The story won first prize in the Balwest Competition in 1993. It was also published in Sirens, a UK anthology in 1994.
I used many personal details for this story to illustrate the pure fiction of Betty, Jean-Michel and Laurie: the balloons, drinking a cup of coffee on the Costa Brava during an October storm, the sugar cube.
Originally it was named The Artist, but Balloons is a better title.
All but one of the houses are shuttered, their owners having deserted their holiday homes on the Costa Brava for their year-round responsibilities in Paris, Madrid, London, wherever.
Scrub pines bend in the same wind that sends waves crashing against the cliff.
Jean-Michel, his yellow slicker protecting him against the sheeting rain, struggles to shut his door on the one house still open. He must lean into the wind to cross the dirt path to the bar/restaurant.
Lightning flashes unnerve him. He had been afraid of it since childhood when he’d huddled in bed with his brother under the eaves of their Paris apartment. They could see the lightning through the skylight while they waited for the hated crash which always followed.
The wind grabs the oak door of the bar/restaurant as he starts to open it and slams it against the wall, chipping some of the stucco. Evan, the only occupant in the large room with most of the tables and chairs stacked against one wall, polishes the bar with a rag and lemon oil. He watched Jean-Michel puddle his way to the bar.
“God! It smells like my mother-in-law’s.” Jean-Michel’s tone makes it no compliment.
“That’s why I do it when no one is around,” Evan says. He pours a demitasse of coffee. Brown foam coats the top. He puts one sugar cube, not two as he does for other clients, and places it in front of Jean-Michel who unwraps the cube.
“Balzac” is written on the paper. Jean-Michel wonders why it’s a French not a Spanish name. He considers anything French superior to Spanish anything. He has the same patriotic and curious thoughts each time he unwraps a sugar cube, which is every afternoon at 2:07. Putting the cube on the spoon, he dips it into his coffee. The liquid turns the sugar brown. Jean-Michel never talks during this ritual, nor would Evan interrupt him.
“How much longer?” Jean-Michel asks after the sugar disintegrates. They’ve talked over afternoon coffee, 6 p.m. drinks and Thursday night couscous from April to October for the past seven years.
“Two weeks, almost done.”
Jean-Michel knows Evan means it’s his wish to leave everything perfect before he returns to Wales for the winter. Without saying more Jean-Michel sips his coffee. From time to time he checks his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. His white mane needs a trim before he leaves for New York.
He thinks of himself as rugged, a new self-image he hasn’t totally grown into. He laughed the first time Laurie, his lover, called him “rugged”. Betty, his wife says he’s “aging”. Forty-two is young to be completely white, he thinks. Even his chest hair, peeking through his shirt, is white.
Pouring more polish on his cloth, Evan attacks the other end of the counter. The two men are quiet for a few minutes. Finally, Evan throws down his cloth, pours himself a coffee and carries it to the customer side of the bar.
Turning their stools, they watch the storm out the window that runs the expanse of the opposite wall. Evan has put long strips of tape on the glass to keep the window from shattering. He’d read that tape adjust pressure in hurricanes, although this storm is not hurricane force.
“You’ll have a devil of time scrubbing ‘em off,” Jean-Michel says.
Evan doesn’t need to answer. Jean-Michel knows he doesn’t care. “Heard from your wife?”
The phone on the far side of the room rings. It’s a buzz sounding more like someone giving a raspberry. As Evan picks it up he hears a crackle.
“We were just talking about you, Betty.” Wrapping the cord around his hand and playing it out until he reaches Jean-Michel, he gives his buddy the receiver.
Although Jean-Michel would have preferred to avoid the call, Evan has made it impossible. “Hi Sweetheart. How’s the New York weather?”
“Why the hell aren’t you here?” Betty never makes small talk. “You’re scheduled for a major interview Tuesday with Artists Today.”
Betty is more than Jean-Michel’s wife. She is his manager and manages him in every sense of the word. Her maintenance of his career and home down to the smallest detail allows him the rigidities he loves.
Strangely those rigidities disappear when he stands before a canvas. His eyes see the world in an array of color and style that flows through his hand and onto his canvas without any of the limits he imposes on himself in his daily life. Her protection gives him the safety to run free without danger like a wild animal on a preserve.
If their marriage wasn’t heaven-made, it wasn’t hell-made either. Thus Evan had been amazed when Laurie moved in shortly after Betty had left for her native New York to set up her husband’s exhibition. In a way Jean-Michel was even more amazed than Evan. His orderly life had no place for love affairs.
He’d met Laurie when she’d been looking at a yellow and blue ceramic vase in a village shop window. Jean-Michel had been on his way to buy bread, something Betty usually did. He’d been discontent interrupting his work for something as mundane as bread buying, but he also knew when he microwaved the meal his wife had labeled October 5 dinner, he would want bread with it. The colors of the vase had caught his eyes, also.
“Pretty isn’t it?” Laurie had asked in one of the worst Spanish accents he’d ever heard. They’d starting chatting first in Spanish, then in French and finally in English. Instead of buying bread, he bought her dinner. By the end of the evening they weren’t drunk, just a little buzzed. Neither remembers who suggested going to bed. Maybe it was an assumption more than a decision.
Resting her head on one elbow and looking down at him afterward, she’d told him how she was on sabbatical from Boston University. She didn’t tell him she was also recovering from her divorce. She did tell him that for one year she was letting her mood of the moment rule all her actions.
Laurie was the first women he’d slept with since his wedding. Passion was for canvases not sex. Laurie brought out a new passion: he found himself wanting more than still more.
What he doesn’t know is how Laurie feels about him. If he’d ask, she would have told him: sometimes she likes him, maybe even loves him a little. Mostly she’s amused at his insistence that everything be just so.
They’d had one fight. He’d demanded that she turn the fork prongs down when she’d placed them up in setting the table. Only when she said she should leave did he stop picking at her to do things exactly as Betty did. Her presence in bed was more important than fork prongs, although he flipped his fork over when she wasn’t looking.
As Jean-Michel talks with his wife, Laurie, her sensuousness and fork prongs are banished from his mind. Betty’s anger unsettles him worse than the storm. “Now, Sweetheart, have I ever missed an important show?”
He whines. She orders. That's the communication style they have woven into their marriage.
“Yes." The words crackle through the line. “Get your ass over here. It’s been two years since you’ve marketed yourself in New York.”
“I feel like a can of peas.” For a moment he wonders why he married such a hard-driving American business woman as he pictures himself in quantity on a grocery self. His miniature clones all dab away at canvases with tiny, tiny brushes.
Without Betty, he would be hawking his work near Sacre Coeur instead of living in financial security. He doesn’t know his worth, nor care, but it is part of his freedom within his chosen cage.
The door flies open as Laurie blows in: her hair is slicked to her head and her cheeks are flushed from a long walk.
When they’d made love earlier, she’d told him how storms and high tides produce primordial waves in her. She went for the walk to communicate with the weather and the sea.
Evan puts his finger against his lips before she can speak. She absorbs the situation as water runs off her slicker.
Jean-Michel nods his head as he listens to his wife. He rolls his eyes.
Evan pats him on the back then pours Laurie a coffee which she carries to the window to watch the storm and sits down next to her. Both of their backs are to Jean-Michel who has turned to face the bar.
Occasionally Jean-Michel interrupts his wife. “But” is the only word he can say before Betty renews her rampage.
“Let me speak,” he finally barks. His tone works. Betty is silent. “I’ll catch the damned flight Monday. From Barcelona. I’ll be there for the fucking interview.”
“Me too,” he says to his wife’s parting, “I love you.” He is positive Laurie is trying not to listen but is anyway.
“Me too,” he says to his wife’s parting, “I love you.” He is positive Laurie is trying not to listen but is anyway.
Years of bartending have taught Evan when to be invisible. He disappears into the backroom.
After Jean-Michel hangs up he watches Laurie watching the storm. He makes himself another cup of coffee and quickly drops a sugar cube into it. After walking across the room, he places his cup next to hers. The table is almost covered by three cups and their saucers.
“Look at the storm,” she says.
Ignoring her words, he turns her head toward him. He’s not sure if her face is wet from the rain or from crying. He wants to think she cares enough to cry a little but not too much. “Laurie?”
“We knew it was temporary. Even if you were free, I doubt if I could stand you long term, unless we spent the whole time in bed.
Monday, they ride to Barcelona. He offers the use of the car. “Just leave it by the end of the month.”
Thanks, but I’m suppose to walk.” She’s taking the pilgrim trail to St. James Compostello.”
“You’re riding now.”
“Maybe they won’t give me my shell.” She refers to the pilgrim’s symbol. “But how will they know for sure if I’d ridden. I can’t imagine a monk checking my bum for upholstery traces.”
He’s never quite sure when she’s joking. Betty never jokes.
They drive the Autoroute, stopping for tolls and saying little. Last night they’d spent almost the entire night making love. Jean-Michel was amazed at his stamina. Maybe he is rugged more than old.
“Will I ever see you again?” he asks. Part of him wants to keep her as a spare in case something happens to Betty. He doesn’t tell Laurie this. Her temper flashes faster than his wife’s.
“I doubt I’ll be back. You’ll never travel to Boston.”
“Will you give me your address?”
She points. “There’s the Barcelona exit.”
He brakes in time and maneuvers the car through the toll booth. The national road runs through fields once filled with sun flowers. An army of stalks remain standing at attention, their seeds harvested for oil.
The country road turns to a city of yellow and white stucco buildings highlighted by black iron railings. When a rainbow of colors catches his eye, he slams on the brakes and jumps out. Horns beep as he runs between cars.
He buys a bunch of helium-filled balloons. Getting them into the car takes dexterity because they want to fly out the door and window. They fill the back seat and bounce into the front. Laurie keeps pushing them back so Jean-Michel can see to drive.
“The airport is the other way,” she says.
“I’ll still make my plane.” He finds the dirt road he noticed twenty minutes before. Several horses stop grazing to watch the car pull to their fence.
“Get out,” he tells her.
She does as he struggles to free the balloons from the car. He kisses her nose and lets the red balloon go. “I wish you happiness.” He hands her a blue balloon.
She understands and frees it to fly. “And I wish for yours.”
Soon the sky is filled with the colors of their wishes.
He looks at her watch. “We’re almost late.”
They race to the airport. At a red light, Laurie opens door. “I hate long goodbyes.” She grabs her backpack and blows him a kiss before disappearing.
He wants to watch her, but the light changes. Instead he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He feels old, not rugged.