Monday, October 6, 2008

This One's For the Locals

One of the most charming aspect of living in the Washington, DC, area are the constant surprises and delightful discoveries that the city offers. OK, some of them aren't that great. I keep running into Newt Gingrich at the Family Restaurant in McLean, and that has a tendency to ruin my meals.

But on the other hand, consider this: while roaming the recently embellished waterfront in Georgetown with a friend, we happened by the Swedish Embassy, a gorgeous piece of glass and metal architecture that somehow integrates beautifully with the surroundings. Embassies are often cold and soul-less places. Sweden's is just the opposite: the lobby guards smile at you as you enter; there's a gorgeous exhibit of aerial photography in the the basement, and just past that, a cafe. It's only opened from one to five p.m. on weekends, and right now it is Washington's best-kept secret. The place is run by volunteers who dispense excellent coffee and cookies (try the chocolate ones and the cinnamon rolls) , and a number of computers in the seating area are available for Web-searching Swedish subjects. When we went the place was virtually empty so we sat in the amazingly comfortable version of Swedish egg chairs, overlooking a placid pool of water.

This is a welcome trend in Washington. The Swedish initiative is a pilot program that, hopefully, more embassies will adopt. Embassies and the ground they are built on are actually considered to be territorial part and parcel of the countries they represent. So yesterday, for a brief time, we had coffee in Sweden, and it was very, very pleasant.

On another issue entirely, the same friend with whom I shared coffee told me recently that this blog is crotchety. For that, I put a large plastic turtle in her toilet. But since she is outdoorsy and not easily fazed, I have decided she may have a point. I will try henceforth to be more positive and cheery. But I will probably fail.

Here's installment 48 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 12

When Catherine came over her eyes were cold. She had on jeans that might have been a half-size too small, a T-shirt that read, ‘Put the fun back in dysfunctional’ and a pair of cowboy boots Colin had never seen her wear. She stood framed in the doorway and Colin was afraid of getting too close, of somehow invading her space.
She refused his offer of coffee, took a 16-ouncer from a Seven-Eleven bag and spent extra time stirring in creamer and Equal. Finally, she said, “I suppose we can try to get over this and still be acquaintances, but I’m not all that sure it’s worth it. So for the moment being, let’s just stick to the subject at hand. Where do we go from here.”
The night before on the phone he had told her almost everything, had described his meetings both with Mollie Catfish and with Mamadou, explained the existence and death of the late Herbie. Catherine’s fears and frustrations had grown even as he spoke, and he’d tried without success to reassure her. He hadn’t told her about Joe the Cop’s encounter with the dead drag queen.
“So the upshot of all this is that we still don’t know anything, not really. We don’t know whether she’s dead or alive, or run away, or kidnapped. Am I right? So she could be on the street and using again.” There had been the faintest note of hysteria in her voice.
Today she was better, though her face showed the passage of another sleepless night. Her first words were, “You know, I’ve always hated your apartment. Always.”
She dropped her handbag to the floor, foraged in a pocket of her jacket, found a cigarette, lit it with a Bic.
“Started again last night. After four years, isn’t that a bitch? Found this pack of stale Winstons in a drawer, somebody who came over once forgot it, how long ago I don’t want to know. They taste pretty rotten.”
Colin wore a weak smile. “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “Don’t pride yourself, Colin. I didn’t start again because of you, believe me. I did it because last night I really desperately wanted a drink, I went so far as to get Lars’ stupid bottle of vodka out of the fridge and I had a glass all ready with ice cubes. That’s how close I came. I watched myself doing it, knowing it was completely insane but I was going to do it anyway, it didn’t matter. Then I poured it down the drain. So lighting up seemed the lesser of the two evils.”
Colin stood silent. She eyed him coldly, glanced around the apartment, gestured at the furniture. “Where do you find this stuff, anyway? How can you stand to live in here, it looks like college dorm. Worse, actually.”
She walked to the open bedroom door. “Is this where it happened?” She pointed her chin to the futon, made a disgusted sound. “I still can’t believe it. I can’t even believe I’m here. You and Josie. Jesus Christ. Is there a club for people like you? The Mother and Daughter Club, or something? Jesus.” Then lower. “This really hurts.”
Colin took three steps, wrapped his arms around her, squeezed. He felt her entire body tighten momentarily, the resistance like a current phasing through her. Her arms hung by her side. She let her head drop on his shoulder, it stayed there a moment and then she drew back.
“OK. Sorry. Enough of that, it won’t solve or improve anything.”
They were standing on a small rug that Colin had meant to throw away a long time ago, it always slipped when he stepped on it. She nudged the rug with her toe, bent down to pick it up, held it up to the light. To herself she said, “This is really filthy.” She walked to the kitchen, placed the rug carefully in the trash can.
Then she moved the big easy chair Colin read in from one side of the room to the other, dragged the coffee table next to it.
She reached under the couch, tried to lift one end, grunted. “Help me with this. Move this end over there. It’ll open up the room, make it less claustrophobic.” It did, though Colin noticed that where the couch had been, the carpet was a different shade of brown. She noticed it too. “Sunlight. That’ll fade in a week or two.”
They worked without speaking for half-an-hour. She asked for a hammer and nails and made him rehang the four prints he had haphazardly stapled to his walls. She found a rag and a bottle of Windex in the hall closet, started spraying windows. She said, “You got a vacuum cleaner? Get it. Do something, don’t just stand there.”
He pushed the machine around the room, glad for the noise that prevented conversation. When he was through with that, she said, “Do the ceilings and the baseboards. There’s cobwebs all over the place, see? Use that brush attachment but put a new bag in first.”
So he did that too. He could feel her looking at him, darting glances whenever his head was turned. Then she stood back, evaluated her work. She dropped the spray bottle, let the rag fall to the floor, looked around the room, hands on her hips. “I’m not sure what that was all about, but I feel better, at least a little. Maybe I just wanted to alter the scene of the crime. Does that make sense?”
He nodded. Her lips turned down. “Jesus. Look who I’m asking...”
Colin tried to appreciate the changes, said, “Thanks.” There was no doubt it was cleaner than it had been in years, and Catherine’s touch had made the meager furnishings somehow better fit the available space. But it wasn’t right, it had lost the feel he was familiar with. The chair where he read would no longer get light from the window. The weights were in the wrong place. He looked around again, said, “I think you’d better get over this.”
Catherine’s face immediately went hard. “Get over it?”
He nodded, went to the chair, pulled it back to its original place in the room. “It’s not helping anything. It’s certainly not helping Josie. You’re acting as if I committed some sin and I didn’t. I already told you. I didn’t know she was your daughter. If I had...”

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