She had just bent to read the inscription at Marie Curie’s feet when she heard footsteps that came to an abrupt stop. Wondering who had interrupted her reverie, she turned and found herself looking into the shocked blue eyes of Mark Stratton, the golden man, the smooth seducer who had told her she was beautiful and then taken her innocence. A mountain bike, worse for the wear, was by his side.
“Zina? Is it really you?” He looked as shocked as she felt.
When she finally found her voice, it sounded calm and assured, which was equally shocking. “Yes.”
So had he. His golden beauty had begun to fade. His hair, not as blonde now, no longer gleaming in the sunlight, was shaggy and in need of a trim. The eternal youthful tan had weathered his skin and the dazzling blue of his eyes had faded to ordinary blue. He looked rather ordinary. In fact, dressed in faded jeans and sweatshirt, he looked a little worn around the edges, too.
A surprising but welcome feeling of confidence washed over her. “I suppose I have,” she said, one hand resting casually on the shoulder of Ms. Curie.
“How—how have you been?”
“I’m doing well, thank you,” she said. “And you? Back in Cedar City? What happened to upstate New York?”
He seemed to wither a bit under her glance. “Oh, that,” he said. “The job didn’t work out after all. It wasn’t a good fit.”
“And what have you—you look so different, Zina! I hardly recognized you.”
She gave a brief smile. “That’s what a haircut and a makeover can do for a woman.”
“You look—great. Really. You look. . . stunning.”
She acknowledged his compliment with a slight nod. “Thank you.” She pursued her line of questioning. “So you came back to Cedar City?”
He shrugged. “I always liked it here.”
“You're teaching? High school?”
She considered this for a long moment. “Are any of your students as promising as I was?”
He paused. Then he blinked. “Well, no, actually.” He gave a forced chuckle.
“I’m glad to hear that. No one as gullible as I was, then?”
He swallowed but did not respond. She noticed his hands had tightened on the handlebars of his bike. “No, I suppose not,” she answered her own question. “That’s hardly possible, is it, Mark? To find a girl as gullible and naive as I was.”
He appeared to summon a shred of his old charm; she saw the shadow of his once-stunning smile. “Zina,” he said in a patronizing voice, as if she was sixteen again and he the suave seducer, “we both know it wasn’t like that.”
She dropped her hand from the cold but supportive shoulder of Madame Curie, which she no longer needed, and cocked her head slightly to one side, studying his face again. “Right.”
“So,” he said hastily, as if anxious to change the subject, “you moved away, didn’t you?”
“And what have you done with your life in the last—how long has it been?”
“Ten years, Mark.”
“Right.” His voice had a slight quaver.
“Oh. Well . . ." she pretended to consider what she would say as she watched a slight nervous twitch under his eye. In a casual tone she said, "I’m a college graduate, I have a career, I’ve traveled, and I’m involved in some . . . humanitarian projects.” She gestured at the noble statues. “Nothing all that remarkable. But rewarding, nonetheless.”
“Oh. Well, that’s . . . very impressive.”
She nodded at the larger-than-life figures. “They,” she said, “are impressive.”
She studied him again while he absorbed her response. There was a long silence.
Finally he said, “Zina, we—it ended badly, and I never understood why.”
She assumed a blasé tone. “I’m sure you didn’t, Mark. But that was a long time ago. Another lifetime, really.”
“Would you—would you like to—to get something to eat? We could . . .”
“Catch up on old times?”
“Yes.” His smiled brightened a bit, revealing creases at the corners of his eyes. “Would you?”
She glanced at her watch and mustered a sincere reply. “I'd really like to, Mark, but I have a plane to catch.” She fished in her bag and found her sunglasses, slipping them on to protect her eyes from the bright Cedar City sun. She inclined her head toward her rental car half a block away. “You can walk me to my car if you like.” She turned and began to walk toward the car. He caught up with her, his bike at his side, matching her stride.
“It’s wonderful to see you, Zina. You look—”
“All grown up?” They were, after, all, designer sunglasses, chosen for her by Simon, who had exquisite taste.
She turned her head and met his ordinary blue eyes again. “Yes,” she agreed. “All grown up.” She unlocked the car with a chirp from the remote. “Well, here’s my car.” She opened the door and slid in, inserted the key, turned on the ignition and then lowered the window. “This has certainly been a surprise, Mark.”
She put the car in gear. “Oh,” she said, her foot on the brake, as if a new thought had come to her, “there’s something you really should know.”
“What’s that?” He gave a half-smile and bent down to the open window to hear her answer. There was a small sheen of sweat on his upper lip, which needed a shave. With one manicured fingernail she slid her sunglasses down her nose and met his eyes, those now-average eyes that had once mesmerized her and left her breathless.
She lowered her voice.“The laws on statutory limits for rape—they’re always evolving.”
“What?” The handlebars of his bike slipped from his grip and his bike crashed to the pavement. His were wide, his half-smile frozen.
Now her voice was a conspiratorial whisper. “And you’re not sterile.”
He blanched. “What?”
She slid the sunglasses back to the bridge of her nose and took her foot off the brake. “Goodbye, Mark,” she said to the front windshield. “Wonderful to see you.”
She raised the window and slowly pulled away from the curb. She couldn’t keep herself from glancing in the rear view mirror. Mark stood beside the sidewalk in the bright sunlight, as rigid as the statues she’d been admiring, the bike lying forgotten at his side.
“What?” his open mouth still formed the word.
She turned the corner and headed for the freeway.
- - - -- - From Gabriel's Daughters, my work-in-progress.
Photos of the Centurium monument, c/o Southern Utah University website