Chuck’s challenge this week was to pick from a list of cocktails and make that the tile of your story. I ended up with a Paloma (unfortunately not in real life) which is a refreshing drink made of tequila, grapefruit soda (or grapefruit juice and club soda) and lime. Paloma also means “dove” in Spanish and I’ve been teaching bartenders across New England how to make it.
The air outside hung down like a gray curtain, muting the sounds of the waves in the cocooning mist. Candles scattered around the bungalow fluttered fitfully in errant drafts that were determined to claw through the gaps in the walls. Alec lay on the floor staring up at the thatched ceiling. He’d lain there for hours, taking in the tightly crisscrossed patterns until the intricate weaving blurred before his eyes. A dove roosted somewhere beyond the walls, crooning softly to herself. If the damp had not rolled in, the sun would be setting, he thought, lowering itself into the frothing waves, the color of a freshly-sliced grapefruit. He closed his eyes and heard the whisper as the sea brushed her fingers against the sand outside, letting it pull him down into sleep.
When he woke, it was night. He lifted himself up onto his elbows and looked around the dark room. Several of the candles had gone out, slumping down into pools of spent wax. Standing, he shook out his loose shirt and trousers and padded barefoot towards the door. The wooden door swung open at the slightest tough and he stepped out onto the little porch, the salt-scoured wood rough beneath his feet. He retrieved the glass bottle out of the basket beside the door, and stepped down into the damp sand. When he reached the water, he pulled the cork out of the bottle with his teeth and spat it to the side. The tequila was distilled by the man who ran the little beach bar and restaurant down the shore. He claimed it was the finest in Mexico. Alec had told him it did the trick, and that was what mattered. The salt on his lips from the sea-spray blended pleasantly with the burn as he took a drink, feeling it shoot into his chest before trickling down into his belly. He did not go into the water, but stood at its edge, watching it leave a tracery of silver, like the remnants of spider webs upon the slate colored sand. The clouds hung low, bruised purple against the navy sky, and the moon struggled to push through them, to gaze down upon Alec and his lonely beach.
The slightest shifting of sand announced her presence, even as the wind carried the scent of her perfume. Floral and spice.
“Why did you come?” he asked.
She didn’t answer, reaching for the bottle and putting it to her lips. He watched the muscles of her throat tense, relax, as she swallowed.
“You don’t need to be here,” he said.
“You don’t want me here,” she said.
“I don’t want you.” He took the bottle back and drank.
She pushed her hair out of her face, it was silver blonde, now, and hung down her back, bright against her copper skin. The light skirt that hung from her hips was wet at the bottom as though she’d emerged from the ocean. She sat down near his feet, just out of reach of the creeping waves and tugged the bottle out of his hand. He looked down at her for a moment before sitting beside her, near enough to reach the bottle and far enough that nothing but their fingers could touch.
“I’ve missed you,” she said.
“You’re drinking all my tequila.” He took the bottle back and shoved it into the sand, away from her.
She grinned at him then, teeth flashing in the uncertain light. “Are you drinking me away, Alec, mio?”
“If I keep drinking will you go away?” he asked.
She leaned over until he felt her breath against the side of his neck, felt the feather-light brush of her lips across his jaw. “I will never go away.”
“Where were you?” he asked. “Was it so dull that you had to come find me here?”
“Prague, Venice, a few years in Barcelona—I forget.” She rested her chin on the top of her shoulder and looked at him. “I told you, I missed you.”
“You weren’t lonely.” The tequila sloshed in the half-empty bottle as he tipped it to his lips.
“No,” she said. “Why do you drink that swill?”
“This is the best tequila in Mexico.”
“It’s still tequila.”
“Ambrosia’s scarce in this part of the world, or hadn’t you noticed, Val, mia?”
She flinched at the bite in his tone and he was glad to see the hurt in her dark eyes before she turned away, hair falling between them like a veil. “No one exiled you here, Alec. Don’t blame me for your choice.”
“My choice,” he laughed harshly, sticking the tequila back in the sand. “What other choice was there? You’ve seen the way things are—the way they have become. There’s no place for me out there.”
“This is no place for you, Alec! Don’t you remember who we were—who we are?”
“Of course I remember!” They both paused as his voice echoed down the empty shore. He crossed his arms over his knees and rested his forehead on his wrists, his dark hair tumbling around his ears.
“Do you?” She reached out and touched his shoulder.
He lifted his head, “Don’t.”
She pressed her fingers into his skin for the length of a breath before pulling away again. “What’s changed, Alec? Tell me that.”
He looked at her mutely.
“People breed, birth and bleed, just as they always have—just as they always will.” Her eyes narrowed. “And you. You hide away in the middle of the jungle and drink like a fool.”
“Speaking of fools, how is your husband?” Alec asked.
“Still forging away.” She smirked, showing how little his jibe affected her. “You know how he is, unbending as steel, that one.”
“You always did think you were clever,” Alec said, reaching for the tequila again.
“You thought so too, once.”
“What would the others think if they saw you like this?” She tried to take the bottle from him, but he held it out of her reach, feeling petty. “You don’t even care, do you?”
“Is there not enough mayhem on earth for you, Val? Is that why you’re here?” He held up a hand to silence her. “Don’t say again that you missed me.”
“Must we always do battle, my love?” She caught his hand in hers and pulled it to her mouth, pressing her lips against his fingertips. Her touch burned against his skin, more potent than the tequila. When he did not resist, she put his palm to her cheek and looked at him, eyes blazing. He kissed her and tasted salt.
The door to the bungalow banged against the frame, and he stirred. The fresh smell of rain and the drumming of water on the thatch were melodic. He ran a hand down Val’s shoulder, tendrils of her hair spread across his chest. She stirred under his touch and nestled closer to him, tilting her head back to look up at him. He kissed her forehead and her nose.
“I won’t tell anyone,” she said, laughter in her sleepy voice.
He kissed her shoulder. “Tell anyone what?”
“That you’re much better than people give you credit for.”
He laughed and pulled the disheveled sheets around them before joining her in sleep.
When dawn broke, the rain might have never been except for a few errant clouds dissolving where water met sky. Alec was sitting on the porch, peeling a mango when she emerged, swathed in one of the white bed-sheets. She turned slowly for him.
“Reminds me of the old days.” He tugged the hem of the makeshift-toga and she sat down next to him, taking a slice of mango.
They sat and watched the sun rise, water yellow against the flickering blue sea and pale sky. She nudged him with her bare shoulder.
“You like it here.”
“Don’t laugh,” he hesitated, ducking his head. “It’s peaceful.”
She bit her bottom lip and looked at him, failing to stifle a giggle. “You know that’s ridiculous,” she said.
“I know.” He turned back to the mango, peeling the mottled green and red skin away from the flesh. “Will you stay? For a time, at least?”
“Last night you told me you didn’t want me,” she said quietly.
“I was angry.”
She tugged one of his curls until he faced her and then pulled his face to hers, the cool, sweet taste of mango on her tongue. “One of the reasons I love you, my fiery one,” she said when she leaned away. “I don’t know if I can call you, Alec, if I stay.”
“You don’t like it?” He tried to look wounded.
“Were you trying to be ironic? ‘Protector of Mankind’?”
“And you think ‘Val’ is better?” He asked.
“It’s short for Valentine.” She smirked. “Besides, Ares is not such an odd name these days.”
“No. I actually met quite a few Venuses and Aphrodites along the way.”
“But there’s only one you,” Ares said.
Aphrodite smiled back.
Disclaimer, this was not at all where I thought this story would go, and I’m glad it did, but if it reminds you of Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive”…well…I won’t argue.