Tuesday, October 10, 2017

22. Email

The next day was sunny, but a strong south wind was pulling up whitecaps and dragging cloud creatures across the sky too fast.  Lost heads and limbs were carried along anonymously in the flow.  Beyond the island, large breakers hammered and sucked at the boiler reefs to announce the arrival of Dexter's ground-swell, twelve hours ahead of schedule.  The mid-Atlantic seemed to be awakening from a long, deep sleep like a drugged, cantankerous giant.

Michael arrived with the students a little later than when the Admiral would have delivered them.  All were somewhat seasick from the rough crossing and were relieved to be abandoned on solid, immobile land.  They found Mimi and Derek at the rampart, resetting the strings and nails the rain had attempted to wash away.

They dug diligently and furiously while the day skittered ahead as if driven by the new wind, as if trying to escape them.  Derek and Mimi stayed together as much as possible and apologized to each other for having to break away now and then.  Derek did what he could to help with the archeological project, identifying bones and other biological items, and Mimi took on the job of applying the toenail-sized dabs of nail varnish onto the backsides of the lizards.  She wielded the tiny brushes with more confidence and precision than Derek ever had, infallibly producing smooth, symmetrical spots.  Derek imagined that the lizards painted by Mimi would flaunt their paint-jobs in front of the unfortunate individuals he had smeared so crudely.  Many retained flecks of color from previous captures and thus required only a touch-up, which Mimi provided artfully.  Some were multiple recaptures who had fallen into the same traps, day after day.  Sad, very sad, Derek thought.  It was little wonder these animals were in danger of extinction.  There was not a lot of room for stupidity in this ruthless, heartless world.  Obviously it wasn't a good thing to spend too much time alone on an island.  In one trap were two lizards, one male, one female.  Both were already painted, and checking his notes, Derek discovered each had been captured four times previously, in the very same trap.  He said to them, "If there's any hope at all for your species, it sure doesn't rest with you, you dummies."

Mimi laughed, and Joanne said, "What's funny?"

With a skink in each hand, Derek said, "Nothing, it's just that we've discovered the two stupidest lizards on the entire island."  He placed them on the ground and watched them crash into each other, then dart away in opposite directions.  "They're maybe the dumbest animals I've ever met."

"Wow," said Brian, impressed.  He was holding a large bag of dirt and his fly was down.  Stew laughed at Brian, and then lost his footing and fell backward into his pit.
Derek was pleased with the amount of data he had gathered.  It was enough for two papers, he expected, one about population structure, another about predation by introduced species.  The papers would be easy to write, easy to get published.  Derek wondered if this was what Michael had meant when he said his efforts with this beleaguered species might save him: "You might help save the skinks, or vice versa."  He doubted it.  Two papers about an obscure species were too little too late to be his salvation from the soul-destroying academic posting awaiting him.  Certainly anything he could do here would be too little too late for the rock lizards.  They were too dumb, too gentle, and now, too old.

The island spun headlong toward the east, into the northern cast-off clouds of Dexter.  In all of Derek and Mimi's passings were smiles and hands gliding across shoulders and arms.  A few times Mimi called Derek 'Honey' in front of the students, who were variably amused or (Joanne) perturbed.  Shana once called him 'Derek-Honey', which Joanne found extremely offensive.

But beneath the affection was growing apprehension.  It had become apparent to both that they were involved in a wearying effort to generate as many happy memories as possible.  By lunch the falseness of the situation was becoming too much for Derek, and he found himself counting the hours until the British Airways flight would arrive the following night.  He began alternately steeling himself for the inevitable heartache of losing her, and tormenting himself with the flimsy hopes he yesterday had seen only as dreams:  Mimi might recognize that Adrian Lyon was a posing, arrogant man, probably with a serious personality disorder, from, evidently, a family of personality disorders.  If she somehow saw, and understood the undesirability of being with such a person, then she might choose to spend the rest of her time in Bermuda with Derek instead of him.  How could she not stay?  She seemed to have become a part of him, and she of her.  Standing two feet away, arms crossed, face placid, she was with him as if she had been for a long time, as if she always would be.  He could see the tiniest details of her face, the moistened curbs where her skin became pink at the cusp of her eyelids, the punctate pattern of the finest, wispiest hairs above and in front of her ears.  He could touch her, and if he did, she would smile at him.  She had to stay with him.  He was struggling for that one thing to say, the words to convince her.  Those words existed, he believed, were only just out of reach. 

Belying her placid expression, Mimi's thoughts were tumultuous, boiling with scenarios and possibilities and choices.  She recognized at least four variables, which over the next few days would decide her future.  (So many unforeseeable variables, Adrian had said.)  One, would Adrian get the job?  She supposed he would, which could eventually mean a job at the university for her too, if, two, he still wanted her, if the Admiral told him what had happened on this island in his absence, which was likely.  Then there was three, did she still want him, with his increasingly difficult behavior, especially if it meant moving to cold and old England, where she would be more of an outsider than in Toronto, and where she would be distressingly far from her mother and sister, where she would be an appendage?  But life with Adrian, at least for now, was the best chance at making a living from archeology.  She had to turn the time she had spent and the knowledge she had gained into money.  Her family needed money.

Four, Derek.  Derek thought he loved her and was obviously in love with her.  She wondered if she was in love with him too, or what exactly it was she felt.  If it was love, she knew it wasn't unconditional, which is what it would have had to have been for Derek to get what he wanted (as she'd told him, it wasn't simple).  Observing the Californian as he kidded with Stew and Shana and Brian, or admired Molly's sketches, or simply tried to understand Joanne, she felt there was something special about him, that this thing with him had not been reckless or sleazy.  She recognized the problem for her conscience lay not in her adulterous behavior, which she could rationalize to her own satisfaction relatively easily: getting involved with Derek had been innocent and unavoidable, like wading into the warm water from the beach, which anyone spending long enough on such an island would do.  It wasn't as though she had chosen and pursued him.  He had been here, and at first had seemed to be one of the interesting, pleasant parts of the island, like the ruins, the forest, the fishes.  In a place that made so little sense, having a relationship with Derek hadn't seemed especially outrageous — it hadn't seemed like cheating on Adrian.  Plus, she thought, self-righteously, she'd been left here alone — by Adrian — against her wishes, so it was his fault too in a way.

The guilt was from the other side, from Derek.  "Oh, why God, why?" she asked, quietly.  "Why did I let him get so close?"  She doubted she had ever seriously considered him a potential long-term partner.  He was divorced, at a young age, which suggested he might be difficult to live with.  Although sweet, he was also fragile, and she didn’t want a partner like that, she didn't think.  He was the sad, lost doggy in Anna's bedtime book.  How naive that would be, she thought, to go for the sad one, the wounded one, the lost one.  Then she was startled.  In the book, it hadn't been the dog who was lost.  The dog had been lonely, not lost.

Five.  She thought of an additional variable: herself.  "Maybe I don't want either of them — or anyone.  Even if Adrian gets the job and still wants me, maybe I should stay in Toronto anyway and think things through for a while."  I wish I had more money.  I wish I had any money.  I need some time, she thought, to think this whole thing through a little more.  I wish I had more time with Derek to give him a chance, so I can know him better, so I can know what he's really like.  "Please God, make the storm come," she prayed.

By the end of the day, two things happened to eliminate some of the variables.  First, God didn't push the hurricane in the right direction.  The storm had sped up in its rampage across the Atlantic as if kicked by a Divine foot, but it was the sort of off-the-side-of-the-foot kick that might be expected from a God who looked like Harvey the Hurricane Expert.  Dexter would pass south of Bermuda tomorrow or the next day and take a run at Florida.  Too bad for Florida and for Mimi; there was no question Bermuda's airport would remain open the following night. 

Second, there was an email, printed on a sheet of paper and delivered by Michael when he came to pick up the students.  Actually, it was a forwarding of an email sent from Adrian to the Admiral and then transmitted across-island to Michael's office.  Michael gave it to her when no one else was nearby, when Derek had momentarily excused himself and rushed into the palmettos.  He removed the folded paper from his back pocket and jammed it into her hand, saying nothing, because the news, which he had read, didn't please him.  It had not been a good afternoon for The Mid-Ocean Love God.

Michael hoped Mimi would tell Derek about the message when he wasn't present so he wouldn't have to see the disappointment on his friend's face.  The Admiral must have enjoyed sending it to Michael, knowing it would ruin the happiness of at least some of his enemies.  Michael walked away.

She read it quickly, refolded it, and tucked it into her backpack.  Although she had guessed this would happen, it was still somewhat of a shock.  In the long term, it probably meant a secure, rewarding future.  In the short term, it meant a lot of anger from the people who had become so important to her, who had trusted her, not just Derek, but all those presently around her on this little island.  How would she tell them?  When would she tell them?  She needed time.

Derek returned from the forest, smiling.  She looked at him, and something in her face stopped him.  "What is it?" he asked.  He was suddenly again a nine-year-old staring at his aunt and uncle after the phone call from the California Highway Patrol.

"I have to think.  Please leave me alone for a while, okay?"  She had to think how to let him down.  She had to be firm, get her decision solidly set in her mind, so even if he took it badly she could be strong enough to resist him.

Derek was dying.  The whistling frogs hiding in his ear canals were warming up.

Michael returned and looked them over.  He guessed Mimi hadn't yet told Derek, who was pacing behind her as though on a short chain.  Michael was afraid she would tell him now, so made a preemptive, irrelevant statement.  He said, "Dexter will be category three later today.  The groundswell over the next two days will be spectacular!  Just wait till high tide!"

They stared at him dumbly, as if he had been speaking Latin.  An Air Canada Airbus swept the sky above, silent.

That evening, Derek tried desperately to win her over.  He knew it was his last chance.  He felt like a parachutist trying to knit the shredded bed sheets back together as the ground accelerated up at him.  She was in the tent being very quiet, while he banged around noisily outside, unable to make any sort of decision about dinner.  Then he stopped.  He had a thought.  It wasn’t a particularly clever thought, more of a default action than anything.  He would make love to her again, better than ever.  One more serious ravishing would overwhelm her, and change her mind.  He crawled into the tent where she lay thinking, pounced on her, and bit her neck.

She wriggled from beneath him with her knees clamped together.

"Not now," she said.

That was all it took to let him know that it was over.  He hit the ground and the shredded sheets landed on him in a heavy bundle.  He said, "You've had enough of me. What did I do wrong?"   

"No."  She kissed his cheek.  “You’ve done nothing wrong.  I'd be pushing my luck, that's all."

Derek thought she meant that there was now an increased chance of someone pulling back the tent-flap and finding her committing pre-adultery, with Adrian's return so imminent.  That wasn't it.       

"It's getting to be that time of my cycle," she said.

"Your period."

"No," she replied, "my fertile time."

Derek elevated himself on one elbow and with the heel of his opposite hand rubbed his good eye.  "You’re not on the pill? We've been using the rhythm method?"

She regarded him from pupils slid into sharp corners.

He asked her, "Do you know how unreliable that is?"

"It's okay," she said.  "I know my body; I know what's going on in there."  She patted her abdomen.

"Is this a Catholic thing?"

"No, it isn't,” she said.  "Do I seem like that sort of Catholic?”

He had to admit, she didn’t.

His advance had an unforeseen consequence.  It meant she could no longer refrain from telling him about the email.  Staring at the top of the tent she talked about Adrian, about what was going to happen.  Derek listened wordlessly, feeling exactly how he had expected he would feel at the end.  As Mimi recounted Adrian's success in getting the job, Derek felt himself becoming smaller and smaller and less and less significant.  He felt his worth contracting into a little pellet of lead, twenty-two one-hundredths of an inch in diameter.

"So what are you going to do?" he asked, finally, expelling the words from his tight throat.

"What he says," she answered.  "There's nothing else to do."

"And the course?"

"I feel terrible about this," she mumbled, "but the course is over.  Adrian and I leave for Toronto the day after tomorrow, and for England the following day."

"And me?"

She replied to the ceiling, "You'll be okay.  Things will work out for you.  You're a good, lovable person.  I'll never forget the fun we had, the kind things you said."

He sensed she had constructed a wall around herself expressly to exclude him.  She wasn't really speaking to him, but rather, reciting a line she had rehearsed so many times it had become impersonal and meaningless.  He said, "In such a hot place, how can you be so cold?"

She didn't answer, so he left the tent.


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