What were the odds? Her? Here?
Wexler has long forgotten her real name. When he dreams her, she’s either Catherine T., or the-most-beautiful-girl-in-the-world-you-just-want-to-take-home-and-scrub-clean. Because the last time Wexler saw her, almost twenty years ago now, there had been something distinctly cruddy about her despite that face, stunning with its origami angles and inset with otherworldly eyes that gave her the look of a startled Japanese anime character — Sailor Moon as squeegee kid.
The long, ash-blonde dreadlocks are gone, replaced by a brown bob. A mom hairdo. Or MAWM! as the Brady kids used to say. He sees no signs of the aggressive hardware that had jutted from her eyebrows, nose, and lower lip, or the tattoos that swarmed her exposed flesh. She’s not in the resort’s requisite sarong and bikini top but wears a pale-blue ladies golf shirt and a pair of well-ironed khaki shorts that look alarmingly like Tilleys. In fact, the woman standing beside Wexler’s beverage shack on this Southeast Asian beach is so straight-looking she could have stepped out of a CIBC pamphlet pushing flexible G.I.C.s. But he can tell from those eyes and those facial bones that it has to be her. Catherine T. An exfoliated, repurposed Catherine T.
Wex fusses with a plastic-pineapple-tipped toothpick, stabbing at some wayward maraschino cherries, afraid to look right at her. Because then she might say, “Where do I know you from?” And what could he tell her? That it wasn’t so much that he remembered, but that he simply couldn’t forget?
Just within earshot a local dealer is selling to some Swedish kids — some product no doubt laced with Black Bleach™ (aka phraxifor). “No Black Bleach!” the guy hisses in answer to one of the kid’s questions. Wexler should warn them, but, as usual, acting on impulse is more trouble than it’s worth – last time he interfered with a sale, he had his left shoulder dislocated. From somewhere further down the beach, as if to remind him that there is an all-knowing God but that he’s a sadistic bastard, someone starts to play “Meet on the Ledge” on a seriously beater guitar. Badly, but unmistakeably. Their song.
An iridescent green cherry, on the end of the toothpick in his shaking hand, glows like a small, malicious planet. A celestial body harbouring the genetic code for its own destruction deep within its chemically sweetened crystalline centre.
It was back in 1999, the late fall. It was Livin’ La Vida Loca, it was Fight Club, it was Columbine, it was Y2K. It could have been fin de siècle jitters, it could have been too much caffeine, but some people were worried that the world might end. There were those who actually thought this might be a good thing. Others insisted the new millennium wouldn’t start until 2001, so relax. In fact, 2001 was when things would start to get really freaky, but how was anyone to know that back then?
Wexler had to elbow his way through the usual throng of protestors to get to the doors of the Toronto headquarters of the Oryx & Crake building at King and Bay. A gangly guy who looked like an out-of-work molecular physicist slapped ineffectually at Wexler’s head with a “Global Goon Squad” placard. Two robust nuns — on closer inspection men in drag — sang, “How do you solve a problem like Oryx & Cray-ake?” while bouncing Wexler back and forth between their padded bosoms as if he was a hacky sack.
Oryx & Crake had gone, in a mere decade, from a small family-run pharmaceutical concern to a monopoly-gobbling, global behemoth. Some said the CEO — a woman with a nasal monotone and an unnerving Cheshire-cat smile — must have shaken hands with the devil himself. There were rumours the company was attempting to trademark the DNA of its shareholders, scraping away at the Canadian government’s feeble protective legislation and playing shinny with various international protocols. As Wexler crossed the spit-polished lobby, he could have sworn the twin busts of Watson and Crick mounted by the fleet of brass elevators both winked at him.
Up on the 28th floor the others were already drinking from oversized mugs and talking congenially among themselves. They didn’t look like the usual types who did the focus-group circuit for fifty bucks and the free coffee. Wex should know — over the past few months he’d done a dozen focus groups, including ones for a new talk-radio station pandering to lapsed New-Agers (too earnest), a rapping Ken doll, “Ice-K” (he’d borrowed a friend’s eight-year-old son who declared the product, “gay and creepy”), and Texas-style-BBQ-flavoured chewing gum (surprisingly good).
Wex felt as if he’d stumbled into an audition for Diesel or Dolce & Gabbana. These people were all freakishly attractive. There was a lean, pouty-lipped guy tossing back a classic Brideshead Revisited forelock. A skater kid with the skin of a baby and tousled, blue-tipped hair that perfectly matched his eyes. A preternaturally thin, bald Eurasian whose gender Wex couldn’t determine. An older woman who was a dead ringer for Susan Sarandon. An Ethiopian Susan Sarandon. And then her.
Warming her hands on her coffee mug was the most striking woman Wex had ever seen. Blonde dreads, an armoury of metal punched through her face, arms lush with tattoos, and a Catherine Tekakwitha t-shirt engulfing her small frame. The coffee steamed in tendrils around her face, wreathing it like an image on a Victorian Christmas card.
Catherine Tekakwitha, who are you? Wexler wondered. Are you the Iroquois Virgin? Are you the Lily of the Shores of the Mohawk River? Can I love you in my own way? He was giddily channelling Leonard Cohen, a nervous habit. When he did this, in his thoughts he actually sounded like Leonard Cohen.
He was interrupted by the efficient voice of the Oryx & Crake rep asking them to introduce themselves. Wex’s ears were still ringing with the reverb from Beautiful Losers, so he didn’t catch most of the others’ names. “Wexler,” he said. He never introduced himself as Wex. Not since Grade 5 when that substitute phys-ed teacher had smirked and asked, “As in Wascally Wabbit?”
Then Catherine T. said something like Suzanne, yes, Wex was sure it was Suzanne, although later when he will dream her it’s not words that come out of her mouth but something else altogether.
Wex hadn’t been paying attention to the Muzak piped into the room — it was just the usual white noise. But now a song was playing that was pleasantly familiar. Fairport Convention’s “Meet on the Ledge.” It had been his hippie mother’s favourite, even years after she traded her Jesus sandals for Reeboks. Catherine T. seemed to be humming along, bobbing her head. “Meet on the Ledge.” Wexler’s new favourite song.
“You’ve all signed your disclaimers?” the rep asked. She collected the forms and then held up a small Mylar bag and shook it. “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” Someone laughed, but it wasn’t actually funny, not in a ha-ha way. Oryx & Crake had been doing this lately, buying up the rights to classic slogans instead of doing its own creative, trafficking in second-hand nostalgia. Retro-branding.
“It’s candy?!” The Susan Sarandon look-alike sounded deflated. “I thought this was a drug company.”
The rep rattled the bag again. “We’re diversifying. Strictly over-the-counter ingredients. No Black Bleach,” she said, referring to the deadly street drug the company was rumoured to be trying to replicate in its labs, and winked. “Code-name Bliss. But go ahead, sample, and you tell me.” She slit the bag with her teeth and tossed it onto the middle of the table, small multi-coloured beads bounced madly across the glossy conference-room table like water in a hot pan.
Later, Wex would struggle to remember which colour he had first chosen. It tasted pleasant at first as he rolled it against his palate with his tongue, a silky texture and a cotton-candy flavour. Then his mouth filled with sand. He couldn’t speak, but his eyes were wide open. This is what it’s like to be in a coma, he thought, surprised by the clarity of his mind.
He could make out a startlingly violet bruise on the previously flawless neck of the angelic skate punk and a pallor that betrayed low white-blood-cell counts. Mr. Upper Canada College’s crisp, linen shirtsleeve was pinned up at the left shoulder, empty. The regal older woman’s already protruding eyes bulged even more, yellowed in their sockets, a rail-yard criss-crossed her inner arms. The androgynous Eurasian, expanded to the size of Jabba the Hutt, slumped in a jail cell, talking a stream of filth and nonsense. He would continue to see all of their damaged selves in the years to come whenever they invaded his dreams.
The fluorescent lights overhead squawked and wheeled about, dirty seabirds now, beach-combing for edible debris. Wex lifted his head from the sand and there was Catherine T. rockbound — his Andromeda chained to a cliff above the sea. A scaly creature lurched from the water, mythic, voracious, a Trump tower of serrated teeth and shipwrecked breath. Catherine T. opened her mouth and out came, not a scream, nothing so operatic, but a tiny person, curled like a fetus or a fiddlehead fern. She sent it drifting towards Wexler on a breeze, buoyant, still breathing. But Wex was no Perseus, no sandal-footed hero. It was all he could do to turn himself around, and run inland, as fast as he could, his quads clenching, breath sluggish in his pipes, cursing all those who would sacrifice their children to appease gods and monsters.
The lights above Wexler were humming almost inaudibly. The dreadlocked girl had her hand on his shoulder. “Are you diabetic?” she asked him. “Or was it just a sugar buzz?” He was drenched and slightly dizzy. She was leaning so close he could make out the components of her musky fug — sweat, patchouli, Jamaican beef patties, and jitter-bugging in and around it all something that smelled very much like fear. The others around the table looked mellow, blissed out. Wex’s hands cramped. Opening them, he saw he’d been gripping some of the candies so tightly the colours had run together, the red ones puddling in the middle as if he had blood on his hands. That, or stigmata.
How long, how far, can you run from a memory of the future?
Wexler, who turned thirty-nine last week, the same age Martin Luther King, Jr. was when he died (and Che Guevara and Fats Waller — all men of more ambition than Wex) makes a deal right here and now, standing on this remote beach, in this poor, beautiful, strife-torn country, with a mangled “Meet on the Ledge” wafting through the air, the Swedish kids tripping badly behind him, and Catherine T. off in the distance walking towards a stony outcropping that juts over the sea. He makes a deal, his heart in his mouth — as small and sour as a dried apricot — to do something. To stop running, to create something meaningful, to find someone to love, yes, to make a child even. To live.
His Mohawk saint appears rockbound now, one with the cliff, shading her eyes as she looks out over the ocean. The water has sucked far back from shore, leaving an expanse of virgin beach littered with gasping parrotfish, blue and black sea stars and harlequin shrimp. The colours are dizzying. Local children run and dance further and further out, giddy with the wonder of it all, spindly limbs pinwheeling. Only Wexler and Catherine T. see the water rise in a towering sheet, darkening the horizon, rushing towards them like a berserk colossus on a surfboard.
And Wex runs. Not inland as fast as he can, but towards the cavorting children, his arms spread wide, howling full-throated like the warrior he might have been in an altogether other life, in an altogether different time. »From issue #76