She had injected herself into a meeting that MacGregor was attending as a consultant (it didn’t matter what he was consulting on; his sort of parasitic vermin were expected to be experts on everything). Tall, willowy, almost insubstantial, with her shoulder-length auburn hair tossed like pasta, her unsettling green eyes held an almost frightened look, a certainty that something was about to go wrong, that she would be asked to fix it, and that she would not have the tools to pull it off.
She moved like a teenager, and from across the room looked at most twenty-six. Up close, her facial lines placed her in her early-40s, but those lines reinforced her otherness. There was nothing of the bureaucrat about her, no trace of rule-dominated meanness.
Over the weeks that they worked together, fitfully – she was often off somewhere no one could identify – she showed herself smarter than any five pompous bright-boys he’d met in the last decade, and she quivered with enough energy – blasting through non-stop until nine at night – to put his weak-kneed meanderings to shame. Nothing he introduced during “consultation” touched an area she could not detonate with explosive insight. Hers was dedication in its purest form: the worship of helping others, of devising cures for the afflictions of all humanity.
Yet her own humanity struck him at first as stunted or malformed. Her coos of appreciation or consolation were delivered in the high-pitched sing-song of a four-year-old, at once genuine yet spurious, as though she had never developed the organ of personal contact. Until the evening he invited her to dinner at a mid-range restaurant. It hadn’t mattered which restaurant, because he knew we would not be focusing on the food or décor.
The previous day, he saw her reading a sheaf of papers at her desk, some log of triviality floating down the effluvia stream. He’d found her pretty from the start, and those searing eyes held an intensity he had never before conceived of. But here, as she lasered down at the empty words, he could not, could not remove his gaze. Hers was a face beyond faces, a clean-lined perfection he could follow like a lapdog.
The dinner “date” (presented by him as business as all too usual) was an excuse to continue gazing. And so it flowed, through the appetizer. But somewhere in mid-entrée, her generic mix of concern with fear melted, the blazing eyes grew smaller, and the almost pinched mouth expanded into a puckish, sensual curve. Her rakish body seemed to swell two inches, the etched bones to coat with ripe flesh.
MacGregor broke out in a sweat. Good Christ, was he facing some form of multiple personality? No, it was the escape of the wondrous woman trapped within the overly-competent little girl. How seldom she got out, because there was so little space left for her in a life of mad dedication. It took coaxing, time, an unusual quietude to release what he would long insist twas the “real” Catharine.
Through the rest of the meal she joked, focused on him with open delight, told him how much his friendship meant to her, took his hand in simple companionship. As they rose to leave, she reached to hug him – and dropped an ice cube down the back of his shirt.
MacGregor was instantly, ineradicably in love.
Tonight, God help him, he was charged with forming a plan for an amiable divorce.
This restaurant (a different one) was oppressive, the ceiling low enough to threaten his dome. The fans whirred busily, pushing the air from here to there, making his chill worse; if they were lower they would tangle his hair. He brushed his hair back. The action did not force the fans into the distance. What kind of place was this? “Esmeralda’s Garden.” New Age food? Why had she chosen it? And where was she?
There, at a table half way back, head bent to the menu, not looking for him at all. How typical. And how typical his response: Oh, that tilt of the head, that obvious yet unobtrusive beauty. “Shut up, self.”
“Pardon me?” A waiter or seater or maitre’d or whoever oversaw, undersaw….
“I was wondering….”
“Do you serve Rocky Mountain oysters?”
“Nor do I. See that woman?” He pointed at Catharine’s inclined head, and his intemperate temperature rose in wrath when the maitre’seater did not exclaim at her magnificence.
“Please indicate to her that I’m here.”
“Who should I say….?”
“You shouldn’t. Just go.”
The Whatever went. He gesticulated. Catharine raised her head – the hair today straight, spiked and dyed an almost luminous, uniform brown – then with an inimitable wrinkle of her green green eyes, waved him over, smiling.
“There was once –” he started, but realized there was no point to belaboring her with an introductory joke. Too damned late for that. “Hello.”
“For god’s sake, you know –”
“It is your name.”
“It is. Yes.” His response, as always, had been wrong – this time, truly wrong.
She laid her hand on his. Such a thin, almost emaciated hand (hers).
“Oh Cat, oh Cat Cat Cat.”
She continued to smile, a smile machine. What was she smiling at? Did she even see him?
“I fell in the river,” he said, nothing that he’d meant to say.
“You said so, on the phone. However did you do that?”
“Good all-fucking Christ, how does it matter what or why or…. I’m sorry. It comes out that way every time.”
Her hand again latched onto his. “You know I don’t –”
“I know so goddamned little about you these days, finally, that I’m a piece of sausage. Stuffed.”
She started a laugh, and had she continued, it might have gone so much better. But she stifled the laugh and looked at MacGregor with an intensity that lacerated his mood.
“What do I do after this, tomorrow?” he said. “How do I get out of it?”
“Out of what?”
He splayed his hands on the table. “Out of what’s right here. The past and the present and the future. Do you think that’s easy? Is it easy for you? You believe in what you do. You’re so fucking immersed in what you do you can’t see straight. You believe in humanity, in the great murmuring mass of the human race – you can save them, make them what fifty years ago nobody could even have thought possible or tried to make them. I’m babbling. I get up in the morning and I rage against being awake. Look at you. Right now, right here. Awake, striving to go ahead while the evening’s closing in, believing – do you realize I can’t believe in anything? Of course you do. I go to sleep and I almost believe in something, a swirl of I don’t know whats – no explanation, no logic – then it’s gone as soon as I fall asleep. Is it because I was drunk or because I was sober? Jesus horseballed –”
Catharine’s attenuated form has leaned across the table until she is almost drooling on his napkin. “Please don’t talk that way. Those words.”
Without transition he began to cry. Cried like a baby in front of his ever-blessed sexy off-the-edge-of-reality once-was wife. Knives pierced his chest and stomach and lungs, twists of embarrassment and regret, and under it, the rage threatening to….
It had to stop. He stood up, tears washing his useless face and said –
But he didn’t say it. He simply sat down again. He would order something. He wished they really had Rocky Mountain oysters. A big wafting pile of spiced bull gonads. He ordered something with pork in it.
“What do you want to do?” she asked between bites at once dainty yet almost wolfish in their appreciation of the food. The lancing green of her eyes could have cut ribbons at a fashion opening.
“Oh, I suppose I’ll have to pay something. For the process, the legal process. For the, for the settlement. I will.”
“Have you decided how much? Altogether?”
“I thought you would suggest something.”
“I don’t know what you have available. We never talked about that.”
“Jack shit. I have Jack shit. And I was shot. Shit, shot.”
Professional concern swept her face like a monsoon wind. Such a beautiful wind. Her care looked manufactured, but he knew that no one alive encapsulated more genuine concern. When a need arose, she leapt on it like it was a raging stallion she must tame. More than anything, that do-good response in her had driven him to rages. Humanity was the Creator’s prime mistake, and no one should try to tame it. Let it run wild, marauding.
“You were actually shot?”
“Actually. With a gun. Once. Upon a time.”
“Are you recovered?”
A strangely formal, absurd question that threw him because it was so dead on the mark. Was he recovered? Would he know? In a bid for time he reached to scratch his nose, but he was holding his fork and almost thrust it in his eye.
“I suppose I am. And yet I’m really much the same. I never wanted a child. You knew that.”
“Is that what it is? All of it? Having a child? I’d hoped… you would change your attitu – your mind. After Brian’s birth.”
“Two years of afterbirth aren’t enough to change that. My mind. The years before, though… Gifts. I don’t know what to do with a child. I don’t relate to anyone who can’t hold a rational conversation. Stand back and look at him and grin? Children don’t think like people. I didn’t like other kids when I was a kid.”
Catharine daintily wolfed down two forkfuls of duck salad. “I don’t want to be unfair.”
“You couldn’t be unfair. It’s not possible.”
She smiled and patted his hand again. That… “It’s hard for me to ask this, but I must – did you love me?”
The tears, now inside, fled to the back of his head. “Did I? There’s no past to it. It is and was beyond love. It is and was necessity.”
“I don’t really understand.”
“There’s no way you could realize…. You are the ideal made flesh. Beautiful, desirable, wondrously… complete. It wasn’t constructed, it existed before I came to it. A whole world recognized at once and beyond need of my contemplation. Then, well… reality always throws shit on the fire.” The pork was good, whatever it was. Some kind of fruit treatment. A glaze. “Oh. Did you love me?”
“Inconceivable. I’ll send, spend what I can. Maybe more than I can. To support Brian. And you. Do you need support? Right now I have nothing, but I’m working on it. So how is he? Brian.”
“He’s not talking rationally yet.”
“Ha! Eventually.” For the first time in the evening he laughed, lightly but honestly. “I don’t choose how I look at things. Honestly. It’s in-built.”
“I know that.”
“Good. Good for you, to know that. You were so much more than I deserved, and I got kicked hard. Good that, too. That I did deserve.”
“Please, Christ. Not the name.”
Catharine smiled again, an entirely different smile that opened the door to the room where she stored her ice-cube assaults. Sultry, knowing, a loving, lovable beast. She reached across to place two fingers, lightly, on the inside of MacGregor’s wrist. An almost audible click resounded in his head, nothing electrical, nothing at all, yet, his worldview flipped like a pancake. No one receives a true magical revelation, not ever. But this was not revelation. It was statement. The same unfathomable future still lay before him, but where before it had steamed in a landscape of blood and snot and garbage, now it shone with softly whipping grain and possibility. He could leap from the table and dash out the door, speed effortlessly down the street.
He hadn’t run, voluntarily, in decades. What just happened to him? Pointless, absurd, unquenchable, unquestionable ecstasy. He looked at the wrist she had touched. He took her thin-boned hand in both of his and and held it like a small bird. “Thank you, thank you.”
“I’ll never be able to live with you again, it’s gone, oh, oh, oh, oh.”
MacGregor shrugged his entire body. “Not possible. Not necessary. But understanding – understanding is so much more important.”
“I’m glad you understand. I don’t.”
“Some modes, some possibilities are given, strewn across the universe.”
Catherine slapped her napkin against the table top. “You don’t usually talk rubbish.”
MacGregor stood and bowed slightly, perhaps to her, perhaps to fate. He didn’t care to whom he bowed. “There was a time, you know, when I didn’t think this would be possible, that we would ever… If I could hand you my life, wrapped in twine, I would. I don’t need it any more.”
“A fine gift, if that’s the case.”
“There are ice cubes in you glass. Still.”
Catherine upended the glass, pouring water and ice cubes on her plate. “There.” MacGregor picked up two of the riddled cubes and pressed them in his fist. But the cubes would not crush. He opened his hand and let them fall.
At the front of the restaurant he paid the bill with cash or a credit card, he could not tell which. All he felt in his hand was ice.