The Marriage of the Sea

A Novel

Jane Alison

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Marriage of the Sea
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Max landed in New Orleans like a sprinter. His cab barreled over the toxic empty highway into town, the battered streets and battered sidewalks and battered, crooked houses. He'd chosen the most romantic hotel, just beyond the Garden District, lopsided and seedy. Once he'd checked in he ran up the staircase, noting with delight the stained glass promise in the window: Let my beloved come into his garden and eat his pleasant fruits! Then he had barely put down his bag, barely phoned Sea & Air to provide a temporary number (should his fur teacup and cookbooks and secondhand Paul Smiths be lost at sea in their nailed, stamped crates), before he washed his hands, looked at his teeth, tried to order his fly-away ringlets, paced once up and down the room, lifted the receiver, and dialed. He did it standing, bursting from his body, his mouth stretched in the same wide smile that had stretched it inanely that whole wondrous week. And there, miraculously, she was.
"Well!" she said, slowly but with an unmistakable exclamation mark. Which meant--? "So, Maximilian, you're actually here."
Yes, yes, he tried not to babble, here I am, here I am, for you! He sat down on the bed, but one leg continued to jog and bounce so he clapped a hand heavily upon it.
"We'll have to see each other, then, won't we?" she said.
Which meant--? Max stood up again. His mouth was open in a half-smile, poised to say the next giddy thing, but it went dry that way as, at her end, there was a sudden noise and her voice changed.
"Oh dear, I've got to run. Money's calling, can't be resisted. Call me back in a couple of hours."
Max hung up, suddenly vague, and lay down, or rather unfolded, on the bed. He could hear people out on the porch downstairs. With one eye he studied the floor, which sloped. Perhaps he could smell margaritas from here. Suddenly he sneezed the way he always did, as if the sneeze had erupted from deep in the ground and shaken his whole body with force; he blew his nose noisily and shut his eyes, recovering.
Thick air, very thick air you could almost see hanging--but better than London, certainly. Max looked at his watch and noticed that he had not yet adjusted it. This took some seconds. He got up and lifted the rotting window higher and looked out. The place seemed lazy, all those things it was famed for: Spanish moss, crumbling columns. A hum of voices, a certain smell--electricity, he realized, from the streetcar rattling by. Unknown plants all over. Reluctantly he went out for a walk.
When he came back, he paced around the room a few minutes, whistling between his teeth, then arched, touched his toes, and called her again. No answer. He felt sick and lay down once more on the bed. He opened the Times Literary Supplement, which, folded, he'd banged upon his knee almost the entire Virgin Air flight, and now managed with it to consume more than an hour, until at last it was again time to call.
She had changed her recording, just for him, which had a mixed effect. He was to call tomorrow, her voice said, so sorry she didn't have his number, so rude to make him keep calling.
Now Max had an entire night. He drank two exceptionally salty margaritas on the porch downstairs, and thought of that island somewhere nearby that was supposed to be made of salt, and watched the news, which seemed very American. He ate not the best sample of red beans and rice. For a time he studied the different bottles of hot sauce, comparing ingredients and quantities of sugar and making a few notes about peppers; briefly but vividly he thought about how the heat trickled from the pepper's veins to its seeds, and how when people said pepper, most often they confused the capsicum with Piper nigrum itself, and how for true pepper (by which he meant Piper nigrum) men had once sailed all the seas, and how, in contrast, the flavor of paprika disappeared so quickly, poor little fugitive spice. Finally he trudged upstairs, fell asleep, and, without knowing it, snored violently.
The next morning Max was all fresh and shaven at seven o'clock, ready to grapple bulls, all bright smile. And when he dialed her number, there it was, her live voice!
"I'm so sorry, darling," she said. "I'm afraid we've missed. I'm leaving this afternoon for a meeting in New York, and then I'm on to Venice."
"Ahh." A single note was breathed from him, an involuntary expiration, and without wishing it at all, he felt his mouth fall into that sad shape, that ghost from the old flat upstairs.
But very well. He was here. She'd be back. Patience he'd always had.
Copyright © 2003 by Jane Alison