Having approached the undecaying immortality,
what decaying mortal on this earth below
who knows the pleasures of beauty and love,
will delight in an over-long life?
"Ahem," said a voice at my office door. I looked up, and seeing no one, stood and moved to look out to the hall.
"Neil! My god, Neil! Look at you!" I laughed in delight. "You look great!"
Radigan fingered the long burgundy silk tie he was wearing with a new and well-tailored suit. He blushed, tugging on the tie. "Gift from my daughter. She's another one who despises bow ties."
"That's ... a ... magnificent tie," I told him, still grinning. "But the beard is simply stunning. And nice haircut!" He'd grown a dark brown beard and moustache trimmed to frame his mouth and chin with surprising results. And he'd lost that awful fringe of hair; he'd had it cut short. He looked -- nice!
"I thought that the long break was a good time to do a -- makeover -- on myself. I realized I've been in a bit of a rut for a long time. How was your time off, Augusta?"
Oh, I got stoned out of my gourd for a couple weeks, I thought. And then I cussed and swore and had some more, as Burlie would say. "I went back east to visit family for the holidays, and it was wonderful. Like getting to go back in time for a while, to a more peaceful and simpler time. Made me think I should do that more often. Maybe even retire there one day."
"You'd hate it, and end up coming back to California every chance you could," Neil drawled drearily, "I can't imagine you being happy long in a bucolic setting. Do you have plans for dinner tonight? May I invite you to join me at Taylor's?"
Before I left Ohio, one of the things Kimsky ordered me to do was to get out and date as much as I could. "For God's sake, Gus, get your pining old ass out the door and see someone! Anyone! You don't have to be in love to go on a date, or get married if a guy asks you to have a beer with him! Just say 'yes' and go!"
"Yes, Neil, thank you. What time?"
Radigan was no sooner into the stairwell headed back to the Psych department offices (or as KC Carson called it, 'the psych ward') than Margaret Wills came scuttling down the hall in a twitter of curiosity. "Augusta, a new beau? What's his name?"
Crossing my arms, I grinned at her. "That was Neil Radigan, believe it or not."
Her eyes goggled as she stared at the stairwell doors as though she could still see him. "You're kidding!"
"Nope. Got a haircut, grew a beard, and maybe let the dudes at the Looks for Men Store dress him for a change."
"I've got to see this," she chirped. "Give me some memo or something that I can take to him for you!"
"Margaret, just walk downstairs and compliment him on how good he looks. You know," I added sagely, "that when a person makes a radical change like that, every bit of positive reinforcement helps."
To my surprise, she colored a little and patted at her hair. "You know, I think I will. The office won't melt down in just ten minutes. If Dr. Fatzer asks, tell him I had to go to the ladies room downstairs because this one is out of ... things."
The City of Port Laughton holiday decorating committee had not yet given the order to remove the strings of tiny white lights that adorned the trees lining the street. They ought to leave them up all winter, and light up weekend nights like this, I thought. Looks like a party in progress. Radigan and I were walking along the sidewalk, commenting on it being cold enough to see our breath. "The weather forecast is even suggesting we might see a few snow flurries," he said. "Are you warm enough? Don't you have any gloves?"
Certainly I did. I just couldn't bear to look at them. "I guess I need those idiot mittens so I can keep track of them," I quipped. He looked puzzled. "Idiot mittens. The ones they used to put on us as kids that had the string that went up one coat sleeve and down the other to the other mitten?" He shook his head. "To keep us from losing our mittens in the snow?"
"I grew up in L.A." he said, looking at me a bit askance.
"Oh, I see. Down there you probably only had idiot roller skates," I snickered.
"Yes, I think I may have seen some of those," Radigan intoned, attempting sarcasm. "In Santa Cruz, I suppose the cultural equivalent would be idiot surfboards, wouldn't it?" he smiled, proud of his joke.
I think that was the first time I had ever seen Radigan actually grin. Did he do a psychological makeover on himself, too? Read a couple issues of Cosmo or GQ?
"Now, see that?" He stopped and turned back to a store front, pulling at my coat sleeve. "That's a perfect example of what I've been trying to explain in classes for years. Look at that and tell me what you see."
A tall, vaguely fingerlike pedestal, about a foot high stood alone on the black velvet of the jewelry store display window. A glittering diamond ring encircled it. Laughter burst from me.
"Yes, now you understand," he shook a finger at me. "You find it funny, but what does it tell you about the merchandising of the product? Sex sells. Even subliminal suggestions of sexual congress increase the likelihood of purchase."
"You're saying -- what? That a man sees this display and immediately thinks 'engagement ring will get me coitus'? Seriously?" I could hardly wait to tell Kimsky about this date. I wished she was here to join the conversation -- it would go from scholarly to the gutter in a nanosecond.
"Precisely, you are an intelligent woman."
"How do you know that the ring isn't indicative of the subjugation of the manhood, rather than a symbol for sex? After all, it's the woman who wants the ring, and makes the man offer it to her."
"You're suggesting then, that the engagement is in reality a gesture of submission by the male? 'Here, miss, I beg you to subjugate me?'"
I laughed aloud, "Well, isn't that what happens?"
At that moment there occurred for possibly the first time in my adult life a profound belief in the reality of an interactive deity who orchestrates the events in all of existence. For at just that moment, the passers-by parted, and walking towards us was Valentine Teshenko, arm in arm with the girl who had accompanied his sister and mother to the last symphony performance. He saw me and his eyes flickered from me to Radigan, to the store front and back to me, then focused his gaze on the sidewalk.
The laughter was no longer there. Instead, an emptiness.
"Augusta?" Radigan's voice called me back from the internal desert that had taken the place of my soul.
"Sorry," I shook my head. "I just saw someone with whom I had a nasty argument before the holidays."
Turning to look at the people who had walked by, he remarked, "It must have been a dreadful one for you to look like that."
"Well, in said quarrel, I was referred to a 'cold bitch'. That's pretty dreadful." We continued walking to Taylor's.
"To which I'm sure you replied with epithets far worse." At my snort of disbelief, he added, "I've eavesdropped on some of your conversations with Carson. You are two of the most foul-mouthed women I have ever encountered."
"Why, thank you, Neil, I feel better already."
But I really didn't. Especially after we walked into Taylor's Inn and were seated two tables away from Valentine and his date Danielle. I chose a chair that kept my back to them, but their presence was like a malignant glowing radioactive crater behind me. Nothing seemed amusing, nothing tasted good, and as much as I tried to be a good actress and appreciate Neil's date, he is not a stupid man, and he did notice that I was subdued and ill at ease.
Our first date was here, I thought as I tasted my pasta. Is that his Port Laughton pattern? Will he be taking her hand in his and gazing into her eyes?
When Neil dropped me off at my driveway, not trying for a kiss goodnight, I was tremendously grateful. Even with a makeover, Radigan just wasn't my idea of a romantic liason.
As soon as I was in my door, I dove for the bathroom cabinet, took a sleeping pill, then set an alarm for the morning. And then plied the corkscrew and opened a bottle of wine. I picked from the bookcase a simple, beloved book, whose every word I knew, and climbed into bed with the book and the bottle. I threw myself into the beautiful words of Watership Down and swigged from the bottle until I fell asleep, minutes later.
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