Alison called ahead to the Venta Morena and asked to sample the gambas pill-pill and the lenguado la plancha. She explained in terrible Spanish that her mother, bless her soul, must be surrounded by fish. For the more carnivorous of the guests, she wanted the costillas de cerdo. When we arrived at the rambling white hacienda-like structure, Alison and I gasped at the sprawling green rolling away like a plush blanket down the fairway. Little peak-capped figurines dotted the green at the various tees. The bunkers looked like daubs of taupe on a painter's palette.
"Here's the place to play golf," she said.
"It does beat the courses in Marbella and Malaga," I said. We parked at the hilltop restaurant overlooking the course. I had told her I was playing golf during the day to explain my absences.
Alison tapped me on the arm. "Don't forget, it's Lane again."
The maitre d' was waiting for us at the door.
"Buenos tardes, Senorita Lane." A dapper man with a handlebar moustache, he looked like he'd just walked off the plaza de toros ahead of a vanquished bull, chest heaving, slicked-back hair falling over his tanned brow, a slightly crooked gait as if he'd been scoured from the side.
The maitre d’ smiled as Alison launched into her spiel. "A delightful restaurant, Senor Galvan. Our breaths are quite taken away by the panoramic views. Here's what we're thinking: a small intimate ceremony at our hotel in Mijas or Estepona—oh, you should've seen the smart little places we saw. Beautiful, lovely courtyards with fountains and arches. But we're still debating the content of the ceremony. I'd love to have Padre Dominguez conduct the ceremony, it would so please my ma..."
The man cut Alison short. "And then a little reception-cum-dinner, with white tablecloths, white napkins, silver napkin rings, hopefully at Venta Morena?"
Alison looked at him for a second.
"Why yes, exactly. How do you know that? You must be a genius. But I'm told the food here is muy delicioso, especially with your famous gambas and lenguado, so Andalucian! We fell in love with the region when we came years ago. Isn't it fitting that we should be married here?"
"Yes, if you will allow me to boast, our gambas is better than at La Quimera. Our lenguado, to be fair, is equal."
Alison continued as if Senor Galvan hadn't spoken. "Here's what we are thinking: white tablecloths, ribbons round the chairs, lovely Spanish wines, it's all got to be exactly local. It would be enchanting, even though Ma is bound to remark over the cost of everything. But you'll be sweet to us, won't you? Because, you see, we're going to have oh so many guests. Hundreds, I'd imagine, don't you think, Nicholas?"
I nodded, smiling expansively for the maitre d'.
We sat down to gazpacho andaluz, chilled, light, with a hint of spice. I didn't even have to chew my potatoes. Senor Galvan served us the Viñas del Vero Chardonnay from Somontano, delicious, bready and buttery, a hint of oak.
Alison's voice was like the twang of an electric guitar. "For evening dining, we'd love candles on the tables, these tall tapering ones. Can you get them here? And yes, flowers, we've got to have all roses, red, red roses with their stems hidden. Do you have those little flowerpot vases? Also, Senor Galvan, your best silverware and china. Like this soup bowl here, it just won't do, you see. Why, this one's even a little chipped at the corner. Don't you have lots of local Andalucian pottery here? I'd love one of those giant plates with the sun and moon painted on it, mas romantica, wouldn't you say?"
Senor Galvan gave me a wink, which I interpreted to be a conspiratorial comment on wives and fiancées.
I savored the gambas, spearing pieces of neatly-cut succulent jumbo prawns, so fresh I could taste the seawater still, the dash of garlic, the chilli oil kicking in at just the last moment before swallowing. I had to give it to Alison. Her enthusiasm was infectious. If anything, over time, her delivery had become more spontaneous and effervescent.
"These prawns are done just right. I knew this would be a sure thing, Senor Galvan, and Nicholas and I would love to meet the chef later, if he'd be so inclined. Isn't this marvelous, Nicholas?"
Over the grilled cod, flaky and aromatic, toasting each other over glasses of Vionta Estate Albariño from Riaz Baixas, I couldn't stop looking at Alison, glowing and resplendent in her milieu. Not without some nostalgia, I reflected that Alison and I had been together quite some time. I've seen her through seasons of hair styles, from the 'Nicole Kidman' redhead to the short clipped brunette with bangs, to the layered 'Heather Locklear' blonde. None suited her as much as the jet-black curly waves framing her face like an Eskimo parka and the large golden hoop earrings. This was the Alison from college days, the Alison I became enchanted with, as if she knew the turbulence going on in my heart and had proclaimed herself the antidote.
We met at a Hillel meeting, during the one night when the Shabbat dinner, for a sense of real community, was going to be cooked exactly the same as the one that the Birthright Israel reunion had at Bar-El restaurant in Tzefat. We were both drawn by the food, and thus to each other. Sitting across from me, she said, reading the sticker on my lapel, "So Nicholas, what do you think of this challah?"
"I came because of the home-made challah. I'm homesick, but I can't afford to go home during breaks. This is as good as it gets." I gave her my best boyish smile.
Her brownish green-greenish brown eyes flashed, and she said, "You know, you and I are going to be very good friends."
After the meal, I offered to carry her books and walk her back to her dorm. At the entrance, she turned around and said, "You're nice, Nicholas. We may be better than good friends. But you're not really Jewish, are you?"
I was embarrassed, "No, I'm not."
"Oh, don't worry," she said, "I'm not, either."
I found out she'd taken her stepfather's last name—Krauss, that she had gastronomical ambitions (she wanted to be a restaurant reviewer for a food magazine), that she liked salt on her fruit. Beyond food, nothing else she told me about herself remained constant. One day, she'd be afraid of flying. The next, she'd be ready to jump on a plane and confess to me in a hushed whisper how much she'd always wanted to get a pilot's license. She told me she almost drowned in the ocean when she was eight. But when we went to Montauk, she easily swam thirty laps in the hotel pool. I was tempted to think of her as a pathological liar. But that would also presume that there was an actual unwavering truth in the plumbing depths of the package she had loosely tied together. When she told me she'd grown up in Arizona surrounded by red rock canyons, she embarked on a discourse of the formations of the layers of sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous origins of the walls, mesas and buttes of the Grand Canyon—how it was carved by the great flood, washed by seven oceans, lifted up by the massive movement of the Colorado plateau.
"Do you know if God really created the world in six days, then in the geological history of the Grand Canyon, each day would be equivalent to 767 million years? So God would have created the Vishnu Group, the oldest rocks in the Canyon, at approximately five p.m. on a Thursday afternoon."
I was fascinated by this fast-talking, knowledgeable, mercurial changeling who could recite statistics from memory at random. I believed her when she said she'd grown up surrounded by these awe-inspiring formations of sandstone and shale, rising like temples of dawn, at a phenomenal scale that almost didn't look three-dimensional, like a chimera, an ophthalmologic deception, at least until the next story she told me, that she'd grown up on an army base in Okinawa.
"I thought you said you grew up in Arizona?" I said.
"Did I?" she laughed. "You must have heard me wrong. I said I wished I had grown up in Arizona because I love the Grand Canyon. I read everything I can about it."
Who was I to question her version of her origins, when I had such dubious claims of my own? I told her I got my name from a phone book, that I didn't know who my father was. That my mother was a two-timing basil-eating broad, who used men as substitute child support. Alison's eyes shone with sympathy. There was no need for me to tell her the truth about my origins either.
Senor Galvan came back into the dining room, where we were the sole customers, escorted by two waiters and a trolley. They carved the pork ribs into two portions in front of our table. The aroma was incredible, honeyed and smoky.
"I hope you like," Senor Galvan smiled, deftly switching wine glasses. "The Faustino is from Rioja. It is a mix of three grapes—tempranillo, mazuela and graciano." The wine swirled a little when poured by Senor Galvan's expert hands.
Alison drank a big gulp. "Ummm... rustic. Sweet. Smoky. Very nice. You are a genius, Senor Galvan. This is marvelous. Tell me, Senor Galvan, are you from around here or do you hail from the big city?"
Senor Galvan told us he grew up with his entire family, five brothers and four sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great grandparents, and all lived on the same street in Antequeria. Everyone and his or her family still live there now.
Alison clapped her hands delightedly. "To have such unchanging continuity!" she exclaimed. The maitre d' at the Parador de Granada yesterday told us he'd grown up on an olive grove not far from Loja. Over coquinas a la marinera (tiny clams cooked with wine, garlic and parsley), alcauciles rellenos (stuffed artichokes), the pescado en amarillo (fish cooked in saffron and wine), and the caldereta de cordero (a stew of lamb, pepper and onion), Alison gently extracted morsels of personal information from the waiters and the maitre d'. She also convinced them in the process that there was no other place where we would conduct our reception dinner but at the little outdoor courtyard with hanging wisteria and a babbling octagonal fountain, overlooking the gardens of the Generalife. "We must have cava and cava cocktails. And Spanish music, although my favorite is really Paco de Lucia," Alison said.
As far as I knew, we didn't own a single compact disc of Paco de Lucia.
When we left, after an elaborate back-and-forth about paying the bill, we had secured invitations to come back and sample more dishes. As the maitre d' haughtily told us, there was no way that the Venta Morena could possibly compete with a restaurant in Granada. "You try more dishes. You don't like, we change," he said.
This was my idea to begin with. After three intervening years of shifting personas, a wild dizzying ride of sifting fact from fiction, we had arrived at a stasis. Alison's career hadn't taken off the way she'd hoped. She was still free-lancing. I slogged away as a media analyst at an advertising agency on Madison Avenue where the money wasn't bad. Our Friday night dates usually went like this: Alison would come home and tell me that there's a huge wedding at such-and-such place. I'd dress up in my tuxedo and she in her silk dress. We'd walk gaily uptown or downtown depending on our destination. On arriving at the venue, Alison would send me in with her purse, while she herself came in separately a few minutes later after having told whoever at the door she was going back inside after a cigarette. It never failed to amaze me that no one ever questioned a man walking into a function holding a woman's purse. We mingled as guests would mingle. We ate and drank and made merry. We always took care to arrive after the guests were seated. Only once did we find ourselves without seats because all the guests actually showed up. But then, we told them we were with the caterers, and no one was the wiser. Sometimes, Alison went up to the newly-married couple and wished them a very, very happy life together. There was nothing Alison loved more than a free meal.
One day, on the Number Six train going uptown, I leafed through the Condé Nast Traveler I had just purchased, and saw a picture of the mosaic arched courtyard at the Casa de la Condesa Lebrija, a private mansion in the heart of Seville. Reading about Mudejar treasures and Moorish architecture, I suddenly felt a longing I couldn't explain, a desire that was almost akin to shedding my own skin.
"Let's take a trip to Andalucia," I said to Alison when I got home. "It'll be a gastronomical tour, a tour of the palate. You've never been there. What do you say?"
She clapped her hands delightedly. "Why, are you going to propose, Nicholas?" This momentarily stymied me, but I smiled winningly, amorously, and saw no reason to mention that perhaps a couple of other things could be resolved as well.
Later, I reflected that it was the first time she had mentioned marriage. I watched her dance around the room in her bedroom slippers, and I looked at the unmatched socks she had thrown in the corner. What kind of person would wear a brown sock and a green sock together? Did she notice or did she just not care? How did one reconcile that odd sort of behavior with the fact that her toiletries were neatly lined up in the medicine cabinet—her toothbrush on the far left, the toothpaste next to it, then the mouthwash, dental floss, the cold face cream, deodorant, makeup kit and ending with nose tweezers? Even the brands kept changing, Crest to Colgate to Aim to Aquafresh, from Sure to Secret to Dove to Certain Dri to Dessert Essence.
The only thing we had in common, I reflected, was food.
We told our friends, Jacky and Diego, who laughed and said it was a brilliant idea. I had always had a thing for Jacky, with her green eyes and red hair, the fact that you always knew where you were with her, but I thought Diego was a sorry excuse for a boyfriend, buffing machismo with his dark Hispanic looks. Jacky said to us, "Oh, how I wish it was me going. Imagine, lounging by the beaches nude! Palm trees and paella, flamenco and the first cold press olive oil. Oh, you lucky bastards." I didn't say anything, but pictures of Jacky nude on a beach in Marbella lingered.
We ended up dining at the La Meridiana on our first night in Marbella. Alison had called ahead and explained what we were trying to achieve. They fed us pickled partridge salad with pomegranates, sautéed sea scallops with Serrano ham, lemon grass and ginger, and then the ox tail à la Malaguena for two, finished with Crepes Suzette. After dinner, Alison wanted to take a stroll around the open terrace to see where everything would fit, she said, and the maitre d' was entirely compliant. I tried to pay the bill, but he said, "No, no, it's O.K. We want you to book your wedding here."
Alison couldn't believe it when I told her. Over the course of the next week, she called ahead to the Las Tabernas, La Chozita, La Hacienda, El Caprichio, El Bote, the Faro Playa, always ordering their known specialties, venturing further and further afield from our medium-rate hotel. We didn't spend a single peso for dinner.
"This is a wonderful idea, Nicholas. They are falling all over themselves to please us. Now this is what I call gastronomical enlightenment. Thank you, sweetheart. It's the best present you've ever given me."
That wasn't strictly true. I hadn't planned on giving her anything. While I wasn't always faithful, I played the perfect boyfriend quite fiendishly, with flowers for Valentine's Day, a small jeweled brooch for her birthday, a subscription to Bon Appetit for Christmas. But here we were, three years later, wondering when exactly during the flight from JFK that I, or perhaps we, had eased into the idea of pretending to organize a wedding. We couldn't go back to the same place twice, but there was no dearth of wonderful places to eat in Andalucia, and we drove everywhere.
Our lovemaking, from the start, had always made me feel as if I was going for Sunday communion, but the delectable cuisine and the mouthwatering desserts must have awakened something primordial in Alison, for she suddenly tore at me with her molars and mandible, crushed me with her sharp bony thorax and wrapped her legs around me in a lioness grip. When she came, she gave feral and maddened growls, the sounds punctuating through the years of silent lovemaking and jolting me. I knew nothing permanent about Alison's background, but over the years, there were mannerisms she repeated, identifying quirks that betrayed no origin but stood independent of her constant bravura and rapid talk. Like the way she tended to stroke her eyebrows when nervous or the way she kept her hands perfectly still even when words spilled from her like champagne froth. Like the way things have to be immaculate when we made love, the bed freshly made, our bodies cleaned, and the prophylactic on before the foreplay started.
My knowledge of her consisted of the years we've been together. Our lovemaking was the best we've ever had, but it's thrown a wrench into my accumulated knowledge of Alison. I did not know what to make of even the person I did not know.
We finished with an almond tart, as Senor Galvan told us he had something special prepared, something that would be an interesting surprise, a little treat he was waiting to give us. He brought out a muscat from Alicante. He also brought out the chef, Pablo Molinero Ruiz, a pudgy man with pudgy fingers and bulldog jowls. Senor Ruiz had a terribly mournful expression and he bowed in front of Alison. Alison held out her hand as if she wanted it to be kissed, but he shook two of her fingers instead. They sat down, and Senor Galvan motioned to a waiter to bring two sweet wine glasses around. I always enjoyed this last little bit, shooting the breeze with the culinary staff, because it built so much goodwill and it was a joy to watch Alison at work. Before long, she usually had the entire staff at her heels. A couple of the waiters came to serve us and stood by.
"So have you enjoyed everything today? Is everything to your satisfaction?" Senor Galvan said.
I reflected that the muscat tasted like the exquisite nectar of orange blossoms. Alison addressed the chef, "Everything was incredible. You are a genius in the kitchen, Senor Ruiz. Every bite was heavenly, wouldn't you say, Nicholas? And Senor Galvan, thank you for arranging everything. The cod and the prawns are superb, and the cerdo was incredible. I wouldn't change a thing. Ma would especially like the cod."
"I am so pleased you enjoyed the food. Senor Ruiz was working extra hard to make sure you would enjoy. So tell me, Senorita Lane...."
Senor Galvan laughed a little, "O.K., Alison, so tell me, how do you think our restaurant compares to La Quimera in Marbella?"
We both paused, but only for a second. I could see Alison mentally ticking off the restaurants we'd been to. "Hmm? What do you mean?" Alison said.
"Well, you see, we are constantly trying to improve ourselves here, and Senor Ruiz is a ...what do you say in America, perfectionist? Yes, he is a perfectionist, and we want to know how our gambas compare to the one in La Quimera?"
Alison was perplexed, but laughed, "I wish I have an answer for you, Senor Galvan, but I've never been to La Quimera."
Senor Galvan steepled his fingers, "Really, have you never been there?" He turned to the chef and they exchanged some rapid fire Spanish. I looked at Alison for a translation, and her brow was furrowed, concentrating to catch some meaning.
"Of course I'm sure, Senor Galvan. I'd know if I've been there," Alison snapped. She now cast me a quick glance, a glance that was questioning. Her fingers sought her eyebrows. I noticed suddenly that all the waiters had gathered round.
"Ah yes, well, Senor Ruiz's cousin is a chef at La Quimera. He told us a story this past weekend. An amazing story. It made us laugh. You see, he told us about a young American couple from Nueva York, good-looking, idealistic, loves food. Came to sample the gambas and the chipirones en su tinta. Tells Senor Ruiz's cousin they are getting married. But the young lady, well, she drank too much of the wine, and she says it's crazy that we let couples who are getting married sample for free. Never happen in New York, she says. She says couples can pretend they are getting married, and then they will go all over Andalucia to many different restaurants, get free meals everywhere, try the most expensive wines, eat the known specials. And so, Senor Ruiz's cousin has a theory. He thinks she's talking about themselves; there is no marriage. The wedding is a.. how do you say... a trick, a game. Alberto, he says to me, watch out for this couple, they will come to your restaurant, this Jacky and Nicholas."
We were stunned, Alison and I, for separate reasons. It took Alison a few long seconds to recover her composure. But then, she burst into gales of laughter.
"That's indeed a very funny story, Senor Galvan. Charming, even."
"Yes, Senorita Lane, I am quite amused myself," Senor Galvan smiled and twirled his handlebar moustache, "And shall I catch them?"
Alison's eyelashes swiftly fluttered down, "What are you implying, Senor Galvan?"
He did not reply but looked at us without blinking. There was something assessing in that gaze, as if he could see the truth of everything about our relationship, even the truth that was not there. The waiters were now whispering to one another in Spanish, as if coached in a shaming ritual, "Estafadores. Mentirosos." Con artists, liars.
Alison suddenly got up from the table. Her chest puffed up and she stormed, "Well, I've never been so insulted in my life. Is this how you treat your guests? You impugn their honesty, their credibility, their integrity? You come up with this cockamamie story, this ridiculous couple, and you ask us to do what exactly? You should be so lucky if we don't sue you for libel. We are most certainly not this Jacky and Nicholas. Did your good friend, Senor Ruiz's cousin, also give you a description of this couple? Does it match ours? Did you check? I suggest you do that. Meanwhile, you have simply ruined my meal. Entirely ruined it. There is absolutely no way I will have a wedding dinner here after this. What's more, I don't believe there is a way you can make it up to me. You've mortified me."
She gestured to me, "Come on, Nicholas, give them your credit card and let's get out of here before they insult us further!"
I took out my wallet and handed over my Amex. But Senor Galvan had a further trick up his sleeve. He waved it away. "We deeply regret having offended you. There was entirely no implication intended. I merely wanted to ask your opinion of a newsworthy event I have heard. I most sincerely apologize. For suffering the indignity, the meal is on us. But if it is true what you say, this being a case of mistaken identity, surely you would not mind if we take a picture of you and we will circulate it and tell the other restaurants that you are not that couple, Jacky and Nicholas, si?"
"I most certainly do mind," Alison began, but she didn't get anywhere. One of the waiters produced a Polaroid from behind his back and snapped our picture. Her truth would not save her now. The choice was crystal clear: we had to make a swift decision whether to beat it while we were ahead of the game or risk further embarrassment extracting the photograph. Senor Galvan had called our bluff.
I tugged at Alison's sleeve and said, "Let it go, honey."
To Senor Galvan, I said, "This is a crazy joint, Senor Galvan. I don't know what kind of game you're running here, but we're nice people, and we're going to let this pass."
Alison and I left without having coffee.
In the car ride back from Venta Morena, we did not talk much. Alison fumed beside me.
"I don't recall ever using the name "Jacky." It's odd, because my memory never fails me."
I ran a hand through my hair but kept my eyes on the road. "It's a mystery all right."
"That what you call it... a mystery? Do you suppose they got us mixed up with someone else, some two-timing couple with the same idea?" Her voice boiled with anger.
I shrugged, keeping my silence.
We drove past scorched brown hills dotted with olive groves. A sign on the roadside read "Antequeria - Salidas - 2 kilometres." Alison stormed, "That Jacky is so straitlaced and Diego follows her around like a little mastiff. But underneath it all, she's just another lying bitch."
I said, "Wait just a minute, you should talk."
That stopped Alison cold. I could see her fighting for composure. Then, sweetly she said, "Why, Nicholas, is there something you want to tell me?"
I shook my head. Fear knotted itself in my stomach. I glanced back at the golf clubs I'd forgotten to put in the boot. Just in case. "Oh no, you were phenomenal. A tour de force performance. They never guessed until now. It was fun while it lasted."
Alison's fingertips smoothed her eyebrows in a placid gentle motion, but I could see they were trembling with suppressed emotion, "So that's how it's going to be, is it? Yes, it's been a great game. All of it. It's been one great game."
I drove without looking at her, and with ice-cold resolve said, "We mustn't mind too much. That's all it is. A game. In a game, there's a winner and a loser. Always." I turned, and Alison's face was a mask, a strange and cryptic smile now playing about her lips, even as she touched her fingers to her eyebrows.
Copyright © E. P. Chiew 2006.