Plus Ultra

By Catherine Bator


I’m lying in bed thinking about my mother. She’s been dead for 10 years – dead in the sense that she is no longer a breathing, sentient creature walking among us, not dead in all other ways.

I look over at the neatly plumped pillow next to me. My husband is at a conference in Chicago, something about communications in the digital age. His absence is a rare occurrence in my life; it leaves me without structure or parameters. He brings order to my existence, but I’m ambivalent about order.

I turn over six or seven times but sleep doesn’t come. I get up and go to the living room and open a book. I look out the window at the street. Here in L.A. there are lots of people who live their lives at night. One of them goes by in a newish BMW. He’s on his way to a party I wasn’t invited to. He’s just one of a vast multitude out there having fun right now.

I go to the refrigerator and get myself a beer. I pour it into the cold glass I keep in the freezer for occasions such as this. It’s the best beer I’ve ever had. I should do this more often. I go back to the book in the living room, but I can’t concentrate. I go to the bedroom and throw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The dog is still in her bed, motionless, but now she opens one eye. I grab my keys and go out to the garage. As I back the car down the drive, I wonder if she is at the window watching me leave.

I drive to the closest bar, an old converted fire station. I haven’t bothered to comb my hair or put on makeup. I smell like someone who just got out of bed, but I’m overcome with a need to see what it’s like to drink at this bar at 1 a.m. I’ve never been here later than 10, and I feel like I’ve never really lived.

I find a seat at the bar between two groups of smartly dressed twenty-somethings. Women on one side, men on the other. The bartender wants to know what I’ll have.

“A Tom Collins, no wait. A mojito, no wait.” Something I’ve never had before, something classic, something the whole world has enjoyed except me. “A Manhattan,” I say with conviction. The official cocktail of the 20s, when people knew how to drink. Or was it the 50s? Actually, wasn’t it the Sex And The City cocktail? And hasn’t everyone in this room, city, county, state, country had one except me? I’m embarrassed that I’m such a rube.

“Bourbon, whisky or rye?” he snaps back at me. Why does it always have to be so fucking complicated? Do bartenders talk this way to Lauren Bacall?

“Rye,” I counter. Rye sounds a tad more classic. It sounds like the Whiskey Rebellion. It’s the libation of poets, Irish poets. Or Scottish poets. I see them bellied up to a bar much like this one somewhere on the North Sea. Aberdeen. Dundee. I admire the décor of this place and the long wooden bar in front of me. I get into the mood for rye, even though I have no idea what that means – I’ve never had a drop of rye in my entire prosaic life.

I stare at the bottles of spirits on the other side of my poetic wooden bar. I’ve never tasted most of them. I think of the hundreds of cocktails I’ve never tried. There’s a drink out there somewhere that would be perfect for me – a nectar of the gods that would inspire me to great things, that would give me powers – godlike powers. I need someone to match me up with my perfect cocktail. There should be an eHarmony for drinks.

“Hey,” comes a voice from behind me. I turn to see a balding schlub-of-a-guy pulling up a stool next to me. “You here by yourself?”

Oh great, the neighborhood serial killer. What kind of guy starts a conversation by asking a woman if she’s alone? What kind of guy wants to talk to woman with matted hair, no makeup and pillow creases on her face?

“My husband’s in the men’s room. He’s got a gun.” I wish he were in the men’s room with a gun. Maybe life would be simpler. Maybe I’d be a better wife. Maybe I’d find my boundaries.

The schlub puts the stool back and disappears. My Manhattan arrives. It tastes like diesel fuel with a dash of cat piss. No wonder they had a rebellion. I curse my unpoetic palate. Clearly this isn’t my cocktail destiny. I push it away, pay and start out the door. The shlub is staring at me from the far end of the bar, but quickly looks down at his beer when our eyes meet. I feel sorry for him, serial killer or not. If he follows me out to the dark alley where I’m parked, I’ll give him some advice on picking up women.

I get to my car alive and look at the gas gauge. The tank is full, and a full tank is a license to explore. Suddenly I’m the first Conquistadora, dispatched by Charles V into the unknown world, the missing female from the Age of Exploration, now ready to take my place in the Pantheon of Intrepids who went further beyond – Plus Ultra, as C-Dog V liked to say.

I get on the I-5 South. The freeway is all but empty. This is great; I should do this more often. I think about all the places I’ve never been. You could spend a lifetime on the road and still you would see only a fraction of all the wonderful places. But right now I’m somewhere between Glassell Park and Elysian Heights. Sometimes all you want is the road stretching before you with offramp signs whizzing overhead. That’s what I really yearn for, I think.

Glendale Fwy South next right

Pasadena Fwy North right lanes

Mission Road 1 mile

San Bernardino Fwy East left two lanes

I stay in the far left lane. I’m thinking about the Arizona Biltmore. I had lunch there once, but I wanted more. I wanted to live there. Why not? – it was paradise in a Frank Lloyd Wright sort of way. I can be there by sunup.

My husband says I want to live in every place I visit. Okay, it’s true; I want a pied-a-terre in all the major capitals. I want to work in the Empire State Building, no, the Chrysler Building would be better, or maybe the Tribune Building or Transamerica Pyramid. I want to sip my coffee in the Dakota or the Apthorp. I want to soak in a clawfoot tub in a New York brownstone or a San Francisco Victorian or a London Georgian. And not for one or two nights – I want a life in every one. I want to live in a southern city where moss hangs off the trees, but also in a mountain town with boardwalks and a Wild West main street, places where I would know every single soul in town. I want to look out my window in Vermont and see ducks in my pond and the Green Mountains in the distance. I want to live in big anonymous cities, surrounded by strangers I’ll never know. I want to live on an island – a cold one with a whaling museum and antique fishing vessels in the harbor. No, a tropical one with banana trees surrounding my lanai.

The signs zoom by and I think about my mother. She wanted me to be happy with the circumstances of my birth. She said I was lucky. She brought structure to my life, but I’m ambivalent about structure.

Palm Springs is off to my right, and I wish it were light enough to see its low-slung modernist movie-star hideaways that look out over carpets of velvety-green Bermuda grass golf courses. I want to spend my days at a country club with suntanned couples named Buffy and Hayden who always wear white. All the Buffys and Haydens are sleeping now, probably with other people, as I shoot ahead of a semi.

I reach a stretch of highway that is completely desolate and dark. I stop the car by the side of the road, get out and try to lie on the hood, but it’s too hot, so I clamber onto the roof and sprawl, staring at the stars. I imagine soaring in space, landing on alien planets, befriending the natives, learning to communicate telepathically. The sky is hypnotic, it draws me up into distant nebulae, and I have to force myself to get back into the car. I think about all the nights I’ve wasted inside buildings when my imagination could have been free to roam the universe.

I get back on the road and crank it up to 90. I skirt the southern edge of Joshua Tree and consider sitting on my car until daybreak so I can watch the desert wake from its cooling nap, but I’m thinking about the destination now, not the journey. I want to check into my new home at the Biltmore, have breakfast under the trees and read the paper in the prairie-come-to-the-desert lobby.

The blackness is broken by the first shades of blue on the horizon. I see silhouettes of rocky knolls in the distance. I don’t turn on the radio or listen to CDs; I want to think about all the people waking up around me. I wonder if they feel the way I do when I stumble into the kitchen planning the course of my day, overwhelmed by possibilities. Do they go to sleep at night surrounded by the debris of their day swept into drifts around their beds?

The sky is light now but the sun still looms below the horizon. I see trailer parks on both sides of the highway. Mobile homes, singlewides, doublewides, triplewides, prefabs, manufactured homes. They are the Rodney Dangerfields of housing, the objects of fun, the butt of jokes. I can’t join the party because I stayed in a trailer at the beach once in Dana Point and it was one of the best weeks of my life. At night I lay in my narrow bed and listened to the waves rearranging the sand on the barely sloping beach as I drifted off into California dreaming. I loved the compact efficiency of the trailer’s floor plan – a concise version of life, existence whittled down to its essence, a place just big enough for activities that require an indoor setting. I seem to be calmer in small spaces where I’m contained. It puts me in mind of how swaddling soothes an infant. I decide not to discuss this with any of the people who already think I’m a case of arrested development.

I dart past acres of efficient mobile-home living on the California/Arizona border. There’s one that looks like an adobe hacienda and one that looks like a Cape Cod salt box. There’s a big, aluminum ranch house and a tiny Airstream that looks like it was hand rubbed with a chamois. I picture the interiors of these homes and I see a cluttered snake pit strewn with whisky bottles and glutted ashtrays – occupied by a bitter serial divorcee with a part-time hostessing job at the Quartzsite Diner. Another is a tidy, ultra modern space – home to a little bald man in a bow tie who reads Schopenhauer alone at night and works at the public library by day. Both extremes are inside me, and this morning I’m somewhere in between. But where, exactly?

An hour later I reach the outskirts of Phoenix and I’m beginning to visualize my entrance at the Arizona Biltmore. I realize I’m embarrassed to walk into a hotel without luggage. I drive by the hotel of my longing twice, then circle the golf course on Biltmore Estates Drive three times, deciding what to do. I see a shopping mall in the distance and decide to have some breakfast and wait for the stores to open.

I order pancakes at a fast food place, which is a big mistake. They have an odd, chemical flavor that even the odd, chemical flavor of the syrup can’t hide. I use the time to make some calls. I try four of my neighbors, but none of them picks up the phone, and I don’t want to leave a message (for fear of sounding unbalanced). I call my local dog walker – $45-a-day Kyla

“Doggie Stylin’, Everything for Your Best Friend, Kyla speaking.”

“Oh hi, Kyla. It’s Miriam Wilde. I’ve been called out of town rather suddenly and I need you to feed and walk Whatadog for me.”

I go over the locations of the door key, the food, the treats and the leash. Kyla promises to bring in the newspapers and mail and to call me if anything were to go awry at the Wilde homestead.

“And don’t forget, Whatie likes to walk late afternoon. She’s not a morning dog.”

I hang up and try to remember if I turned off all the lights. I think about how lonely Whatie’s going to be until Loren gets home from his Big Stinking Load in the Digital Age conference.

“Doggie Stylin’, Everything for Your Best Friend, Kyla speaking.”

“Kyla, on second thought, could Whatie just stay at your place until further notice? Plus the newspaper and mail service?”

Kyla is only too happy to pick up my little beagle and keep her as long as necessary. The price has jumped to $65 a night, but I don’t mind – it keeps my guilt at bay.

I finish my chemical cakes and head to the mall, but it’s still too early for retail, so I drive around looking at front yards covered with gravel. What’s the point of a gravel yard? Can you sink your toes into gravel? Can dogs scratch their backs on it? Can you play croquet on it? I think about the people in their houses, looking out at their gravel. Are they proud to have the best gravel on the block? I note that Loren’s wrong when he says I want to live every place I visit.

I’m the first shopper at the mall. I walk through Saks, my eyes darting from one chic little ensemble to the next. I think of all the chicness I would buy if I were just ten pounds lighter and $10,000 richer. I would be the epitome of chic, chicery, chicanery, chiciana. I exit the far door of the store and proceed directly to my car. I drive to Costco and buy a package of bikini panties, a box of stretch-lace comfort bras, two pairs of lightweight Capris, a three-pack of t-shirts and a sundress. I think of all the chic I will never possess. Fuck chic.

I Google the closest luggage store and find myself an expandable 21-inch spinner upright in 820 denier jacquard polyester that looks suitable for checking into the Arizona Biltmore. I throw my new clothes in it and head for East Missouri Avenue, which strikes me as an inappropriate address for a southwestern palace of the Biltmore’s caliber. I stop at a drugstore and pick up a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a bottle of San Pellegrino, which I slip into the side pocket of my spinner, expressly made to hold designer water.

As I approach the motor entrance of the ARIZONA BILTMORE (spelled out in a gigantic alphabetic topiary at the side of the drive), a volery of valets heads for my car, a vehicle unworthy of the Biltmore, and I lose my nerve. I continue right past the guys in the white jackets as if the Biltmore’s driveway is just part of my commute, then I circle the Biltmore Golf Course three times on Biltmore Estates Drive. It’s a lovely drive, and I almost go around a fourth time, but I’m tired and I need a shower. I check into a motel just off the Papago Freeway, where I take a shower and fall into bed. I sleep until my phone rings.

“Hi, where’ve you been?” It’s Loren.

“Out. How’s the conference?” I make a transparent attempt to steer the conversation away from me.

“It’s okay,” he says. I can hear suspicion in his voice; he knows something is amiss. “Where are you, Mimi?”

“Phoenix,” I say as if there’s nothing unusual about being in Phoenix on a Tuesday afternoon in April without a plan.

Loren doesn’t say anything, so I say I’m researching an article on desert plants, that Whatadog is being cared for, that I’ll be back by Saturday and that I miss him.

"You said you wouldn't go wandering again," he reminds me.

“This isn’t wandering. I’m really going to write an article.”

I make up a pile of shit about drought-resistant plants and other landscaping ideas suitable for Southern California yards and how I’m sending my ideas to the editor of Los Angeles Gardener, and he gives up, even though he knows I’m just wandering again.

I comb my hair, put on my new underwear and sundress, and drive to Safeway, where I buy a variety of cheap cosmetics, a notebook and a camera. I head back to Biltmore Estates Drive and take a few pictures of plants in the last few minutes of daylight. Then I drive to the Burger King on Camelback Road where I apply my new makeup in the ladies room. I return to the valet entrance of the Biltmore. This time I leave my non-luxury sedan at the door without shame and walk into the lobby.

It’s just as dreamy as I remember it – the gold-leaf ceiling soars above me as I walk to the registration desk, where I inquire as to the rate of a room in the cottage court. I try not to twitch when the guy behind the counter says a three-digit number that begins with a six. I thank the little jerk and walk through what I consider the nave of the church of modern architecture, with its clerestory windows and saguaro stained glass, to commune at the altar of Wrights, the Biltmore dining room. I plan to eat an entire dinner, but I start thinking how unfair this is to Loren, and all I order is bread and wine. I eat and sip as slowly as humanly possible, gazing out the window at the enormous tree, centered at the end of the room. If this place doesn’t inspire me, nothing ever will.

Post sacrament I situate myself in the best seat in the lobby, take out my notebook and commence my memoirs. I close my eyes and let the magic of the room inspire me. I do this every fifteen minutes or so until 10:35, but I can’t seem to get going. I decide I need more life experience. I also need a city with more faces and fewer windshields. I get my car and grab a burger on Camelback Road, then drive back to my shabby motel room and get into bed. When I close my eyes, I see the Biltmore at night outlined in white lights like a mirage on the vast sweep of Arizona desert.

Morning arrives, and I’m ready to work on acquiring the requisite life experience. I’m anxious for street life. I drive to a car lot just off Buckeye Road where I sell the old non-luxury sedan for a fraction of its value. They are nice enough, however, to shuttle me to Sky Harbor Airport, where I catch the 12:15 nonstop to JFK. I decide Sky Harbor is the world’s most poetic name for an airfield.

I get a window seat, which is a form of torture for me. I spend the entire four hours and fifty-three minutes looking at all the places I’ll never see on the ground – rugged peaks without roads, wild rivers snaking through canyons, wretched expanses of desert that even I would be afraid to cross. Then come the flatlands with miles and miles of neat squares of green and brown, planted and unplanted, alive and dead. We fly over the place of perfect circles, toy farmhouses and barns, towns too orderly to be real on wavy ribbons of blue. I imagine the orderly life one would live in such towns and I want to experience it even though I’m pretty sure it would kill me.

I sit next to a guy with TV evangelist hair who works on a complicated spreadsheet from New Mexico to New Jersey, as the United States of America morphs from adobe brown to a deep, verdant green. I think of all the business software I’ve avoided in my lifetime, and I give thanks to whatever force in the universe is out there protecting me.

We land at JFK and I take the Airtrain to Jamaica Station and then the E train to the Village. I walk east on 4th Street until I find a cheap hotel with a lobby full of tattooed Germans in tank tops. I get a room the size of a parking space for under $100, with a bathroom down the hall and a view of the scary building next door with windows obscured by cardboard.

I park my spinner and get back out on the street where the Germans have now overflowed onto the sidewalk and parking lane. They’re sitting on the cars, drinking beer out of paper cups, comparing tats. I ponder all the arcane subcultures I’ve never been invited into, but I can’t think of any I want to join. I wonder if the Germans speak any English, so I try to make eye contact with a couple at the fringes of the inked-up party, but the tattoo people only have eyes for each other.

I continue down 4th. It’s about 10 o’clock, and the evening is just getting underway. I notice the neighborhood is full of tattoo studios, and I stop and look at designs in one of the windows. Three people are inside getting permanently modified by gloved tattoo-machine operators, each liberally inked and pierced. One of the customers, a young blond guy, probably a German, is getting a tattoo on his temple. I wonder about his future employment prospects. I think about all the tattoos I’ll never get. I turn to leave, but then…

Why not? I see a simple rose design in the window that would fit nicely in that little spot between the ankle bone and the heel. Whatever that place is called – I decide “ankle bowl” is a good description – it cries out for ornamentation. Thirty minutes later I walk out with a rose in my ankle bowl and it didn’t even hurt much. I take off my socks so it can be seen. I’ll never wear socks again. Tomorrow I’ll buy sandals. My life is changed forever. I go to a corner diner and order an omelet and a cup of tea. I sit at the counter and cross my legs so my ankle bowl is in full view.

I don’t want to go back to the hotel, but I’m so tired I almost fall asleep in my eggs. When I get to the room, I think I hear rats under the floorboards, but I fall asleep anyway in my saggy twin bed and sleep until I hear a string of shrill German exclamations outside my door. I see the sun reflected off the cardboard in the window next door. Time to hit the New York bricks.

I walk to 7th Avenue where I catch the 20 bus going south to Battery Park and then north to Lincoln Center. I sit near the front for the best view. My neck gets tired from whipping left and right to see down every street we pass, each a fascinating world just out of reach – tree-lined conduits punctuated with awnings stretched in front of apartment lobbies, restaurants and shops selling everything from abacuses to zydeco. The sidewalks are populated with pilgrims from every corner of the globe, all colors and tongues represented, here to be blessed by the Big Apple. Of course, we have the same panoply of people in L.A., but they’re in cars. It’s not the same; they may as well be on other planets.

We pass West 14th Street and I see this guy. He has curly, light brown hair and a certain stoop to his shoulders. He’s the kind of guy I like. A little too short (even though in New York it’s impossible for a man to be too short), a nose a little too big, eyes and lips that never look serious. I watch him from the bus until we cross the intersection. I see this type of guy maybe once every two or three years. He’s a rare bird, maybe even an endangered species. I consider jumping up and getting off at the next stop.

Just nine short years ago, I would have followed my stalking impulse, but now all I hear in my brain is “forsaking all others.” After all, Loren is also my type. And I love him. But how much of love is really relief that you’ve finally found someone who satisfies your major requirements, and gratitude that he didn’t try to get away?

I stay on the bus, but I can’t stop wondering if this guy’s design is an indication of his content. Those laughing lips are sometimes a lie, a marketing device that leaves a lot of unsatisfied customers in its wake. On the other hand, now that I think about it, I see my type less and less frequently. I wonder if my type has been discontinued like every lipstick color I’ve ever liked. I pull the cord and the bus stops. I walk extremely fast back to 14th.

But it’s too late. He’s vanished into his world, which will never intersect with mine again. Nevertheless, I look in all the stores and restaurants as I walk east. Halfway down the block I stop and look at the windows above me. He could be in any of these apartments. And there are so many, each with its own saga developing right now. Stories are arcing above me – mysteries, romances, adventures, comedies. Most are plodding along, but a few are reaching a climax, one or two may even be coming to a denouement.

I want to see inside these places, especially the building on the far side of 7th. I want to live at the top, the apartment with the huge terrace facing west would be nice. I think about money. If you have enough, you can buy more than one life. Yes, that’s what money is really about.

I look down 7th and want to see what’s just beyond, but I also want to see the rest of 14th. I can’t decide, so I do neither; instead I go into the Duane Reade on the corner and buy a street map, then I walk to 6th and take the bus to the New York Public Library.

As I walk between the stone lions on the front steps I feel humbled, or maybe insignificant is a better description. I curse Carrere & Hastings for making this place so goddamn intimidating. I walk into the giant reading room and sit down. I stare at the ceiling until I’m insane with humility, then I unfold my map. I hatch a plan to walk every street in Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River then back again to the Hudson, except for the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, which I’ll have to do on separate days to save myself from too many repetitious walks through the park. I figure I can do it in 15 days if I don’t stop for lunch. I’ll start at The Cloisters and work down to Battery Park.

The main reading room begins to scare me. I need a smaller room, so I wander around, passing through rows of books until I’m completely depressed. I’m a slow reader, but even if I were ten times faster, I’d never be able to read a fraction of the books I want. I stop and pull an old reference book off the shelf. It’s called Trees of North Carolina and it was published in 1923. It has a beautiful pine engraved on its cover. I want to absorb the essence of this book that I don’t have time to read, so I open it and bury my face in its ancient pages, unleashing the perfume of twenty years of festering fustiness and a vein of my own untapped memories.

It’s a smell I adore – Eau de Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore. I discovered it when I was eleven – the year of my mysterious illness, which kept me in bed for more than nine months with a recurring fever that left me too weak to stand.

My parents talked in whispers and sighs during my illness, but did what they could to get my mind off myself. They loved it that their only child was an enthusiastic reader, and they kept me supplied with a constant stream of new and fascinating books, among them two boxes of old tomes from an estate sale my dad happened upon in the course of his job as a moving man. I remember such titles as Our Martyred Presidents, with its ominous illustrations of Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz, and Andersonville, which told the gruesome story of that infamous Confederate prison.

I’m sure my parents never even looked at the books they gave me. Neither one of them ever read anything they weren’t forced to. Nevertheless, they had vague educational ambitions for their sickly child, which meant sending her off to college someday, even while being unaware of what that entailed. I don’t think they were aware of the pall settling on me as a result of these dour books and the hopelessness of my illness.

The mood was brightened for a while when I received a box of National Geographic Magazines from our widowed neighbor, Mrs. Tenerelli, a vestige of her late husband. I pored over the stories and photos endlessly, marveling at the sheer number of cultures and landscapes the world has to offer, until I began to despair at my inability to get out of bed, let alone travel to the places in my favorite pictures. I would sit at my bedroom window and cry, looking down from our sixth-floor apartment. Unfortunately I could see directly onto the football field of St. Albans High School, where cool older kids were having fun every single day, while life was passing me by. When the fever finally disappeared as mysteriously as it first came on, I felt like I would never catch up with the rest of the world and all the healthy kids who had surged ahead of me in the game of life.

I emerge somewhat disoriented from my spasm of memory and find a small reading room with huge windows and lovely old paintings on the carved-wood walls. This is more like it. Someone has left a copy of Madame Bovary on the table, and I open it and begin getting into Flaubert’s elegant prose. I read half a page and notice I’m very, very hungry. I decide to stop reading, since this is one of the few books I have already read, and I don’t really have time to reread books if I want to make a dent in the huge backlog of literature I have yet to get to.

I leave the library and get myself a sandwich at a café around the corner on 42nd, then I catch the number 4 bus. It takes forever to get to The Cloisters, but I get a preview of all the streets I will be exploring in the coming days. I review the entire Harlem Renaissance in my head as I continue neck whipping my way north.

I mean to get off the bus at West 187th Street, which looked on the map to be the most northerly street that goes all the way across Manhattan in one unbroken walk, but I stay on because Fort Washington Avenue looks so interesting up ahead, and the explosion of green in the distance promises an urban Eden just beyond.

I get off at The Cloisters and walk to the entrance of the museum, then through the magnificent door of a twelfth-century chapel. I walk from room to room and cloister to cloister. There’s a crucified Christ hanging from the ceiling, tapestries that tell action/adventure stories, sculptures of celestial beings, knights, queens and Virgins. I’m still living in the present, but I’m as old as the art I’m looking at. I stand at a double-lancet window and look out at the Hudson, but I’m thinking about the Seine, the Garonne, the Po and the Tevere, and all the people who lived on their banks when these cloisters were built. I want to live in a village in Burgundy in 1250, but only if I’m of noble birth and ridiculously healthy. And a man.

I stand for a long time in front of the Merode Altarpiece. It’s from Tournai, South Netherlands. I’ve never heard of this place. I was only in the Netherlands once, for two moderately stoned days, and I don’t remember much. My priorities were not the best in my twenties, and I’m suddenly stricken with remorse. I need to go back and really see the Netherlands.

I leave The Cloisters and catch the A Train at 190th Street. I return to my dismal hotel, now devoid of tattooed Germans. In fact, it’s barely recognizable as the place I left this morning. It has become a repository for ancient Brits, old geezers on walkers and canes, wheeling around the lobby adjusting their hearing aids. I carefully wend my way between the tennis balls on their walker legs and go to my room, where I pack my spinner. I leave for the airport and look for flights to Amsterdam on my iPhone. I make a hotel reservation at a place on a canal with a beautiful dining room. I Google points of interest, but all I find are Red Light District and Cannabis tours. Honestly, is that all people are interested in? I wonder if the tours are perhaps wildly entertaining.

I’m standing in the line at the KLM counter when my phone rings.

“Where are you?” It’s Loren.

“I’m at the airport,” I say, avoiding full disclosure.

“That’s good,” he says, “because Kyla just called and Whatadog is in the Silver Lake Small Animal Emergency Hospital.”

“What!” I step out of line and remove myself as far as possible from people.

“They’ve got her on an IV because she’s completely dehydrated from barfing. She probably ate something poisonous in Kyla’s back yard. Have you seen that yard? It’s a toxic dump, for Christsake. I don’t think you even went over there to check it out, did you? Mimi, I don’t know what you were thinking.”

“Oh, God, oh God.” I find it hard to breathe, let alone speak.

“Okay, pull yourself together,” he says. “She’s probably going to make it. When does your flight leave?”

“Couple hours.”

“Think you’ll be home by eight?”

“I’m in New York,” I say.

“Oh, Jesus.”

I get into LAX just after midnight, local time, and take a cab home. Loren hears me come through the front door, and comes to the top of the stairs.

“She’s okay,” he tells me. “The vet let me bring her home an hour ago. She’s resting comfortably, as they say.” He leads me into the bedroom, where Whatie is sleeping on my side of the bed.

I sit next to her and run my hand over her head. She gives me one weak wag.

“She hasn’t moved a muscle since we got home. I guess this is what they mean by ‘sick as a dog.’ We think she ate some mushrooms that were growing in the shade. Kyla feels awful about this. I’m sorry about what I said. It’s not her fault, or yours either.”

I’m so relieved, I practically crush Loren’s rib cage with mine. I sob so hard I get the hiccups, which always happens when I cry. It makes it hard to take me seriously. We get on the bed, Loren holding me, me holding Whatie. I get the waterworks under control.

“Nice tattoo,” he says.

“Thanks.”

“Did you find what you were looking for?” he asks.

“Don’t be silly.”

“Maybe you should come with me to the next conference,” he says.

“Maybe.”

Loren gently lifts Whatie into her own bed, next to ours, and we make love the slow, familiar way that always brings us back together. It calms me and makes me feel connected. Loren knows.

I lie awake afterward and think about my mother. Questions pop into my head, but I can no longer ask her what she thinks. I wish Duane Reade sold a map that would lead me to her. I turn over and look at the pillow next to me. Loren’s hair pokes up over the wrinkled pillowcase. It’s a big bed, but he’s never too far away to touch. I run my hand over his shoulder. I love his shoulders. He takes my hand and pulls me closer.

 

Catherine Bator lives in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles with her husband Frank and Belgian shepherd Doc Hollywood. She received a B.A. from The University of the Pacific and studied creative writing at UCLA Extension. She’s working on a novel about drugs and greed.

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