Chartan sat across from Minerva, staring at his dinner plate as if he were facing checkmate. Decisions he rarely had to make were required now. Did he want a glass of wine? Would he like salmon or New York steak? He hadn’t had any form of alcohol in six months. To admit such, he thought, would suggest he was a recovering alcoholic. In truth, he couldn’t afford wine, but he didn’t want to reveal his level of his poverty. But then worrying what others might think of him was contrary to his self-taught training.
“I have a 1970 Les Forts De Latour if that helps.” Minerva finished her sentence with a smile that Chartan found to be odd. He knew little about wine, and nothing about vintages over 40 years old.
Is she poking fun at me? “Any wine you choose would be a treat for me.”
“I find your comments to be extraordinarily thoughtful and effective,” countered Minerva. “When you were interviewed by that reporter, why did you qualify that the coffee in your thermos was 72-bean French?
“Mozart used 72 beans when he made coffee.”
“Say no more, Chartan. I will have Elisa pour the wine.
Chartan was troubled by how Minerva wielded the power of her opulence. He was convinced she was unhappy. His thoughts were shattered by the scent of flowers coming from Elisa’s bare neck. She was closer to him than necessary to pour a glass of wine. The evening was starting out strangely.
Chartan watched Elisa walk away as if he’d never seen a woman from behind.
“Steak or salmon?” The question was a slap on the face from Minerva.
“Elisa, we’ll have the salmon.” Minerva spoke loudly. Elisa bowed from the doorway.
Chartan thought Elisa gave him a prolonged smile from afar.
“Does Elisa cook for you?”
“She does everything but drive, that’s why I use the limo service and how I met you.”
Chartan lifted his glass. “I propose we toast the next hour—may it be fulfilling.” The toasting process was complicated by the long, wide rectangular table. Even though they were seated on the sides across from each other, their glasses missed touching by a foot, even with arms extended. Chartan pushed the chair back so he could stand and lean over the table.
“This fool piece of wood,” said Minerva. “It was in my late husband’s boardroom. To think of all the deals consummated over this—millions of dollars made–yet so unfriendly. I shall get rid of it.”
“We can toast to that as well,” said Chartan as he clinked his glass against Minerva’s.
“Will you come with me tomorrow to help me pick out a suitable replacement?”
Chartan’s only plans were to talk to the bus station vagrants who had cursed him. While he could easily do that self-imposed mission another time, he resented Minerva for controlling his time, or was it something else?
“Certainly,” he said.
Chartan sensed something was different about Elisa when she entered the room carrying a silver tray with food on it. Her golden hair was still in a bun and the white blouse and black skirt were the same. Then she turned towards him and lowered the tray. Her blouse was unbuttoned, revealing half of her breasts. Had the buttons come undone by accident?
“The center or the tail?” she asked in a hushed voice.
He was captivated by her full red lips. Chartan had been celibate most of his life, warding off sexual impulses with intense meditation and, occasionally, his hand. He had never craved a woman and he didn’t now, although he believed he might without much more stimulation.
“The tail,” he responded.
Elisa bent over while transferring a piece of salmon from the tray to his plate, completely exposing her breasts to him. His heart pounded.
“This is Pacific Coast salmon,” said Minerva.
Chartan knew he must acknowledge the host’s statement, but he lingered until Elisa had left to serve her boss.
“Pacific Coast is the best,” he said weakly.
Chartan noticed Elisa’s blouse appeared fully buttoned after she served Minerva, but he thought he saw the tip of her tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth. He was sweating, his wisdom weakened by these new sexual desires. He clenched his fists and closed his eyes tightly.
“Chartan, are you saying grace again?” asked Minerva.
Minerva called Elisa after Chartan finished his first glass of wine. Her blouse remained fully buttoned. As she leaned over to fill his glass, Chartan heard his name whispered as if it were a soft breeze. He watched Elisa walk away through the top of his glass.
“Do you like the wine?” asked Minerva.
“Enjoy, the night has barely begun. Now, please tell me about the life restoration class you teach.”
How did she know about the class? Had I told her? Is the alcohol impairing my focus?
He took a sip. “I’ll answer this way: how is anyone who lives in a tiny apartment and doesn’town a car qualified to tell others how to improve their lives? And, yet, that is the point. We clutter our lives with reasons why we can and cannot do this or that. I, however, ascribe to being.”
“Being?” asked Minerva.
“Being,” echoed Chartan. “…is the philosophy of understanding and living absolute truths as opposed to those we create, or those others create for us. This is what I teach.”
“My, my,” said Minerva, “I’ll drink to that!”
He thought she was tipsy. Now was his opportunity to see Elisa without Minerva’s presence. “Will you excuse me?”
“When you come back, let’s talk about how I can help you financially.”
Minerva’s statement momentarily erased all thoughts of Elisa—Chartan almost stayed in his seat. But he rose, unsure of what lay ahead in the hallway, other than a bathroom.
Chartan followed Elisa down the hallway—she was to show him the bathroom. He was distracted by scores of small oil paintings on either side of him. The subjects were flowers in vases. Why so many? Why so small? Who was the artist, Charlotte Perkins?
He stopped. Elisa stood about five feet away by a doorway he assumed led to the bathroom. She was staring at him as she undid the top button of her blouse.
A second button came undone. Chartan did not move. She was breathing unevenly, or was he? All he really wanted to do was urinate.
“Is this a test?” he asked.
“Do you want it to be?”
Chartan detested manipulation. Elisa’s flirtations were unexpected. Now she appeared to be challenging him to act. The awkwardness of the evening was beginning to anger him. Minerva had tempted him with the prospect of money while Elisa had used her exquisite body. He longed to be back in his tiny apartment where he was in total control. He turned around and saw Minerva at the other end of the long hallway, smiling with a glass of wine.
He spoke firmly to the hostess: “I am a man who needs a bathroom. Please call off Elisa.”
“You are more than worthy, my Chartan,” said the widow. “Elisa, please retire for the evening.”
He turned back to see Elisa disappear through a doorway.
“That’s her room,” said Minerva. “The bathroom is down a different hallway.”
Chartan brushed by Minerva to the front door.
Chartan stepped outside, his eyes drawn to a full moon resting on a tree. He walked a short distance until the widow called his name. Without turning around, he shouted, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” then he ran.
(Continued Next Sunday).