We won’t be going to the Rosaria IslandsBy Frédéric VITOUX Sofitel Santa Clara Carthagène
Hélène and Robert came down to have dinner in their hotel, seated in the gallery of a former cloister lined with stone arches.
In the center of the cloister, spotlights illuminated what appeared to be a dense tropical forest, resplendent with giant palm trees and the more graceful Manila palms, as well as with hibiscus, frangipani and a variety of other plants that they would have been hard-pressed to name. A giant black woman was lounging opulently in a bed of ferns, naked and holding some fruit. They had no trouble identifying her: She was a Fernando Botero bronze.
The night was punctuated by the sharp two-toned cries of unseen birds.
They soon learned, however, that these were not birds at all, but tiny frogs, only one and a half centimeters long, who buried themselves in the earth during the day and then emerged at night, issuing their loud cries. They were called coquís.
More power to the coquís! The little frogs delighted them, as melodious as the cicadas invisibly lacing hot summer in Provence with their night music.
An American couple sat down at the next table. The woman was fortysomething, with short, auburn hair; the man was a bit older, his hair beginning to gray. Each seemed to be as self-assured as the other.
“Do you remember them?” Hélène whispered.
The Americans had been on their flight from Bogotá that morning, but Hélène and Robert had not noticed them until they were all at
the baggage carousel at the airport in Cartagena.
The passengers were all waiting for their belongings with varying degrees of impatience and apprehension, as if hoping for the jackpot or the miraculous catch of the day. The suitcase that the American grabbed, a red Samonsite, was battered and its zipper was half open. The contents were threatening to spill out. At the sight of the bag, the woman screamed as she were on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the man, on his knees struggling to shove the sweaters and shirts back inside, snapped back with irritated impatience.
What a scene they were making!
Robert and Hélène had smiled. They had decided that the tone of their trip, the first long journey they had taken since retiring, would be comic. It was getting off to a fine start. They left the couple there, doing battle with their damaged suitcase, and headed to their hotel…
But now, the Americans seemed to be in a completely different mood. They were like perfect lovebirds, sipping mojitos as the woman flipped nonchalantly through the menu. The man got up and walked around the table to kiss her, savoring the cocktail’s lime and mint on her lips. The woman laughed gregariously.
What had he whispered in her ear? She threw her head back.
Breasts that had most certainly been visited by plastic surgery bounced under her pale blue blouse.
A bit later, after duck with mango and a perfectly suitable bottle of Argentine Malbec, Robert and Hélène turned their attention to the couple again.
The woman was talking incessantly, in a nasally voice with abrupt, loud inflections, the vocal equivalent of wearing too much makeup. But this was of no consequence. Her husband was clearly thinking about something else. Unlike the coquís, who were croaking away out of sight in the garden, the American could see his wife but he didn’t hear her.
At one point, Robert noticed a spot of grease gleaming above the woman’s lip. It unfortunately skewed the whole picture – the low-cut blouse, auburn hair, hazel eyes enhanced by mascara. It was impossible to take your eyes off the grease spot.
After a while, her partner leaned across the table and, with his napkin, delicately wiped away the spot of grease. The woman, taken aback, was cut short. What had possessed him?
Robert recalled that the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman had told of ceasing to love a woman one day when, during a meal, he had noticed a tiny breadcrumb stuck on her lip, a ridiculous, measly crumb. After that, he had never been able to see anything but that – only the ridiculousness of the crumb – not the face nor the presence of the woman whom only a minute before he had idealized.
Robert had never forgotten that story. Would his American neighbor be able to see beyond the breadcrumb – or the spot of grease, it was the same thing! – above his companion’s lips?
Would they grow old together? Perhaps that’s the secret to couples that last, he thought: overcome the breadcrumb test, or, rather, allow yourself to be moved by the breadcrumb stuck on the lips of the one who shares your life.