The Memory of My Shadow #09
Chapters 16 & 17
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Evan has been sleeping for over an hour. I watched him for much of it. He snores, but that could have just been the alcohol. I thought of Papa and all the times I put him to bed the same way, sad and sick from too many Scotch and sodas. I miss him and need to hear his voice.
I remove my Nib, power it off, and drop it into my back pocket. Meela is, I’m sure, tired of being excluded, but of late, her presence is cumbersome, like having a five-year-old follow you around asking questions that are either too tedious or simply impossible to answer. I take the remote instead and walk out onto the lawn, and into the twilight. The gloaming, it’s my favorite time of day here. The birds are settling into sleep and their conversations become sparser until they disappear into the babble of the creek and the sawing of the crickets and katydids.
I sit down on the lawn, slip off my sandals, and flex my toes, savoring the spring and tickle of the grass, cool now and a little damp.
“Call Papa,” I say into the remote and set it down beside me. It rings three times and then I hear the voice that is more precious to me than any other.
“Pequeño Conejo, I was hoping it was you.”
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, just tired and missing you. How are you doing, how’s your hip?”
“I’m good, just creaky, you know? Getting old is no fun, all the parts start to wear out.”
“If only, there was something I could do… oh wait! I forgot I have millions of dollars and access to the best medical technology money can buy.”
“Yeah, yeah. You know I don’t want all that. I want to go out like I came in, with all my original parts.”
“You’re so stubborn. You make me crazy.”
“I know, I know. But let’s not talk about my medical history. I get enough of that every day. No one around here can seem to talk about anything else.”
“If only you had a daughter with the means to keep you in luxury…”
“Stop, you are such a smart-ass, Maggie. It’s no wonder you’re still alone. Who could take your constant sarcasm?”
I let this comment go. On a different night, it would have hurt my feelings or made me angry and we would have argued in the logical, plaintive way that we do. I think as he gets closer to his own death, he fears me being left alone and I think part of him has held out hope that one day he would have grandkids. He never talks about it directly, but at some point, in all of our conversations, he finds a way to mention that one of his neighbors just got back from Disney with his grands or Joan down the hall is making a strawberry cake for her grandson’s birthday.
“Do you still have dreams about Joe?”
There is a long pause and I imagine the look on his face, sitting in the small kitchen of his apartment in the retirement community he proudly pays for from his pension. I did not plan to ask him about this. As a rule, we never talk about Mom or Joe, but I worry that time is running out and if I don’t talk with him about it, I’ll never get the chance.
“Maggie, no. Just no.”
“I know Papa, but I want to talk about it. I need to talk about it. Maybe you do too.”
“No, I don’t. And no, I don’t have those dreams anymore and I don’t think about him.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“He’s dead, Maggie. Even if he was alive, he would be dead to me.”
“How can you do that? How can you just… shut it down? He was your son. He was part of our family.”
“I don’t know. Did you want to talk about anything else, because I’m very tired.”
“Don’t hang up, Papa. I’m sorry. I’m just… I’ve been thinking about him a lot. I want to ask you just one more thing, please, and then I’ll shut up.”
“Okay. What is it?”
The resignation in his voice gives me a twinge of guilt. I know he won’t deny me anything, no matter the cost to him, but this is important to me.
“If you could talk with him, ask him anything now, what would you say?”
“That’s not an easy thing for me to just answer without giving it some serious thought. I don’t know. I laid awake a lot of nights in my life wondering what I could have said to him but didn’t. Wondering what I could have asked him, how I could have seen what he was or what was troubling him. So much second-guessing, so no, I don’t have an answer to that now, all these years later. What would you ask him?”
“Why. I would ask him why.”
“And you think he could answer that if he hadn’t… if he hadn’t, you know, and he was sitting in a cell somewhere. You think he would give you an answer that would satisfy you, an answer that could possibly justify all the lives he took?”
I feel small, like an eight-year-old version of me listening to his impenetrable logic. I could never win an argument with him and I won’t win one now.
“No Papa, I guess not.”
“Maggie, are you okay? You don’t sound okay. Should I come visit?”
“I’m fine, just a little sad tonight. It would be great to see you, but I know you don’t like to travel and besides, I’m planning to come see you in a few weeks.”
“Okay, Conejo. That sounds good.”
“You sound distracted, Papa, do you need to go?”
“Well, it’s taco night, and if I don’t get there early…”
“Oh, well, then you must go. I would never stand between you and a taco. I love you.”
“I love you, Conejo. Goodnight.”
I stare up at the first twinkling of stars, probably planets, coming out in the darkening sky. I’ve been alone for most of my life. Why do I feel so alone now? Maybe it has nothing to do with Joe, but even as I think the thought, I dismiss it. It has everything to do with him. The trajectory of my whole life was set the day he did what he did.
“You’re in the dark.”
I jump, startled. If I were a cat, I would have left the ground. I have been too wrapped up in my own thoughts and didn’t hear Evan walking up behind me.
“You scared the shit out of me.”
“Sorry about that… and I’m really sorry about earlier. I feel embarrassed.”
Evan is standing in front of me now, a dark silhouette before the scrim of cobalt sky, the corkscrews of his sleep-mussed hair giving his head a funny shape. His voice is warm and resonant, somehow deeper in the darkness.
“It’s okay,” I say. “It’s really a much bigger deal to you than to me. Believe me. My father is an alcoholic, so I understand.”
“Ah, I see. I guess I could have put that together when I woke up to find my shoes neatly placed by the couch. You had practice.”
“Unfortunately, yes. But he’s been sober for more years than not, so I consider myself lucky.”
“Mind if I join you?” he asks, gesturing to the grass.
“No, have a seat. We should probably think about dinner soon.”
Evan sits down close enough that I can feel his presence and smell him. His scent is familiar to me already though it’s only been a few days. Beneath the tang of paint and mineral spirits, there is the muskiness of his sweat mixed with some woodsy-smelling shampoo like sandalwood.
“Only if you’re hungry. I don’t think I’ll starve if we skip it tonight.”
“Yeah, okay. We can just scavenge later if you change your mind.”
“It’s amazing out here, all this,” he says, leaning back on his elbows. “It’s easy to forget just how many stars there are.”
“Yeah, I love it here. It’s… nice.” I say.
I feel so completely awkward. So completely myself. I reach up behind my ear, absently, and remember that Meela’s not here. I’m solo, with no one to rescue me from my own clumsy inability to perform in social settings, especially intimate ones.
“You’re uncomfortable, aren’t you?”
“God, is it that obvious?”
“No, well, yes. Kind of. It’s okay. I like being uncomfortable.”
“That’s a stupid thing to say. No one likes being uncomfortable.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” he says. “I thrive on it. Give me more awkward pauses, pregnant silence. Is it that you don’t know how to talk to me without it being an interview?”
“No, I wish I could blame it on that. It’s awkward because I’m awkward. Always have been.”
“Is that really why you started this whole persona mapping deal, just to have a wingman?”
“Wow, that’s so… so not scientific and high-minded. I think you might want to withhold that explanation when you give your acceptance speech for the Nobel prize.”
“Ha, what did you think I was doing here, saving lives?”
“I’m sorry I said that earlier. I was an asshole. It’s just that you’re so damned serious all the time, what else would I think?”
“I’m not serious,” I say, turning to face him.
“Yeah, you are. As a heart attack. You got me so wound up, thinking I’m doing this all wrong, I fell off the wagon.”
“You didn’t really, because of me, did you?”
“No, I’m kidding. I fell off the wagon because I’m a weak-minded fuck-up.”
“But there must have been some trigger, right? I mean my Dad…”
“No, an alcoholic doesn’t need a good reason. It helps but it’s totally not the price of admission.”
“Oh,” I say.
“Sorry, that’s probably hard to accept for someone as logical as you. I imagine your brain like a beautiful, well-tuned machine. If I were to paint you, that’s what I would do, render all the beautiful, shiny cogs and gears and switches and relays…”
I’m frowning as he’s talking and he notices, trailing off. I can almost see the painting he was describing hanging in the night air between us.
“What?” he asks.
“That’s how you see me? Like a bunch of gears?” I ask.
“Hey, no. Well yeah, but in a really beautiful way. I mean sure you’re really beautiful and all that but that’s common. You are not common. Not just a pretty face is what I’m trying to say. Jesus, now who’s awkward.”
“You had me at common,” I say, pushing him so hard he falls over.
I’m flirting, I realize. It’s been a long time. It feels good, a little reckless and I know I should be measured and keep a professional distance. But it’s been a very long time since I’ve had genuine attention from a man who did not have an agenda to get closer to my money, my power or influence.
“Okay, okay. I surrender. I never said I was a smooth talker. I make cold, tedious paintings that make people feel shitty and I sell them for lots of money because they think they should buy them if they want to seem intellectual.”
“That’s not really what you think about your work is it?” I ask.
“Of course not. I think I’m a fucking genius,” he says, and I can’t tell whether or not he’s joking.
He rolls toward me and props himself up on one elbow. He doesn’t say anything for a moment and the space is filled with the hollow hoot of an owl somewhere in the woods to our left.
“What’s your story?” he asks. “Really, what drives you to do what you do? You’ve done some pretty remarkable stuff, made personal sacrifices I’m sure.”
“I don’t know,” I say, buying time. “I guess I just always thought we, I mean humans could be better than we are. So I…”
“You set out to fix the human race? Jesus, we have a winner! No, sorry, sorry, I’m teasing you. That’s pretty incredible. Why do you feel that kind of responsibility?”
I can hear Meela’s voice in my head, which is funny because I’m experiencing the exact thing I’ve been modeling for so long – the ability to recognize a bug in my own thinking and thus have the ability to override my own bad programming. And yet, I go with my old programming because it’s what I know. It’s not logical and I find that quietly infuriating.
“I don’t know why. I just saw a problem and I thought maybe I could fix it.”
Evan adopts a big dumb voice, pitched low and slow, “Yeah, we’re jus’ trying to move the ball down the field. Tryin’ to give it all we got, play smarter than the other team…”
I push him again and he catches my wrist and holds it causing me to lose my balance and lean into him. I am there now, my face hovering over him, I can see the light from the stars reflected in his eyes. He’s laughing and I’m laughing and then without any warning, he’s kissing me and I’m kissing him back and I’m not thinking about Joe or Meela, or my work. I’m just falling into him and feeling the warm firmness of his chest beneath me, his hands in my hair. Stop. What the fuck am I doing. Stop. I pull away suddenly and sit up.
“Sorry, I can’t do this. I’m crossing a line I don’t want to…”
Evan is just looking up at me confused, but also patient like he fully expected this from me.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he says. “It was just a kiss. You did not taint the experiment.”
“I know, but, it’s just…”
“It’s okay Maggie, really. You’re taking this too hard. See, we’re sitting up now, we’re just talking, it’s all very professional. Tomorrow I’ll be back in the chair, you’ll still be able to poke and prod and plumb my untold depths.”
“I don’t poke you!” I say.
“You kinda do,” he says. “You get this real serious kind of crease in your brow… see you’re doing it now! And you scrunch up your lips in this tight little line like this…”
“I do not!”
“Yeah, you do. It’s okay, I kind of dig it. Makes you look smart and severe like you got it all figured out.”
“I don’t want to be severe,” I say.
I realize that he has not let go of my hand and I don’t really want him to. My heart is beating hard in my chest and I can feel my face is flushed.
“You’re not severe. Just serious.”
He withdraws his hand and picks a blade of grass. He twirls it in his fingers and then with his other hand tears it down the middle. My heart settles down and a breeze blows in through the trees, cold enough to make me shiver slightly and steals the warmth from my cheeks. I wait for what will happen next because I don’t know what I want that to be and for once I don’t want to be in control of that decision.
“You have secrets, don’t you? Something about your past that drives you. I can see it,” he says, looking up to meet my eyes.
“Why do you think that or is this just some kind of parlor trick you use on women, like a Tarot card reader, playing the probabilities game?”
He closes his eyes, and puts his fingers to his temples.
“I see there’s someone in your past... I’m picking up that it’s a… man… and he did… something…that you didn’t… oh, no wait, the spirit’s telling me it’s not a man, but a… woman, do I have that right?”
“You’re really talented. I think you could make a career if this whole painting thing doesn’t work out for you. I don’t think I realized you were such a flirt.”
“I’m not, it’s just the present company.”
“Somehow I doubt that. Did you flirt with Meela? You did, didn’t you?”
“Hey, I didn’t start it. Your little silicone friend comes on pretty strong.”
“Hrm, that’s what I was afraid of. You know whatever she told you, don’t feel too special about it. Any great line she fed you either A: I wrote or B: was the one that had the highest probability for success based on a previous series of trial chats.”
“And how many chats would that be?”
“Oh, probably at least twenty-five thousand or so for her to be comfortable with the predicted outcome.”
“God, I feel so dirty. I had no idea she got around like that,” Evan says, shaking his head. “You could probably save her some time. Men aren’t that complicated.”
“Says who?” I ask.
“You’re right, I’m in no position to speak for all men. She is clever though and funny as hell, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the soul behind the machine.”
“Don’t even go there, I’ll never give up my source.”
“Yeah, she told me as much. Hey, can I just say something?”
“You don’t need her. Whatever it is you think she gives you don’t need it. I think you’re just fine.”
I blush again and I’m glad for the cover of darkness.
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