By Tom Thompson
Puget Sound, Washington 5:37 a.m.
Beyond the bed the chill from misty Puget Sound made him want to draw her closer. The easy fatigue of intermittent love-making had put his mind in the island’s gray-green fog, a steam-like mask that covered the thick vaulting Douglas Firs that grew from bluff to bluff over the length of the island. The stillness of the floating house was disturbed only by wailing seagulls and ferry horns, all from an uncertain distance.
He loved the special sunlight of the Pacific Northwest, the way it seeped in at dawn only to bleed away at dusk, transforming day and night with dramatic and even mysterious effects. He loved the gauzy fog that could hang around all day, taking away the sharp edges of everything and making it impossible not to appreciate life’s never ending ambiguities. Depending on his mood, he could have been floating in the center of the world, or, in a different mood, near its edges.
Gabriela wasn’t his wife. Although with only lingering guilt and sadness, he easily remembered Nicole fondly. She had died less than a year ago. She had been taking a shower, soaping herself down. “Houston, we have a problem!,” she had added crying, “A scattering of small hard beans!”
His own low-voltage adrenal drain and the nearly constant charge of anxiety never met with any sympathy. There was never any ‘closure’ of anything, he thought. The cancer’s discovery just prior to their decision to divorce had destroyed any artificial appetite for hyperbole. Nicole was thirty- nine. At her memorial service, he had surprised everybody by offering the admission that too much of the drama of their lives had simply been the manufactured kind, drawn from fear, misperceptions, and multiple misunderstandings. Now she had become a jumbled pool of contradictory memories and reflections, some warm and happy, all of them tinged with regret, and even now still ripe at times with visceral grief. Before she died, she had insisted that they finish the divorce process, “if only for closure,” she would joke from a morphine haze. But it never happened.
His eyes opened, and his body still covered by the down comforter, he knew that within minutes he would be rowing on the glistening, placid surface of nearby Eagle Harbor. It was always easily the best part of a day. No sound but for the quiet rippling water. He craved the tranquility, the solitude, the speed of a feather-like all-cedar rowing scull.
He imagined his body carefully balanced on the pencil-like 20-foot long boat. He was obsessed both on and off the water by the physics of legs compressing, shoulders and arms following, in a brisk and even pull, one hand above the other, pulling on two ten foot carbon-fiber oars, bending with the muscular rhythm of stroke after seamless stroke. On a good day, he could feel the boat lift, as he began to knife through the water in a harmony of effort that blended both unmistakable grace with starkly physical grit.
In the two months that he had known her, Gabriela had been fascinated by his fever-pitch rowing. She thought that he was trying to be an exorcist with himself. “You row as if you’re fighting something deep inside your soul, Derek,”she observed. But he remembered responding only by admitting that rowing was too much like his consulting career. “I’m always afraid of getting blindsided.” He had wondered if her English was good enough to know what he meant. He would never know.
It occurred to him to make love again, Gabriela’s preferred beginning to every day they were together. They weren’t gymnasts, both of them in mid-life, but they both imagined and knew from the outset in Rio that their love-making was precious, both tender and passionate. For now Gabriela was falling back into a deep sleep, even as he bumped against her with yet another hopeful erection. His renewed youthful vigor pleased her, but it frankly astonished him. Proof that he was moving on in his life.
“Gusto de estar contigo,” she interrupted, and sighed deeply, and then finally turned onto her stomach.
They were both tired after the late evening dinner with one of Derek’s clients, Mitch Ryder, an old friend from Georgetown who simultaneously had rescued Derek from university teaching and who had introduced Derek to the business world of international trade disputes, and, more importantly, the need for market research to support increasing claims of unfair trade practices. Mitch described himself to be a “free-trade lawyer,” but all of his firm’s clients were U.S. companies seeking protection from foreign competition.
They had been at fashionably up-scale Il Terrazo in Seattle, reported to be the site of the best veal picata anywhere, when mid-meal Gabriela had essentially terminated the evening with one sentence: “Mitch, you have zero listening skills. But aside from that, you’re a complete asshole. You’re the essence of why Americans are hated all over the world! “
As if to prove her point, Mitch simply turned his whole body toward Derek and continued talking. “Welcome to your new life , Derek. Time to make some money, buddy. It’s your turn. Why, you’re better than special forces! From one country to the next. You get the goods on a foreign exporter. We file a lawsuit. WHAM! Better than a cruise missile . Knocks ‘em out of business. Way to go, killer!”
Mitch had laughed about how Derek’s reports on various companies in South America had been “fleshed-out” and “improved upon” by an army of trade attorneys at the Washington, D.C. law firm, where Mitch had just made partner. Mitch even described in detail his firm’s talents for building ‘production cost models’ that ‘proved’ foreigners were selling everything from crayfish to steel at unfair prices in the U.S. market. “Of course, it doesn’t hurt that a couple of senior trade analysts at the Department of Commerce are on our payroll,” “ he added.
Gabriela asked Derek if this “market research” was dangerous, and Mitch laughed before mentioning in passing that there had been “a consultant that had been found face-down in a drainage ditch on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.” Derek ignored the implicit warning, although he had grown uncomfortable with the ethical realities of his work. There was no denying that he had been seduced by the twin promises of a new career, and by what he thought was unconditional love.
The last time they were together Gabriela had wanted to be on top, in control. The spaciousness and ease with each other had given them the feeling that they could make sense of all the confused and broken gestures of a lifetime. Her skin glowed, not white, or black, or red, yellow, or brown, but seemingly all shades in between. “The dream of God,” he thought.
She stretched her arms above him so that he could see her better, everything from the angled cheekbones framed by jet-black hair, to her tight, compact torso, and even the sculpted legs that came together in a thick black mound, as short and curly as steel wool. Her climax was lava in the night; Her body surged and in his ears was the roaring of her heart, her voice, and his as well.
“Kiss me now,” she murmured in an accented English that Derek cherished, but had never corrected. As he raised his head toward her, the glint of a steel wire with handles in each of her hands was unmistakable. She had wrapped it around his neck in one quick, professional move. His brain convulsed as it wrenched between one world and another.
Terrified, Derek threw himself into a frenzy of movement. He flailed desperately, but she was strong, both with hands and arms, and then with legs locked in a scissor-lock around his thighs. His shrieks, if he could have opened his mouth, bubbled beneath the gasping. A desk was turned over and disintegrated as he catapulted into it. With only the thinnest of blood-drawn streamlets on his neck, he fell on top of her, knocking the wind out of her momentarily.
The air inside the house was thick and humid. Soon enough the odor of death would mingle with the morning sunlight.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004