Tuesday 10 May 2022

A Thing of Beauty - Short Story/Fiction/Satire by Salvatore Difalco




We had agreed to meet at the Courvoisier, an airy café near my flat that I knew well and enjoyed, with its hammered tin ceiling, plush gilt chairs and marble-topped tables. As it was a mild spring afternoon, I decided to sit outside at one of the weathered wooden bistro tables, where I could smoke without being persecuted. The coffee there was excellent and the wine list impressive. The silver-haired and dandily dressed man appeared a few minutes after me, though he wasn’t late. Indeed, dying for a drink, I had arrived unfashionably early. And I had already guzzled a glass of woody Chardonnay that had given me a mild case of heartburn.

          The man stood silently by my table for an interminable length of time—perhaps waiting for orders or directions, which were not forthcoming—before he finally sat down across from me, slapping a pair of yellow kid leather gloves on the table. The intricacies of his lace collar and cuffs, pearl buttons and gold chains, topped by his arrogant gaze and aggressive moustache, immediately put me off. But then he spoke.

          “My dear,” he said, “whatever happened to your eye? Did someone sock you?”

          Ugh. I had been wearing a monocle that irritated the skin around my left and weaker eye, which remained raw and red, but I thought it useless to explain this to him.

          “You are smoking?” he said.

          “These are European,” I said for some reason, as if this detail validated the vile habit. “Hence the strange fragrance.”

          “You said nothing about smoking in your personality profile.”

          “I thought it unimportant.” If a man couldn’t handle my smoking habit, it’s not as if I would ever promise to smoke less or quit altogether, no matter who he was or my feelings for him. We’d both be forced to move on. But men are fickle creatures and sometimes in their carnal pursuits they will claim they can handle it, and sometimes they will even claim it turns them on.

          “And is that tartan clan related?” he asked, in reference to my red plaid dress.

          “Clan related? I thought it was a nice little outfit to wear on a first date.”

          “If I may make one observation.” He paused. “You have bony knees.”

          “You don’t like bony knees?”

          The man smiled. “I didn’t say that.”

          “By the way, my name is Silvia.”

          “And I’m, er, Endymion.”

          “Okay,” I said.

          I paused a spell before speaking again. The dating site required clients to maintain anonymity until their first dates. Perhaps this added unnecessary mystery to the proceedings, but also served to deter potential stalkers and the hiring of hackers and private investigators to nose around—more commonplace than one would think. People are creepy these days. But in all honesty, I had never met anyone named Endymion; and if you asked me, it sort of sounded like an antique woman’s name. Not that it matters these days. But I had to figure that when Endymion was born six or so decades ago, society tolerated less ambiguity than it does today.

          “I know,” he said, “it’s an odd name. When I was a child, the other children called me Eddie, but I hated that. Eddie. Only idiots are called Eddie.”

          “Is it a family name?”

          “No, I was named after the handsome youth, Endymion, of Greek mythology, who slept a lot. Selena, goddess of the moon, had a thing for him. She would visit him while he slept in a cave. It’s said she bore him fifty daughters.”

          “So are you looking for your Selena?”

          “My dear Silvia, I already have two full grown daughters, Iris and Matilda, and they have proven ample haha.”

          I smiled and crushed my cigarette in the tin ashtray. Tempted to immediately light another, I thought I’d wait a few minutes so I wouldn’t come across as completely vice-ridden or debauched.

          Endymion leaned forward. “Silvia,” he said. “Did you know that in Roman mythology Silvia was the goddess of the forest and Rea Silvia was the mother of Romulus and Remus?”

          “I may have heard that before, yes. But I was named after my great aunt Silvia, who died of diphtheria during one of the wars.”

          “Do you have children?”

          “Not that I know of,” I said with a straight face.

          Endymion stared at me seriously for a moment before erupting into laughter, his small white teeth fringed by greying gums. I wondered if he was asthmatic. My cousin Lucy had grey gums like that and she was asthmatic. Or maybe she had thrush. I hadn’t seen Lucy in twenty years. She married a doctor and moved to Manitoba. Last I heard she was a stay-at-home mom raising three kids. They must have been teenagers by now. Lucy was only three years younger than me.

          “You have a dry sense of humour,” Endymion said. “I like that. Too many people you meet these days are over the top. They think they’re being smart but they come off like failed vaudevillians, know what I mean?”

          A waiter in a white jacket with a small square face approached the table. He was wearing white gloves, perhaps prophylactically but possibly in pursuit of some fashion absolute that could never be attained. Such is the lot of the romantic.

          “I’ll have a glass of port,” Endymion said.

          “Graham’s or Cockburn’s?” the waiter said.

          “Agh. I prefer Dow’s but make it a Graham’s.”

          “Very well, sir. And the lady?”

          “Another Chardonnay, please.”

          The waiter nodded and walked off, his gait disturbed perhaps by overly tight shoes or the condition known as pigeon feet. Everyone’s gait is as unique as his or her thumbprint—so I’d once learned from a television police procedural. I hadn’t taken notice of Endymion’s gait, but for the first time his superbly groomed silver eyebrows drew my attention. So he was a vain man. Perhaps he had been a handsome youth, though he’d lost some of the magic along the way.

          “Why are you dressed like that?” I braved.

          “Why are you dressed like that?” he snapped back.

          “Your profile indicated you were stylish.”

          Endymion bared his teeth. “And I’m not?” He spread his arms, demonstrating himself like a peacock. “This is not stylish?”

          I reached for my cigarette case, of mother-of-pearl and horn, purchased in Nice.

          “You’re smoking again?” Endymion said.

          “Does it disgust you?”

          “Well, it doesn’t turn me on. My mother died of lung cancer. Heavy smoker. She preferred Dunhill’s. Gold and burgundy pack. She smoked right up till the end. But I’m not here to judge you. My guess is that you were a great beauty at one time and still retain some of your posture if not your former texture.”

          I should have been deeply insulted by these words, but oddly enough I wasn’t. Perhaps I welcomed such candour; it was so rare. These days most people lied with abandon. And I hadn’t exactly flattered the man, though nothing in his dress or demeanour compelled me to do so.

          “Are you divorced?” he asked.

          “Never married.”

          “So you cohabited with someone at some point?”

          “Never lived with anyone either.”

          “My wife died several years ago. Brain aneurysm. I only recently started dating.”

          “With mixed results, I’m guessing.”

          The waiter delivered the drinks. Endymion and I clinked glasses and drank.

          “What are you looking for, exactly?” I asked.

          “Companionship, conversation. Someone with whom to share my life, or at least to share experiences. I’d like to do some traveling.” He sipped his port and sighed. “I suspect you’re not looking for anything in particular, Silvia. That you are so uniquely independent you really don’t need a man or a woman to—as they say—complete you.”

          “What if I told you I was merely looking for a fling?”

          Endymion furrowed his brow. “Really?”

          I smiled and pulled on my cigarette. My heartburn intensified. Endymion wasn’t the worst man I had met through the service, that is to say not the ugliest or most obnoxious. A little eccentric perhaps, showy even. But what did I want? Why was I even here? Just to be difficult? Just to toy with the man? What was I trying to prove? I wasn’t trying to prove anything; but my presence there, despite my misgivings, ostensibly proved how lonely I was. I felt tears filling my eyes, but I fought them back. I was being ridiculous. Couldn’t I just share a few drinks with another human being and enjoy the moment for what it was?

          We remained silent for a long time. We were the only patrons seated on the patio; a handful of patrons sat inside. The street was quiet, few people walking around. It was an in-between hour, before students and workers rushed home. I thought I could smell cooking in the air. Endymion stared at his yellow kid gloves, then looked up and asked me what we should do. After all, had I not opened some kind of door? I chuckled and assured him that I had been joking, that sex was really the last thing on my mind at that moment. And it was.

          “Should I leave?” he asked.

          “Do as you wish. I’m going to finish my wine and perhaps have another.”

          “Would you mind if I stayed?”

          “I didn’t ask you to leave, Endymion. Is that really your name?”

          “Yes, it’s my name. Endymion Potter, Esquire.”

          “Ah, you’re a lawyer.”

          “I was for three decades. I recently retired.”

          Another silence passed and for a moment I thought Endymion was going to leave; instead he ordered another port.

          “Do you mind?” he asked.

          “Why would I mind?” I said and excused myself.

          I went to the ladies’ room in back of the café. I peed then washed my hands at the sink. I glanced at myself in the smudged mirror. I looked bloodless, even after two glasses of wine. I fished around my handbag for my roll of Tums, popped a couple, and drank water from the tap. Then I took out my lipstick—flamenco red—and applied it to my lips. Somewhat better. Try to be companionable, I thought. Make an effort. Endymion Potter—what was his story? Why not give the man a chance? He’d shown up with the best intentions, hadn’t he?

          When I returned to the table, Endymion sat there with his eyes closed and his arms crossed. He appeared to be talking to himself, his lips moving rapidly. Strangest thing. I sat down across from him as quietly as I could and watched him for a while. I lit another cigarette, took a big sip of wine, and I let him go on talking.

Salvatore Difalco - writes from Toronto, Canada. A THING OF BEAUTY is a short satirical piece.



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