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The Talcott House, A Gothic Romance
by:  Lucretia Bingham, Ramblings
e-mail:  Lucretiawb@aol.com
web:  http://lucretiawb.tumblr.com
twitter:  http://www.twitter.com/Lucretiawb
Lucretia is joyful, curious and a storyteller in both words and images.
April 7, 2012

Bonding (continued)

I swallowed hard. Something she said had penetrated to the quick after all. His history? What did I know of this man? I knew his skin, his passion, his touch both gentle and rough, his laugh, his ability to make me feel safe, and beneath it all, there was an abiding sense of rightness about us, as deep and strong as the currents whirling all around us, but what indeed did I know of his history? I thought back to an old woman I had seen eating noodles in the market yesterday.
INSERT PICTURE
She had touched me because she was way too transparently thin as if made of brittle parchment paper, and she hunched over her bowl of noodles as if it were the only warm thing she had touched in years. But you could see by the exquisite slope of her shoulder and the fine curve of her cheekbone that she had once been a great beauty and no doubt loved as well as I had been in the last ten days. I had sworn to myself many a time that I would not let the spectre of the future haunt me. I had come too far to let fear rule my life. If I was to be a bag lady in my later years then I would sell avocadoes on the side of the highway, goddamit, and no one, not anyone, would dare to feel sorry for me. I chuckled at the ridiculousness of my own image.
But…I also told myself…forewarned is forearmed and maybe it was time to visit the boat’s library where a Google search of Stuart Winslow seemed to be in order. Two hours later I went back to my cabin, locked the door and curled up into a fetal position to consider all that I had gleaned from the internet.

* * *

I started with Google. It spat back forty fives pages of info on Stuart Smith Winslow. The first few pages were mostly about his hotel transactions. He was known for finding old run down hotels with great bones in decaying areas. His was the first boutique hotel to open in Times Square when it was still transitioning out of pimp and porno land and into the somewhat more sanitized adult Disneyland it now is. Then he was the first in Soho, and the first in the Meat packing district. He seemed to have a nose for finding the next chic area of New York, just before property values sky-rocketed there. And he was known for his fabulous interiors; he hired only the best architects and interior designers to carve out shining new designs without losing old original details.
I began to skim the articles, pushing ahead through the pages until I got to more personal stuff. One page was entitled, “The fashion of Catherine Winslow, wife to famed hotelier Stuart Winslow.” A screen popped up with thirty six pictures of the couple at various benefit events. One picture in particular struck havoc in my heart. They were ascending the steps of the Metropolitan Museum at the annual Costume Institute Ball. Her dress was long and red and trailed behind her down the steps, a flow of blood red satin, pooling at her feet and then enveloping the rounded and voluptuous body as if it were a mummy shroud wrapped tight around her, again and again. Her breasts heaved above this satin as if they had a life of their own; her shining blond hair was pulled back tight in ascending tiers. She was looking up at the photographer, her lips puffed in a practiced pout, her face turned sideways so that her face was displayed in a perfect three quarters slant, her eyes cast slightly downwards and away from the admiring lens. She peeped up at the photographer with that perfect blend of coy surprise and cunning. She was stunningly beautiful. Stuart seemed a mere appendage by her side though she was clinging to his hand. He looked fierce and angry and impatient; his intense gaze was only on his wife. As if he couldn’t wait to be alone with her, I thought. My heart hammered.
My fingers kept punching next page and next page until another bold headline popped up. Socialite Caroline Winslow leaves her hotelier husband for a Spanish polo player, taking her four daughters with her, refusing a full interview but hinting at physical abuse with her current husband. My heart stopped, then kicked back to life; painfully, I gasped for air. I quickly typed in a search of Caroline Winslow’s name. Caroline Winslow Ordonez showed up; lost in a fire that consumed her Spanish’s husband’s ancestral home in the hills above Sevilla. The four girls were rescued by a family retainer and her former husband, Stuart Winslow. Her present husband could not be reached for comment. It was thought that he was playing polo in Argentina. The date on the article was just under a year ago. I erased the searches then pushed the chair back from the computer and stumbled down the two steep flights of stairs to my cabin.

****

My pity party didn’t last long. I gave myself over to twenty minutes of self-blame, castigation and despair that I had somehow fallen for a man who had so clearly been head over heels in love with someone patently the opposite of myself. That bothered me more than the hints of physical abuse. Somehow that seemed spurious to me, the flailing self-justification of a woman leaving a man for another man. And the look in his eyes when he looked at his ex-wife Caroline also bothered me more than the fact that he hadn’t shared the existence of four daughters with me. I reminded myself that I hadn’t talked about my two daughters either. Both of us had been reveling in the present, eschewing all mention of past and future. And so the more I thought about it, the more absurd my reaction seemed. It was a case of wounded vanity, nothing more, those old insecurities that popped up like metastases when I least expected them. So I did once more what I had learned to do so well in my forty-two years of existence, get up, get moving, act as if everything was alright, and the positive feelings would follow.
Our tour that day was the perfect antidote to any lingering feelings of self-pity. I nodded at all my fellow travelers and then went to my usual seat in the back where I could sit alone and abandon myself to watch the flow of humanity and scooters and rickshaws out the window. The air was particularly dense that day, full of churning dust and emissions. They took us to the Killing Fields Museum which housed a harrowing collection of photographs hung in the actual cells in which prisoners awaited torture and death. INSERT PICTURE We learned that the Khmer Rouge had marched all the educated people - teachers, lawyers, doctors - out of the cities and into the countryside where they had been systematically slaughtered. Fully one third of Cambodian’s population, estimated at close to 1,700,000 had fallen victim to the slash of machetes and hammers. In the face of such horror, any sufferings I had experienced faded away to nothingness. I took a picture of myself in front of a glass case full of pictures of some of the many young woman who had been killed. My reflection hovered like a ghost in the image and I swore to once more seize whatever happiness life offered me. INSERT PICTURE
This vow was reaffirmed later in the day when we visited and walked the actual killing fields where heavy rains still revealed new emerging skulls and thigh bones. I broke away from the tour group and followed a path out through a thick clump of bamboo toward where I could see rice paddies and a sheet of water glistening like silver in the late afternoon sun. I heard beautiful singing and followed its lure. Through a barbed wire fence I spied two young men paddling in a dug out sampan. The one in front was singing and I hailed them and they me with a show of hands and smiles. I went back to the bus and the ride back to the boat, at peace with myself and the present.

Insert picture of the boat

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January 23, 2012

Bonding, an excerpt from The Talcott House, a Gothic Novel

Bonding
The next few days went by in a sensual daze. I had never experienced this kind of physical intensity before, except perhaps in childbirth and the weeks that immediately followed. But in this case another person was intimately sharing the experience. Every ounce of my body felt alive; each skin cell throbbed with life. When we were apart, all I had to do was think of him and waves of pleasure coursed through me. We could not get enough of each other. Each time we came back together after a few hours of separation, we fell on each other as if it had been years rather than hours. Time and sound fell away as our bodies came together. Afterwards, sounds would come back bit by bit, the crank of the anchor chain or the cry of a street vendor and we would lie in each other’s arms until our hearts and breathing slowed and our inhalations and exhalations flowed back and forth between us until all boundaries blurred and our hearts beat as one.
“What have you done to me?” He growled one morning as we awoke all tangled up in sheets and legs and arms. I said nothing, just turned in to be enveloped by his arms and pulled in to nestle against his chest. Just as I had imagined, his body was furry, but only on his chest and arms and belly and groin. His shoulders were smooth and broad and I loved hanging on them when I was close to coming. He was a powerful man and in his alpha male prime at 51. I felt small and helpless next to him but safe as I had never felt before. Though I had learned, as both a child and adult, to take care of myself and, later, as a mother, others, I had never before learned to let someone else take care of me. In the mornings when he left me to go back to his cabin, he arranged for the steward to bring me great steaming pots of ginger tea and honey. I drank it all, each sip replenishing and rehydrating me after all the exertions of the night before. “The nectar of the Gods!” I thought to myself.
I tried not to think of the future, that this blissful river cruise, this time apart from the world, had a finite end. I imagined, but only with a huge searing pain, that we would go our separate ways, so I just reveled in each day as much as I could. And that was easy to do. It turned out Stuart had come on this cruise partially to check out the possibilities of expanding his hotel chain into either Pnomh Penh or Angkor Wat and even perhaps in Hanoi as well. So he spent his days with a car and driver, visiting various hotels and talking with local contractors and businessmen. He would return to the boat in mid-afternoon just as I would be returning from the day’s excursions to various riverside towns with their floating markets and temples. There would be a knock on the door and I would open it and he would, without a word, start kissing my neck, nipping at my shoulders, devouring my mouth until I, with a tiny moan, would jump up off the floor, straddling him with my legs and he would carry me to the bed and make us happy.
“What makes you so good?” He said one day as we lay, afterwards, entwined in each other’s arms, “I’ve never met a woman with so few obfuscations.”
“Obfuscations,” I laughed, “Is that a compliment?” I turned to breathe in his scent, a delicious musky male aroma.
He barked with laughter; his eyes almost closed when he laughed, his face folding into relaxed and pleasured lines, far different than the haunted closed off mask he most portrayed to the world. “You have no pretenses. The only clothes you own seem to be left overs from your brothers or father. You don’t wear make up or perfume. You don’t bother with a hair dryer. You don’t ask me about myself. And best of all, you don’t say, where is this going?”
I nuzzled my face into his chest, my heart beating fast; I didn’t dare tell him that I thought about those things but I would also bite off my tongue before asking.
“Hmmm?” He said and shook me gently, “What makes you so good?”
In a tiny voice I answered, “I guess it was because no one loved me very much when I was growing up. So I had to learn to love myself. From an early age, I mostly remember telling myself over and over again that everything was going to be okay. Bob Marley’s got nothing on me!!!”
“Everything’s going to be alright!” he half sang. “I don’t know why but you make me believe it. Oh, I forgot, I bought you something.” He reached down over the side of the bed and pulled up a paper bag. Inside was a beautifully simple embroidered skirt of red, black and pink, with a flowing fuschia tank top made of local Cambodia silk, and a shawl to match the skirt. I was speechless; I buried my hands in the soft silk and brought it up to hide my blush.
“The cloth comes from the Hmong Tribe; they’re up in the Central Highlands and the women have the same golden skin and ruddy blush as you.”
I closed my eyes to hide the spurt of tears. He tenderly stroked my eyelids. “What’s the matter? Hasn’t anyone ever done anything for you? Hasn’t anyone ever noticed you were pretty?”
I shook my head.
“Well get used to it my dear. I plan to spoil you silly.”
“Not silly!?!” I laughed.
“Well perhaps not silly.” He gave me a firm slap on the rump, “Get going girl. Get dressed. We’re going out to eat tonight.”
I walked down the gang plank that night, very aware of the row of onlookers, our fellow cruisemates who were having cocktails on the upper deck before going to the boat dining room. I held my head up high, glad that I had wound the shawl into a turban on my head and that the silk top caressed my skin and that the skirt fit snugly and well over my slim hips and thighs. I had looked up Hmong women in my guidebook and they were beautiful, with high rounded cheekbones and ruddy cheeks. Suddenly my sallow skin and bony angles seemed like assets rather than a liability.
We took a cycle rickshaw through the crowded and dusty streets of Pnom Penh. The streets were full of careering scooters, some piled high with as many as five people. They parted around oncoming traffic as if they were nothing but water molecules swaying around river rocks. The sight made me laugh out loud with pleasure at the totally anarchic but somehow ordered flow of traffic and the world. I leant back and let the flow take me. He chuckled.
“What?” I said and gave him a prod.
“Nothing. I just like seeing you happy.”
INSERT PICTURE
We ate that night at the old Raffles Hotel, a wonderful fin de siecle structure with large verandahs and jungly gardens. The vast high ceilinged dining room served a fusion of French and Cambodian food. I had tender Pork Medallions, smothered with slices of fresh ginger and tiny thin slices of grilled pineapple. Without asking he speared one off my plate and so I dug into his fiery red chicken curry surrounded by bright green morning glory greens. We ate as if we had not eaten in weeks and washed down a whole trayful of French pastries with a glorious bottle of Veuve Cliqout Champagne. I nodded off on the way back to the boat and hardly remembered him tucking me in and turning out the light as he carefully closed the door behind him.
I awoke the next morning and the bed felt cold and empty without him. I sighed as I remembered he said he would be gone all day on business. I tried hard not to think about the fact that there were only three days left to our trip.
I went upstairs to the top deck for an early morning coffee and watched the sunrise over the swirling waters of the Mekong. From the embankment, a man threw out a net then jumped in after it to swim it back to shore, each time the current almost sweeping him away. I thought about how I too felt swept away by currents beyond my control. A hand fell on my shoulder and I turned with a smile thinking it was Stuart. Instead it was Frances, the woman of the tangled hair and smokestack episode.
“How arrrrre You?” She smiled. “I couldn’t help but notice who you left with last night!” She coyly dropped her head to one side, clearly waiting for and wanting more details. But I just smiled and nodded and said nothing. She sighed and plunked herself down into the chaise next to me.
“Well, he’s quite a catch. But I wouldn’t expect too much to come of it.”
“Oh I don’t!” I hastened to say.
“He’s got quite a history you know.”
I didn’t know but nodded as if I did and my heart started to hammer in my chest.
“He certainly isn’t anyone I would count on,” she said nastily, “Those rich men are just used to getting their own way. Just grabbing what they want and then …..” She waved her hand airily, “Discarding it! Like a used Kleenex.” Then suddenly her voice oozed silkiness and caring. “You seem like such a nice girl. So down to earth. I would hate to see you get hurt.”
I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin. She didn’t know that years of such poisonous concern from my own Mother had built a cocoon around me of such strength that all personal barbs bounced off me like raindrops off a statue. And so I smiled and I would like to think I looked both sensual and ambiguous like the Giaconda smiles on the Cambodian statues as I said, “Thank you so much for your concern!” and raised my folding binoculars to my eyes to watch a gaily painted boat transverse the river with a tall lean woman at the helm steering the boat swiftly and expertly toward the other shore. Frances got the hint and opened her Kindle with a slap of leather and soon her nails were hitting next page every few minutes.
I swallowed hard. Something she said had penetrated to the quick after all. His history? What did I know of this man? I knew his skin, his passion, his touch both gentle and rough, his laugh, his ability to make me feel safe, and beneath it all, there was an abiding sense of rightness about us, as deep and strong as the currents whirling all around us, but what indeed did I know of his hist

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January 6, 2012

The Lovers

The Lovers
And so that night, under the stars, our unspoken bond began. We settled in next to each other as if we were animal souls that had known each other in many another life. I felt a deep sense of ease as if I had circled twice, around and around, sniffing the wind from each direction, and then slumped down, safe at last.
We hardly said two words to each other that first night. But when he said good-night he cupped my chin and looked me deep in the eye. There was fear in his eyes but acceptance as well. I had to look away from his gaze, down to the craggy folds of his face; there were deep lines etched from his nose to down below his trim mouth. He deeply inhaled then sighed as if he had made a decision.
“Thank you!!!” he said.
“Thank you?” I stammered, “What for?”
“So few people just let me be. You have a gift for silence. A rare thing in this world.” And then he turned and walked away.
I went down to my cabin, down on the first deck, up toward the front where the anchor chain rattled and woke me up at dawn. We were docking at a small riverside town. I threw on a large man’s shirt, belted it with an old Berber belt from Morocco, jammed a Fedora (my father’s old felt hat from the 50’s), down over my bed-head hair, slipped on my gold Havaiannas and went outside. The rope hand-rails of the gang plank had just been tied off but he was already onshore waiting for me. He nodded to one side and paddled his hands to mimic walking then cocked his large head to one side in question. I nodded yes, grabbed the hand-rails, carefully watching my feet as they navigated the gangplank to the shore but my heart was beating fast and I knew I was flushing. My sallow olive skin had a tendency to blush mahogany when I exercised or was excited in some manner.
We fell into step next to each other, reaching an easy almost loping gait that had obviously carried us both many a mile. We walked down a concrete sidewalk that ran along the river. A group of middle-aged women were doing a strange amalgam of Tai Chi and aerobics; two couples were stringing a badminton net between two palms. Beyond the promenade we entered the maze of an early morning market. Fish swirled in shallow plastic tubs; huge bundles of fresh cilantro filled the air with a pungent aroma; heaps of mangoes and piles of oranges flashed bright beneath the striped canopies. He stopped to buy a bunch of redolent lotus blossoms, still dripping with dew and intoxicating in the intensity of their perfume. We turned and walked back to the promenade where he sat down on a concrete bench facing the brown swirling river, wide here, but running fast close in, still in flood from the recent Monsoon. He patted the seat next to him.
“Sit!” He commanded but not unkindly. And so I did.
He cleared his throat. His feet tapped, his hands twitched. I couldn’t help noticing the smooth and shiny black hairs on his forearms. My husband had been almost hairless. I blushed at the thought of what this man’s naked body might look like. Again he harrumphed, a coughing sound like a lion getting ready to roar. Then he blurted out. “I’m Stuart Winslow. I own a chain of boutique hotels. I’ve made a lot of money. And I’m not interested in ever getting married again.”
“Was I proposing?” I laughed at the absurdity of his statement. He had the grace to laugh as well and again I felt that little frisson of joy that I could make him laugh. “And I’m Ophelia Sawyer, christened Ophelia Anna Endicott Roosevelt Griswold Tiffany Sawyer, but better known as Ollie and, in the spirit of your full disclosure, I have no money at all.”
He shot me a sideways glance, his thick black eyebrows drew together like dark clouds on a horizon. He almost barked at me. “How did you pay for this trip then? I thought anyone who came on these trips had to have some money. You’re not wearing a wedding ring!” He almost shouted this last, as if it were an accusation.
“Whoa! Slow down!! I thought you were the one who didn’t want personal questions.”
“I also don’t want to waste my time.”
“Oh I see. Well then,” I looked down at my toe-nails, painted bright copper for this trip. I spread them out, my toes were strong; I had always liked the strength of my feet, their high arch, the wide spread of the toes. These were feet that had carried me well and I was proud of how far they’d brought me. They gave me courage. “Not that it’s any of your business, but my husband left me for a Thai girl man and he made sure to take all the money with him before I knew he was leaving. I make just enough money to support myself and my girls are on scholarship at state universities. And my brothers bought me this trip for Christmas! There. Full disclosure. Oh and sometimes I talk in my sleep!”
This last brought a begrudging bark of laughter. “Sorry to be so abrupt. It’s just that I don’t want you to have any illusions about me. Or of what I’m capable of. ”
“And that happens to you a lot? Women having delusions about you? Building castles in the air all around you?”
Again he laughed, then grimaced. “It does happen a lot. Unfortunately.”
I took a deep breath. “Well, to be honest with you. I want to find the love of my life. I’m still hoping for that. But I’m not looking to marry money. Or build a fantasy life around someone. I want it real.”
With that he stood up abruptly, “Well then. I guess that settles that.” He walked off without a good-bye. I sat there for awhile feeling stung. The lotus blossoms lay next to me, still redolent. I pulled them to me and inhaled deeply of the aroma. They smelled of skin fresh from the bath, and of gardenias crushed tight against the chest in a dance, and of something musky and exotic that I could not place. I sighed. One more time my Ollie toad-like truth telling had made me stumble. I took a deep breath, looked around me at laughing children, at the sampans slipping by on the river with women at their helms wearing conical straw hats, and all below the slipping sliding of the current of the great Mekong and I squared my shoulders and walked back to the boat and had fresh mango and yogurt with honey for breakfast.
The rest of the day sped by in a blur of activity. We drove in two buses to a temple where a giant golden Buddha lay resplendent on his side. Later in the day, we lifted anchor and sailed to another temple where children escorted us, hand in hand, up a steep hundred steps to a temple where an old monk prayed and lit incense next to a pile of human skulls. I marveled at the golden satin skin of all the people, their perfect high cheekbones, and that mysterious smile that beckons from all the statues in Cambodia, a smile that promises sensuality yet hints at an acceptance of the violence inherent in the culture. Stuart Winslow did not attend either of the tours but I saw him at dinner, sitting with a family of Burmese people, and laughing uproariously. I hated that someone else could make him laugh. I fled the dining room and found my place in the shadow of the stack but the magic was gone. It was an overcast night and the smoke from the chimney blurred the air and made it hard to breathe. I went down to my room and got ready for bed, putting on an old linen shirt of my father’s that fell to my mid-thighs and was as soft and comforting as baby skin.
Just as I was drifting off to sleep, there was a knock on the door and a sibilant whisper. “Opheeelia! Open the door.”
I jumped out of bed, my heart hammering and opened the door to my cabin. Outside the water rushed past in a great whoosh, the sky had cleared, and a full moon had risen over the jungle and laid a glittering path to my door across the swirling waters. His eyes glinted silver in the moonlight. He looked down at me. I followed his gaze. My nipples were aroused. He put his hand on my hip and drew me into him, enfolding me close and I could smell the heat of him. Again he groaned and lifted me up and carried me back inside as if I were light as a feather, then threw me back on the narrow bed and raised my shirt as carefully as if he were revealing treasure. “I knew it,” he groaned, “A perfect 15 year old body.”
He leaned down to nip the inside of my thighs, biting carefully, just enough to hurt but not break the skin. I moaned in response, both horrified and pleasured. And then he devoured my mouth and my body and took me with him.
* * *

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January 5, 2012

The Talcott House, a Gothic Romance

The Beginning
We met floating down the Mekong River in Cambodia. On a riverboat designed to look like the African Queen. With teak floors and plenty of chaises and shade for us middle-aged tourists who no longer could lay out but still looked pretty good in candlelight and one piece bathing suits with tummy control. With only 64 passengers it was the kind of cruise you knew everyone had to have some modicum of success and/or travel expertise. With gangplanks plonked down on mud-banks and bicycle rickshaws waiting onshore, this was no Princess cruise. But then I was no princess, more an injured queen who had lost her court.

My past
My mother raised me to be a heroine though I seemed an unlikely candidate. Despite her giving me seven names - Ophelia Anna Endicott Roosevelt Griswold Tiffany Sawyer -all reflecting past glories of our once illustrious but now poor family, I seemed doomed to obscurity. Where my mother sported curly hair, a large bosom and a way with charm, I was sallow, flat chested, my hair was lank, and I was often tongue-tied. Though she thought my intelligence was wasted on a girl, she said I had better cultivate my smartness since I didn’t have looks.
And so I read a lot of books, and learned to play every sport I could because it was the only way I could get my four older brothers to notice me. We were all from different fathers, each more elusive and eccentric than the last, and ever more impoverished until we ended up squatting in a ramshackle family house in a stone filled pasture in south-eastern CT. My mother kept the family silver polished and her tales of lost fortunes scintillated through the long winter nights. I rode horses and let my hair grow long and it grew streaky in the sun. I skated furiously, ran after every ball on the tennis court, and courted disaster on double black diamonds. But I never learned to talk with ease. Words plopped out my mouth like toads. Honest but homely and not often cherished.
My brothers all went off to Groton, all on scholarship, and my mother chanted at them to make rich friends, both for their own connections, and because, God knows, I’d need help finding a husband. During high school one of my brother’s Adonis like friends noticed me. Later I realized that it was because he knew I’d never outshine him. But he liked that I could return his backhand even though I never won the game. And I could follow him down the ski trails without ever catching up. And he could always keep track of where I was because I never got asked anywhere.
I married him when I was nineteen and he twenty-three. He took me to Hollywood where he hoped to break into producing movies. He executive produced one exploitation film, then one more five years later, but, more and more, he took long baths, soaking his ever pastier and softer body, and yelling at me when our two girl babies made noise. And just 18 months previously, he had disappeared. He sent divorce papers from Thailand where he confessed he had taken to girl/men. He graciously said I could have all the money. But it turned out there was nothing left in any of our American bank accounts. I sold our house though the girls, off at college, were furious with me. I paid off all our debts of which, it turned out, there were plenty, and high-tailed it back to Connecticut where I was perching, temporarily I hoped, with my mother who had such a busy gardening and tennis schedule that I hardly ever saw her. She certainly spent no time in the old farmhouse which was collapsing around her, the roof all covered with moss, the rooms on the first floor slanting alarmingly down toward rotting sills. But she polished her silver and served food out of cans onto old Meissen procelain. I took a job as an administrative assistant in a medical office. It had benefits and a reliable check which I found enormously reassuring. I figured I would fade away into obscurity like the little brown mouse I was.
But life had other plans for me. Crumbling mansions had always haunted my dreams. And in that house lived a man who needed me and I him, in a way I had never even dreamed of. On the second night of the river boat cruise, I met the scion of the Talcott House and so it was I tiptoed into my future and became a heroine after all.

Beneath the stars
On the second night of the cruise, I fled the noisy dining room for the fresh air of the upper deck. Competitive chatter and air conditioning were not my thing. I leaned over the side railing; the soft night breeze caressed my bare shoulders and I watched the jungle drift past, its borders an eggplant purple line above the black velvet water studded with the silver reflections of stars. I moved behind the large smokestack at the rear of the deck, sliding down until I sat, crossed-legged on the floor with my back against the stack. In the blanketing shadow of the stack, the stars took on an unearthly glittering intensity. And because we were only ten degrees north of the Equator the clusters of constellations were wonderfully strange. I shuddered with wonder and fell into deep yoga breathing, consciously willing the toxicity of recent years to slip away on the undulating wake. I felt at the center of a wonderful circle of sky and water, my breathe at the very center.
A couple moved in to lean against the rail just to the left and in front of me. They seemed totally unaware of my presence in the shadow. The woman was one of four with whom I had dined the previous night. They were high school friends who traveled together one week of every year. Two had never married. Only one had children. And only one was married now. This blond was one of the two who had never married. She tossed her hair and earrings now until they tangled in confusion. The man next to her had broad shoulders and seemed to be purposefully leaning away from the slant of her body toward him.
“It’s just that I’ve just never happened to meet Mr. Right!!!” She shrieked as if her laughter was signaling a warning. “But enough about me. What about meeee!!!!” Again she shrilled. “Just kidding! No seriously now, what do you do for fun and money?”
I could sense the tension in his back; his hands on the railing twitched and he looked off to the side. His profile came into view; there was a gentle hook to his nose, and his lips were thin and pursed above a clenched jaw. The profile had an ancient look to it, as if it could have been etched on a roman coin or in a miniature portrait that Victorian women would have tucked into their lockets. I saw him take a deep breathe and turn back toward her. “I don’t mean to be rude but I make it a policy never to answer personal questions while traveling.”
“Oh? Oh, oh, oh,” and with each oh she flittered further away from him, visibly shriveling; her hand reached up to fling her hair and caught itself in the tangle of earring and cascading curls. “Oh, oh, ouch. And now I’ve hurt myself.” She turned away from him, a sob in her throat. “I’m sorry I bothered you!”
“No it’s me who should be sorry,” he growled, “I’m not fit for human company. Better leave the tiger alone.”
And let him lick his wounds, I thought to myself. This man was wounded, I could tell. I had the same impulse myself, to withdraw when hurt.
The woman tossed her hair one last time and forced a smile, “Well I guess I’ll leave you be. It’s just that I thought since you were sitting alone at dinner you might just be wanting company and I…. oh I’m just digging the hole deeper; I’ll leave you now.” And with that she swept off and I could hear her heels clattering like castanets down the steep wooden stairway to the second deck.
After she left, there was a silence and then he took in a deep breath and shuddered like a horse ridding itself of flies. “Arrgggh!!!” he groaned.
For some reason hearing his self-loathing groan made me laugh. I tried to suppress it but it came out sideways like a little snort. I saw his shoulders tense up again, and the thick steel grey hair on the back of his neck almost seemed to rise, as if he were prey and I the hunter.
“I thought I was alone!” he said.
“Obviously.”
“Do you make a habit of eavesdropping on other people and then laughing at their foibles?”
“I was here first!” I protested. “You’re not the only one who wants to be alone.”
“I guess it’s my turn to beat a hasty retreat.”
“That’s’ not what I meant!”
There was a long silence as he struggled to decide whether to leave or stay. He quite obviously didn’t want to offend two women in the space of as many minutes but it was also clear he was not the chit-chat type.
“The view of the stars is actually a lot better down here in the shadow,” I said, “I promise not to talk if you want to share the space. I can even promise you that people don’t see you even when close by.”
At that he laughed and the sound of his laughter filled me with an odd frisson of joy. Making people laugh was always one of the things I had hoped to do but rarely had.
He moved into the shadow and it was so dark that he was only a presence that sat down beside me, several inches away, but strangely close.
And so we sat in silence, breathing in the damp river air, watching the stars swing by overhead, the milky way arching above as if it were a bridge to the entire universe.

* * *

The Lovers
And so that night, under the stars, our unspoken bond began. We settled in next to each other as if we were animal souls that had known each other in many another life. I felt a deep sense of ease as if I had circled twice, around and around, sniffing the wind from each direction, and then slumped down, safe at last.
We hardly said two words to each other that first night. But when he said good-night he cupped my chin and looked me deep in the eye. There was fear in his eyes but acceptance as well. I had to look away

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A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R

Lucretia Bingham has worked for many years as a free-lance writer and photographer. She has written for Conde Nast Traveler, Vanity Fair, Travel and Leisure, and the Smithsonian. During her years in Los Angeles, she was a frequent contributor to the LATimes Travel Section and the Los Angles Times Magazine; her photographs often illustrated her travel pieces.

Lucretia has recently completed a memoir, based on the story of her childhood in the Bahamas. Her mother, a romantic blue blood, married her step-father, a swamp Yankee from CT. Cut off by her family, her mother chartered a tramp steamemr, filled it full of goats and chickens and set sail for an extremely isolated village in the Bahamas, determined to give her young children a self-sufficient Robinson Crusoe life. Lucretia's book, A FAR PLACE, is the story of their years in the village.

During the beginning weeks of 2012, Lucretia started a Gothic Romance Novel Blog called the Talcott House. Http://lucretiawb.tumblr.com


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