Tuesday, September 26, 2017

36. A Last Storm

Mimi noticed the bag as she moved aside some boots to close the door, but she didn't see the shoes beneath it.  Inside was a stuffed toy of some kind.  She hung her jacket on the newel post and carried the otter into the kitchen, where her mother was heating a bottle of formula.  "What's this for?"

Mrs. Villanueva recoiled.  "Is it a rat?"

"No," Mimi said.  "I think it's supposed to be a mink.  It's really cute."  She placed it on the kitchen table and both women stooped to examine it closely.  "Where did it come from?"

"Why is it holding a hat?" asked Mrs. Villanueva.

Mimi said, "It's not a hat.  It's a seashell."

"Ohhh, so it is."  Then her mother took the bottle from the waterbath.  "Go feed your baby."  Mimi climbed the stairs as her mother cautiously picked up the otter.  "A very cute mink," she said to no one.

Nearing the top, Mimi heard an unusual sound.  She stopped, but the sound had stopped too.  It had been like a person making farting noises with his lips, something Michael had never done before, at least not so clearly and determinedly.  Such a clever baby!  Now he was laughing.   "What are you up to, you silly boy?" she blurted as she walked into the room, then stopped cold.

Derek was sitting cross-legged on the floor, holding Michael under the arms so that his little sleeper feet were planted on the rug.  His lips were pursed.

"Oh my..." she said.

Michael twisted, reached in her direction and squealed happily.

"Derek!"

He didn't say anything, so she didn't say anything in return.  She hadn't expected to meet Derek this way.  She had planned to fly to San Francisco with her baby, go to his store and ask him once and for all if he had anything to say to her.  She was late home because she had been downtown at the airline ticket office.  It cost her $689.10.

Michael continued to vocalize happily and his parents continued to say nothing to each other until Mimi approached and sat cross-legged in front of them. "Please say something so I know you're really here."

He gave her Michael.  She mechanically plopped him on her thigh and stuffed the bottle into his mouth.  Bubbles streamed up the inside.

"Say something, please."

He said, "I’m sorry."

"You’re sorry?"

"I'm very sorry for this.  I didn't know anything about it — I mean him."  He touched Michael.  “I’m sorry for how hard this must have been for you.”

Mimi had been working on a speech for their eventual meeting but it was hopelessly lost.  She couldn’t stop looking at him.  A miracle had happened.  He wasn’t just okay-looking. Derek was a good-looking man.  She said, “Your face really is fixed."

He touched his face with both hands.  "Oh.  You mean my eye?  Yes.  They fixed my eye, in New York."

‘I heard your face was damaged too.”

“Not too much.  I’m okay now.”

"How are your ears?"

"What?  Oh.  They're fine now too.  They don't ring anymore."  He inhaled deeply and said, "I came here to tell you that I will help you any way I can, if you want me to.  I don't want to intrude into your life, but I can probably afford to help you out, with money I mean, for as long as you need it."  

It was obvious he had rehearsed these words and decided they were enough to say.  They weren’t.  "Intrude into my life?  Are you kidding?  Look here!  Look at this little guy!”  She jiggled her baby’s leg.  “You’ve already intruded about as much as anyone possibly could."

He looked at the boy, and then at his hands.  "I should have phoned you, or written to you.”

"So why didn't you?"

“Hurt.”  He said it to the floor.

She could barely hear him.   “Hurt?  What did you say?  Because you were hurt?”

“Too much.”  He raised his eyes.

She reached to touch his arm and said, “I’m not trying to give you a hard time.  I’m not mad at you.  It’s just that I had expected a different kind of re-connection, not so much of a surprise, and not after waiting for so long.  I had pretty much given up.”  She saw he looked pained, as if he were about to burst into tears, and said, softly, “Derek, it’s okay.”

“My leg.”  It was cramping.  He grappled with the nursing chair as he tried to stand.  It tipped and banged against the wall.  He bumped his head on the ceiling.  "Ow," he said.  Michael spat out the nipple to watch.

"What's wrong with your leg?"

"Not my leg.  It’s my nervous system.  The nerves and muscles don't communicate reliably, because of the brain injury."

She was shocked.  “I heard you were better.” 

"Mostly better," he lied.  He was standing, wobbling on one leg, his neck bent, his head flush against the Villanuevas' roofline.

"You've been through a lot, haven't you?"

"So have you."

“After eighteen hours labor, I had to have a C-section, so yes, that was a lot.” 

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She watched him wobbling.  “Please, can you sit down?”  

He tried to sit back down on the floor with her, but was having trouble keeping his balance and almost fell over.  She stood and with her free arm helped him into the chair, upset by his diminished mobility.

She said, “You’re still badly hurt, aren’t you? Michael Spencer told me you were mostly better, but you’re not.  You’re still badly hurt and it’s because of me.”  She was crying.    

“No, that’s not true.  It isn’t,” he said.  “Please don’t be sad.  I’m okay.  I really am.  It’s getting better.  Come here.”  He held out his arms. 

When Mrs. Villanueva shuffled in in her slippers, holding out the otter, Derek was holding Michael and the bottle and Mimi was sitting on the arm of the nursing chair with her arm around his shoulders.  Her head was next to his as they watched their child do a completely commonplace thing.  Mrs. Villanueva smiled broadly and said, "Helloo!  Thank you for this very nice mink.  He's very cute!"

Derek looked up and said, "You're welcome."

Mrs. Villanueva smiled slyly at Mimi, pointed a finger at Derek, and said, “Mata tuta.”  She went back downstairs and Mimi laughed.

“What was that about?”

“She has a nickname for you already.”

“Deadbeat dad?”

“Puppy eyes.”

“What?”

“I’ll explain later if you want.  We could go out for dinner, if you have no other plans."

“I don’t have a lot of social connections in Toronto, so, no, I have no other plans.”

"What about back in California?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean are you seeing anyone these days?"

He shook his head.

"Me neither.  So you aren't intruding on anything, if that's what you meant."  She stood and picked up Michael, and then reached for his hand.  At the bottom of the stairs she turned and watched the way he moved.

"Going down stairs is the toughest thing,” he said.  “It makes it look worse than it is."

The subway station was too many blocks away, so Mimi called a cab.  While they waited, Mimi showed Derek how to hold Michael to help him fall asleep and Mrs. Villanueva kept running in and out, making them more nervous than they already were.  Michael wasn’t in a sleepy mood and was fixated on Derek's nose.  Mrs. Villanueva found this unacceptable and transferred the child back to Mimi.  Michael complained and strained for his intriguing new parent as Mrs. Villanueva ran into the kitchen and returned with a glass of warm 7-Up for Derek.  "Not now, Ma!" Mimi said.  Except for the passing back and forth of the infant, it seemed like high school.

They ate lightly in Yorkville and then departed through fluffy snow for his hotel.  Derek stood on the curb of Avenue Road, looking up, letting perfect flakes clump in his lashes.  They didn't seem to be falling from the sky, but rather only a few feet above the streetlights.

"I like this," he said.

The hotel was just across.  "Park Hyatt.  I’ve never been in it," she said.

Up in his room they sat on the beds opposite each other.  "I'm scared for him," said Derek.  "He's so little.  The world is so dangerous for little ones."

"Yes, but everyone starts out little," she answered.  "Even Michael Spencer was once at least as little."

They burst out laughing.

Derek said, "I wish we brought him with us."

"You really like him?"

"That can't possibly be the right word."  He spread his hands expansively.  Then he said, "I'm sorry about the cactus spine.  It was a bad day."

"No more apologizing.  Okay?"

“Okay.”

“Come here.”  She patted the bed.  “Maybe take off your jeans.”

She closed the light and they crawled between cool hotel sheets.  They gingerly touched each other's hair and faces while Mimi described her present schooling.  She had completed four months at the Faculty of Education and was set to begin a job at a senior public school in north Scarborough the next fall.  She said that she knew about his company in California and was wondering if he could start another one like it in Toronto, a Wild Ontario.

Derek responded that she and the baby could come and live with him in California, where Wild California was a growing success. 

She pointed out that she couldn't legally work in the States, and said that she didn't want Michael to be separated from his aunt and his only known living grandparent.

He said that he didn't want to get deeper into this business world.  He told her he thought of his present role as businessman as a temporary thing.  "I intend to get back into science," he said.

“Do you think that’s realistic?  Have you been able to keep publishing?”

He answered, “True, I would have to retool a bit, but there’s a couple of profs I know I could work with, provided I bring my own money.”

“What, a post-doc? That’s like limbo, limbo without a salary, without a guarantee of anything. That isn’t going to work for us.  You have to be with us now, here, and you can immigrate much easier if you come in as a businessman.” 

“That just sounds wrong.”

She said, “I never finished my degree. I left academia. I let it go. I had to, to find a way to support our child. You can let it go too.”

He sighed. “I understand.  It’s just that I worked so hard to get to where I was.  It’s hard to give it all up.”

“That’s one way to look at it, but it just ends up making you feel like you’ve failed.  There’s another way to look at it, at where got you to.  Maybe it got you to where you were supposed to be after all.”  

He didn’t follow.

“Geographically speaking, where you went.”

“I went many places.’

“Here’s a hint.” She slid her hand under the waistband of his underwear and grabbed his penis. She gave it a tug.

“Oh.  Where I met you?”

Yes,” she said, with a rewarding series of tugs.

“Ah, oh, so you’re suggesting that there was like a plan for all this?  I can’t believe that.”

“Not necessarily, but everything seems to fit together, including you not getting a job as a biologist, as a scientist.  Hey, look what’s happening down there.”  She lifted the covers and called beneath, “Hello Ti-ti.  Do you remember me?  Yes, I think you do.”  She said to Derek, “He remembers me.”

“How does that...I don’t understand.” He would have been having trouble understanding anything at this moment.

She said, “Remember when you saved the little frog in your beer, the night you were feeling upset because I didn't say back to you, 'I love you?'  Why did you do that?  The frog was a non-native species, and besides, it was just one of thousands of noisy little frogs.  Who would care if it was dying?  Not everybody, but you did, even though it was against your view as a scientist that the frog should be there, in Bermuda.  You could have tossed it back outside and let it die from the alcohol, or you could have simply squashed it, but you saved it.  You washed it off and stayed with it and worried about it until you were sure it was okay.  She gave another tug.

“You maybe could have written more papers, sexier papers, and done more research if you agreed to kill animals for your data.  Then maybe you would have gotten a good job, at a big university, where you would have had a chance to teach a lot of students how to catch and kill things, like a good scientist.  Another tug.

“But that's not what you like to do.  What you like to do is show people animals and try to make them understand them and love them the same way you do.  That's who you are. That's what your business is! Tug, tug-tug-tug.

“Don't you see? There's another part of you, inside you, stronger than the scientist inside you, the part that cares about the little, weak things.  That's the part that came here.  That's who I saw when I came home today.  That's who was sitting on the floor with my baby.”  After a final exuberant flurry of tugs, she let go. 

Through a Mimi-induced fog he remembered the frog.  He remembered being upset, lying next to her in the Spencers' fold-out sofa-bed as she slept.  Now, almost unfathomably, he was in bed with her, again, a much larger, sturdier bed in a much larger, less storm-prone country.

He asked, wondering where her hand was now, “Can you imagine us some day sleeping together in a real bed, that we own?  With Michael in the room next to us, like normal parents who a year and a half ago didn't go through one hell of a weird summer vacation in Bermuda?”

“I can imagine that.”  Her hand landed on his chest, above his heart.  “You know what else makes it easier for you to immigrate to Canada?"

“Gloves,” he said. 

She laughed.  “Yes, you should bring gloves.”

“Am I supposed to ask you to marry me?  Is that it?”

“Are you fully, legally divorced now?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to be with me, and with our son?  Forever?”

“I do.”

She sat up, clapped her hands onto the sides of his face, leaned to lock eyes, and said in a startlingly strident voice, “Derek Coulter, will you marry me, be my husband, move your life to Toronto and become the best father you can possibly be to our son?”

The currency of Canada had animals on it, which seemed to hold promise.  Derek briefly wondered if there would be difficulties bringing Roy through customs.   He imagined the boy squealing at Roy, and Roy hiding under the bed.

“Yes, I will,” he said.

They tried to make love but it didn't work.  Ti-ti, after his initial excitement in having been reunited with Mimi, had suddenly turned shy.  Derek’s erection had fizzled.  She said, "Don't worry, honey, I’m absolutely positive that it's not my fertile time this time."

Derek hadn’t even thought about that.  That wasn’t the problem.  He was nervous, and his nervousness was being expressed by his body in ways he wouldn’t have expected.  Although the room was very warm, his hands and feet were freezing.  She jumped every time he touched her, which made him more nervous.  Eventually she said, "I know what to do," and got up and opened the mini bar.

He said, “I don’t want to drink.  I want to try something else.  I’m going to take a shower, a long, hot one.”  He slid from under the covers.

As water thundered into the tub, Mimi opened the curtains.  The snow was coming down heavily, piling high on the bare branches and wires along Bloor Street.  Faint across the road was the Royal Ontario Museum, its new crystal addition looming from the white like an iceberg.  She found it hard to believe that in that famous building she had been a graduate student for three years.  The things that had happened in there.  Once, after a Christmas party, she had had intercourse with Adrian Lyon on top of a lab bench.  She ended up with bruises.   "Long gone life," she said.

She darted to the bed, sprawled across it, and clicked on the lamp to read the instructions for outside calls.  Her mother answered.

"Mama, I'm at the Park Hyatt.  I won't be coming home tonight."

"I know," said her mother.  "Snow, right?  Don't worry, Michael's already asleep."

"Thanks, Mama."

"Mimi?"

"Yes?"

"What's his name?  I don't know the name of the father."

She spelled it for her.

"He's an archeologist?"

"No, he isn't."

"Good."

“Mama?”

“Mm?”

“His father is here. Now we need to know who his grandfather is. Please tell me, is Romeo my father?”

There was silence from the other end.

“Mama, please?”

Mimi’s mother said, hesitantly, “…Maybe.”

“Is he also Ruby’s father?”

“Maybe not.”
           
Mimi pulled back the shower curtain and stepped into the tub. 

Derek said, “I thought you’d never get here.”  He pulled her close, into the water, and kissed her, starting with her forehead.  He worked his way down to her stomach and saw her scar. She brushed back his hair and saw the damage to his skull.
           
They dried each other with the stiff hotel towels, and she took his hand to lead him back to bed.  Everything functioned as hoped for, as it had been before.  It was like being in the tent, frantic and funny and exhausting, but on a nice, firm mattress.  By the time they finished and fell apart, the city outside was as quiet as a winter forest.

“Huh,” said Derek.

“Huh yourself.”

“It feels the same.”

“It is the same.”

He pondered for a moment and said, ““It is and it isn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m trying to wrap my head around being a father.  It didn’t seem real until I saw him.   Actually, I’m still not sure it seems real.”

She said, “Stay in town for a while. Change your return flight, and stay with us for as long as it takes to make it seem real.”  She reconsidered.  “Unless that would harm your business.”

“I doubt it would harm it. The people there are good. They don’t need me much, and know how to reach me if they do.”

“Can you stay a week?”

“I can stay a month, even longer, if you want me to.”

“And you can start making contacts here at the same time, and do some market research.”

Derek said, “I can call my banker.  He can help with that stuff.”

“You have a banker?”

“His name is Peter.  He’s my older brother.”

“Your brother?”

“I think he would be happy if I lived here.  He travels to Toronto several times a year.”

“You don’t like him,” she said.

“No, I do like him,” said Derek. “I can’t wait for you to meet each other.”

Mimi said, “Honey, from since we met each other, everything has turned upside down.”

He thought about it.  She was right.

She said, “I wish I had been there to see you meet Michael. I’ve been imaging how that
would go.  Did he cry when Mama handed him to you?”

“Your very cunning mother fled the scene, leaving me alone with him.  I picked him up by myself, when he was crying in his crib.  I spoke to him and we looked at each other and he stopped crying.”

“He didn’t cry?  He usually cries when strangers hold him, especially men.”

“He seemed okay with it from the start. I was mostly concentrating on not dropping him.  He started crying again when I put him back down.  So I picked him up again and sat on the floor with him.”

She said, “I think he knows who you are.” 

“He can’t know who I am.”

“Even a young child can recognize his father, or her father.”

“You think so?”

“Uh-huh.”

“He doesn’t know what a father is.”

“You’d be surprised what a baby knows.”

He sighed. “I’ve missed so much.”

“Yes,” she said, “a few thousand diapers, and a lot of cute things too, and some hard parts, but that’s okay now.”

“No, it isn’t,” he said. “Thus far, as a parent, I’m pretty much a zero out of ten.”

She reached to turn his face. “Daddy, Michael won’t remember you weren’t here.  When he’s older, he’ll think you’ve always been here.”

“He likes my nose.”

“It’s bigger than a Filipino nose.”  She kissed his nose, and he kissed hers, and they gazed at each other, not speaking.  He had the time zone advantage, and watched as her eyes closed. 

I love you, he thought.  I love you.  He touched his foot to hers beneath the sheets and closed his eyes, and in this unfamiliar bed in this unfamiliar city had a brief sensation of floating.  And then a small, soft hand settled on his forehead.  A vision formed beneath the warming patch.  It was the redoubt on Tea Kettle Island.  Two soldiers in round-brimmed straw hats stood beside a cannon in one of the embrasures. One held a touchstick, the other a ramrod.  A command was barked, and Reginald inserted the wadding.  Three thrusts of the ramrod packed it firmly.  He stood back and saluted as the command was given to ignite the charge. Robert applied the touchstick, stepped back, and saluted.

The gun went off.

The returning privateers cheered lustily.

The smoke cleared. 

“I love the gun,” Reginald said, under his breath.

"Aye, the gun," Robert agreed.

The concussion caused a bottle to fall from the wall.  It dropped into Joanne’s grave-like pit, and Mimi’s hand glided to the shallow dent, beneath which bone chips lay embedded like buried ancient artifacts.  Inside the bottle, a trapped Bermuda rock lizard was scratching against the glass, slowly baking to death.  A hand reached down, large and brown, and lifted the bottle to the surface.  A powerful squeeze shattered the glass. Derek’s eyes popped open as Mimi rolled onto her back.

He slipped from the bed and walked to the window.  The snow was now blowing madly, blotting out all sign of the city save for the evenly-spaced spots of fuzzy luminescence that were the streetlights directly below.  Always this was how the big changes came.  A storm of dust had taken his parents.  A storm of sea-spray had nearly taken his life, and his soul.  Now was another swirling storm, frozen and white, creating a blank, trackless world. 



He was twenty-nine years old, five feet-nine inches tall, and weighed one hundred and fifty-six pounds.  Mimi was twenty-five years old, five feet-zero-point-five inches tall, and weighed one hundred and one pounds.  Their son was eight months old, twenty-eight inches tall, and weighed sixteen pounds.  The average Bermuda Rock Lizard was six years old, seven inches long, and weighed four ounces.  Everyone was doing fine for a change, even the little ones, and he felt it again.  Had he still been a scientist, he would have described the sensation within his chest as a non-specific uncomfortableness of peculiar intensity.  It was the fireworm spark, burning stronger than ever, and before he understood, it burst from his mouth, half gasp, half laugh.  His head spun and with eyes wide open he looked behind into the blue glow of the room, where only the span of a single joyous leap separated him from the peaceful form on the bed.  A mile distant in the far corner, more shadow than solid article, was his cane against the wall.  He danced to the bed, lifted the covers, slid close to her and asked, quietly, "Mimi, are you awake?"

She stirred.

He put his lips to her ear and spoke words that were flapping back and forth, riding each other within his head, unheard syllables memorized from a language dictionary, "Mahal na mahal kita."

She turned, breathed on him, and said in a cadence he never could have imagined, "Mahál na mahál kita.”  Then she bit his lip.  It hurt, but he liked it.


FIN

Thank you for reading this story. I hope you enjoyed it.  

If you did, you may also enjoy The Jesus of the West.

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