When Hannah left, she left many things unfinished. She had always been the rock throughout our relationship. For all the turns and crashes that my tendencies put me through, she held to her faith in me. Her patience was limited for all the others, and in her past; I was the sole exception. I was privileged in a way that, still, I struggle to fully understand.
Things happen. That's my philosophy on life. Once you come to accept these random acts, then everything else is easy. That particular night, the plane laying in a loose necklace of debris of the Alaskan coast, I went to sleep. And when I woke up she was gone. Just like that. It came easy. Things happen.
The drive to Hualien from Jiufeng only takes a few hours. I drove the entire way with the windows down, one hand on the side of the door. It was out of habit from when I use to smoke. She never liked it when I smoked in the car.
The car was a Lancia Aurelia B53 Coupe. It was one of the things she was able to finish. It was made in 1952 and was difficult to find and afford, a particular powdered blue with a camel colored rag top. The owner was an Italian man who passed away with a small fortune; the son of a rubber company. This particular son, seeing it's worth, put it on the auction block.
Hannah loved her cars, she went through many of them, but especially loved this one. Out of all of them, this one had the longest tenure. She drove it everywhere. I took pride in knowing that it was a one of a kind in the country and took equal pride in knowing it was hers. She shifted through the gears with the same gracefulness that she touched me in bed with.
She got the car late before we had met, and until the end, she loved it more than anything else. It restored to an immaculate condition. On holidays, we'd travel the entire length of the eastern coast, from Jiufeng to Kenting, driving fast with the top down. I'd sit in the passenger seat and watch, with the Rolleiflex in hand.
Even at 45, she was a beautiful woman. Her hair extended to her jawline and was combed over in a sharp side part. The edge of it ending in strands that tilted forward towards her chin when she leaned the slightest way forward. Her skin had worn itself into a smooth patina and took on the character of a luscious bar counter mahogany that had absorbed the slide bottom glass and restful hands until the grains in the wood became a shiny lustre. I was use to telling her that she could've been a film star if she had been born in a different era - Jeanne Moreau, Anna Karina, Grace Kelly, Edie Sedgewick - a muse fit for an the highest of auteurs. Every trip she was a different person. As mysterious as Cindy Sherman.
I use to get into the corners fast and hard, the six cylinder engine purring into the cockpit and drowning out the road noise and our voices. She enjoyed the sensation of going fast. Exiting the corner at speed, catching the apex, and feeling the exhilaration of the bend straitening itself. It was what she loved about driving. When we stopped by the roadside gas stations, she'd lean her seat back with an air of satisfaction about her smile.
Alone, I drove slower. I notice the scenery a lot more. The inconsistency of the eastern coast, the long forest range interrupted by sudden flashes of ocean, rice fields and decaying buildings cut through by high rise residential apartments. Sometimes, I'd stop on the side of the road and take a few pictures of the surroundings with the Rollei. Other times, I'd drive straight through them.
In the first few years after her death, I didn't feel lonely. I was asked this question many times from friends, family members, acquaintances: It's been enough time, don't you feel lonely? To each of them, I answered no. The motivation. The need to have our natural emptiness be filled by another was not there. Before her, I sabotaged my way out of many long relationships and a destructive marriage. It cost me. By the time I came across her, I knew enough to know that she was a good one and questions of emptiness and fulfillment never needed to be asked again. When she died, she also left me finished.
Things happen. Time carries on. Cliche upon cliche. It had always been my thinking that I wouldn't let anyone else close. What would be the point? I was fifty already and even after just five years with her, what could anyone else offer that I hadn't already experienced? That I hadn't appreciated. So after five years of this, that I did begin to feel alone came as a curiosity. The boundaries between being alone and being lonely were always well defined I thought. So I was surprised.
When an editor came forward with the idea that I should meet a friend of his, why not, I thought. She was also fifty and like me, was widowed. Her husband was much older than her and passed away naturally. They owned and operated a hotel together along the coastline in Hualien for a few years. After his death, she kept it going on her own. She was also a cultured woman. Her taste in music went from Giacomo Puchini to Dexter Gordon. At one point, before the hotel, she opened a cultural center on her own. She seemed to be a strong and independent woman. Did not seem to leave anything unfinished. Why not.
I had no commitments, no children. No estates to tend to. I lived a leisurely bacheloresque life. The realization that I had lived most of my life without any kind of anchor was gratifying and disappointing at the same time. With Hannah, the anchor was pulled back up just before it the had chance to hit the bottom of the seafloor.
Before I left, I had my hair cut. Shaved my beard. I had not noticed that the white areas had expanded over the darker ones. And everything was much coarser than I had last remembered. I folded a weekend's worth of clothes into a carry-on Samsonite and put it in the passenger seat of the Lancia. I left the Rollei at home.
I was not nervous about seeing her. My anxieties were more about her previous husband. What kind of marriage did they have? Did she cry in her sleep after he passed away? Did she feel alone? Did she feel lonely? Did he treat her well? What kind of things did he leave her with? I thought about these things in the same way I thought about Hannah in the few days after.
The hotel stood out. It's name betrayed the complexity of its design and architecture, "Ocean View Hotel". I appreciated the understatement and simplicity of its name and the irony. There was a wry sense of humor at work here. Though it was on the coast with a clear view of the ocean, at seven floors, it towered over the buildings next to it. A wide diving concrete face came down, left of center. It was shaped like a receding tide, circular windows punched through it like bubbling sea foam.
She was sitting behind the front desk as I walked in. She stood and shook my hand. "You must be Thomas," she said.
"How did you know?"
"I've heard a lot about you from James. I'm Helen."
Like Hannah, she also wore her hair short, though it was shaped into waves. She wore a blue double breasted navy jacket with gold buttons, engraved with anchors along each side that reminded me of sea captains. Underneath, was a simple white blouse and jeans. The quality of each article was apparent but subdued. And like her voice, they were worn in.
She led me to a small kitchen next to the main lobby. "Moon Dreams" from Miles Davis played in the background. I let myself follow her lead and sat down at a glass table by the window. Underneath the glass, were the legs of an antique Singer sewing machine with the grated foot pedal still connected.
She sat down across from me and set down two cups of coffee. "James said you drink your coffee black," she said.
"What else has James told you about me?" I was worried that I would have nothing about myself.
"Actually, besides how you look, not much else. I'm a coffee lover and James told me you were one too. Naturally, I asked him how you prefer yours. I think it says something about the kind of person we are."
"What does it say about me then?"
She added some cream and sugar.
"That you're somewhat aloof and detached. Yet, at the same time, full of complexity. People who drink black coffee do so for the aroma. At least that's what I hear."
"I'm not sure about complexity."
"Well, it's just coffee."
We talked about other things such as Miles Davis. About her hotel. The face and design of it. And about Hualien. "Why Hualien?" I said.
"Because it's a city, yet you can hear silence at night," she said.
She was easy to talk to because she pressed the conversation forward. I only had to respond, if it amused her or held her interest, she would dive deeper, if not, she would turn it back onto herself. She shifted gracefully.
I looked at her fingers as she held the coffee cup. There was no ring, though the area of the skin on that finger was lighter, almost imperceptibly so. For my own finger, the skin was even all across, though the physical sensation of wearing a ring never leaves a person. Even now, I was mindful to not scrap that part against any hard surfaces such as when washing my hands.
"I take it you were married before?" she said after the cups were empty.
"How many different times?"
"Three. Though, it was only the last one that was fulfilling."
"She was a wonderful woman."
"I hope you don't mind my asking."
"No, I don't. Yourself?"
"Oh, a few men, here and there. When I finally did settle, he was also a good one. But I suppose things happen and you find a way to carry on. For me, it's this hotel, we're very good friends," she said, "Another cup?"
"No. I'm okay, thanks."
"Well, I'm going to help myself then."
I watched her rise out of the chair and proceed behind the bar counter. She walked with a soft precision. I took time to notice the interior of the cafe. A few other glass tables constructed on top of the legs of sewing machines, a Klimt painting on the wall in front of me, and a newspaper clipping covering the opening of the hotel against the far wall. In the article, there was a photo of her and man in a blue double breasted navy jacket with gold buttons along each side, like a sea captain. The photo a candid. She had one arm underneath the back of his jacket and smiled. She looked away from him, focused on somewhere just outside the frame.