Thursday, September 28, 2017

34. Photographs

The next day Derek went with Michael to the airport and waited with him in a cocktail lounge, where Michael had a beer and Derek drank overpriced ginger ale.  They spoke of the future.  Derek said he didn't know what to do, but that he was thinking of leaving the Bay Area, maybe moving back into the valley and becoming a crazy old hermit.

Michael assumed he was joking and told him he should go back to Bermuda, where the rock lizards still needed the services of a caring herpetologist, because very soon the populations of kiskadees and anoles would rebound from the hurricane.

Derek said that definitely he was the wrong person to control pest species.  "Besides, there are too many ghosts there."  He told Michael that whenever he thought of Bermuda, especially Tea Kettle Island, he was gripped by a feeling of helplessness.  He'd had no control over anything there.  Although in California he was bored, he at least maintained a degree of control over his life.

"Which bother you most," Michael asked mischievously, "ghosts of British soldiers, or ghosts of Canadian archeologists?"

"You never let up.  You were really taken by her too, weren't you?"

Michael grinned.  "That's what Evie claimed.  The girl is definitely a charmer."  He gazed at the brown hills to the west of the airport, then repeated what Derek already knew.  "She was very upset I wouldn't let her know where you were.  Saying 'no' to her was one of the most difficult things I ever did."

"But you did eventually give her my phone number."

Michael nodded.  "I thought it would've been a shame for you to miss a wonderful opportunity, because you were a little confused about things at the time."

"Uh-uh.  One thing you have failed to understand all along.  I never had her.  When I met her I thought she was the most delightful person I would ever meet, and I fell in love with her, but she made it clear, several times, that she would never love me back.  She was the confused one because of what was going on in her life, and I just happened to be the guy who was there.  The opportunity was in your imagination, mine too.  You have to accept what I've come to accept.  There never was anything real with her.  It was that island."

Michael's spine stiffened, and Derek was surprised at the horrified expression, which seemed genuine.  "Certainly not true!" he shouted, causing the passing waitress to jump and emit, then muffle, a shriek.  "She cared about you a great deal.  I know for a fact she still does."

"Why?"

He struggled for words.  "Because she's no different from anybody else.  She's illogical and flawed...and completely perfect!  The same as you!" 

"What does that mean?"

Michael looked to the ceiling for inspiration, or patience.  "There is no one on this planet she needs or wants right now more than you."

"I find that hard to believe."  His heart, which had its own agenda, began beating harder and faster.

"I promise you. Why do you think she wants to talk to you?  Was the injury so severe that you can’t remember the happiness?"

Derek shrugged, and tried to avoid looking at Michael, whose face had darkened to the point of becoming frightening.  Relief came as the smile returned, then departed as it progressed to a laugh.  Michael pointed.

"You just felt her in you, didn't you, boy?"

"Huh?"

"That shrug!  It was a Mimi Villanueva-shrug if ever I saw one.”

"She did not invent shrugging.  Everybody shrugs."

Michael smiled and shook his head.  "Listen, dear brother.  There's much more to the girl than what made your pulse race when you first saw her.  She's not just a pretty smile and a damn fine bottom."

Derek spun a coaster.  "I know," he said.  It bothered him that Michael seemed able to tell that his pulse was racing.

"She quit school you know."

He didn't know.  "Why?"

"Phone."  Then the big man looked at his watch and stood quickly.  Derek rose, slowly, and was surprised once more when Michael leaned across the table and clamped smothering hands on either side of his face.

Derek requested, worriedly, "Please don't shake my head."

He didn't.  He kissed it loudly, on the dent, and then said.  "Phone her.  Please get back in touch with your life."  He beamed at a thought.  "Oh boy, have you got a hell of a lot of touching to catch up on."  Then he waltzed away down the terminal, smiling at all the beautiful travelers from all over the beautiful planet.  The Mid-Ocean Love God was elated, his job now all but completed. 

One minor concern:  He hoped Derek wouldn't check if the meeting of the International Union of Fisheries Biologists had been at the Hopkins Marine Laboratory, because, really, it had been at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, and Michael hadn't attended.  He never attended.  Sometimes deception's a good thing he thought with a smirk, remembering how an earlier deception had lured Derek to Bermuda.  And Michael had accomplished another, blacker deception to finish off Dead-eye Derek's handiwork, which also made him smile.  He hadn't told Derek, because he knew the boy would be forever suspicious if he had, that he had been the one to find the Admiral's floating corpse a few days after Derek returned to the States.  He had spotted a cunning little blue marker far out among the waves, neither fishpot marker nor shark fin.  It was the toe of one of the Admiral's dive booties pointing toward heaven.  "Funny things, those anchor chains," he said to himself as he headed to the departure gate.  "Funny how an anchor chain wrapped a couple o' times around the neck of a stinking-dead admiral can produce a decapitation that looks exactly like the bite of a tiger shark." 

During the first few weeks after Michael's visit, Derek sincerely meant to phone her and was certain that when it was the right moment, whenever that might be, he would.  However, the right moment seemed always to be just down the road a bit, at the very least, very hard to recognize.  After a month he began to wonder if he would ever come to that moment, or perhaps had missed it already, and he experienced doubts that he would phone her after all.  After two months it seemed to him unlikely that he would phone her despite his initial intentions, which had been bolstered by Michael's strong assertions.  He became beset by the thought that now it was too late, that the window of opportunity had closed.  It was simple.  He would never be strong enough or brave enough to risk the hurt if she told him it that, yes, it was too late, that she wasn't interested in hearing from him anymore.  He couldn't imagine why she would still be interested.  It had been more than a year, and certainly she had found someone new by now.

The war over the sale of animal products ground on.  He dearly wished Ava would tire of it before he did, and quit.  "Fire her!" Peter scolded.  "You're allowed to fire someone for being insubordinate!"

"I don't know how," said Derek.  "I'm a lousy boss."  He'd caught her selling fantastic, metallic-blue morpho butterflies mounted in brass-framed glass cases.  These he had specifically banned.  "Oh come on, they're only insects," she said, "and they sell very well."

Derek stripped the cases from the shelves and smashed them inside a trash can in the back alley.  He cut his hand on a shard and left the back way, not wanting to give her the chance to gloat over his injury.  Better to bleed to death.


Old friends still in graduate school discovered that Derek was back in the Bay Area, and convinced him to socialize.  But he didn't feel a part of their world any longer, and that he no longer belonged was proven by his inability to join in the shop-talk.  He didn't know what was going on, what the hot topics were.  To his surprise, he discovered that he also really didn't care much about the new ideas.  He wondered, Had science always been this nerdy and pointless, or was it that only the duller students remained in his former department?  Or had too much happened to him lately?  Injury-healing, estrangement-reconciliation, killing-absolution, divorce-Mimi...ghosts. 

In at least one way he already was a hermit, alone, without human companion, and comfortable with this.  The last thing he desired was a new partner, girlfriend or wife.  There was still too much wrong or out of place, and it was impossible for him to make a decisive step of any sort, or, as Michael had indicated, love himself.  What a ludicrous concept that was.  How could he possibly love a person as defective as himself?  His leg explained him entirely.   Like an overcooked crab's claw, it appeared intact and complete from the outside, but inside was filled with soggy clots of cardboard, shorted-out wires, and brittle rubber bands.  Its hollowness seemed to have spread throughout him, numbed him, filled him with emptiness, an inert gas, but nothing as useful or amusing as helium. 

Michael had said that he had belonged here in California.  More than ever, that seemed to be true.  Planet One had been a very different world, no longer his.  As Reginald and Robert had walked the ramparts of Tea Kettle Island, trying to make sense of the confusing changes they kept encountering, Derek was haunting this place.  "I'm a ghost," he said.  "I'm just like them."  He cried out in the dark at three AM, "I want my leg to get better!"  His voice rang off the walls and Roy ran from the room.

He rowed furiously, day after day, with no improvement.  Too many doors were jammed in the labyrinth within his skull.  The impulses got lost and gave up.  There wasn't enough money anywhere to throw at this injury.  He was permanently maimed, with no hope of meeting a strong woman who could pry the giant whistling frog from his thigh.  "I'll stick to you forever!" it laughed.


Mimi was visiting Shana and Stew in their new ground-floor apartment in an old house in the Annex section of Toronto, just north of the University.  Shortly after her arrival, Brian drove up, accompanied by Joanne and Molly and plenty of Chinese food, beer, and a cake.  The students had arranged a belated six-month surprise-birthday party for Michael.  Mimi was delighted.

Sometime after the happy greetings, hugs, gossip, and adoration of the infant, Mimi and Shana were left alone with Michael in the small front sitting room.  Molly and Joanne were in the kitchen sorting out the supper, and Stew and Brian had disappeared to do battle on Stew's computer.  Shana insisted on feeding Michael.  As the baby fed he kept time, batting the bottle with one hand.


"You have to hold both his hands or he'll knock it out of his mouth," said Mimi.  "It's his latest thing."

Shana snared the loose hand. “I think it’s a terrible shame that Derek is not here holding his baby, " she said.  "I want you to give me Derek’s phone number.”

“What?”

“You’re afraid of phoning him, but I’m not.  I want to tell him what’s going on.”

Mimi said, impatiently, “Your heart is always in the right place, Shana, but sometimes you are wrong.  Like now.”

“Look at him.  He is half Derek.  I can see Derek in him.  The shape of his forehead is Derek.  The way his face is when he's thinking is Derek.”  Michael's hand escaped and started batting the bottle again.  "You think Derek is a screw-up."

Mimi said nothing.

"You think he doesn't care about all this, or about you."

She said nothing.

"The point is, the whole thing was a screw-up!  Going to Bermuda was a weird thing that we all did and none of us knew what was going to happen next or how to deal with it.  You didn't expect to become our professor."

Mimi stared at her.

"Derek came from way over in California and for sure didn't expect to meet you and fall in love with you and then get his head bashed in.  You weren't there when he tried to bring the lizard trapped in the bottle back to life.  It was a very moving thing!  He can do beautiful things.  The problem is he doesn't know what's going on. Wouldn't you like to at least see him?" 

Mimi stood and walked back and forth in the small room with her arms crossed and her dark eyes angry at Shana, who resolutely stared back.  Mimi said, "Derek seems to be a nice guy, but he has problems that have nothing to do with what happened there.  If it had been meant to work out differently, it would have happened months ago."

"Yeah, well, what are you going to do when your little Michael here turns out to be a screw-up too?"  Mimi reached for her child, but Shana twisted away.  "Listen, your son has to know his dad so he can understand who he is, why he is the way he is.  I know this first-hand.  You aren't the only one here from a broken home."  She allowed Mimi to take back Michael and the bottle.  "Call him again, or give me his number and I'll call him.  Call him and leave a message: 'Guess what, Derek, you're a Daddy!'  I guarantee he'll be on the next plane here.  For Michael's sake you have to at least see him before you make up your mind to write him off forever."

She arranged her child on her lap.  Once he began feeding again she said, "I don't want him to call me or come here because of my baby.  I don't want him to think it’s a paternity issue and he has to help support him.  First I want him to contact me because of me.  All I get from his silence is that he wants me to leave him alone."

"I'll tell you why he hasn't phoned you," said Stew, who was leaning against the doorframe, balancing a ping-pong ball on a paddle.  "It's because you are a complete babe, and he believes he has lost you."

"Don't call her that!" said Shana, "And how is that supposed to make her feel better about it?  Why would any woman want to be with a guy just because he thinks she's a babe?"

"Well, I think you're a babe."

"There'd better be a lot more to it than that."

"Of course there is.  And of course there was a lot more to what Derek liked about Mimi than how she looks, but it's the babe-factor that has him addled."

"Babe-factor?" said Mimi.

Stew said, "I'm giving you the guy-perspective.  You can probably double it in Derek's case, because he’s a science-guy.  There are so few babes in science that science-guys are lucky if they get even one chance at a babe, if that.  A smart, nice, fun babe is almost too improbable to be believed.  So all the while Derek was in the hospital or whatever, all beat up and gross, he was thinking of all the millions of other guys hitting on you.  He is completely out of his mind in love with you.  We could all see that.  We used to laugh about how hopelessly in love with you he was when we were on the island.  The poor guy believes that every other guy on the face of the earth wants you as much as he does, and he thinks you have a new boyfriend by now, and that your attempts to contact him have just been you being nice, showing your concern.  He doesn't want you as a friend.  He’s in love with you.  He’s trying to forget you, because thinking about you with someone else hurts too much.”  Stew dropped the ping pong ball and it bounced along the hardwood hallway.  He ran after it.   
 
"Are you saying I should keep phoning him?"

Stew's head poked back around the corner.  "Phone and tell him you might be interested in seeing him again.  Or flat-out tell him you want to start seeing him again. Then, depending on how he reacts, I'm sure you'll be able to tell the right moment to drop the baby-bomb.  Assuming you are still interested in him, of course."


"She is still interested in him," Shana said, as if Mimi weren't sitting right next to her.

So call him again," said Stew.  "And again and again and again until he finally figures out that there is a God after all."

Mimi was flustered.  She didn't know what she wanted.  She was tired of the situation, and made a face that suggested to Shana she was about to cry, and Shana responded in her usual way to someone in distress.  She leaned to hug Mimi, but almost immediately straightened back up saying, "Ow, ow, OW!" trying to disengage the dangerous, tugging baby fingers laced close to her skull.

Joanne entered to say that supper was ready.  "Why's everybody laughing?" she said.
             
Later that evening, Mimi gathered her sleepy infant and prepared to leave.  Brian was warming up his car and Molly and Joanne were crowding into the back, next to the baby seat.  On the front steps of the old house Mimi spontaneously kissed her former student, who was a step down and therefore of equivalent height, on the cheek.

Shana smiled at her.  "Call him," she said. 

Mimi shook her head.  "I just wish I had a sign that he still was in love with me the way Stew says.  Maybe he has someone new by now."

"Oh he is, and he doesn't" said Shana.  "Don't you fret about that."

The sign came thirty minutes later.  Mimi stamped mid-December snow from her boots, then stepped inside.  Her mother came from the kitchen to take Michael from her.  "How is my baby?" she said as she bounced him.

"A stinky boy," said Mimi, hanging her coat.

"Stinky? Uh-oh, Somebody needs changing."  Michael was grumpy, because it was true.

"I'll do it, Mama."

"Naa, I'll do it.  I been missing him."

Mimi's mother carried the boy upstairs as Mimi walked the dark hall into the kitchen, where the lid of the rice cooker was beginning to jump, and pork had been cut into cubes next to chopped vegetables on the board.  The element was heating, but her mother hadn't begun frying.  She was taking oil from the cupboard as the phone rang.

"Mimi!" The voice almost screamed. "It's Estrelita!"

"Hi!"

"He came to me and I spoke to him!" 

"What?"  Her cousin read words from a business card as Mimi sat on a metal chair with vinyl cushions.

"Wild California, Nature Tours!  Dr. Derek L Coulter, PhD, Director. He’s in a business.  Looks like he's doing really good."

She leaned on the table to help hold the phone against her ear. 

Mimi's cousin Estrelita was a sales associate at the Union Square Macy’s in San Francisco.  It had been late in the afternoon, almost time for her break, when she saw a young man standing near the back of the line-up at the counter, but not holding any merchandise.  She got the feeling he was watching her.  When it became clear he knew that she was looking back at him, he turned and headed for the door!  She thought the curious man resembled the photograph Mimi had sent her, but wasn't sure, so hurried to the staff lunchroom where her bag was.  She looked at the pictures. The one from the internet showed a man who could be him, but younger and more blond. The other, although small, and only a profile shot, looked more like him.  She was almost certain it was him.  Fortunately, it was time for her break, so she grabbed her coat and bag and gave chase.  Because she had to run she was absolutely sure it was the right person.  When she caught up, she tapped his shoulder and said, "You dropped this."  She held out one of her own red woollen gloves.

He looked at it, and said, "It's not mine."

Estrelita said, "Oh, excuse me," and stuffed it into her pocket.  Then she said, "Hey, I think I know you!"

"You do?" he said.

"You were my teacher!" she said, "at Cal.  Remember me?  I am Estrelita!  You taught me Biology!"

"Like what I told you!" said Mimi.

"It worked perfectly.  He was suckered in."

Mimi had predicted that because Derek had taught so many undergraduates during his years at Berkeley, he wouldn't be certain that Estrelita hadn't been one of them.  It was part of a plan, from an idea that came to her one night as she lay in bed, next to their child:  He would go into Estrelita's store.  It was a boring old store.  It was the kind of store where men who hated shopping would shop.  Men like Derek.  She sent Estrelita a copy of the picture of Derek that Molly had given her, and emailed the image from the professor’s web page.
Estrelita explained that she made him buy her a coffee.

"You did?"

"I switched on my charms," she said, "to make him feel guilty if he didn't.  The street was very busy because of Christmas shopping, and people were looking.  He was getting embarrassed, and so he agreed to buy me a coffee.  We went to a café and sat down together for a chat."

Mimi laughed nervously.  "Then what?"

"Then he asked me what class it was where he taught me."

"What did you say?"

"Nothing.  I let him name some, and then I said, 'Yeah, that one.'"

"He didn't suspect?"

"No, he did.  At one point he looked worried, and pushed back from the table and asked, 'Do you know Mimi Villanueva?'"

"No!"

"Uh-huh."

"What did you say?"

"I was smart.  I acted very sweet, and said, 'Hmm, I don't recall.  Was she in our class too?'  I'm sure he believed me."  On opposite sides of North America, two Filipinas laughed.

"Then you know what I did?"

"What?  What?"

She had asked if he was still a teacher, and he said no, he couldn't get a job teaching, and now he owned a nature business.  He explained what it was.  She said she would like to visit it, and asked if he had a business card.  He gave her one.  Then she pulled her wallet from her shoulder bag and flipped it open in the center of the small table, where she extracted various bits of plastic and folded paper, ostensibly to find a spot for Derek's card.

"I showed him the picture of Michael."  It was a picture of herself holding the child, from her visit to Toronto a month earlier.  She gathered and reinserted all the pieces of identification, credit cards, coupons and whatnot, except for the photo.  "I asked him, 'What do you think?' and I pushed the picture to him."

"Oh my God," said Mimi.  "What did he say?"  She bit a knuckle dramatically.

"I said, 'Is he a cute baby?  His name is Michael Reginald.  He's my honey-bunch.'"

"What did he say?"  She had leapt to her feet and was pacing at the end of the cord.

"Well, he looked very close, and he said, 'He’s a very cute boy.  You should be proud.'  He thinks I'm the mother!"

"Then what?"

"Not much.  I had to work, and he split."

The phone was hot.  She changed ears.  "Does he look good?  How did he seem?  Did you see his eyes?"

"I would say... he looks nice," Estrelita said, as if an especially critical judge of such things.  "His eyes have the gold spots.  I checked carefully."

"You saw both his eyes?" 

"Yes, of course."

Mimi asked,    "Did you like him?"  

"He seemed nice, a bit shy, a bit confused."

"Yes, he's like that!  He often seems like that!"  Mimi took down all the information from the business card, and then said, "I owe you, thanks!  I have to call someone else."  She hung up briefly, and then pressed the speed-dial.  There was a long chain of beeps.

"Hello," said the deep, sub-tropical voice.

"Michael!" she yelled.

"Hello, Sweetheart."

There was a lengthy, breathy pause, until she whispered, "Okay, He came to me, sort of."

Mimi's mother came into the kitchen carrying an alert, fresh baby.  "What is it?" she asked, about the excitement.

Mimi looked at her mother, and then to her little boy, who was watching the rice cooker.  The lid had slipped and watery foam was bubbling down its side.

On a tiny speck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a very large man went into his small garden and performed an insane dance that startled the whistling frogs into silence.

Continued...



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