Selecting a stool at the bar, Esperanza stretched herself up tall, practiced adjusting the slit in her mother's taffeta sheath to show more leg. Anxious, she swiveled toward the band and the dancers, assuming what she hoped was a seductive face: one languid, transported. A face ready to transport.
The waiter was slow. Her carefully selected Carmenère arrived only seconds before Alejandro. Her mother's friend was even more handsome than she'd remembered, his suit better tailored, his shirt custom-made in Hong Kong. Still, there was a weariness about him. His black and grey hair dangled in thick, soft curls over a furrowed brow. The night lights of the club shadowed the deep, craggy ridges in his cheeks. Life had run down those ridges, Esperanza thought. Life had carved them out. Her success would lie in reaching their depth, in touching what was healed over, making the man underneath feel something through the numbness of his scars. She'd have to pierce all shields, gain his attention long enough to make herself addictive, cajole him into sheltering her beyond the reach of the men she'd angered, her uncle's customers, the men with machetes in their trunks, poppy dust on their tires, lust in their eyes.
A man down the bar, vaguely familiar, raised his brows at her, touched his wallet. Esperanza froze, felt her armpits prickle. The time was now.
Esperanza lifted her glass toward Alejandro, wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue. "This is one of my favorites," she told him, naming his best Carmenère. She tried to speak knowledgeably, as if she'd been drinking wine for years, mentioning how rare the wine was, unique to his homeland of Chile, a country that had been spared by its isolation from the phylloxera that killed the Carmenère vines in Europe.
"Your uncle taught you well," he said, his eyes on the dancers, slightly bored, entirely free from lust. Her mother had been right about him. This man wasn't like the rest.
Alejandro had courted her mother years ago, when her father was withering away from cancer. But while he'd won her mother's respect and perhaps even her heart, nothing he could do would bring her to walk out on her ailing husband. Now Esperanza had to make him see her not as what she had been—her mother's little girl—but as a grown woman of eighteen. She had to reach across the decades to him, for all his differences, still a man.
He was standing next to her, his back to the polished bar. She turned on the stool, brushed her breasts ever so briefly against his arm. He stiffened, moved away.
Pretending he hadn't noticed the touch, he said, "Your mother's dress. I remember her in that."
Esperanza shrugged. "She's long dead."
"Your uncle lets you work in his restaurant, takes care of you?"
She said nothing. Now wasn't the time to tell him about the customers, the ones who'd given her uncle money to be with her. She had to open his eyes to her, to make him see her as he'd never seen her before. How?
He was talking of his business trip to San Francisco, a group he'd addressed in the Napa Valley, of delays at customs, of the relief and relaxation of finally being at sea. He still didn't see her.
She thought for a minute, then waggled a painted fingertip at the slow waiter, explained what she wanted next.
"Chilis," he said, repeating her words, "chopped, I assume, with tomatoes—a chili salsa with chips perhaps?"
"No, no, no," she lifted her hands, raised her eyebrows and widened her eyes, winking at Alejandro. "Whole pasilla chilis. Whole jalapeños. Habarneros and serranos, too, if you have them. A plateful." Alejandro's eyes followed her hands as they fluttered, drew pictures of each type of chili in the air. "I don't eat meat," she explained. "And I hate being bored. I want chilis. The hotter the better." She gathered all five fingers to her lips now and flared them outward.
"Si, señorita," the waiter pronounced dutifully.
Suddenly Alejandro rose, checked his watch. "I have to make a call," he said, walking toward the exterior hallway, his cell phone in hand.
Was he thinking of a woman? Esperanza knew she must make him forget her. Otherwise tomorrow night it would be the one with the poppy dust on his shoes, the machete in his trunk. This was her only chance. Now, tonight.
A few minutes later, Alejandro returned, distractedly scrolling through his phone messages. Esperanza's chest was tight, her breath wheezy.
Just then, her plate arrived: multicolored, multi-shaped chilis beautifully arranged in a fan. Perfect, she thought. She and her chilis would stir up those ridges in Alejandro's cheeks, rouse his awareness. He resumed his talk of San Francisco, his eyes still on his phone. Esperanza nudged him, lifted a long pasilla chili high above her face, then lowered it quickly and bit off the bottom. Her mouth flared. So did Alejandro's eyes.
"Chilis," he said, dropping his phone into his pocket.
Esperanza pinched the stem of a squat, orange habarnero. "The English call this a 'scotch bonnet,'" she explained. Two men at a neighboring table turned their chairs to watch, making a scratching noise on the wooden floor. Arching her back and smiling at them, Esperanza dangled the chili over her mouth briefly, then opened and bit. Her eyes watered, but she didn't worry. She wore waterproof mascara.
The waiter, passing with a bread basket in hand, paused and watched. Esperanza took the last of the habarneros between pursed lips and chewed it slowly with nonchalant languor.
"Bravo!" the waiter said.
"Bravo!" the men at the nearby table repeated. One of them stood and clapped. Amusement skipped across Alejandro's face and lighted there. The ridges softened and his jaw relaxed. His eyes focused squarely on Esperanza at last, curious and keen.
She smiled, touched her lips with her tingling tongue. He's all mine, she thought. Now, tonight.
Title graphic: "Carmenère's Charm" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.