By Lisabet Sarai
Although no one will dispute that marriage is the most desirable estate for both men and women, there are times when the institution demands an excess of patience. Eliza endeavored to suppress her sigh when, over the remains of breakfast, Mr. Sarai raised the subject she had been dreading.
"My dear, we really must attend to the matter of Tiger's claws. If we do not convey him to the veterinarian soon, he may suffer injury from his in-grown toenails."
"But Thomas, I have so many responsibilities to fulfill today. I've three blog posts to pen and two calls for submission awaiting my attention, not to mention my normal heavy correspondence. Can you not bring the cat to the clinic by yourself?"
Thomas' curt reply made his irritation clear. "You know very well that I can't communicate with the doctor. You speak the local language far better than I."
He spoke the truth. Eliza understood that it galled her husband to admit her linguistic superiority. Male pride was so tender and easily bruised She smoothed her skirts, brushing away the toast crumbs, and adopted the sweetest demeanor she could manage.
"Please, darling, let us wait until next week. By then I should be more at liberty."
Her husband settled his teacup into the saucer with a deliberateness that Eliza recognized all too well. "You're always making excuses, Liza." His eyebrows knit in disapproval. "How can you be so callous? Tiger and Velvet deserve the very best we can offer them. Your lack of concern almost makes me glad that we are childless."
"Please, Thomas, do not berate me." Eliza released the sigh she had been holding back. Thomas ignored her distress. "Very well, we'll go this morning. Just let me dress and we can be on our way."
The pleased satisfaction on her husband's face almost compensated for the inconvenience of the early expedition. "Thank you, my dear. I'll fetch the carrier while you prepare yourself."
Back in her dressing room, Eliza surveyed her wardrobe, trying to decide what sort of garments were appropriate for a visit to a veterinary clinic in a foreign land. The navy cotton ensemble wouldn't do. It would highlight every strand of cat hair. Given the sweltering humidity that characterized the climate in her adopted home, she was sorely tempted to don nothing more than a pair of cutoff shorts and a tank top, but she recognized that such a costume would be viewed as highly inappropriate for a woman of her years. Finally she settled on a batik-print skirt in hues of salmon and peacock, and a short sleeved shirt in matching green. The vivid patterns in the skirt should hide the inevitable consequences of holding Tiger in her lap, yet the design was sufficiently artistic that she would not be dismissed as some gaudy, painted tourist.
As might have been expected, the cat himself offered significant resistance to their plans. By pooling their efforts, Mr. and Mrs. Sarai finally succeeded in depositing him in his padded carrier. Outside their dwelling, they hailed a hansom and gave the cabbie directions to the animal clinic. As they wended their way through the narrow streets, Tiger's piteous cries issuing at intervals from the cage, Eliza watched the driver sitting in front of them.
He was a handsome young man, clean-shaven, wearing a crisply-pressed shirt of sky blue that complemented his dusky skin. She noted the muscled forearms peeking out from his short sleeves, one of which was adorned with a tattoo in characters she could not read. A chain with links of gold circled his strong neck, gleaming through the black locks that feathered his nape. She felt the first hint of moisture gather under her skirt and dragged her imagination back under her control. After all, he was far too young for her. However, he'd make a fine match for Miss N., the language teacher whom she and Thomas had come to think of as a friend.
"Excuse me, sir," she began in the local language. "Might I inquire whether you are married?"
The driver turned to smile at her, with a flash of brilliant white teeth. "No, Ma'am, not yet. I am working to save money. I want to buy a house before I marry."
"And do you have a sweetheart?" A sidelong glance at her husband told Eliza that he was buried in his newspaper. Of course, he would have difficulty following her conversation in any case.
If the man's complexion had not been so dark, Eliza was sure she would have seen him blush. "No, Ma'am." His melodious laughter made her think of a lively creek, dancing over the rocks on its way down a mountain. "Who would want to marry a poor cabbie?"
"Nonsense. You are obviously a thoughtful, prudent man - a man who desires to take care of his wife. And well-favored, too, with a fine smile " She leaned closer to the young man's ear. "I have a friend who I am certain would like to meet you."
"Is she rich?" the driver asked. Tiger wailed as the man whipped the vehicle around a corner somewhat more rapidly than Eliza considered safe. The poor cat was prone to car-sickness. Eliza prayed that the animal would not vomit all over the inside of his carrier, as he'd done so often in the past.
"Gently, if you please. My cat cannot bear a rough ride."
"Sorry, Ma'am." To Eliza's satisfaction, he reduced his speed considerably. "So, about your friend - is she rich like you?"
"I'm hardly rich!" Eliza wavered between amusement and offense.
"In comparison to us natives, all foreigners are rich. I'd like to marry a rich woman - one who'll buy me real Rolex and an iPad."
"My friend is not rich, but she's respectable and intelligent, and she has a warm heart. She's also quite lovely, I might add. Oh, there's the clinic. Stop here, please."
"Well, beauty is a plus, but if I have to choose, I'll take money over beauty any day."
Eliza swallowed her annoyance at having her romantic fantasies so rudely dispelled. "This is the place," she told her husband in English. She handed the fare to the young man behind the wheel, pointedly giving him the exact amount rather than rounding up as she normally would have done.
The veterinarian made quick work of Tiger's misshapen talons. Eliza clasped the animal to her breast as the doctor measured the cat's temperature and listened to his heartbeat, resigning herself to the inevitability of a patina of fur on her carefully selected clothing.
"He's perfectly healthy," the medical practitioner told her. "You've taken excellent care of him."
Thomas beamed, clearly understanding at least this much of the social interchange. Slipping his arm around Eliza's waist, he hugged her to his side. "My wife and I brought him from America. He's very dear to us." Eliza found his enthusiasm touching. She knew that he'd be less pleased when he realized how much fur had been transferred from her blouse to his suit.
Tiger appeared to find the events of the morning severely traumatic. He cowered in one corner of his cage during the trip home, alternately panting and swallowing as though he felt nauseous. As soon as Eliza unfastened the catch of the carrier, he dashed away to hide himself beneath one of the sofas. Even the promise of breakfast could not lure him from his sanctuary.
Thomas, on the contrary, appeared to be in an excellent mood. He captured his wife in a tight embrace and planted a hearty kiss upon her lips. "Thank you, my dear. I truly appreciate your taking time off from your pursuits for errands like this."
Eliza scraped a cat hair off her tongue and smiled up at her sturdy, reliable husband. "You were right, Thomas. The felines are far more important than my scribblings. If you'll excuse me though, I think I will resume my work."
"Of course, Liza. I have urgent matters to attend to myself." He disappeared into his study, leaving Eliza to ponder the commonplace mysteries of marriage and to consider whether she might find a way to introduce the dashing, avaricious taxi driver into her latest opus.