Monday, October 16, 2017

16. The Inevitable

Derek was awake.  The gun lay along his side of the tent with a round in the chamber.  The muzzle was facing the door.  He was ready to spring to action should the mystery-men appear, but hoped he wouldn't have to.  Usually things went wrong when he did.

He doubted he would have been able to sleep anyway.  The excitement of being in the same tent with Mimi, especially after what transpired over the previous few hours, was making his ears sing like hump-backed whales rolling in squid.  She, on the other hand, was sleeping soundly, breathing softly, like a child, with her hair spread over the space between them.  He reached to touch it.  How can she be real? he wondered.

In the dim, she was poorly defined, pointillistic.  He needed to see more, just to be sure it was really her, that this had really happened, so sat up and flicked on one of his several remaining flashlights with his fingers across the prism.  She was on her side, facing him, her hair fallen forward.  Her hands were crossed beneath her chin and her legs were scissored slightly.  He longed to stroke her once more, slide his hand down and up the valley next to the rise of her hips, but decided not to.  He didn't want to wake her.

 The radio was lying mute beyond her feet with fully charged batteries.  Damn, he thought, remembering he hadn't called Michael.  He hoped his friend wasn't worried, but suspected that most likely he was.  Michael would understand, he hoped, if he ever learned what had happened.

They had finished eating and drinking and had dragged the air mattress into the tent, which seemed to settle it, the inevitable would happen.  But before it did, there needed to be a period of talking, to check each other out further, just to be sure.  They sat cross-legged, inches apart, facing the open flaps. 

They started by verifying that they found each other interesting and very nice.  They agreed that Bermuda was an odd place to meet, not a place you'd likely think of going if you wanted to meet an interesting, nice person if you were from either California or Toronto.  In addition, they agreed that both zoology and archeology were fine disciplines on their own, but were improved greatly when done simultaneously.

They talked about personal things not of immediate importance—families and birthplaces and birthdays.

He told her the story of his parents’ deaths.  They were among six who perished in a twelve-car pile-up on Interstate 5 west of Fresno while Derek was nine years old, staying with his aunt and uncle and their four children.  "A dust storm swept them away," was what he said, when a few days later he finally understood.  It was what he still said at age twenty-eight.

“Oh my God,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“They loved each other a lot and they died together,” he said. “That’s how I try to think of it.”

Mimi's parents had not been married.  She told Derek she had a suspicion that a man she knew as “Tito,” which meant “Uncle,” was her father.  She didn't know what happened to him.  Her mother wouldn’t talk about him.  Mimi told Derek she hoped he would be able to become friends with his brother again.  She told him about her older sister Ruby, who was a nurse.  "I'd be a mess without Ruby," she said.

They talked about graduate school and about how difficult it was to find a permanent job these days.  It was an obvious sore point for him and he could scarcely refrain from ranting.  He told her that a major problem in biology was that all the money was going to molecular research.  The bureaucrats holding the purse-strings had leapt upon the molecular biology band-wagon, and other biological research, dealing with real, whole plants and animals, was starving away to nothingness.  University biology departments were becoming staffed with biochemists unable to tell the differences between fish and amphibians, people completely oblivious to the obscenity in eviscerating a creature and grinding it into mush, people sensing no irony when typing the word, "sacrificed," into a manuscript.  He explained that the only way to have even a chance of obtaining funding these days was to propose some sort of molecularly-oriented project involving DNA-sequencing.

She was unsure of the significance.

"Killing things and cutting out their muscles, livers and eyes," he said.  "You need to kill to do it.  I refuse to harm or kill animals for research."

She had her gripes about archeology.  As with most fields, there wasn't enough money to go around and most of it went to the glamorous projects — Mayan ruins and biblical Old World civilizations — for sensational reasons rather than because anything useful might be learned.  "That's why Adrian has to rely on his uncle for funding," she said, tersely.

Her mention of Adrian bothered Derek, even though it had been in a less than positive context.

"Ancient stuff is almost pure mythology," she said, "with no hope of providing accurate descriptions of the societies or the causes of their extinctions or shedding light on the present."  She said more recent sites, less than two hundred years old — the sort of thing that turned up when a foundation was being prepared for a new office building, which could provide the greatest amount of information on the evolution of our present world — were difficult to finance or preserve from complete destruction, because they couldn't be sold into pop culture.  She said young cities like Toronto, or any expanding modern city, or places like Bermuda, where land was at a premium, were constantly in danger of erasing their recent histories and robbing themselves of their heritages.

“Yes,” said Derek.

“The stuff we’re doing here is so much more important!  It’s so real.  You can almost see the soldiers.  Did you know that there’s one place along the rampart where they carved their names into the rock?  You can trace their signatures with your fingers.  It is so cool, like calligraphy!  People these days couldn’t possibly do that. I asked Molly to bring all her art supplies tomorrow so that we can do name-rubbings.”

“I like Molly,” said Derek.  “She’s smart.”

“Aren’t my students such honeys?”

Derek had taught hundreds of undergraduates.  He had never once thought to refer to any of them as ‘honeys.’

At one point she had lain back, and said, “Your mattress is very comportable—comfortable.”  In retrospect, it may have been a hint---for him to lie down too—but he didn’t catch on.  Instead, he asked, "Why did you do that?"

"Because I'm tired?"

"No, not that.  You corrected your pronunciation.  You don't need to do that."

She sat back up, and frowned.  "I have an accent.  It bothers me.  I shouldn't still have one.  I've lived in Canada a long time."

"All Canadians have accents," he said.  "I like yours the best." 

Then she astonished him.  “I hate the way I talk,” she said.  “It’s this little voice with an accent, and people think it’s cute.  It’s bad enough being little, but I can’t even make a good impression in a phone call.  I always worry that the person on the other end thinks he’s talking to a little kid or a cartoon bunny.”



He didn’t know what to say.  There was no denying she was short.  She wasn’t little, though, there was a difference.  But there was also no denying that her voice was little, or that she had an accent.  It simply hadn’t occurred to him that these things mattered.

She challenged him, "How would you describe me to another man?"

"Very attractive," he said.

She smiled impatiently and jiggled his wrist.  "Thank you, but be specific."

Derek was afraid of what to say.  “Um, about five foot-one, black hair, brown eyes…”

She answered for him.  "No.  That’s a police description.  You wouldn’t say that.  You would say, ‘the short little Filipino woman,' or something.  Do you understand?  It’s a double-whammy.  I’m little, and I’m different. I’m a novelty!  Every time I open my mouth I make it worse.  You know, once I had a Caucasian man tell me he wanted to take me home and put me up on his mantelpiece.  How d'you think that made me feel?"

“Not good?” he said. 

“Of course not good.  I wish I were bigger.”

“But then you wouldn’t be you.”

She turned her face to him. “What do you mean?”

“Who you are is partly the result of the way people have treated you all your life.  If you had been taller, or white, or less pretty, or more pretty, or whatever, you would have been treated differently, and you would not be the same you.  Maybe you would be someone I wouldn’t want to know.”  He wasn’t sure where that had come from. He was on thin ice.

Her face went through several expressions, and then she reached and mussed his hair.  Derek didn’t have a clue what that meant.  He dared to keep talking.  He said that her accent was unimportant in her chosen world, because almost everyone in Academia was from somewhere else, or should be, and her accent was hardly ever noticeable anyway, except when she pointed it out by correcting herself.  "Why do you do it?" he asked, again.

She said, "I never used to," and changed the subject.  She asked if he had ever been to Toronto.  She told him about her city, about the CN Tower and the Skydome and the Royal Ontario Museum and Fort York, and about her job there.  The only Canadian city Derek had visited was Vancouver, a place for which he held an irrational dislike, because while he had been there, Laura was clearing out their apartment and running away.  This occurred while Derek was attending the annual Christmas meeting of the American Society of Zoologists.  Laura didn't go along as a spouse, which she'd done several times in the past.  She told him she would rather spend Christmas with her sister and brother-in-law in Illinois.  When Derek returned to Berkeley and opened the door of their little ground-floor duplex apartment, all that remained of their life together was his library, the CDs she didn’t care for, his computer, and his clothes.  These were set aside in a carpetless room prowled by miniature cat-fur tumbleweeds.  The bathtub was heaped with soiled kitty litter and the remains of a greasy mound of cat kibble were scattered about the kitchen floor.  The faucet in the bathroom was running smoothly and silently.  As Derek stood, not comprehending, Roy came from somewhere, wrapped around his ankles, and then fell on his side on the floor.

On the wall opposite the front door was a note written on the detached back page of a Toshiba TV Owner’s Manual.  It was stuck there with a square of duct tape, which liberated a clod of plaster when Derek pulled.  The note said,

Derek: I am making this as clean as possible.  Don't try to contest it.  You cannot afford it.  I owned everything in this apartment and then some.  Sign the papers when you get them and start again, while you are still young enough to find someone stronger than me, who can deal with all your anger, and with this uncertain lifestyle.  I'm sorry if this is hurtful, it hurts me too, but it is the best for both of us.  You must have known this was coming.

I am fine.  Good luck.  Laura.

P.S.  Please don't call me or my family or try to find me.  It will not make anything better.

Derek hadn't had any idea this was coming.  In his pocket was a letter from the Department of Integrative Biology informing him he had received a grant to study the least-known New World skink, the Bermuda rock lizard.  On his way home he'd been rehearsing giving Laura the news, imagining her face as he told her they would finally have the tropical vacation she had always wanted.  Derek had expected it would be the trip to turn everything around.

He didn't pursue her or phone her family or beg mutual friends for information on her whereabouts.  He assumed that other people made correct decisions about things like divorce.  He believed only he was confused when it came to important life choices.  He gave up on her as if she had died in a car pile-up.

Toronto sounded very pleasant.  He told Mimi he wouldn't mind visiting there.

She had never been to Berkeley, but had been to San Francisco. "My cousins live in Daly City," she said.  "How close is that?"

"Very close," he replied.  "You can take the BART to Berkeley from there."

"Hey, count on a visit then."  Derek was enjoying how everything seemed to be falling into place, how a lovely dream had appeared.

Then she asked, out of nowhere, but as though she had been following his thoughts, “What’s your ex-wife’s name?”

“My ex-wife?”

“The one who was going to come with you to Bermuda but then didn’t, because you have split up.”

“Uh, her name is Laura. Did I tell you I was married?” He didn’t think he had.

She took his left hand.  She massaged the base of his fourth finger between her thumb and index finger.  “Ring dent,” she said.  “I saw it when you were aiming the rifle at the kiskadee.”

“You checked out my ring dent?”

“I did.”

He lifted his hand close to his nose.  “I didn’t even know I had a ring dent.”

“Is she a biologist too?”

“No, she isn’t.  She wasn’t from college.  She baked cookies.  She had a cookie shop on Center Street in Berkeley.  It was a good gig.  Students eat a lot of cookies.”

“She’s not there anymore?”

“No.  She moved away.  I have no clue where she is.”

“How long were you married?”

“Five years.”

“And now you don’t even know where she lives?  How does that happen?”

“Graduate school,” he said.  “It consumes marriages.” He rubbed his finger. “How can I make this dent go away?”  He gave her his hand, and she held it.

Right then he wanted to kiss her.  Pounce on her and kiss her.

She changed the subject again.  "So who’s this wise friend, Roy Delgato?"

“I guess I should apologize.  He’s not a person.  He’s my cat.  A pedigreed blue-point Himalayan.  And he really isn’t very wise.  He’s pretty dumb, actually."

“Roy is a cat?”

“’Gato’ is Spanish for ‘cat’.”

“You write to a cat.”

“It’s like a journal.”

“So you do pray after all, Derek Coulter.  What do you pray about?"

“I don’t pray.”

She squeezed his hand. “Yes, you do. Writing to a cat who cannot write back is the same thing as talking to God. You came up with that.”

She had him there.  He said, “Well, if you want to see it that way, what I’m writing about…”

“Praying about...”

He paused.  “All right, praying about, is recovering, recovering from being attacked, and recovering from being divorced.”

“Which was worse?”

“They both were.  And still are.”  He described divorce.  He told her it maybe wasn't what she imagined.  It wasn’t just anger and fighting.  It was a thoroughly saddening, disorienting, terrifying thing — in which you lost more than half of what you owned; you lost your dreams and your self-worth, and to a large extent, you lost your identity.  It made you feel you had failed — at life.  You needed to learn to fight, against yourself, to hang on.  You needed your friends to look out for you, to keep you from becoming morose, to keep you from thinking about killing yourself.

She said, "No way. You've thought of that?" She squeezed his hand, hard.

He said, “Sometimes it’s hard not to, when things are not working out, when day after day your ears are ringing so bad you can barely think, and when half your face has been damaged so that no one wants to even look at you, let alone ever be with you, and then there it is, bright orange, the world’s most glorious suicide machine, emerging from the fog across the bay.”

The inevitable occurred shortly after he removed his sunglasses to pluck away a fruit fly that had flown into his tear duct, and then immediately put them back on.  She asked him to take them off again, which he did, reluctantly.  She said he shouldn't worry so much about his eye, because people forgot about it as soon as they got to know him.

"Yeah, I know," he said.  Almost everyone had told him something like that, but then continued to cast grimacing glances at him as if his eye were an intriguingly hideous carbuncle.  She let go of his hand.  “Move back,” she said, making a whooshing motion, and he scooted backwards, toward the back of the tent, until he ran out of space. She crawled after him and kept coming, climbing onto him, half-Anna, half-Evie.  And then, in an unprecedented move for an adult, Mimi reached and touched the torn lid.

Naturally, he twisted away.

She grabbed his chin.  "No," she said.  "You should know something."  She moved higher up, her legs on either side.  She cupped her free hand over the soft, pretty, good eye, and stared into the damaged eye.  "Your eye is ugly, but don't let that confuse you.  You're not ugly.  You have a wound everybody feels. When people turn away from your eye, they're not turning away from you.  It's their fault, it's them, it's not you."

"Thanks," he said, but he didn't think it was as dismissible as that.  The eye was gross, no matter how many times you had seen it.  He was sinking in the mattress, and she was easing down onto him.  For sure she could feel his erection.

She said, "Do me a favor, okay?  When it's just you and me, and when it's not too sunny, don't wear your sunglasses."  She kissed him once, twice, three times, and then she took off her shirt. 

As he recalled these things, she rolled onto her back.  Her lips moved with little smacking noises.  As carefully as he could, he touched them with his own.  Her eyes opened halfway.  "Hey," she said.  She hooked her hands behind his neck, and wrapped her legs around him.

 They ended up with her on top, the most comfortable position for a small woman in hot weather.  It was the position he had seen her in before, with Adrian, but he wasn't thinking about that.  He was gripping her ankles, as he had done to remove the spine, and was thinking how good it felt to grip them.  She was in her own world, on her own island, moaning rhythmically, her fingers spread on his chest, her head tilted back.  He squinted at the angle of her jaw and at her small, moving breasts as the softness of her rumps bounced lightly on his thighs.  Oh God, Derek thought, how can she weigh nothing?  He released her ankles and slid his hands to her waist to hold her down, to make sure she wouldn't float away, to make sure that this was really happening.

"No," she whispered, touching his hands, "my ankles — I like that!"


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