Few dishes are more satisfying than a humble bowl of noodle soup. Since I’m a vegetarian and chicken noodle is off the menu, my go-to noodle delight is a mushroom broth, or perhaps a tamari and vegetable-stock broth with ginger, and hot sauce or wasabi to garnish it. For noodles, I prefer ramen (I discard the flavor packs that come with ramen and make my own broth) or the wonderfully toothsome, plump udon.
34. Let’s Stay Together
Ellen tried to concentrate on the second draft of her journal article about Johann Becher’s 1667 book, Physica Subterranea, in which he laid the groundwork for phlogiston theory. Becher, she wrote, was as much alchemist as scientist, and believed that if only he had access to the right materials, he could make himself invisible…
It was no use. Now that final exams and grading were over, she had more leisure to ponder the events of the past three months, and she felt fearful and restless in the knowledge that the man who had raped Tina was still unidentified. The Belles were no longer meeting, though she and Emily had lunched at Sarafina’s to celebrate the breakthrough with Angus. Emily confided that her newest project was convincing Angus to adopt a plant-based diet. This, she readily admitted, was a tall order. She had broken the news that his calf’s foot jelly made her feel nauseous, but he was unmoved, threatening her with haggis dinners and no spankings, unless she finished every last, gelatinous bite.
Giving up on Becher and phlogiston for the moment, Ellen pulled out her phone and re-examined the email address of the explicit picture she’d received from the rapist. The police could probably trace it, but Tina wouldn’t allow her to hand it over, if it meant reporting the rape. Sighing, she called Amber’s number.
“Hi honey. I wondered if you’d like to pop over for dinner tonight. I’m in the mood for some udon with wasabi and mushrooms.” Amber chuckled at the mention of udon noodles, puzzling Ellen. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. Sorry I can’t make it, Mom. A bunch of us are going to see Gaby Golden in the hospital this evening.” Amber related how she had received Gaby’s call two days before, and driven out to Fort Washington in the middle of the night. “She was in a really bad way, but she’s on the mend now.” Given the circumstances, Ellen suspected there was more to the story than Amber was telling her, but she didn’t want to pry.
“Gaby’s lucky to have a friend like you. Give her my best wishes. How’s Joan?”
“She’s great. She and Tommy Walczak have paired off and —you’ll never believe this— they attend mass together on Saturday nights. They’re arguing over whether to break the news to Gaby that they lighted candles for her to the Virgin of Czestochowa. If she knew, she would not be pleased!”
“All right. Let me know when you’re free and I’ll have the udon waiting. Love you.” Ellen hung up, and smiled at the thought of Gaby’s likely indignation upon learning that she was the object of prayers to the Virgin Mary. Hector was devoted to the Virgin too, the one in Cuba. What did they call her? Suddenly she remembered: The Virgin of Cobre! Cobre… Hector’s middle name was Ignacio, and his first two initials were H. I. There was no doubt: firstname.lastname@example.org had to be Hector’s address. She reached for her phone again.
The reaction to Ellen’s news was varied. Kim didn’t seem completely convinced, though she agreed that it raised serious concerns about Hector. Val hailed the news as definitive evidence that Gerry the Drummer was innocent of any possible wrongdoing. Tina had mixed feelings. She was glad to have the mystery resolved, but she couldn’t decide whether to confront Hector over it. “I still want to know why he did it,” she kept saying. “I’ll talk to you later, Ellen. I’ve got to call Charlie.”
Emily’s reaction was closest to Ellen’s. “Eeew. I can’t believe I slept with him! I guess you were right about the sexting, Ellen,” she added. “I never thought one of our guys would do something like that. We all trusted him.”
Since Amber couldn’t make it that evening, Ellen invited Hugh over for dinner. She wanted to tell him the news in person.
“I’ve got some business to take care of tonight,” he said, “but I hope you’ll give me another chance. I’ve been dreaming of your coconut shrimp ever since Tina’s party.”
They’d set a date later the same week, and now that Hugh was about to arrive, Ellen felt surprisingly nervous. Would he like the way she looked? She wasn’t wearing a garter belt and stockings, or even anything vintage. It was late May now, and the summer heat called for lighter clothing, so she’d chosen a favorite cotton dress in madras plaid. It wasn’t particularly sexy, but sexy wasn’t Ellen’s style. At least it skimmed her curves and fell above the knee; Hugh would like that. She looked into the mirror, debating whether to change, and finally settled for opening an extra button at the neckline. What about music? Should she play his kind, or hers? After dithering for fifteen minutes, she decided on a mix of mellow R&B featuring Al Green. The doorbell rang, and as her heart began to thud, she forced herself to take a deep breath.
Hugh had changed his look too. He wore a lightweight gabardine suit in a mossy shade, with a cream-colored shirt, and carried a battered old leather satchel. Instead of his usual fedora, he had a straw trilby with a grosgrain ribbon around the crown. “Hello doll,” he said, and extended a little bouquet of pink gerbera daisies that he’d been hiding behind his back. In that moment, she fell for him all over again.
“Thanks,” she said, accepting the flowers. “I like your hat.” A silence fell as they gazed at each other. He was stunningly attractive to Ellen now. And unattached. And here to see her. She realized she was grinning like a fool.
Hugh’s ghostly smile put in an appearance. “May I come in?” he asked politely.
“Of course!” she said quickly, stepping back and turning away to cover her embarrassment. “I’ll just find a vase for these.” She scurried down the hallway, hearing the door shut behind her. Why am I so jumpy? Deep breaths, Bartlett. You need a drink.
“I’m going to have a martini,” she told him as he rounded the corner to the kitchen. “I bought some rye. Would you like your usual?”
“Sure, sounds great.” He sat on a barstool and watched her make the drinks. She poured her martini, plopped in an olive, and added a couple of ice cubes to a lowball glass. “I hope you like this,” she said, opening the bottle of Knob Creek small batch she’d bought for him. “I found it at a place on Chestnut Street.”
Hugh raised an eyebrow as she handed him the glass. “I’m flattered, Ellen. You don’t have to spend that much on me. I’m fine with Jim Beam.” He touched his glass to hers, then took a sip of the amber liquid and closed his eyes. “Delicious.”
“It’s worth it just to see that look on your face,” she said, feeling more relaxed after downing a second generous sip of the martini. “How are you doing with the smoking? Still on the wagon?” It occurred to her that not only must Hugh be suffering from nicotine withdrawal, he’d also lost the ability to get out of awkward situations by going for a smoke.
“Not smoking… makes me ravenous,” he answered, his eyes on hers. “Did I mention that you smell great?”
“You mean the food,” she said, gesturing to the pan of pineapple fried rice, from which she’d just removed the cover.
He helped her carry the coconut shrimp, fried rice and avocado-orange salad to the table, and began to systematically dispose of each dish.
“What’s your latest project?” she asked.
“I’ve got a contract to illustrate a book called Elizabeth and Her German Garden.”
“That’s a favorite of mine!” cried Ellen. It was the witty memoir of an Englishwoman who married a German Count in the final years of the nineteenth century, and struggled to grow an English-style garden in the less-than-forgiving climate of her new home. “Her garden gives her such joy, even in the winter.”
“Yes. I’m collecting reference photos from the web, and I’d like to visit some gardens in our area to see the plants. She speaks of lilacs, and bird-cherries.”
“Lilacs! I miss my garden flowers,” said Ellen, admiring the pink gerbera daisies that Hugh had brought. She noticed that his plate was almost empty, and served him the last of the coconut shrimp. Ellen hadn’t cooked for a man in quite a while, especially such a large man. Derek had never found her food appetizing. She began to worry that Hugh would be left still hungry at the end of the meal.
“I have some coconut chai ice cream,” she offered. “From Little Baby’s.”
“You read my mind,” he said, “but go easy. I’ve been gaining weight ever since I quit the smokes. I’ve already had to hit the gym.” Declining a cup of coffee, he bussed the table while she dished up the desserts, and they carried their bowls out to the living room. Instead of taking an armchair, as she expected, Hugh sat with her on the couch, but he seemed relaxed, leaning back against the cushions and stretching his legs.
“I’ve got some news,” she said, and told him about Hector’s email address. To her surprise, Hugh nodded. “Heard it a couple of days ago from Charlie.” He gave her one of his grim smiles. “He said he’d suspected me, but was glad to learn otherwise.”
“Oh. I should have told you sooner. I wanted to do it in person.”
“I know.” He finished the last bite of his ice cream. “You did well, Ellen, solving the puzzle like that. I just wish Tina would agree to go to the police.” His eyes sought hers. “How do you feel? Now that you know?”
Ellen stood up. She went to the fishtank and stared in, envying the angelfish their drifting, oblivious calm. They never became anxious, except when they were hungry. “The truth? I’ve been shaken by it. When I think about the fact that I slept with him, I feel shamed, and sick to my stomach. I saw his car at work yesterday, when I went in to pick up some books from my office. It scared me.”
Hugh got up too, and stood close behind her. “You did nothing wrong. Let me tell you something, Ellen. Nobody’s going to hurt you, not as long as I’m around.”
On her stereo, a Marvin Gaye song was ending. As Hugh wrapped his arms around her, Al Green began to sing one of her favorites, “Let’s Stay Together.”
I… I’m so in love with you,
Whatever you want to do is all right with me.
‘Cause you… make me feel so brand new,
And I… want to spend my life with you.
Ellen turned to face Hugh. “Dance with me?”
He chuckled. “All right. I can manage this one.” They stood together, rocking slowly back and forth. Hugh kissed her hair, and she turned up her face to press her lips to his. As the kiss deepened, he slid a large hand from her shoulder, down to her waist, and then to her lower back, clasping her close. The hardness of him caused a familiar thrill to course through her body.
“I know you’re not crazy about the P-word.”
She laughed a little self-consciously. “Yes, that’s true. Why?”
“How do you feel about the L-word?”
Her heart leapt. She looked up into his eyes. “It’s been on my mind. Every day. It happened so quickly, but I know what I feel.”
“So do I. Ellen, I loved you almost as soon as I saw you. I didn’t realize it until the night Val cut herself and you came to the hospital with me. I wanted to kiss you in the waiting room, and then take you back to my place and unbutton that see-through shirt you were wearing.”
“I wanted that too, but then you went out for a smoke, and—” Hugh kissed her again, interrupting the thought and leaving her breathless.
He lifted his head. “You have a beautiful garden, doll. Are you going to invite me in?”
She smiled. “Of course. What would you like to do once you’re there?”
“I’ve been thinking about that for the last two days. I brought some supplies to have on hand, just in case you’re in the mood.” He gestured to his briefcase, which was sitting on the floor by the sofa.
“Supplies? Tell me more.”
“I have a palette of Mehron colors, for painting on skin. I’d like to take off your dress, and whatever you have beneath,” he said, pausing for a moment to contemplate this fascinating prospect. “Mmmm. Then I’ll get warm water, and dip my sable brushes in it, and paint a few of Elizabeth’s flowers on your body.”
Ellen was enchanted. “That sounds like it might take some time.”
“Yes,” said Hugh. She could tell that he was picturing in his mind’s eye exactly where each bloom ought to be applied. “Are you ticklish?”
“Only a little. I think I can hold still.” Her body was already reacting to the thought of Hugh touching her with the sable brushes. Her nipples began to tighten.
“If you get too twitchy, I’ll take some time out and move to the south end of the garden. Instead of a brush, I’ll draw patterns with my tongue. Until you’re more relaxed.”
“Ooooh,” she breathed. “You have a standing invitation.”
“How very appropriate,” said Hugh, pressing her to him again.
“And then?” she asked.
“I think I recall an exceptionally large tub in your bathroom. A jacuzzi tub. My paints are water-soluble, of course.”
“I remember your Playboy cartoon. With the artist painting a necktie onto a naked woman.”
“That’s for next time. If you find this evening pleasurable enough to repeat.”
He picked up the briefcase. Ellen took his hand, and led him into the bedroom.
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Elizabeth and her German Garden is a classic fictionalized memoir by Elizabeth von Arnim, published in 1898. She was an Australian garden-loving girl who married a Prussian count. Elizabeth is a bit of a protofeminist, declaring “I believe all needlework and dressmaking is of the devil, designed to keep women from study.” She refers to her husband as “The Man of Wrath” and her wry portrait of his complacent masculinity makes me glad I was not born in the nineteenth century.