The last farmers’ markets of the year are always the best, in my opinion.
Autumn is the season of harvest, the gasping end of summer’s time of plenty. It’s when everything living in the ground exerts itself with one final burst of fecundity before going gently into that dark, wintery sleep. The stalls of the local farmers’ market are filled with fruits that are smaller than their early counterparts but all the sweeter for it, and greens that have just barely avoided being touched with frost. It’s the season of preserves, jams and jellies, pickles, and sauerkraut stacked in bright clean jars on orange and red tablecloths. It’s the season of keeping and consideration. Even though I know I can get almost anything I want from the local supermarket, even though I could certainly grow it myself if I took the time to build a proper greenhouse here, I like the sense of scarcity. The culinary specificity, as it were.
One of the booths has bottles of last year’s ice wine on display. To make ice wine, the grapes have to freeze on the vine—literally perish of the cold—before they’re harvested and pressed. It makes the wine uniquely sweet. I don’t normally drink, but something about the metaphor moves me. I buy a bottle and continue my ramble, enjoying the sights and scents of people and dogs—so many dogs, it seems like everyone in this town has one—pushed together in such a small space. Boulder’s farmers’ market is hosted on a small stretch of street between a park and an art museum. Next to the art museum is an ornamental teahouse, and I’m tempted by it, a chance to escape the chill, but it’s not so bad out that I can’t browse a little longer.
There are stalls making artisanal pizzas baked on the spot, or empanadas, kebabs, or gyros, each one with vegetarian options. Children run from the bakeries to the florists to the puppy tied up in the shadow of a tree behind one of the vendors. People jostle for space in front of the booths, hands reaching for samples, voices raised in conversation, debate, and laughter. It’s nice. Lively. I like the energy of it, being in such a crowd. Sometimes I feel like a battery and that I need to be part of a group to recharge properly. Being in a greenhouse gives me the same buzz, and without the headaches that can come when I linger with noisy people a little too long, but I haven’t put down roots here. I won’t. This is a break from my regular life, a stutter in the breath of responsibility that normally fills me and gives me purpose. I like it here, but I can’t maintain it. Have to enjoy it while I can.
I buy a kebab from one of the food vendors, meat so tender the first bite literally melts in my mouth, breaking to pieces under the gentle pressure of my tongue. It’s blissful, and I shut my eyes to savor the flavors more fully. Lamb with a Moroccan flair: I taste coriander and cumin, the heat of ginger and the sweet bite of cinnamon. I finish my bite and reach for another.
Only my wooden skewer is empty. I stare at it for a moment, then down at the dog sitting at my feet, its jaws wide open in a grin. It’s a pit bull, I think, or maybe a pit bull cross of some kind, charcoal gray with two white spots on either side of its muzzle. It looks very pleased with itself, and so it should, I reflect as I shake my head and throw my skewer in the nearby trash can.
A tall man in black jeans and a dark brown Henley is striding toward us, his expression on the grim side. “I’m so sorry,” he says once he’s close enough to be heard over the crowd. His voice is a pleasant baritone with the slightest hint of an accent I can’t quite place. “Bear got away from me. Please tell me he didn’t knock you down searching for a treat.”
“Nothing so dire.” I pat the dog—Bear—on the head, and his owner sighs.
“That’s a polite way of saying he did get something from you. If my dog ate your lunch, the least I can do is replace it.”
“It’s fine, really.”
“Please, I insist.”
I look at the man, look a little more closely for the first time. There’s a veneer of irritation over his face, but beneath that I get a sense of depth, of layers. Irritation, affection for the dog, pleasure at a new, impromptu meeting, and… I pull back. It’s none of my business.
“Well, if you insist.”
“I do.” He glances behind me at the kebab shop. “Although the line here has grown very long. We may as well sit down if we’re going to eat properly.”
I thought back to the teahouse. “Will they let you in with Bear?”
“Possibly. If not, then we’ll sit outside. There are heaters set up beside the tables.”
He holds his hand out to me, palm facing more up than sideways. When I take it I almost expect him to raise my knuckles to his lips. The thought makes me blush a little, and I hope he doesn’t see it.
We shake, and his lip curls slightly.
“A pleasure, Mr. Summers, despite our unorthodox meeting.”
It turns out the teahouse doesn’t let dogs inside, but there are plenty of places beneath the awnings outside. It’s about sixty degrees, really too warm for me to be wearing my long coat and scarf, but I get cold easily. I order chai, he gets a silver needle blend, and Bear gets a bowl of water, courtesy of the friendly waitress.
“And that will be all for you until we get home,” Felix tells Bear sternly. “Impudent beast.” The dog grins at him.
I laugh. “I don’t think he cares.”
“Oh, he doesn’t. He’s always hungry. It’s like I’m feeding a whole pack of dogs instead of one, but I’ve tried to teach him better manners than that. Unfortunately, his original owners spoiled him.”
“Did you get him from the Humane Society?”
Felix shakes his head. “No, he was a gift. He’s good company, even if he does try to eat me into the poor house.”
I look my companion over discreetly. He’s dressed casually, but the clothes are clearly high quality. His nails are manicured, his golden brown hair is cut fashionably long on top, short on the sides, and his dark eyes never glanced at price when he was picking what to eat. This, I think, is not someone who’s anywhere close to poverty. He catches my gaze, and I feel myself start to blush. After clearing my throat, I ask, “What do you do for work, Felix?”
“I’m a speleologist.”
I almost want to say “gesundheit.” “I’m not sure what that means,” I confess.
“You’re not alone. Speleology is the scientific study of caves.”
A word surfaces in my mind. “Like… spelunking.”
Felix nods appreciatively. “That sort of exploration is part of it. I personally am interested in the geology of caves, their morphology, if you will. There are others who specialize in the chemistry, the biology…. All of it’s fascinating. The creatures you find in the deep places of the earth are utterly unique, and some are very beautiful.” He smiles and looks down into his plain white china cup for a moment. “I tend to ramble about my passions. Please stop me if you’re getting bored.”
“Not at all, I know how you feel.”
He tilts his head expectantly, and I go on.
“I’m a gardener, professionally. It’s the only work I could ever imagine doing.”
“Ah.” His smile is faint now, more self-deprecating. “I’m afraid I know nothing of gardening. I can’t even keep a cactus alive.”
“Cacti can be a challenge sometimes.” I know full well that not everyone senses plants the way I do, not everyone can work with them and always get good results. “And I know nothing about caving, obviously, so we’re even. I didn’t even know there were any caves in Colorado.”
“You’re not from here, then?” Felix asks, graciously ignoring the part about my ignorance.
“No. I’m originally from Los Angeles, but I spend most of my time abroad these days.”
“Your skills are in high demand, then.”
It isn’t a question, but I treat it like one anyway. “Mine and my mother’s. We run a company together. She taught me everything I know.”
“Ah.” He takes a sip of tea. “Is your mother here with you? Should I be buying lunch for three?”
His tone is playful, but his eyes aren’t. I can understand why. It’s probably a little off-putting to sit down with a grown man and wonder if his mother is going to come waltzing up at any moment.
“No,” I say with a chuckle. “She’s working in the Seychelles right now.” It isn’t my imagination when his shoulders relax ever so minutely.
Our food arrives a moment later, sparing us a potentially awkward moment. I ordered a green curry, not wanting to try and recreate the flavor of the lamb. It smells sweet and hot, and the pieces of braised beef are delicious. Felix eats pork bulgogi with a rich, smoky scent, and Bear is staring at both of us with pure avarice on his face. Felix notices.
“Keep an eye on your plate,” he advises me. “He moves softly for such a big dog.”
“Oh, I know.” I won’t be underestimating Bear again.
We dine and linger for another hour. The food and tea warm me up, and the conversation invigorates me. Felix is easy to talk to, charming without being obsequious, and obviously passionate about his work. He tells me about the places he’s traveled to: New Zealand, Slovenia, France and Iceland, Scotland and China. I tell him about Barbados, Venezuela, Oman, and Dubai, a list of hot spots to follow his chillier locales.
“Colorado’s caves aren’t as spectacular as some,” he tells me as we wait for the check to come back. I volunteered to pay for myself, since this was way more expensive than the kebab Bear devoured, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “But a friend offered me his house for the winter, and I had to take him up on it. I’ve got articles to write anyhow, and the skiing here is excellent.”
“That’s something I’ve never done.” I can count the number of times I’ve been in snow on one hand.
“You should try it, if you’re going to be here once the season starts,” Felix encourages. “It’s a wonderful way to experience the mountains.”
“I’d be such a rank beginner, no one would have the patience to deal with me.” This is supposed to extinguish the alluring light in his eye, the welcoming curve of his mouth. Felix is good company, easy to talk to, and that’s rare. I like being part of a crowd, but I only like it when I can go unnoticed. I’m not the best at talking to people. Things always seem to get awkward so quickly. Animals are better. Plants are the best, but Felix is pleasant and interested, and I haven’t been uncomfortable with him even once, and that’s disconcerting. Maybe it’s because his dog introduced us.
“I’d be happy to teach you, in that case. I assure you, my patience knows no bounds.”
Somehow, I believe him. I can feel the truth of it, even if I refuse to sound out his depths. “Thank you,” I say, as genuinely as I know how. “But I don’t think I’ll stay much longer.”
There’s disappointment in the sigh of his breath, which surprises me. How can he be disappointed when we barely know each other?
“Well, that’s unfortunate. But you’ll be in town for a few more days, surely?”
“Probably another week.”
“Good.” Felix pulls out his phone and swipes the screen a few times, then turns it over so I can see the number on it. “Please, feel free to contact me while you’re here. Even if you won’t be skiing, there are plenty of other things to do apart from farmers’ markets.”
“And this is the last one of them anyway,” I add as I input his number into my phone. I don’t offer mine back. Habit, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it.
He tilts his head slightly. “How did you know?”
“That this is the last one.”
“Oh.” I knew it the way I knew when there was going to be an early frost, how the pine beetles had reached Boulder even though the pines themselves weren’t brown tipped and dying yet. But that sort of thing couldn’t be explained, not without making me sound crazy. “One of the vendors mentioned it.”
“Right, of course.”
He takes his phone back and slips it into his pocket, smiles at me as he stands up. The check is lying on the table, already signed. How did I miss that? Too busy staring at him, perhaps. He’s hard to look away from. His fingers are long and elegant, not like mine, rough from working in the dirt. I wonder briefly how our hands would feel joined, if his were as smooth as I thought, if they would grate in each other’s grasp or if they would complement each other. I’ve shaken his hand once. I should know this already. No, I need to stop thinking about it.
I stand, and he offers me his hand again, and when I take it this time I can’t help but consider the feel of it. Not as smooth as I’d imagined, sharp along the top of his palm but warm and dry. Welcoming. It’s hard to let go.
“Thank you for lunch.”
“Thank you for your company and for not holding Bear’s behavior against him.”
“He’s a sweet dog.”
“Yes.” Felix ruffles Bear’s ears, and I feel momentarily, unexpectedly jealous. “Have a good afternoon, Lee.”
“You too. You both.”
One more smile and then he turns, Bear trotting obediently next to him. My hands twitch, and I stuff them into my jacket pockets. I turn quickly to leave, forgetting my bottle of wine. Our waitress runs after me and gives it back before I’m out of sight.