Backroads Ch. 05byAdrian Leverkuhn©
Maybe it was the clatter of my falling chair, or Jennie's shocked little yelp as I tumbled over backwards. Jun Shibata, the owner of the restaurant, was at my side seemingly within seconds; he helped me up, set the chair back, then he stared at Jennie for a long time. He seemed to be making up his mind about something, then scowled at her, turned and walked back to the kitchen.
I sat down, looked across the table. I think I was as confused in those moments as I have ever been. And my head hurt like hell.
Jennie was angry, hurt, regal, imperious; she looked peregrine, her hood taken off and ready to leave the wrist. She was looking right into my eyes.
"I don't know what to say," I said.
"What a surprise. Did you hear a goddamn thing I said?"
"What are you doing here? Did you say Stage Two?"
"Then what the hell are you dong here? Didn't anyone tell you this can be very time critical..."
"Oh, yes. I've been told. By physicians, surgeons, my handlers and their associates; they've all told me just exactly what I should do."
"So, you're not going to try surgery? No treatment at all?"
"Yes. That's right, Jim. I'm a quitter, or haven't you figured that out yet?"
"Quitter. Right. That's why we're here tonight, isn't it? You're a quitter." I hadn't noticed but Mr Shibata had come back to the table. He was waiting politely for a chance to interrupt, to say something to Jennie.
She looked at Mr Shibata now as intently as he was looking at her.
"Yes? What is it?" she finally asked him. She looked mildly angry.
"You lady on tee-vee. You government looking find you. FBI looking you."
"What?!" we said together.
"You on tee-vee now. You come see." We hopped from our chairs and followed Mr Shibata back to a little office off the kitchen; there was a tiny television on a bookcase and CNN was on. There she was in the middle of the screen, a reporter talking about the FBIs so far inconclusive efforts to locate the missing Irish parliamentarian. Leads were being followed, and anyone with information should please call the number on your screen or local police department.
"Fuck," I think I said.
"Bollocks," Jennie said, then, while looking at her watch: "Could I use your telephone, please."
"Yes please," Mr Shibata bowed as he pointed to the telephone, clearly pleased he had cracked the case and at the same time honored someone so important was in his restaurant.
"Come on, Jun. Let's give her some privacy."
"Ah, so sorry. Yes." We left Jennie alone and I walked back to the table. A new waitress, one I'd never seen before, brought a plank of sushi and sashimi and set it down before me. She was attractive; I smiled while I had her eye and she returned the gesture with one of her own. She looked Japanese, too, not like the Koreans and Chinese working in so many of the other places around town. I knew Jun was particular about that.
I looked at all the fish on the shiny maple plank; all perfect cuts, all pink and orange and white... all cold, all life gone from the cold, dead tissue. I felt a little like one of these fish right now; thawed, cut open and laid out for examination. How cheerful.
I mixed some soy and wasabe and took a piece, held it in my chopsticks, looked at the subtle perfection in my hand and everywhere around me. The only flaw I saw was the hand holding the fish.
Jennie joined me a few minutes later.
"Sorry," she said. "I've been bad."
"Bad? That sounds like an understatement. The FBI?"
"It's taken care of."
"You're a bastard, you know."
"And you're a bitch. There. Feel all better now?"
She smiled, laughed gently, almost lightly. "Yes. You?"
"No, not really. What do you want to talk about?"
"If we can, I want to talk about us." She must have seen the look in my eyes. "I don't...didn't want to end like this."
"Pardon me, but it seems like there's this huge white elephant standing behind you right now. Let's see. You've got an aggressive but treatable cancer. Right?"
"Yes. By the way, is the salmon good?"
"Uh, yes. I think so."
"You haven't had any?"
She took a piece, used my wasabe and painted some on with a slice of ginger. She regarded the fish for a moment then popped it in her mouth.
Her eyes began to water, she fanned her hand in front of her mouth.
"Yeow. Too much... hot!" She broke out in a sweat. I, of course, smiled.
"I like it hot."
"That's not hot, Jim. That's chemical warfare."
I laughed, took a bite. "Not bad. Jun's got the best in town. His son drives up to Seattle a couple times a week to pick up fresh stuff at the market."
She nodded, took a piece of tuna and tossed it in. "I'm starving. Please forgive me."
"Just not too common, you know. Symptomatically, anyway. They sure of the diagnosis?"
"So why bail out on treatment?"
"Did you ever see 'Ikuru'? The Kurosawa film?"
"Yeah. Good movie."
"I saw it once, a long time ago. All I remember was the finality of the diagnosis; all the doctors said pretty much the same thing to me. Treatable, might buy you some time, but ultimately fatal."
"So what are you going to do? Crawl off to a dark corner? You know Jennie; that film was made in like the nineteen forties?"
"I wanted to have some fun. Do some things I've never done. See places I've always wanted to see..."
"Tie up tall doctors...Stick soiled underwear in their mouths."
She laughed. "Yeah. That too."
"So. Kurosawa. What else do you member?"
"Not much. The old man trying to seduce some young girl from his office."
"Yes. I remember crying. At the end."
"That's a relief."
"What? Why do you..."
"It's not exactly a comedy, you know. Do you know what the word 'Ikuru' means?"
"To live. The old man knew life was endless futility, yet he chose to live."
"I would rather die tomorrow than spend years getting cut open and pumped full of platinum."
"Eat some fish."
"Jim? I'm sorry. I mean it. The last thing I wanted to do was..."
"Save your breath, would you?"
"I could believe you except for the maid thing."
"Yeah. Why do that to me, to anybody; but a total stranger? But remember; I asked if you got off on the idea of her reaction. Remember what you said?"
She looked down. "Yes."
"That's good, because I've spent the past few days trying to forget it."
"Would you accept my apology? Please?"
"Yeah, sure, if it makes you feel better."
She looked at me; I could feel the bewildered anger radiating from her eyes. "You're not going to give me a break, are you?"
"A break? Cut you some slack? Why?"
"Because what? You're sick? Does that change what happened? Looking for an excuse?"
"Do you have to work tomorrow?"
"Whoa. Let's change the subject again?"
"No, no; I just wanted to spend some time with you. Talking. But I'm getting tired, and I'd better find a place to sleep."
I smiled. "Thanks for not making that assumption, but I have a couple of spare bedrooms."
"It's not an imposition?"
"The only imposition will be if you make me eat all this goddamned fish!" I wiped sweat from my forehead. She smiled.
"You've got your own bathroom over there; towels on the rack are clean, so are the sheets. You need to do any laundry?"
"Heavens, yes. Do you have a machine here?"
"Just leave it by the machine, right off the kitchen. A woman comes in once a week to dust up and do the laundry. She can get to them tomorrow morning, I expect."
"Yeah, well, good night." I closed the door, walked to my room and took another shower. Something about Jennie was really bothering me. Not just negating the possibility of treatment, either. I could understand her decision, but the choice seemed nonetheless to go against the grain of what I'd seen of her personality so far. She didn't seem, despite what she'd said earlier, to be a quitter. Far from it.
It just seemed far fetched our encounter had been some kind of morbid cry for help, but what did she think our meeting and coming together had symbolized? She said what? It was no coincidence? If not, if there was some existential purpose, what did she think could it be?
Stepping back, looking at it everything that had happened again, I groped through the contours of her dilemma. Tired and frustrated from years of political wrangling, devastated by her aborted affair with a very demanding and sadistic man, then having the absolute stuffing knocked out of her by this recent diagnosis.
She said she'd run away. Maybe so, maybe even natural under the circumstances. But she wasn't running away from anyone or anything other than herself; she had to know that. She must have seen the rest of her life laid out before her eyes, and not liked what she saw. On examination, might she have recoiled from that perceived fate? If the unknown was so uncomfortable, was it unreasonable to turn and search out the known -- no matter how distorted her perception was?
See the things she'd always wanted to see, she said. By implication, the things she wanted to but never could without running away. What was so important about this? Run from what?
Things. See things. Why see things? Why turn away from one perceived fate to go see -- things?
These things? Were they motivation or excuse? No, no, not right...
Were these things keeping her from her fate? From her first best destiny? And was that my role in this mess? Had she sought out someone to help her find the way back? Back to what?
Questions! Too many questions! I'd never get to sleep at this rate.
There was a soft knock at my door.
"Jim? You up?"
I opened the door; she was standing there in a t-shirt from the lodge that hung down past her knees. Geesh, she was so short and cute, almost impishly so.
"That's rather stylish."
"Thought you'd like this better than fishnets."
I blinked rapidly, and I think my sphincter contracted involuntarily.
"What's up?" I asked lamely, probably because my tongue suddenly felt glued to the roof of my mouth.
"Shower felt great; kind of woke me up. Could we talk some more?" I stepped from my bedroom but she stopped me with an outstretched hand: "Be fine in here, won't we?" I stepped aside and she slipped by me, padded silently by like a cat on the prowl, went to my bed and sat; I moved to the safety of a chair across the room and looked at her while she surveyed my things.
We were silent for a while. I watched her as she scanned the room.
"Why don't you have pictures on the walls?" she said as she looked around the room. "Not even photographs. That seems odd to me?"
"Yes. There's something cold, sterile, about this place."
"That's me. Cold and sterile."
"No, no, not really you. Maybe a reflection of the work you do, but not you."
"I didn't know there was a difference."
"For the past twenty years all I've done is come back here for a nap and a shower. It's just me, you know. No wife, no kids, no Sesame Street videos..."
"Anything to eat in the fridge?"
"I doubt it; not much, anyway. Are you still hungry?"
"No. I just wondered." She looked around again. "Why do you need a housekeeper? You don't seem to be a slob? Quite the opposite, in fact."
"Just seems the thing to do, I guess. I hate filth. And clutter."
"Ah. Order, orderliness. Is that what you mean? Everything in its place?"
"Never an easy, unequivocal answer from you, is there?"
I laughed. "I wish I dealt with certainties better. The predictable I'm okay with."
"But don't you? Deal with certainties?"
"No, I deal with mutations, an ordered response to the inevitable."
"Even in here then, I take it?" She looked from the walls to me and back again. "Change is the enemy. Isn't it?"
"Something like that. Yes. Maybe."
"So then, life is the enemy? Life is change, isn't it?"
"Of course. And death is the eventual victor. Life leads to death, always."
"Never thought of it that way. Odd. But how can one live -- really live -- if life is the enemy?"
"With no pictures on the wall, Jennie."
"What do you stand for? What are the issues that define your political self?"
"You want to talk politics?"
"No. Not at all. I want to talk about you, your life."
"Ah. So by extension, you want to talk about death.
"In a way."
"Not about death in general. Your death."
"Well, no, really. I didn't see that coming."
"So, what did you want to fight for. In parliament. What made the struggle so important?"
"Injustice, I expect. And poverty."
"And did you lead by example? Fight injustice and poverty in both word and deed?"
"I tried to, yes."
"So there was something for your constituents, for the people, to be gained by following your example."
"Yes, of course."
"Well, what kind of example are you setting before them now. 'I'm going to die soon, so I'm going to rush off and leave you and I'm not going to fight this thing. Sayonara and goodbye.'"
"I don't see it that way, Jim."
"How we face death is important. Give up? Really? I don't see it that way. I want to enjoy the time I have left, do things I've always wanted to do, see things I never got a chance to see. That's important to me. That was my choice; the choice I chose to make."
I leaned forward in my chair to speak but a muscle in my back shot into spasm.
"What's wrong?" Jennie asked.
"Muscle spasm..." I gasped.
"Here, lay down." She was on her feet, helping me stand. It felt like a knife had plunged between the shoulder blades and suddenly I could hardly breathe. I stumbled to the bed and I felt her working my robe off; it fell to the floor as she guided me down.
"On your back," she said, and when I was down she took my legs in her arms and hoisted both knees toward my chest. "Bring your arms up and clasp behind your knees. That's right. Now pull your chin up, pull your back muscles, stretch them..."
"Hold it 'til you feel the pain lessen."
I breathed in ragged little gulps, then I felt the pressure release a little and I let out a sigh.
"Right. Roll over," she said. She helped me turn over and I felt her straddling my back, then her thumbs working into the knotted tissue between my shoulders.
"God, they're tight," she said after a few minutes. "Like walnuts under the skin!"
"Ng-n-n-u-n" I think I managed to say.
She kept on for several minutes, then she moved down until she was atop the backs of my thighs; now her thumbs and palms worked down my spine and a chill ran up my back. I began to feel hot and sleepy, like I was ready to drift off to sleep, and in that hazy ether I felt her skin on mine, her warmth sliding up my legs. Once I felt her pubic hair and electric jolts ran from my legs to my groin; I could feel my muscles twitch and rise like a bird dog on the scent.
She leaned forward, lay down on my back; I could feel her breasts flatten against my skin, the side of her face on my shoulder, her gentle breath on the back of my neck.
"I don't know why," she whispered softly, "but I love you. I can't help it and I feel lost without you."
She was silent for a while, and so was I, then she kissed my neck.
"Don't push me away again, Jim. I need you too much now."
She kissed my ear; I felt her tongue run along the edge of expectation, then she gently bit it.
"Turn over, Jim." I felt her body rise and I turned until I faced her; she fell gently into place as if this was where she belonged, the warmth of her need rested against my own, and she moved gently back and forth, back and forth. The gritty pubic motion, the gentle cascade of flowing warmth, her soft eyes lost in my own... she moved slowly as my body responded naturally to hers. She leaned down again, kissed me gently, then urgently while her hand went down between us and sought the hardness she wanted, craved. I felt her hands encircle me, felt the head pushed against yielding petals, her warmth pierced whatever voids remained between us, and she lowered herself until she was all around me.
Her hands on my shoulders, she leaned gently into me, rocked so very slowly as I rose to meet her time and time and time again. We went on like this for hours, weeks, years, we went on until release consumed what was left and sleep came for us.
The alarm went off just before seven and I hopped into the shower; Jennie lay asleep and still, though she looked very pale to me. I dressed, went to the kitchen, made coffee and an omelet, very mild, and carried it back to the bedroom. I woke her, she seemed flushed and disoriented until her nose wrinkled and she sniffed the air.
"Hungry?" I asked.
"A little. Not really, though. I feel different this morning."
"Okay. Well, why don't you shower and throw on some things; I'd like you to come in to work with me this morning."
"Not an option, really." I watched her face redden, her jaw clench.
"I'm not going to see another doctor. I told..."
"And I'm not taking you to a doctor."
"Oh. Well, sure then; I'll go -- would like to see where you work. Is the coffee black?"
"I thought you were still on vacation."
"I am. For another week." She seemed to have taken root in my bed, and I had to laugh at how comfortable she seemed in these surroundings. "Now get dressed, would you?"
We drove across town in my car, parked in the physician's lot. She made all the right noises about the hospital, how nice it looked, how pretty Portland was in general, how pleasant the cool summer weather seemed. We walked across the lot and in the little physician's entrance and I felt the involuntary shudder that passed through her when the smell of disinfectant washed over her. Modern urban hospitals smell alike -- wherever you find them, and most people's reaction is usually an overwhelming association with foul memories and imminent pain. Or both.
We walked to an elevator and rode up to my office; I asked Jennie to take a seat while I checked some lab reports, then leaned back and looked at her.
"I've got to go do some quick checks on a couple of folks, then we can get out of here. I can't take you along; but there's someone here I'd like you to meet and you can stay there while I get this other stuff done. She's fun to talk to and who knows, you may even learn a thing or two."
"You're not taking me to an oncologist, are you? I won't go..."
"Nope. Nothing of the sort. Come on. The sooner we get going the sooner we can get out of here."
"So, who is this person," Jennie said as they walked onto the infectious diseases ward.
"Here you go. Got to gown up and put a mask and gloves on."
"Precaution really. Not for your sake, but the patients'. Every one on this ward is immune compromised."
"HIV, yeah. A couple of other autoimmune cases, but mostly HIV."
"Is it safe. I mean..."
"I know what you mean, and yes."
She looked warily around the nurse's station; I could tell she was a little disoriented; nobody was paying her the slightest attention and the nurses looked rather chipper this morning -- everything screamed normal but everything must have felt completely out of place to her. I helped her tie up her gown and mask, slip on latex gloves, then we set off down the corridor until we came to Madeleine's room. I knocked, opened up the door and poked my head in."
"Hey doc! Back so soon?"
I stepped in the room, Jennie slid in right behind me. Madeleine eyed her as she came in, her bright smile cutting through all the doubt Jennie must have felt. I was counting on that.