The Cat, Mousing the Baby

Carole padded lazily over and answered the phone.

"Annie, terrific! I was just going to call you. I'm house- sitting a great
house on the beach in May."

"Gee, Carole, I'm really glad for you."

"No, look, Annie, you can come visit."

"Carole, I can't just go to California!"

"You can too, they're having a computer convention. What's your


"Right. They're in it, I saw in the paper."

"I know, Carole, but I'm corporate sales, and that's just hardware. It
would be fun but I can't just take off, and take their time and their
money like that."

"Easy, now. You can tell them -- I know, you have to tell your corporate
sales details about your machines, don't you?"

"No, I have technical backup. Actually it would help, if I knew what
they're coming up with, but.."

"Of course you do. That's what you said, you wished you knew more
about what they were developing. Architecture, wasn't that the word?"

"Yes, I do. But shoot, I can learn it all from the literature here, in the

"You can, if you can find it. Come on, it's a good selling tool, they'll want
you to do it. You always learn more if you talk to real people. Not read
manuals in half-Japanese."

"(giggle) You remember. I would like to meet some of these design people.
Talk to them. I mean they are the, well, the heroes of the company.
Clients are always asking about them."

"Exactly. And you can get away from.. oh, Rob, for awhile. Jeff'll be
surfing in Hawaii, it'll be just us. Oh, Annie, you've got to do this house.
Up on stilts, right on the beach. Pounding waves out the door, salt spray
in your oatmeal, you know."

"Mmm, salt spray, it's time. Wow, the Pacific."

"All right!"

"But Carole, Rob.."

"That's great, Annie, it'll be so good to see you again. OK then. Hey
Annie, I just saw a great movie you'd love. Did you see -- what was it --
Orlando yet?"

And so it came about. Annie was deftly wrapped in Carole's silken coils,
then gently delivered onto her magnificent borrowed redwood deck.

Promptly after they got inside, Annie made her duty call back East to her
recent husband.

"Hi, Rob, yup, little Annie.. No trouble at all. You were right, my plane
was late at Chicago, but guess what, the other one was just as late, so I
made it, like I told you I would.. I know, little joke, I mean like you said I
would.. No, I found Carole, at the baggage place, and we drove out. Oh,
Rob, it is so gorgeous! It isn't your mountains, but I think you'd like it,
it's so, I don't know, cheerful and laid-back. The waves are steady and
methodical out here. Not wild and scary like Gloucester.. Yes, Rob, I do
wish you were here, I think you really would like it, at least for a little
while, I'll try to get some pictures. Well, I better let you get back to work..
Me too, bye."

Later on, the two women were settling into their roles for Annie's visit.
Annie had nervously been anticipating this reunion, but the two
magically eased together right away, as if it had been a couple of days
instead of three years, which pleased and relieved Annie, though she
realized it was typical; whenever she was around Carole, surprising
things usually happened.

Carole was ready, glad to re-connect, in her easy-going but ever-alert
sleek predatory mode.

There was a phone call for Annie, and after it she came slowly, pensively,
back into the vast, airy, surf-sided, glass- walled living room.

"So, little Annie, that was your mom?"

"Yup. She sends you her love, she's sorry, she didn't recognize your voice.
Gosh, she tracks me down, doesn't she? She wanted to know how
everything is going, me all the way out here. It's so ridiculous, she just
can't understand I could've come all the way out here, without Rob."

"Good old mom. You told me, she always does that." Carole's antennae
were up: "But then what?"

"Well.. well, she told me a weird thing happened, Steven. That guy back
home, up the streeet, the son of her professor."

"Yes, the young old romantic. Well?"

"Well, out of the blue, after what, five years, he just called her, asking
about me. He's back in Charlottesville now, to take care of his parents.
His dad's got Alzheimer's, and his mom needs help with him, so he came

"How sweet."

"Oh Carole, not Steven, not right now, with Rob being such a jerk."

Bored prowling Carole perked right up: Play time! Give her a little slack.
"Hey, little Annie, Steven could have just been saying hello, last freedom
before he gets locked into it, being a good son, huh?"

"I suppose. He'll be on call all the time in their house but they got him a
computer so he'll be writing while he's there.. That's that, Carole, no
more. I really don't want to think about him."

Annie was annoyed. She came out here expecting to show off her newly
developed corporate cool. She was very proud of it, and thought Carole
would be, too, but she'd lost it right away. Instead, she had the same old
thrill of Carole seeing through her and zinging right into her center,
reducing her to truth blurts.

Annie grew up humble and smart and burning with self- consciousness.
A good Mother Nature joke, Annie's Class A brain was wrapped in a tiny
but very noticeable Class A body. Annie kept her intelligence well-
screened behind her cascade of flaming red hair and stunning figure. She
knew she was a Rodin or Thoreau; but because of what she looked like --
and she couldn't help it, she felt it was only polite to be presentable,
clean and nicely coordinated -- people assumed she was just a perky
bubble- head. She responded by being aggressively polite: that pushed
people far enough away that they would leave her alone.

Until Carole.

Finally, a person she could talk to without paralyzing shyness, with
whom she could be comfortable with unfinished sentences and ideas.
Finally someone -- other than teachers, who didn't really count, it was
their job -- who could understand and accept and deal with her soul
being so totally different from her body.

Annie's pale skin came with another Mother Nature joke, a hair-trigger
deep crimson blush. Over the years she had worked out two
embarrassing but necessary ways to deal with it. She would rush out of
the room, or else she would simulate an anger attack. Both worked, but
they didn't do her shaky social confidence any good.

With Carole once, Annie felt the familiar hot hard rush, and was about to
jump up and away when Carole had calmly informed her, "It's so
beautiful when you do that, little Annie, like a sunrise, a rosy-fingered
dawn coming up."

At first she was shocked by Carole's quick intimacy, but then Annie saw
that what her friend said was probably true, and then she realized it had
worked. Carole had nudged right in and made Annie's terrible self-
consciousness shut right off. Ever since, Annie could just lie back and let
herself burn in front of Carole, liberated, cleansed and honest. It was
soaring to be with someone where so much didn't matter. After a session
with Carole, Annie was delighted to find her shaky self-confidence
wearing a cloak of invulnerability.

The first time she met Carole, college freshmen together, Annie was not
impressed. The big cheerful earthy brunette seemed too casual, even
lazy. But as she got to know her, Annie was amazed, fascinated, then
powerfully attracted to Carole's serene and easy self-control. A
wholehearted crush welled up, taking her completely by surprise.

Annie was familiar with passion, it stirred every time she returned to her
beloved seashore. Carole gave her the same surprising rush of deep
secure familiarity. Annie's exposed emotions embarrassed her, but she
learned she didn't need to worry, there were no judges, and she found
that Carole was safe, understanding and carefully in control.

The big burst came sophomore year, they were having what seemed like
a normal conversation, about artists and bankers, when Annie was
suddenly overwhelmed by a giant wave of feeling, for art, the world, for
herself and Carole. It passed and Annie was left standing there, her heart
exploded and her head swimming. Carole had felt it, and looked up at
her. Careful not to make a sudden move to make her fly away, she
sighed, "Oh Annie Lou, quiet, quiet, let it go, come on," and opened her
big friendly arms wide. Annie had crumbled, just slumped and nestled
down around her on the sofa, too sudden for her to think, for long,
surging minutes.

As soon as the hot power blast trickled away, sturdy polite cool little
Annie reappeared, rising from the couch with a deft, polite gesture of
refilling their strawberry daiquiris. Recovered, she was impressed that
Carole seemed unchanged, thoughtful and cheerful, as though nothing

Carole (the cat) was impressed she'd scored such a clean win.

The incident passed and neither one mentioned it; Annie was too
squeamish and Carole, being very careful not to push her delicate friend,
acted too uninterested.

They didn't become roommates, their everyday habits were too
incompatible, but they bumped into each other and had a long visit every
couple of months during college, and then later occasionally by phone.

Every time, Annie would be anxious at first, afraid she was going to
embarrass herself by blurting out her soul; and every time, Carole would
quickly set her at ease and next thing they'd be talking about everything.

Carole loved opening Annie up, helping her find and develop her clever
ideas. Annie enjoyed the challenge of being able to speak her depths,
unedited. It was better than meditation.

Carole tended to act quickly, trusting her instincts. In general they were
kind and generous, but she did have a cat quirk, which was deadly
playing with any piece of innocence that skipped into her path. She was
jealous but she loved smart clean virtuous Annie; however she couldn't
keep her quick little paws from toying with her. She knew the world was
a grim place and Annie had better find out about it.

One time, Annie needed help with her sex life. She had already lost her
virginity in a brief accident the summer before, but it had been clumsy,
silly, and very unsatisfying. She mentioned to Carole she was curious
and ready to try it again. Carole, an old hand at it, was concerned,
intrigued, and encouraging, and arranged a date for Annie, with Curt, a
suave handsome man of the world. Carole knew his nature was for end-
of- date forced sex, but her nature was not to tell Annie.

The inevitable happened, although Annie was able to use her intelligence
and wit to pace the evening into a charming romantic evening before its
unexpected rough climax.

Shaken and bruised and also strangely satisfied afterwards, Annie was
too confused and embarrassed -- it must have been her fault, she must
have been overly encouraging to the poor boy -- to go into details when
Carole called. Carole knew immediately her high-stakes experiment had
succeeded: she could tell Curt had performed as expected, and Annie
had also, she'd not only survived, she'd triumphed. Carole was proud of
Annie and proud of herself for testing and teaching her right at the edge.
She also knew a good reason not to press Annie for details. And sure
enough, by the time Annie was able to talk, it was too late to do
anything, since Curt was gone, hiking somewhere in Nepal.

When they did talk, Carole purred with seamless understanding. It was
her nature to be jealous of Annie's bright and cheerful purity of heart,
and to take the edge off if she could, but she was also sincerely proud
and glad of Annie's elegant triumph.

After college they separated. Annie stayed up in New England, where she
worked for a computer company and married Rob, a fellow worker.
Carole went to California to be with Jeff, her non-committal Sufi-surfer.
Annie was good at birthday and Christmas cards, and they had
occasional marathon phone calls, but they hadn't been able to get
together for years, until now, at Malibu.

Carole was wired, her love and jealousy cheerfully simmering, and Annie
was liberated and excited, out here dredging up her secret thoughts
about Stephen.

"What? Wait, Carole, that's ridiculous. I can't call him, you know I can't."

"Really, you can't? Little Annie, it is just so obvious."

"Oh come on, he's over and I've got Rob now. God, you are too much. I
love you. I hate you."

"I know, me too, you hard-headed little heifer. Good, so you are going to
call him."

"Dammit, Carole, I can't -- gosh, I suppose I could, it's only polite,
returning his call, right?"

"Exactly," Carole answered, masterful, soothing, and then the reverse
curve, the hook. "Of course he actually called your mom, so if you don't
want, you don't even have to know he called."

"Oh knock it off, Carole, I know."

"Yes. He really is significant, isn't he, little Annie?"

"Steven? Nah. Well, he was -- is, I guess -- a pretty neat guy. It was a
long time ago. He was always a mess. Dirt under his fingernails. And he
got old and still didn't know what he was gonna do when he grew up. In
fact, he's one of the main reasons I got out of art and into computers.
But we did have some neat times. Talking."

"Talking? I see sunrise in your ears."

"Oh stop. Mmmmm, it was nice. I guess I'd blocked out that part 'til now.
He spent a long vacation weekend in my dorm. Jeez. We -- we fucked like
bunnies non-stop, everywhere. I couldn't sit down for a week. I think
they thought he was my uncle. Idiot. Afterward he kept calling to make
me say `I love you.'"

"Did you?"

"Oh probably."

"You showed me those bizarre post cards."

"Yes, that was him. He did write good letters. But I hated him. He was so
uncouth. He was twice my age but most of the time he acted younger
than me. It wasn't fair. He should've been different.."

"It sounds like he is, and interesting. I suppose you've outgrown him,

"Of course. I've got the white picket fence, but I'm sure he's still hanging
around, waiting for what's supposed to happen next."

"I suppose. But," the cat nudged, "maybe not. Sounds like he might've
settled down, writing. Maybe he's learned the secret."

"You know, he might have. He was smart, just loose. Nuts, I do, I've got
to go call him."

Bingo, score another one! "My, my. Give him my regards."

Annie went off to use the phone, leaving Carole cheerfully licking her
whiskers, anticipating. Ten minutes later, Annie came back, in a daze.
She sat down and picked up her book again.

"Well, it looks like he's still got the magic key, hmmm?" Carole purred.

"No! Well, a bit, maybe. Gosh, he's such a dweeb. He said he was just
wondering if I was divorced by now, he is, everybody else is."

"Ahhh, why did you call him?"

"I had to, Carole. I told you, he called me."

"And what will you have to do, next?"

"Why, I'll just go on back to Massachusetts. He'll go on in

"You know, I'm sure your mom would love to see you, you could swing by
on the way back."

"What? I actually could, she said she wanted me to. Oh, poor little Rob,
what am I thinking?.. Gee, Carole, Steven really gets to me. I can't believe
it, the way he's weaseled into me. My mom -- I thought my mom wound
up hating him -- you know, I wonder why she told me he called, she
didn't have to."

"I imagine -- it could be she is not real fond of Rob."

"Really? That's right, she never trusted him, a Yankee. Particularly after
that time his brother just dropped in on her. My goodness, Carole, maybe
that's it.. Now I'm going to have to call Rob, tell him I'm going to go visit
mom on the way back.. I think I already told him I might. Sweet Rob, he's
so damn naive.. Oh Carole, it's not fair. Here he's just slimed out again,
and it won't work, then I'm going to go back to Rob and have to pretend
to forget him again.. You did it, you made me do it, didn't you? Carole, I
hate you."

"Now now, silly goose. Annie, you are so predictable. It's like taking
candy from a baby, you really are. Come on, call your mom, then let's go
walk on the beach. You can call whatsisname, Rob, when we get back."

Charles Meredith Rhinelander