Never Till Tonight
“Yet never till to-night my speech has sprung
Cyrano de Bergerac, Act III, Scene 6
He slowly turned his head, and looked at her. His eyes were… haunted, surprised, frightened. Tense. She could even perceive a flicker of his shaken feelings, which very, very rarely happened to her, only when they were terribly strong. They held the gaze, her whispered words lingering in the silence.
“I wished… it was… you…”
Exhaling a long breath, he finally closed his eyes, and laid his head back on the armchair.
The suspended moment was over. She dropped her head, and started to rise from her crouched position beside his chair, to leave him, to go… home. Home? No, just Above.
It’s the truth, Vincent, and I owe Elliot for giving me the chance to tell you. To at least tell you. I can have kings, but I want you. Another time, perhaps… Now, I’m too tired to…
Suddenly, he was in front of her, her shoulders in his grasp, lifting her rudely and holding her face inches from his. “Look at me! Look at ME!” he snarled, his voice hoarse and low, his breath hot against her skin. He abruptly let go and raised his hands in front of her eyes. “Look at these hands! They have just killed THREE people! Did you hear their screams, less than one hour ago? Yes, you did!” Again, he took her shoulders and brought her face close to his. “Look at this mouth! It has fangs, it is not human! It roared, while killing those people! Do you really… want to feel it on your lips? Do you??”
Catherine could not reply. She looked at this shaking, wild fury that was now Vincent, at his traits, irate and distorted, spitting harsh words through lips that did nothing to conceal the fangs. Fascinated. Her knees had gone weak, from surprise, from shock, and… and… from a surge of desire she could not control. Her trembling gaze slowly went from his darkened and savage eyes to his mouth, slightly open, slightly moist, slightly panting.
“Yes, you do. And I am a fool.” She felt, almost physically, something, somewhere giving way. While an explosion of unknown, feral passion and desire violently shook her soul, he caught the back of her head, burying his fingers in her still damp hair, drawing her face to him, her mouth to his… and growled, positively growled, abruptly whirling away from her.
Wh… what? She swayed a little, body and heart and soul lost and disoriented.
His back and shoulders were stiff and shaking, his hands tight fists. From his clenched teeth came, “Yes… Father. Come… in.”
Father entered in a hurry, bending his head in the passageway. “Here you are, daughter! I heard on the pipes that you had come at last. Are you all right? You look… flustered,” he said, taking her hand and touching her cheek.
Catherine looked at Vincent’s rigid back, still sensing the tumultuous, angry, delicious feelings in him, and desperately tried to focus on what Father was saying. Am I… what? Why? What is he talk… Oh… oh, yes!
“I’m fine, Father, I’m fine,” she stuttered.
“Really? What happened to you? Vincent was…”
“I know. And I’m sorry, Father. Very, very sorry,” she said to Vincent’s still taut back, while the feeling of him–jealousy, shame, remorse… passion–slowly faded, leaving her aching and empty. He finally turned, his face unreadable.
“You’re not hurt, dear?” Father persisted.
“No Father, no. I just… fell into the Hudson, but… well, I can swim,” she said with a tired little grin.
“You fell… oh, dear God. You swam in that dirty, filthy water? You didn’t swallow any of it, did you? I don’t suppose you could wash yourself properly after?” Father asked, taking in, with a horrified look, her mismatched untidy clothing.
“Well, no… but I did remove most of my wet clothes and found these…” she looked down at herself, suddenly feeling dirty and clumsy and unhappy and…
“You must wash immediately, do you have any proper antiseptic soap?” he asked.
“Wait here, I’ll be back in a minute, then you’ll go to the bathing chambers…” and he hurriedly limped out.
They looked at each other.
His hands going to his heart, he began, “Catherine, I…”
No, not now, I can’t stand another… “Vincent, Father is right, forgive me,” she overrode, words stumbling out of her mouth. “I am indeed filthy and very tired and should be showering and going to bed. Too many things have happened…” and her eyes fled to his lips. She closed them for a moment. “Tomorrow they’ll ask me a lot of questions, and I’d better be ready. It’s late, I’m leaving, I’ll go home. And I’ll go on my own. But…” she took a deep breath, and a quick step closer to him, and laying her hands on his chest, looked up to him, “but… tomorrow night… will you come to me… to my balcony?” she implored.
He looked into her eyes, a look that again her heart could feel. His gaze dropped to her mouth, and then, almost reluctantly, back to her eyes. Slowly, he took her hand which lay on his heart, and brought her palm to his mouth. She could not help a sharp intake of breath when she felt the tip of his tongue caressing it, in a slow, moist kiss. His eyes, never leaving her face, were dark, intense, tender and… possessive. “Weep for any fool who dares keep me away…” he murmured.
“Here it is, child.” Father’s voice once again preceded him, and he entered the chamber with… something in his hand, and he said… something, about going to the bathing chambers, and doing this and that…
Vincent had once again released her. Catherine brought her palm to her lips, and felt the moistness of his kiss on it. Father saw her turning, going toward the passageway, one hand on her mouth… “Catherine, the soap!” She obediently took the wrapped bar. With the other hand. And exited.
“But…” Father looked at Vincent, dumbfounded.
“She’s fine, Father, don’t worry,” he said, with a little enigmatic smile. A… smug smile, Father would have said, if circumstances were different.
He read the note for the millionth time, while relentlessly pacing the balcony, caressed it as he had done all day. The flash of bitter, angry, almost desperate disappointment that morning had nearly driven him crazy, until he’d received the note. Her emotions, from which he had shamelessly and eagerly been drinking all day, were heated. He could perceive her dealing with the aftermath of the latest events at the DA’s office; meeting… and consoling… Elliot; reliving–again and again and again–that incredible moment together in his chamber when they… almost… and finally, sourly and reluctantly getting ready to go to the opera. Above everything, he could feel her constant, raw desire for the day to end, for the darkness to come, for his arms. And mouth. And…
He was frantic with desire as well. He also played and replayed in his heart the events of the night before, wondering and marveling at them, fighting doubts and weakness, noble restraint and fears. She loves me. She wants me. She said it. I felt it. I love her. I want her. Yes, I want her. And I can have her. She wants me. She loves me… me. His hurt fist was almost healed already. He kept opening and closing it, to remind himself, thanks to the mild pain it caused, what he was, what he had done, what he was capable of doing. In vain.
She wants ME. He did not dare imagine anything beyond this shining truth. But it was like a mantra pulsating in his veins. She wants me. And his frenzied pacing was getting more frenzied by the minute, without bringing any solace. At last, her impatience turned into exultation, and he could feel she was getting closer and closer. He stopped then, his hands gripping the balcony rail, eyes almost closed, slightly panting, absorbing the bubbling joy of her heart and soul, closer, and closer, and closer…
A sudden flash of terror, and then… blank.
Vincent fell to his knees, unable to breathe, agonizing.
“Wh… what…? Who…?” Peter emerged from his slumber in the dark, frightened by the sudden rude shaking.
“Vincent…!?” he tried to focus on the bulky shadow close to his bed. Which now turned, and, facing away, uttered some hurried, hoarse words, through a throat paralyzed by terror, fighting tears.
“There... has been... a car crash. Cath... erine was in a cab, whose... driver... died. She... has been br... brought to the Roosevelt hospital. I... I... can’t sense her. Please... go.”
“Oh, my God.” Peter stood, fighting the stiffness of sleep, and hurriedly headed for the bathroom, throwing questions over his shoulder, “When did this happen?”
“Half an hour ago.”
“Columbus Avenue... close to Lincoln Center.”
“Roosevelt Hospital, you said? Do you know how is she?”
“How do you know that the driver is dead?”
“When I arrived... there, they were... extracting the body from the cab, as the crash had... destroyed the front part of the car. And... and two ambulances were leaving.” And, without waiting for the next question, “the other ambulance was for... the truck driver, who collided with the cab.”
“You did not see her?”
“No, only... the... ambulances leaving. And I came here.”
“What do you mean, that you can’t sense her, Vincent?” Peter asked, stopping a moment from his dressing, to put a hand on his arm. His body was violently shaking, fighting the urge to let the desperation out in the wildest manner. “Are you sure you’re okay, Vincent?”
“Please... Peter... go!”
Pace, growl, growl, pace, stop, turn, pace, growl. A caged animal… I am a caged animal… no! I am a man in love, whose love is… NO! Pace, growl, pace, stop, turn…
If you die, so do I. If you die, so do I! Hold on, my love, come back to me, come back to me, I love you, I love you, I need to tell you… Fool, fool, why didn’t I… don’t die my love, don’t die. I must tell you that I love you… Come back to my love. I love you, I love…
Abruptly, he stopped.
“Alive -- no -- bad -- injuries / Alive -- no -- bad -- injuries / Alive -- no -- bad -- injuries…”
Vincent collapsed and wept, a sobbing bundle of darkness propped against the wall of the dark storeroom, while listening to the slow, faint, hesitant tapping of the pipes coming from the adjacent bathrooms in the basement of the hospital, and then lifted his head and roared, long and raw.
“Why can I not sense her?”
A very tired Peter, sprawled in an armchair in Father’s library, had just finished sharing the news about Catherine with Vincent, Father and the others who were still up at that very late hour of the night–almost morning–waiting for him to get back from the hospital and report. The crash had killed the driver, but the back part of the cab was practically intact, and Catherine had only had a violent bump on the head. A concussion, of course, which was being monitored, and a couple of stitches on her temple.
“Why can’t I sense her?”
Peter stood, setting aside the glass of Port he had gratefully and quickly emptied as soon as Father had poured it for him on his arrival. This was going to be difficult. “You can’t sense her at all?”
“I can sense that she’s alive. But I feel no emotions in her. Only… a… fog. Is she sedated?”
“She’s not sedated.”
“Maybe she’s sleeping?” Father said, looking at the tense exchange of looks between Peter and Vincent.
“Peter, what is it? You talked to her?”
“Yes, I talked to her.”
“Does she have brain damage?”
Peter drew a long breath.
“She’s lost her memory. Completely. She didn’t recognize me. She doesn’t even remember her name.”
“What? Are you sure? Surely it can’t be permanent. What do the physicians say?” Father and the others, in turmoil, started to fire question after question, to which Peter tried his best to reply, still looking at Vincent, who had turned and had bowed his head.
Drops of blood slowly started to trickle and fall from his clenched fists, where his claws pierced his palms.
Vincent recapped his fountain pen, closed his journal. “Come, Peter.” And he leaned back in the armchair, wary.
Peter entered the chamber, his tall figure bending to pass, and looked at him. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“You’re not, Peter.” But his eyes were saying, not again, please.
“May I sit down a minute?”
Vincent nodded, and diverted his eyes. Peter looked at him. He was… somber, and taut. His silence made it clear that he had no desire to talk, that there was nothing he wanted to hear.
“There’s something I need to tell you, Vincent. Ask you. Something new.”
He drew a chair close, sat down, and matter-of-factly began, “Yesterday Nancy Tucker came to me. She needed some advice, but she also badly needed to talk. As you know, she was distraught over the incident and she’s been very close to Catherine ever since. Closer than we probably knew. She feels terribly guilty. She and Jenny did a lot for her, but as we know, Jenny was in England when the accident happened, and Nancy told me that she got involved with somebody there. So, it was difficult for her to be here for Catherine very often. It’s Nancy who’s been Catherine’s constant support. She said that it sounds serious for Jenny, finally, and that she so misses her old Catherine to chat with about it…” Peter attempted a small smile, but Vincent was listening with his head slightly bowed, almost distant.
“She confirmed what we know: that Catherine is unhappy.”
“I’m NOT going to sing this song again, Vincent! I’ve already done it too many times. I think you are tragically wrong, everybody thinks so, that’s a fact. Now, just listen to me, Nancy said something you need to know.”
Vincent, again, bent his head.
“She asked me if she should tell her about you.”
“Catherine had talked with her once when she was staying at her house in Newport, in a time of great turmoil. She told her that she was in love with this wonderful man, who’s worth everything and who made her incredibly happy, so happy she had to go to him in the middle of the night because she couldn’t wait one minute more…”
Vincent shook his head, stood up and started to pace, as if the words were unbearable for him.
“Did you know this?”
“And she said it’s heartbreaking for her to see Catherine so stubbornly trying to find herself, to make sense of what fragments of her life she can put together. As I’ve told you many times, she keeps asking Nancy, as she does me: was my life so… lame? Before the attack a shallow socialite, and after… my job and so little else? What was wrong with me? Nancy can’t help her with this, because she and Catherine weren’t close enough, had too little opportunity to talk and spend time together, and she didn’t know much of Catherine’s life. But… she knew, for sure, that Catherine was happy. She’s been thinking a lot about this, and finally she came to me, to ask if she should remind her about what she once confided, and perhaps give her new purpose. She knows that I’m the only other person Catherine trusts completely now. She also asked me if I knew about this love, and if he was still around, as he hasn’t turned up, although she’s almost sure that the night of the accident, he was the one Catherine dashed away to meet.”
Vincent stopped his furious pacing and looked at Peter.
“So, are you ‘still around’, Vincent?”
He snarled, and retorted, fire in his eyes: “What do you want me to do? What? Go to her and say: here, look at me, I am your love you’ve been longing for! Now, let’s live happily ever after??”
Peter had to divert his eyes. “I’m sorry, I was harsh.” He looked at him again. “What am I supposed to tell Nancy?”
“What did you tell her?”
“That I had to think about it… see if it might be helpful for her emotional condition and so on… ask the therapists if it might be a good step… buying time.”
“Tell her no, it is NOT good for Catherine.”
A growl. “I don’t want to talk about this again! What happened between Catherine and me is a miracle, the circumstances were terrible and wondrous, and will never occur again. And that is a good thing.”
“No! Nancy’s right! Catherine was happy!”
“At what cost?” Vincent hissed. “At what cost, Peter? My love, the whole tunnel world, the secrecy were a burden, a heavy–heavy!–burden to her. She’s free now. Soon she will find her way to happiness.”
“You cannot speak for her!”
“I can! I know what she longed for and could not have. I know what I asked of her. Too much. I took advantage of her. She was my soul Above, she walked the world for me, to bring me where I couldn’t go and do the things I couldn’t do. She didn’t choose to be one of us, she was swallowed by us. By me. Her honor, her courage and integrity brought her to be suspended between two worlds without truly belonging to either, and the cost was too high. Fate has offered her another opportunity to start from square one.”
“You are discrediting yourself, and the whole world Below! Don’t you think that both have great value, which anyone would be glad to…”
Vincent leaned heavily on the table, bracing himself with both hands in front of him: “Do you know how many times she risked her life for me? For us? Protecting us, helping us?”
“She was happy to do it… Don’t we all, the Helpers…”
“How many times did YOU get shot or beaten up for us?”
Again, Peter had to divert his eyes.
“Yes, the night of the accident, she was coming to me! And do you know why? Because I couldn’t accompany her to the opera and be there with her, in sight of everybody!” he growled, and lifted his fist as if to strike the ghostly, hidden meaning that was apparent anyway: it was my fault!
“Do you know why Catherine is so alone now? Because she gave up all her relationships Above because she couldn’t share me with them, our world with them,” he said, gesturing around him. He continued, the bitterness in his voice almost palpable, “Do you know that the ‘great turmoil’ that Nancy mentioned, for which she ran to her, away from me, was because she couldn’t choose between… me and a normal, happy life? That she had to see a therapist for this?”
Peter looked at him, surprised. “But she chose you, eventually.”
Vincent slammed his palm on the table violently: “I had to leave her on her own even at the hospital! Send YOU instead! What man am I for her?!”
Peter sighed, again. “Can you sense her?”
Vincent sat down heavily, and buried his face in his hands. “Yes, I sense her.”
“What do you feel?”
He did not reply.
The moon was enormous, and it was dangerous for him. The full moon was friendly in the Park, when the long shadows it cast could merge with his own blackness, with the blackness of the trees and bushes. But on the New York City rooftops, sharp and defined, the cold, bright light of the moon revealed too much. Rooftops were for moonless nights.
He was there, nonetheless, tonight.
No stars, only this big, resplendent goddess up there, and the lights. Her world, her shining world, a world he was supposed to hide from, to bury himself underground, in the darkness.
“What do you feel, Vincent?” What do I feel? I feel a heart that I know like my own, beating in sync with mine, and forlorn, lost, longing. Enough, my love. Stop longing. Go, go! This shining world is open to you now. You’re strong, you’re beautiful, you have every opportunity open before you. Offer your radiant soul to the people who will come to love you, don’t look back. Find someone, be happy.
Splendid, noble words. You are so noble, Vincent, aren’t you? So, why does your stomach so un-nobly ache at the thought that she’s down there, making small talk with Elliot Burch outside his limousine, perhaps allowing him to see her up, this time? Where will you hide, how will you kill your senses, if…
No. She’s bantering, she’s having fun, but her heart is wary, her feelings are sure. She doesn’t understand why, but she likes the man, doesn’t love him. There’s no desire in her. Hold on, Catherine…!
A heavy fist hit the concrete of the cornice. You are not allowed to tell her what to do. She is free! She is free! She is NOT yours…
Vincent stood up with a powerful jump, and again, violently, hit a wall with both fists. “Fool… fool!”
Who do you want to cheat? Why are you HERE in the first place? Why don’t you have the courage to admit it? You’re not strong enough. I love her. I love you… I want you back… Catherine… my love… I never told you…
Suddenly, he turned to the edge of the roof. Burch’s limousine was leaving. And Burch was sitting in it. Alone.
He leaned against the wall, and let himself slip to the floor, sitting, exhausted, defeated. And exultant.
He shook his head. Too much. It had been possible for him to resist for over three months, deluding himself, restraining himself with iron will, chanting noble, false declarations to himself and the rest of the world, proclaiming that it had been a beautiful, impossible dream, that fate had set things straight again for Catherine, setting her free, and he was glad for her.
But Elliot Burch was too much.
He closed his eyes and listened. Her feelings were not those of a woman who’d had a pleasant evening with a handsome, brilliant man, enjoyed it, and was playing with the idea of what might come next. Instead she was puzzled, while her soul was back to the usual tapestry he had come to know so well, of melancholy, impatience, self-pity, dissatisfaction, stubbornness, need… longing.
Go, Catherine, go. Fly, you can.
She stepped onto the balcony, barefoot, clasping the sash of her white robe in the warmth of the spring night. She took in the beauty of the almost full moon, of the lights, which never ceased to amaze her, and crouched beside her potted rose plant. She inspected, as she did every night, the progress of the blossoming buds. One red rose was in full bloom, one white bud was beginning to open, and delighted, she could see that the petals of another bud had started to peek from its green coat, and it was… red. She felt inexplicably and inordinately happy. She sat on the floor, still almost warm from the sun of the afternoon, and hugged her knees, her eyes at the level of the flowers. Delicately, she caressed them, all three of them. “You’re beautiful.”
The little joys in life, she thought, with irony. She remembered the thrill at seeing the white rose blooming after the red one, in that unusual rosebush. My life may still hold some surprises, she thought with even more irony.
Like this Elliot Burch.
Red roses only, long stemmed and perfect, two dozen, to thank her for the night before. Out of the blue, this prince charming comes from… what exotic island was it…? and he’s sure he can give me whatever I want and make me happy. Except that I don’t know what I want. And as to being happy…
With a long, deep sigh, she bent her head to her knees, and stayed still. Day 106 of her new life. The therapist assured her that she was doing wonders, that everything was going very well and she was bound to live happily ever after. Everybody seemed to know what happiness was for her. Again, she sighed. Tonight was a good night. She didn’t feel like crying. Only like sighing.
You must face the idea that your memory won’t return, girl, stop hoping. And that you have to make do with what you have now. What do I have now? A boring life, a lot of fear, too many options, too few friends I trust, a lot of confu…
“Who’s there?” she quickly turned around, tense, looking at the far side of her balcony, cloaked in darkness. She’d heard… nothing, but she had felt something.
“Who’s there?” she asked again, ready to get up and run into the apartment.
She heard a slow intake of breath, and her panic began to mount…
“Don’t be afraid, please don’t be afraid… I mean no harm.”
She forgot to breathe, transfixed. Something swept through her, a sweetness that made her suddenly vibrate and immediately subsided, leaving her almost aching.
“Who… who are you?”
“A friend. Please don’t be afraid.”
A beat. With a short, nervous laugh Catherine relaxed slightly. “I must be really crazy, because… because I’m actually not afraid. Approach… friend,” she said, feeling strangely, nonsensically happy, and silly, sitting on the floor of her balcony, cross legged, greeting someone who might be a thief, or…
“Let me stay here.”
She looked at the bulky shadow she now could discern in the far corner of her balcony. Something very, very strange was coursing through her veins, something precious, and exhilarating. And something flickered in her brain, absurd, and perfect…
“ ‘Ay, it is sweet! Half hidden, half revealed– You see the dark folds of my… my…’ ”
“ ‘… shrouding cloak…’ ”
“ ‘…and I, the glimmering whiteness of your dress. I but a shadow– you… you…’ ”
“ ‘You, a radiance fair.’ ”
“What’s happening, my God? How do I know these lines? What is it??”
“Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand.”
“And I know Cyrano de Bergerac?”
“Evidently, you do.”
Catherine burst into laughter. Really, heartily laughed, for the first time she could remember.
And Vincent wondered how, how he could have stayed away from her. He was feasting on her face, on her voice, on her laughter, on the… ‘glimmering whiteness of her dress… He who has seen her smile has known perfection’. Fool. I love you, Catherine.
“Okay, you know, my mysterious visitor,” Catherine said, wiping away her merry tears, “here I was, full of self-pity, whining about my boring life… and suddenly there you are, a shrouded shadow with a voice to kill for, who helps me quote Rostand.”
Silence. But she perceived that he was smiling.
“So, what shall I call you? Cyrano?”
“If you want.”
“Will you call me Roxane?”
“No… no. Catherine.”
Another delightful shiver warmed her. “Tell me your name, Cyrano.”
A long pause. “Vincent.”
“Vincent.” She savored the name. “So, Vincent, you’re my friend?”
“Do you need a friend, Catherine?”
She hugged her knees again. Her brain was at war with the strange, powerful pull to pour her heart out into those welcoming, attentive shadows. At war with the magic, absurd spell cast on her balcony that night. And of course, her brain surrendered. ‘But tonight methinks I shall find speech for the first time’.
“I do. Oh, I do!”
“Vincent. Here you are. I didn’t see you last night,” Father said, watching him descend the steps to his library. “Have a cup of tea with me?” he said, pouring a cup for himself.
“No, thank you. You were asleep when I got back from Above,” Vincent replied, sitting at the table opposite him.
“A long walk in the park, to smell the spring?” Father smiled.
Vincent looked at him, with that unreadable face. And then, he leaned on the table, on his forearms, his hands intertwined.
“I went to Catherine’s balcony.”
“You… what?” he slowly put down the cup he was bringing to his lips.
Vincent took a deep breath, and looked down at his hands. “Father, I was wrong. I was deceiving myself, and in the end, I surrendered. I went there, talked to her.”
“Well… well… straight, and to the point.” Father commented, flabbergasted. “Did she… recognize you?” he was almost afraid to ask. The tea was forgotten.
“No… no. I didn’t even show her my face. We just talked, from the shadows.” A little smile escaped him. “ ‘Our selves unseen, unseeing’ .”
Father missed the quotation, and asked, surprised: “She agreed to talk to… a shadow? No fear?”
“No fear. I think… she sensed she could trust me. I’ve never fully understood the true nature of our bond.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Nothing. I listened. But Peter was right, Nancy was right, everyone was right, and I was… a fool. She’s alone, lost, and she’s missing too big a part of her previous life. She’s incomplete.”
“Well, a full surrender indeed, it seems, my stubborn son. You are not perchance thinking of… what… disclosing yourself to her?”
“No… no. The big part of her life she’s missing isn’t only… me. It’s… us. She’s… unhappy. She needs a meaningful life, and she only has a shell of a life now. Her soul was… was here. She doesn’t know it, but she misses it. We talked of purpose, which she can’t find in what she thinks was her life.”
He stood, restless, letting his heart flow.
“Father, it was so like the time she was here, healing, at the beginning. But she’s different now. Something keeps her from leaving the past behind and starting anew. Perhaps the hope that she’ll recover her memory, perhaps some inner, unconscious certainty that her life wasn’t the void it seems.”
“Vincent, I think Peter told you these things many times.”
A deep sigh. “I know.”
“And your reply was always, ‘she’s an extraordinary woman, soon she’ll stop brooding on the past, she’ll find new meaning in her life and the happiness she deserves.’”
“What happened to change your mind?”
Jealousy. Raw, dirty jealousy. The idea of losing her to him. “Vincent, I know these feelings… they are… ugly, but they come from love…” Yes, I do love you, Catherine.
“Father, remember when she first came into my life? Into our lives? She went back Above, and changed everything, became another person, on her own. This time, she doesn’t want to. She’s… waiting.”
“And again this time you’ve been unable to stay away from her.”
“Are you reproaching me?”
“No. I gave up on that long ago. When it comes to you two, I watch, and pray.”
Vincent started to pace, unable to stay still, “Father, I don’t know what happens now. If she’ll persist in this… need, or finally move on with her life. But… if… eventually…” he stopped for a moment, looking for words. “If you agree, if the others agree, I think… we must at least be… prepared to return her to our world, our friendship, her… family, fill in the blanks she doesn’t know she has in her life.”
“Of course, of course, Vincent. I can ask the Council, but I’m sure the Council’s reply will just be, ‘it’s about time, you stubborn young man!’”
Vincent quirked a little smile.
“And… what about you? Are you hoping to…”
He shook his head.
“These memory things are mysterious, Vincent. Perhaps, when she sees you…” but words faded away, weak and useless. “Your… bond is… still there, you said, also for her?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m afraid to hope. Father, what shall I do?”
Father chuckled. “Well, this future tense seems a bit odd now. It looks like you’ve already done. But, if you want to honor me with this belated request for advice…. What is it, that you always say…? Oh, yes,” he smiled. “Follow your heart.”
The moon was there again. Just a touch less enormous. And he was there again too, perched on the roof. Almost intoxicated by the sensation, filling his soul, of her disappointment. He savored it, feeling guilty. And smug. She’d come out onto the balcony, a few stories below, and had eagerly expected, hoped, wished him to be there again. He was not.
Vincent looked at the moon. What shall I do? But the moon didn’t care to reply.
“Follow your heart.” Am I allowed to follow my heart, like other… normal people?
He closed his eyes, her feelings like a drug in his soul.
If… if she still thinks about me… when you’re not up there anymore, he promised the moon, I will go to her again. Satisfied, and terrified, he started to count the minutes, willing the moon to disappear from the sky.
“Hello, New York, I’m coming!”
“Hey! It’s Edie! What’s wrong, girlfriend?”
Catherine sighed. Another explanation to give. She let the usual sentence flow from her mouth. How many times had she said it already? “Hello, Edie. I’m sure you must be someone I know, but perhaps you’re not aware of what’s happened to me. I’ve lost my memory, and I don’t recognize anyone from my past now.” And the familiar feeling of forlornness washed through her.
“A car crash. No other injuries, bumped my head. Memory gone.”
“Oh. My. God. You don’t know who I am?”
“No, sorry, Edie.”
“How do you feel, honey?”
Catherine smiled. This was the first time someone had asked this after the usual omigod. Nice.
“Not so good, actually.”
“I bet! When did this happen?”
“Almost four months ago.”
“You don’t remember… anything?”
“Nothing nothing.” She smiled again.
“Cathy, I’m a former co-worker from the DA’s office. I moved to Chicago to be closer to my mother, but we were friends, and we’ve continued to spend time together every time I come to New York. My aunt lives there. And it looks like this time you need to see me more than ever.”
“Edie… I don’t know…”
“I’ll have Joe… Joe Maxwell, do you know him…? You trust him?”
“I’ll ask him to introduce me to you, so you’re sure I’m not some weird character trying to take advantage of you.”
“Well… thank you, Edie.”
“Cathy, I am so sorry!”
“It’s okay, Edie.”
“I have juicy gossip about anything you want to know. And, of course, anything you heard about me was dirty lies!”
“Of course!” She was wary of these phone calls, as some had really turned out to be people trying to take advantage of her, but this woman made her grin widely.
“I was planning to come next weekend. Are you free?”
“I’m calling Joe this minute. Later. Bye.”
Catherine put the handset in its cradle. And smiled again. Smart, and nice. Hopefully, not a fraud. She imagined her calling Joe Maxwell now and overwhelming him with questions. She liked Joe too. Too bad things had become so awkward with him.
After the first interviews, it became apparent that it was impossible for her to go back to her former work. Although she remembered her training perfectly and knew how to be a lawyer, she didn’t remember a thing about her cases. Not a minor problem. What to do about her employment was one of the many issues she was trying to address, and in the meantime, the role of boss dismissed, Joe had done his best to be close to her. Too close. Catherine again sighed. There were so many things she wanted to know about her job, which seemed to be the main part of her life. She wanted to ask questions, investigate. But this attitude from Joe, her best and principal source, made everything complicated. She liked him, she really did, but…
In fact, feeling a bit guilty, she debated whether to answer the telephone, which had promptly started to ring, or let the machine pick up, and hope that Joe would leave a message about Edie. She had expected Edie’s interrogation would last much longer though. She sighed again. Darn it. No, that wasn’t fair, and Joe would call again anyway later on. She picked up the phone.
“I’ve been thinking of you…”
See? There can be surprises, after all. The last half hour spent on the phone, with Elliot, with Joe, with Edie had been… well, stimulating. Edie was indeed a pleasant surprise. Catherine really looked forward to meeting her. She seemed so direct and affectionate, and the ten minutes on the phone with her–‘Hey, who’s going to pay for this, girlfriend? Keep your questions, next week I’ll talk to you in person, for free!’–had been interesting and refreshing. Good.
And Elliot. And yes, Joe. Not surprises, but… possibilities.
Looks like I wasn’t without men in my life. Do I want a man? A love? Is it that what I need now? she wondered again, such a recurring thought of late. Why not? She didn’t remember how it felt to be in love, but… having a man, somebody to lean upon… It would make things easier, wouldn’t it? She felt so alone and forlorn. Her therapist was positive it would help, emotionally, but also as something new in her new life, to start building again, instead of scavenging in the past. It made sense, but… argh, no! enough sighing, okay?
Start anew, Cathy. Forget the past. There is nothing you need, or like, or want in it… Really? She reflexively looked at the balcony, beyond the French doors open on this warm night.
Two more roses, one red and one white, had blossomed since…
She hesitantly exited, and bracing herself for yet another disappointment, she nonchalantly let her sight wander to…
There! Yes! YES!
“It’s been almost two weeks! I’d started to think you were a dream!” and she was surprised by her own whining tone.
“Catherine…” the big hood bowed a little.
Not Cathy. Catherine. She liked it, immensely. And that voice! The big shape in the shadow pulled at her powerfully, but she resisted, kept her distance, a little embarrassed about her possessive, childish outburst.
“Shall we still play Cyrano, Vincent? Will you stay ‘in the tender, sheltering dusk’? Or will you come close, come in, have a beer, or a cup of coffee…”
She looked curiously at the dark figure, more indistinct in the moonless night than last time. “And perhaps, tell me how the heck you get here, onto my balcony?”
“… or maybe, like in the fairly tales, if I see you, if I ask you questions, you’ll disappear forever?”
“I can’t run the risk, so.” She sat on the bench close to the rail, with a smile. “You can… have a seat on the floor, my guest, make yourself comfortable.”
She could perceive – wondering how – that he was smiling. And in fact, the bulky shadow crouched and sat on the balcony floor.
“So, what kept you away? I missed you!”
“Have you been well?”
God, that voice!
“Yes. No. I have so many things to tell you, to ask you. Last time, you hardly said a dozen words, but… I don’t know… talking to you, telling you about my life, my doubts, my fears… things immediately seemed… less confused, I felt surer. How is it possible?”
“Probably you just need to trust yourself. Talking helps.”
“It’s never happened with anyone else! Not even with my therapist! Let alone with a shadow I hardly see! Every time something’s occurred to me these past two weeks, my thought was, I must tell Vincent this, you know? But you never came back…”
“What do you want to tell me, tonight, Catherine?”
“Everything! I’ve tried… to be strong. I’ve tried to look at people without fear. I’ve contemplated more and more the idea that I have to build my life… from scratch, not waiting for somebody to fill in the gaps for me. But I’m scared, Vincent.”
“But especially… something…. Tonight… I was… just before you came…” Words did not come easily, but she very much wanted to talk to him about this. She took a deep breath. “Are you in love, Vincent?”
A long, long silence.
She felt a little pang. Why, silly girl?
“What’s it like, to love?”
“Why are you asking this, Catherine?”
“Because… I’ve been thinking… I wonder… if the emptiness that I feel… may be that I don’t have anyone to love. Love… fills your soul, doesn’t it?”
“Love fills your soul.”
“Tonight I talked with two men. They say they love me.”
“I… I don’t know. What is it… to love? I didn’t have a man… before, did I? Nobody came and… claimed me.”
Another long silence. “What if… this happens?”
“After four months? A very… lukewarm lover,” she said bitterly.
A lukewarm lover. She’s right. Tragically right. It hurts, deeply, but
it’s true. Lukewarm. That’s what she thinks. And who wouldn’t? How can
somebody love her and stay away from her? Fool.
Without waiting for the ink to dry, Vincent angrily slapped the journal closed.
The lift doors opened with a soft “pling,” and Peter stood up as Catherine and a tall, fair boy stepped out into the lobby.
“Anything, Miss Chandler. Whatever you need, okay?”
“Thank you, Brian, don’t worry, I’ll keep it in mind.” And the boy, with a quick nod to the doorman, and a suspicious look at Peter, was off into the beautiful afternoon.
Greeting Peter, she chuckled a little. “I hope you passed his inspection.”
“Inspection?” he said, opening the door for her, while she waved goodbye to the doorman.
“He lives here with his father, and he seems to have decided that I’m a damsel in distress and he’s my protector.”
“Oh, I feel much reassured now, you’re surely in good hands. He’s the boy who got lost in the basement tunnels, some time ago, right?”
“Lost in the basement?” Catherine looked at Peter, puzzled. And then, in sync with him, “Never mind.” And they both grinned.
On the sidewalk, she took the arm that Peter offered. “So, shall we go looking for a welcoming bench? It seems they reserved a gorgeous afternoon for our walk.”
“Whoever they are, thank you. And thank you for spending your Sunday afternoon with this old friend.”
“My dear Peter, thank you for being an old friend. Heck, for being a friend at all. I think you know how much I owe you.”
“Oh, nonsense. How do you feel?” he asked, while leisurely heading to the closest entrance to the Park, across the street.
“Better,” and she smiled.
“Really?” Peter asked, turning to look down at her face.
“Yes. Several things happened this week. Good things.”
“When I left her at her aunt’s and said goodbye, my cheeks positively hurt from laughing. A wonderful, sunny, funny person, and I think, I hope, a true friend.”
They were sitting in the sun, on one of the benches along the paths crossing Central Park. Like she had done the other times they had spent the afternoon together in the park, before picking one bench Catherine had read the dedication label on it: “Of things that are not, and that should be. September 25, 1987.” And she had smiled. “Oscar Wilde. I like it, let’s sit here.”
Presently, she stretched her legs, and leaned back with a satisfied grin, “And now I know a lot more about my job and my attack, and even about this charming and elusive Elliot Burch, from a fresh perspective. Ha! He conveniently forgot to mention a thing or two…”
Peter smiled widely. He had hadn’t seen her this cheerful since the accident, and he was almost moved to see the bright old Cathy shining through the somewhat lost disposition that was now so often usual for his dear friend.
“See? Things will get better and better. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am, Cathy. It’s so good to see you getting back to your beautiful self. And you are getting back to it: you’ll see, it’s only a matter of time.”
“You’ll have to tell me what you found beautiful in me, Peter. The Cathy I’ve got to know from my researches is not somebody I’d be thrilled to have among my friends. She seems to me a very boring person…” But this time, instead of the usual whining tone, she said it with a smile. And Peter sighed inside, biting his inner tongue.
Becoming more serious, and moving the gravel at her feet with the tip of her shoe, she continued: “A lonely, work-addicted person. I’ve often wondered if my attack made me obsessed with justice. I can’t find any desire for revenge in me now, but perhaps…” she looked at him. “Perhaps there are things it’s good I’ve forgotten.”
“This might indeed be a wise attitude, Cathy.”
“As far as I’ve found out, I’ve never recovered my memory about those ten days when I was missing after my attack, right?” she said pensively.
“Do you think it’s a pattern for me? Forget what’s painful when some physical shock offers the opportunity to. The therapist said it might be…”
“I don’t know, honey. If it is true, maybe it’s for the best. But, before that car crash, I don’t know of anything so terrible in your life that you’d need to forget it,” Peter replied, trying hard to imagine a way to change the subject.
“Who knows? Maybe the death of my father, who left me completely alone? Maybe the insane obsession with my work, although Edie assures me I wasn’t a maniac… just stubborn as a mule. A Fifth Avenue mule, she said,” and they both chuckled.
“Cathy, stop torturing yourself. You’re a brave, beautiful, intelligent young woman. Your life is ahead of you, not behind. If your past is meant to come back, it will.”
“Something else happened this week.”
“Hello Peter. Come, have a cup of tea with me.”
“Jacob, the day I have tea with you, I’ll also play chess with you, and it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Why do I bring you two excellent bottles of Port every Christmas?”
“To drink it all yourself, until next Christmas, of course. Not sure what game goes with Port, though,” Father said, taking the bottle and the glass, and pouring the liquor for his friend. And a dose for himself, setting his tea aside.
“Mmm… I’m thinking of a cigar rather than a game. Too bad I quit smoking twenty years ago. This might be the right moment to celebrate.”
“Celebrate?” Father asked.
“Last night I received your invite to come Below. And tonight I have the impression that I know what you want to tell me…”
“Why?” The voice came from the passageway, and the two gentlemen turned to look at Vincent, who had just entered the library.
Peter smiled, and lifted his glass to him.
Vincent descended the short stair, “Tell me,” he said eagerly.
“My young friend, don’t you think it’s you who should tell me something?” he asked with a teasing tone.
“Peter, what happened?”
A closer glance at Vincent and Peter understood he wasn’t in the right mood. “This afternoon I spent a couple hours with Cathy, had a walk in the Park. As you know, every now and then…”
“Peter, she’s in great turmoil now. What happened?”
“Oh. All right.”
“You came. You kept your promise.”
Her voice was far from cheerful though, her look was wary, and Vincent could acutely feel her agitation. She was scared. And so was he.
Forcing herself to go ahead and face this new disquieting turn in this bizarre story, she continued quickly, “And I… I broke a promise I did not make. But I felt like I did.” She took a deep breath. “I… talked to somebody about you. Peter Alcott.”
She crossed her arms, almost hugging herself, uneasiness growing.
“What is all this about, Vincent? Who are you?”
“What did Peter tell you?”
“Nothing. No matter how much I insisted. Just to trust you.”
Catherine looked at the rosebush, at the innocent mystery of the red and white roses blooming together.
“I do. I don’t know why, but I do. Who are you, Vincent? Why does Peter know you?” Strange how it had scared her. She had expected a worried warning about a dangerous intruder, and he, the only person she trusted, had mystified her with a knowing smile and an enigmatic, stubborn, alarming silence.
From the far away, dark corner of the balcony, the big shadow moved and came forward a bit to lean against the rail, looking at the lights of the city. She could see the dark, elaborate cloak, the broad hood, the gloves. Her heart raced, and she felt a little dizzy. What… what was that?
“I… we have debated whether to… to burden you with this, Catherine, but finally we think that it’s your right to get back a part of your life that… that you’re missing.”
“Tell me, Vincent” she said. And she sat on the iron bench, bracing herself.
“It has to do with your attack. When the thugs that disfigured you left you to die in Central Park, I found you, that night. I brought you to my father, who’s a physician. You were bleeding profusely, you had broken ribs. He treated you, and after ten days, when you were well enough, you returned to your apartment, and to your life.”
“Those inexplicable stitches somebody had put on my face…”
“But… you’re… not talking about a normal physician, or a normal hospital, are you?”
He turned to face her, the deep blackness beneath his hood revealing nothing to her inquiring eyes.
“No. I’m talking about a society of outcasts, who live in the tunnels below New York City. No one knows of our existence, and no one must find out. We have created our own community, our own world, which exists thanks to its secrecy.”
Catherine closed her eyes, forcing herself to take in the enormity of all that. And to believe it.
“You live… in the tunnels. And you saved me.”
“There was no time to take you to a hospital. You didn’t lose your memory then. You just pretended to, to protect our secret.”
She let all this sink in.
“What about Peter?”
“We have friends, in the world Above. He’s one of them. And you. After you returned to your life, you became one of them too.”
“I became… a friend of your hidden world?”
“And of its dwellers?”
“And of its dwellers.”
“I have friends.”
Vincent could feel the surge of happiness, of hope and purpose washing through her.
“Whom I can now…”
“So… my life wasn’t just my job and a couple of friends from college.”
“No. There’s a part of your previous life that you haven’t been aware of.”
Catherine again hugged herself. She looked at her rosebush, and a slow, wide, radiant smile spread over her face.
“You can’t understand what this means to me.” She looked at him. “Or maybe you do.”
“I think I do.”
“Why didn’t you want to tell me?”
He stirred, moved one step, went back to the rail. “This… secret is burdensome. Other helpers, our friends Above, chose their path. You… you did not. It was… fate. And fate released you from that burden.”
“Was it just a burden for me, Vincent?”
“I’ve never been happier than I am now, in what little of my life I can remember.”
“I… I’m happy for you.”
“So, finally, can we shake hands? Can I see your face?”
No? So? What are you going to do? Blindfold her? Never remove your hood in front of her? You coward. Do something. Say something. NOW! She’s waiting.
“I… you… it’s…” He leaned against the balcony rail, with a heavy sigh.
She stood up. “What is it, Vincent?”
“You might be frightened.”
“My looks are not… normal.”
An awkward silence. He could perceive her frantically seeking words that wouldn’t hurt his feelings.
“I’m sorry… if this distresses you. But… I have seen you… before?”
“The first time you saw me, you screamed.”
No! No! He didn’t want to say it! This hidden scratch in his soul, never healed, never mentioned in their past relationship… why… now? Your control is slipping! You’d better go… Fool! She…
“No! No. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… I mean… you need to be prepared… I… I live in the tunnels… in the darkness… because… because…”
“We were friends, Vincent?”
“I want to be your friend again.”
He bent his head. “Thank you.”
“May I come close?”
He started to positively shake.
Is this happening again? Shall I survive if she…? Be careful, my life, my angel. If you… ‘ if a hard word from you… ’ what’s that quote…?
She took one step. And another.
He lifted his head, and turned to face her, his heart madly racing. Her scent preceded her, and he felt dizzy.
‘ at such a… a… if a hard word from… ’
She stopped in front of him. She looked up, into the shadow of the hood. Golden hair. Lots of golden hair. The rest was darkness.
He took a long, deep breath. “Don’t be afraid. Please don’t be afraid.” Slowly, he raised his hands, and pushed the hood back. His eyes closed, almost reflexively.
‘ At such a height ’twere death, if a hard word from you fell on my heart ’…
A tidal wave of wonder washed through his soul. Not repulse, wonder. Not repulse. Not repulse!
“This… is this a fairy tale, Vincent?”
He opened his eyes. And met hers. Her upturned face, her awed, spellbound look… So close, so beautiful… And the fresh, mesmerized shiver, when his eyelids lifted, revealing the startling magic of the blue pools. A fairy tale. He couldn’t help a small smile. “It depends…”
“Oh… I mean… I’m sorry. Of course I… I understand… But… but this is… this is… Please, tell me it’s all true! That I’m not dreaming!”
“You want it to be a dream?”
‘Tell me it’s a nightmare….’ Another small smile, “Well, this is a much better reaction than the first time.” Did I really say that? But he felt giddy with relief. No recognition. But no repulse either. Even some… admiration? He felt like flying.
She smirked, and lowered her fascinated gaze, just for an instant “I must have been a really stupid chick. Again, sorry.”
“You were frightened, Catherine, I did not have time to prepare you. That’s why… this time… I was… so wary.” You liar!
“You must have been hurt many times, haven’t you?” she asked softly.
He bent his head. Yes, but not this time, my Catherine. The others are nothing. Thank you. Thank you.
“And… Vincent… What… what…”
“What am I?”
“Well… sort of,” she smiled.
New York was a shining jewel, spread at his feet, in the darkness of the late night hour. Racing the alleys or the Park was not enough tonight, his heart needed to fly. From the top of the Queensboro Bridge tower, he could see the lights, the eerie reflections in the water, and feel the strong wind playing with his hair and cloak. He was fighting the urge to roar his exhilaration. Not for fear of being heard–too high he was, up there–just because of his deeply rooted habit to clamp down anything less than human surging from inside him. But tonight… tonight…
‘ My God! it’s true, perchance, love waits me there! ’
He braced against the wind, and roared, powerfully.
“I knew nothing. I was in Europe at the time. I received broken news from mutual friends, colleagues. I didn’t understand, just couldn’t believe. And when I got back to NYC, he’d just disappeared. I knew that he’d gotten married, but that the wife was abroad, and she refused to talk to me or reply to my letters. I looked for him everywhere, and… well, I was risking something myself. I had just been married too… Susan was on the way… I had to give up.”
A little pause, Peter lowered his eyes. They were sitting in the old, comfortable kitchen of his beautiful brownstone. “You don’t mind if we sit here? You’ll understand why…” he’d said; but Catherine had given up trying to understand long ago–she just absorbed, like a sponge.
“You can imagine how I felt when a beggar in the subway who I’d just given some coins to, thanked me, and gave me that slip of paper. I need your help. Follow this man. Please. Jacob Wells. I think I still have that note, somewhere…”
Suddenly, a soft rhythmical tapping came from… ? Catherine stared at the sink with wide eyes.
Peter smiled. “Okay, off we go,” and stood up.
For a weird, fleeting moment, Catherine almost expected they were going to… dive into the sink? She’d given up understanding, and everything definitely looked more and more like a fairy tale… but… but…
“Come, dear. The entrance to the tunnels is in the basement. That tapping comes from the water pipes down below, to tell us they’ve arrived and they’re waiting for us.”
In the basement, she followed Peter in the dark, damp room where, had she remembered, she would have recognized his acclaimed reserve of wines and liquors. Three walls were covered with shelves full of bottles with varying layers of dust on them. He took her to one of the corners–“Careful, not exactly immaculate here”–easily moved the empty trunk sitting there–which looked full and very heavy–and slipped into the concealed narrow passage between the shelf and the wall. “Wait,” she heard from behind the shelf. She also heard the sound of an iron lock being opened, of a bolt being drawn, and of a heavy door screeching on its hinges. “Come, Cathy.”
She gingerly rounded the corner of the shelf, and saw Peter standing in front of an opening in the wall, whose massive door he was pushing open. An eerie light leaked from the crack. Not diving into a sink, but… She smiled, and joined Peter atop the short flight of steps leading down, her heart racing.
A fairy tale. All fair-haired, the dwellers of this magic kingdom, of course…, was her first irrational thought at the sight of the five people at the bottom of the stairs, five shadows in the mysterious blue light, indistinct but for the flash of their hair. The tallest, the brightest, the fairest, was Vincent.
“Come, Cathy. Your eyes will soon acclimate to this dim light,” said Peter, already a couple of steps down, as he reached up to take her hand. She reluctantly stopped her eager scrutiny and brought her attention to the steps, quickly descending and stopping in front of the bright haired group waiting for her, eagerly scanning them…
The boy’s grin was enormous, and even in the darkness she could see him blushing furiously. “Miss Chandler, welcome back to the tunnels,” he said in his quiet way.
She looked at Vincent, at Peter, at the others, all of them smiling widely. She was already beyond awe.
“Vincent thought that maybe you’d appreciate a familiar face to welcome you,” Brian said with shy pride.
“I… do. Oh, I do! But… you… you… ?”
“I followed you, one night, coming down here from your apartment, and discovered the most magical place on earth. Below the earth, that is. And became a helper, thanks to you. You were sorely missed here…”
“You sure were! Oh, Cathy, I’m so happy!” The beautiful, slender girl at Vincent’s side took a step forward to engulf her in a warm, tight hug.
She released her and said, holding her hands, “I’m Lena, Cathy. I also found my way here thanks to you. I have a little daughter, that Vincent–” she looked at him adoringly, “and this marvelous world helped to be born, and that I named Catherine, after you, because you… you helped me to be reborn!” and she hugged her once more.
The other fair girl joined the hug, laughing and saying “I’m Jamie, Catherine. Welcome back, welcome back, friend! This is a wonderful day! The tunnels weren’t the same without you!”
“Not the same, not the same! Sad, and dull!” the last fair boy said, not daring to join the hug, although he almost danced with excitement. “Welcome back. Kept asking Brian to watch out for you. Tell us if you’re ok…”
Vincent looked at him, and at Brian, “You did?”
“I did,” and blushing like his friend, “I’m Mouse. My name. Mouse. Welcome back. People waiting for you in the Hub, lots. We couldn’t wait. Came here. Only a few, Vincent said. Welcome.”
Catherine was… just beyond everything. Beyond speech, beyond happiness. She felt like now, finally, she was alive. Reborn, had said that nice, fair Lena. Yes, reborn. She could not find words, but nobody cared; they evidently understood what she was feeling. She looked at Vincent, lightly smiling, emanating a quiet satisfaction. At Peter, close to him, with a new look on his dear face, where the old friend’s sympathetic concern was replaced by a warm contentment, like somebody who had laid down a heavy burden. And she wept.
“Here, you see? We put the cardboard boxes against the opening,” Brian said, as he did so. “And the cardboard boxes should look full and heavy, and dusty and dirty enough to discourage anyone from touching them. Besides, the light here must be dim, always very dim, so the traces of the cardboard boxes being moved in the dust are less visible…”
The boy was immensely enjoying his role of mystery master, and Catherine was immensely enjoying his pleasure. They had just climbed the stairs from Below to their building’s basement, reluctantly leaving the little delegation that had accompanied them, and she was again in her world, heart, brain, spirit, fantasy so full she felt like bursting. She was grateful to Vincent for having thought to give her this personal escort. It would have been too much to trespass that elusive threshold alone, and to again face, on her own, that world which seemed foreign and cold now.
“This way to the elevator… one last look back to be sure… turn all the lights off… and always have a good excuse ready to explain what we’ve been doing in the basement… just in case,” he continued, punching the elevator button. She now knew the full story of how he’d found the world Below, and how he was thrilled that his Dungeons and Dragons fantasy world was just a pale image of the… real thing. So, every new foray into that world was, she suspected, like a new adventure for him, to prepare for with careful attention to precautions and perils.
She looked at him. “It’s just incredible, all this, isn’t it?”
“It’s fantastic!” he replied, holding open the elevator door for her.
“Indeed! And you have been so brave, and good, at keeping this secret!”
“Like Mouse told me once, it’s difficult at the beginning, then it gets easier.”
“Probably. Right now, I feel like shouting it from the rooftops. I feel so… so…”
Pling. The car stopped in the lobby, the doors opened and an elderly lady entered.
Much more, dear Brian. I feel complete. Complete, at last.
“Good evening, Miss Heading.”
“Oh, you almost scared me! Hello Brian. Good evening Miss Chandler. I thought the car was empty. You both are coming from the basement?”
“Yes, Miss Heading. Miss Chandler was kind enough to look for something among her old college books, for a project of mine…”
And Brian winked to Catherine over the old lady’s head.
“Thank you, Brian. Having you there today really made a huge difference, Vincent was right.”
For the umpteenth time he blushed, and after a last, “Good night, let me know if you need anything,” he left her in front of her apartment door.
Alone. And yet, not alone anymore. Once inside her apartment, she stepped onto the balcony, tenderly caressing her rosebush–you knew everything, didn’t you?–but everything was so strange. She felt like a stranger. She was already sorely missing… everything that lay so deep below, everything she had discovered that day with growing amazement, reverence and gratitude. And she was missing him.
“Not asleep already, are you?”
“Naaah!… More like waiting for you. All clear, out there?”
“Yessss! Daughter covered and peacefully sleeping, son uncovered and peacefully sleeping, husband tucked in, not yet peacefully sleeping but hopefully soon, and now… girl talk!”
Catherine grinned and scooted a little across the bed, to let Nancy sit in front of her, cross legged.
“Thank you for this beautiful evening,” she said.
“No problem. It was nice this time, wasn’t it?”
“Nancy, please, it’s not that last time…”
“Okay, okay, forget it. I meant well, I know you know it, period. But this time was better, and I’m happy.”
“Oh, yes! You can’t understand how… fascinating, and stimulating… it is to have people tell me about myself. And frightening, too!”
“It was like that for Paul’s birthday too, but it was a bit overwhelming… too many people, you know? I just couldn’t cope with… I don’t know… too many of them knew me from before, and they were all reflecting an unknown ‘me’, and I couldn’t cope, with all that…”
“I can imagine. I’m sorry…”
“Oh, c’mon, it’s not like you have that many friends who lost their memory, do you? I can’t thank you enough that you kept trying. Tonight was perfect, cozy and funny. Rebecca and Jeremy…
“… and Buddy…”
“and Buddy.” And both laughed.
“But he’s practically engaged to your daughter, isn’t he?”
“Oh, my!” Nancy sighed. “At four, she’s already flirting with all the good looking males she meets. What’ll we do when she’s twelve?”
“Ha! Book me a front row seat!”
“What is it? Tonight was lovely, but it’s not only that. You’re different from last time we talked, I noticed as soon as you arrived. You’re feeling better, aren’t you? I can’t tell you how happy I am…”
Catherine had a slow smile, and looked away.
Nancy widened her eyes, and pointed a finger: “I’ve seen that look before!”
“What?” she said, alarmed.
Nancy grabbed her hands: “Cathy, what happened?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, uncomfortable and desperately trying to look innocent.
Nancy released her hands, and clapped her own. “It happened, it happened!” and dropped backwards on the bed, laughing softly.
She quickly got up, and again took Catherine’s hands. “Cathy, twice before you mentioned to me that there was… something in your life that you weren’t at liberty to fully explain, but which made you very happy. You finally found it again, whatever it is, didn’t you?”
Catherine looked at her, astonished, speechless.
And Nancy froze. She brought one hand to her mouth. “Oh, good Lord, am I wrong? Don’t tell me I’m wrong… What did I do? I was joking, forget it, please for…”
A broad smile spread slowly over Catherine’s face. “No, you’re not wrong.”
A quick intake of breath, and then, with a soft cry, Nancy threw her arms around her neck. “You!… God, I’m so glad!” she said, hugging her tightly.
“So am I, Nancy, so am I, more than I can explain,” Catherine said fervently, returning the tight hug. And then she drew back, to look at her. “And not only figuratively, dear–I’m still not at liberty to explain.” The regret was palpable in her tone.
Nancy took her hands again, with a smile. “Are you happy, Cath? That’s all that counts.”
“I am, Nancy. Things seem to fit again, my life makes sense.”
“Oh, Cathy, that’s…”
“And I can’t believe that you… that I can share it with you, at least the little that I can share!” she interrupted excitedly, squeezing her hands. “It’s a blessing, an unexpected blessing.”
“It is indeed, Cathy. I can see how different you are, and it’s wonderful! So, things have changed? No more… sighing? Rats, I’m dying to ask, but I don’t want to force you, or put you in an uncomfortable position…”
“Things have changed, and a big part of my life has come back to me.”
“No, no… it’s… complicated… I can’t tell you more than what I’ve already said, but I do want to tell you everything, everything! I’ll ask if I can talk to you about it. Next time, I hope… I… you have been so close to me, so important… I want to share!”
“Cathy, looking at you so… ‘yourself’, at last, is enough for me,” Nancy replied, with a warm smile. “I’d kill to know what it is, though, Miss Mystery,” she snickered. “I knew that you were missing something… or somebody. I asked…”
“Nothing… nothing, for now. You’ll tell me, if you can.”
“I’ll try, I promise. I want to! Just let me ask first. Oh, Nancy, that’s wonderful! I couldn’t imagine that you were aware of anything to do with this… I think, I hope I can tell you everything soon.”
“I do too, Cath, but for now, I’m just happy for you. Look at you! You’re my old Cathy!”
I need to ask you something. Please, could you come to my balcony tomorrow night?
Could happiness be that simple?
Over the past two weeks, while she had eagerly become acquainted with the tunnel world, visiting them Below, spending time with them, and with him, he had been feeling her turmoil, her growing attachment, her need to be closer, and he had basked in those feelings.
Their time together had been with the others, not alone; apparently he had been just another tunnel dweller to her, albeit the most important one, the one she had met first, but now… He knew, he was sure that tomorrow, going to her balcony, being once again alone, just the two of them…
Everything was so… simple. Too simple.
Too simple? You coward... you fool!
He crumpled the note in his fist, a reflexive physical counterpoint to his mental snap, and stopped dead in his tracks, realizing what he had done. Carefully, he smoothed the note he’d almost forgotten he had in his hand. The park around him was dark and full of new growth, the sounds and smells and shadows of the spring night surrounding him, a welcoming and familiar scenario for his practiced role of shadow. He read the note again. Tomorrow. Whatever question it was that she wanted to ask, a real one, or a pretext, they would be there, together, alone, in love, and…
He was scared. Why? Why? Isn’t this what I want?
He looked around, and realized where his feet were leading him, his brain too full to master them. When he had received the little note that night, he only knew that he needed to walk, to consume the burst of nervous energy surging from that flaring realization. Tomorrow…
Tonight, he was here. He resumed his stride. Not yet, a few yards, and then, there. Up there. He raised his eyes, and looked, from the ‘tender, sheltering dusk’, at her lit balcony. Also now, he could feel her longing. Tomorrow. Too simple.
He closed his eyes. Fool, fool. You do not deserve happiness.
He sat down, in the usual spot almost worn out by his bulky shape. How many nights had he sat there, dreaming impossible dreams, after she’d returned to her life, after those magical ten days Below? And more recently, how many nights had he guiltily done the same, when the “noble detachment” crumpled and he needed her so badly?
But now… now, why did he come here? She was his, for the taking. Why this obscure need for a distant longing? Is it fear? Of what? Can’t I feel her heart, even now, calling out for me? She wanted him, he wanted her. A woman, a man. A man?
Catherine… where are you? ‘ Feel’st thou my soul, here, through the darkness mounting? ’
He snapped his eyes wide open, and looked up. There. There she was, waiting for him. Tomorrow…
“Thank you for coming.”
Politeness… what does politeness require? You should say something, anything… But words escaped him. Tapping on the panes of her French doors, seeing her sitting inside, smiling and quickly getting up, opening the doors, briskly stepping onto the balcony… too much. The balcony, the night, her scent… her feelings… His whole body screamed to open his arms, to welcome and hold her… Hold her!
He tightened his fists, feeling the sharpness of his claws against his palms, and backed against the rail, almost looking for support.
At the curt reply, the only one he could manage, she crossed her arms tight against herself. His heart sank. Her body too, if not the rest of her, knew what it needed, and was screaming just as his was.
She bowed her head with a little, embarrassed sigh. “I’m afraid I’ve been too hasty, Vincent, and I’m sorry.”
She looked up, and tentatively smiled. “Yes, I wrote that note on a whim, because I was terribly excited, but then I had time to re-think, and came to understand on my own, but… well, there’s no way to call you on the phone and change plans, you know…”
He cocked his head, a question in the gesture.
She came to the rail as well, putting her hands on it and looking at the breathtaking view of the New York lights.
“I visited my friend Nancy, in Westport, last weekend, and she… well, she said that… before, I had told her about something in my life which was beautiful and fulfilling.” She looked at him, his arms crossed in turn, and listening intently. “I was surprised and excited. I didn’t disclose any details then, and I didn’t this time, but… for a moment, I thought that maybe… I could share with her…”
Vincent’s heart shrank.
“… but of course, then, I realized it’s not possible,” she hurriedly added, and smiled.
“No problem, really. It’s a secret, and I made a promise. I just have to… get acquainted with this… well, new way of living… and thinking,” she said, matter-of-factly.
He looked at her, a fist in his chest. There. Again, the butterfly meant to fly in the sun, leashed to the sunless world, sacrificing her longing…
“Catherine, I’m sorry. We’re sorry. This secrecy is indeed… burdensome… perhaps…”
“Oh, don’t even think that! It’s I that should apologize for having uselessly asked you to come, and having told you all this. I was reckless. Really, I wish I could find the words to tell you how… contented I am, ever since you entered my life. Re-entered, that is.”
That “you” was apparently hinting at the tunnel people, but he felt that, in her heart, the meaning was different. Thrilled, and frightened, he felt in fact that same dearest heart begin to race, and… and…
“But… perhaps…” she again turned to look at the New York lights, “perhaps… tonight I can ask you another question… one that has been… tormenting me.”
Vincent braced himself. Can happiness be so…
She closed her eyes, gathering her nerve, forcing herself to go ahead. “When… you… you said…” A deep breath. She opened her eyes, and the city lights seemed to encourage her. “One of the first times you came to me, here on this balcony, I asked you if you were… in love… and you replied that you were.” She turned to him. He had bowed his head, the golden cascade shadowing his face.
“After, every time I was Below, I tried to figure out who… who it is that… but…”
He stayed still, and silent. She moved a few steps, twisting her hands, and turned to him again.
“For… forgive me, I even asked Peter, who adamantly refused to even talk about it…”
He didn’t move, he didn’t say anything…
“Vincent, I… I know I have no right, but… I… I… I first thought it might be Lena…”
Ashamed and confused, almost frightened, she could not stop now. “Vincent… please… is there somebody special in your life?”
He lifted his head, and looked at her. Something warm, and powerful, invaded her heart.
“Why are you asking this, Catherine?”
She looked at him, larger than life.
“Because… because… I want to know… if… if I’m allowed to… fall in love with you.”
He again bowed his head.
What was happening to her? Her mind was screaming, “you made a fool of yourself!” But her soul was submerged in a sweetness so mighty and so exquisite as to leave no room for anything else. She slowly took the few steps to close the distance between them. He was… trembling? She put a hand on his heart, and looked up to his face. His eyes were closed.
He opened them.
And she knew.
Her mind did not remember, but her body did. Almost on its own, it found its place in his mighty, gentle, enamored hold. A homecoming.
In awe, she whispered, “I… was in love with you before…”
“You told me so… many times,” he said into her hair.
Engulfing her even more powerfully in his embrace, his mouth went to her ear and she felt his warm breath while he ardently murmured, “Catherine, you are my life, you are my light, you are my everything! I love you with all that I am, with all that I’ll ever be.”
An overwhelming feeling of dizzying sweetness washed through her, and she wondered what was happening to her, almost unable to cope. She felt like a glass being filled with a river. And the strong body of Vincent, his scent, his warmth, the feeling of his breath and his hair against her heated skin were giving her sensations far beyond anything she’d expected. She reflexively offered him her mouth.
He drew back, quickly.
“What…?” she asked, confused.
“My mouth…” he muttered.
“Are you sure…?”
“But… of course…?”
She drew back, as well, trying to look at him. “I… wanted your kisses, didn’t I…?”
She widened her eyes.
“Vincent… we were in love… and we never kissed?”
He did not reply.
He looked into her eyes. Her innocent, surprised, new eyes.
Catherine… help me.
She was waiting.
“Because I was a fool.”
And he took her mouth, feeling the shock of that forbidden, desired shrine eagerly opening for him, sensing the inebriating womanly pleasure and following that beacon to fight against his fears, giving into it. He kissed her with abandon, with pleasure, with passion. Longing to feel more… more…
Longing, in vain, to feel and share the blessed exultation of a soul finally reaching paradise after a long, thorny, excruciating path.
Catherine… where are you?
“I felt like I was betraying her, Devin, and I was kissing her!”
“You’re more than a little complicated, pal, you know that?”
“Yes, I know. Believe me, I know.”
“Hey! Forget that, for a moment, will you? Just try to think that you’re a man in love, who’s found his ladylove. Found her again, by the way. Don’t forget, she fell in love with you twice. She knows exactly what she wants, don’t you think? Smart girl. So, take it easy and just be happy!”
“You really don’t understand?”
Devin sighed. “I do, Vincent, I do. But there’s nothing you can do. Be grateful instead, you have a helluva reason to, and try to realize you’re making her happy.”
“That’s it! I want to make… Catherine happy. I owe her. She deserved this happiness. She deserved to know that her stubborn love overcame my stubborn foolishness, that our dream came true at last…”
“This is Catherine!”
“Yes. This is Catherine.”
“Don’t try to find excuses, okay?”
“I won’t. I will love her to my last breath.”
“You’re saying that like it’s a duty!”
“NO! I’m happy. I am happy. But this happiness has a price, and Catherine… paid for it, dearly, dearly, and had no reward for it.”
“Don’t pretend not to understand.”
“I do understand, I told you that I DO understand. But you’re talking about nothing. She’s here, she’s in love with you, you’re in love with her, you’re a couple now, why are you tormenting yourself?”
He bowed his head.
“I feel… lonely.” Yes, that’s it.
“And frightened. And guilty. I miss her. I miss her understanding. I miss her hope, her courage, I miss… all myself imprinted in her soul, reflected in her eyes. I miss my redemption that she helped me to live, from a secluded shadow to a man who can return the love of the most wonderful woman ever, I miss every single step of it. If I am a man who can kiss her without fear, like a… normal man, it’s because she taught me that I could do it. I miss her reassuring me that I can do it… I miss the joy and the triumph I would feel in her at my surrender…”
“Whoa! Stop, stop. I got it.”
“Devin, you have been away twenty years. We have lived our lives, we grew up and became men. How we did it, is not part of each other. We can meet now and start afresh a new relationship, and we have. What Catherine and I lived, to become what we are, IS part of each other. We are… incomplete now.”
“I got it, I tell you! But you know what? There is no way but this now. The past is past. And you still have Catherine. This Catherine. Try to live with it. Did you make love to her last night?”
“See? You have some more road to travel together. You have some more history to share, and believe me, not the worst part. Want to bet you’ll forget the rest when you get to that?”
He watched her while she started the fire. He could be helping her, or doing it himself, but he never had enough of looking at her, any little move she made, and thinking… she’s mine now.
Sitting on the rug in front of the fireplace, waiting for her to finish and sink into his arms, he indeed could not help but think about the… road still to be traveled together. Devin was right. That idea was mind shattering, and was obscuring any other regret or fear. He felt ashamed. And hungry. The heady feeling had started last night, after their first kisses. It had scared him, and he had left her then, as quickly and as gently as he could. But he was here, now.
Devin had left that morning, after having returned for a few days for the express purpose of meeting and being introduced to Catherine again. Perfect timing. Despite Vincent’s having said nothing, he’d guessed that something was going to happen last night, and Vincent had found him waiting half asleep in his chamber when he’d returned. “I’m off tomorrow, spit it out!” And in fact, he very much did need to talk and put things in perspective, to understand the disturbing feelings that had been haunting him ever since he felt Catherine falling in love. “Just make love to her, you’ll forget everything else!”
In the darkened room, crouched in front of the fireplace, the flame played with her hair, her silhouette, her…
He closed his eyes.
Am I being a fool again? Why can’t I just be happy? She’s mine now. Mine…
She turned, smiling, the fire gaily blazing now, and she crawled to his side, burying herself in his arms, to immediately re-emerge and seek his mouth.
So… easy. Her mouth was honey and silk, her feelings streaks of light, shining and happy. Her body along his own made his flesh ache and grow warm, and his hands seemed to have their own will, caressing her back, her arms, her waist, begging him to set them free to go further…
“Why didn’t you want to come inside?” she asked between kisses.
He could leave her lips, and explain. He murmured, “I’m here now,” and entered her mouth again.
That kiss went on and on, and she started to shake. He reluctantly removed his tongue and held her close, tight. The strength of his desire was frightening even for himself; he felt her appalled.
“I… can’t believe you never kissed me before, or…” she whispered.
“I love you.” I never told you this before either, my love.
“And yet, you were going to let me go…”
He hid his face in the warm, sweet spot between her neck and her shoulder. “I was a fool….” The skin there was heaven against his lips and tongue, he could not stop feeling it, caressing it with his words and breath, “A fool… a fool…”
She touched his cheek, and gently brought his face in front of hers. “You were afraid of what you are.”
“Just a bit…” he said, teasingly, and again placed a small wet kiss on her lips. He could not restrain himself, and it was alarming.
“I feel… strange.”
There. Reality check.
He took a deep sigh, and dropped his forehead to hers, closing his eyes. “Yes.”
A low, slow murmur, “I was afraid of what I was. And still am, Catherine.”
She shifted, and he returned to a sitting position, gathering her against his chest. She looked up at him, a question in her eyes.
“I’m not… normal.”
“I noticed,” she chuckled. “And fell for you twice anyway, if you didn’t notice.”
“It’s more than my looks.”
A pause. “I loved you. I loved whatever you are, didn’t I?” she asked.
How can I teach you in one minute what you taught me in two years, my Catherine…? A sudden, frightening flash: I’m the one leading now… Am I up to it?
“Why do you feel… strange?”
“I feel like… like… I’m having thoughts and feelings that… I don’t know… that I can’t…”
“They’re my feelings, Catherine.”
“What?” she lifted her head a little, looking at him.
“Please, don’t be afraid…” How many times had he said that already?
“I’m not afraid. Tell me.”
“I feel… what you feel. I sense when you’re sad, or happy, or in turmoil. And you do the same, if my feelings are strong enough. And of late, my feelings are strong.”
“We feel… each other.”
“As if… we’re meant to be… one.”
He closed his eyes. She’s wonderful.
“You’re not… disturbed by this?”
“I love you.” And he needed, just needed to kiss her again. He didn’t. This devouring need was dark, was too powerful. He wanted to give her leeway, time to think, to understand, to digest what she had just learned. What a strange thought, what she had just learned. Devin was right… so easy to let things go, forget everything else. Kiss her, make love to her… So simple. Can I do it? I am normal enough? A question that Devin would have laughed at. In that very moment, he felt like he could… could… But he was not normal. He was Vincent, a strange creature she wanted to love. But she did not know what it meant to love him. The “beautiful” bond… and all the rest. You must tell her. She must know! Catherine knew… and Catherine had been robbed of the ecstatic joy she deserved if and when…
This is Catherine!
Her head lay on his heart, listening to its slow beating, and he could feel the whirl of contrasting sensations in her. And the whirl of sensations in him certainly didn’t help her.
She looked up at him. “What else do you have to tell me?”
She’d perceived it.
“Vincent, I fell in love with you. Twice. I want you. Don’t be afraid.”
Yes, this is Catherine. Her courage is intact, her love is paramount. But am I brave enough? … All right. Reality check, indeed.
With reluctance, he disengaged himself from her embrace, and stood up. The emptiness in his arms struck him almost physically, but he needed the distance. He looked at the blazing fire, feeling her puzzled gaze on his back. He turned. “Look at these hands, Catherine,” he said, holding them out, palms up. “Look at my face, look at these fangs.”
“You love me, you accept me, and for that miracle I won’t ever be grateful enough, but… do you think that my differences are… only in my appearance?”
She looked up at him, sitting cross legged on the floor, her soul in her eyes, trying to understand, eager to understand. The acceptance he felt in her almost undid him.
“Catherine… a part of me is a man. All my life I have struggled to cultivate that part, to show that part, to be that part. But… a part of me is not a man, no matter how hard I try to fight it.”
“Why do you try to fight it?”
He was suddenly at a loss for words. A simple, innocent question. Catherine… where are you? You saw the blood on my hands. How, with what words can I explain the… horror to her… her?? He reflexively lifted a fist, as if to strike the sacrilegious thought.
“Because…” the need to pace was almost irresistible, but in this small apartment, with such delicate furniture, he felt like a caged anim… “Because these hands have done things that you’d cringe to know. I have… killed, Catherine, I have roared while killing, I have stalked people like a… like a…”
She stood up, quickly, and took his hands in hers. “Vincent, no. Don’t think that. I know you!”
He roughly withdrew his hands. “You don't…” he stopped, and hastily turned to the fire. “You’ve said that before, many times… but… it’s just not true.” He again turned to look into her beautiful face, into her beautiful soul, perceiving the immense effort she was putting forth, boosted by her immense love… how can she love me so much already? She met me a few weeks ago… “Catherine, you don’t know me. Nobody knows me, not even me!” Not even me, and I’m frightened. “Do you know why we never kissed before?”
“Because I was afraid you’d turn into some stupid prince charming?”
He gaped at her. She meant it. She wasn’t teasing him, she meant it. Yes, she was smiling, trying to ease his frantic soul baring, but the incredible current of acceptance, fierce protection and even admiration was shining beyond the joke. He could not suppress a little sardonic chuckle. “No, unfortunately that page was torn out of my fairy tale book.”
It helped to marshal his heated feelings though. “Catherine, we… we…” A deep breath. “I’ve never made love to a woman.”
Don’t look at her, go ahead, shut your eyes, but say it, at last, you owe her! I owed you, Catherine!
And the words tumbled out as if he hardly knew what to say first. “I lose myself when the passions in me, anger, fear, hatred… are powerful. And love… lust, is a powerful passion. I was terrified to… to… This is another reason I stayed away from you, when you lost your memory, to offer you an escape. You loved a creature that… concealed its lusty face, but nevertheless a creature that might be hideous, whose love could be dangerous. I never regretted what I was, until I met you. That creature has… some useful powers, that I… I… did use, to protect my world, to feel strong, to make sense of my life, but… but… how can it love a woman? Those powers, once unleashed, are frightening. The man in me is lost, and… and…”
“Stop! Please stop, Vincent!”
“No, let me say it! I don’t know what I am, but I know what I can be. Moments ago, just kissing you, made me… oh, Catherine…”
“You’re afraid of hurting me…”
“Yes! No! Not just that. I’m afraid of disgusting you. Of disgusting myself. Of becoming… an animal, lost in my lust. What if I’m that? What if I can’t control myself…? Catherine…” Say it! Say it, to her, and to yourself, at last, you coward!
He dug his claws into his palms, and continued, “Now, right now, before… before, Catherine, I can still dream… I can still hope… I can will myself to believe that we can be a couple, that I can love you, not only with my heart, like any normal man, like any normal couple… and yes, even live happily ever after. But… but…”
“But… after… Catherine, after… I will know.”
He looked at her, his soul in his eyes.
“I will know… what I am,” he murmured, and bowed his head.
There, Catherine. The words I never found to speak my fear, keeping you hostage in a sterile relationship. What am I? What am I, Catherine? I don’t want to know! I’m too frightened. What if…? No, no, I’m sure I’d rather die than hurt you, but… you’ve seen what I can become! That horrible… beast… that you have tamed time and again. Every time you’ve seen me losing myself, be it for Paracelsus’ drug or for the immense fear of losing you, I drowsed into my inward nameless river of shame, pain and doubt, losing all the ground that your love had conquered, back to the agonizing awareness that I’m not…
“It’s a pity that page was torn out.”
She kept catching him off guard. “Huh?”
“If you could have read that page missing from your book, you’d see that the tale ended with ‘and they lived happily ever after’. All fairy tales do.”
How could she tease him, while he was so nobly brooding? He shook his head and took a few steps to the open French doors, away from the cheery and, on that warm spring night, useless fire, started just to create a cozy environment… useless as well.
“This isn’t a fairy tale. I’m not a fictional character, I’m real,” he said almost brusquely, looking out at the shining New York night, resisting the urge to step onto the balcony. The uncertainty he felt wasn’t about the territory.
Her words were slow, pensive. “From the night you first came to my balcony, I never stopped to think that I was living a fairy tale. And destiny cannot have arranged such a complicated and wondrous plot for us, and now… let us fall from its hands.”
He turned. She was sitting on the edge of the couch now, hands tightly intertwined and resting on her knees, fragile and adamant.
I first came to your balcony long before, my Catherine. You only know a few weeks of this plot, and are happily unaware of all the torment of the past years… Happiness can’t be so simple. Not for me. But he just kept silent. He didn’t know how to reply. He’d already bared his soul; he felt empty, and alone.
She stood up, and took a few steps toward him. “Vincent, I’m not discounting what you said. I heard and felt deeply every single word. Only, I don’t want to accept that anything, not even the terrible, terrible fear you fight in your heart, can separate us. I love you too much. I don’t know how it’s possible, but I feel that without you, there is no life for me.”
“It’s the same for me, Catherine, please know it.”
“I do know. Again, I don’t know how, but I do. So… how is it possible that we haven’t worked through all this? Forgive me… I understand and respect your fear, but deep in my soul I know that you’d find that it’s not justified, if only we… Why haven’t we yet been together… truly together? Was our love not strong enough, to reassure you enough to… to try? I can’t believe it.”
He looked down at her, and he felt weak for the surge of love that filled him. Yes, weak. The other unsaid truth. He turned, and did step out onto the balcony.
She followed. Together they looked at the amazing lights of the City, side by side.
“Vincent, was it only your fear that kept us apart?”
Refreshing. Her simplicity felt refreshing. And it even made it seem possible to say things that he almost never dared to remotely think.
“No, that was my part of struggle. A very, very powerful one.”
“But there was a part that was mine, wasn’t there?”
“What was it, Vincent?”
Suddenly, he felt as though standing was too much of an effort. He eyed the iron chair. It seemed so delicate. She was waiting.
“Please, tell me.”
He turned, and just let himself slip down against the balcony wall and sit on the floor. He looked up at her. Yes, a convenient position, after all, fit to the subject.
“You are a very independent woman, Catherine.”
She tried to digest. “And I didn’t want to commit?”
“Oh, no! You were fully, completely committed. To me, to our love. Your love was humbling. Your love is humbling.”
No way out. All right. He took a deep breath. “You had other relationships before we met. You talked to me about two of them that were especially meaningful. You ended both of them, Catherine, because of the control those men tried to put on you.” He tightly fisted his hands, forearms on his bent knees, speaking slowly, choosing the words carefully, without looking at her. “Deep, inside of you, there is this mighty need to test yourself, to be strong, to lead and decide, to be the master of your life, even more so after your attack. Loving me means sacrificing much of this. I’m a strange creature who has to live a limited life, who has nothing to offer you but his heart. It frightens me terribly to ask you to make room for me, and my will, and my wishes, and…”
…and, when I tried, you didn’t accept. I asked you to be careful, and you replied that there are risks worth taking; I asked you to trust my instincts, and you ended up in danger, time and again… I almost lost you twice! You even decided all on your own to marry another man, a man you didn’t love, to protect me, condemning us both to a life of misery, without me having a say; you decided that Paracelsus could have your life, but you’d be strong and not call me after you…
He had closed his eyes, head leaning back against the balcony wall, lost in sour thoughts never before allowed to surface. The nagging fear of putting pressure on her, of losing her because it. Weak, and unsure of being worthy of this strong woman, depending on her will to love him, to sacrifice enough of her shining life to share his own dark life. Yes, weak, I’ve been weak. I was afraid of being strong with you, of wanting, even though you had told me that I have the right to… Remember, my Catherine? Sacrifice and fear… we didn’t move through them together, we left each other to struggle with them… alone.
He opened his eyes, looked up at her. “You’d sacrifice everything for me, Catherine, so long as the decision is yours. I felt your immense love, but also felt that immense need to be free and lead. So, I always accepted your love like a wondrous gift….”
He could feel realization dawning in her, perhaps drawing from his own emotions, “…which you were supposed to just open and be happy, perhaps while I waited, tapping my foot.”
Slowly, she let herself slip down and sit on the floor beside him. She hugged her bent knees, pensive. “And so, I didn’t help you fight your fears, sharing them, accepting them, understanding them. I was just adamant that you had no reason to be scared, because I wasn’t scared. Not enough to reassure you. Kissing a clawed hand is not the same as having a clawed hand.”
He turned his face to look at her. Why, why we did not have this conversation… before? “But I was weak. I just admired your strength, not using my own, feeling unworthy, setting you free every time the opportunity or an obstacle arose, and ultimately leaving you alone in your decisions, always fearing that next time, you would consider the sacrifice too great.”
“That’s why you almost let me go.”
“Yes. I was that foolish.”
Veritas vos liberabit… and that truth is love… a lukewarm lover… I but a shadow, you a radiance fair…
Fragments of thoughts and feelings hung in the tepid spring air. Through the open French doors, they could see the dying embers of the fire in the hearth, while the light breeze moved the curtains.
After a long silence, she stirred a little.
“Well… perhaps… perhaps I comprehend, now.” Her tone was meditative, with an elusive twist. “And yet… I can’t help believing you’d have nothing to fear, and I’d have nothing to sacrifice, if we…” she glanced at him sideways, and quickly bent her head again, “but… definitely… I could foresee a major case of… um… performance anxiety?”
Again, he gaped, staring at her.
She looked up at him.
The corners of both their mouth slowly twisted.
And both dissolved into a fit of the giggles.
A little pause ensued, sweet and awkward.
“Will you please hold me, now?”
He put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her to his chest, burying his face in her hair, in that wonderful spot between her shoulder and neck. In both of them, the vortex of clashing sensations calmed in sheer relief at the much needed physical closeness.
“Thank you for this conversation… my… my Catherine.”
“Thank you, Vincent, but… beware, it’s not over yet,” she replied, snuggling even closer, her words a little muffled against his chest. She took a deep breath. “Vincent, I think I understand what you mean. I really do. Probably I’m tapping into your feelings too, but everything seems so clear now.” Another deep breath. “You’ve been very patient with me…”
“Catherine, it’s you who’s been–”
“Shhh… “ she said, pulling back a little to put a finger to his lips, “let me speak, or I’ll lose my nerve.” She took his hand, laid it on her heart, and tenderly stroking the back of it, she continued. “Vincent, if you were so afraid of losing me, if you adored me and accepted my love without asking, if you were so willing to set me free… this means you didn’t believe my love was strong enough.”
With a start, he’d disengaged himself from the hold, and now he took her shoulders, and trying to reject the offensive sharp feeling that she was right, fervently said, “Catherine, no! It’s me, I, who couldn’t believe I was worthy enough of–”
“Vincent, please, listen to me,” she interrupted quickly, reaching up to take and hold his hands. “I don’t know what I was and did before. I don’t know why my love wasn’t reassuring enough to make you feel worth it, no matter what sacrifice it cost. But I know what I am now and what I feel now. Now, I love you so much that it hurts. I don’t want anything else but you. My life was lost and all of a sudden made sense–full, wonderful sense, once I understood I was yours. If you had doubts, if you weren’t sure, please, believe me now: I love you, only you, and all the rest is nothing.”
He just listened, drank in her words, hardly able–or willing–to interrupt her.
“I’m not saying that I have no desires or ideas about my life now. But I have seen–you have seen–that although I was perfectly free to do and be whatever I wanted after my accident, I put all my desires and ideas on hold, looking for the fulcrum of my life. And that fulcrum is you.” And she again laid her head on his shoulder, embracing him fiercely.
“No, let me finish, just one more thing…” she lifted her hand, as if to seal his lips again, and smirked, realizing her own impetuosity. “Okay, yes, it looks like I love to be in control after all, but it’s important, bear with me. About the… passion and your fears. Even… even if… your fears were justified… I… I’m sure… oh, I wish I could make you understand how sure I am, but I don’t know why, how I can be so sure, there’s too much tumult inside me… I’m sure that whatever happens, whatever comes, even if … if… something went wrong… Vincent, it does not matter!”
And his soul suddenly leapt, recognizing the words he didn’t know it had been desperately yearning for.
“I mean… you’re right, only you can understand what it means to be what you are, and I won’t mock your apprehension by minimizing it. But I love you no matter what happens. I love you now, before, while you’re this wonderful, caring, larger than life man that makes me happy. And after, you’ll still be you. If some side of you is… is… ugly, it’s just a side, not you. And I love you anyway! Does that make sense?”
He just nodded, beyond speech at this point, gratefully savoring the healing balm she anointed onto his frightened spirit. A weird thought intruded: what an opponent she must be in court!
“Besides... you said that I had other relationships, and what I’ve discovered confirms that I had an… um… intense life before you. But I have no memory of them. I mean, I have the knowledge of sex and how it works, but I don’t remember a thing about my sexual encounters: in a way, everything would be new also for m–”
She suddenly stopped her avalanche of words, lifted her head and looked at him. She extracted an arm from the tight embrace they were wrapped in, and pointed a finger to his face, “Is this a surge of relief I’m feeling in you??”
He quickly concealed his face in her shoulder, from where the muffled answer came.
She chortled, patting his back, “Well, you’re much more normal than you like to think, my love!”
She could feel him softly chuckling too. Spent but wary, she relaxed against him, waiting for the soaring whorls of vehement feelings she sensed in him to coalesce.
Finally, he lifted his head, and looked into her eyes. As usual, those blue pools undid her. And something was different in them. Yes, the feelings were definitely coalescing.
“May I kiss you?”
She just nodded.
“Open your eyes.”
“Open your eyes.”
“No. I’m still sleeping.”
“You’re not. Open your eyes.”
She shook her head no. “What if it was just a dream? What if you’ve turned into an ordinary prince? What if everything was a fairy tale after all, and you’ll disappear?”
“Nothing happened, I’m still here. Open your eyes, I want to see them.”
She smiled and opened her eyes. And the smile faded from her lips. He had not turned into an ordinary prince. He had turned into a god. In the sunlight that inundated the room, he was a vision that took her breath away. She slowly let her eyes wander from the brilliant, incredible blue of his eyes, to the touch of pure white of his fangs peeking through his smile, to the golden hair and fur, the bronze skin, and all the wonderful shades of warm colors on the various textures of his face and body. She lifted from her pillow, and coming to a sitting position, slowly pushed him back onto the mattress, and looked. Just looked. Finally she tried to speak, but was unable to, trembling with desire, her mouth dry and waiting.
His smile widened.
Much later, spooned against him, slowly caressing the fur of his forearms, playing with the curls and the feel of them between her fingers, she asked, “Are you hungry?”
Not for food. He wondered how such a risqué reply had appeared in his mind, and mildly scolded himself. When is enough? Everything was so new. “Thirsty,” he answered.
She stretched languorously, and both enjoyed every second of it. Reluctantly, she removed his hand from her breast, and sat up. “Me too.”
What? Oh, thirsty. He watched her while she stood up, donned his oversized shirt, and took a few steps to cross the room to the door. “Ow!”
“I’m not.” And with a smile she was off.
Normal. He was normal. Well, not exactly. “Vincent… you can do it… at will?” “It’s not supposed to work like that?” “Never mind.” Among his many fears, one did prove itself true. From the guilty, anguished peeks in the old, faded and supposedly well hidden away issues of Animal Behaviour, he had read that lions mate many, many times, quickly and furiously. The “many times” part was his lot. Not the rest. And his mate… his mate, probably, was soaked with his own lust through that mysterious bond. She never failed him. Oh, the start had been awkward, and embarrassing at best. But quickly he’d learned to focus on the golden thread of their bond rather than on his self-consciousness. And everything had changed.
Catherine… thank you. It’s… after, and I’m… a man. Better than a man, she said.
She?? He violently caught a handful of sheet, ripping through it with his claws. She? My Catherine. She.. you are my Catherine. And I am your man. Man. I am a man. Who loved you… normally. Almost.
The sensations in her, which he’d been drinking all the time, were… exciting. He was content, and guilty. His contentment was about himself, about… the after. He couldn’t rejoice… with her, if not for a… normal, if difficult, relationship that had found its happy, satisfactory ending. “Told you so,” had been her tender, enamored, satiated comment. She was a happy woman, he was a happy man. A man. His thoughts kept focusing on himself, sorely, remorsefully missing the privilege of bringing such a grateful, humble, triumphant homage to… to her. Catherine, no closure for you? You are forever bound to long for fulfillment? Stupid thought. Farewell, Catherine. Thank you, my love. I owe you… everything. Stupid, stupid thought.
Suddenly, the music exploded. The bubbling start of the First act of La Traviata came from the other room. He spotted his trousers on the floor, and rose to don them.
She was standing at the table close to the French windows, pouring water from a crystal jug into long stemmed crystal glasses. The voices of the singers filled the room.
“You skipped the Prelude.”
“It’s so sad… I wanted the toast. We must celebrate. Only with water for now, if you don’t mind: I really need some…”
“Me too,” he smiled.
“The CD was still in the player from… before. Probably from that night. Funny I never felt like playing any CD in all this time. But now, it seems… appropriate.” She looked at him. He could feel her admiration pouring over him, the tousled look, the furry chest, the powerful frame, the broad shoulders, the sculpted muscles. The colors. All in broad, glorious light.
“It’s beautiful,” he said, a bit embarrassed, taking the glass she was offering, and kissing her empty hand.
“You are beautiful.”
The voices continued, more and more rapid and bubbling.
O barone, né un verso, né un viva troverete in quest’ora giuliva…?
Dunque a te…
Sì, sì, un brindisi. ’
“Don’t you dare drink yet! Wait for the toast!” she said, taking her own glass. “I wish I could understand what they’re saying… ”
‘ L’estro non m’arride…
E non se’ tu maestro?
Vi fia grato…?
Sì…? L’ho già in cor.
Sì, attenti al cantor. ’
And the toast began, fast and exhilarating.
‘ Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici
“Let’s drink… Among the glasses, love will get the… hottest kisses,” he translated, holding her from behind, making her lightly sway at the tempo of the toast, kissing her neck.
She smiled and started to turn, lifting her glass, while the portentous final high note exploded.
He could feel a flash of terror in her, and held her while she swayed, spilling water.
Frantic with worry, he took her glass from her shaking hand and put it down along with his own. Her eyes were empty, her hand was still lifted, devoid of the glass.
“What’s wrong?” he cried, taking her shoulders. Her feelings where a chaotic jumble, she was stiff and shaking. “Catherine, please, what is it? Talk to me!” he cried.
“…he knew the toast.” Her voice was small, and faltering.
“He knew all of La Traviata, not only the toast. By heart.”
She closed her eyes. Slowly, hesitatingly, she continued, “He sang the toast. And I laughed. And… and for the final high note, he… he turned, lifting his hand… as if with a glass… toasting me. Poor guy… ”
Vincent was shocked, comprehension starting to dawn in him.
“And he didn’t see the truck.”
She opened her eyes, uncertainly focusing on his face, a few inches from hers.
A point of light began to shine into his soul, more radiant than a million stars. And it quickly expanded, and exploded like a gigantic nova, making him sway under the mighty tide of the ineffable, ecstatic, desperately longed-for emotions washing through her.
He touched his forehead to hers, holding her hands, unable to move. Their souls joined, and spoke.
She lifted her head. Looked into his eyes. Touched his mouth.
He could just nod.
“…love me,” she whispered.
He pulled her to his chest, cushioning her head in the wealth of his fur, beneath which she could hear and feel his heart, madly racing, crazy with love, triumph… gratitude. He took her hand and placed a wet kiss on her palm.
And then scooped her into his arms.
“None is a fool who knows himself a fool.”
April 12, 2012
“Never Till Tonight” by Bluebird
Thank you BatBland and everyone, for editing, encouragement and support: you know who you are.