A Song of the Past: Fifteen

(Previous installment.)

Wednesday, 7:20 PM
Deirdre fidgeted with her cigarette as she waited at the bar of the New West. Of course she had arrived ten minutes early—dressed and restless at home, she had been unable to sit still any longer. She restrained herself from chugging her beer, not wanting to appear un-lady-like should Chuck walk through the door as she did so.

She was watching the news when she heard, “Hello, ma’am.”

“Oh, hello there, sir. Can I help you with anything?”

“Yes, I’m supposed to meet a lady here. But she’s not nearly as attractive as you are. Would you like to come to dinner with me?”

“I’d love to, sir. Where to?”

“Follow me.”

Deirdre left her drink and followed Chuck out of the bar. They drove downtown and parked in front of Pica Tapas Restaurant on High Street. “I hope you don’t mind Spanish food,” Chuck said.

“No, I quite like it. And I’ve never been here, but I’ve hear it’s excellent. You’re choice is a winner.”

After they were seated, Chuck ordered a scotch and soda, and Deirdre a white wine. They spent a few minutes discussing forensic medicine. When first order of tapas was placed on the table, Chuck, perhaps feeling that the distraction provided by the tasks involved in consuming the dishes would help to smooth the transition to exploring more personal matters, declared, “I picture you as someone who reads a lot. Is my man’s intuition working any better than its usual?”

“I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘a lot.’ I do like to read, although I don’t have as much time for it as I’d like. And how about you?”

“Books are my favorite diversion.”

“What sorts of books?”

“Although I’m afraid I’ll appear terribly predictable by confessing this, for light reading my favorite writer is Robin Cook, the fellow who does all those medical thrillers.”

“I’ve heard of him, but never read any of his stuff.”

“When I’m in the mood for something heavier, I tend to go with the existentialists—Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Beckett, and the rest of that crew. I also read a fair amount of popular history, and occasionally some science fiction. How do your tastes in literature run?”

“My most recent fling has been with Flann O’Brian.”

For a few seconds Chuck appeared to be rummaging through his memory for any trace of the name, but apparently none was to be found. “No, I don’t know him. What has he written?”

At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, The Dalkey Archives.”

“I’m afraid to say none of those titles ring any bells.”

“He’s a serious author while also being about the funniest writer I’ve come across.”

“Which of his books would you recommend as the best introduction to his work?”

“Try The Third Policeman. I’ll give you a little taste of what it’s like. The protagonist has met up with these two policemen, both of whom happen to embrace quite an odd view about the character of physical reality. They inform the narrator that the foremost difficulty they face in executing their official duties arises from the atomic nature of matter.”

Chuck looked intrigued. “Just how does that stand in their way?”

“They are convinced that, since every physical object is composed of little bits of itself, the bits from different objects can become intermingled through the prolonged proximity of the items in question. As almost every resident of their jurisdiction travels primarily by bicycle, the two cops are certain that any number of the locals are likely to have swapped more than half their own atoms with those of their cycles, what with riding over the bumpy country roads and all. When such a person is accused of a crime, the officers often feel compelled to arrest not the man but his bicycle, confident that they are incarcerating more of the person’s substance by jailing the bike than they would by locking up the man himself.”

“That sounds like pretty good. Do you happen to have a copy I could borrow?”

“No problem. I’ll keep it in my backpack, so the next time I see you I’ll be sure to have it.”

“Well, I hope that next time won’t be too far off.”

Deirdre blushed a little, and then became intensely concerned with her marinated red peppers. Rounds of tapas kept appearing at regular intervals: grilled squid, mashed eggplant salad, white beans in garlic, goat cheese with crusty, fresh bread, anchovies on a bed of greens, and tiny lamb chops fragrant with rosemary. Chuck and Deirdre kept up their conversation even as they savored the variety of flavors succeeding each other at their table. They found they held similar views on a number of topics: music—both preferred jazz; politics—both were nonpartisan cynics; sports—both favored basketball, especially college.

Almost completely satiated by the bounty of tapas they had sampled, the pair were casually nibbling at their deserts and sipping cordials when Deirdre blurted out: “So is it over between you and your wife?” She immediately wished she had resisted her curiosity, sure that the question had made her look a little bit desperate and needy, not good qualities to display on a first date.

However, if Chuck was at all put off by her sudden interest in his marital situation, Deirdre was unable to detect any sign of it in his response. “I really don’t envision us getting back together. Of course, my life has confounded my expectations of its course a few times before now, but I really believe the marriage is over.”

“I hope the separation hasn’t been too painful.”

“It’s never easy to admit that you’ve made a mistake about such a major thing, I suppose. I still love her, but I’m convinced it’s time for both of us to move on.”

They each ordered a final glass of liqueur before paying the tab. Chuck drove cautiously on the way to Deirdre’s apartment. After pulling to a stop along the curb in front of her house, he leaned close to her ear and murmured, “I’d still very much like to see your place.”

“Oh, but it’s such a mess! I’m embarrassed to bring you up.”

“Deirdre, you should see my apartment. We’re both busy people. I’m sure you’re investigating, or testifying—something more important than doing the dishes and dusting the blinds.”
She studied those sea-green eyes, tempted to dive into them to seek the treasure she believed she could spy glimmering in their depths.

“You’re a strong woman. You’ve got a career, and goals of your own aside from pleasing some man. My impression of you is that you’re not driven to conform to any stereotype of the ideal female in order to feel good about yourself, and I find that very attractive.”

Deirdre smiled at his flattery, but she had trouble imagining herself as the pillar of feminine strength he had just described. Furthermore, she had no idea to what extent he believed what he said, or was merely saying it because he thought it would be what she wanted to hear. Nevertheless, she knew that she didn’t want this date to be over just yet, and so she told him, “I’d be happy if you came in with me.”

As they entered her apartment, she tried to picture how it must look to Chuck. The living room was designed around a modern American “college dorm” motif. A burnt-orange, sagging sofa she had picked up from a consignment shop, on which Ariel lay stretched out in sleep, a low, scratch-coated coffee table decorated with odd books, an assortment of magazines and unopened mail, and an antiquated television were the central elements of the tableaux. The peeling walls, which she had been planning to paint since the first month she had lived there, were bare except for a couple of Monet prints that faithfully had accompanied Deirdre through all of the moves since she had begun living on her own. A partially open door in the far wall exposed a suggestive glimpse of the galley kitchen and its stacks of unwashed dishes lurking behind it, while two fully closed doors in the wall to the left of the entrance concealed her bedroom and bathroom.

Deirdre hesitantly offered Chuck a seat on the tattered couch, lacking a less embarrassing alternative. As he sank low into the cushions she sought to draw his attention away from the sorry state of her domestic affairs, hurriedly asking him if he wanted a drink.

“I'd love one,” he replied, with an enthusiasm that implied he both sensed and hoped to relieve her disquiet. “What do you have?”

“Scotch and soda?”


She poured his drink and a glass of wine for herself. She handed him the scotch but placed her wine down on the coffee table.

“Excuse me, but I have to use the loo. I’ll be right back.” Even as she added that final note of assurance, it struck her as odd that she found it necessary to assert her intention to return. It seemed very unlikely that, had she not done so, Chuck would have been left fretting on the couch, worrying she planned to clamber out of the bathroom window and flee her own residence.

Once she was secured from observation by the locked door, she rapidly straightened up the room as best she could, throwing dirty clothes from the floor into the hamper and wiping the sink counter and the seat and rim of the toilet. Then she gave her face a once over in the mirror, quickly brushed her hair, and gargled some mouthwash for what she hoped was just long enough to vanquish from her breath the odor of stale alcohol and the cigarette she had needed on the way to Chuck’s car after dinner. Lastly she flushed the toilet as evidence that she had been doing none of the above but only answering nature’s call. She re-entered the living room doing her best impression of the slinky stalking of a practiced seductress.

But Chuck appeared to be oblivious to her performance, sitting hunched over and absorbed by a photographic travelogue of an expedition across Tibet, presented in a book he had extracted from the heap of printed material ascending from the coffee table. She made an indeterminate noise that succeeding in alerting him to her return, and he turned his head up and around to acknowledge her presence.

“I take it,” he proposed, “that you are interested in Tibet.”

“Yes, for some reason the place always has fascinated me. Those people isolated at the top of the world, living on a windswept plain or in a monastery built into the sheer, barren slope of a twenty-thousand-foot mountain. I’d love to go there some day.”

“I went two years ago, on a guided mountaineering expedition—one of those outdoor adventure tours. The Chinese have done away with a lot of what made Tibet so special”—here he paused, and then added, “unfortunately,” as though he wanted to be sure Deirdre realized he wasn’t in favor of a foreign conqueror destroying another people’s ancient culture—“but it’s still a fantastic country.”

“Mountaineering? Do you do that sort of thing often?”

“I try to make at least one attempt at a serious peak every year. Besides that, I do a lot of weekend climbs of easier mountains, usually in the Adirondacks or the White Mountains. I try to stay in shape between climbs by working out most weekdays at a rock-climbing place in Wallingford.”

“I have a fantasy that I’m cut out for that kind of elemental challenge, triumphing over pure, physical opponents, being at the mercy of the forces of wind, rain, snow—it seems so romantic—man against nature, Jack London, Earnest Hemingway…”

“Why don’t you come with me on my next weekend trip? I’ll pick a climb you can handle.”

“Why not? Let me know.”

Deirdre again looked into his eyes, those sea-green eyes… This time, when they called to her she could not resist their sweet song. As she sank into the waves she found her lips were on his. The warm currents caressed her and carried her floating helplessly where they would, until at last she came to rest on the shore of sleep.

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