“No, you’re not!” she shouted, slapping the table top with her open palm. A sizable portion of her companion’s coffee sloshed into its saucer. “You’re nowhere near crazy!”
More heads turned in her direction. This was not an uncommon situation. She had dominated the room from the moment she entered. Toying with human herds before devouring them was a frequently indulged appetite with the omnivorous Zoë Gammon. Even subduing a temporary environment like the coffee shop offered her a modest serving of self gratification.
She was a creature of immediate note. Waist-length pitch-black hair topped seventy-four inches of slender pale skin and a sinewy torso that had somehow been sculpted into rolling, sexual terrains. As a matter of course, this striking physical form drew attention without her making the slightest sound. Zoë’s prey were caught in the headlights of her presence. As she moved among them, they watched her every move, though always cautiously, always afraid of being discovered at their inspection.
This day provided a slight variation. Her shouting gave the occupants of the café an excuse to take her in without embarrassment. She allowed this as an exercise, so that she could then turn and confront their stares. Intimidation was part of an ongoing game plan to keep her world preserve intact.
She did this in two deliberate movements, each time locking eyes until the flustered victims winced and looked elsewhere. Then she narrowed and focused her energy onto the rather perplexed man sitting in front of her.
“So you can stop plotting to use that as an excuse. The reason we’re not getting on has to do with your lack of commitment. Your lack of responsibility. It was you who forced me to look elsewhere for someone who would make me feel worthwhile, for someone entertaining.”
He reckoned there was at least a bit of truth in that. Beau Munson had never been called “entertaining”, though his company was well-appreciated in many an other regard. He stood a finger below six feet and a hand-count above forty years of age. He was an entomologist by education, a PhD who taught two courses a week at the local community college when he wasn’t consulting with any of the half-dozen architectural firms who employed him to assess historic properties for insect intrusion. His job was to determine if there was any termite or other pest infestation, to assess what damage had been done in the past, and to devise methods of both halting the destruction and preventing future recurrence.
To a long-term home-owner in New Orleans, finding a structural entomologist who knew what he was talking about was considered a greater coup than discovering a Roman Catholic confessor with hearing disabilities.
Zoë Gammon bragged to her acquaintances that she had snagged a “professor”, but she always belittled his field of choice to his face. It was her way.
Beau was not an unattractive man by any means. His mousy brown mane had taken well to the veins of silver mined by advancing age. At 45 he looked younger than he had at thirty, having grown into a rather neutral physical form that suited him, unathletic and imperfect though it might be. He was comfortable with his body, thought little about it other than tooth brushing and toenail clipping.
The women with whom he had enjoyed relationships prior to Zoë had been attracted to him in no small part by that natural ease. If he had been more entertaining, Munson would have been less enjoyable. As it was, he happily stumbled through life, cuticles subdued and molars gleaming, experiencing individuals of many sociological and sexual persuasions. His female companions particularly continued to care for him, even when they had not seen him in years.
Beau was at peace with himself. At least he had been until he was claimed as the personal property of Zoë Gammon, who at this moment was again scanning the Café Rose Nicaud to make sure that none of what she called his “ex-pack” were there to spy on her discontent.
Beau held his hands up, palms facing her, signaling his acquiescence, his complete surrender, to her superior logic. Zoë’s lapis eyes grew even darker in anger – she disliked winning too easily – but she did stop yelling.
“I wasn’t making an excuse,” he said. “I wanted to share an experience with you, that’s all.”
She made a deep humph noise, a lioness unsatisfied with her portion of the prey. “Fine. Share. But don’t be trying to turn things to your advantage with it. You do that. You take things that happen to you and carve them into biblical parables, littlegideonesque stories that you think prove that what you want to be true actually is. Even if everybody knows it isn’t. A guy that kills bugs for a living, and he thinks he’s a philosopher.” She noticed the frown her last statement brought to his face, and decided that she had sufficiently unsettled his confidence enough to keep him in check. For the moment. She settled back in her chair and took another sip of her latte. “OK. Let’s hear it.”
As Zoë relaxed and became quieter, the raging-storm tension in the room evaporated into a dead calm. Pressure dropped in the eye of the societal hurricane. A half-dozen simultaneous sighs erupted, and an elderly man seated at the next table leaned his chair back against the wall, chest heaving in relief. Zoë surveyed her subjects with satisfaction. She enjoyed exercising power over run-of-the-mill people.
During the course of their relationship, she had been unable to classify Beau among such ordinary beings, which both attracted and upset her. Every moment they spent together, especially sexual encounters, inevitably became one more effort to drop him into the ranks of the subjugated. He instinctively knew that if he allowed that, if he became that submissive, she would instantly have nothing further to do with him. Which at times constituted the lure of submission. After half a year, he still wasn’t sure of course.
Even when confronted with the fact of her infidelity, she had immediately turned the blame to him. If only he’d been more aggressive, more captivating, more manly, she’d never have looked elsewhere, she’d said. Her dalliance was and remained his fault. But with that assertion – that he wanted a monogamous relationship, and that he cared enough about her to brazen out the tawdry facts – Zoë decided that she too would see only him. For the time being. If he didn’t get too boring. And if nobody better came along.
He had accepted the qualifiers as part of her character. They had now “dated” for six months.
She still required a minimum of subservience. And so he deliberately began his narrative apologetically: “I was startled, that’s all.”
As he knew she would, Zoë sensed sanguine weakness, brought the sharp-toothed shark of her attention swimming to the hook. She would listen now.
“I was having a long soak, then I started to add more hot water, and I looked up and there it was. A snake climbing the frame of the lower bathroom window. Bright green. A viper. I sat up so quickly that the water sloshed from the tub all over the floor. I was sure that the noise would make it notice me. That it would draw the snake to me. It did not. Not right then.”
“So?” she demanded.
“I was frightened, like a child dreaming of the boogey man. I didn’t know what to do, but I had the urge to call out, to yell for help.”
Zoë shifted in her chair. Her lips began to part. She’d begun to show sparks of jealousy ever since her own indiscretions had been brought to light. It was only because she was so completely sure that he would never betray her with anyone else that she allowed herself to be possessive of him. She glared.
He read her. “And no,” he continued, “there was no one else in the apartment, no one else to call out to.”
With a satisfied smile, Zoë inserted her coffee cup between her lips, as if that was what she had meant to do all along.
“Then the sun came from behind the clouds, literally.
“There was no snake. I saw that. Moisture had pooled on the window of the steamy bathroom to form the reptile’s head, and then given way to gravity, leaving a curving track of water traveling downward toward the window lock. The bright green of the ferns outside had been amplified by the lens of the clear liquid.
“There was no snake.
“But there was, if I wanted it. That’s what exploded into the vacuum left by the departure of fear. That’s what made me dizzy with a different sort of fright.”
The woman’s head tilted to one side: “If you wanted it? Wanted a snake?”
“Yes. All I had to do was decide that I was seeing a snake, and it would be a snake. There comes a time when everyone decides that his or her way of seeing the world is reality. At that point you make a simple choice, and life changes to suit. A little thing, like your affirming that a cricket’s song is really your lover’s voice in the distance, determines that you will be mad forever. Sets in stone that you will never get back to the state of sanity you possessed when you made that decision.”
“No way,” she scoffed. “Mental illness can be cured. I’ve seen the commercials.”
“Sure, they say they ‘cure’ you, that you’re as good as new. Medicate you to the point where the voice becomes a cricket again, and your life seems stable. For the moment. But once betrayed, sanity is fickle. I’ve researched this almost as extensively as I did my thesis. Like I told you, the hemipterous Emesa longipes...”
“And I told you,” she interrupted, “you will merely say ‘bugs’ to me.”
“These are ‘bugs’ that affect people, live off them, then leave something of their own presence behind in the bloodstreams of their hosts forever. It never really goes away. They were everywhere in the lunatic asylums, even up into the middle of this century.”
“Ick,” she responded. But she was listening.
Her reaction drove him forward. “Along with the continuing Emesa... uh, with the ‘bug’ studies, I’ve read a great deal about the onset of madness these last weeks. The people who went insane say that they knew they’d never get back to the state of mind they held before they made their decision.
“Once you’ve lost that first hold on reality, once your own awareness’ trust is broken, you’re never sane again. Not like you were. You can only hold the appearance of sanity and hope it’s good enough to get you through the machinations of the rest of your life. You see, don’t you, why I was so excited?”
“No,” she said bluntly.
He knew it was true. She was intelligent, but uninspired. He understood that she considered most other humans obtuse and inferior, their arguments clouded. She did not willingly open her own mind, or her attention span, often during the course of a day. He kept going anyway.
“I consciously chose to be sane this morning. I could feel how easy it would be to simply say ‘That is a snake,’ and embrace the madness. I even let my mind tempt the edges of the idea. It was frightening how little it would have taken to go over. But I didn’t do it. I was offered the choice and I decided on this world.”
“‘Decided on this world.’ If only.” Zoë shrugged.
“It is. Once you are offered the opportunity, once your mind says that you are ready to go either way, then both doors are open. And once you pass through, they close behind you. Forever.”
It was her turn to hold up her hand for emphasis. “Are you saying you wait for some sort of basement Sanity Sale, then go shopping for what’s discounted as real?” she said.
“Wonderful. I knew you were listening.”
“I hate snakes.”
Zoë provided little transition when she offered her opinion.
Blindsiding was another specialty. She reached quickly under the table and overtly grabbed his crotch. Squeezed hard. “Though I do love this. With all your psychology, I suppose you’ll find some Freudian inconsistency in those two statements.” She looked at nearby tables to see if anyone was watching. They were. She flashed her demoness-from-hell smile to them until they wilted, then squeezed him once again before letting go.
He jumped up, slapping her hand away. “Why do you do things like that? Why do you always try to subvert anything I say with mindless nonsense? This is important to me – it’s about a loss of innocence as much as anything else, a loss of trust!” yelled Beau Munson.
She stood opposite him, both hands on the table as she leaned towards him. “Trust me, Bug Man,” Zoë whispered huskily. “I heard every word. And what do I hear? I hear baby Beau getting all worked up about a teeny drip of water in his bathroom. He looks out his window and says he’s getting lost trying to figure out what’s real out there. For this world you need a road map, honey.
“Get hold of yourself,” she said, pointing where she’d pinched. “Trust me. It’s the right thing to do.”