Norah looked over her computer and peeked at Ethan sitting on the couch, his naked feet on the coffee table, his laptop in his lap and that look of intense concentration she was familiar with. He had been working on this project for months. He was close to a solution. Norah could see it in his face, the combination of tension and excitement. She loved to see him like this. She knew that behind the crater-deep lines between his brows, and the stubble-ridden face, he was in heaven. He walked around quiet and oblivious but there was an energy in his eyes. He was almost electric to the touch.
“Pretend I’m dead,” he said to her a couple of months ago. “Because you’re never going to see me.”
It was a threat Norah heard from him often. Ethan lived to work. He had said so when they met, but he was in a doctorate program then so she hadn’t yet been exposed to the intensity of his dedication. As she watched him build his consulting business, she worried that his myopic devotion would be too familiar and heartbreaking to her. That he would disappear and become a different person. But Ethan was different. He was always honest and clear. Norah always knew what to expect and when he said he was going to be somewhere or do something, he kept his word without fail. Every time he claimed she would not see him for months, she found herself sharing lunches in his office or meeting him downtown for late night meals from street vendors. When he stumbled home in the middle of the night, exhausted from hours in the lab, she stirred as he fell into their bed and pulled him to her until they fell asleep in a tumble of legs and arms.
Norah returned to her own work, organizing thousands of photos she took on their last trip. The mountains of Iran were spectacular, but it was difficult to capture their sweeping beauty. Landscape photography bored Norah. It was the details from the crafts at the bizarre that she had been obsessed with. She spent hours there and she couldn’t wait to dig into her best picks. The blue mosaics, the hand painted eggs and wooden boxes with brass details. Norah had gone into a trance when she game upon the market for the first time. She returned often, fighting to keep the scarf on her head and ignoring the quizzical looks of men as she fumbled with her equipment. For hours all she did was pick up her camera, look, search, change the lens, pick up the camera….buying something at each stall to compensate for the time she spent examining their wares.
It would take days to sort them out. Weeks, maybe months to process the photos. There’s definitely a show in this stuff, she said to herself. Maybe even another book.
Reading her mind, Ethan looked up, stretched his arms and asked her, “Hey Peachy, any good photos?”
“Lots,” she said.
He put his computer down on the leather couch, got up and stood behind her. She was still on the mountains.
“Those are nice,” he said.
“Ehhh, these are boring. It was so much more beautiful in person. It’s so hard to capture landscapes well. At least it is for me.”
“What are you talking about? These are beautiful.”
“Look at these,” Norah said as she switched folders. She pulled up some of the details of some brass engravings and mosaic tiles she had taken with her macro lens.
“Oh my Gawd,” he said in his accent. “Those are great.” He put his hands on her shoulders and kissed the top of her head.
“You gonna make some food or what?” he mockingly demanded.
“I was going to make a small salad for myself. I thought you were dead.”
“I thought you were dead,” he repeated in a teasing, two-year old’s voice.
“Actually I was going to make some pasta and a salad. You hungry?”
“I could eat.”
That was code for “I’m starving,” just as “not bad,” was code for “I’m having a good day.”
As she worked in the kitchen, singing to her music, Ethan returned to his world of numbers and equations and problems demanding solutions.
She served their late lunch outside on the patio. It was a beautiful day. The neighbors’ children were playing in the square. Norah watched them play soccer, or futbol, as they said. She called Ethan over and poured a glass of wine. He declined wine, another sign that he would be at work well into the night.
“You going into the office today?” Norah asked.
“Eeehh….I’m not sure,” Ethan said. “I mean, I would like to stay here and work but I’m not sure I can finish what I need to do here. I might need some results that are in the lab.”
As they ate, Ethan also watched the ad hoc game downstairs. “Ha!” he blurted out, “Frankie’s getting good.” Norah looked over to see little Frankie attempt a score between two trash cans. The ball banged into the can and everyone laughed. When the kids heard Ethan’s goofy laugh from upstairs they looked up and waved at him. Ethan waved back as his phone began to ring inside.
Normally he would ignore it. Ethan had always despised the distraction of the modern phone. He hated the assumption of immediacy. But this time he reluctantly got up and went to see who was calling him. Norah heard him speaking Farsi and knew it was his partner. The sound of men shouting in Farsi had become background noise to her. Ethan walked back outside and leaned against the ledge, watching the children play as he spoke in frustration between long pauses.
Norah had learned years ago not to gauge the content of his conversations by the volume and tone of the language. Ethan and his friends often seemed to be yelling angrily at each other when they were simply deciding on what place to eat.
Ethan hung up the phone, stretched his hands out on the stone ledge and hung his head down.
“I have to go to Barcelona.” he said, turning to Norah.
“Day after tomorrow. Carol is booking a flight now. As soon as she can get me there. There’s a problem with one of the models they’re running. If I don’t get it fixed right away, the whole project could blow up.”
He slumped back down in his chair and finished his meal, grumbling and complaining about things she didn’t understand.
Ethan had seemed to her like an old man at 35 when they had met. A decade his senior, she was the one with optimism and hope. He used to ask her daily, “How are you?” And her answer was usually, “peachy.” He began calling her “peach,” in text messages. That was right about the time she fell in love with him. Just before he left to go back to his other life. She thought she would never see him again.
Norah remembered the little package she gave him when they said goodbye. A folded crane made with paper that had a list of her wishes for him printed, like a pattern on it, a St. Christopher medal, a tradition Norah had since she was a teenager, a left over superstition from her Catholic upbringing, and a little book she made with a story she wrote about the two of them.
She had been terrified to give it to him. It was a story that told the whole truth. That she loved him but also knew it was wrong to love him. She wrote about their first kiss in terms so romantic, they would make Nicholas Sparks throw up. But she had nothing to lose. He was leaving. He was unavailable and she wasn’t going to see him again.
It was days before she heard from him. It drove her insane, knowing he had read what she wrote and not hearing anything from him. Finally, a week after she said goodbye, she got an e-mail from him.
“I landed safe. Not much to say now. I’ll be in touch soon.”
That was it. Norah was devastated without any justification. She was trying to let go of him but he was the first thing she thought of every morning and the last, every night.
He hated it, she thought. He thinks I’m a nut job. Oh, well. Just as well.
“Headed to Iran, now.” he wrote a few days later. “I can’t wait to see my nieces and nephews. I haven’t forgotten what I promised.”
I’m not asking him. I won’t ask him, Norah pledged.
“Don’t you want to know what I thought about your story?” he finally asked.
“Of course I do,” she wrote.
“It was exactly what was in my mind. I couldn’t have written anything more true to what I thought.”
Norah read the words again. She didn’t know how to respond. Dammit, she thought. Why couldn’t he have hated it. Fuck! She was doomed.
“That makes me very happy,” she wrote. “I was worried that you wouldn’t like it or understand what I meant.”
“It was perfect.” he wrote.
“The part about our first Bouza night…. I read it over and over again. I didn’t think anyone could write about me like that.”
Norah sat at her computer and started to cry. They were using e-mail like texting. He said he had to go.
She said goodbye. He would write to her soon.
How would she ever get over this one? How would she ever find someone like him again?
“I guess I better pack,” Ethan said.
“You need some help?” Norah asked. “Let me know if you need to wash anything. I have to go down to do some laundry anyway.”
“Thanks. I probably do.”
Norah brought the dishes in, washed them and put them to dry on the small wooden rack. She walked into their bedroom as Ethan sorted through clean and dirty clothes. There was a pile of colorful, patterned boxer-briefs on the floor. Norah always smiled at Ethan’s penchant for expensive, colorful underwear. She started putting them into a basket to take to the laundry room later.
“You don’t have to do that. I can do it. You have things to do.”
“I know I don’t. I want to.” she said.
Ethan walked over to her and grabbed her by the waist. She kissed him and looked into his eyes. He played with the straps of her tank top and bra. They swayed together, pushing their bodies against each other’s.
“I have too much to do,” Ethan whispered in her ear, “I’m not going to have sex with you,” he teased as he kissed her neck and pulled her to their bed.
“Good. I don’t want to have sex with you,” she protested as she began to undress him.
Norah smiled as she pulled his clean, warm underwear out of the dryer, the neighborhood kids running around just outside, yelling as if they were being stabbed violently. She laughed at them as she walked back upstairs with the basket of clean clothes.
She tossed the clean underwear on the bed, calling out to Ethan, “You’re pretty panties are clean now, princess.” She poured another glass of wine and went back to her computer.
Where was I? She pulled up the files she was sorting and continued rating them. Two stars for maybe’s. Three stars for very good. Four stars for definitely. Five stars for miraculous accidents.
I can definitely get a show out of these, she thought. I’ll call the gallery tomorrow.