Her face was unforgettable. The rest of her being was just as indelible. I first met Suravi Patel Livingstone about ten years ago, before I connected with Alyssa. Revisiting my past, the future beckoned. I didn't have a clue.
My dad had called, asking if I could come up for a couple of weeks and help him sort some things out with the family winery business in the Sonoma Valley wine country. Mom's health wasn't that great, and some of the things that she took care of were slipping, like the accounting and the web site and social media marketing. Because of my tech background, I often answered quick questions, or even did some programming for them. But nowdays, I had some sorting out of my own to do.
"Sorry to hear about your business problem, Son," Dad said. "It sounded like a great idea you had."
I developed a plan for a monster Internet presence around 2005. Seems like a lifetime ago. Money misspent, hubris and misguided investor management had combined to bring my financial and emotional worlds plunging down around me at the tender age of twenty-five. I was glad for my dad's sympathy, but he really had no clue how devastating it had been.
"Yeah," I half-agreed, " it was. I guess the timing for it wasn't right, or the financing, or..."
I sighed. "I guess the whole thing...we just couldn't make it work."
Dad said, "It's kinda like the crop failures we had last year. We think we know what happened, but not really."
All the great Northern California wine grape growing regions faced the scare of phylloxera last season. It's an insidious aphid that can wipe out people's livelihood in weeks. California and Europe have traded the bug back and forth over decades. You can contain it, but you can't control it. And the early frost didn't help either. Twenty degrees at night for a week on those tiny little grape buds is a killer. Mom and Dad lost 50% of their stock. Not easy for a couple whose combined ages is approaching a couple of centuries.
Dad and I were quiet for a few seconds.
Dad was getting on in years, and his decision-making process wasn't as sharp as it used to be. He was having more and more lapses as time went by. I was glad to help out. I owed him.
Dad had called earlier in the week. Always the good son, I drove up to Sonoma from Long Beach, and was staying at my parents' house, smack dab in the middle of the vineyards. Great place to grow up. It was good to be home, but odd.
After helping Mom and Dad for a few days, I had made arrangements to meet an old college chum at The Silverado Resort and Spa in nearby Napa. The Silverado is an exquisite destination known for elegant service, impeccable dining, championship golf, and world-class croquet. Croquet players at The Silverado are required to wear white, kind of like Wimbledon. I decided to go anyway.
I was sitting in the bar at The Grill at Silverado, admiring the faux Italianate motif. The entire resort had recently undergone a total, multi-million dollar remodel. They spared no expense. They also raised the already exorbitant room rates and green fees. It was tasteful without being gaudy. Well, almost.
My friend, Al Ostrowski, and I had agreed to meet at The Bar at the Grill. Al was in San Francisco for a convention. Big O had called me a few weeks earlier in Long Beach to let me know he was going to be in town. I lived in Southern California. He had a different definition of "in town." Then my dad called. It all worked out.
Al was late for our lunch date, and seemed in a rush to leave once he got there. He was now an executive with a big accounting firm in Chicago, and dressed formal-casual for a bar: dark cranberry long sleeved dress shirt with a polo player stitched above the left breast, powder blue cashmere sweater tied nonchalantly around his shoulders, khaki slacks, cordovan loafers and no socks. I figured he made in a year what I made in a lifetime. The Rolex on his wrist was a dead giveaway. But Al was a really funny guy, and I liked him.
We were on our second drink. Al was drinking Guinness, and I was doing Baileys Irish Cream on the rocks. "So, Chris, it's been great catching up with you and all."
I started to agree.
"...but I gotta run. Stacey and I are going for a balloon ride in Calistoga in fifteen minutes."
He was going to be late for that, too.
"So let's do this again, huh?" Al said as he started to stand.
I stood up and reached out to shake his hand. Al made a fist. He wanted to do a fist bump. As I made a fist, he stuck out his hand. It was like "Rock, Paper, Scissors," but dumber. I finally slapped him on the back and said, "See ya, Al. Give my best to Stacey."
Al walked out of the bar looking down at his cell phone.
I tried not to be miffed. Maybe Al wasn't that great a guy after all. I sat back down, sighed, and looked for the waiter. I needed another Baileys, quick. Slumping back in the leather-wicker casbah chair after the waiter brought my new drink, I tried to think of nothing.
In the lobby, I noticed a tall, beautiful, exotic looking woman with long, straight, black hair down to her waist, wandering among the other guests rushing to their rooms or the bar, whichever came first. She had a lost smile on her face. She was out of place, and exceptional.
I straightened up in my chair, then decided to go check things out in the parlor-like lobby, leaving my beloved Baileys at the table. I casually sat on a big, round divan they used to have in the '30s, like the one where Bogie tweaks the gunsel, played by Elisha Cook, Jr., at the hotel scene in "The Maltese Falcon". The slender, dark, alluring stranger I'd seen walking aimlessly was sitting on the other side of the round divan, gazing at the bad artwork on the walls, the oversized flower arrangements in the giant Baccarat vases, and the blue and amber mosaic ceiling tiles. Most of the other guests were checking their cell phones.
Off the lobby, godawful music seeped out of the ballroom where a Stanford University reunion was being held. A huge poster board sign propped on a brass easel just outside the ballroom door announced the festivities with promises of "reliving your treasured memories for nights to come!" Sure.
I risked a glance at my newfound friend. She was wearing a long, red silk dress with a gold lamé sash around her waist. Diamond stud earrings and a plain, gold link chain laying just below the neckline. Shiny, black, medium-high heels balanced the gleam of her raven hair. Simple, but elegant. A name tag with the prominent Stanford crimson logo floated above the curve of her left breast. I couldn't read the name from where I was sitting, but I read her eyes as she noticed me staring.
"How's the reunion going?" I recovered.
She studied me carefully. Her expression seemed to focus.
"I walked in," she said, "and got my name tag. I looked around and decided I didn't belong."
I tried to look sympathetic. It wasn't hard. Her slight, sweet accent spoke with such clarity.
"So I walked out."
I noticed her hands. Long, slender fingers, short nails, shiny with no color. And no wedding ring, either.
"And here you are," I said.
Still keeping eye contact, she nodded once. Her hair fell from behind her ear and covered her left eye. She looked back at me and smiled through the strands.
"What about you?" she said softly.
I gave her the usual cop-out. "Oh, not much to tell," I said, while I fidgeted with my fingers. Then I let my hands drop to my knees and braced them to feel safe.
I told her about my past, growing up nearby in Sonoma. Sonomans always had an inferiority complex, like Avis always trying harder, or Chicago, The Second City. They acted like the bastard child of the Northern California wine country, even with a crop of world-class winemakers and top-notch grapes. Napa got the rave reviews. We were tired of wine writers being "surprised" at the richness and quality of "this quaint Sonoma favorite." My god, we had Ravenswood, for heaven's sake. They lived up to their "No Wimpy Wines" motto.
My family had been in the wine business for several generations, being ex-pats from Denmark in the late 1800s. Prohibition was known as "The Difficult Years", but we followed the wine boom of the sixties and seventies, spurred by the "Father of the Modern California Wine Industry", Robert Mondavi, among others. By the time I was born, in the early eighties, the California wine industry was maturing. It became highly cooperative, as opposed to the heavy competition in most industries. Family businesses were the norm.
I was telling her that I went, of course, to UC Davis as a freshman.
"Let me guess," she said, "Oenology 101, right?"
I blushed like a rosé.
"So, what do you do now?" I asked.
We sat and talked on the divan for what seemed like an hour. I watched her as she spoke. Her skin was flawless, the color of rich, strong espresso with the perfect amount of cream swirled in, and a touch of cinnamon thrown in for taste. I was mesmerized.
Turns out she had had an exciting time during her Stanford years. She explained that she was a championship swimmer, on a scholarship, majored in computer science, minored in quantum physics, had been in a serious relationship (I noted the past tense) and was going for her PhD. And she said with a slight smile, that her father always wanted her to be a doctor.
"Where are your parents?" I asked.
"Fiji," she said with a wistful look. Then she frowned.
She explained she had a bad breakup shortly after graduating. Her thesis was in artificial intelligence and his was in psychopathology. Related, but way different. Apples and oranges, actually. He didn't get her; she didn't get him.
She leaned back and absent-mindedly touched her gold droplet earrings.
"I like your earrings," I said. It looked like the droplets held dollops of amber.
She pulled her hand down and said, "They were a gift from...".
She didn't have to finish.
"The bastard!" she spat, suddenly and violently.
Jeez, where did that come from?, I thought.
She seemed to compose herself and explained that she was waiting for her taxi to show up.
"You're so easy to talk with," she said, while looking away from me for perhaps the first time during our extended conversation.
"Thanks," I said. "You're easy to listen to."
She tilted her head back, tossed a fallen wisp of black hair back in place and laughed a throaty laugh. I remember that laugh. Practiced and natural at the same time. Full of emotion. Full of promise and hope. My hope.
She glanced out the window and said, "Oh, my ride's here."
"What's your name?" I finally asked, as she started to gather up her things.
"Suravi. Suravi Livingstone."
"Aha," I said, trying to be cool. "Sounds like there's another story there."
We both got up, standing closer to each other than we had to.
"Yes, there is," she said, reaching into her small purse and pulling out a red business card. "What's yours?"
"Christian. Holst. H-o-l-s-," I said.
"I get it," she said, "like the composer."
I did a double-take as she handed me her card, our fingers touching for the first time.
It was like an electric shock. I could feel the energy wave pulse through my body, causing my lungs to do a sharp intake of breath.
She looked at me as if to ask if I was all right, then turned and walked through the automatic door to the waiting driver.
As the lobby door hissed shut, I said "I'll call you," through the glass. Mr. Smooth.
She stepped into the taxi, then looked back and waved at me with a big smile and closed the door.
I realized was standing with my nose to the lobby door. How did I get here?
The taxi pulled out of the curved Silverado Resort driveway. I saw her turn around and look through the back window at me as she passed through the large stone pillars with the ornate, black, wrought iron gates.