Two for tea


Barbara Handshy Anderson

 

Where there's tea there's hope

--Arthur Wing Pinero

 

 

Author’s Note:  This story is preceded by the events of the episode, A Happy Life.

  

~~~

 

Returning from a hasty lunch, Catherine saw a young Asian man placing something on her desk.

He was so intent on what he was doing, that he didn’t notice her coming up behind him.

“Can I help you?” she asked softly, in an attempt not to startle the young man.

Despite her effort, he jumped and turned toward her in surprise.

“This is my desk. Is there something I can help you with?”

A look of relief crossed his face. “Ahhhh, then you must Miss Catherine?” he stated very politely.

She smiled. “Yes I am. And you are…?”

“I am Chen Pei, Henry’s cousin. I’m working for him now.” He bowed slightly as he introduced himself.

“I have delivered a message from Mrs. Lin Pei for you, Miss Catherine,” he said, pointing to a small, cheerful red box on her desk. Having apparently fulfilled his mission, he turned to leave.

“Can you wait a moment, Chen? Please?” Catherine knew from experience that whatever it was, she would probably want to send Lin a reply.

The young man stopped and waited obediently.

Catherine hung up her jacket and reached for the lovely package on her desk. Removing the ribbon, the box opened to reveal a large, homemade fortune cookie that was sprinkled with powdered sugar and carefully nestled in white tissue paper. Catherine smiled as she broke the lovely confection in half to reveal a carefully folded note.

 

 She was always impressed by the creativity and care that Lin took with her invitations. It seemed like ages since they had gotten together.

It had been a rough couple of weeks. Three important cases had come to trial within days of each other and seven others were in critical stages of preparation. Joe and everyone in the office had been swamped. Which meant Catherine had also worked a lot of late nights, as well as through two straight weekends. The strain was getting to her, but she knew better than to complain. After all, Joe had been working longer hours than anyone. One thing she respected about him, is that he never asked anyone to work harder than he did. But sometimes she wished he wasn’t such a workaholic.

Crime doesn’t take a vacation, Radcliffe, and neither do I,” Joe often said. Catherine had taken to lip syncing his words behind his back, every time he said it these days. Sometimes, Joe’s work ethic made her want to scream.

She decided that afternoon tea with Lin was exactly the break she needed.

Opening her top desk drawer, she retrieved a card from a little stack of stationery she kept for such occasions, and quickly wrote a reply.

 

 After slipping the note carefully into an envelope, she turned to the messenger and handed him the message, as well as a generous tip.

“Thank you, Miss Catherine,” he said, as he spun on his heal and headed for the elevator.

Catherine hadn’t noticed Joe approaching her desk.

“One of your many admirers, eh, Cathy? He’s a little young for you, isn’t he? I don’t think he’s really your type.”

Very funny, Joe.” She looked up as Joe’s hand reached for the fortune cookie.

Hey, get your own. That one’s for me,” she said, snatching the small box out of his reach.

 “Touchy, touchy. Is it from a secret admirer?”

“No, Joe. If you must know, it’s from a dear friend in Chinatown. Her name is Lin. She’s invited me to have tea with her tomorrow. Do you think you can get along without me for one afternoon?”

Joe looked irritated at the request.

“Come on, Joe,” she said, before he could refuse. “I don’t ask much, and you know it. If it will make you feel better, I’ll work late tonight and Wednesday if it’s that much of a problem.”

“I’m just yanking your chain, Radcliffe,” he said with a smirk. “You’ve been working really hard lately, and I really appreciate it. Anyway, I owe you one for coming back to help me with the O’Mansky case. I think we can muddle through without you for one afternoon.” As he turned to leave, he added, “But I’m gonna hold you to that promise of overtime.”

“Slave driver,” she muttered as he walked away.

“I heard that,” he remarked, as he disappeared into his office. But he didn’t see her stick out her tongue at him as he closed his office door.

~~~

On Tuesday, Catherine worked through lunch and then stopped at her favorite pastry shop to pick up some of her favorite pastries, before heading to Chinatown. Entering Dr. Wong’s shop, she handed the neatly tied, pink box to her friend.

Lin smiled appreciatively. “I’m the one who invited you, Catherine. You didn’t need to bring this.”

Catherine smiled. It was the little dance they did with each other every time they got together.

“I know that, Lin, but I had to thank you for the lovely fortune cookie you sent me. And believe me when I tell you, reciprocating with my own homemade cookies would not be a kindness.”

They both laughed at Catherine’s self-deprecating humor.

“I could teach you, if you like,” Lin offered. “I love to bake.”

“I just might take you up on that, one of these days. If I can ever get away from the D.A.’s office for long enough.”

Lin showed Catherine to the back of the shop where she had meticulously prepared for their afternoon together.

Catherine took her usual seat opposite her friend. Looking at a large tray with neat rows of Chinese delicacies, she declared, “This looks wonderful. I worked through lunch and I’m starving.”

As Lin poured the tea, she asked, “Did your boss give you a difficult time about coming today?”

“We’ve been working really long hours lately. I needed this. When I told Joe I was taking this afternoon off, I think he could see that telling me ‘no’ was not an option.”

“He sounds like a wise man,” Lin said sweetly.

Catherine smirked and said, “I don’t know if I would go that far.”

They both laughed at that.

“Anyway,” Catherine continued. “I promised him I would make up the time by working late tomorrow night.”

“I’m sorry  if I’ve caused you any problems,” Lin said, as she handed Catherine a small plate of dainties.

“No… Lin… please, don’t worry about it. I needed this. Sometimes I have to get away from it all. You know?”

“Yes, I think I understand,” Lin said, with a nod. “The honorable Lin Yutang said, ‘There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life.[1] I think he was right. Sometimes we have to find a way to stop and just relax.”

“A quiet contemplation of life?” Catherine mused. “Huh, I’m not sure I even know what that is anymore, but it sure sounds nice.”

Catherine sipped the tea and closed her eyes to savor the subtle flavor. “Mmmmm. Your tea never  disappoints, Lin.”

“It’s a special mix. Grandfather is teaching me. Do you like it? I can send you home with some.”

“That would be lovely, thank you.”

Catherine sighed, as the tea began to work its magic. “I really look forward to our chats, Lin,” Catherine admitted. “There are things that I can talk to you about… things that I can’t share with my other friends.”

“You mean… things about… Vincent?” Lin asked tentatively.

“Yes, things about Vincent… and his world.”

The conversation lagged for a few moments as the women both enjoyed the tea and the sweet and savory pastries Lin had prepared. It was a comfortable silence, common among good friends.

“So… have you and Vincent patched things up?” Lin asked, barely looking up from her tea to see Catherine’s reaction to the question.

Catherine stopped mid-sip and slowly put down her teacup. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Lin began slowly. “We… Grandfather and I… we heard that Vincent had sent you away. Kipper said, that Mouse told him you had gone away and were never coming back. Kipper was very worried, Catherine. He said Vincent was very upset and wouldn’t talk to anyone.”

Catherine grimaced. “There aren’t many secrets in the Tunnels, are there? How did Mouse know all that?”

“Kipper said Mouse was in the tunnel beneath the park when he saw you crying and that Vincent sent you away. He was hiding in the shadows. But you know Mouse. Sometimes he doesn’t always get the story quite right.”

She let her words settle a little before continuing. “So is it true? Have you and Vincent… ended your relationship?”

Catherine was a little embarrassed to learn that the very personal incident between her and Vincent was common knowledge Below and apparently Above. She had hoped that it had stayed just between them.

“It is true that Vincent did send me away,” Catherine admitted reluctantly. “But that was over two weeks ago, Lin. Didn’t Kipper give you an update?”

“No. We only hear news from Below when they need medicine or some of Grandfather’s special herbs or teas. No one has been here since then.”

“Is that why you invited me to tea? Because you’re worried about us? About Vincent and me?”

Lin blushed a little. She was suddenly wondering if she had been too bold interfering in Catherine’s private affairs. “That’s one of the reasons. Please understand, Catherine,” she tried to explain. “If it wasn’t for what you and Vincent did for us, Henry and I would never have the happiness that we have now. Our lives have been so blessed by your friendship. We owe you a great debt of gratitude, one I’m afraid we will never be able to repay. I was trying to repay you in some small way. I was trying to help.”

“No, Lin. You don’t owe us anything. We’re friends. And you can stop worrying. Vincent and I are working things out. I promise.”

“What happened?” Lin asked, unable to contain her curiosity. “What could make him send you away like that?”

Catherine thought for a moment. She had been so busy at work since returning from Connecticut, that she had barely even thought about the events of the previous weeks. She hadn’t even seen or heard from Vincent since the day she had returned and asked him to forgive her. She wasn’t eager to bring it up again, or to be reminded of the painful memories that had caused him to push her away from him. She decided to explain it to Lin as simply as possible.

“It was the anniversary of my mother’s death a few weeks ago.”

Lin listened intently.

“It’s always a difficult time for me, but this year, for some reason, it hit me harder than usual. The pain of missing her in my life… it became almost unbearable.”

“But why would Vincent send you away? I would think that would make him want to comfort you.” Lin was clearly confused.

“He tried to, really, he did. But…” she shook her head, regretting the distress and pain she had caused Vincent. “I was in so much pain, and the difficulties of our relationship somehow got mixed up with my pain about losing my mother.”

“But Catherine, I still don’t understand why that would make Vincent send you away.”

“Vincent thought that it would be easier for me… less painful… if we ended our relationship.”

“Oh, Catherine!”

Catherine reached across the small table to squeeze Lin’s hand. “It’s all right, Lin, really. We’ve worked it out… We’re going to be fine now, really,” she assured her friend, even though she wasn’t sure at all.

“What did you do when he sent you away, Catherine?”

“I went to Connecticut for a couple of days, to visit an old friend. The distance helped. It gave me some time and perspective to think about what I want in my life… and what is the most important to me.”

“And—?”

There was a knock from the Tunnel access in the back of the store, followed by some shuffling of crates and whispered voices.

Catherine thought she heard a familiar voice.

“Dr. Wong, I received a message that you had an important package for us? Father said he wasn’t aware of anything we were expecting from you. The message said it had to be me, specifically, who came to pick it up.”

Catherine turned to Lin. “Is that… Vincent? You said that your concern was only one of the reasons you invited me for tea. What was the other reason?”

Lin blushed terribly. “I didn’t know that you had already worked things out. I just wanted to help, Catherine. You know… to repay a debt… Oh… now I’m not sure if I did the right thing…”

“Lin?... What did you do?” Catherine was almost afraid to ask.

“Lin,” Dr. Wong called from the stock room. “Would you please come here.”

“Coming, Grandfather.” Lin stood and went to her grandfather, relieved to get away from Catherine’s questions.

Catherine could hear Dr. Wong speaking to his niece.

“Lin, I’m getting forgetful in my old age. Do we have a package here somewhere for Vincent?”

Catherine stood and craned her neck a little in time to see Lin whispering something in her grandfather’s ear through a small opening in the curtains.

Dr. Wong’s eyes opened wide and then his mouth formed a nearly perfect “O”. He then smiled and nodded enthusiastically as he went to the front of the store.

She heard Lin say, “Grandfather is looking for the package now. Would you like to join us for tea, while you are waiting?”

“No thank you, Lin, I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“You’re not intruding, Vincent. I was expecting you to join us for tea. It’s all been prepared.”

Presently, the curtain opened and Lin entered with a bemused Vincent in tow. He looked even more surprised when he saw Catherine standing there.

“Catherine?” Why didn’t I feel her nearby? he wondered. He was happy to see her, but worried at the same time that he hadn’t detected her presence.

Catherine’s heart began to race at the sight of him. She flushed and then smiled warmly. “Vincent. I didn’t expect to see you here today.”

They both looked to Lin for an explanation.

“Ok… I may have made a mistake… I was just trying to help… Really, I was… I hope you can forgive me for sticking my nose in your business…” Lin was becoming redder by the second. “But you’re both here… and there’s tea… so I am… most humbly… inviting you to sit down and enjoy it…” Lin’s head was bowed forward. She was too embarrassed to look directly at either of her friends. She was trying desperately not to cry.

Catherine understood how important it was for someone of Lin’s culture not to lose face in an embarrassing situation. Her heart went out to her friend and she rushed forward and took Lin’s hands in hers. But Lin was still too ashamed to look at Catherine. Wiping a tear from Lin’s cheek, Catherine spoke gently to her dear friend.  “Thank you, Lin. Thank you for this thoughtful gift.”

Lin looked at Catherine. “You’re not angry at me?”

Catherine smiled and shook her head. “No, I’m not angry. What you did here… It was incredibly kind. The misunderstanding wasn’t your fault. I don’t think anyone has ever done anything this sweet for me in my entire life. Please, don’t ever be embarrassed for doing something kind.”

Lin put her arms around Catherine. “Thank you, Catherine. Then you will stay and have tea?”

“Will you join us?” Catherine asked.

“No, thank you.” Lin smiled through her tears. “I want you and Vincent to enjoy it together. I know you don’t have much time together. I will go and help Grandfather up front and make sure you aren’t disturbed.” With that, she turned and left the room.

Feeling suddenly awkward, Catherine turned to Vincent, who had silently witnessed the entire scene.

Still confused, he gestured toward the table and asked, “Catherine, would you mind explaining to me… what just happened?”

~~~

Each taking a seat, Catherine explained to Vincent what Mouse had overheard, and what Lin had tried to do.

Vincent felt some responsibility for the misunderstanding. “I apologize, Catherine. I was not aware that our… well… that what happened between us… was common knowledge. Father knew, of course, but I had no idea that Mouse had overheard... everything. It seems that Mouse is as effective as spreading news as Pascal and his pipes.”

Catherine chuckled. “He must have been very quiet, there, considering neither of us noticed he was there. I’m beginning to understand why he’s called, ‘Mouse.’”

Vincent smiled. “Yes, he has always had a talent for hearing things he shouldn’t.”

The conversation lagged, and Vincent and Catherine sat across from each other in uncomfortable silence. Vincent slowly turned his teacup, but didn’t seem interested in drinking from it. The pastries in front of them remained untouched.

Catherine quietly sipped her tea, Why do I feel so self-conscious? she wondered. This is Vincent, after all.

Vincent watched her, confused and concerned that her feelings were not clear to him. “You look tired, Catherine. Are you well?”

Is this where we are? she wondered. Talking about our health? Next, we’ll be discussing the weather.

“Yes, I’m well… and yes, I am tired. It’s good to see you, Vincent. I… I’ve missed you…”

“You have?”

If she missed me, wouldn’t I have felt it? he thought.

“Yes, I have.” She was surprised that he didn’t know that. He always seemed to be so aware of her feelings. She had assumed that he would be aware of her longing, or her at least her frustration at not being able to see him.

“I haven’t heard from you since… since…,” he began.

“Since the morning I came back from Connecticut?” She finished his sentence for him.

“Yes…” he acknowledged. “I hadn’t heard from you. I was beginning to think that maybe I… I dreamed it… or that perhaps you’ve… changed your mind.”

She fidgeted nervously with the edge of the tablecloth. I should have sent him a message, she inwardly kicked herself. I should have had the courtesy to let him know what was happening in my life.

“No… you weren’t dreaming, Vincent… and I certainly haven’t changed my mind… I meant every word I said that morning.” … and so much more… she said silently to herself. She was finding it hard to take her eyes off of the man she loved.

“You have felt… distant… I didn’t know if you…”

Should I tell her that my sense of her isn’t as strong as it was before? he wondered. No, he decided. I don’t want to burden her with my concerns.

“I came to your threshold a… a few times,” he continued, hesitantly. “But I could tell you weren’t home… And when you were, I… I could tell how exhausted you were… that you needed to sleep. Have you… been working long hours?”

Even sitting this close to her, our connection feels… faint. Have I lost her after all? he wondered.

She replied with a frustrated sigh, “Yes, I’m practically living at the office these days… I’m sorry, Vincent, I should have let you know what was happening. Please forgive me.”

Vincent shook his head, ‘Please forgive me’ That’s what she said when she came back. Forgive her for what? he wondered.

His answer wasn’t much more than a whisper. “There is nothing to forgive, Catherine. I don’t expect you to tell me your every move. You don’t have to answer to me.”

She looked up into his crystal blue eyes. Eyes that were so clear she sometimes thought she could see into his very soul.

“Yes, Vincent, I do.”

He looked confused.

“Vincent,” she began to explain. “When two people…”

 Don’t say ‘love’, she thought. I need to choose my words carefully. I don’t want to scare him.

“When two people… care… for each other…,” she said cautiously. “They show more consideration than I have shown you. Please accept my apology.”

Vincent smiled and nodded slightly. “I accept your apology, Catherine… even though I feel it’s unnecessary.”

Why does it feel so strained? she wondered. I hope I haven’t ruined what we had between us.

Over the past week or so, Catherine had come to realize that is was her intense pain that had caused Vincent to shrink from her and send her away. I asked too much of him, she had concluded. I expected too much.

She’d been trying to restrain her emotions ever since. I need to be stronger so that I won’t burden him like that again.

“Can you tell me, what has been so pressing at work?” he asked, desperately grasping for anything to keep the conversation going.

Catherine recognized his efforts and gladly accepted the opportunity for a safe topic.

“We’ve been swamped. We’ve had ten or eleven really intense cases. And they all came to a head at the same time. Everyone’s been working around the clock. But there’s this one case… the O’Mansky case. We had the man dead to rights. It should have been a slam dunk.” Catherine let out an exasperated sigh, “… that is until the judge threw out his partner’s testimony and remanded the case to a new trial. We had to start from scratch. The defense attorney knew he had us at a disadvantage, so he pushed for the quickest possible trial date, so we wouldn’t have time to build a new case against his client.”

Vincent didn’t really understand everything she was saying to him, but he could hear the passion in her voice as she spoke, so he listened.

 “That was just before I went to Connecticut to see Nancy,” she continued. “I knew Joe was overwhelmed without my help, but I just couldn’t…” she closed her eyes remembering the pain that had overwhelmed her such a short time ago. Shaking her head, she said, “I needed to get away… When I came back that Sunday… well… you already know… I’d been up most of the night. After I left you, I went to back to my apartment and slept for several hours. When I woke up that afternoon, I just kept thinking about Joe, and how frantic he must be. I felt so guilty for leaving him in a lurch like that, so I went to the office to see if I could help him.”

“What happened?”

“Poor Joe. He looked as if he hadn’t left the office, or slept, or even eaten for days. You should have seen his face when he saw me walk in.” She laughed at the memory. “I thought he was going to kiss me.”

I know the feeling, Vincent thought. Still kicking himself for not kissing her the moment she’d flown into his arms, nearly knocking him to the pavement. He’d wanted to kiss her, with every fiber of his being, but fear had kept him from it.

 “We’ve been working around the clock ever since. Even weekends.” She leaned her elbow on the small tea table and pinched the bridge of her nose.

Vincent could see how exhausted she was. He continued to listen.

“We had to go through every scrap of evidence with a fine-tooth comb, and build a new case from the ground up,” she explained. “Every witness interview, every transcript… I swear, it feels like there have been some days I’ve only been home long enough to take a shower and change my clothes before turning around and doing it all again.”

She suddenly sat straight up and exclaimed. “Oh, my gosh! That reminds me, I haven’t called my father all week. I’d better call him when I get home, or he’ll start to worry.”

Vincent smiled at her concern for her father. He understood perfectly how a loving father could worry about a child when he doesn’t know what is happening.

“And now…?” he asked. “Has all of your hard work been worth it?”

“I hope so…” she sighed. “The jury’s been deliberating since yesterday afternoon. Joe’s just about fit to be tied. I wasn’t in the court room for the closing arguments, but if I know Joe, he went in there with no holds barred. I’m fairly confident that the verdict will be in our favor.”

“I’m glad, Catherine. Maybe now you can get some rest.”

“Well, it’s one down, anyway. Only nine to go.” She smiled a little.

She looks very pale, he thought. “It sounds as if you still have a lot of work ahead of you. How did you manage to find the time to come here for tea?”

“I didn’t really give Joe much of a choice.” She smiled and chuckled a little. “The last time I asked for personal time, he said ‘no’, and I threatened to quit. He knows he owes me for all the work I’ve done lately, so he let me have the afternoon off.” She shrugged her shoulders and added. “Plus, I promised that I’ll work late tomorrow night to make up for it.”

So, it will be a while before we have time to be together again, he inwardly lamented. He felt ashamed and selfish for even thinking it.

“It sounds like he drove a hard bargain,” Vincent concluded. “But I’m glad he let you come.”

“So am I,” she said, smiling at the man she loved and beginning to feel more at ease. “I figured I would be working late tomorrow night anyway.” She shrugged her shoulders again. “So, I made it sound like he was actually getting something out of the deal.”

He smiled as he envisioned the conversation she’d had with her boss. “You’re a shrewd lawyer, Catherine.”

“Stubborn is more like it,” she laughed.

“Being stubborn isn’t a bad thing… You never give up.”

The room suddenly went silent and the air felt charged as they stared at each other across the table.

Please don’t give up, Catherine, Vincent desperately pled within. Please don’t give up on me. And as soon as the thought crossed his mind, he banished it, inwardly chiding himself. I have no right to ask that of her… I have no right.

No, I don’t ever give up, she thought. You’d better get used to it, Vincent.

~~~

As Catherine and Vincent rose to leave. Vincent helped her with her coat and asked, “May I walk you home, Catherine?” He sounded nervous.

“Walk me home?” She was surprised by his request. “But how--?”

“Through the Tunnels.” Then he quickly added, “Unless you’re too tired. Would you prefer to take a taxi?’

“Oh… of course… through the tunnels. Yes, I would like that…very much, Vincent. I’m not too tired.”

Catherine hadn’t ventured into the Tunnels since Vincent had closed the portal on her weeks ago. She had been too busy for one thing, but she was also afraid that his world might be off limits to her, now. She had fervently hoped he would invite her back again.

She breathed a sigh of relief as they stepped through the portal beneath Dr. Wong’s shop.

As they turned in the general direction of her apartment, they heard Dr. Wong’s voice calling out. “Wait… Vincent… wait… You forgot your package.”

The couple stopped and turned back. “I’m sorry, Dr. Wong, I didn’t realize there was actually a package for me to pick up,” Vincent said.

Dr. Wong waved his hands and shuffled up to them carrying three bags. “Oh, well, there wasn’t. But now there is.” He held out two of the bags to Vincent. “Now, this one is for you, Vincent.” He handed over a bag marked with a V. “From Lin. Tea you like and two fortune cookies. She says, it’s very important you don’t share them. Both cookies are for you only.” He winked. “I think there’s a special fortune inside.” Then relinquishing the second bag with the word ‘Father’ written on it, he said, “And this one is for Father. Tea and Chinese pastries he likes very much.”

Then turning to Catherine, he handed her the remaining bag with her name written on it. “This one is for you, Catherine. Lin gave me the same instructions. It’s the tea you like and two fortune cookies, for you only. You are not to share.”

Catherine smiled and nodded obediently. “Yes, Dr. Wong.” Before he had a chance to get away, she reached out and hugged him and then kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you, very much… and please thank Lin for me.”

He scrunched up his face and said, “Auuuch, Why did you do that? I did nothing. Chinese don’t hug,” he said, as he tuned and scurried back to his shop.

~~~

They were quiet as they walked side by side through the Tunnels.

Vincent was content to have her there, even as they walked in silence. Though their connection felt a little stronger than it had at first, he still wondered why it felt different. Is she guarding her feelings? he asked himself. Have I lost her trust? What he could feel from her though, was contentment and relief. He was sure she was glad to be there, with him.

It was only a few weeks ago that he had shut her out of his world and said goodbye, he had thought, for good. He considered it no small miracle that she was here walking beside him now.

Vincent caught his breath and felt his pulse quicken, as Catherine slipped her hand into his. He curled his fingers protectively around hers, marveling at the affect her slightest touch had on him.

“The afternoon certainly turned out differently than I imagined,” she remarked. “I’m glad.”

Vincent was not sure how to reply, so he gently squeezed her hand.

Why are we being so tentative with each other? she wondered. It’s almost as if we’re strangers.

Her mind wandered as they wended their way toward her home.

Glancing her way, he noticed a slight smile on her face. “What are you thinking, Catherine?”

She looked up at him and smiled. “When I was a little girl, my mother and I would have tea parties. Until I met Lin, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed them.”

He recalled how difficult and painful the anniversary of her mother’s’ death had been such a short time ago.

“Do those memories bring you pain?” he asked, clearly concerned.

“Yes, sometimes they do,” she admitted. “But they are memories I cherish too. I’ve come to realize that she must have known.”

“Known what?”

“She must have known for a long time that she wasn’t going to live for very long… that she was going to… die.”

There was a sad, wistful quality to her voice.

“I have so many wonderful memories,” she continued. “I wonder now, if she was always trying to give me as much of herself as she could… especially toward the end, so that I would always remember how much she loved me. Even though I lost her when I was very young, I have so many wonderful memories of our time together.”

He could feel the ache in her as she spoke, but he could feel the love too. It was nothing like the all-consuming pain she had experienced just a few short weeks ago.

“I’m glad you have those memories. You are very fortunate, Catherine. Some people never have such a gift.”

She stopped walking and looked up at him, wide eyed. How could I be so thoughtless? she berated herself. When he never even had a mother. I’m such an idiot.

“Vincent, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking… I shouldn’t have said…”

“Catherine,” he interrupted, gently squeezing her hand. “It’s all right… What your mother gave you… It’s a precious gift…” he said reassuringly. “I wasn’t referring to myself… I have wonderful memories of my childhood. I was speaking of… others… some of the children who come here… they’ve been abused and neglected by their mothers and those who should have loved them… the way you were loved… the way I was loved. They have no good memories of their mothers, and it’s difficult for them to learn to trust.”

“But you never had a mother, Vincent. I was being thoughtless, when I spoke.”

“I did have a mother; many in fact,” he assured her. “I was cared for by substitute mothers here Below. You and I, we were both the fortunate ones, Catherine. We were always loved. We were always safe. Please don’t feel that you can’t share your memories with me… the good or the bad.”

But my memories caused him pain. They hurt him. I can’t say that, she thought. It sounds like I’m blaming him. But I need to say something.

“I don’t want to cause you pain, Vincent,” she finally said.

Vincent didn’t know what to say.

Of course, she feels that way, he reminded himself. The last time she tried to share her pain, I turned her away.

Vincent had lain awake many nights since then, trying to imagine what he should have said and done differently that night. He feared that even though she had come back to him, that he had done irreparable harm to their relationship. Their awkwardness with each other only served to increase that fear.

They resumed walking the rest of the way, still hand in hand, but in silence. They were both lost in their own thoughts, each trying to find their way back to the other.

Finally arriving at her threshold, they were both reluctant to say good-bye. They stood facing each other, in the spot that connected their two very different worlds, as they had many times before.

Grasping for something to keep her with him a few minutes longer, Vincent spoke first.

“May I ask you something, Catherine?”

She smiled shyly and nodded. “Yes… anything.” Anything, she thought. Anything that will keep me from having to return, up there, to my world without you.

When he hesitated, she asked, “What is it, Vincent?”

He took a deep breath before finally speaking, “The morning you returned to me …?”

“Yes… I remember,” she whispered. I remember every second, every breath, every heartbeat of that morning, she thought.

“I didn’t ask you then… but I’ve wondered since…”

She waited patiently for him to find the words.

“What was it exactly…,” he continued. “What made you come running back to me like that? What changed?”

She smiled and nodded, remembering how desperately she’d needed to get back to him and tell him what she had discovered.

“I had a dream…,” she began.

“A… a dream?”

“Yes… a beautiful dream, about the two of us. We were walking arm in arm in the sunlight and it was wonderful… And then… it turned into a… nightmare.”

“What happened?” he was afraid to ask, but he had to know. Did I hurt her in this nightmare? What could it be? he wondered.

“We were having a picnic and then… you were gone. I thought I’d lost you, and I called out your name… I woke up crying, and Nancy came in. She held me… and then we talked for a while… And then she said something… and I knew.

“What was it Catherine? What did she say? What was it that you knew?”

“She said… ‘You’ve got to follow your heart, it’s the only thing you can ever really count on.’”

She looked into his clear blue eyes again. “She told me to follow my heart, Vincent. That’s what you always say… and then I realized…”

“What? You realized what?”

“I realized… that whenever I follow my heart… it always leads me…”

He held his breath…

“… back to you.”

They both exhaled, and like two magnets that could no longer resist each other, they drew closer until they were in each other’s arms. They stood in the dim, dusty light of her sub-basement embracing each other tightly, as the awkwardness and uncertainty fell away. They stood like that for a long time before anyone spoke.

Nuzzling his face in her hair he breathed her in deeply. “Oh, Catherine,” he sighed. “What are we going to do?”

She recalled the night she had asked him the very same thing. His answer then had almost destroyed everything. Now he was asking her. She still didn’t know the answer.

Breathing in deeply, she drank in the Tunnel scent of his clothes and the sweet essence that was so uniquely Vincent. How she had missed his closeness.

Finally, she looked up at him and shook her head. “I don’t know, Vincent. I don’t know what we’re going to do. But what ever it is, we must do it… together.”

He dropped his head until their foreheads touched, and whispered “Yes, Catherine, we must… do it together.”

He stood there for a few minutes after she climbed the ladder and disappeared back into the world Above. He watched the dust swirl in the beam of light that shone through the portal, that divided his world from hers, and tried to discern what she was feeling. Will our connection return with time? he wondered. Or is it broken for good?

~~~

Catherine noticed the red light on her answering machine blinking as soon as she entered her apartment. Putting down the package she was carrying, she punched the button on her phone. “You have reached 555-8291. Please leave a message after the beep,” the machine repeated her cheerful, yet generic greeting,”

“Hey Cathy, it’s Joe.”

Please don’t ask me to come into the office, she silently pleaded.

“I just had to tell you, the verdict came in on O’Mansky this afternoon. We won! The jury found him guilty on every single count! Heeheeheee! I can’t believe it!” he squealed. “We hit it outta the ball park, Radcliffe!”

Catherine laughed too. Joe sounded just like a little boy who just won a Little League championship.

“Anyway, Cathy,” his voice became serious again. “I couldn’t have done it without you. Seriously… You really saved my bacon, Kiddo. I can’t thank you enough. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

“A two week vacation to the Bahamas would be nice,” she replied sarcastically to the answering machine.

“Anyway, Kiddo,” his voice continued. “It’s back to the grind tomorrow, huh? How bout I take you out ta lunch? You like lasagna? See ya bright and early. Bye.” Beeeep. Click.

 “Yeah, yeah, Joe.” Catherine sighed. “Back to the grind tomorrow… bright and early,”

She didn’t want to think about tomorrow. Right now, all she wanted was a long soak in a hot bubble bath and a decent night’s sleep.

She reached for the package that Dr. Wong had given her and took it into the kitchen. She ran a hot bath while she made a cup of tea.

Placing the tea on the edge of the tub next to the box of fortune cookies, she slipped into the bliss of steaming hot bubbles and let the stress of the last several weeks begin to soak away.

Finally reaching for a cookie, she broke it in half revealing a small piece of paper inside. She took a sip of tea as she silently read.

Catherine began laughing so hard that she spewed tea into the bath water. The bathroom walls echoed with her laughter for a few minutes before she regained her composure. “If you only knew, Lin… if you only knew.” She realized it had been a long time since she had laughed so hard. It felt good.

Still chuckling, she reached for the second cookie. Retrieving the paper fortune, she read:

 “Hope,” she whispered, as she internalized the words. “Where there’s tea, there’s hope,” she read again. “Thank you, Lin,” she whispered to the night. “I really needed that.”

She leaned back in the bathtub and let the bubbles take her away.

~~~

After delivering Father’s package, Vincent returned to his chamber. He opened the package that Lin had given him. It contained a packet of Vincent’s favorite tea and a small box containing two fortune cookies, lightly dusted with powdered sugar. After preparing a cup of tea, he picked up one of the cookies and carefully broke it into two equal pieces. He pulled out the small note. Holding it under his lamp, he read an old Chinese proverb.

 

He wondered what Lin was trying to tell him. Does she believe that Catherine and I were destined for each other? Is she giving us her blessing?

 He reached the second fortune.

As he read, he realized, Yes, Lin is also standing on the edge of the river, hoping for our safe passage… She is praying for both of us… He closed his eyes and let himself hope, just a little. He hoped that the strength of their bond would return to him. He hoped that he would find a way to heal the damage he had done. And he hoped that Catherine would learn to trust him again.

As he sipped his tea, he recalled the words that had been spoken at Henry and Lin’s wedding ceremony.

~~~

Your love is the sum of your being
and must be cherished ‘til the end of your days.
For love is truly the strongest of bonds.
Yet for all its strength, love is also delicate
as a lotus flower, and requires care.
Let your courage to love, serve as an inspiration
to all who climb the highest mountains
and cross the great waters in love
's name.

 --Master (Key Luke) Beauty and the Beast Season 1 Episode 13: China Moon

 

 


 

[1] --LIN YUTANG, The Importance of Living

 

 

 

* Note to the reader:

To see how Vincent and Catherine resolve the issues in this story, you will need to read  
The Heartbroken Cello
.

 

 

 

Illustrations supplied by the author

 

 

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