Tuesday, April 26, 2011

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: "Her Lover is Quite the Snake!"

Just before one p.m., the driver pulls up in front of the four-star hotel that Jerez insisted on booking for her from Sevilla. The Granada Palace, ocher red and full of exotic tiles, is located, oddly enough, directly off the Camino de Ronda. Had he selected this hotel because of the name?

Two busboys in immaculate blue and gold uniforms are waiting at the sidewalk to carry her one bag. Ronda bows her eyes, her headache a little less severe. Certainly this elaborate reception doesn't have anything to do with me, she decides. It has everything to with Jerez, and the fact he called ahead. Inside, she steps up to the desk and gives her name.

"Oh yes, the Jerez reservation," the man behind the desk says quietly.

"No, señor, actually, it's my reservation," Ronda corrects him in irritation. "Señor Jerez simply put the call in for me. I intend to pay my own bill."

The man in the gray suit glances at her in silence.

"We will take care of everything," he says, handing her the plastic key card. He doesn't smile and neither does she.

Inside her room, she finds two dozen roses waiting: one dozen yellow flowers sits in a thick crystal vase on the bed stand, and a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses is beside the Jacuzzi in the bathroom. On the dresser are a small bottle of perfume and a large bottle of red wine and beside those is an enormous basket filled with fruit and cheese, a tin of cookies, several large bars of chocolate, and a bottle of Tío Pepe.

Ronda sighs, rolls her eyes, and throws her things on the bed. "Doesn't this man know understand the word no?" A small white envelope in the basket contains a card: "At your service, señora. With affection, Enrique."

Grumbling and tearing up the card, Ronda sinks onto the unmade bed and picks up the phone. "If he thinks he can lure me into bed with wine and chocolate, he...might be right," she says, laughing out loud. She shakes her head. "Men."

She dials the first of the three phone numbers Galvarez had given her the night before. "One of these musicians should be able to help you," Galvarez had promised at the end of the show, after all the other guests had left the club. A dark-skinned man with curly sideburns and a narrow earnest face, Galvarez sat on a tall stool in between Ronda and Jerez, sipping a beer.

Crossing his arms over his broad chest, he listened calmly as Jerez explained Ronda's dilemma. First Jerez spoke to Galvarez in English and then, after Galvarez asked him a quick flurry of questions in Spanish, Jerez shrugged and leaned forward and answered his friend at the same speed. Ronda had no idea what either of the men were saying.

The two men fell quiet and then Galvarez rubbed his chin and sipped his sherry and eyed Jerez in a way that made Ronda nervous. Jerez lit a cigarette and offered one to his friend.

"No, no, thank you, I gave it up," Galvarez said. He turned to Ronda. "My dear señora, as I have already told you, Jesús Becerra is...well, let me say it this way, he was, when I knew him, quite the snake."

Galvarez spoke in a deep bellowing English. "I wonder, señora, if you are quite sure you are making the right decision trying to find this rogue or if perhaps you wouldn't be better off taking a plane home and leaving him to his own devices."

Ronda's eyes flew wide open and she blushed. Blood drained from her limbs all at once, and anxiety rushed up to fill her stomach. "I am...Jesús is my...I...I didn't know you knew him so well..." she said weakly, looking up at Jerez, who shrugged. It took her a moment to continue speaking.

"I have to find him," she said, her voice rasp. "I don't know what you know about Jesús, señor Galvarez, or why you refer to him as...as a snake, but you should know sir, Jesús Becerra is a man I love deeply, I have loved him and he has loved me for the last year. We have a wonderful relationship and...and if he's in some sort of trouble or...or if he's hurt or if you know something I should know, well then, certainly please, go ahead and tell me...but...but I just have to find him."

Galvarez shifted on the stool and twisted his lip with his fingers. Then he inhaled slowly. "I didn't mean any disrespect, señora," he said after a moment had passed. "And as I make it a rule not to get involved in matters that have nothing to do with me, well..." He rose abruptly from the stool and disappeared behind the stage and as he did, Ronda turned to Jerez, who merely shrugged and nodded.

"I'm sorry, Ronda, but I know nothing," Jerez said, looking sincere.

Soon Galvarez was back, carrying a small thin book and a pair of bifocals. Slipping on the eyeglasses he began flipping through the yellowed pages of the directory until he reached a heavily marked page. Ripping off a piece of the white paper table cloth covering the tiny bar table, Galvarez scrawled three names and phone numbers in an oversized handwriting, using a thick fountain pen. "Señora, when you call these people, be sure to use my name."

"I will," Ronda replied breathlessly, her head swimming in sangría and the horrible words she had heard from him a few minutes before.

"Thank you. I am more grateful than you know."

Galvarez pushed the piece of paper across the table. "If your guitarist is anywhere in or around Granada, he can't hide from these folks for long," Galvarez said. He rose abruptly again and tipped his head and drained the last of his beer. "As for you, Jerez, please don't be a stranger." And with that, Galvarez was gone.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

CHAPTER TWENTY: "How Can She Be Tempted?"

She tears the crust from a rounded slice of bread, begins nibbling on crumbs. She is having a war with herself, trying to decide whether to continue with the fabrication, or admit the truth.

The sangría is making her head spin. Señor Jerez looks up and smiles for the first time and she gazes back at him, wide-eyed. This man will think I have lost my mind. What kind of a fool goes around making up such a ridiculous story?

"I ...I have been lying to you señor," she whispers suddenly. She sets the bread down on top of the paella and pushes the pan away. Her face is flushed warm, and it must look bright pink. She doesn't care what he thinks. She lifts the sangría to her lips and drains the glass.

The man stops eating, stares at her in confusion.

"Jesús Becerra is my boyfriend, or...he was. He is not my husband."

"I see. But I don't understand, because I didn't know, I mean, as far as I knew he was alive.

He had been living in the United States but I had not heard that he was dead. Or married."

"He's not. Dead. Or at least I hope not. And that's why I'm here. To find him. To find out what happened to him." Ronda sighs and shakes her head. Then she covers her mouth with her locked hands. She is struggling against tears. "He went back to Spain in July to record a CD. And he..."

Ronda bites so fiercely into her lower lip that she tastes blood. Jerez pours her more sangria.

"Gracias." She takes another sip.

"He didn't come back. I don't know what happened to him. I found out a week ago that he was ill, this summer, he had some kind of emergency operation. But he...I'm not sure where he is OK or...whether..." She shrugs, lifts her eyes to his. "I'm very sorry I lied before. I was...it's just I didn't want to...it's because I feel so...so terribly insecure. Jesús and I were, are, very deeply in love. For more than a year now. And then he left and...I'm worried."

She looks up. "I'm sorry..."

"Yes, of course. Please. Say no more." He leans forward, takes her hand and encloses it in his own. "It wasn't polite of me to pry. To ask you so many questions. Forgive me. I have no excuse except to say that you are so lovely, I..." He brings her hand swiftly forward to his lips and kisses it once.

"Please, please don't do this," she says, her voice falling into a whisper again. "I miss Jesús desperately and all I want to do is find him." Tears are swelling in Ronda's eyes now. She is on the verge of breaking down, right in front of a total stranger.

He steadies his gaze on her. "Well, then, I hope you will allow me please to help you. It is possible that I may have contacts in the places where..."

"Oh no, no I couldn't," she says, knowing right away that she could and would.

Señor Jerez leans across the table. "Señora?" He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a starched white handkerchief. She takes the hanky and holds it beneath her nose. It has a fragrance like lemons or some other citrus. And in the corner is a set of scrolled initials, embroidered in red. "As I said, I believe I may be able to help you."

She looks up at him, numb. And immersed in feelings of complete humiliation.

"I don't understand."

"You see, one of my dearest friends, Julio Galvarez, operates a flamenco club here in Sevilla. I am scheduled to see him later this evening, for the show. If you wish, you could go. As my guest. Señor Galvarez is, as you would say in the United States, well connected. It is possible that he may know Becerra's whereabouts. Or at the very least, where to begin to look."

"But I don't think Jesús is anywhere here. Near Sevilla I mean. I believe that he is further south. Near Granada. I was told he went to a tiny village called Lanjarón in..."

"Señora," Jerez says, smiling mysteriously. "Entrust this to a Spaniard. Please. My friend is originally from Granada. And he maintains a small summer home deep in the Alpujarras, near Orgiva, one of the beautiful mountain villages on the southern flank of the Sierras. I assure you that if Jesús is anywhere in the Alpujarras region, my friend will know someone who knows his whereabouts."

Ronda sighs. Her head is swimming. She has trouble believing that she is actually talking to someone who might lead her to Jesús. It's too much to hope for. She reaches into her purse, her eyes clouded by tears. "I have only this," she says, clearing her throat. "It's a phone number that doesn't answer. In Lanjarón. But no address." Jerez puts on eyeglasses and reads the small sheet of paper.

"Who gave you this number?"

"I spoke to a man in Sevilla a week ago, when I called from the States, and he says Jesús gave him the number before he left. A month or more ago."

"I see." He hands her back the slip of paper. "I don't know anything much about Lanjarón.
Except that it is tucked into the Alpujarras. There are such beautiful whitewashed villages there."

"Yes, I am driving that way tomorrow."



Jerez studies her. Glances at his Rolex watch. "I have a driver here. I would be happy to put him and the car at your disposal tomorrow for as long as you..."

"Oh no, no, really. I couldn't possibly. It's far too generous of you señor."

"Señora. Please. You are in no condition to go driving off into the southern mountains alone. I will phone him tonight. That way, he might have the car here for you first thing in the morning." He looks up. "Meanwhile, will you be my guest at the flamenco show tonight?"

Ronda's face is hot. She is not in any condition to go out. And yet, if she does go, she will almost certainly get to meet the man who might know Jesús, and where he is.

"Please señora? You are guaranteed the best seat, as we are guests of my friend."

Ronda sifts her fingertips through her hair. Jerez is eyeing her steadily. "All right," she whispers. "I'll come."

He bows his head once, all the while smiling and maintaining his gaze.
Ronda blushes and looks away. Something about his eyes, something dark and unexpectedly attractive, sets a small shiver going up her back.

She looks away. How could she be tempted now? She has no idea how and she doesn't want to know.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

CHAPTER NINETEEN: "Why Oh Why Did You Lie Ronda?"

He is Enrique Jerez, 60, a major purveyor of olive oil and sherry in Spain, and he is visiting three different factories he owns in Sevilla. He is a silver-haired grandfather, and he is more than happy to show Ronda his small collection of photos.

"Lovely children," she says, after he passes a tiny snapshot across a plate of capers and olives in the center of the table. In the photo, two dark-haired boys sit side by side on a settee, heads touching, their eyes as dark as black coffee. "You must adore them."

"Very much," he says, smiling agreeably. "And I adore my daughter who is their mother." He slips the photos back into a soft leather wallet. "And you, señora, do you have children?"

Ronda smiles. Wipes her lips. "Two boys, both in college."

"You are a young woman to have grown children." He passes one finger across his neatly clipped mustache, then rubs his cigarette into the ashtray. "And may I say, too, that you are a lovely woman."

Ronda blushes, and rushes to lift her glass. She drains it of wine and he pours more. The waiter sets down Ronda's paella, a huge metal pan overflowing with shellfish. "I should have ordered something smaller," she laughs. And to herself, she thinks, how then should I plan my getaway right after dinner?

Señor Jerez is served a plate with thin slices of cured ham and with it, sausages and potatoes.

"What brings you to Sevilla?" he asks.

Ronda chews slowly on a piece of shrimp, trying to decide what to say. Certainly, in this situation, nobody could possibly get hurt if she lies.

"My husband passed away last year," she begins. "He was from Spain, and since he has family near Granada, I decided that it might be nice if I paid them a visit." She smiles politely.

Jerez studies her quietly. "I see," he says finally. "I am so sorry about your husband. Was he ill?"

Ronda looks at her plate. She hates lying. Why did she begin this silly charade?

"Well, we aren't entirely sure. He...he needed emergency surgery for...for a hernia. And then, nobody knows exactly what happened. The fact is there was some infection, and bleeding..."

She shrugs, tries to look suitably upset.

"I see. I'm sorry."

Ronda breaks off a crust of bread. "Yes," she says solemnly, cutting into a second shrimp.

"We were devastated." Suddenly she realizes the irony: that this sad tone of hers isn't a lie.

In truth, she feels as though somebody has died.

"Of course. What a tragedy." He spears a tiny square of ham and a chunk of potato with his fork. "What was your husband's name?"

Her eyes shoot up. She wasn't expecting this question. But she should have.

"Uh...Jesús. My husband's name is ...was Jesús."

"Jesús? No, I mean the family name."

"Oh yes, certainly. Becerra. Jesús Becerra."

Immediately an uncertain look flashes across the man's eyes. Ronda tries to avoid his stare.

She dives into the paella again, but when the fork enters her mouth, she knows she isn't hungry. She also knows that she has said something terribly wrong.

"That is very odd," Señor Jerez says. "So very odd."

Ronda stares into her paella. Why in God's name did I lie? she wonders. She takes such a big gulp of sangria it hurts her throat going down.

"Oh?" she says, so casually she can barely hear herself speak.

"Well, yes, because I know a young guitarist, a very talented man by that very same name.

His music is quite popular in certain quarters here. Near Malaga."

Ronda's hand freezes on the stem of her glass. She contemplates Jerez's squared face, his neatly clipped silver hair. She wants to disappear. She wonders what excuse she can give, how she can politely say she doesn't want any more food, or that she needs to get up, to leave the table for good, right now.

This post appeared first on the Huff Post on March 29, 2011.