Chapter 12: The Hermit
When The Hermit came up on Saturday morning, Rosemary was baffled. The card depicted an old man, Merlin-esque with a long white beard and flowing robe. He held aloft a glowing lantern, but otherwise everything around him was gray and obscure. A pensive, solitary figure.
Which didn’t make sense, because today was fixing to be a social extravaganza. Thyme said he’d pick her up at ten, then drive them to the Asian Art Museum for their ten-thirty rendezvous. With a heavy sigh Rosemary set the card aside and went to take a quick shower. She wasn’t really interested in going, even for the Silk Road exhibit. It seemed too awkward, with her intense attraction to Josh, his promise of a grand weekend getaway fresh in her mind. They’d gotten together every night after work, and the sex had been incredible.
Still, Rosemary put herself together reasonably well, in a skirt and flattering blouse. Might as well look cute, even if I don’t feel the same way about Fabricio as I do for Josh. Thank goodness Thyme will be there to buffer the awkwardness.
Thyme looked super dubious when she climbed into his car. He’d dressed casually, jeans and a t-shirt, but Rosemary could tell he’d put some thought into it. Her brother sure did clean up good. With his dark, slanted eyes, high cheekbones, and chiseled facial features, he was uniquely handsome. He also kept his body trim. Only Rosemary – as his twin – knew that their slender-boned genetics had the majority of credit for his (and her) fine physique.
“Let’s get this day over with,” he said, sighing so hard it was almost a groan.
“Oh, come on, Thyme. It’s not going to be that bad. Might even be fun! When was the last time we were on a double date?”
“That would be high school, sister mine. Care to remind me how that one ended?”
Rosemary blew the air out of her lungs in exasperation. “Yeah, that sucked. Didn’t we both have hickies to explain that night?”
“Yeah. And they came from the same girl. The one you set me up with.” Even years later his voice carried a note of accusation.
“Right… sorry about that. Of course, she did turn out to be a lesbian. Which explains how I got the hicky. Not sure how you ended up with three of them!”
“Just one more reason I don’t date,” grumbled Thyme.
They pulled into the parking lot a few minutes early. It was a beautiful morning, trees bursting with fresh green leaves all over Volunteer Park. The museum itself was an Art Deco edifice with strong, bold architecture. Rather austere in Rosemary’s opinion, but then, that was the style of the time. She smiled to see the same paired sculptures arranged on either side of the doorway: kneeling Bactrian camels, the dip between their humps worn smooth by generations of children’s bottoms. Rosemary remembered they’d sent the originals to the SAM several years ago, and put copies here in their place. It was that big of a deal.
“Hey!” came a voice across the way. Rosemary turned to see Bruce waving cheerfully, with Fabricio smiling beside him.
“Here we go,” muttered Thyme.
Bruce greeted Thyme with a boisterous hug. Seeing them, Fabricio cocked his head at Rosemary until she felt it would be ridiculous not to do the same. Leaning down, she gave him a quick squeeze around the shoulders. Wow, she thought, those are some damn muscular shoulders… How much does he work out? Then she thought about what he’d told her with The Hanged Man – how he could pull himself up with only his upper body strength – and blushed when her mind wandered to dirtier musings.
“I’m so stoked for the exhibit,” Fabricio was saying. “Art of the Silk Road, from Venice to Beijing!”
“Thanks for agreeing to come,” Bruce said to Thyme. “This is gonna be fun!”
“So, who wants a picture on the camel?” Fabricio said, smirking at them. “Come on, you kind of have to! They’re like the Fremont Troll, you can’t just come here and not sit on them.”
Nobody moved. Fabricio shook his head in exasperation.
“Oh… all right,” said Rosemary, earning an immediate grin from Fabricio.
“Awesome! Up you go. I’ll stay here so I can get a good angle for the picture.”
Still feeling silly, Rosemary climbed the steps and waited for an excitable small child to finish her “ride” on the camel’s back. Smoothing her skirt, Rosemary wiggled up sideways until her butt was wedged between the camel’s humps. With her outfit she was obliged to sit sidesaddle. She twisted to face forward and gave a little wave, hoping her smile looked more natural than it felt.
To her surprise, Fabricio pulled out a real camera. She’d expected him to use his phone, like everybody else under the age of twenty-eight. His face took on a concentrated expression as he snapped several pictures.
“Got it!” he called up the stairs. “You look great!”
“Let’s get a picture too,” Bruce wheedled. He dragged Thyme over to the camel, and Rosemary gladly ceded her place to them. Those are going to be some awkward pictures, she thought, noting at her brother’s evident discomfort with the cutesy photo shoot.
With Fabricio’s photographic urges appeased, they went inside to the exhibit. Once the art was in front of her Rosemary felt all tension disappear. The gallery was laid out geographically, simulating a journey on the Silk Road from Italy, across the great expanse of Asia, into China. Venetian glass sparkled alongside beautiful Renaissance Christian art, before giving way to colorful hunting scenes from Mughal India, and Islamic calligraphy and woodcarving. Then came images of the Buddha, finally trailing into the more worldly scenes of Chinese blue-and-white ceramic. Everywhere camels were depicted, laden with rich trade goods. Those tough, sturdy animals had made the whole trade possible. What a story! Rosemary thought. How I would love to trace that route, to see it all in person. What are all those places like now?
She and Fabricio moved at different paces, meeting now and then to share an observation. As usual, whenever they were talking about art together, Rosemary felt completely at ease with him. He understood the way she thought. They appreciated the same things, and reinforced one another: she with an eye for composition; he with the history of various art forms. Meanwhile, Bruce stuck close to Thyme the whole way through. He chatted, observed, and questioned with relentless good humor. Gradually, Rosemary saw her brother begin to relax. With the art providing endless conversation topics, Thyme didn’t have to make up any stilted small talk.
By the time they’d traveled the length of the Silk Road it was past noon, and everyone was hungry. After a bit of waffling, they agreed to just grab lunch at the museum café. Bruce absolutely insisted on paying the bill. When they tried to protest he held up his hand and said, “No, this was my idea, and I had a great time! I can buy you all lunch. How much can this skinny guy eat, anyway?” he added, eyes twinkling as he glanced at Thyme.
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Rosemary said with a giggle.
“Thanks, man,” Fabricio said with true gratitude.
“Yeah. Really nice of you,” said Thyme. He seemed uncomfortable again in the face of Bruce’s airy generosity.
“No worries, really. Now what does everybody want?”
They gathered around the table, suddenly re-entrenched in the awkwardness of a double date. Rosemary and Fabricio sat side by side, leaving Bruce and Thyme on the other booth seat. For a while there was only fiddling with napkins and straws, trying to avoid actual conversation. Then Bruce broke the ice by saying, “So, Rosemary, how did you and Fabricio meet?”
Their eyes met briefly, and they shared a smile before launching into the story. She began, and he added details from his perspective, and by the end of it everyone was laughing. It hit Rosemary then: this is exactly what couples do, when they tell people about when they met… or how they fell in love.
“I couldn’t believe it!” Fabricio said, his eyes sparkling. “This beautiful woman just fell – quite literally – into my lap!”
“I did not!” Rosemary cried. “I only almost sat on you…”
“Hey, I can embellish a little bit, right?”
It was so lighthearted and fun, Rosemary had forgotten about Thyme’s tendency toward social faux pas. She was still giggling, enjoying the moment, when he butted in.
“So, Bruce, what do you do?”
She tried to give Thyme the stink-eye for the abrupt change of topic, but it fell flat. He was studiously avoiding her gaze.
“I’m a student at the U, like Fabricio. Two years into my bachelor’s program, so it’s not quite the final countdown. Jealous of you there, dude.”
“I know. I still can’t believe I’m graduating this year!” Fabricio exclaimed.
“Two years in?” said Thyme. “So you’re only a sophomore? That makes you, what, nineteen?”
Ugh, seriously, you had to ask his age? Isn’t that rule number one in social settings?! She could have slapped Thyme if she’d been close enough. From across the table, Rosemary settled for a sharp kick in the shin.
Bruce only chuckled. “Man, sometimes I wish I was still nineteen! Used to be able to party all night, sleep three hours, and be good to go in the morning. Now ten o’clock is old-man bedtime. Lame, right?”
“So… how old are you?” Thyme asked. Like a friggin’ dog on a bone! Let it go, Thyme!
“No way!” Rosemary blurted, totally shocked. With his lightheartedness and youthful exuberance, she’d honestly thought Bruce was just a typical college kid. Now that she looked closer, though, she saw crinkle lines at the corners of his dreamy, wide-spaced eyes.
Grinning at her reaction, Bruce held up a hand and intoned, “It’s true. Scout’s honor.”
“I need the brand of your face cream,” she muttered, and Bruce laughed.
“What took you so long to get to college?” said Thyme.
“Well, I was in the service. Marines. Eleven years.”
There was a moment’s stunned silence. Then Fabricio said, “Wow, man. I had no idea.”
Rosemary was counting back in her mind, placing him in time… realizing that when he’d been enlisted, two major conflicts had been going on. Bruce must definitely been in a war zone, probably more than once. Thyme was so shocked, he was speechless.
“Yeah. The GI Bill is paying my tuition. That’s the only way I could afford to go to the UW, you know? Architecture has been my dream since forever. Even when I was a little kid I was always drawing houses, laying out floor plans and stuff. I can’t tell you how amazing it feels, to finally be able to pursue my passion.”
Fabricio nodded, like he understood. For her part, Rosemary knew he did. She felt a burst of pride, knowing she was finally brave enough to take that step, too – chasing her dreams late was better than letting them go forever.
“So. You’re a Marine.” Thyme’s voice was terse.
After a pause, Thyme continued, “Tell us about that?”
“Not really sure what to say. I joined up at eighteen, right out of high school. Kid like me – single mom; growing up in the Central District back before it got all gentrified — there wasn’t much options. Plus, I was proud to serve my country. 9/11 was still fresh in everybody’s minds, right?” He took a deep breath, and then continued, “Got deployed four times. Three to Iraq, once to Afghanistan. After the last one, I decided I finally wanted out.”
“Well, shit,” said Thyme. “I can’t even imagine what that was like.”
“No,” Bruce said kindly, “No, you really can’t. For a while I was seriously messed up about it. They’ve got better counseling these days, though, with all the PTSD cases. I’m good now, for the most part. It helps to talk about it.”
“And how was, ah,” Fabricio hesitated, as if unsure how to phrase his question. “The, ah, ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ policy?”
“You mean what’s it like being gay in the military?” Bruce restated, dryly. Fabricio nodded, looking shamefaced. He’s probably embarrassed not to have had the courage to just say it clearly. I get that – it’s a sensitive topic.
“Actually,” said Bruce, “Being gay was not that big a deal. I wasn’t ‘out,’ of course. And there’s homophobes everywhere. But the majority of the guys in my unit didn’t give a rat’s ass. Moreover,” he leaned in, tapping his finger on the tabletop for emphasis, “Any of those guys would have died for me. Some of them did. And I would have died for any of them. Even the homophobe assholes. Because you know what? That’s not what matters. Not when you’re there.” He sighed, sat back in his seat. “I guess it kind of annoys me, how everyone makes all this noise about it. Seriously, that’s not what’s most important about me. Or anyone.”
Thyme was leaning forward now, engrossed in Bruce’s every word.
“Well,” he said at last, “I guess you’re way more interesting than I supposed.”
“Yeah, well, we didn’t exactly do much talking the first time we met,” Bruce replied, his sly grin belying the meaning behind his words. Thyme’s eyes flashed – and that is our cue to leave, Rosemary thought. Little brother is about to crank up his seduction routine, and I definitely don’t want to be here for that!
“Hey, Fabricio, would you be interested in popping over to the textile gallery? I, uh, want to check out the kimono.”
“Good idea.” Fabricio was clearly eager to get out of there as well. “See you guys at the exit?”
“Yeah. Sure,” Thyme said. His eyes were zeroed in on Bruce, who returned the gaze with such intensity, Rosemary was surprised they weren’t pawing each other right there.
“Okay, bye,” she said, hurriedly making her escape.
They took refuge on a bench across from an exquisite piece of Korean tapestry. Rosemary flopped down on the seat with a whoosh, fanning herself and laughing at their hurried exit. Fabricio pulled up next to her, right by the edge of the bench, grinning in response.
“That was a nice save,” he said. “I thought Thyme was about to undress Bruce with more than his eyes, right there in the restaurant!”
Rosemary guffawed, realizing as she did that it’d been ages since she laughed like that.
“It’s crazy. Thyme is abrasive, inappropriate, and socially stunted, yet I’ve never know him not to get his man! And he’s definitely set his sights on Bruce.”
Fabricio chuckled in response. Then, turning his eyes on her, he asked, “And you? Do you always get your man?”
“Hardly.” Rosemary’s laugh was dry and harsh. “The opposite, in fact. I’ve never kept a man around. My longest relationship lasted, like, six months. When you get to my age and have that kind of history, you start to wonder what’s wrong with yourself.”
“Maybe you’ve just constantly ended up with the wrong guys.”
Slowly, she lifted her gaze to his. Fabricio regarded her earnestly, his face open and guileless. His eyes were dark brown, a little golden around the pupils, fading to nearly black at the outer rim of his iris. They were what some might call bedroom eyes – deep; soulful. Rosemary was sucked into them. She couldn’t look away.
Fabricio reached over and laid one hand over hers. He curled his fingers around her hand and lifted it gently up onto the armrest of his chair. The touch of his palm was warm and light. Rosemary felt tingling awareness where his skin connected with hers.
“Come ’ere,” he whispered.
She complied wordlessly, sliding over until her body was pressed against the chair, leaning over the armrest and onto his shoulder. With his other hand, Fabricio reached out to stroke her cheek, then cupped her chin in his strong fingers and drew her into a kiss.
Their second kiss was vibrant. Still he didn’t use his tongue, except to gently flick across the outer edges of her lips. Rosemary moaned low in her throat, tipping her face to deepen their connection. Her free hand went across the chair, around his waist, pulling him closer. As their lips danced, she felt rising passion in her body. It was thrilling – and bewildering. She pulled away with a gasp, leaving Fabricio with his lips parted, eyes half-lidded, looking mouthwateringly sexy.
“Oh,” she breathed. Then, awash in uncertainty, she pulled away and ran a shaking hand through her hair. “What am I doing?” she said aloud. “I’m so confused!”
“What about?” Fabricio’s voice was thick. If his heart is pounding half as hard as mine, I’m surprised he can speak coherently at all!
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this before. When I’m with you, I feel like we connect in a way I’ve never felt before. It’s almost scary, how it feels when we’re together. But then there’s this… thing… with Josh. And he’s got my mind spinning, and he treats to all these amazing experiences, and… I don’t know what it all means. Where all this is going, with you. With him.”
She sighed, hating herself a little for baring all this to him, knowing how much he cared for her. Fabricio said nothing for a while. He let his fingers play with hers, slipping in between, stroking the length of them, tracing the shape of her hand. Finally, he turned and looked her clear in the face.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“It’s a simple question. What do you want? Out of life?”
Rosemary had no trouble answering that one. How often had she thought of it? When lying alone, wondering what the future would bring, imagining everything she dreamed could come about?
“I want a future with someone. I want a husband, a family, kids, dogs, a house, all of that. I want a job I care about, something that brings some beauty into the world. Time to make my art, and people to appreciate it. I want to come home and know somebody’s there, waiting for me, loving me. And I want to travel, see the world, experience different cultures. Maybe move a couple times, maybe come back afterwards. I want to have a partner, somebody to share life with.” She laughed sharply then, realizing this sounded like a pretty tall order. “Sounds like I want it all, actually.”
“So do I.”
She turned startled eyes on him, looking for the joke, but his face was serious. He squeezed her hand tight. In that moment, Rosemary felt her heart soar. She could have fallen in love with him right then… almost.
“Rosemary, everything you just said is exactly what I want. Don’t you see? That’s what I’ve been saying all along. I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know why there’s this other guy in your life right now, and I have no idea how it’s all going to work out. But we are meant to be together. I feel it. Don’t you?”
His last words were like a plea. His dark eyes pulled at her, begging her to join him in the passionate belief that they were destined for each other. Rosemary teetered on the edge, nearly ready to submit, hovering at the very rim of truth… but fear stopped her. Uncertainly, she shook her head and mumbled, “I don’t know.”
Fabricio released her hand with a sigh. She could feel his disappointment pulsing in the air between them. Resting his hands on his knees, Fabricio stared at the tapestry for a while. His face was calm and composed when he turned to her again.
“You know, lots of people back home told me I couldn’t do all these things, because of my disability. It would have been really easy to believe them, to just sit back, feel sorry for myself, and prove them right. But I didn’t. If you want something, you have to go after it. It’s as simple as that.”
He reached for her hand again, and Rosemary curled her fingers gratefully around his. Holding her eyes, he brought her hand up to his face, turned it, and pressed a long, sensual kiss to her palm. This was more romantic, even, than a kiss on the hand – his lips tasted the contours of her palm lines: heart line; life line; head line; fate line. She wondered, briefly: if Parsley were to read her palm, would she find Fabricio’s name written there? Was his fate intertwined with hers? For a while? Forever?
When he let go Rosemary felt a pang of regret. The moment was over.
“I guess we’d better go see if the guys are done,” he said, offering a lopsided grin.
“Yeah. Thyme’s probably got his clothes back on by now.”
Fabricio chuckled, shaking his head as he led the way back towards the café. Thyme and Bruce were still there at the table, locked in conversation. It took several prompts from Rosemary to finally tear them apart. She smiled to herself as she headed to the car, listening to her brother and Bruce chatting intensely as they walked.
“So, see you later this week?” Thyme said when they came to the parking lot. The tone of his voice was eager, but more than that. It was something Rosemary hadn’t heard from him before. For the first time, he seemed uncertain. Hopeful, but teetering on the edge of worry.
“Absolutely! Give me a call, okay?” said Bruce with his usual guileless cheer.
Bruce and Thyme hugged, and Rosemary leaned down to hug Fabricio too. He murmured, “See you soon,” in her ear, giving her an extra squeeze when she pulled away. Giving Bruce a friendly wave, she linked elbows with her brother – not sure he’d follow her otherwise – and headed for the car.
“Actually, Bruce is a pretty cool guy,” said Thyme as they drove. “Did you know he’s been on all seven continents? Yeah, even Antarctica! How crazy is that?”
Rosemary nodded and made appropriate sounds in response, but Thyme didn’t notice her amusement. He just kept gabbing away, extolling Bruce’s many virtues. I never thought I’d see the day, she thought with high humor. Little brother’s got it bad!
At home she puttered around, enjoying a slow weekend afternoon. It was late before she remembered the Tarot card. As she picked it up, Rosemary came to the realization: The Hermit is Thyme! Shut inside himself for so long, just hiding from relationships. From love. And Bruce… Bruce is the lantern, lighting the way to a better life. With him.