.

“Well,” Jack said.

She took his hand and ran her fingers across his palm.

“I’m going to have to get home soon,” she said.

“Too bad,” Jack said. “I was just getting to enjoy your company.”

“Yeah,” she said, “Doug’s going to drop me off at the Everglades Apartments. I am in Apartment 6B. That’s where I have my pillow. You should see it sometime. It was my Granny’s.” Then she took back her hand as Helen returned and sat down next to Jack.

“I’m afraid I have to go,” Jack said.

“No,” Helen said. Then pouting, “Don’t go.”

“Have to,” Jack said. “Got a class to teach tomorrow. Those kids wear a guy out if he doesn’t get his sleep.”

“I bet,” Doug said as he and Thomas sat down.

“It was good to meet you guys. I haven’t had this much fun since…I don’t know when. And congratulations, Doug. Maybe you can invite me to the wedding. Here’s my card.” He handed Ashley the card.

“Sure thing, poet,” Doug said. “Maybe you’ll read the poem at our reception.”

Jack walked back to his apartment four blocks away, then drove over to the Everglades. As he pulled into the parking lot, Ashley walked up the stairs to her second floor apartment. Her lithe body had the grace and athleticism of a Jordan Baker from  The Great Gatsby.

He parked in an empty space at the end of the building. Then he saw Doug start his Lamborghini and take off, speeding out of the parking lot. Wonder where he’s going so fast? Maybe to Helen’s. Wouldn’t that be something?

Jack gave Ashley five minutes to settle in, then got out of his car and hurried up the stairs. He rang the doorbell.

From inside, Jack heard her call, “Doug, it’s late.”

“It’s not Doug.”

She opened the door. A white robe covered her slender body. “Well,” she said, smiling.

“I’m here to look at that pillow.” A boyish grin filled his face.

“Come in then.”

He followed her into the apartment.

“It’s in here.” She led him into her bedroom. He followed her.

“This is it,” she said, taking a hand-knitted pillow off the bed. It was white with blue unicorns dancing on it. She handed it over to him, as she looked into his eyes and he looked into hers. They kissed, the pillow between them. It was like the first kiss he had ever had. Suddenly he was happy. They sat down on the side of the bed and kissed some more.

“That’s some pillow,” he said.

“I thought you would like it.”

Afterwards, they lay side by side, both of them smiling.

“That was wonderful,” she said.

“That was what I was thinking. But what about Doug?”

“Doug? I’ve forgotten him already.”

“He’s not going to give you up that easily.”

“I’m not his possession, you know.”

“Oh, he thinks you are.”

“Well, he’s got another think coming.” She kissed him again.

The next morning her smart phone woke them at seven.

“Yes,” Ashley said, answering it. “No, I won’t be in to work today. I think I’ve got a bit of the bug.” Then she hung up and said to Jack, “That was my office. I work as a paralegal. One of my co-workers called to ask if she could get a ride.”

“I thought you were a student at the college.”

“I work three days a week and take a class on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“I’d better call in too.” Jack called work and told them they needed a substitute for his classes. Then he hung up and they made love again.

Later, she turned to him and said, “You want breakfast? I am a great breakfast maker.”

He kissed her and she crawled out of bed and took a shower, then headed for the kitchen as he showered. If the rest of his life was this good, then he was going to be a very happy man.

Across from a breakfast of eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and orange juice, she reached over and took his hand and said hesitantly, “I have something to tell you.

Oops, he thought. Here it comes. Oh, well. Things were good while they lasted.

She gulped, then let it out, “I only have three years to live.”

That hurt. That hurt bad. He gulped.

She went on to explain, “Don’t worry. I’m not contagious. Something inside me is all messed up.” Jack wanted to ask for more details. The tone of her voice told him she was in no mood to give him more.

He leaned over toward this woman he loved and kissed her, softly, gently, then said, “We’ll just have to make the best of those three years, won’t we?”

Not For Him

A boy, just about nineteen, t-shirt and jeans and sneakers, looks through the window of a diner. Sees the girl for him. She’s a waitress ’bout six foot tall. And blonde. Then again her hair’s not blonde but white. As white as a white washed fence. She looks up from the order she’s taking and sees him gazing at her. He turns away from the window. She is not for him. Just not for him. They never are. The girls, that is. So he returns to his walking the late night streets of the city. Under a bridge and down an alleyway he walks, thinking of nothing in particular. The girl in the restaurant comes to mind. But she’s not for him. What would she see in him? After all, he’s got a broken nose and freckles sprinkled all over his face and his red hair. Every one saying he’s an ugly he beats to a pulp. They’re not saying it anymore. But he knows he is what they would be saying if they were not afraid. The night keeps his face out of the light. So she’s not for him. And he’s walking down the Not-for-him Street. “He’s nothing but trouble,” his dad has been saying for years and years. His mom not saying it, but she’s thinking he is. He is hiding out in the nighttime streets of the city where anyone can hide from his fears and his loneliness. So what if she’s not for him. How’s he ever going to know if he don’t turn around and go. Back to the diner and the girl with white hair he saw in the light through the window. So he sheds himself and heads on back to the maybe-it’s-possible in a diner off the main street of the city. On he walks, walking off the tough, shedding his fear, ready to give loneliness the old t.k.o. He trudges on but maybe she’s really not for him. How’s he ever gonna know if he don’t go ask. His dirty sneakers and blue jeans and t-shirt find their way back at the diner just as the night turns off and it’s just about daybreak. She’s getting off her shift and she’s just leaving the diner when he rounds the corner and she’s sees him coming to her. But he’ll pass her by. One thing for sure. He’s not for her. He’s not for her.

Good Enough

“It’s never good enough,” Harry said.

“I love you,” Therese said, “and I want you to do well. That’s why I tell you these things.”

“I love you too, but it never seems good enough.”

For three hours, Harry and Therese had been at each other, yelling, screaming, slamming doors. They were in their mid-forties, married for five years.

“I’m getting the hell outta here,” he said.

“Fine. Just go,” the dark-haired woman yelled and went into their bedroom and threw her body onto the bed and cried.

“I will,” he called to her. Then he stalked out the front door, pushing the door behind him closed. He was surprised to hear it slam.

“Shit.”

He kicked the tires of her Ford and said shit again. He moved on to his blue ’57 Chevy pickup, got into its cab, and backed out of the driveway.

Ten minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of the Alley-Oops Tavern. There was a sign above the building of a giant cave man, his right hand holding a mug of beer topped off by suds. His left was wrapped around his girlfriend Oola’s waist. Five o’clock and only two cars were in the parking lot. None of the regulars had showed up yet.

The owner Jewel with her gray “Lucille Ball” poodle cut stood behind the mahogany bar. The Drifters crooned from the jukebox. Behind the bar and above the liquor bottles was a large mural of Ted Williams at bat. It was one of several baseball oils distributed along the walls of the small pub, all done by her thirty-five year old boyfriend, Marty.

Marty was at his usual spot at the end of the bar, nursing a bottle of Schlitz and puffing on a Marlborough. He wasn’t wearing a tie. Harry had never seen him without one.

Jewel came over and reached up to Harry and gave him a big hug.

“How’s my favorite brother-in-law?” the fifty-five-year old woman asked. “Hmm, let’s see. Not good.” She released him and escorted him to one of the stools. Behind the bar again, she pulled out a bottle of Hamm’s, popped the cap open and sat it down before him.

He took a swig from the beer.

“He’s a big deal now,” Jewel motioned toward Marty. “Got a promotion.”

“Great,” Harry said, lifting his beer toward the other man. “Congrats.” He took a drink of the beer, then sat it back on the counter.

“Yep. I’m a big deal now.” Marty said.

“I knew he had it in him,” she said, smiling at Marty.

She walked over to him, patted him on the cheek, kissed him light on the mouth. At the end of the kiss, Marty took her hand into his and massaged it for just a moment. Then he released her hand. He took a last drag on his cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray. He lifted the beer that made Milwaukee famous to his lips and finished it off. “You want me to get you some supper?” he asked Jewel.

“Burger and fries sounds fine.” The bar didn’t serve food, only snacks.

“Okee doke. See ya, Harry.” Marty’s six-foot-three frame stood up, reached over and kissed her, and sauntered out of the bar.

Jewel walked back over to Harry. “I’d be proud of him no matter what.” She studied his face briefly. “Want to tell Jewel your troubles?” she asked. “You do have troubles, don’t you? You know I can tell from those sad, puppy-dog eyes of yours.”

“How have you and Marty been able to keep it together for fifteen years?”

“”Tain’t easy,” she said as she wiped the last of several mugs dry and sat it in its place below the counter. “We both keep our mouths shut and wait for things to pass. It took me two divorces to learn that.”

She opened the refrigerator and took out a glass of ice tea. Placing it on a coaster on the counter, she sat down across from him. Her sky blue eyes searched his brown ones as she sipped the tea. She had given up alcohol after her second marriage. That had been the one that had convinced her that she was an alcoholic.

Another swig from the Hamm’s for Harry. Elvis sang in the background.

“You know,” he said, “I don’t even remem…oh, yeah. It was over that piece of shit she calls a car. I knew it was a lemon when she bought it and I told her so. But she don’t listen. Then she says she shouldn’t have listened to me. Like I wanted her to buy it.”

Jewel took another sip of her tea.

“Damn, I hate Edsels,” he said and drank the last of the beer. “It wasn’t even that good a Ford new. And she got it used. And red too. Damn piece of shit, that’s what it is.”

Jewel handed him another Hamm’s. He started laughing. She looked at him with a what on her face.

“I was just thinking,” he said, “how much I love my ’57 red. Man, that’s a man’s ride.”

Harry looked at his watch. 6:00. He took one last swig of the beer. “And how much I love my sister-in-law.” He gave Jewel a kiss on the cheek, then made toward the door. He stopped.

“Jewel, why don’t you and Marty come over Sunday? You know, we’ll put on some steaks. Therese makes the best homemade ice cream.”

“We’ll be there,” Jewel said. “Sundays a good day for homemade ice cream.” She closed Alley-Oops on Sundays, the day she referred to as “the Lord’s Day.”

Harry walked out into the early evening daylight and over to his truck. Marty was leaning against the Chevy bed. Tears were in his eyes.

Before he could ask, Marty blurted out, “Jewel has cancer.”

“What?”

“The doctor gives her six months. Maybe,” Marty choked out. “Don’t tell her I told you.” A long pause, then, “And for God’s sake, don’t tell Therese.”

For the next five minutes or so, the two friends stood quiet and tried to think of something to say. But nothing came.

Finally Marty said, “Well, I got to go get some burgers.”

“Yeah, man.” Harry watched as Marty walked away. He pulled himself into the truck and took his time putting the key into the ignition. He started the engine and turned on the radio.

“Here’s a new one,” the d. j. announced. “It’s Patsy Cline singing ‘I Fall to Pieces’.” Harry pulled out of his parking spot and headed onto the street. The song seemed to assuage some of his grief as the voice, words and music perfectly mirrored his sorrow.

On the drive home, the people in his life passed through his imagination person by person. His buddy Frank, dead at Normandy. His mother Mavis in the small cemetery by the country church just outside of town. His no good son-of-a-bitch brother Tom, serving a life sentence for murder. His kid Jimmy, hadn’t seen him in twenty-three years. All these passed through his mind as he kept driving. And Jewel. Man, he was going to miss her. She had more spunk in her than most women half her age.

Sitting at a stop light, he remembered the first time he saw Therese. When they met, she was still on her first marriage and he was finishing off his second. She was a waitress in a small diner where he ate breakfast as he started his delivery route each weekday morning. Sitting on one of the stools and nursing his cup of coffee, he watched her body move around behind that counter and he knew he was in love.

“You doing anything after work?” he asked.

“I’m married. See,” she said, showing him her ring.

“Your husband won’t treat you as good as I will.”

“How do you know?”

“I know these things,” Harry said.

Two years later they were married, and they’d fought once or twice a week since. Disagreements, they called them. But, after five years, they were fights, and both of them knew they were fights.

Crossing the intersection, his muscles ached from the loneliness he’d feel if he gave up on his marriage. And soon he’d be sixty, seventy, and his life would be all gone. He’d return to the dirt in the ground just like his old man, all alone.

He swiped the tears from his eyes. He heard Ray Charles come onto the AM station with “I can’t stop loving you.” He listened. The words in the song cut him to the quick. He pulled the Chevy up behind Therese’s Edsel and braked and stopped. Getting out of the truck, it hit him.

His life was more than good enough. It was damn good! And he was not about to miss out on showing his appreciation for that.

The Hills Still Like White Elephants

The American stepped off the train and into the warm Spanish afternoon sun. One of the Guardia Civilia stood at attention beside the door of the station. The policeman eyed each of the passengers, measuring them for trouble. The American had other business on his mind than any trouble he might make for Franco and his Fascists.

The station looked run down, paint peeling off its walls. Walking into the bar, he ordered Anis del Toro. When it came, he threw back his head and downed the liqueur with one try. The cold, licorice taste went down fast and filled him with a momentary contentment. It was time to get on with what he had come to do, he reminded himself.

Grabbing a taxi nearby, he asked the driver to take him to the inn where he had booked lodging. Once settled in and after a good meal, he walked back to the station, and then on into the arid landscape behind the building.

The afternoon was now evening and shadows were everywhere, then it was night. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and prodded the hills in the distance, hills that did indeed appear to be elephants. It was too late to know if they were white or some other color. He dropped his knapsack and sat down on a large boulder.

The hills drew his eyes toward them. He found himself peering further and further into the past. It had been one long stretch of time, thirty years of it since the girl. It had been thirty years since the girl spent that afternoon with him in the train station. Thirty years since she had said those hills in the distance reminded her of white elephants. Thirty years since he had convinced her to have an abortion and she died of an infection from the abortion, her head on his lap in a compartment on a train to Paris. It had been thirty years of regret. Each day since, he had relived every moment of that afternoon, detail by detail, one moment after another whittling away at any kind of life he had tried to live.

They met in the Prado. She was a nineteen-year-old English student, sketching Velázquez’s painting, “Las Meninas”, and he, a twenty-five-year-old architect from Chicago, come to Spain to study the architecture. The previous six weeks he studied and sketched the Alhambra, the heart and soul of Moorish Spain. On his way back to Paris, he stopped in Madrid for a few days to get to know that part of Spain better.

While strolling through the galleries, he came up behind her, her long black hair falling from her beret to her waist. She was deep in her work with pencil and sketchbook. He sat down on a wooden bench, unable to take his eyes off that girl. Hours must have passed, but they seemed like only minutes. He took out his own sketchbook and drew the lines of her image, though he knew that there was no way he could put what he felt onto paper.

The girl stood up, straightened her skirt, then turned toward the American. Her smile filled an open face.

“You like Velazquez’?” she asked from across the room.

He walked over to her. “I do. Very much.”

Her eyes looked back at the painting. “How can anyone deny that is perfection? Every artist before and since should bow in his presence.”

“Even Rembrandt?”

“Even Rembrandt,” she said.

He suffered a momentary loss for words. Then she put out her hand. “My name is Lina. I come from Bristol.”

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” He had never believed in it until that afternoon.

“Well, yes. And no,” she answered.

He got up his courage and asked, “Would you like to get a drink?”

“I am thirsty. And hungry too.”

“Good,” he said. “I found a place around the corner that serves a good paella.”

For the next six weeks, they began each day and ended each night together. The days she spent in the Prado, sketching the paintings she loved so much, losing herself in the paintings before her.

Some days he wandered the city, taking in the sights and the sounds. Others he strolled through the halls and sketched the contours of the museum. Mostly he sat and watched the girl, never tiring of this girl he had fallen in love with.

Then one night over drinks and cocido madrileño, she said, “I’m pregnant.” They were hesitant words, and they were words that dropped like a bomb into his lap.

He choked down his food, then drank some water.

“I haven’t had my period.” she said nervously, afraid of his next words.

“It’s okay. I love you, and no matter what, we’ll work this thing out.”

Later he suggested an abortion. It came with the moment of doubt that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a father, that doubt he later regretted. But it seemed the only way to get back to the way it had been those first days in Madrid.

Before they left Madrid, they decided to stop at a little town in the Valley of the Ebro. She wanted to see the hills and the dry valley, measure its colors and its light with her eyes. It was summer and she was working on a painting. “It has good light,” she said of the valley.

A friend told him of the fishing there and the catfish and the wild carp. While she was painting, it would give him some time to be alone so that he could figure things out. There was no better way to be alone than going fishing.

On the train to the valley, they did not talk. In the valley, they talked and their talk was filled with dread. Back on the train, they did not talk again. They knew what they had to do. In Barcelona, they found an abortionist.

In the room, not the cleanest of rooms, he almost backed out of what was about to occur. But he didn’t. As she lay helpless on the bed, he held her hand. He poured all the love he could summon into that small hand of hers. After thirty years, he still felt the grip of her strong fingers grasping his hand. He still heard the screams as the abortionist pulled the baby out of her. When it was done, she looked up at him. Her face was radiant, her eyes shining her love on him.

He knew he had made a mistake. He should have insisted that she have the baby. On the train to Paris, her head became hot. She trembled from the chills running through her small body. Then she was dead, her spirit lifted out of that fragile body he loved so much.

He came back to the present and turned his eyes from the hills. He reached into the knapsack he had with him and pulled out a revolver. Sitting on the rock, he thought about what he had to do. It was the only way for him to find any peace. It would be such a relief.

He reached into the knapsack again and pulled out a box of shells. He took out six and popped one into each of the chambers on the cylinder. Then he tested the gun, aiming and firing one shot at the hills. He placed the warm muzzle against his head, then he stuck it into his mouth. Yes, that was the right way to do this. He pulled the hammer back, cocked the gun and waited. What he was waiting for, he was not sure. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour, and still he waited.

From the hills in the distance he heard a “Don’t”.

“Why not?” he said to the hills.

“Please don’t, Matthew,” the hills said.

He thought about the words for several minutes, mulling them over in his mind. He pulled the barrel out of his mouth. “I can’t go on like this,” he said to the hills.

“But you have to. You just have to.”

“Oh, my God.” He slid off the rock and onto the dirt. He cried for a good long time. He took the gun once again and pushed the barrel into his mouth, then cocked it.

Another “Please” came from the hills,. Then they went silent.

It was the final plea that did it. He dropped the revolver in the dirt, then dejectedly headed back to the town.

The next afternoon he caught the train to Madrid. From his compartment, he watched the hills like white elephants recede into the distance. It was on to the Prado and “Las Meninas”. After that, he didn’t know. He just didn’t know.