(FICTION 6,870 words) (BACK TO HOME PAGE)
THE LATIN LOVER
Cat was a child of the Swingin’ Sixties, de facto if not in spiritu.
His name was Robert, but he insisted on the nickname Cat. This all arose from his highly unfashionable love of the Latin language, a love he nurtured to his dying day.
He was born in London in 1963. His stockbroker father popped champagne. A bouncing baby boy! Robert’s mother later mentioned that Lesley Gore’s It’s My Party was “reportedly audible” from the nurses’ room radio when he drew his first breath. As adolescent Robert/Cat’s love of Latin tightened its grip, he renamed that song Hic Est Celebratio Mea, but admitted under pressure the English title had more zing.
Robert became Cat at school. Not because of any affinity with felines, but as a tribute to Catullus, the permanently lovesick Roman poet. The febrile quality of Catullus’s poems to his older lover Lesbia (Lesbia!) reverberated in the lad’s hungry young brain and propelled him through puberty.
Their striking imagery and sexually-charged tone merged with delicate manifestations of transcendent love to make the virginal teenager gape at the page in astonishment. By his 14th birthday Cat was hooked for life.
He made a vow: when Cupid’s arrow struck, wherever that might happen and whoever the lady in question might be, his love would pulsate cum passione. He dismissed the notion that all-or-nothing love was “questionable.” Did not Catullus of old cling (usually) to his capricious, wayward, spectacularly licentious and resolutely married Lesbia, come what may? No, Cat informed whoever would listen to an opinionated teenager’s ideas on amor, all-or-nothing love is the only love worth feeling.
All-or-nothing love, he assured his reflection in the mirror, is love painted on a bigger canvas.
Cat’s classmates loathed Latin’s endless verb declensions and case endings, grammatical minefield and knotty syntax, all designed to torment 20th-century British schoolboys. But its capacity to say so much so concisely (like Aegrescit medendo:“The cure is worse than the disease”) amazed Cat. “This,” he thought as he devoured his first library book of Latin aphorisms, “this is quite a language.”
His Latin teacher, old Farley-Ferguson, was delighted – and more than a little surprised – to encounter such keenness after decades of schoolboy apathy. He declared the lad’s enthusiasm for the venerable ancient language made him “one of a dying breed.” Cat – now firmly established as the school’s undisputed oddball, its “Latin lover” – shrugged and replied, “Lingua Latina me delectat.” He liked Latin.
As Cat prepared for university, his father thought they should have a word.
“Well, Rob … er … Cat,” he said, “as you’re no doubt aware, I’ve long been of the opinion that after Oxford your wisest option would be a career in business. I know of several perfectly respectable financial institutions who’d welcome a bright …”
“Yes, Dad, you’ve long been of that opinion.”
“Quite.” His father tapped his pipe and searched for his tobacco pouch. “So, you’ll definitely bear that in mind for the future, won’t you?”
“I’ll bear in mind that you’ve long been of that opinion, yes.”
Career options could wait. Cat’s priority was to “seize the day” and explore the Latin classics with fellow enthusiasts. And he resolved to keep up his French (Latin’s elegant daughter). It might come in handy one day.
At graduation, Cat’s scholastic accolades couldn’t tempt him into an academic career. Academia involved teaching. He preferred adventure. A fellow graduate boasted of scoring a job teaching English in Milan and recommended he consider something similar. “Hmmm, Milan,” Cat said. “But teaching English? I’d rather swallow a golf ball.”
The Diplomatic Service crossed his radar. He shuddered at the thought. Well, what about the BBC? “With the Beeb, Manchester would be more likely than Milan” was his stock reply. Then he hit upon print journalism. Guaranteed flexibility. The chance to travel. None of the Diplomatic Service’s stultifying mental paralysis. Never having to “think twice before saying nothing.” None of that BBC bureaucracy, either. Yes, he announced, print journalism would do nicely.
A perfectly respectable news agency recruited him. In an impressively short time he earned a posting to Geneva. There his French would indeed come in handy.
And there Cat began his descent.
CONTRARII SE ATTRAHUNT
Geneva was nowhere near as sedate as he’d been warned. And if his colleagues weren’t as dynamic as he’d hoped, at least they weren’t as bland as he’d expected. His avuncular Bureau Chief – old “Pinky” Pinkerton – liked bow ties, Scottish ballads and the novels of Evelyn Waugh. Cat soon shaped his working life to allow himself time to pursue francophone Switzerland’s ladies, with occasional forays across the French border.
Whether impelled by simple lust or lured by the prospect of another conquest, most of his dalliances were successful. But amor never asserted itself. All Cupid’s arrows whizzed by. Cat’s women were as disposable as they were accessible.
Then it happened.
One evening in early May 1989, he was about to escape from a lifeless cocktail party when the hostess introduced him to the young trophy-wife of a 60-ish, aristocratically surnamed United Nations dignitary. They’d been the last to arrive. She mingled freely but her husband left after one quick drink, grumbling about “a ridiculously early” trans-Atlantic flight the following day.
Their pupils dilated and their throats constricted as their handshake lingered. Electricity filled the air. Then, as if everything had been written in the stars, it all clicked. She made it clear – as her lively but limited English yielded to Cat’s polished French – the attraction was mutual and her marital status was absolutely no impediment. They seduced each other.
He called her Liz, an approximate shortening of her real name. Her husband – Monsieur le secrétaire – was usually either abroad or in Geneva’s Palais des Nations (at meetings/conferences/lunch). And even if he knew of his wife’s adventures he wouldn’t have cared. Her role was to accompany him to public functions and make other men jealous. Her private life was her own business. The lovers exploited this to the hilt, and Cat was tempted to wonder if Eros himself had orchestrated this whole amatory whirlwind.
But she cautioned him right away she was not a free agent. They couldn’t meet every day. Domestic demands and the burden of being “married to the U.N.” constrained her time. Cat said, “D’accord,” swept some hairs from the sheets and resumed exploring her anatomy with his mouth.
They met every couple of days. Usually at his apartment, or an occasional hotel. Liz was prodigious. Every impulse, every variation was to be explored and enjoyed. She became his everything. With every encounter his desire grew more feverish. The deeper he fell, the deeper he wanted to fall, just like Catullus. Cat loved her. Cum passione.
The summer of 1989 was calm for Geneva’s newsmen, despite anti-communist protests behind the Iron Curtain threatening to end Europe’s business as usual. Luckily, most of Cat’s auto-pilot assignments gave him the freedom to become a Lizologist and explore the delights of Lizvana and Lizmania.
Yet even though the Consenting Adults Hall of Fame awaited them, there were hiccups. In mid-July Liz mentioned her husband would visit “Malaysia or Manila, one of those countries” for ten days. Cat used this time to add a few above-the-neck elements to their relationship. But the results were disappointing. Taking Liz to an exhibition of 15th-century Flemish art proved unwise. His choice of video (black-and-white, subtitled, Marlon Brando) also flopped. She dozed off.
Even during this husband-free period, Liz was always too “occupée” to meet him on consecutive days. Busy with what? Cat asked his reflection in the mirror. But he graciously accepted her need for alone time, especially since their carnal activities remained blissful beyond compare. The only potentially unsettling element was their misaligned cultural tastes. Could this derail their relationship?
It could not, he concluded after a moment’s analysis. Classical wisdom confirmed this. Contrarii se attrahunt. Opposites attract.
MORE NAKED MEN
From mid-August Liz had unavoidable commitments. She owed her mother in Orléans a couple of days, followed by an obligatory two-week vacation at Monsieur le secrétaire’s ancestral chateau in Provence.
Cat now caught his breath, recharged his batteries and reconnected with friends. He went to a hotel bar on Quai du Mont Blanc for beers with Yves Lambert, a Swiss journalist on a local newspaper. Their conversation soon turned personal.
“We all thought you’d gone underground,” Yves joked. “Nobody’s seen you around in ages. So … who is she? Anybody I know?”
“Yves, you know me. All work and no play.” Cat nodded to the barman for two more Cardinals. “It’s all happening, isn’t it? Big rumblings in Eastern Europe. Old Pinkerton predicts ‘major repercussions.’ Those East German protest marches are mushrooming. And the Hungarians have …”
“I know, I know. And I know you. So who is she? Anyone of my acquaintance?”
Prevarication with a fellow journalist was futile, so he told Yves about Liz. Keeping it general, he let his friend guess the details. But when Cat mentioned her name, Yves almost spilled his beer.
“The Venus who’s married to that pompous French fart at the Palais des Nations!” Yves paused. “So,” he continued, “you’re her latest.”
“Her latest? What are you talking about?”
Yves paused again. “Seriously? Since the lady’s graced our fair city she’s seen more naked men than an army doctor. Seriously. There was a Swissair guy a couple of months back. And a tennis coach around then, or maybe before. And a diplomat. Plus that Italian fencing team. Anyway, they’re the ones I’ve heard about. Recently.”
Cat was stupefied. But Yves was on a roll: “I haven’t had that particular pleasure myself, you understand, but as I said, quite a few have. I mean, seriously, Cat, didn’t you know about her? Word gets around. And Geneva’s not that big. Seriously? This whole time you had no idea?”
Cat managed a half-whispered, “No.”
“I was joking about the Italian fencers, by the way. But seriously, I’m amazed you’ve been clueless about her this whole time.” Yves was a real pal, but he wasn’t above twisting the knife. And Cat’s stunned expression was so unmissable the barman had trouble pretending not to notice.
Yves explained Liz always refused exclusivity with her lovers. She’d make that crystal clear. Yet for three months she’d never mentioned this. He’d always viewed their relationship as straightforward: two lusty creatures – one with an indifferent cuckold for a husband– had fallen for each other in the most passionate way.
Now this bombshell. Liz had other lovers while letting him think he was her exclusive one. Well, he reflected, in a sense he was one. Just one of several. Like Catullus with his Lesbia.
Liz told all her lovers that sexclusivity – he spontaneously coined the word – was not negotiable. So why had she avoided this subject with him for three months?
Back in his apartment Cat poured himself a cognac. He should have felt tipsy, but Yves’s revelation sobered him up. He needed to order his thoughts. His inner journalist made him write an auto-memo:
FACT: Liz = supremely passionate lover.
FACT: She’s had other men (rivals????) whole time!
FACT: Yves wouldn’t lie.
FACT: She’s never mentioned one word about others.
FACT: But insists we can’t meet every day. So has time (makes time) to meet others. Her claims of marital responsibilities &c=a ruse!
Question: Why didn’t I suss this? So obvious!!
Question: Maybe Liz never told me about others because I never asked. Was I expected to ask??
FACT: No!!!!!!!! Yves said she always refused sexclusivity. But this info’s WITHHELD!!
FACT: Ergo, this doesn’t apply to me!! That’s why she never mentioned it.
FACT: Ergo, I’m not like the others. I=permanent lover. Permanent!!!!
Question: But what’s with all those other men if she’s so committed to me??? Why this duplicity????? Why???????
Cat lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He rolled over and inhaled the Liz’s fragrance from her regular pillow. The night was still warm. The distant hum of late-night traffic drifted through the open window. His mind retreated.
Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
Quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
Dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
In vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.
My love says she desires none but me,
And even Jove could never make her swear.
But what women tell their lovers, you’ll agree,
One writes on running water or on air.
Catullus LXX was the poet’s rueful admission to himself that dishonesty is embedded in the game of love. It was one of the many Catullian verses he’d memorized in both languages. But here the crux was what Liz had not said.
That was what Cat had to untangle.
He got up and stood before the full-length mirror.
“When she gets back,” he told his reflection, “I’ll uncover the truth.”
And just as he’d imagined Catullus doing whenever his beloved Lesbia inflicted yet another wound, Cat drew himself up, clenched and unclenched his fists, and whispered over and over, Contine te ipsum! Contine te ipsum!
Get a grip!
A WEE CHAT
The days preceding Liz’s return passed in a ferment of apprehension and impatience. He was owed a two-week vacation starting August 26th. But, preoccupied with his impending moment of truth, this completely slipped his mind. When the elderly, underworked secretary tapped the calendar as a caustic reminder, he requested an indefinite postponement. The resulting domino effect provoked mutterings. But Cat was beyond caring.
Just before Liz’s return, “Pinky” Pinkerton, invited Cat to lunch at a nearby bistro. “A wee chat” was in order, he said.
The Chief ordered the menu du jour. Cat hardly touched his chicken salad. Pinkerton noted the younger man was making more inroads into the wine than would be considered seemly with the sun barely over the yardarm. He made a mental note but no comment.
“When you started with us I was immediately impressed,” Pinkerton said after some chit-chat. “You displayed considerable aptitude. Acute journalistic instincts. Your command of French was as advertised. And you understood how to use apostrophes! I took you for one of a dying breed. But …”
Cat felt a jolt. “Did you just say ‘one of a dying breed’?” he asked.
“I did,” his boss answered. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, it’s just something I remember from school. But I’m interrupting …”
“Yes, you manifested some notable qualities, as I was saying. But chiefly, your reportage was concise. Most neophytes take ages to master concision, but you excelled in that regard.”
Right, Cat thought, he’s softened me up with praise. Here comes the punch.
“However, your work’s been deteriorating of late. May one ask the reason?” He eyed Cat’s almost empty wineglass. “Been burning the candle at both ends, have we?”
“Well,” Cat replied, swirling the remnants of his wine and wondering whether ordering another would be pushing it, “it’s …”
“That’s what it looks like to me,” Pinkerton continued, brushing bread crumbs off the tablecloth. “You’re looking frazzled. Like someone with too much on his mind. If a chap keeps burning the candle at both ends long enough he’s likely to …”
“Run out of candle?”
“I’m serious! Heed the advice of one who’s been down that road. Slow down, my boy. Keep your eye on the big picture.” He adjusted his spectacles. “I mean, if you play your cards right your career needn’t stay anchored in Geneva. No sir. There’s Brussels. There’s Strasbourg.”
Cat surmised this news was intended to perk him up. He nodded vigorously.
The Chief leaned conspiratorially across the table. “Incidentally,” he said, dropping his voice to hush-hush level, “the word from on high is that accelerated promotion to Senior Correspondent is not entirely out of the question for someone of your ilk. And, in the fullness of time, perhaps,” he now called for the bill, scuttling Cat’s hopes of more wine, “maybe even Assistant Bureau Chief. The sky’s the limit!”
Pinkerton then threw concision to the winds and launched into a rambling story from a bygone decade about another up-and-coming newsman who’d parlayed his journalistic contacts into several lucrative business ventures. He meant this to illustrate how the sky really could be Cat’s limit. But his central point was lost in a maze of meandering details.
During the Chief’s reminiscences the younger man’s thoughts floated back to a bedroom game with Liz one June morning. When she nominated a part of her naked anatomy, he had to announce its Latin name and kiss it cum passione. Any hesitation or admission of ignorance incurred a “penalty”: Liz had to kiss cum passione whatever part of Cat’s body she chose.
As they began, he called the office from his bedside phone to report he’d be late. When the waspish secretary asked him why, he explained in his haughtiest French, “I am currently engaged in an activity of the utmost importance!” and hung up before she could catch Liz’s tinkling laugh.
“Where were we?”
“My right shin!” Liz said.
“Tua tibia dextera” … (kiss).
“My left thigh!”
“Tuum sinistrum femur” … (kiss).
“Between my thighs!”
“‘Between your thighs’?”
“Inter femora” … (kiss).
Before Liz announced her next selection, Cat said, “Porro excelsiusque!”
She cocked an eyebrow. Her expression was half-questioning, half-knowing.
“Onward and upward!” he replied, and their game veered off on a tangent.
He smiled at the memory.
But Pinkerton’s discursive tale had just petered out, and he was annoyed to see it had elicited amusement rather than admiration.
“Did I just say something funny?” he asked. “Let me in on the joke, since it’s so amusing.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Really.”
“Well, it’s gratifying to observe how easily tickled you can be. But now that I have your undivided attention, we’ve not yet resolved your holiday situation. You’re still owed a fortnight’s leave. What are your intentions in that regard?”
Cat scratched his chin and looked wistfully at his empty wineglass.
“Can I get back to you later about that?”
“Still undecided?” Pinkerton asked, pocketing the lunch receipt to claim on his expense account. “You could jolly well use a break I’d say. And the sooner the better. All this Iron Curtain business notwithstanding. What do you say?”
“Well, it’s just that there’s a personal situation I need to sort out first.”
Liz returned on August 30th. She phoned the morning after her return. Not tonight, chéri. Pas d’énergie! And no, she didn’t want to meet at his apartment. Or a hotel. She suggested their rendezvous for the next day and named a popular – and bustling – café. This was an unwelcome development. But before Cat could remonstrate she breathlessly added she had some big news, but couldn’t talk now. “See you tomorrow, chéri!”
The next morning in the office Cat hacked away at a dull feature article. But concentration eluded him. Accepting defeat, he headed out, telling the secretary he had to follow up a lead.
“Lead?” the crone replied. “Sherlock Holmes now, are you?”
He arrived at the café thirty minutes early and downed a double vodka to help him get a grip. Ignoring the censorious looks from the two Swiss matrons seated nearby – double vodka at 10:30 in the morning! – he took slow, deep breaths. Calmness was required while he untangled this problem with Liz. He needed to learn where he – they – stood.
Her “big news” preoccupied him. Had Liz messed up her Pill schedule? If she had, he’d now play a new role in her life: not just as her lover, but her child’s father. Her partner in parenthood.
Unless the baby wasn’t his.
“Shit!” he groaned audibly in English. The Swiss matrons reacted accordingly.
Liz arrived twenty minutes late. She’d been busy and lost track of the time. Cat buried this ominous sign under the pleasing awareness that her (new?) summer dress flattered her hips and made her breasts look fuller. She’d put on a little weight. Was she pregnant? Or had Château Muillac-d’Aurignon’s wine cellar and food been particularly tempting?
She ordered café Viennois and mixed in three sugars. He chose mineral water, then opened the proceedings.
“Liz, it’s wonderful to see you again. You’re looking super. Super!”
He paused, expecting more. But nothing emerged.
“Really super. Anyway,” he continued, “there’s something important that we need to discuss. It’s …”
“Un moment!” she said. “You haven’t heard my big news.”
“But, you know, we really …”
“We’re leaving at the end of September. They approved Jean-Baptiste’s request. Vienna! Can you imagine? The Industrial Development Agency. It’s all so sudden! They only just confirmed it.” She frowned. “Punaise! They speak German in Vienna. Oh well. Anyway, we’ll have to rush with all the packing and arranging all … Chéri, what’s wrong? You look ill.”
He hadn’t eaten in twenty hours. He was still keyed up, despite the vodka currently churning in his bowels. And now this punch to the solar plexus. All thoughts of a heart-to-heart with Liz evaporated. Anyway, this café was no place for that.
Yet Cat’s indisposition had an unforeseen effect. Liz’s concern for his health made her take him straight back to his apartment.
After her thunderbolt he saw no point in confronting Liz about her duplicity. What good would it do?
She wiped the sweat from his face and neck and unbuttoned his shirt. Her sincere concern and gentle solicitude were meant to soothe him. Instead, they aroused him.
“Liz, I love you. More than life itself. I’ve told you countless times.”
“And it’s not just bedroom love. I love you more than life itself!”
“So how can you leave, so suddenly? Like my love means nothing? Our love?”
“Chéri, you know I’m married. You’ve always known.”
“Of course. But all we’ve meant to each other, Liz … how can you just end it so casually?”
“It’s not casual. It’s … We … Did you think we could just continue like this forever?”
Add a sexclusivity clause and Cat would have absolutely no objection.
He snapped out of it: “Stay with me! Let’s live together!”
She sat quietly. Her thoughts were tangled.
“Liz, I love you more than life itself!”
A silence descended. Time slowed. She looked up.
A solitary teardrop rolled down her cheek.
“Will you stay, mon amour? Please?”
She appeared not to hear. But then she stood up and kissed him. Her tongue tasted of sweet coffee.
“I cannot,” she whispered. “I cannot.”
He wiped her tear with his hand. The teardrop trickled down his index finger and he put it to his mouth. She kissed him again. Then she undressed him. Then he undressed her.
Afterwards, she rested her head on his heaving chest. “We have only one month, Cat,” she murmured.
She stretched and yawned. “Et puis Vienne.”
‘And then Vienna’ robbed Cat of the power of speech. What was this? Was she speaking of the future to push him into the past?
Liz reached across his bare torso for a cigarette. She sat up, lit it, faced him and blew smoke at the ceiling.
“Anyway,” she said, somewhat louder than necessary, “Vienna’s only a 90-minute flight.”
Through September they met whenever her race against the calendar would allow.
Even in her most suggestible moods – during a post-coital smoke and after a shower – Liz skillfully resisted his appeals. But her irritability surged as Vienna Day loomed. The pressures were piling up. She’d lost track of this, miscalculated that. Monsieur le secrétaire’s constant shuttling between Vienna and Geneva complicated things. She had trouble deciding what to keep and discard. She suspected the servants were pilfering.
Three evenings before the move she arrived at his apartment feeling testy. Always particular about her grooming, she looked – by her usual standards – unkempt.
Her complaints about the tiresome bureaucracy involved in this routine move to a nearby country had themselves become tiresome. But Cat always let her vent, conscious of how soon they’d become long-distance lovers. Now she returned to that theme yet again. Tonight, though, Cat’s concerns were more immediate. He started massaging her shoulders, pressing his thumbs on the back of her neck the way she liked. He whispered, “I can help you forget all those problems.”
Liz shook him off. “Are you deaf? You don’t get it, do you? I’m not in the mood! Je suis fatiguée!”
“Liz, I only meant …”
“I know what you meant! It’s all you ever mean.”
“What? What are you saying?”
She let fly with a string of condemnations. He didn’t really love her. He just used her body. He ignored her feelings. He didn’t even notice how tired and tense she was. She shouldn’t have come over that evening. At least her husband respected her in his own way. Visiting him that evening was a mistake. This whole thing was a mistake. She didn’t even know why she was there. Leave me alone. Don’t touch me! I said don’t touch me! I’m going home! Don’t call me!
Of course Cat called her. More often than was prudent. Liz told the servants to hang up on him.
September 29, 1989 – Vienna Day – came and went with no word from Liz. No au revoir, chéri! Stoney silence.
That night Cat was so drunk he called three wrong numbers before he reached Yves. He rushed to Cat’s apartment.
The door was unlocked. The shambles and his friend’s disordered condition reminded Yves of the opening few minutes of Apocalypse Now.
“Mon Dieu, Cat!”
“Huh? Who’s that?”
“Yves! You just called me, remember? Mon Dieu! Where are your clothes?”
He dragged Cat into the shower, turning it on full blast. He found some clothes and, going far beyond the normal requirements of friendship, he dried Cat off and somehow got him dressed. Then he made coffee. He tripped over various bottles searching the kitchen in vain for something edible. Then he made Cat drink water, coffee, and more water.
“Have you eaten today?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care.” Then Cat keeled over as he vomited the water, coffee and a range of unidentifiable fluids. Yves caught him before his head hit the floor. He made his friend lie on his side and called an ambulance.
WHAT MUST BE DONE
The hospital pumped out his stomach. The next morning Yves called Cat’s office to report Robert Maddox was sick and couldn’t make it. With obvious annoyance the secretary asked, “Is this notification really necessary, monsieur? Maddox is currently on holiday and isn’t due back until …” He heard her shuffle some papers “… I have the exact date here somewhere …” Yves mumbled a vague apology, adding he must have misread the calendar. As he hung up, he thought That old cow probably thinks I’m Cat’s boyfriend.
On that jingle-jangle morning Cat went straight home and slept. For the thousandth time he pulled Liz’s regular pillow to his face and breathed her in. Yves called him late that afternoon from his office to urge a meeting. No alcohol, Yves warned. You need food. Something solid. Then you can explain why you seem to be so intent on killing yourself drink by drink.
They met at Yves’s apartment, where he made Cat eat two hefty slices of pizza. Then Cat’s floodgates opened.
He divulged everything. He recounted how Yves’s revelation in the hotel bar that August night was like a dagger in the chest. Yves was tempted to ask forgiveness for revealing the truth so callously. But then he suspected Cat would’ve eventually heard about Liz’s ways somewhere else, and probably in cruder terms.
Cat described how his beloved’s infidelities tore him apart. He recounted how her blithe announcement about leaving had shaken him to the core. He chronicled his efforts to make her stay with him. His love was undying, but she was immovable.
He said he loved Liz more than life itself, but she was immovable.
And now, he concluded, she’d left without a single word of farewell. And he was here in Geneva drinking himself into oblivion like an idiot.
He knew now what he must do.
“Okay,” Yves replied. “She tore you apart. Okay. But now you can move on, right? Seriously. Liz never called you back, right? And she refused all your calls. She’s gone, Cat. Gone for good. Her choice. She had her chances, lots of chances, but she’s moved on. What I’m saying makes sense, right?”
Cat looked away and said, “Hmmm. Everything you say is logical …”
“I’m glad you’re finally wising up. You said you know what you must do. What’s that English expression? Grip on it?”
Cat half-smiled. “Get a grip.”
“Get a grip?”
“Contine te ipsum!”
“Never mind.” Cat was thinking about how Liz was both his disease and the cure.
He looked out the window and noticed a late-model Renault parked under a streetlamp. It was the same shade of red as Liz’s bra the night they first met.
“So,” said Yves, “that’s that then. Leave this sorry mess behind and move on.”
Cat stared at the Renault.
Yves now thought it advisable to lighten the mood. He said, “You know, Cat, I speak to you here as a totally straight male, but you’re a good-looking guy. Ha ha. So what are you waiting for? All those great women out there! Seriously. I’ve seen you in action. So forget about Liz. Find someone new. Right?”
“So you’re getting a grip, right? You absolutely know what you have to do, right?”
“Right,” Cat said. He stood erect. “I know what I have to do. I’m quitting the news agency and moving to Vienna.”
BOUNCING THROUGH THUNDERBOLTS
Storms delayed Cat’s flight then diverted it to Milan. But howling winds kept the plane idling on Milan’s runway. A thunderstorm brewed, electrifying the air. The plane took off while it still could, bucking and jolting, pitching and rolling throughout its ascent. Behind him a baby howled like its lungs would burst.
He knew this pursuit of Liz was the biggest gamble of his young life. When he’d requested her Viennese home phone number and address, the U.N. politely but predictably reminded him that its privacy rules forbade such disclosures. His personal contacts at the Palais des Nations couldn’t or wouldn’t help him.
It suddenly dawned on him he should have bribed somebody. Would bribery work in squeaky-clean Switzerland? Unlikely. But in Vienna you never know. Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes.
The plane pitched violently as the chief flight attendant reminded everyone yet again to ensure their seat belts were secure-aaaaaah!-ly fastened.
Cat somehow ignored the brutal turbulence. His mind was on his final conversation back in Yves’s apartment.
“I have to find her,” he’d said after his shock announcement. “I have to see if there’s still a chance for us. I cannot stay in this darkness.”
Yves sat him down.
“Listen,” he said, “her attitude’s been totally consistent, right? You’re sabotaging your career for nothing more than a minuscule chance with this woman. And what will Liz do when you turn up? You see this as un geste magnifique, but I seriously doubt she will. She might even call the cops!”
“No she wouldn’t! Liz …”
“You’ll be throwing away everything you’ve achieved.” (Not entirely true, he knew, but he was low on ammunition.) “And … think about your parents!”
Such pale arguments, he saw, were futile against Cat’s intransigence. Now all Yves could say was: “Get a grip while you still can, Cat. Okay? C’est tout.”
But Cat was way past getting a grip. Reason, he’d decided early in life, had no place in affairs of the heart. As a virginal teenager he’d vowed that when he loved he would love with fierce intensity. He’d find his Lesbia, and he’d love her more than life itself.
Yves decided switching to English might give his arguments more impact. He demanded, “Are you sure you love Liz? Are you?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“Or are you really just in love with being in love?”
“Yves, spare me this cheap psychoanalysis. You can’t understand this darkness.”
“Listen! You’re sacrificing everything for someone who’s finished with you. That’s madness!”
“No,” Cat said. “That’s not madness. That’s love.”
Yves changed tack: “Has Liz ever told you she loved you?”
Cat remained silent. That red Renault held his gaze.
Cat sat upright. “What can I say?” he replied. “She’s my destiny.”
Then he joined his palms between his thighs, rocked back and forth in his armchair and said, “I have to seek my destiny.”
And two days later here he was, bouncing through thunderbolts over the Italian Alps. Seeking his destiny.
Since adolescence Cat habitually withdrew into the Latin language in times of stress. Once, on a ferry to his annual French-immersion summer camp in Calais, a storm rolled in. He got seasick and calmed himself by retreating into his pet Latin proverbs, reciting them in alphabetical order.
His turbulent emotions on this turbulent flight, the howling infant and every cascading vision of Liz drove his mind into retreat. I have to seek my destiny. How’s that in Latin?
I have to seek my destiny. He sifted through the possible translations. But he only got as far as fatum meum. In swirling clouds full of savage gusts and lightning the plane smashed into a mountain. The resulting fireball killed everyone.
In the final milliseconds before his brain shut down forever Cat’s thoughts were about how Liz’s teardrop tasted so much like her sweat and about the casually erotic way she held her cigarette and about the tiny scar on the fourth toe of her right foot.
THE OTHER END
“Allô, Cat! Happy New Year! Comment vas-tu, chéri?”
Liz planned to start The Phone Call thus. “Chéri” would be risky after her three-month silence. But it would demonstrate she still had feelings for him. Would Cat reciprocate? Or was he too embittered? If only she knew.
Her cheerless life in Vienna – the isolation and solitude, the impenetrable language – forced nostalgia upon her. While other men’s memories disappeared like smoke, only Cat’s image endured. He commandeered her reminiscences, invaded her sleep. Vienna’s decadent pastries could only temporarily deflect her thoughts from the only man in her life whose declarations of love sprang from undying devotion.
Projecting all her domestic frustrations onto him was unfair. Slamming the door on him was wrong. Emboldened by wine, she’d sometimes dial his number. But burdened by guilt, her stomach in knots, fearing rejection, unsure of what to say, unsure she even had the right to say anything, she’d never reach the last digit.
Then, during another bewildering German lesson, an idea was born. She’d seek professional advice.
The psychic’s receptionist squeezed her in on December 5th, instructing her to bring a personal possession or at least a photo of the individual she wished Madame Claire to read. But Liz had nothing. She’d torn up her only photo of Cat that ugly night. On the Paris-bound plane she sought to offset this problem by focusing her psychic energies on Cat.
Under the reception area’s CASH ONLY (IN ADVANCE) sign, Liz completed the mandatory questionnaire. Entering the consultation room, she noticed the psychic’s sunglasses (“to block psychic interferences, Madame”).
Madame Claire’s trained eye scanned her client: 30-ish, well groomed, designer handbag, big-budget wedding ring. Older husband deficiencies. Or problems with a lover her own age. She suspected the latter.
Liz: Madame, my situation concerns an affair of the heart. It is of a particularly delicate nature.
Psychic: Such is generally the case, Madame. Rest assured, confidentialité totale is guaranteed. Your beloved is not your husband.
L: How did you …?
P: Come, Madame, we are not children. And I am Madame Claire. Now, have you brought his possession? Or a photograph?
L: I’m afraid not. You see, I was angry after we argued, and I …
P: That is not uncommon, Madame. This must therefore be a less-than-definitive reading. Cold readings are tricky. Anyway …
(After some incisive – but cunningly disguised – questions concerning “the gentleman”):
… Now, concentrate on your beloved. Remember him. Remember his voice. His touch. Focus, Madame. Give me your hands while I absorb the psychic vibrations.
(Deciding on a cliché-laden reply, blaming cold readings’ notorious ambiguity):
P: You may remove your hands, Madame. I regret your vibrations – for reasons which must be obvious – were less clear than one would wish.
L: But you detected something?
P: Despite such feeble vibrations, oui.
L: Then there’s still hope, Madame?
P: Listen! Your beloved dwells in darkness. Darkness! I cannot say why. The vibrations were faint. It follows that you must act, Madame. During this estrangement you must take the initiative. Make the first move!
L: “Dwells in darkness”?
P: Cold readings produce few details, Madame. I repeat: you must take the initiative. Contact him! But timing is absolutely crucial. Apply your knowledge and experience. Select the optimum time with the utmost care!
I can say no more, Madame.
Back in Vienna, Liz’s knowledge and experience directed her to January 3rd’s auspicious Mercury-Jupiter conjunction and waxing moon. And New Year – the time of renewal – would be a natural opportunity to rekindle amour.
To help while away the dreary days until The Call she compiled La Liste:
(1) Says I’m The Cat Magnet.
(2) Is a Gemini.
(3) Says he’ll love me forever!!!!!!
(4) Likes to get up really early.
(5) Watches me when he thinks I’m asleep.
(6) Says I’m a human aphrodisiac!!!
(7) Scratches his chin when he concentrates.
(8) Never snores.
(9) Has magic fingers!!!
January 3rd, 1990 crawled in. During that cold, restless pre-dawn she listened to her Walkman, augmenting La Liste:
… (58) Likes R & B.
(59) Says he wants to teach me backgammon.
(60) Says left-handers (like him!) lead shorter lives.
After Monsieur le secrétaire left for another of his ridiculously early flights, Liz read French magazines. When she intuited the moment was optimum she made The Call. But no one answered. She tried again. Nothing. Was Cat away? Had he changed addresses? Or left Geneva?
Luckily, she’d neglected to erase Cat’s office phone number from her address book, since it was under A for agence de presse. Her hand trembled slightly. A young woman answered.
L: … Lisette Muillac-d’Aurignol. I’m trying to reach Robert Maddox. He’s still working there?
S: Excusez-moi, Madame … you said ‘Robert Maddox’?
L: Oui, your star journalist!
S: Er … Madame … Er … Robert Maddox is … er … deceased! …Allô? … Allô? … Would you like the Bureau Chief to call … Allô?
L: I … we … I … Deceased? How?
S: It was before my time, Madame. I only started here in November. An aircraft accident, they said. In early October. Shall I ask Monsieur Pinkerton to call you back as soon …
L: Was Cat flying to England?
L: Robert! Where was he flying to?
S: Oh … er … V? It started with V.
S: Oui … er … Venice, maybe? No! Vienna! Oui. Vienna. Shall I ask the Bureau Chief to …
S: Oui, Madame. They said he was en vacances. That’s all I … Allô … Allô?
Autumn 1991: Lisette was living quietly with her mother in Orléans. Monsieur le secrétaire was now living with an Italian heiress. Lisette’s alimony meant she didn’t have to work – merci! – but Business Class and servants were now out of reach.
Lisette took up backgammon, displaying a surprising – to herself above all – aptitude. She doted on Robertus, her British Shorthair cat. She continued La Liste, although the entries dwindled:
… (74) Preferred black socks …
… (78) Got his cleverest ideas while shaving.
(79) Claimed he’d make a good detective.
By 1995 Lisette was in Brussels, living with her Belgian fiancé, a radio journalist. Passion wasn’t at the forefront of their relationship, and their love was not one for the ages, but it was stable. At this point in her life, stable was good.
His feline-fur-allergy meant Robertus stayed in Orléans, along with La Liste.
Before setting the wedding date, Lisette consulted Madame Claire, who’d so miraculously sensed Cat was dwelling in darkness. It was just that his darkness was permanent.
“Your intended works in broadcasting, Madame?” the psychic asked after some expertly camouflaged questioning.
“Oui!” Lisette replied, again hugely impressed. “And here’s his t-shirt. Excuse the smell, Madame. It’s unwashed.”
The psychic’s reading foresaw a successful marriage. “Fortune smiles on you, Madame,” she declared. “You are indeed a survivor. You always land on your feet. Like a cat.”
She noted Lisette’s ironic smile.
“I said something amusing, Madame?”
“Oh,” Lisette said. “It’s nothing. Really.”
Cat continued to pop into Lisette’s mind. But as year followed year the pops became more sporadic. The details grew dim.
One night when Radioman was away on assignment, her drowsy thoughts drifted back to Geneva ’89. When she woke up she had to accept that the face and the voice and the touch of the man who drank her teardrop and who died for loving her had become a mist.
This troubled Lisette.
Then it troubled her that it hadn’t troubled her more.