Antoni’s heart beat fast as he steered Beatriz to his regular table. The coffee shop was hardly more than a hole in the wall, with a few rickety tables and chairs placed outside, but Antoni liked it. It was secluded and had a nice view of the park. He enjoyed the peaceful view most days, but today, even though Antoni could hardly look at Beatriz as she walked beside him, he could think of nothing else but her. It was all such a mess, a mistake even. Why should he have to deal with complicated feelings he was certain time had erased? It would be rude to leave but every muscle in his body was tensed to run at any moment. That’s why he hated caring, too much stress for old age.
What could Beatriz mean? Could it be that after all these years she was in love with him? He never imagined that she could be. He had never even considered the possibility. He had always put his eye on the society ladies, and in his younger years, recklessly pursued many … after fame and fortune had aided him on his way. And yet, buried in his heart there was the certainty that she was more suited to him than all of those girls could have ever been. She understood him. At least she did once. He paused as she lowered herself gingerly down onto the bistro chair. He should have pulled it out. There were a lot of ‘should haves’.
A woman brought two coffees and set them unceremoniously down on the table. Beatriz sighed and gazed into hers, the spoon she stirred with shook in her hand.“Do you remember much about the days in the country?”
He paused again. What would he say to her? Antoni’s mouth opened on its own and the strangest thing popped out. He hated when that happened. “I remember this little toad. He always sat inside the curve of a broken pail, by the gate at Domingo’s house.”
Beatriz burst out laughing, “The emperor! I remember. His pail is still there, barely sticking out of the dirt, no one else knows it’s there, but I can see it!”
“I can’t believe I said that! That is the strangest thing to remember.”
“Not really,” she laughed, “You always had such keen eyes. Good for art, good for buildings.”
Antoni laughed now too. “I used him on a building you know. Abstract. I really should take you, it was a joke but of course no one got it. You would appreciate the sight. I had a good laugh thinking of him squatting on the rooftop of this grand city house, looking always from his hole.”
“Another time perhaps.” Beatriz shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“Yes, another time.” His laughter slowly faded.
“I remember,” this time her voice drifted away, snagged barely by his ears before the roar of the traffic, “I remember how you used to help me pick the shells, down by the water in the morning, out in the roughs by noon. The snails, they were so hard to reach, you helped a lot.” She looked smaller somehow as she played nervously with her spoon, rubbing her finger along the length of it.
“I didn’t mind.” Part of him wanted to hold her fingers still, to make everything that had passed before right; the other part was wishing he was miles away far from his churning stomach. How could he begin to make up for things he should have done? He couldn’t go back.
“Do you remember how we talked?”
Antoni could only nod.
“We talked of so many things: of form and beauty, of life, of death. Of things that were important.”
“We did. Everything seemed so clear then.” He smiled and waved his finger at her, “except a few times when you set me straight. Do you remember the argument we had over the communion of Saints? I thought they were talking about the pictures on the walls all getting together for communions, at night, while no one was looking. You had to explain to me that the priest was talking about how we commune with all the faithful at the sacrament. How very silly!”
“Yes, how very silly.” She smiled but looked away. “Antoni …” She looked so sad, the spoon trembling in her fingers, knocking against the table in an odd syncopation. “I am afraid to ask, afraid that what other people have said will come true, but forgive me, I must know. It is a great honor, to build a cathedral, Antoni.”
“Yes. Yes. I was lucky to be chosen.”
“A great thing … a great and frightening thing.”
“What do you mean, Beatriz?”
Beatriz sighed again and bit her lip. “They are talking about you Antoni.” She reached across the table and held his hand firmly, tears in her eyes. “They say you build the cathedral but you do not believe in God. They say … they say … you will not even visit purgatory. They say you will go to hell.”
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