Friday, June 8, 2007

Still life and strawberries

James squinted in the glare of the setting sun, visually scanning the piazza for Victoria. He spotted her in the distance, the gold hoop earrings he had bought her from a street merchant hung from her earlobes, casting a glow on her face. She haggled with a squat white-haired gelato vendor for "just an extra little bit" of the limone. Eventually, he topped up her cone, having given in to her batting eyelashes and flirtatious per favores.

James headed over to where Victoria was, eying a disheveled-looking flower girl on his way. He made a quick stop, signaling to the young girl that he wanted just one rose. Distracted by Victoria's innocent laugh as she stood by the gelato stand and watched the pigeons squabble over discarded crumbs, James hastily took the plastic-wrapped rose, exchanging it for a couple of euros.

As he approached Victoria, her eyes lit up. He handed her the rose and she took it excitedly, wrapping her arms around his neck, her ice cream cone firmly in hand. Drip...drip...drip... The ice cream was melting, creating a small puddle of yellow and pink on the brick floor just behind James.

"That's soooo sweet!" a hoarse-voiced Victoria exclaimed, before flinging the rose into her oversized handbag.

"Vic you know you shouldn't be having any ice-cream," James said but Victoria just laughed it off.

"I know you like my voice all sexy like this..." she playfully remarked, glancing away to find out which pigeon had claimed the final crumb.

James had met Victoria at a gallery opening for his photographs two weeks before. He had been described by the NY Times art editor as having "revived the still life movement". Bored and already on his third drink, James had left his fiancée with the formalities of explaining the influences behind his work to admirers for a refill when he stopped dead in his tracks. A tall brunette with hair which hung all the way down to the small of her bare back stood at the bar, flirting with the bartender who was obviously in raptures over everything that escaped her seductive lips. Her laugh was husky, and she spoke with a slight accent that he couldn't place. James set his empty glass down on the far side of the bar before making his way up to her, and unwittingly reviving his own still life.

Her black slinky dress skimmed the floor, hinting at the flawlessness that hid underneath it. James glanced back to where his fiancée stood with an older woman, deep in discussion on the similarities between the works of Kandinsky and Picasso. He brought his attention back to the stunning woman before him, who had by now noticed his less than obvious looks at her.

"Hello, I'm Victoria," she said, her voice still gravelly, giving him a light peck on the cheek, "you must be James Felding, there was a picture of you on my invitation!" She quickly fished the invitation out of her miniscule purse and waved it at him, "See?" she said with a smile so infectious that James found himself feeling elated by her effervescence. "Oh, I'm sorry," she began, having noticed that he hadn't said a word yet, "I didn't mean to be so forward but I absolutely have to have the strawberries and thought you might be more inclined to give me a discount if you knew me! So, I'm Victoria."

James cleared his throat, leaving his trance-like state of wondering whether she was real or merely a whiskey-induced apparition.

James mustered up the composure to finally speak to her, "Hello Victoria," he said, "I'm James; it's lovely to meet you." Her smile widened and she kissed him on the cheek again, lingering a little longer this time.

Victoria was talking about one of his favorite photographs, a jovial bowl of fresh strawberries that he had picked up from the farmer's market on a cold and wet Sunday morning, in hopes of surprising his fiancée with fresh strawberries atop her breakfast pancakes. As he had sat in his car, drenched from head to toe, he couldn't help but become immediately taken by the beauty of the unassuming scarlet fruits which sat against the background of the cheap green plastic netted box. He had stretched his arm to the back seat of his car, rummaging for a camera to snap a few shots of the strawberries. All he could find was an old disposable Kodak, thankfully one with a flash, with a couple of pictures left on it. He couldn't remember what else was on it, or even whose it was, but he had no choice. He couldn't let this moment slip. He looked through the viewfinder, and snapped.


Having rolled the little gear until it could move no more, James readjusted the camera, flipping it round for a portrait shot and took his second and last picture.


A few minutes passed before James realized he had been sitting in the car for nearly half an hour, contemplating what would become part of their breakfast later. He put the car in gear and sped back home, occasionally glancing at the strawberries that sat patiently beside him.

As he chatted with Victoria, James didn't mention his fiancée. Not a particularly calculating move on his part; the topic simply didn't come up.

They discussed furniture arranging, pie making and flight patterns of seagulls—anything but the mundane. In that moment, James couldn't imagine Victoria in a conversation with anyone about the weather.

Victoria was significantly younger than he was, and made him feel younger. He hadn't looked for his fiancée at all that night since his encounter with Victoria, which had now changed its venue—they were on the terrace, where the chill in the air ensured no one would venture out there.

Another uncalculated move—simply one in a series of uncalculated but convenient moves that evening.

Hours passed, and unbeknownst to both James and Victoria, everyone inside had left, save his fiancée and fiscal-minded agent, who stood discussing the possibility of another showing in October. Victoria, noticing his distraction, questioned him lightly, "Looking for someone?" This was his chance to come clean, be honest, no longer able to chalk it up to happenstance. But before he could utter a word, she quickly interjected with "Oh, and I forgot to ask you, how do you feel about sandcastles?" She had changed the subject, uninterested in the answer. James let her be, as he delved into a childhood anecdote of a destroyed sandcastle on the beaches of Brighton.

Midway through his story, his fiancée had come out to the terrace in search of him. "Almost done?" she asked. She seemed impatient to leave.

"Do you mind going ahead without me while Victoria and I finish up the paperwork on a sale? She's taking the strawberries," James said in a composed tone.

Victoria had walked off to the edge of the terrace, smoking a cigarette and counting the stars.

His future wife smiled faintly, "Congrats babe! Are you sure you don't mind that I don’t wait for you? I’m absolutely knackered."

James nodded. He gave her a quick peck on the lips before adding, "Let me know when you're home safe." Before he and Victoria had shared anything more than anecdotes and cigarettes, the guilt was already creeping up on him.

But with his fiancée gone, James felt lighter. He crept up to Victoria, gesturing for a smoke. She lit a cigarette and placed it gingerly between his parted lips. He inhaled. So did she. Silently, they exhaled at the same time. James threw the cigarette to the floor, stubbing it out with his shoe; Victoria did the same. Mutely, he leaned in towards her, and intoxicated by her scent; fell into a deep kiss with her. She kissed him back. The moment was surreal; they were alone but out in the open, fueled with the rush of getting caught.

As he pulled away from her, James could see her smile widening. Casually, she picked up her purse, pulled out her invitation and using her eyeliner, scribbled her number on the back. "I was serious about those strawberries," she said. Her eyes were sparkling; he could still taste her on his lips. "So you’d better call me," she added teasingly. And just like that, she walked out of the gallery, leaving James staring up at the fateful basket of strawberries.

It was two weeks later. James had been seeing Victoria at every moment he could since their meeting at the gallery. What his fiancée perceived as a new project in still life, was actually a personal project in crawling out of his still life. She thought he was away on business. His strawberries hung in Victoria's bedroom.

Victoria's gelato was almost completely devoured. Her hair kept falling in her face; she used her free hand to whip it away. She teased James with the last bite, before placing what was left of the cone in her mouth, savoring it all till the very last bite. She smiled at the old man who had sold it to her, mouthing "Grazia" at him as they walked past.

The sun had almost set on an almost-perfect day. As they walked through the bustling streets of early-evening Rome in search of somewhere to have dinner, the plastic wrapped rose peeking out of Victoria's bag caught James' eye. He lifted it out to smell it. It was then that he noticed the rose was artificial. It made him uncomfortable, he felt deceived.

They found a secluded trattoria and sat down. Strangely, James' appetite had escaped him while Victoria, having just finished her raspberry and lemon gelato, was already ready for more. Excitedly, she scanned the menu, studying every choice to determine what would be the best decision, and eventually settled on a pizza topped with "local ingredients". James, on the other hand, couldn't make a choice.

As he listened to her talk, wondering the origin of the non-local ingredients on the menu, James became slightly annoyed. Victoria's voice seemed unusually loud, and her conversation immature. His appetite had disappeared completely. The big hoop earrings that hung from her earlobes had lost their charm and now just seemed gaudy.

James had trouble breathing. He excused himself from the table, mumbling that he needed to use the bathroom. Unworried and unperturbed, Victoria signaled to the sommelier for a bottle of rosé.

As James walked out of the restaurant, he took one last look at Victoria’s long chestnut hair resting comfortably on her back, and walked out of her life for good.

It was time to return to his still life.