Fall Issue 2022
Patty Somlo, "Flamenco"
The day Anthony Jackson showed Anna De Niro the empty first-floor flat, he watched her dance. Starting in the sunny front room, she twirled to the second, smaller one behind it. Stepping out of the second room, dark with only one narrow window, she glided from the living room into the long hall.
“Perfect,” she said, and began taking leaps down the hall.
In between twirls, leaps and lunges, Anna examined the kitchen appliances and views out the mostly tiny windows. Every few minutes, Anthony joined her and asked, “Do you have any questions?”
If Anna hadn’t told Anthony she was a modern dancer and choreographer, he might have worried. Luckily, Anthony, who showed empty flats at 3538 Eighteenth Street to prospective tenants for a discount on rent, had two friends and an ex-lover who were dancers
At that moment, Anna was living in a three-story Victorian. Bought by her husband, Alan Mitchell, the elegant house had a view of San Francisco Bay from the second and third-story windows. A little over three years ago, Alan had died. He’d left Anna the house and some money, but those funds were nearly gone.
She kept dancing through the flat, in part to keep from dropping into a deep depression. The flat was affordable but dreary. Dancing down the hall a final time, Anna tried convincing herself she could make the place nice.
“I’ll take it,” she said to Anthony.
Standing before the front window, gazing across the street at the gold cross atop Mission Dolores, Anna realized that the root of the church’s Spanish name, dolór, meant sorrow.
This morning, Anna was sad. Her home in the building she’d considered beneath her two decades ago wasn’t the cause. The gloom had been brought on by a meeting the day before.
“I hate to say it,” Richard Lee, the dance company’s long-time artistic director, began. “I don’t know if we can go on. We’ve hit everybody up. More than once. I can’t get our patrons to return my calls.”
Anna could see that Richard was forcing himself not to cry. At the same time, she marveled at how well her partner and best friend looked. What age must he be? Sixty-something? Like Anna, Richard worked to stay in shape, though he couldn’t bring back the body he’d had when still dancing. Listening to Richard pronounce the company’s death, she felt a yearning to be young, and as they once were, beautiful.
After Anna’s last performance a few years back, Richard had invited her to his place. He poured two glasses of sparkling wine, toasted her recent success, and then announced, “You know, I admire and adore you, Anna.”
“Ooh. That doesn’t sound good.”
Richard shot Anna a sideways glance. Then he turned away, scanning the room with its antique furniture, chosen and arranged to show off each texture and shade. Anna followed Richard’s eyes, thinking if Richard hadn’t become a dancer, he would have made a fine interior decorator.
Richard cleared his throat, before turning back to Anna.
“You were wonderful, my dear,” he began. “But.”
“But,” she echoed. “I’m afraid you’re about to hurt my feelings, Richard.”
“I’m trying not to, Anna. That is the last thing I want.”
He sat up straighter.
“No more, Anna.”
Richard set his elegant, long-fingered hands in his lap, palms facing up.
“We want people’s last impression to be the best,” he said, appealing to Anna’s perfectionism.
“You’re making it sound like I’m about to die.”
She let out a hoarse chuckle.
“I’m saying, Anna, I think it’s time.”
Anna had known what Richard was struggling to communicate for some time.
“I got six standing ovations,” Anna reminded him.
“That’s true, you did. Part of that, of course, was your dancing. Part, as I’m sure you’re aware, is that the audience loves you. You are a treasure and they wanted to show their respect.”
He looked up at the ceiling. Anna thought, oh, just say it Richard, tempted to spit out the words, then argue back, seizing the conversation, as she’d done countless times.
“Okay,” Richard said, leaning forward, elbows balanced on his knees. “It would be unseemly to continue.”
He sat back and waited for Anna to pounce.
She didn’t. That word, unseemly, echoed in her mind. Yes, the years had taken their toll. A woman at seventy couldn’t possibly be what she’d been earlier. But unseemly?
Richard had resorted to that word because he didn’t want to go on and on, as happened when she refused to listen. He knew she couldn’t help but hear a word that harsh.
“Well,” she finally spoke, exhaling a long, loud breath. “That is, uh. Well, I have to say, Richard, you’ve made me speechless.”
She was struggling to keep from breaking down. That word hurt.
Alas, she knew Richard was right. The last thing she wanted was to read a review of her performance and find that word.
So, Anna agreed. Not right away. Instead, she gulped her first glass of wine and signaled for a second.
“Let’s change the subject,” she insisted, holding her drained wineglass in the air, waiting for Richard to pick up the bottle and pour another.
Though no longer performing, five years later Anna was still a renowned choreographer, teacher, and director of a respected modern dance company. She continued to dance in her flat, choreographing pieces and amusing herself. Some nights she put on a CD or an old cassette tape, after pouring a glass of wine and feeling a yearning she couldn’t explain. She would shove the worn black slippers off her feet, drag the red, gold and green patterned rug into the hall, and call up movements from a work she hadn’t danced in decades.
At those times, she was tempted to pull out one of the costumes stored in trunks scattered around the flat, and even fix her makeup, as if an audience were present. But she feared those outfits might be insultingly snug.
What were they to do, Anna wondered, to keep the company afloat? One board member suggested a loan. They’d batted around details of going into debt, which wouldn’t have been the first time. Long ago, keeping the company alive had been fun, touring, with several of them maxing out their credit cards. But now? Everything seemed risky, and Anna was too old for risk.
The moment Anna located the number in her thick, worn address book, she heard a knock.
“Who’s there?” she shouted, as she waited a few feet away from the front door.
“It’s me, dear. Your adopted son.”
Anna smiled. Saved by the knock, she thought, as she’d been searching for the number of a long-ago lover who’d had money, planning to hit him up for the company, embarrassing herself in the process.
“You are just what I needed today,” Anna announced, opening the door wide and smiling.
Michael Collins looked like a ray of sunshine, his blond-streaked hair gelled and arranged, the short spiky sections separated, drawing attention to his pale blue eyes. He had high cheekbones. As Anna had reminded him countless times, with that face and slender but muscular body, he should have been a dancer. He often dressed like one, wrapping a long scarf around his neck, as he’d done today before leaving his flat on the building’s second floor.
“You are what I needed,” Michael said, leaning in for a hug and kissing the air. “Tim’s out of town, as usual, and I desperately need some company.”
Tim was Michael’s partner, his husband in every sense except the official document.
“Come in, come in,” Anna said, gesturing with her right arm and bowing, as if ending a performance.
Of all the tenants in the six-flat building, Anna liked Michael best. He made her forget whatever troubles she’d been stewing over, before seeing him.
“How are you, my dear?” Michael asked, surveying the living room, to see if anything had changed since his last visit.
“Low,” Anna responded.
She bent at the knees and swept her left arm over the floor, from one side to the other.
“All the way down here,” she explained.
“Oh,” Michael said, the smile melting from his lips.
“Who is he?” Michael assumed this was one of Anna’s many affairs gone south.
“There’s no he,” she explained, tempted to go into a self-pitying whine about how she was too old to attract anyone, except a shriveled-up guy in a nursing home. “It’s the company. We’ve run out of money. I don’t know if we’ll survive.”
She said those words, knowing Michael hated bad news. He’d grown up with a mother who sometimes spent weeks too depressed to get out of bed.
She wasn’t surprised that Michael quickly changed the subject.
“I’m looking for something new, but everything seems the same,” he said, sweeping his long right arm around the room, the sort of dance-like gesture Anna appreciated.
Anna moved her gaze from the front window to the pocket doors at the opposite end, as if she’d never seen the room before.
“Nothing’s changed,” she agreed. “Maybe that’s what I need. To rearrange.”
“Maybe. But right now, we both need to get out of this place.”
Anna wound her left arm through Michael’s right, as they headed up Eighteenth Street. No matter where they were going, Michael walked on the outside. He held doors open for Anna and pulled her chair out at restaurants. On cold nights, he helped her on and off with her coat.
Anna assumed Michael had gotten his perfect manners from being raised a good Catholic, in a working-class family back in Pennsylvania. He had once revealed that he loved dressing up as a child, slipping on shimmery cocktail dresses his mother never had occasion to wear. When Anna wasn’t seeing anyone, she could usually talk Michael into accompanying her to a dance performance or play, especially if Tim was out of town, which happened frequently in his sales job. Michael would arrive at her flat, looking like he’d stepped out of a glossy magazine spread.
“How about an early dinner?” Michael asked, as they reached the corner of Church and Eighteenth.
Anna checked her watch. It was only a few minutes after five. She shouldn’t be spending money eating out but needed to cheer herself up.
“Oh, why not? What are you in the mood for?”
“Let’s go to the new Thai place. The waiter is beyond gorgeous.”
After they were seated and brought menus, Anna agreed that the waiter was something to behold. Even though she could smile at Michael’s flirtations, the low mood brought on by the company’s desperate financial situation refused to lighten.
“How do you stay so happy, Michael?” Anna asked, after the waiter ladled creamy white Tom Yum soup into small round bowls and set the fragrant liquid in front of each of them.
“I don’t dwell on stuff,” Michael said, lifting his spoonful of soup and blowing, before sliding the spoon into his mouth. “You obsess, dear. It’s like eating. You put a piece of meat into your mouth, and you chew and chew and chew, even when it’s past ready to swallow.
“Everybody’s got their sorrows. I mean, I love Tim, but he’s gone all the time. I could moan about that. Instead, I try and have fun with other people, like you, Ms. Anna.
“And by the way, what happened with that last guy?”
“Oh,” Anna responded, shaking her head. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“No. And I’m dying to hear.”
The waiter arrived, carrying a silver-covered dish and two white porcelain plates.
“Some rice,” he said, setting the sparkly silver dish down and each of the plates.
“Thank you,” Michael said, his gaze fastened to the waiter’s lovely face.
After he walked away, Michael shook his head.
“Oh, Anna. Have you ever?” he said, as color rushed to his cheeks.
Anna didn’t want to tell Michael about the last lover who’d ditched her. In fact, she couldn’t believe this was her life. She hadn’t loved her husband but married him because he asked and she was tired of cycling through one passionate affair after another, feeling on top of the world one moment, and crushed the next, when the relationship died. After Alan passed away, she started right back, falling for guys who were wrong.
“So, tell me,” Michael said, dabbing his lip with a corner of the clean white napkin. “What happened with the latest Mr. Wrong?”
“Nothing. He just stopped calling. When I called, he wouldn’t pick up. I left messages, but he didn’t respond.”
“His loss, dear. That’s what I say. There are more fish in the pond.”
“Not at this age,” Annie argued. “Have you seen men my age? They don’t hold up. And they want women years younger.
“Oh, Michael. There’s nothing good about getting old. It’s even worse here in San Francisco. Every year, I get older and the people in this city get younger and younger.”
“Let’s move to Miami, dear,” Michael suggested. “We can sit on the beach all day and dish about everybody that walks by. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Luckily, Anna had started early. She’d spent a good half-hour trying on and discarding pants and tops, and a few skirts. Nothing looked right.
Clothes were strewn across the bed. Why didn’t something leap out of the pile and excite her?
She didn’t want to look old. That desire fueled her dissatisfaction over clothes she’d once adored. The whole business made her feel small, crawling back to a former lover because the company needed money, and believing she needed to look attractive.
Anna hadn’t seen Roberto for years. Even back then, she’d thought of herself as old, partly because Roberto was a decade younger.
He had adored her. The practical side of her mind chided that she ought to love him. But she didn’t.
Dull. Every man who cared about her was boring. She recalled dinners with Roberto, racking her brain for something to say, while he ate in silence.
Someone in the company had heard about a club, where flamenco music was played. One Saturday night, several of the dancers decided to check out the place.
Hidden in an alley, the club was packed, mostly with expatriate Spaniards. A guitarist with long black hair, his right foot perched on a wooden box, played heartbreaking melodies, tapping the guitar between strumming. The crowd clapped in quick sharp time. That made Anna and the other dancers anxious to leap up. Eventually, they did, lured to the stage by the guitarist and the crowd. When they were done dancing, the audience was on its feet, applauding and shouting, “Bravo.”
The guitarist took a break and a beautiful man walked over to Anna, grabbed her hand, and raised it to his lips.
“Belissima,” he said.
She looked into his dark eyes and responded, “Gracias,” giving the word that distinctive Castilian lisp.
His name was Roberto and things moved quickly from there. He dressed in smooth silk shirts and gabardine pants. His black hair curled just past his neck. He drove a splendid silver car, with a sound system rivalling the club’s, when he played those exciting Spanish songs.
His spacious house sat amidst a grove of massive redwoods, with a view from the living room and deck of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Anna toyed with fantasies of marrying Roberto and living in that house, watching the sun set over the water on fog-free evenings.
The man had everything, including money to spare. He just didn’t have anything to say.
Anna had suggested they meet at an old bar in North Beach, mostly frequented by tourists. She couldn’t say why. He was one of the only customers she saw in the place after stepping inside.
To make sure that was him, she waved the fingers of her right hand, relieved when he waved back. Like her, Roberto had aged, but he was still a good-looking guy.
The thought ran through her mind. Maybe this will turn out to be more, glad she’d spent time carefully selecting her outfit.
Before she reached the table, he stood up.
“You are still the same,” he said, taking the hand she offered, lifting it to his lips and kissing her knuckles.
“Oh, that is kind,” Anna said. “But you’re the one who hasn’t changed.”
“Hah. Don’t I wish? Well, anyway, it is wonderful to see you again after how many years is it?”
“Too many to say.”
By now, Roberto had moved from the other side of the table, pulled a chair out for Anna, waited for her to sit, then gently pushed in the chair and sat back down.
“So, first things first. What would you like to drink? I was trying to remember your preference in the old days. And you know what?”
“I remembered. The mind is still there,” he said, tapping the side of his head with his right index finger.
“Do you know, I’m not sure I can remember,” Anna said.
“Campari and soda,” Roberto said. “I think it was in style then. Very continental.”
“Yes, continental. I can’t remember the last time I had Campari. Do you think they still have it?”
“Well, let’s find out.”
Roberto got up from his chair.
“I think we have to order drinks at the bar. Excuse me. I’ll be right back.”
Moments later, he returned with squat glasses in each hand, one clear and the other filled with deep red liquid.
“Success,” he proclaimed, setting a drink in front of Anna and one in his place.
“How delightful,” she said. “But I hope you didn’t pay for this. It’s on me, of course.”
“No, no, no,” Roberto insisted, lifting his glass in the air. “A toast, please.”
“All right,” Anna said, quietly glad he was treating, since she was so short of funds.
“To old friends,” Roberto pronounced, his glass aloft, waiting for Anna to raise hers.
“To old friends,” she echoed, clicking Roberto’s glass.
She took a sip, the sudden sweetness a surprise.
“Oh, that is good. Thank you. And thank you for remembering.”
“Memories. That’s what we’ve got.”
Anna wanted to ask what Roberto was drinking. Before she did, the question vanished.
Instead, she said, “Very good memories. Do you remember the little club where we met?”
“Of course. That was my world. Beautiful music. Friends. And meeting new friends.”
“Is the club still there?”
“Oh, no. It closed a long time ago. So many people moved away. The city became too expensive.”
“Yes, I know. And you’re still in that beautiful house?”
“Yes, yes. I couldn’t afford to buy anything in that area now. It’s crazy. People tell me, you should sell, cash in. But where would I go?”
“Back to Spain?” Anna asked.
“No, I am an American. Much as I hate to admit it.”
They moved on to more personal talk, as Anna finished her drink and Roberto went to the bar for a refill. Roberto had barely touched the drink sitting in front of him.
In the course of the afternoon, Anna learned that Roberto had been married once. Not long after she dropped him, he met a woman in that same club.
“She wanted my money,” Roberto claimed. “I didn’t know it at the time.”
They stayed together nearly seven years, during which a son arrived. In the last year of their marriage, the wife, whose name was Andrea, had an affair with, of all people, a bartender at the club. Everyone in their crowd knew, except Roberto. After it had been going on for months, a friend broke the news.
“I was more ashamed than hurt,” he admitted. “By that time, she and I didn’t have much going.”
He shook his head and sighed.
“Cost me a lot to get out of that.”
His son, he told her, was living in New York City.
“He’s a lawyer,” Roberto said. “A very handsome guy. He, I’m glad, is happily married. I like his husband very much.”
“Yes, he is.”
He told Anna he’d been retired for some time. She was surprised Roberto talked a lot now.
“You know, I worked and worked, and except for going to hear music, I didn’t enjoy myself much. Do you remember?”
“I think I do remember,” Anna said, and smiled.
By Anna’s third drink, she got to the point of the meeting. Before the words were out, Roberto cut her off.
“Yes, of course. I am happy to help,” he said.
Anna was thrilled that she could go back to the company with a sizable check and an offer later of additional funds. Unfortunately, this man had stirred up feelings for more.
"And you?” Roberto asked Anna, after handing her the check that she folded and secured in her wallet. “Is there a Mister De Niro in your life?”
Anna felt her cheeks warm, from the alcohol and also feeling ashamed about the failed relationships she’d been part of. She dodged the question, by telling him about her late husband.
“I am sorry for your loss,” Roberto said. “So, you are alone now, like me.”
“We should spend some time together, when you can get away from the dance company. You can come to the house and listen to flamenco. I will promise to stock up on Campari.”
The following week, Roberto called.
“Are you free today?” he asked. He suggested taking a drive and Anna agreed. She hardly ever left the city, because she no longer owned a car.
Roberto was talking the whole time he drove. The car was beautiful, the leather seats soft. Guitar music played in the background. The moon roof was open, and the sun felt warm.
“How about some lunch?” Roberto asked, after driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and exiting the freeway further north.
“That would be nice,” Anna agreed.
She didn’t admit to Roberto what she was feeling, as he steered the car around the narrow street lined with shops. But, oh, how she had adored this town when she was young. Sitting on the deck at Sam’s, a big group of them, wearing brightly colored outfits and wide-brimmed hats, trying to keep the pigeons from stealing the tubs of butter that the dancers shouldn’t have been eating.
“It’s a gorgeous day,” Roberto said, after parking in the small lot. “Let’s see if we can get a table outside.”
The server led them to a spot next to the railing, overlooking the sparkling bay that made Anna’s heart leap to her throat.
“Oh, Roberto,” she said, perusing the large menu with a half-smile on her face. “I have always loved this place. And on such a day.”
She raised her right arm and swept it around, to take in the deck, the water and the colorful boats.
“So many wonderful memories,” she said.
They both ordered Crab Louis. Anna asked for a glass of white wine, expecting Roberto to order red. Instead, he said, “Water for me,” and the waiter swept away his empty wineglass.
When they were done eating and the waiter promised to bring the check, Roberto said, “You know, Anna. It’s important to live every moment like it might be your last.”
Anna nodded, curious why he had said this. She noticed his expression had suddenly changed.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Fine, fine,” he said, before brushing the back of his right hand against his eyes.
“Here he is with the check,” Roberto said, grabbing the narrow black leather folder before the server set it down.
Roberto pulled bills from a silver clip, slid them into the folder, and said, “Let’s go.”
He didn’t say another word until pulling into a parking lot off the main road that led to the freeway.
“Come,” he said, after parking the car.
He took Anna’s hand and steered her toward a vacant bench facing the water. She waited quietly, to learn what was on his mind.
He let go of her hand and turned to face the bay.
“You see, Anna, I have cancer. Stage Four. There’s probably not much time.”
Anna felt as if she’d been punched in the gut.
Finally able to speak, she said, “Oh, Roberto. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. I’m sure it’s a shock. I just thought you should know.”
He told her that he underwent hours-long chemotherapy every few weeks. Anna couldn’t believe this man who looked so well might be dying.
“That’s why you don’t drink,” she said.
“That’s true. But don’t feel sorry for me. I have had a very good life. I am only sharing this news with you because I hope we can spend some time together now that we’ve reunited.
“I’m not looking for someone to take care of me, if that’s what you’re thinking. I have all that arranged with people I pay. I so enjoyed our time together the other day, and lunch today.”
He stopped talking and looked out toward the water.
“We’re all afraid of getting sick,” he began. “And of dying. I have friends who don’t want to see me because they’re frightened.”
When Roberto was feeling well, he and Anna took walks, mostly on flat ground because Roberto lacked energy to climb hills. Many afternoons, they skirted Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. Roberto frequently commented about the beauty surrounding them.
“I didn’t notice as much before my diagnosis,” he confessed, on one of their strolls. “One day I realized I hadn’t actually seen the world, even though I travelled a lot. At least I hadn’t really seen where I lived.”
Anna understood. Spending time with him lately, she had found herself taking in the vibrant colors, the flowers and trees, the ducks, and water they passed.
After spending an afternoon with Roberto, Anna couldn’t help but worry how she would feel when his condition worsened, and God forbid, he died. Years back, she had known dancers and artists who contracted AIDS, but made a point not to get too close. Illness and death scared her then. With Roberto, she felt she had no choice.
He had asked Anna to scatter his ashes at the beach.
“At the Marin Headlands,” Anna explained to Roberto’s son, Juan, who’d flown from New York to spend time with his father in his final days. The young man looked a lot like his father, Anna thought, when Roberto was young.
The fog had, thankfully, retreated off the coast and the day was lovely. Anna drove Roberto’s car across the Golden Gate Bridge, as Juan turned from side to side, marveling at the blue-green water, the white sails, and the dark green headlands on the ocean side.
“Your father loved this place,” Anna noted, after leaving the freeway and steering the car uphill.
She pulled into a small, paved lot, with an expansive view of the bridge and the water. People were there taking photos of the scenery and themselves.
“We need some music for the rest of the ride,” Anna said, turning on the CD player as she got back on the road, the interior of the car filling with the sounds of strumming guitar.
“He never got tired of that music,” Juan said. “I think it reminded him of when he was in Spain. When he was young.”
“Yes,” Anna said. “And also, of romance. A romantic sense about life. He had that.”
The music played as they followed the narrow winding road. The passing scenery looked almost too beautiful to be real.
She wished Roberto was sitting in the passenger seat but was glad he no longer suffered. In his final weeks, he grew frail and slept most of the time. He would be happy to know Anna was here with his beautiful son, making sure his ashes joined the landscape he had come to love.
The road ended above the beach, just below a dusty trail, heading up to the cliffs. Anna led the way, carrying on a silent conversation with Roberto. For a moment, she pretended he was alive, walking behind her. They would have headed north from here and tried to get a table at Sam’s outside. Anna would have devoured too many slices of generously buttered sourdough bread, silently scolding herself that she shouldn’t.
They reached the top of the hill. Even young Juan was breathless. The view stretched back to the city, looking like a toy metropolis, and north to Point Reyes.
Holding the urn with her right hand, Anna grabbed Juan’s hand with her left and said, “Your father will be happy here.”
At that, she opened the urn and flung its contents out toward the ocean.
Late-afternoon sun brightened the gold cross atop the Mission Dolores. Flamenco guitar added drama to the scene.
“This would be a wonderful backdrop for a dance piece set to this music,” Anna said to Juan, after gesturing toward the church, and he nodded in agreement.
Anna took a sip of sweet cold Campari.
“Did you know there are wild parrots here?” she asked Juan, waving her arm to the left, where Dolores Avenue started.
“Really. They come at dusk. I don’t know where they fly from. But if you stand on Dolores, you can see them coming and going from the palm trees planted in the center. They make an incredible racket.”
She took another sip and grabbed Juan’s hand.
“Your father enjoyed watching them. He loved them the way he loved his flamenco music. Passionate. Full of life.”
She delicately raised her dark gray skirt with the fingers of her right hand and stamped her feet. And then without another word, Anna let the music take over, as she’d done throughout her long and celebrated dance career.
Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest and in the J.F. Powers Short Fiction Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.