Monday, January 21, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Eighteen

I didn’t notice the skin-colored surgical dressing between Rae’s navel and her left hip for two days, which says something about my state of mind. When I noticed it, a list of possible disasters went through my mind, which says something even more about me. I began by trying to recall if she’d ever said anything about her mother needing surgery for anything cancerous.

Rae responded with what I took to be a stoic smile. Given our life experiences, stoic was big. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, pushing past me on her way into the small bathroom.

I swung off the bed where I’d been reading, pressing after her. “You’re gone for two weeks with no word, and now I notice something that might be serious—“

“Is serious. Is.”

“But you don’t want to talk about it.”

Rae plunked her hands on my shoulders, leverage to tug me into a crouch. This was a tactic she used especially after The Spaghetti Wars in order to remove any advantage the difference in our heights might make while we argued. “I can’t let you out of my sight for two weeks without you stuffing things into boxes and letting the plants die.” Satisfied that I’d remain in a crouch, she turned on the hot water and began steaming a washrag.

“If something’s gone wrong with you, I have a right to know. If there were something wrong with me, I’d tell you.”

She smeared Noxema over her cheeks, brow, and chin, giving her a Marcel Marceau appearance. She wrung out the washrag, then covered her face with it. “You wouldn’t have to tell me,” she spoke through the cloth before removing it for a fresh soak. “I already know what’s wrong with you. You aren’t secure with me.”

Whatever it was I had in mind to say, nothing but a croak of frustration came out. Rae capitalized on her advantage. “If this is what you’re like now, think how you’d be if I married you.” Her eyes glinted mischief. “You’d probably stalk my gynecologist. God help me if I were a man.”

I broke from the crouch and started toward her. “Are you suggesting I’m jealous?”

“Howard. Howard. Howard.” She shook her head. “Jealousy is just plain dumb. I don’t think you’re dumb but maybe a bit compulsive.”

I watched in frustrated silence for some moments a she gave herself a sponge bath. “Will you at least tell me where you were?”

She began to brush her hair. “Portland.”

“What did you do for money?”

“I have funds there. Pacific Northwest Bank on Burnside. Don’t you have money in Portland?”

Actually, I did and so it came as no surprise to me that she’d have an account or safety deposit box in a city the size and convenience of Portland.

“Should have stayed away until it was all over and the healing completed,” she said, still brushing her hair.

“And not tell me?”

“I suspect you’d find out soon enough.”

“Is it that serious?”

Rae nodded, her solemnity touching me.

“So what time frame are we looking at?”

Rae faced me, her arms going limp, the tube of styling gel and the brush falling from her hands. Her eyes passed over me like scanners searching for a bar code to read. For a moment, I thought she might cry. “You are such a baby, Howard Camden,” she said.

The mist in her eyes reminded me of the fine droplets on a windshield just as the critical merge of humidity and temperature took place and the rain began in earnest. I saw in her gaze everything a person can see in someone he cares for. Then her face broadened. “I can’t watch you suffer any more.” She reached for my hand, then led me back to the sleeping area, where she pushed me down on the edge of the bed. Sitting next to me, she removed with great are the flesh-colored adhesive on the bandage, removing it to show me an area perhaps the size of an index card, where there were vestigial traces of scab and black-and-blue discoloring.

The next few days didn’t matter nor did the fact that except for an extraordinary play of luck, I mightn’t have been there when she returned. What mattered was what I saw at the moment.

Luminous and stunning through a residue of scabs and flesh repairing itself of bruises shone a finely tattooed trunk of a tree, etched in dark blue. On the gnarled trunk, looking as though it had been carved, a heart was rendered in red. There were two words on the heart. Rae and Howard.

“There,” she said. “I told you it was serious.”

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