The Woman Who Wore Hats
By Rob Mohr
The day I first saw her she was standing on the malacon some distance from where I had entered the ocean side park. She stood silhouetted against the blue/gray water. Her dress was a pure yellow, almost transparent, delicate as it flowed down to her ankles. Her wide brim hat was a matching tone, and swept down over the right side of her long golden hair. From a distance, looking across broken patches of flickering shade, her face seemed to be made of pure ivory cut from a fresh tusk that had none of the yellow that comes with age.
In that moment she was more apparition than woman. Her focus seemed to be on a triage of boats that were hauling in a common net. Just as I reached the malacon, she began to walk away from me, with long purposeful strides that revealed the beauty and strength of her long delicate legs. Like a fine horse gliding across the surface with the slight side to side motion of a pacer. In that moment she was etched in my memory as an elegant, yet mysterious lady.
As I drew closer, she turned and entered the village on one of the side streets that climbed toward the residential neighborhood above. Enthralled, I followed in time to observe her enter a two-story house near the middle of the first block. I made mental note of where she apparently lived. Turning back to the malacon, my mind began to form a story that would explain the mystery of her existence. In that moment of wistful reflection, her potent image engaged every aspect of my being.
She first noticed me, perhaps only as an object of casual interest, several days later just after I had been seated at my favorite table in a small French restaurant I had come to love. My thoughts were focused on my plan to meet several of my poet friends later at a quiet bar to share our newest literary efforts, when I was distracted by a movement across the restaurant. At the apex of the two wings of seating, in the most viable spot possible, there, to my surprise, sat the woman I had encountered on the waterfront chatting with a lady friend of about the same age. She was attired in a brilliant jade dress that came down just below her knees, which was matched by an elegant cappello of the same color, with a brim as broad as the one I had seen by the sea. But unlike the image fixed in my mind, the skin of her face now was a shade of bronze that worked perfectly with the color and texture of her clothes. She was even more beautiful than I remembered.
Her hair was woven, gold corn-silk highlighted with streaks of tarnished silver. The potency of her artistic blend of colors and materials was, as before, in perfect taste. While I was studying her, and her equally attractive companion, my mysterious lady turned her head and looked directly at me, then smiled to reveal her perfect, very white, teeth. Surprised, I stood and waved with my open palm in acknowledgment. She revealed her acceptance with a nod of her head, and then turned back to continue her conversation with her lady friend.
“Mark, what are you up to?”
Startled I turned to see John, my best friend who was to join me for lunch. “Ha. You caught me. I was transfixed by the perfection of the lady in green.”
John looked across to where my damsel was seated. “God! She is striking. Are you going to introduce me?”
“Not possible. I don’t even know her name.”
He began studying the menu but looked up to add, “too bad.”
To both of our disappointment, the ladies finished their meal, and disappeared through the gate at the rear of the restaurant.
Our third meeting was two days later during an early afternoon poetry event for a close friend of mine, a well-educated poet who unfortunately had imprisoned himself, and his talent, in an age that proceded the one we now live in. His poetry was well-formed with a studied cadence, but he was unable to move away from traditional standards. Yet like so many artists that meet communal taste he was considered successful. I was there to support his excellent use of form, while simultaneously dreading having to sit through the reading.
During the social phase, as the wine and hors’ d’oeu’vres were served to the milling group of patrons, all of whom on some level believed that they enjoyed poetry, she emerged, almost as if a spotlight had been turned on above her. She glimmered. Dressed in a long black cocktail dress with a strap over one shoulder, her aura was stark, yet somehow pristine in the most feminine of ways. There were no sleeves, which exposed, and accented her long, sensual, extremely white arms while emphasizing her six feet in height. Again a broad brim black hat adorned with wide, contrasting ribbons that flowed down onto her regal attire bestowing her with a commanding presence.
As I moved about to visit with some in the crowd that I knew from other events, she and I found ourselves face to face and for the first time. We spoke to one another at the same moment.
She smiled, “Mark, you look very much yourself today.” Strange, I thought, how does she know my name?
“Yes, and you are a very handsome woman,” I replied.
“Mm-mm,” she murmured, as she turned and walked away. After a few strides she stopped and looked back. “My name is Sara,” she called out.
Soon the more visually-oriented members of the crowd began to find the seat that would be perfect for them. I, being in that group, went directly to my seat on the outer edge of the second row to the left of the podium. No sooner had I settled when the cool feel of a satin garment brushed my arm. I turned to see the woman in black settle into the seat beside me. Surprised by the sound of my own intake of breath, I stood and said, “Please do.” She, without a word in response, focused on the podium, and began to fan herself with a black silk fan collected from an earlier age. It was then that I realized the hat too was from the 1920s.
I was not quite sure why but her presence gave me a feeling of comfort, and a sense that she would insure that this would be an intellectually stimulating session. I was not disappointed. Throughout the readings she with unrestrained enthusiasm shared her reflections on the qualities of each poem.
“He uses metaphor well,” she quipped. The sound of her voice was soft, yet assured.
“Yes. His language is sparse, yet the poem unveils a single reality.” As earlier, her response was a long, “Mm-mm.”
To my delight, our mini-exchanges continued as the poet pontificated. Her understanding of poetry was focused and demonstrated a sophisticated knowledge of contemporary writing. This pleased me and intensified the comfort I had felt when she first sat down beside me.
When the reading ended, and we had exchanged all needed goodbys with our friends, she came back to me, and said, “Come walk with me on the malecon, the breeze will refresh us.” I looked down toward the ocean to see that the sea was full of choppy broken waves driven by a fresh wind that had picked up since the morning.
“That would be nice,” I replied.
A few hours later, just before sunset, I sat in my favorite bar sipping on a margarita, in a state of inner reflection. My focus was on the clouds where I searched for the forms of animals hidden there. At that moment a cloud in the shape of a seagull drifted by just above the horizon. The gull, a silent omen, announced the arrival of the woman who wore hats, now dressed in a stunning mauve dress cut just above her knees. Her long bronze legs where as shapely as I had remembered. The hat, mauve as well, with the usual broad brim, had turned down sides that framed her flawless face.
“Oh, there you are,” she said as she pulled out a chair and sat facing me. “I just love the evening sky.” She was stunning in every detail, yet there was something about her actions that made me more reserved than usual.
“I was looking for animals in the cloud formations. See, that small one over there, the one with a short tail. A bit like a monkey, don’t you think?” Her response was the now classic, “Mm mm,” followed by a “Perhaps,” spoken with a sound that clearly conveyed her pleasure.
“A margarita please, with fresh lime squeezed in. None of that sugar mix everyone uses.” she said to the waiter who had rushed over when he notice her take a seat.
Then she looked at me with an expression of wonder on her face. “You must see the house I am going to buy. It is not far from here. I would love to know what you think. You mentioned earlier you were once an architect. Please share with me your professional opinion.”
Buying a house here by the sea is a tricky business in Mexico, and I could not help but wonder if she knew what she was getting into. “Do you have a realtor?”
With a wave of her hand she dismissed my comment. “The owners have promised to let me in at seven. There will still be plenty of light, Please come with me.”
I noted that we still had an hour, or so, in which to finish our drinks. “Of course. I would be delighted to help,” I said.
At a quarter till seven we left the bar and headed toward her car which she assured me was parked close by. Once ensconced we drove east along the main road that ran parallel to the ocean about one quarter of a mile above the beach. In what seemed but a moment, she said, “We are almost there.” She turned at the next corner and drove one block toward the ocean then turned left on the first cross street. We stopped in front of a large house in the middle of the block.
As we walked to the front door I noticed that the noise from the main road above was loud enough to be disturbing. The house itself was at least thirty years old with signs of neglect throughout. The yard was small and there was no terrace where one might sit and enjoy the evening light. After our tour, and a polite parting with the owners, we returned to the bar where over our third margarita, we discussed the qualities and limitations of the property.
“Sara, let me call a close friend of mine who is a realtor and ask him what he thinks of the house, and if he knows of a house that might better fit your needs.
“Oh, please. I will be eternally grateful.”
“Federico, good to hear your voice. I have a favor to ask.” After explaining where the house we had visited was and some of what she desired in a house, he confirmed my feelings about the neighborhood. He then indicated that a better property owned by a mutual friend of ours had just been listed.
“Great! Would it be possible to see that listing in the morning? This house, which belonged to a woman I had dated several times, would be ideal for Sara.”
“I will contact Susanna and call you back after we talk,” he replied.
I hung up, and after taking a sip of my margarita I turned to her, “Sara, he confirmed what I suspected. In addition to the noise level, the house’s proximity to the main road has facilitated several robberies over the past year. Not a good choice.”
A look of anguish passed over her face. “Oh, how disappointing.”
“It’s better to know now. And there is some good news. Federico told me about a new listing owned by an artist friend of mine. Her house is about the same size and is delightful. I have been to several parties there. He’s checking to see if we can see the house in the morning.
“The location is perfect!”
Federico called back a few moments later and confirmed a ten-thirty showing for the next morning. “Mark, you and Sara will be the first to see this new listing. Someone will scoop it up in a few days.”
I sighed at his closing line.
“Sounds perfect,” she exclaimed, having overheard his remarks. With the matter settled, we parted for the night. But before I could get away she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.
“I don’t know what I would do without your help,” she said.
“My pleasure,” I replied. Leaving, I turned back and waved once. Exhausted by the intensity of being with Sara, I walked directly to my sea-front apartment.
Later, sitting on my terrace, looking out across the sea, I wondered just what there was about Sara that made me uneasy. What was I missing? She was, without any doubt, one of the most beautiful women I had ever encountered, and in every respect seemed ideal for a lonely man who had given up his dreams when his wife had died.
During the night I tossed and turned more than usual.
Early the next morning, when the dogs had been turned out, and a haze hung over the lake, I walked down to the sea shore. Shocked, I saw her running alone the edge of the water in a light purple bikini barely covering her long sensuous body. She was wearing a matching baseball cap with sun flaps that hung down over her neck. She beamed as she passed me, and called out, “Come run with me.”
As the distance between us increased I shouted into the wind, “My shoes are not made for running,” but the wind off the ocean blew my words back into my face. Disgusted with my inability to respond I walked to the square looking for breakfast.
The mystique of what she might wear to the house led me to hurry more than usual to ready myself for her arrival, which, in sync with her usual pattern, was at ten sharp. I opened the large door on her Camry and slid into the seat beside her to find that she was dressed in dark brown culottes, and a soft cream blouse. Her hair was pulled back and held in place by a matching brown scarf wrapped around her head and tied so that the ends trailed down her neck, “These are my work clothes,” she exclaimed.
My reply was instant, “Very nice indeed,”
She drove with a concentration I appreciated. Careful and precise in her transitions at the intersections. She was very much a woman in charge of the situation. “I run every morning, it keeps me slim.” Her pause suggested she was waiting from some comment from me.
“Sorry I was unable to join you but my old flip flops were not made for running. I’ll come properly dressed tomorrow.” Had I meant to make a date for tomorrow? What was I doing? She clearly has me captured in her spell.
My friend’s house was on an old tabby road that swung down by a section of the marsh that separated the houses from a ridge of sand that sheltered the beach. The upper decks of the house had an ideal view of dunes and the infinite sweep of the sea beyond. We entered by way of a wide terrace that formed an outdoor living space that opened through a series of French doors into a large two story living room. Stairs on one side curved up to a master suite on the second floor. She was taken by everything she saw, and when she discovered the price was almost identical with that of the house she had found earlier, she squealed with delight. The pool and terrace on the ocean side, with a view across the marsh the final stroke.
Without further hesitation she, with Federico’s help, worked out a price with the owner, while I enjoyed the breeze coming in off the marsh. To my surprise Sara agreed to pay the price they settled on in cash at the closing, which, since we were in Mexico, would take less than two weeks to complete.
As we were leaving we stood for a moment by her car, then hugged to celebrate her good fortune. “We will be very happy here,” she quipped. Bells, like brass ones on the commissary of my grandfathers farm, rang with force in the recesses of my mind.
We, I wondered.
I had some work to catch up on so I asked Sara to drop me off at my apartment. I relaxed realizing that this would be the end of our relationship for today. Yet, as soon as she drove off, I missed her a bit. My mind was filled with the implications of a relationship that was developing faster than anything I had ever experienced. Who was Sara? Where did her apparent wealth come from? Something basic seemed to be out of kilter, but its exact nature eluded me.
Late in the afternoon I went out for a drink at a small bistro on the town plaza. I was sipping my second Cuba Libre, studying the details of the cast iron gazebo that graced the center of the park. I was fascinated by the subtle curve of the classical sconces. Caught in this nowhere space, a woman in a stunning sky blue hat, with a matching blouse and long flowing skirt, walked around the side of the gazebo and headed directly toward my table. For just a moment I did not recognize her – but as she drew closer realized it was my own Sara. Her outfit surpassed all previous manifestations. She was stunning.
Without waiting for an invitation she slid into the chair across from me. “Mark, how wonderful to find you here,” she started.
Amazed, I could not restrain my reply. “You, my dear, are picture perfect in every way. Beautiful and elegant.”
Clearly delighted, she replied, “Why, many thanks for your kind words.”
The soft, smooth rhythm of her speech calmed me. I realized that, for my own sanity, I had to find a way to understand the full nature of this astounding woman. Just who was she?
“Sara, tell me about yourself.” What did you do before you came here?”
She did not miss a beat, “Oh, I sold my home and made plans for a new life in Mexico.”
Pressing a bit I asked, “But, what about family? Were you married? Where did you work?”
With her usual wave of dismissal, she paused, then began again. “Yes, for a long time, but we separated, and in time divorced. Frozen in cold storage I was in search of a sun to warm me.” She hesitated for a moment, “My friends understood. They were very supportive of my plans to move here.” The rise and fall of the sea breathed new life into me. I studied her in an effort to read through the wall she was ensconced behind. “Would you like a margarita?”
By now I had learned the subtitles of her choice. “Yes please. No mix. Only lemon.”
She looked at me with an intensity I had not seem before. “Don, I realized something this morning at the house. Your friends tell me that you are consistent, a bit of rock in that regard, and that you are the kind of person who is there for a friend in need. You helped me avoid a bad location and found me a wonderful house. “Oh, and John told me you were a good tennis player. And an artist, and …”
“Whoa! You are quite a detective.” I pushed my chair back, a bit more forceful than I intended, and took a big swallow of my Cuba Libre.
“Perhaps! I know is that you are a remarkable man. Just the man I need!” Those last few words touched a nerve. What could she be thinking? How will I meet her needs? What could she know about me that would lead her to say that. My guess was she had talked with some of my friends in an effort to gather the salient information about my life. She seems to know almost everything. My career as a professional artist. My teaching on insight, and learning how to see the myriad of things we missed every day. She is aware that I am single, and active within the cultural community. But what about me, the inner man? I can’t understand where her insight comes from. Does my reflective nature give me away?
“You are kind. You’re a friend, and I was glad to help,” I said, as I reached out and brushed her cheek with the back of my hand.
As we continued our casual dance of words, my mind was almost fully occupied analyzing what I knew about Sara – each encounter – each conversation. The visual information was overwhelming, but substance was lacking. The sum total of what I knew about her was mostly visual. From day-to-day she seemed to participate in multiple versions of reality. Yet she had drawn me to her. Is it possible that my analysis is wrong? The warmth I feel when she is around is real.
Over the next few dry days we met without planning specific times and places, but at each art show, poetry reading, or other cultural gathering,, due to limited scope of such activities in our village, she would show up and sit with me, or at least join me in conversation.
Our friendship deepened as I helped when I could with the closing on her new house. Finally, the notary had all the papers signed, and had deposited her cash payment while the former owners worked frantically to move out by the final closing date. They were a few of days over the limit, when, like overfed horses in a barn, Federico had to lead them out. The next day the transport company that had stored Sara’s furniture, in an act of transformation, moved her things into her new world.
Over the week that followed she carefully ordered things to suit her taste. I was excluded from this final process. She had been clear.
“Don, I want to surprise you in more ways that you might imagine. Will you come for supper next Monday, a first day, a new beginning.” Again her words loomed a black cloud, or was it white, rising in the distance.
Her new house had a small pool, so she added, “We can swim after supper if you would like.” Her words, as they had in the past, made me nervous and apprehensive about their meaning. Her allusive nature continued to puzzle me.
Monday I spent the day trying not to think about my supper with Sara. I played tennis with my friend John in the morning, and then he and I enjoyed a late breakfast together. My expectations for the day were scratched when John opened or breakfast conversation with, “How is Sara?” So after we ordered, I had little choice but to tell him my concerns about Sara.
“Several people have mentioned seeing the two of you together more than once.” His words confirmed what I already knew. “I talked with her once at a poetry reading,” he continued.
Following his cue I added, “We’ve enjoyed comparing notes.” This village is very small indeed, I thought.
“What the hell does that mean,” said John.
“Just getting to know one another.” Was I dodging any possibility of a relationship? He knows me almost too well. “She’s fun to be with,” I added.
“You helped her find a house, so go and enjoy the meal.”
My mind was on a single tract. “But John, why the costumes, her elaborate dress? Every day she wears a different outfit.”
“She looks great. Why complain?”
God he was no help at all. “She makes me nervous.”
“You said that.” He paused and went back to eating his pancakes, but looked up to leave me with one last thought. “Let me know how it turns out.”
By seven in the evening I pulling up in front of her house. The porch lights were already on even though the sun on this September evening had not yet set.
I rang the bell at the outer gate and waited for Sara to appear. I imagination raged as I tried to visualize what surprises she would have in store for me tonight. Surely she would not wear a hat in her own home.
The gate released autocratically as Sara’s voice loomed through her intercom, “I’ll meet you on the terrace.”
I closed the gate behind me and walked across the garden toward the broad entry terrace. She emerged from her new home simply dressed in tan slacks and a pale yellow blouse. Her hair was pulled back behind her head with a matching yellow ribbon – she was a jewel set in the rich ambiance of her earth colored home. Without hesitation I accepted her welcoming kiss on the cheek and looked around at the changes she had wrought. Leather porch chairs where draped with textured woven fabrics done by local indigenous groups. The same was true as we entered the stately living-dining area. Rich fabrics added touches of color to the earth tone furniture. The dining table had fresh flowers in the center with two places set facing across the head of the table. I noticed each setting had two forks, and a pair of wine glasses of different heights.
“Would you like to see what I have done with the house?”
“Absolutely. I can’t wait”.
She moved toward the kitchen and called out, “Come, follow me.”
The kitchen was a cook’s dream. Pots hanging above a center butcher block table, dishes in handmade wooden racks, and a group of small paintings that revealed her good taste. With the feel of a soft breeze, Sara moved past me, her hand brushed across my back. She then touched my hand, and said, “Now for the upstairs master bedroom.”
She led me up the open stairs that curved around one side of the living room to a private sitting area just outside the master bedroom. Again the decor was perfect for the house. The master bed was a king with rich bed coverings that appeared to be Persian. Three equally exotic rugs graced the floor. The walls were covered with a group of provocative paintings including three nudes.
“Who did these paintings?”
“Two are mine,” She pointed to a pair of garden scenes with several people in conversation.” I had thought that perhaps the nudes were from her hand.
Each had presence and unity, both qualities essential to good works.
“And the others are a collection of works done by friends back in Oregon. As are most of the paintings you saw downstairs.”
Thinking about the future, I added, “There are several excellent painters here in the village. Several Mexicans whose works invoke per-Columbian dream scapes.”
“Will you introduce me.” She said.
“Of course,” I responded. Then she again grasped my hand and led me down stairs. My feelings about her changed. Not so – actually they were vacillating by the minute.
“What would you like to drink. I have two wines for our supper, but you could have a scotch while I finished up in the kitchen. God. How did she know.
“That’s my love. Did I tell you that I am a pure Scot by heritage? My family roots are in the Highlands.” She smiled, and laughed. A lilting pleasant laugh.
“No. But I guessed.” She brought out a single malt from the isle of Islay. A narrow miss, my family was from the adjoining island of Sky.
“It will just take me a few moments.”
Enjoying my scotch images of Sara filled my mind. I wondered if perhaps she used hats and dresses to become a person with nuanced dimensions and an integrated presence, or if out of a need to maintain a separate external persona as she searched for her true self.
The supper was superb. The wines perfect. We ended with the best chocolate mousse I had tasted in years. Finally we reached the moment when in another age we would have shared a port with a cigar as we conversed. Now, in this new reality, this was our moment to be clear with one another.
“Sara tonight you amaze me. I have tried over these past few weeks, to catch a glimpse of who you are. Tonight, as you move through your home, your personal space, your image has begun to gain clarity.”
She came and stood behind me. Put her arms over each side of my neck with her palms laid on my chest. The intimacy, and sweetness, of her touch filled me with a sense of love. She kissed my neck, and only then began to speak,
“Don, you should know. Here by the ocean I have been set free from the cage I lived in for too many years. My work as an artist and interior designer consumed my life. My energy was being drained by a marriage that had died years before, but, for reasons I no longer understand, I tried to heal the wounds and bring that relationship back to life. I was lost until I began to realize that I must cooperate with the whole of life in my own creation. Only then would I be all I could and should be. Clothes – my hats – became an aid and a weapon. Neutral clothing seemed a failure, I could never be content to be merely relative. What you have seen was me painting the world I want to live in. Painting myself into that world, into my dreams. Here in the village, my reality has become an integrated painting where all the parts of my essence work together.”
She paused as if waiting for me. “Sara I see that now. I was drawn to you from the first, but I was fearful of what I did not understand.”
“Do you really understand?” She exclaimed. I remained quiet for a moment, careful that my reply would ring true.
“Yes, the pieces make sense to me now. What you have shared burns away the fog that surrounded you. Here by the sea you have found your true self, the person you were meant to be. The rise and fall of the water has breathed new life into you.”
She thought a moment. “The half person I had been was desperate to be transformed, to be seated in a new reality – this exact reality.”
The magic spell spun by her words overwhelmed my resistance, but a last breath of reserve kept me suspended. But an answer, long hidden, struggled to form itself.
“Come on. Enough of this chatter. I promised you a swim.” She turned and walked toward the wide doors leading to her back patio. “Come, we’ll share the pool – it’s heated.”
“Coming, dear lady.”
The pool like the rest of the house was perfect.
She beckoned me to come closer. “Don, you need to see me as I really am, without illusion.” With that she began to undress, and within seconds she stood before me in the fullness of her being.