Christine (Part 3)

I flew home alone and landed with a sticky joy to a sweltering New York in early September. The taxi line at JFK felt like a ticker tape parade.

A few days later I relieved the cat sitter and began taking care of Hardy again. Her usual spot in her cat bed under the linen closet was sodden. There was also urine around the cat box. In fact there seemed to be patches of Hardy’s watery piss everywhere but no Hardy. I called the cat sitter and she said yes, Hardy did seem to be having trouble getting the cat box recently and she hadn’t been eating very much.

I called Christine in Sao Paulo for advice. No answer. Finally I heard Hardy weakly calling from under the laundry basket. She crawled out and came toward me. She was dragging one of her back legs. Some time in the last week the cat appeared to have had a stroke, and the fucking idiot cat sitter hadn’t noticed.

Shit, shit, shit. I called a car service, grabbed the cat carrier, and rushed to the vet. I sat with Hardy in a consulting room, a lump in my throat. I ran my hands over her bony frame and massaged her warm body. She was breathing quickly. The Vet came in and examined her. Then she took Hardy into the ICU. I didn’t even know they did that! I tried to get Chris at her office but I couldn’t make the operator understand. I left my number. The vet came out. She looked serious. She told me Hardy was stable, but she didn’t know for how long, and indeed she’d had a stroke. She asked me what I wanted to do.

“Me? It’s not my cat! It’s my girlfriend’s.”

“Can you reach her?”

“I’m trying,” I said, and I stepped away again.

When I returned, the vet said they could keep Hardy alive, but it would get very expensive. They had Hardy on cat life support. In a roundabout way she was asking if I wanted to pull the plug. I stared at my screen saver: A selfie of Christine and I squashed up in the back of a Rio taxi smiling. I stared at the vet. She told me Hardy had probably been in pain for sometime and the most humane thing was to put her to sleep. I agreed.

I decided to be with Hardy during the procedure. Christine would want that. The vet took me to a consulting room and told me she’d be back shortly. I sat quietly, filling up with tears. The vet came in carrying Hardy in a towel. She handed her to me, and I gathered her up in my arms like a baby. She was warm and soft and breathing slowly. She looked up at me calmly with none of the spite I’d once imagined she had for me. My tears were splashing onto her thinning fur.

“Is she in pain?”

“No.” said the vet softly.

The vet injected Hardy and she started to purr, looking up at me again. I kneaded her neck and back and felt the scar tissue where I’d stuck the saline drip during her weeks in my charge. She coughed a little. She lay her head down in my hands and slowly stopped breathing. The vet measured her weakening pulse as it faded. We were quiet for a long time.

“She’s gone now. I’ll give you a moment.”

I cried so hard. I recited the Lord’s Prayer and the serenity prayer—the only one’s I can remember by heart.

My thighs were sweating from the heat of the little cat’s body and as I shifted in my seat, I realized how floppy Hardy was.

Out in the reception area Christine called back. I breathed deeply.

“I’m so sorry—Hardy’s gone.”

I listened to her cry and scream ‘no’ over and over again. Fucking heartbreaking.

When Chris returned from Brazil for the final time we came together in the tragedy, caring for each other as we grieved. I’d done the right thing she said.

I spoiled her with attention and indulged her with one of her long aimless walks around the borough. Though without a route, she compromised sweetly with a destination. We planned to walk from the tree-lined streets of Park Slope to adjacent Red Hook with the promise of ice cream on the home stretch.

As we crossed over the neighborhood borders, we passed through a sort of the no man’s land to get to our destination under Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It was dusk and the BQE roared high above us. Near the highway, warehouses and projects squatted next to each other watching the fleeing motorists on the overpass. The concrete shook and the early evening foot traffic became an army of menacing silhouettes. Every figure was a threat. I lost it. Christine asked if I was OK. I wanted to say yes that I could handle this minor flashback. But instead I blurted out that I wasn’t. Why were we down here? Wandering around in the dark? Didn’t she realize what I’d been through? Why are we always walking around without a proper route? She made no judgment. She calmly took my arm and led me back to the safety of streetlights, food co-ops, surly baristas and artisanal gelato. I was embarrassed.

 

Soon we would be traveling to England for my father’s memorial service. Christine decided she wanted to stop on the way for a weekend in Paris to visit old friends. She asked where we would stay in the UK and how much time we would spend at my mother’s. Fair questions. I placated her.“We’ll figure it out.”

I was anxious at the thought of the upcoming trip. I knew I was going to be vulnerable, and in those brief moments as she leaned over me in the hammock in Sao Paulo I was scared of her. I was ashamed that I’d been afraid but in the immediate aftermath of my attack, at my most paranoid and frightened, I believed she’d betrayed me and joined my attackers to torment me. I didn’t understand it then but I was dragging my feet with the arrangements because I didn’t want her to come with me to England. She was right when she said I was blowing her off and a few days before we were to leave it all came to a head.

“You’ve completely withdrawn.” She told me. she was hurt and confused. “ I have no idea why! All you have to do is explain to me where and when we’re staying, is that too much to ask?”

I looked for a way to un-invite her. Scrambling for an excuse, I told her it looked like the gathering would be immediate family only, which was true, and perhaps too intimate to be introducing her to everyone. Maybe she should scrap the UK part of the trip? I ventured cautiously. She could stay in Paris and then we could meet up in London and fly back together. I said I was sorry, I hadn’t thought it out. She wasn’t convinced but after she added conditions—She would fly from Charles de Gaulle to Bristol a couple of days after the memorial and meet my family in a less charged atmosphere—we switched her ticket.

On our first morning in France I woke up late and we snarled at each other through the inevitable jet lag of a grueling overnight trip. I immediately apologized but she stormed out. Later we forced ourselves outside onto rainy Parisian streets to explore the Promenade Plantée—a retrofitted, tree-lined parkway on an old railway line, in the nearby 12th Arrondisement. We played cat and mouse in the traffic on rental bikes. I didn’t enjoy itIt was too cold and the bicycles were in poor shape. I wanted to be at home, not fucking about in French drizzle on a couple of boneshakers before meeting her best friends that night, who I’m sure had been primed about my poor behavior.

I brightened at an outdoor market when I got to practice my schoolboy French asking for a type of Polish cheese we’d wanted to bring as a gift her friend Marta. When the man at the dairy counter was unresponsive to my butchery of his language, Chris intervened.

“He doesn’t understand you. Let’s go.”

She guided me away by the elbow as the baffled Parisian looked on. I felt humiliated and tried in careful language to explain that it was not cool to cut off my conversation like that. Returning to the steps of her childhood friend’s apartment near the Gare De Lyon, she berated me for five minutes straight, about my poor attitude including my jet-lagged grumpiness at the beginning of the day. I kept my mouth shut and my head down. I ignored her—I don’t think she noticed.

 

My old friend Giles picked me up from Bristol airport and drove me for an hour to my mother’s home near Taunton. I dumped my troubles on him as he gave me sarcastic notes born of a small-town pragmatism. His advice was to leave her and start reading the death notices in the paper. There I would find a good woman. One not fucked up and unhinged but a widow made available by an act of God. Perfect! We howled like schoolboys all the way home.

I once again joined my mum and sister to say good-bye to my dad. It was a simple service followed by a pub lunch with close family, which was the best laugh I’d had in ages. I discovered my mum wasn’t helpless without my father. If anything she was more independent—my father could be a real naysayer sometimes. My sister was still deeply troubled by the loss, and though we didn’t have time to talk properly, we agreed to check in with each other more often. It was an intimate and rewarding time.

When Christine arrived in Somerset, we kept hostilities to a minimum before we rounded off the adventure with a brutal fight at my friend’s house in West London. Somewhere in the early hours of the grey London dawn, she found a way to express her anger and finally it all came flooding out.

“You’re just like my father!” She said.

Finally she found a target for her childhood humiliations. She wept uncontrollably and even as I reached out in her pain she batted me away. Exhausted we fell into bed and burrowed into the covers for bad sex followed by solitary scalding showers. The next morning we tried to shake off the hangover with a vicious postmortem walk around the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. She told me she was shocked by her outburst the night before.

“I think I’m having some sort of breakthrough. Obviously, I know you’re not my father,” she confessed, “but you’ve started to represent him when we fight. I didn’t realize it at first but when I’m angry and I shut down on you I’m going into a sort of ‘safe mode’, because it’s all I know how to do. I curl up into a ball. That’s not your fault.”

I was confused. This was a significant moment for her and I tried to see this as a good thing.

We had lunch at the legendary St. John in Smithfield, where they pride themselves on the preparation of the “whole animal”. That is to say they cook all of it from the brains down to the feet. She scraped marrow from a neatly cut bone. I had no appetite.

On the flight home, packed like bullets into a barrel, my stress lifted. By the time we were in the air, we were joking and flirting again. She stroked my arm and said I was like a different person. She glowed when I touched her. I whispered filth in her ear, and she giggled. She made funny comments about the other passengers, and I smiled. I was relieved. The worst was behind us.

But it was a short-lived respite and the last time we would ever be on good terms. High above the clouds in the permanent sunrise my mind was clear. I didn’t tell her but I knew we were finished. All that was left for me to do was to pull the trigger. I didn’t want to double up as her lover and her father. I couldn’t right wrongs from her childhood and I didn’t want to try. Looking back at the night in the hammock, full of rage and fear I couldn’t sort the real from the imagined. I didn’t trust her anymore or more accurately I couldn’t trust myself to give her the benefit of the doubt and to let it go. With new revelations about her breakthrough she was looking at a huge emotional project and in the mean time? What exactly? Would we continue to cycle through my depression, her escalating anger to find temporary reconciliation through the communion of sex?

When we got home to her apartment, I made tea as she unpacked. She put Hardy’s things in the hall and called the pet store to return huge bags of organic cat litter she had bought in bulk.

We sat across from each other, nursing our Earl Grey. She looked at me expectantly. I told her I needed time to myself and she said okay. I left. I planned to take a week, and then tell her I wanted to split up.

She waited for three days before she texted, “Have you had enough time?” I’d been cowardly hoping she’d just let it all go, so I didn’t have to do the deed. We made plans to meet at her house the following weekend. I talked to my shrink. I talked to my friend Gabby. I looked for a different way out, but the solution was always the same.

When we met she was prepared for the worst and she wasn’t going to let me go easily. She was composed and calm. We talked about our issues in a high state of agitation, but it never spilled over into anger. I said I couldn’t fight with her anymore. It was tearing me up.

“I can see that,” she said, “and it’s tearing me up too, but I’m not fighting with you anymore. Can’t you see I’m fighting for us?”

We exchanged arguments for a couple of hours. I told her I couldn’t see us working out, and she countered my statements with evidence to the contrary. Mostly, I soft-balled her and when she punted, I let it roll away.

“You are a loving, incredible man. You ground me. Remember that time we tried swing dancing? I was so proud to be on your arm. You were my man!” Tears rolled down her face as she smiled.

“You were patient and taught me the steps. You guided me. I soften at your touch or when I hear your voice and your laugh. You mean the world to me, and it’s important that you hear that. When you say you can’t see us working out, you’re discounting my capacity to work on myself, to make us stronger.”

I smiled too at her gentle compliments, and my tears spilled.

She talked about the night she’d lost it at my friend’s flat in London. How she’d broken down in tears and told me again about the anger and violence she had lived with as a child. How she’d screamed at me because I reminded her of her father.

“When I say I don’t trust you or I’m scared of you, it’s not in a general sense. I haven’t fought with anyone in what feels like a lifetime. I was too ashamed to let out the anger and fear I’ve buried so deeply, so long ago. I know you don’t want to be the one to steer me though the breakthrough I’m having about my father, but in truth you already have.”

We were quiet for a while.

“I don’t want to help you through this breakthrough—it hurts me too much.” I said. “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to do this anymore.”

She looked at me steadily. She gathered herself bravely as I put on my coat and she went to hug me. We held each other tightly. As we embraced she whispered to me, “Stay the night.” She broke down sobbing and wouldn’t let go of me. I had to pull myself away. I staggered, eyes stinging out the door into the Brooklyn night.

We had no friends in common except on Facebook, and now all her friends would certainly block me as mine would hers, tit-for-tat. There was no danger of bumping into each other at parties or seeing each other in the local supermarket. Such was the finale of the online dating experience.

A few weeks later, we exchanged prisoners. Boxes of gathered possessions previously scattered like flags on our undiscovered continents. She refused to see me but traveled to my neighborhood to my building and texted me instructions to bring her things down, Cold War style. I put them at the door, and I looked around. If she was out there watching me I couldn’t see her. I walked out of the line of sight of the door and waited a few minutes. When I returned I found a bulging NPR tote slumped like a miniature body bag against the front door.

The end.

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