Roland Hughes felt his way along the rough stone walls of a dark alleyway. He moved toward the hazy light and the muffled sound of voices. The alleyway opened onto a piazza crowded with people under a gray sky. There was no cohesion between time and motion. The people flickered and moved freeze-frame by freeze-frame. Roland smelled the smells of flesh, heard the people speak, and shivered with them when a cold breeze swept through the piazza.
The crowd was made of tan-skinned men and women. Most had long, oily hair. Some of the men and boys wore brimless caps, some oversized berets. Their linen shirts were ivory-colored with wide collars and lacing instead of buttons. Their pants were drab and baggy and came to mid-calf. The older girls covered their heads with bright kerchiefs and the women with shawls. Their blouses were embroidered and had billowy sleeves. All the women wore ankle-length outer skirts. Some had on short jackets, and others wore vests. Both men and women were shod in something that looked like a cross between a shoe and a sandal or wooden clog. Many were barefoot.
The campanile bell tolled twelve times. Everyone became quiet and looked toward the city gate. The crowd gave a cheer as a light blue, gold-trimmed horse-drawn carriage entered. A beautifully dressed woman stepped out of the carriage and with the aid of an attendant mounted a few wooden steps onto a narrow platform arranged with chairs. The beautiful lady was greeted by two priests in black, who led her to her raised seat.
Another man on the platform stood and spoke. The crowd hushed and listened. His flamboyant gestures ignited the people. First a few men, and then more, started to shout out, “Burn them, burn them, burn them!”
“Roland! Hey, sleepyhead. Come on, it’s past eight-thirty.” Liz stood at the foot of the bed and made little crab pinches at Roland’s foot that peeked out from under the covers. He opened his eyes. The pillow under his head was damp with sweat and cool against his face when he turned from his back to his side.
Roland smiled and pulled his foot in. “Hi, babe. Is it really that late?” He laid his head back down on the pillow.
“Come on, you. Get up. It’s a beautiful Saturday here in paradise.” Liz went to the window and pulled up the mini blinds.
Roland rolled over onto his back and rubbed his eyes and smiled. “Why do I have to get up again? Or you could join me.” He yawned.
“Because we’re going to The Edelweiss for breakfast, and you wanted to go the street fair on Adams Avenue, remember? It was your idea. We just talked about it Thursday.”
“Right, right, the street fair. That should be fun.” Roland winced with pain and pressed the sides of his head in his palms.
Liz’s smile faded. “You feel okay?” She put her hand on his forehead. “Where’s your thermometer?”
He gently pushed her hand away. “I feel okay.” He sat up. “I don’t know where this headache came from. I just need some coffee.” Liz sat on the bed and nodded for him to continue. “I just had the weirdest dream. It was more than a dream; it was just so real. I mean, really real.”
“I hope you didn’t have a nightmare.”
“No, no nightmare, nothing like that. I could see the smallest details just as plain as I’m looking at you. Like I said, it was like I was really there. I think I was at a witch burning.” He massaged his forehead. “Come to think of it, I was reading about that kind of thing just the other day.”
“That might explain it.” Liz leaned in closer. “Speaking of your studies, how’s your thesis coming?”
Roland only had one thing on his mind. “Everybody was dressed in medieval or renaissance clothing. Liz, I could feel these people brush up against me and I could smell them. It was just too weird.” Roland threw the covers back and got out of bed.
“What happened in the dream?”
“Nothing, really. We were all waiting for something. Everyone was getting excited. That’s when this beautiful woman woke me up.”
He picked his pants up off the chair next to the bed and started to put them on.
“You’re not going to shower?” Liz uncrossed her arms and leaned back on her elbows. For as long as she had known him, it was a certainty that her Roland always felt better after a shower, and even more so if she joined him. But of late she had taken herself off his menu.
Roland pulled the gray T-shirt over his head and tossed it on the bed.
“I can take a shower later.” He lifted his arm and sniffed. “I think I can get away with a clean shirt.”
“Of course, Roland. That’s fine with me. It’s just that I know how a shower makes you feel better. Are you sure you don’t want to take one? It might help your headache.”
Roland did not reply. He went into the bathroom, washed his face, and brushed his teeth. He pinched up his hair here and there and held it in place with a little bit of gel. To save time, he didn’t shave, but gave himself a few squirts of aftershave for good measure.
Liz folded Roland’s T-shirt and made the bed. When she finished, she lay crosswise on the bed and looked up through the skylight at the cloudy sky.
Roland lay next to her. He took her hand. “We don’t have to go to breakfast. I can make some scrambled eggs and toast. You like that Earl Grey tea? I’ve got some of that, too.”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’s my treat.” Liz looked around the room. “I can splurge if I want to. The rent is cheap enough so you can stay here for as long as you need to.”
It was true. The rent was dirt cheap, a rarity for San Diego. Roland liked the fact that the granny flat used to be a carriage house. It had a history and character. He liked it better before Liz surprised him and had security bars installed on the windows and front door when he was away at class. It was “to keep him safe,” she said. With his part-time job and student loans, he could just squeak by. Liz helped. Her boss was generous and paid her well enough so she could keep Roland comfortable right where he was.
“I don’t know why it’s so hard to settle on a theme for my thesis. Then I’ve got to publish something. What do they say? ‘Publish or perish’? And then try to get a teaching position.” Roland shook his head; it seemed so daunting.
“If that’s your plan… well, you just have to keep working at it sweetie. It’ll come.” Liz took a strand of her chestnut hair and wound it around her finger.
“I didn’t think it would take this long.” Roland reflected on his unexpectedly long student career and also the change in their relationship.
“It didn’t help that you changed majors twice.” Liz’s statement was meant as a gentle observation, not a scold. She smiled and continued, “But I was there to help you through it.” It was true; she had supported his decisions and even bought his books.
“Yes, you were,” he sighed. “I should have dropped out and just got a job doing anything.”
“I’ll make sure you’ll never have to.” Liz let go of Roland’s hand, grabbed his knee, and pulled herself up to a sitting position. “Come on now, cheer up. I don’t know about you, but I’m starved. Why don’t we get going?”
He sat up, put his arm around Liz’s shoulder, and playfully tugged, hoping she might roll on top of him.
“Hey, knock it off.” She wiggled away and stood. “You can’t have it both ways, you know.” Liz referred to the non-committal answer Roland gave her when she said they should live together again.
At twenty-seven, Liz needed something more from Roland. Her life was moving ahead and she didn’t want to leave him behind. She had landed an excellent job and bought her condo in Pacific Beach. Liz finally had a place of her own. She filled it with those things she had never had as a child. Her job placed a strain on their relationship, a relationship that had started sixteen years before.
Liz met Roland in the sixth grade when she was in the foster care of Mr. and Mrs. White. They were kind and protective, but married a little too late for children. Uncomfortable with the ongoing responsibility of adoption, they decided to remedy their desire to nurture by becoming foster parents.
Liz lived in six different homes. The first two homes were crowded and took her on for the money. She was too young to realize that. The third placement ended when her foster mother collapsed and died on the kitchen floor from a ruptured aneurysm. Her fourth placement ended when the parents, who were desperate for work, left the state. She was eight. They dropped her off at social services. She had her clothes and belongings in a black trash bag. The fifth set of parents were smokers, and that was when Liz found out that she was asthmatic. The sixth parent, a single man, was arrested before he could practice his pedophilia on her.
The Whites’ upstairs two-bedroom apartment on Meade Avenue would be Liz’s final stop. It meant a school transfer and Liz was the new girl again. This time it was Mr. McCloud’s sixth-grade class. He assigned Roland and Liz as science partners. They had to make the classic papier-mâché volcano. There was a spark between the two even then. They had an on-again, off-again puppy love affair through high school that blossomed in college.
Roland tried once more. “You sure you don’t want to have a little fun? I know you want to.”
She pushed him away and crossed her arms over her chest. “Are we going or not?” Liz fought the urge to fall on the bed next to him and fool around. Sometimes she was angry with herself because of how much she needed and loved him.
Roland changed his tack. “How about just one little kiss? Or two, or maybe three. Then we can see if anything comes up.” Roland gave Liz his playful smile and loosely grabbed at her wrist.
“Be fair. You agreed with me that we should take a break from each other and make sure our relationship is not just about sex.”
“Liz, it’s been three months since we’ve made love.”
“I said no, and I mean it.” She sat up.
“Okay, I get it.” Roland was frustrated by Liz’s forced celibacy and the elusive reasons that kept him from breaking out of his cozy limbo.
Liz tugged on Roland’s hand. “Come on, honey, I want to take you to breakfast now.”
They left his granny flat and went down the alley onto 30th Street and up to University Avenue. Liz took the lead. Roland had to keep up.