Loose stones exploded like flak on the underside of Pete’s van.
His wife stirred from a half-doze. “Why are we driving down a dirt road?” she muttered.
“I want to get some berries.”
“They sell berries right next to the highway. Why do we have to go down a dirt road?”
Good question, Pete thought to himself. Why am I going a mile out of my way? Because of her. Nadja. The new woman at work. A chance to know more about her.
“Testa dura,” Gina mumbled as she went back to sleep. Hard head. His wife still called him names in Italian even after twenty-five years.
Nadja didn’t have any names for him. He wondered if she even knew his name. Nadja – a cocklebur name snagged on the edge of his imagination. Nadja with the Mid-Eastern, natural-mascara eyes that never looked directly at him. Mediterranean eyes – or maybe Indian – that looked askance, cutting glances. Is it flirting, he wondered, or just the way of women in that part of the world? The way his wife had looked at him, when he had first met her in Naples, at the tail end of his European trip, his ‘Roots’ trip.
Gina’s eyes were dark. As black as the dress she wore in mourning for her recently deceased father. Pete found himself waiting for her to look up, waiting to meet her gaze only to have her look down, away, anywhere but at him. She had him playing eye-tag across the frigid, marble-floored sala. The only game they could play in a room full of wizened relatives perched in high back chairs like hawks in leafless trees scanning for high-speed romance. Her older brother glared like a shopkeeper guarding his wares. Her mother stared at cupped hands, a poker player waiting for someone to call, her retirement plans at stake. Still Gina flashed glances. Pete smiled at everyone, nodded, ate constantly to be polite and tried not to be obvious about his interest.
Then he married her. Swept her away to a better life. Professor Higgins took unfinished, seventeen, unspoiled Gina – his shy-smiling Mona Lisa – home. To his home, where he could explore the treasures promised under her plain black clothes. Where she could unfurl the tight-wound bun at the nape of her neck, to let it fall and flow where it would. The way Nadja had teased her hair with splayed fingers, then let it fall back and settle naturally in place that time he had looked over her shoulder to proof the newsletter. Was she flirting, preening?
Wouldn’t it be nice, though, Pete mused, if she and I had to stay after work to finish a project? Maybe I could solve a problem with her page-layout program. Or better yet, we would have to work at a major deadline and I could whip out a couple pages of copy in no time, and she would be impressed. And we would eat a take-out dinner and get into that ‘two-of-us-in-this-together’ feeling. And she would tell me about herself, and when she got to some sad part, I could hold her and float my fingers through the waves in her hair.
A car approached dragging a contrail of dust. Pete closed the windows. His wife stirred yawned, pushing her palms against the dashboard. “These berries better be really good, for all this trouble.”
“Well, it’s not just berries. It’s a kind of general store I heard about. They have like a bakery and in one part they have antiques and crafts.” …like Nadja’s scarves.
His wife. His Gina. Two grown children later, she’s a different person. Her hair is teased full – a mane surrounding her tawny, handsome face. Her off-white blazer and black silk blouse set off her permanent olive tan. Black is still her color. She’s sharp, he had to admit. A natural at sales, right down to the patter made all the more fetching by her lingering accent. It bothered Pete, from time to time, that she made more money than he; that she was better at what she did; had more snap, ambition, people savvy, than he could ever learn. So, what am I trying to do here? Nothing. Nothing yet. Really. I’m just driving down a dusty gravel road taking hits in my fuselage so I can see some weaving. Nadja’s scarves and weaving. On consignment at a blueberry stand. Uh-huh.
Pete pulled into the parking lot. “Do you have money?”
Gina reached toward the back seat for her purse. Her blouse pulled aside to reveal a safety pin on her bra. His Gina. He reached over, stroked the hollow at the base of her neck with his thumb. Her questioning glance was immediately followed by her haunting smile and echoes of marble floors in Neapolitan parlors.
“Get five pounds. We could always freeze them. And if the pies look good, pick one up.”
Pete gazed fondly at his wife as he took the money.