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After an interminably long drive – cars locked together on Interstate 35, creeping forward in the dusk, the city sighted in the distance; after losing his way on streets rowed with darkened bungalows, grubby strip malls, and sudden, gleaming condos – at last, Aeneas pulled his Chevy down a dirt road. The road wended past two miles of Christmas-light strewn trees, ending in a clearing full of parked cars. He found Achates’s Civic parked beside a pale, broken-down barn, and sighed with relief. He parked next to it, got out, and followed a path past a chicken coop and a few stone cottages. The sky was taking on a violet, dusky cast, and it grew cold. Aeneas heard voices in the distance, and walked through a gate. He passed eucalyptus trees, also strung with white lights, and a rose-entwined trellis. Eventually, he came to a lush, wide courtyard between some buildings. There was Achates, and the rest of his friends in their gray, wrinkled suits. A tall, beautiful woman stood beside them.
“The man himself,” Achates said as Aeneas stepped forward.
Dido was dressed in pale, cool colors. She wore her dark hair in a long braid. She lifted her hand in a gesture that encompassed the courtyard, the stucco walls, and the hills beyond. “My kingdom,” she said. He couldn’t tell whether her expression was mournful or ironic.
“It’s a beautiful place you’ve built,” Aeneas said.
“You’re very kind. That I’m still building.” She lowered her eyes. “Of course I’m familiar with your reputation. And I’m sorry if things haven’t been going well for you lately. But you couldn’t have come to a better place. I, too, came to Austin after some trying times…”
“I really appreciate your taking us in—”
“Stay as long as you like.”
They ate dinner in a room with gold sheets spread over the floor, the whole place lit with white votive candles. Long, thin windows overlooked a meadow and a dark sky, thick with stars. Dido pointed the constellations out to her guests. There were six tables: lilac-colored doors lain atop cinderblocks so everyone could sit on the floor. Assistants in blue smocks served a salad, fennel soup, and pork molé. Dido raised her wine glass. She toasted to the visitors, to all the co-op members gathered there, and to their city.
When she had sat back down, she asked Aeneas questions about his venture, and all the places he and his companions had already been.
“Well,” said Aeneas, smiling ruefully, “our start-up appears to be cursed.”
And he explained their mission and all their assorted misadventures. Being lured to Richmond on a grant, an office fire, malevolent investors, the betrayal of their first CFO … and so, ultimately on their way to California, they had come to Austin, Achates’s college town, to regroup and raise money.
While he spoke, she kept her gaze fixed on him.
For dessert, they ate broiled Rio Star grapefruits with burnt sugar crusts and drank hot chocolate with cinnamon and whiskey. Aeneas helped build a fire in the courtyard, and Dido brought out a guitar. They sang “L.A. Freeway” and “Pueblo Waltz.”
When the party broke up, the light of dawn was starting to edge out the sky’s dark blue. After everyone else had gone to bed, Dido called her best friend Anna up to her room. She confessed her attraction to Aeneas. For the first time in so long, she felt something, and she couldn’t stop thinking of his handsome face and his fortitude; the way his friends spoke of him and the sense she had of his integrity. “But after Sam … I can’t, Anna – not again. I promised myself. And I’ve been doing so well on my own. I’m scared to break my momentum. I—”
Anna sighed and unbraided her friend’s hair. “Dido, there’s no one who admires you as much as I do. But sometimes I worry about you. I worry that you’re too cautious when it comes to love. Don’t misunderstand me: you’ve been right to reject so many of the men who’ve come after you. But don’t discredit yourself: you can have your independence, your accomplishments, and love. If you’ve met a man who might be your match, why stop yourself? Persuade them to stay for South By, show them what the city is.”
The two women embraced. Once Anna had gone back down to her room, Dido went to her desk. She looked at Sam’s picture, and lit a San Martin Caballero candle. She thought of Chambers County, of early marriages and joblessness; of young men lost to foreign deployments and offshore accidents … the world she had fought so hard to leave. She turned both of her palms upward and laid her forehead down on the desk. She let out a cry. She rocked her body back and forth: raw with pent-up tears, raw with her readiness to love.
Meanwhile, daylight suffused Aeneas’s cabin. Still sore from sleeping in his truck the night before, he tried to remember all the things he had yet to do. He felt himself to be in a haven, and fell asleep thinking of Dido’s face.
That weekend, Dido took Aeneas into the hills. The emerald-green juniper trees and limestone canyonland just west of the city took his breath. They drove for miles, coming at last to a spindly two-lane. They passed electrified fences, quick-moving herds of goats, tilting hills, and hickory and oak trees. The highway suddenly took a steep twist, and dropped down toward a huge, looming dome of pink rock.
It rose from the earth a billion years ago. Humans had come to the rock to war and worship for ten thousand years. It might be haunted by exterminated Indians, and the ghost of a young woman who threw herself to the bottom after her tribe was slaughtered – or by her father, a chief forever lamenting his sacrifice of his daughter. Spaniards thought it was made of pure silver. A priest hid in the caves and emerged after being possessed by spirits. Dido breathed these and other facts and legends as they hiked to the top. They stopped to gaze at the miles of land stretching out before them, and he took her hand.
When night fell, they pitched a silver-colored tent in front of a little lake, and embraced inside it. The enormous rock creaked in the cold, and the wind scattered a hundred tiny, dry leaves at their door.
Winter turned around them, a vast, windy season of sudden thaws, wine-filled feasts, and long walks. They spray-painted DIDO + AENEAS WILL RULE THE WORLD beneath a concrete bridge in Westlake Hills, the “O” in “World” huge and stylized to look like a globe. On New Year’s Day, they plunged into the natural springs at dawn, and breakfasted on roast cactus, eggs, and fresh tortillas. One evening, as they walked the darkened paths around Lady Bird Lake, he confided in her some of his doubts. “Ah,” she said turning towards him, her green eyes flashing, “everything seems inevitable in retrospect. Once someone’s succeeded, and their name’s blazoned in gold, everything that led them there – each lucky break, each hell they had to crawl through – acquires an aura, as though it had to happen that way. But when they were in it, the task seemed just as tenuous and unlikely, the grade just as steep—”
“But we only remember the people who do come through. So many people aim high but get dragged down…” He spoke slowly, his thoughts elsewhere.
“That,” she said, stepping through the shadows, “is why it is better to be two.”
He was tempted to stay in Austin, and knew she would readily share everything – this city where she had built her name and livelihood, share her work and small sensual joys. Already, she unstintingly introduced him to her friends and acquaintances, and was a quick and eloquent advocate of Latium LLC. But at night, while she slept on his chest, he felt the daemon of his ambition lurking at the edge of her cypress canopy bed.
For all he loved about the city, part of him rebelled against its Teflon nature, the amnesia of Austin’s youthfulness and gentle ways. He kept meeting people who had moved from a larger city because the life was easier here, the taxes cheaper. He could feel part of himself shying away from other places, shying away from the possibility that he might fail. He hated it.
One night, he spoke to his companions about leaving: “If it’s fear that’s been holding us back, it’s also foolishness if we’re most likely to make our mark somewhere else.”
He didn’t see her, but Dido was in the auditorium nearby, packing black and gold community share boxes with tinctures and herbs, and she could clearly hear Aeneas. When he said the words, “San Francisco,” she felt as if he had punched her in the gut.
That night, they were supposed to go to the movies, and he thought he would tell her afterwards, on a long walk through the capitol grounds. But when he knocked on her door she came blazing out. “You asshole! Traitorous jerk! How long have you been thinking of leaving? You’re running away – from me? Have you been trying to humiliate me, when I introduce you to people as my lover? When have I ever smothered you, Aeneas? Isn’t it clear that I would rather disappear or die than curb your dreams?”
“Dido,” he said, trying to take her in his arms.
She pushed him away, and her gaze swept him from head to toe. “Doesn’t it mean anything to you? Don’t you know how rare…” she gasped. “I don’t invite a man into my life easily.”
“I was going to tell you,” he protested. “I wanted to talk about it tonight, in fact … I’ve been so happy here. And you mean the world to me. But I can’t let love rule what’s best for my work … there’s too much at stake: a project I’ve been working on for years, colleagues who have given me money and trust – I would do anything rather than hurt you, and I—” He stuttered out the words: “I hope we’ll always be friends—”
“I need to be alone, Aeneas.” She stepped back into her room, and slammed the door.
A lump – all his unsaid words – formed in his throat.
He went for a long walk, and did forty push-ups and thirty chin-ups on the bars near the softball field by the lake. That night, he went out for a beer with Achates.
“Well, do you love her?” his friend asked. Achates was a few years older than Aeneas, and more even-tempered.
“Yeah,” Aeneas replied glumly.
“Then don’t be stupid. Make it a good goodbye – if you’re sure it is a goodbye. We’ll stay for the festival in March, and leave in April or May before the heat sets in.”
Long after midnight he went to her door again, and knocked softly. After a few minutes, she opened it, her face hollowed by tears.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“I’m sorry too,” she answered quietly. She was wearing a dark cotton bathrobe. “You have to aim as high as you can. But stay a little longer, my love. Give me a little more time.”
He saw his own pride in hers, and was moved by her willingness to relinquish it. He embraced her. “I’ll stay through the spring, and would that I could stay longer.” Her tears began to soak through his t-shirt. He hugged her more tightly. “I’ll never forget my Dido, or regret my time here.”
He picked her up, and carried her to the bed. They made love slowly, enclosed in a somber hush.
In April, after he had left, Dido drove to her favorite garage, near the university, and parked on the roof. She sat on the hood of her jeep and watched pigeons glide past ugly buildings. The trees were newly sheathed in green. She imagined the leaves in the autumn, dying and aflame again with orange, yellow, and red. Someone had told her that the drought made the colors more brilliant. She sat on the hood of her jeep and gazed down, down, down.
She painted the walls of her bedroom black. When the paint had dried, she covered it with glittery chalk: she drew ornate maps of the hills and the coast and wrote a long overdone poem called “The Moment I Fell on My Sword.”
Everyone in her circle already knew about the break-up so she said, Why not make something of it? She organized a performance, one night only. She and Anna bought twenty red Anima Sola candles and lit them all around a cavernous art gallery on the east side. They taped mirrors to the walls. The place was filled when Dido walked out into the crowd wearing a simple black dress, her face and shoulders daubed with ashes. She carried a clear bowl full of torn roses to a little table, set an old-fashioned metronome to a slow tempo, and began to tell of her love.
Miles away, pictures taken that night would flicker at Aeneas from his laptop when he searched for her.
And Dido? When the performance was over, she came home, cleaned off her face, and lay down in the clammy bed she had shared with Aeneas. She hoped she would dream of being in his arms. Instead, she dreamt of walking down an endless road in southeast Texas, the horizon warped by heat. Dawn’s fragile colors crept through the windows and, waking in one breath, she saw she was still alone.