Ralph explained to Andrea that the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, and here it was more than a century later, being admired by them on their thirtieth wedding anniversary. They had bought croque monsieurs from a stand on the street; she had only nibbled at hers, but Ralph was hungry and he finished hers. She brushed a crumb away from his cheek. He gazed at the setting sun, pouring gold on the roofs of the buildings and the ironwork of the tower. He inhaled a dramatic breath and said, “The Eternal City.”
“That’s Rome,” she said.
“Our next stop.” He walked to a street vendor and came back with a small bouquet of flowers tied with a scarlet ribbon, which he, bowing from the waist, offered her.
She sniffed the daisies, but they had no smell. “I’m glad to have seen this wonder of the world, but I’m kind of tired.” She admired the geometry, the struts and curves, of the tower aspiring to the sky. She stretched her arms as she sighed and yawned. “I could be happy to go back to our pensione. Don’t give me that look. I know it’s three flights up and I’ll be even tireder. I know I was the one who wanted to see Paris, and here I am pooping out.”
“I wasn’t going to say that,” Ralph said. “I was going to ask if you felt okay walking or if I should get us a cab.”
“You’re a honey.”
Her parents had been refugees, and here she was, successful with her art history degree, working for the State Arts Board, a tourist in the Europe from which her parents had fled, happily idling along the stone streets at sunset. Life was just a moving from one place to another, carrying your bundle to another spot, setting it down, resting, lifting it up again. “And,” Ralph had reminded her, “listening to the music and sampling the food along the way.” She didn’t have allergies; she could readily eat the food on the journey. Her mother used to hold her tea cup with both hands, blowing on it until it was cool. Her mother died of breast cancer. The illness had shocked Andrea–her mother, thin, fragile, sliding away, and then, finally, wearing out and wanting to end and telling her husband and family good-by. Andrea feared that disease for herself, and was conscientious about her annual physical exam. The wet wind blew across her forehead. Did the architect of the Eiffel Tower expect it to last this long, and was that payment enough for his work and dying? What did it mean that she was thinking of her dead parents? “This was supposed to redeem the mundaneness of our lives.”
“I don’t think of my life as mundane,” Ralph said. “I feel lucky—beyond anything I did to deserve such a happy life. I wasn’t born a king, but I’m happier than a king. You are my queen.”
“You still have your silver tongue.” She kissed him on the tip of his nose.
“You know how to make a fella feel good.”
“You make this fella feel good.” She pointed at her own chest with the bouquet of daisies. “Still, after all these years.” A nattily dressed elderly gentleman tipped his hat at them as he passed.
Ralph nodded at the gentleman. “Paris is for lovers.” Ralph took her hand in his. “Your hand feels a little hot.”
“You know what they say: warm hands, warm nose.”
“I’m serious. Do you have a fever?”
“I’ll be all right.” She put her collar up against the April breeze. “Just a little bit cold.”
He placed his hand on her brow. He shook his head. “Hot,” he said, “hot.”
“Not bad for an old lady—hot.”
“Enough jokes. Let’s take you to a doctor.”
“I just need to sleep. The trip was exhausting. And all the packing. I need to sleep.”
“Ralph, don’t worry. It’s just my spring cold. I don’t want you to worry.” She could see him swallow hard.
His forehead was furrowed. “My French is terrible. I’ll have to talk to the doctor.”
“I’ll be fine.” She patted his head as if he were the sick one, and felt awash in warmth and love. Ralph was not good with other people’s illness. His imagination ran to the unhappy end of sickness, even trivial illnesses, which could become fatal or leave permanent damage. She clasped his hand. The sunset lit up his face, stretched out his laugh lines, paled out his skin, making him seem transparent or absent. For a clanging second, she wondered what would happen to him if she were gone. “I’ll be fine,” she said.
She put the daisies up to her nose and remembered they had no smell. She held the bouquet at her waist, arched her hand over the tips of the petals—her mother had told her that daisies were signs of love in the world—and let out a long breath. “Is anything eternal? Is even Rome eternal?” She coughed. “This tower? Us? Any human being?”
“We have enough time,” he said. “The Eiffel Tower is more than a hundred years old.” He smiled at the tower as if it had feelings which required a defense. She thought the structure pointing upward was trying to pierce through the clouds, trying to understand.
He grasped her hand and pulled her toward their pensione. Her other hand held the daisies.
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Cezarija Abartis’ Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in FriGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Lascaux Review, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012 and “To Kiss a Bear” was selected for Wigleaf’s Longlist 2016. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is http://magicmasterminds.com/