The Star Whisperer
I watched through the tall glass windows, the man playing the bouzouki, sitting on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, where sat my fiancée, Althea and I. Althea droned on about our upcoming wedding, three months out yet, but I heard naught of what she said, for I was fixated, mesmerized by the elegant sound, exalted from the noisy herd about, as he played his instrument with fine precision. He was the same man who played here just three days ago, the day when I'd heard the restaurant owner, Walt, invited him inside for a warm meal and to entertain his patrons with his gifts. That day the man declined graciously. The following day, I walked past him on the street, for my apartment building was adjacent to the corner where he sat and tickled the strings of his instrument and ran his other hand up and down the neck, and it babbled its sweet tune, and entered my mind, where it remained still, free of rent. I envied his freedom then and even more so now. As the days and weeks trickled by, leaving no pause for reprieve, my heart grew ever so sour. Marrying Althea was something I hadn't yet grown into, for my heart yearned for more. More of what exactly was yet a mystery, but there was someone out there, I believed with every fiber of my being, who was intended for me and I for her. It was never fully right with Althea.
She coaxed me into proposing to her while we were in Paris last year to celebrate three years together. She said she wanted to go into Cartier and peruse their beautiful inventory. I followed her in, eyes rolling. It had been the most mundane trip I'd yet taken and looking at overpriced jewelry was not on my bucket list. She quickly found her way to the solitaires and found one in ruby, her birthstone, and inlaid around the round gemstone were studs of smaller diamonds, set in platinum. It was truly lovely and she got really excited about it, which rose the pitch of her voice as she squealed out to me to come look. "I want that one," she said, pressing her index finger to the glass case, effectively smudging the glass, meaning the shop attendants would need to get out some ammonia cleaner and wipe her fingerprint away. That was just how she was: self-indulgent, no matter what or whom laid before her. She was out to conquer. That was what she did: conquered me.
"Is this a hint?" I asked. "A flag you're waving to point me in a specific direction?"
"You know I'm an open book," she claimed. She was as closed-minded as everyone else in this stuffy world. She demanded no complaints from anyone who tagged along and she expected everyone to do what she wanted. If one wasn't interested in her mind games, then she was quickly offended, which always led to me apologizing for things I didn't cause. She was a Cancer through and through. "I don't do hints. I just come right out and say what I want and what I want is for you to propose to me tonight on the terrace, beneath the moon and the stars. It must be romantic, nothing less than perfection will do, as you well know."
"Al," I replied.
"Now don't be this way, darling. I know what you're going to say: it's too soon. We both know we'll end up together. I'm merely suggesting we fast forward a little, before my eggs dry up and I'm no longer able to give you dozens of children, as many children as you want." I said nothing further. I knew I would lose no matter what I uttered, no matter how I fought her, she would still win. She seized what she wanted and she'd placed her sights upon me the instant we met.
I had been dealing with her uncle, Nikolas Costas, after we had met at an expo in Baltimore. Nikolas and I became fast friends and he invited me to visit his family in a small farming community to the east of Athens, Hyelepios in Greece. They had me for the winter holidays six years ago and it was then that I met Althea Costas, a force of nature of her own accord. She was seventeen then. I could see from how she looked at me that she wanted me, but she was yet too young.
Althea had graduated her secondary education early and two years later, she was a marketing professional on her way to New York to grow her family's empire. And she had been quite effective at her mission of putting Costas Farms products, specializing in almond oil and olive oil, into health food stores throughout the northeast states.
"When is your flight out?" she asked me as I snapped out of the daze I'd been in for several minutes, hyper-focusing on the sound that emerged from the man's bouzouki.
"Tomorrow morning, early. I should stay at my place tonight so you aren't disturbed while I ready at four in the morning."
"If you're staying home tonight, I'll stay over too," she resolved. "That's a whole other day I'll be missing you so that won't do."
"That defeats the purpose," I wanted to say, but no further words fell from my lips.
On the trees that were perfectly lined up all the way down Cornelia Street, thei leaves were already turning their brilliant autumn hues: shades of gold and orange and crimson and violet. Though the weather was yet as temperate as September, it was coming upon Halloween and the sunlight was quickly becoming more scarce, thus more precious by the day.
"Come now, Althea love, you need only choose one," I barked aloud as she shoved the wedding portfolios across the dining table before me. Every Sunday we brunched at her favorite restaurant, a Cajun and Creole café in Greenwich Village, Joie de Vivre. In the center of the round white table sat a small crystal vase and within it were two fresh magnolia buds.
"No, you should be helping me with these arrangements; it's your wedding too," she nudged.
"I trust your taste implicitly," I assured her, though it was a lie. I didn't care for any event she arranged, but it suited her best to do everything, make every decision without me because if what I chose failed, I'd hear about it until the end of time and I had no interest in being blamed so I stayed out of the way. She scooped onto her fork a hearty bounty of Crabcake Monique, drizzled with hollandaise and two crab cakes were served beneath two runny poached eggs. I cut into my Pecan Pie French Toast, slathering my bite in the creamy maple caramel and shoveling a rich share of whole pecans.
"I'll bring you another Bloody Mary, Madame. And sir? Do you need more coffee?" asked the tall, lanky waiter whose name was something like Fred or George or Henry, one of those old world names.
"Please," I answered. I relocated my mug nearer to the edge of the table so the server would not need to reach over the food to get to it, and Fred nodded in concurrence as he poured from the pot. He then set down three miniature coffee creamer cups next to my cup, smiled and went on his way to the next table over to check on them as well. "I'm telling you, you're going to be awakened before dawn if you do that, Al."
"I don't care, I want to see you off. You're going to be gone for ten whole days. So please, you'll get plenty of time away that you crave, but give me one night more before you go." Another battle I'd be losing. "I want to go to the airport with you too." Althea was the kind of woman who always, without fail, got her way, despite any obstacles in her way.
"Fine," I replied, shaking my head. She was right about one thing: I had been itching for some time apart and if I heard one more detail about our wedding, I may have just come unhinged. I felt so weak in her presence, for she was demanding enough for both of us, and not once have I been able to talk her out of something, in spite of much effort on my part. I argued with her for the first year of our relationship and I lost every single battle, so thenceforth, I thought perhaps I'd try going with the flow. But that had thus far delivered me only into the arms of the delusion she'd planted within my head. She told me we were happy, but I knew better. Even our lovemaking had suffered since we'd become engaged. I had a feeling she was going to cut me off entirely if we crossed the threshold into married life. I'd seldom know passion again.
I feared waking to that life, though I did nothing to stop it. I was just an observer in this life, for she had made all my decisions and no longer did I require use of my brain, thanks to Althea. It wasn't what I wanted, but I felt compelled to demonstrate to her only compliance. She had beaten it out of me over these four years we'd spent together, though not literally.
When we left the restaurant, I dropped a fifty dollar bill into the bouzouki player's tip cup and nodded to him, accompanied with, "hey man, you sound great." To which he smiled but never did he miss a note and I couldn't get the lovely tune out of my mind. Althea walked the block back to my apartment alongside me, still blathering on about the music and the flowers and the off-white lace everywhere and the cake and the hairstyles she was considering for the big day and needing to go shopping for the perfect shoe, for she originally wanted to wear blue ones, but now that her best friend, Lisa, found a blue garter belt that she bought to save for her own wedding, though she loaned it to Althea as her something new, something borrowed, and something blue.
In the elevator, once the doors had closed, Althea pressed my back to the wall and kissed me tenderly, sensually. We waltzed about the elevator until we reached the eighth floor, where resided my one-bedroom apartment. We stumbled down the hallway to my apartment, taking momentary breaks to kiss.
Once inside, we fell to the bed clumsily and pulled at one another's attire until the articles broke free from our bodies. In our first three years together, we knew quite a passionate affair, though now we were more familiar with one another, we had allowed the romance fall at the wayside. I was properly game for a tumble between the sheets, for it had been some time. It seemed whenever I took long trips, Althea made sure to satisfy me well, probably because she thought I'd run around if she didn't please me, but she had me wrong.
When Althea moved to Brooklyn four years ago, her uncle Nikolas, requested of me to show her around the city and help her feel at home, but she seemed to think we were on a date and she wouldn't permit me to correct her mistake, spelling out all the so-called signs that told her we were meant to be. Her signs were all of her own making: we met when she was at a romanticized age and I must've looked at her some kind of way that made her believe I was just as interested in her as she was with me, but she misread my behavior. I merely felt awkward and uncomfortable with meeting so many new people, Nikolas's entire family.
I agreed to meet Althea her first week after moving in. I took the train all the way to Prospect Park, across the street from which was located her tiny studio that her uncle and father both pitched in to buy her. She had been putting together furniture all day and she had worked up quite an appetite, so we went out for Thai. I was pleased to have a new friendly face to spend time within New York. My only good friends were all women, like Johanna Schierling, the Vice President of New Product Development of my company, Seedling, which I started when there weren't nearly enough vegan hair and skincare options available in stores.
I met Johanna in college. We were both romantically interested in the same woman, and it turned out Elysha, like Johanna, too was interested in only women, so I opted to cultivate a friendship with both of them and once I launched my first product, lip balm, Johanna got it on store shelves within two months, which was unprecedented. The lip balm alone paid the overhead now, while the rest was gravy. I used the proceeds beyond the expenses that were on the books to surprise my hardworking, dedicated employees with bonuses. I did my best to hold up the morale and they reciprocated by a job well-done. I was proud of all I had accomplished in spite of suffering from mental illness.
"Shouldn't you teach him to fish instead of giving him a handout?" Althea asked me when I stuffed several hundreds I had in my wallet into the cup a homeless man held.
"He's a victim of unfettered capitalism," I told her. "I gave him enough for someplace to sleep for the next month or so, since it's getting colder."
"Or he'll just use it all on alcohol, like my dad told me. He said never to give money to the homeless because they'll drink it all away and then still freeze to death in winter."
"Cynic," I guffawed and let her attitude roll off my back. "Your English is quite good."
"Thanks, I've been studying it since I was very young. My father and my uncle sent me to the best schools."
"I don't doubt it," I replied. I'd know Nikolas for six years now and we had grown quite close. I spent most Christmases with Althea and her enormous family, all gathering each winter at Nikolas's massive home overlooking a thousand acre almond tree orchard.
Bright and early in the morning, just before the sun rose and glimmered through my eastern-facing bedroom windows, I woke, legs tangled up with my lover's. My mission ahead excited me. I'd be heading to Paris and I expected to arrive later that evening, local time. I had a driver and car reserved for my ten-day stay in Western Europe. I would be meeting with farmers of the communities surrounding Paris over the next few days and then I'd head to Geneva and Marseilles, perhaps as well as Nice since I had never before been.
I was on a hunt for ingredients for our upcoming CBD (cannabidiol) line of vegan products. It's intended for those with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis as well as skin sensitivities. It was going to be a therapeutic line of products like shampoo and conditioner bars, liquid shampoo and conditioner, bar soap and liquid herbal soap, a wide selection of lip balm fragrances, lotion bars and bottled lotions. The idea was to come up with more creative fragrance blends and before we knew it, we'd be the boutique brand I always imagined.
It was Johanna's idea to introduce the CBD line and I ran with it. All the focus groups showed interest and so the chemists got to work mixing essential oils to produce about a hundred different aromas, of which we would all participate in voting for our favorites. My personal favorite was sandalwood and cashmere, a musky odor that best appealed to me, and Johanna seemed to agree. As always, I was excited for the release of our latest products but the CBD line was yet my favorite notion.
Althea had a change of heart this morning when Dave parked in front of my building to take me to the airport. He rang my phone and let me know he was waiting downstairs and asked me if I needed any help with my luggage. "No, thank you, Dave. I'll be down in five," I said and then tapped my phone's screen to hang up. "Al, I have to go. You said you wanted to see me off."
"No," she barked. "Can I just see myself out in a couple of hours?"
"Of course," I answered and pressed a kiss to her lips before making my way down to the ground level and outside to where he parked.
Dave, my driver, took my two large suitcases and I found my way into the back seat. The drive went by in a jiff and as I emerged from the rear seat of my town car in front of the airport departure drop-off, Dave handed over my luggage. I nodded at him and he nodded back. "Safe travels, sir," he added.
"Thanks, Dave. I'll see you soon. Enjoy your vacation." He smiled and waved me off. He often used the car when I was out of town, it was one of the perks. He also got a paid vacation each time I left the vicinity for any period of time. I took good care of my employees because they took such good care of me.
As I boarded the plane, I received a text message from Althea wishing me a safe flight and reminding me how much she loved me. She drove me nuts but I'd still miss her while I was away. That was how Stockholm's Syndrome worked. She also demanded I call her every day, even though she knew better. She'd be lucky to get one call for the ten day duration of my absence. Whenever I got that taste of freedom, I savored it and indulged in it and bathed in it. It was all I could do to refrain from eating everything in the patisserie, including macarons, madeleines, croissants, and crepes filled with raspberries and cream cheese. It was futile to resist the orgy of cheeses that was France. It was a shame to hinder myself and my appetite just because dairy didn't agree with my digestive tract. In fact, nearly all animal products were unkind to my innards, so most of the time I would restrict my diet and eat only plant-based foods.
I stewed in memories for the entire flight. I thought about the time my mother, God rest her soul, made snickerdoodles and donated them to the bake sale at my school. I was eight. And another time when my parents drove us to the beach from where I lived in Altoona, which was about a five hour drive to the beach town we most often visited in Ocean City, Maryland. I grew up an only child most of my childhood, until I was fourteen and my mother learned, after giving up on trying to have another child, that she was pregnant again. She was thirty-nine and suffered a difficult pregnancy and delivery. That was when she died, along with my sister, whom my father named Lyla Loraine Oliver (I was young and I called her LaLa thenceforth).
I sulked in my limited options of putting an end to the wedding, for I had no intention whatsoever to marry her, but I couldn't tell her because she'd turn it around on me and I'd be the one to wind up apologizing for something while she never even acknowledges her own blame. That option led to wedding one another. I needed another way, like fleeing to Papua New Guinea, never to be heard from again. Or perhaps I could just remain in France once my meetings are yet behind me.
Althea knew I was a dreamer when she fell in love with me. It was, in fact, one of my finer qualities, for it impassioned me and we boasted a whirlwind romance for the first few years and until she demanded I propose to her, I still existed in the pheromone fog, high on her exquisite beauty.
"Destiny is an inevitability, like never had a choice, while God's will is only the means to an end, so long as free will doesn't interfere with the end result, it is permitted to occur, so we can choose our own fates unless it directly affects His Master Plan."
"His Master Plan?" I echoed. "And what, pray tell, is His Master Plan?"
"You've read the Bible, haven't you?"
"Yeah, and what I took from it was, we're all part of some science project whose entire purpose is to stroke some disembodied entity's magnanimous ego."
"Now who's the cynic?" she guffawed.
"Touche," I replied. "But you don't truly believe in that nonsense, do you?"
"Lachlan, I can trace my ancestry all the way back to biblical times. I'm related to Jesus himself, my love. It's literally in my blood," she boasted. I wanted to roll my eyes. I generally avoided conversations of God because I couldn't get on board with the mythology. It was far too cruel a world.