Dinner Along the Amazon
Olivia was still smiling.
The subject under discussion had been famous mistresses and who had performed that function best in history. Olivia had just said something startling and amusing and even Michael was laughing.
Olivia had suggested that Antinous, the beloved of the Emperor Hadrian, had been the world’s greatest mistress.
“Why?” Louellen Potts had asked.
“Because,” Olivia had answered, “he couldn’t bear children.”
“Do you mean he couldn’t stand them?” Betty asked. “Or just that he couldn’t have them…”
She was ignored.
It was then that disaster struck, as it will out of silence.
Thinking he spoke in a confidential tone, and being quite drunk, Conrad turned toward Michael and reached out his hand as if to emphasize his words. As a result of the gesture, he knocked over Betty Powell’s glass. Wine and blood and an apple core.
But that was not the disaster. The disaster was in what he said.
What he said was, “There’s your answer, Michael. You and Olivia should have a baby.”
Michael said; “Thanks for the advice and shut up.”
Conrad said; “Oh, I see…” and he laughed. “You’re afraid Olivia will kill it.”
For a moment, there was only the sound of dripping wine and of someone breathing and then Louellen Potts turned down the table in Conrad’s direction and said, “Do you think that’s funny, Mr Fastbinder? Do you really think that’s funny?” Then she turned to Michael and she said, “Why don’t you hit him? If I were you, I’d hit him.”
“You are not me, Miss Potts,” said Michael. He was looking at Olivia, who looked away.
Now, Louellen turned to her and she said; “Mrs Penny? Don’t you want to be defended?”
Olivia didn’t answer her. She was looking at her napkin.
“Really, Professor Penny,” Louellen said—still standing—“I think it is outrageous. And if you won’t hit him, I will!”
“Sit down, Potts.” (Michael)
“I will not sit down! This appalling man has just said the most appalling thing about your wife and…”
“Michael…” This was Olivia. “Leave her alone.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Michael, alarmed, his voice rising. “I beg your bloody pardon?”
“You heard her,” said Louellen—somewhat tipsy herself. “She says you’re to leave me alone.”
Michael said, “You condescending green-eyed bitch!”
“Michael!” said Olivia.
“Don’t you ‘Michael’ me—you down there in the dark! What the hell right has she to put herself in my shoes?”
“She’s only expressing her feelings, Michael. And whether or not they’re valid, she has a right to express them.”
“Not at my table, she hasn’t!”
“This is our table, Michael. Not your table. Ours.” Olivia did not even raise her voice.
Michael snapped. “Well she’s sitting at my end!”
And Louellen said, with great vehemence, “Standing!”
And suddenly, everyone was laughing. Everyone, that is, except the Powells. They did not seem to know what to do in the presence of laughter.
Louellen Potts sat down and there was then a second, but minor disaster. Her hand had fallen onto the table rather near Michael’s. And now, unthinking, Michael took it—merely as a gesture of forgiveness. Except that he did not let go.
Louellen looked at the table, not quite focusing on her upturned fingers resting under Michael’s hand. Her main awareness was of Olivia’s eyes.
Michael felt the reverberation and he, too, became aware of Olivia’s eyes. He turned his hand away slowly and withdrew it all the way back to his head, where he pushed back his hair.
“Conrad,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” said Conrad.
“Tell us about the time you got lost in that hotel and ended up in Princess Diana’s bedroom.”
In the living room, Conrad was lying on the rug, smoking a cigarette and staring at the ceiling. Michael, limping as unobtrusively as possible, was going about the room and bestowing second brandies into upheld glasses, including Conrad’s.
Beyond them, the dining room glowed in the flickering light of its guttering candles. The table was an ordered ruin, with its eight distinct place settings, each distinctly destroyed by a separate pair of hands; the eight plates marred with the elegant parings of apples and cheese and pears; the wine glasses emptied to an exact degree, each one a signature; and the napkins, folded or thrown down and the chairs pushed back, reflective or violent or simply dispensed with—and the low, silver bowl of freesia, the flowers drooping as if they had been assaulted—and the mirrors that reflected mirrors that reflected mirrors—each one holding its perfect image a further remove, like sign posts down a road that led into darkness.
Rodney was playing the piano.
Olivia returned from the hallway, having opened the front door to let in some air. Outside, there was a spring rain and the strong smell of budding. She picked up her glass—allowed Michael to fill it—touched him with her pensiveness as he passed—and leaned against the door jamb, neither here nor there.
It was warm—and Fabiana’s wrist was moving.
Slowly—it was imperceptible at first—as if a butterfly had entered the room and caught their attention only by degrees—Fabiana began to talk. She began in the middle of some interior monologue that perhaps had occupied her for some time—which yet seemed pertinent to the monologue of each of the others; one long sentence describing their mutual apprehension, whether it be about the past or the present or the future; arising out of that common literature which is the mind, peopled with common characters, moving over a common landscape, like a book they had all read—from which now one of their voices began to quote aloud:
“…I know he went there without me in order to escape me. And yet I never bothered or pursued him. I was always standing still, it seems. I hadn’t wanted him at first; but only let myself be wanted. The way a dog will let itself be wanted, not understanding why, except that out of being wanted—wanting comes. And out of being chosen—choosing. And out of being longed for—longing. Con knows. I never gave my loving. Never trusted myself to give. Never let it happen. I was always the little sister—sitting in the front seat, watching in the mirror. Until I met him—Jackman Powell. He was like a drug you take at a party, for fun. And then you wonder what it was. And then you ask for more. And then you realize you’re hooked. And you never stop to think they’ve hooked you on purpose. You only think what a lovely feeling it is—and all you want is more. Until one day, they refuse. There isn’t any more. Or worse, there is—but I’m not going to let you have it. And then they hold it up—they keep on holding it up where you can see it—and saying to you: no; no more, Fabiana. Never any more. And then they shoot it into the air, they waste it before your eyes. And they walk away—and they leave you with this empty syringe—and nothing to fill it with. And nothing to fill your veins with. And they haven’t told you what it was—so you don’t know how to ask for more. Because it was unique; it was theirs—they grew it, manufactured it or conjured it out of the air. And then they get on a boat and they don’t even wave good-bye. And they’re gone. And then you get a message—telling you they’ve disappeared forever.”
Nobody watched her while she finished.
Instead, they each one welcomed the anaesthetic that prevented, if only for the moment, the idea that hope itself—anticipation—had disappeared for all of them into the Amazon region along with Jackman Powell.
Michael looked with a dreadful panic at Olivia.
Louellen Potts—the briefest of his dreams—got up to leave the room.
“It’s time to go,” she whispered, having lost her voice in Fabiana’s recitation. “Late,” she said. And went upstairs to collect her coat.
3:00 a.m. and Grendel made a tou
His ears hurt—chewed in a week old battle—and his gums were tender, having been torn. All along his back, he ached. No position was comfortable.
Everyone had gone upstairs—and he was alone. All the food—anything of real interest—was locked away. Except…
One bone, he remembered—put down by Michael under the kitchen table.
Grendel got up and fetched the bone and brought it back to the foot of the stairs. All through the next hour, he held it tenderly between his paws and wrecked it—very slowly—with his chipped and broken teeth.
The sound of gnawing—bone against bone—was all that could be heard. That, and the sluicing of the rain. And Olivia’s voice, as she lay in the bed with her gaze on the patterns running down the walls.
She was smiling.
Far in the Amazon region, a pin dropped.
Timothy Findley, Dinner Along the Amazon