|The first house|
I licked a spot of dry spittle from the corner of my mouth feeling hot, lightheaded and thirsty. My sensation of disconnectedness was intensified by the oppressive rumbling of waves pounding into the surf and children screaming on the beach.
"I fell asleep," I said hoarsely, my mouth dry as ash.
For the first time since we had met, her face remained expressionless and still.
I felt an urge to explain why I hadn't gone home all night, but then let if fade away. Ali had taught me that explanations are meaningless, that only intent and actions really matter.
Until yesterday afternoon, I was convinced that she was mute. She had never spoken a word to me during the six months I had known her and yet I felt closer to her than to any other woman before. Her obstinate refusal to write messages should have made me suspect something, anything, but it didn't. I quickly became spellbound by her purposeful face and all its subtle expressions that said everything I needed to know. Then there was her living, breathing body, her meaningful touches and the soft moans that I lived for.
"Ali," I said, "I saw you talking on the phone yesterday, in the booth under the pine tree."
She swallowed and blinked rapidly. Her face distorted in a way I don’t care to describe or remember.
"I saw your lips moving,” I continued, surprised by the unfamiliar hollow tone of my voice, “you were speaking with someone."
The mid-morning sun lit up the moisture welling in her eyes, which whe quickly wiped away with her index fingers and, in the same motion, brushed her loose hair back over her shoulders. She smiled faintly and regained her composure.
I met Ali earlier in the year when she came to the big house in the early afternoon looking for a room. I opened the door to a young woman with the lean body of a long-distance traveler, long sun-bleached hair and an endearing freckled face.
"Hi," I said politely and waited for the inevitable question. Instead, she pointed to the "ROOMS" sign, and then softly touched her chest.
"You don't speak English," I said perplexed.
She smiled, nodded and, by signs, let me know that she was mute.
"I see, you don't speak," I replied uncomfortably, not knowing what else to say, "but you speak English," I said and felt foolish for saying it.
She smiled understandingly, nodded again and eyed me expectantly.
I rented four rooms and they were all full. That's what I meant to say. Instead, I recited my usual lowdown on prices and conditions. When I finished, she gave me the thumbs up sign.
"I just got home," I lied. "I'll check if the room is vacant and I'll be back in a few minutes."
I asked her to sit under the palm tree that was taller than the two-storey house built on a clifftop plateau overlooking clusters of red-tiled roofs, the long beach and ocean.
I rushed to my room. In several trips, I carried all my clothes, books, the small safe and personal belongings into the storage room next to the kitchen and then lugged the heavy Underwood typewriter into the dining room. I did a quick sweep job, opened the window and then fetched a fresh set of sheets and towels from the laundry droom.
I was about to change the bed but changed my mind. Instead I crossed the hall into the bathroom, washed the thin film of sweat off my face, combed my hair, relaxed for a minute and then walked back outside. The whole ordeal had taken little more than ten minutes.
The pebbled yard crunched under my feet as I walk toward the palm tree. "You can see it now, if you like."
She nodded pleased, and I took her bag.
"The sheets haven't been changed yet, " I said as she waltzed into the large room, twirled merrily like a ballerina, leaned out the window, gazed at the ocean view and took a exaggeratedly deep breath. Then she turned to me and gave me a little oriental bow.
Next, I showed her my bathroom across the hall, which we would be sharing. The four guest rooms I rented were upstairs and had their own bathroom.
Then I gave her a tour of the kitchen and dining room and walked her back to "my" room.
"This key is for the room and this larger one if for the front door," I said.
As I handed her the keys, she cupped my hand in hers and looked at me so pleased I could hardly hold myself back from leaning over and kissing her.
"I almost forgot," I said, "I'll need your passport or ID card. Sorry, but it's the rule." I was going to make an exception for her, if I wasn't so curious about her identity.
She unzipped her shoulder bag and cheerfully handed me her passport. I wished her a good stay and walked off to my new quarters.
Inside the crammed storage room, I looked at the passport. She was South African, her name was Allison Maguire and she was twenty-three years old. I then put the passport in the combination safe, which I chained with a padlock to the cot's metal frame. If it weren't for this cot, she'd be looking for another room somewhere else.
As I stood in the storage room crammed with excess furniture, pails, brooms and plenty of useless junk, a thought brought a grin to my face. What happened?