The Squirrel Cage
I was running late. Of course I was running late. Isn’t everyone always running late?
I had been fussing with my hair and my shoes for hours; acting like a teen-ager. I lost track of time. I ran out of the house and forgot my pocket book. I ran back into the house, back up the stairs, and tripped over the dog.
At the ATM, the wind was everywhere in my hair and I tried to rush. I didn’t take off my gloves and hit the button for Spanish. I tried to wing it but failed. I never learned any Spanish.
I hit Cancel. Cancel. Cancel as big white snowflakes started to blow and then I wiped those snowflakes from my eyelashes; sniffled as they melted on my nose. Got a hundred bucks. Wondered “Is that enough money to meet the love of your life with?” I didn’t know.
I turned away from the ATM and walked—head down into the cold—around the corner and across the street; wouldn’t let myself run.
When I got to the Squirrel Cage, I put my hand on the door. I breathed the snowy air for one last second before I pulled and then, when I did, it was just like I remembered, everything was just the same. Same yellow newspaper clippings taped to the mirror behind the bar, tap list still in chalk on the board.
I tucked my gloves into my coat pocket and scanned the room.
He was sitting at one of our old booths and he saw me see him. We both smiled, and then there we both were. Both back in the Squirrel Cage. Both right back where we left off. And I stood still for a moment, looking at him.
He already had a drink in front of him, but his hat was still on. He was wearing one of those hats. I never know what to call them. The kind with the snap on the front? Paul would make fun of it, say it was the ‘pseudo intellectual’ look; but I just thought he looked smart. Charlie always looked smart to me, and when I started walking toward him I had this feeling like coming home again.
I slid into the booth-pew across from him; shook off my coat and ran a hand through my hair.
I felt a snowflake’s wetness there and wondered if I still looked beautiful to him; prayed I didn’t look fat.
He winked and tipped off the hat. He set it in the booth beside him.
“Well,” I said, leaning forward, trying to keep my smile from gushing.
“Well,” he said, leaning forward, gushing his, “Where have you been all this while?”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry. Haven’t we met?”
He made a laughing noise through his smile. Just one laugh noise like “Heh.” Or “Ha.”
Then I said, “Have I ever been on time?”
He nodded, then he crooked his head; a Jack Russell Terrier asking for more. I sighed and said, “Anyway, Charlie, you already know where.”
A girl’s jeans and bare midriff appeared at the side of the table. A winking belly button over a sparkling belt.
“Are you having something?” she asked, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from Charlie.
I didn’t answer.
“She’ll have one of these,” Charlie said and he held up his own glass and then the belly turned away.
Charlie always had ordered for me.
After the waitress left, Charlie didn’t put his drink down, he brought it to his lips, and took a small, small, very small sip and then looked down into the ice in there, “I guess I do know, Angela,” he said.
“I guess I do know where you were.” He poked at the ice with a red stirring straw.
“Oh.” I took a breath that made my whole chest move. He put down his glass and rubbed something on the table with his thumb.
“How is Paul?” he wanted to know.
I said, “Fine.”
“He’s still working downtown?”
“Still traveling a lot?”
Charlie started scratching something on the table with his nail.
He scratched at the something one, two, three times until he brushed it away with his forefinger, “And you,” he said, looking up. “How are you?”
I somehow forgot to answer.
“Hmm?” he pressed, raised his brows.
“Oh, fine,” I said and smiled first, then stopped. “I’m fine.”
“You like the married life?” Charlie asked.
“Sure,” I said, searching his half of the table for the mark he had scratched, “I guess I do.”
“Really?” Charlie said.
But I didn’t answer. The waitress came with my drink and we watched her set it down, saw the ice glisten as she drew her hand away.
When we first started dating we used to go to the Squirrel Cage once or twice a week. Paul would be with us sometimes, or some other friends, but a lot of the time, it would just be us. Me and Charlie, and we’d talk all night.
I took a drink. A big one. Tilted my whole head back. “And you, Charlie?” I asked. “How are you?”
He just made a little nod.
“How are your studies? You must be getting close now. When will you defend?”
He leaned back in the booth-pew, looked at me square, “September.”
“Getting very close.”
“Only took me seven years.”
“But you did it.” I said. Cooed like a kindergarten teacher. “I mean, a Ph.D. that’s big, something to be proud of.”
“I guess, but it’s also pretty practically useless.”
“Really? You think that? I don’t think that’s true.”
He glanced to the bar then back at me. “I don’t know what’s true,” he said, before finding the spot on the table again. Traced a circle on the wood around it with his thumb. “You want another round?”
I nodded. Said, “Yes,” but then didn’t know what else to say so I just sucked through my red straw at what was left in my glass, till I made a tiny slurping noise and stopped.
“Do you think he would want to see me?” Charlie asked me.
“No, Charlie,” I said and brushed some hair from my eyes. “I don’t think he’d want to see you.”
“But you do?” Charlie said.
“What? I do what?”
“Want to see me?”
He was looking up at me then, not at the table, not at the bar, but me. He was looking at me and he put me in mind of one of those Sierra Club pictures of a baby seal. Eyes so open and vulnerable and brown.
“Of course, I do, Charlie,” I said. “Don’t I always want to see you?”
We both sipped at our empty glasses then, neither of us knowing what to do, till I said, “Well, Charlie,” using a much lighter tone. “You’re defending a thesis. It’s been so long that I don’t even know what you even proposed.”
And that made him laugh.
“Ang,” he said. “There’s no need to pretend. Let’s just face it, you don’t really care about what I proposed.”
“No, no. That’s not true”
Our waitress brought over our next round and put two drinks in the center of the table. We both reached for the same glass, then he pushed it toward me.
“Come on now,” he said. “I know you were just indulging me. That stuff must have bored you to tears.”
“I was never indulging you,” I said, grabbing my drink.
“Really,” I said and took a sip. “Though I do have to admit that it never made that much sense to me.”
“What didn’t make sense to you?”
“Well, Charlie, most of it. The whole field of homo – homo”
“Right, it’s like I could never get you just to say to me simply what it meant.”
“What ‘what’ meant? Homotopy?”
“Right. Simply. What does it mean?”
“Well, it’s math, Angela.”
“I got that much.”
“Ok, well,” he took a drink. “It’s like this,” he took another. “Basically you use lots of functions and you use that to define an object. So you have a set of functions defining an object. Then you see what you can make from that object only by changing the variables. Not the functions. Get it?”
“It’s like this, Angela. Like blowing up one of those long circus balloons and then bending it all around—like the clowns use to make poodles.. Basically, if you can stretch one object into another, without making a crack or creating a new surface, than those two objects are homotopic. See?”
“Hmm. What about the balloon?”
“The empty balloon and the inflated balloon. Homotopic objects.”
“But they are the same object.”
“Exactly,” he sat back satisfied. “See that usually works, I only recently discovered the balloon metaphor when talking about my thesis, but it seems to really work pretty consistently.”
“Oh?” I said and sipped my fresh drink.
Charlie leaned forward and I knew I could relax. I had just played one of my favorite tricks. I call it ‘The curious “oh?” and it always works just fine. I had perfected it when Charlie was still an undergrad, back when we first started hanging out in the Squirrel Cage, back when he first introduced me to his buddy Paul and I was working that job at the bank. I mean, it’s more like an invitation than anything else. More like, “talk more if you like.” And Charlie almost always did like, and usually, he liked talking about it so much that I was off the hook for trying to understand it.
“Anyway, my thesis was actually going to be blah blah blah,” said Charlie, “But then Takeo actually ended up being my advisor. He had to take over last year after Red left the university.”
“Red left the university?” Another important component of the Curious Oh strategy – if you hear something you do understand – repeat it with a questioning tone.
“Oh, yeah,” Charlie said. “Whole big, affair with an undergraduate scandal. Sucked. Anyway when Takeo took over, he thought it would be better if I studied blah blah blah”
I can’t describe any more of what he was saying, because, clearly, I had stopped listening. But I can offer the following details, Charlie’s sweater was orange. Not a lot of men can wear orange, but with his colors, brown hair. Sweet brown eyes. It wears on him just fine. His face was smooth. That was normal. He had a child’s skin. He never got a stubbly beard.
And his eyes were shining and his hands flapping. He looked so earnest. And so smart. And suddenly I remembered making the egg.
“But, Angela,” he said abruptly, “I want to know how are you doing?”
“Fine,” I said. “Just fine.”
“Really, Ang,” he said, “how are you doing?”
“Just normal. It’s a lot of the same old same these days, but we’re just chugging along.”
The egg was what we called the position we’d fall asleep in sometimes. The fronts of us pushed together, our arms wrapped around. I don’t know why we called it the egg, but it was the best feeling in the world. Nourishing feeling even. Maybe that was why.
“How is it with Paul?” Charlie asked.
Paul and I tried to make the egg once a year or so later. But our arms just fell asleep and we hated it. We woke up cranky and unrested.
“Really?” Charlie asked.
“I always thought he’d be a good husband for you,” Charlie said. “He always loved you.”
“It’s not the way I would have thought, though.”
“I know.” I felt my eyes wet thinking about the egg and all of this business. I took a drink to try and hide it.
But he already knew. Charlie always knew.
He reached across the table, took the glass and then held both my hands. His hands felt so good around mine.
“That’s what I was afraid of,” he said. I felt my chest go tight.
I thought of the way he looked on my wedding day, and I squeezed his hands so hard. He squeezed them right back.
I looked up at his eyes, and it was over for me. I was gushing. Hard. Not crying exactly but sort of. I could feel myself oozing out of my eyes.
I sniffed my nose. “It’s not bad, Charlie” I said. “I love Paul.”
“Sure,” he said. “I know you do.”
“It’s just,” I blinked my eyelashes. Wondered briefly if they looked lovely wet. “Well – I don’t know, Charlie, it’s just, I guess it’s just seeing you and being here.”
“I just missed you, Charlie,” I said. “I just do.”
I could tell from the way he was looking at me, then, that he missed me too.
When we first broke up I used to say things like that to him, all the time. As often as I could, I miss you, I miss you, it’s only you I love, it will only ever be you that I love —I used to hang on him, cry for him to reconsider, but the more I wanted that the more he didn’t and I was stubborn and loud about wanting it and he got more and more distant from me. He wanted to try different things. He wanted to try other girls. I couldn’t understand any of it; and I sat on his front porch waiting for him to come home and explain. Waited all night sometimes until that last night when at some point, early in the morning right before dawn when everything turns cold, Paul came, offered me his sweater, and led me away. Then I didn’t see Charlie for awhile, until, eventually, he showed up at our wedding. I mean we invited him, of course, him and Paul being such good friends. But that’s not why he was there.
Charlie rubbed my knuckles with his thumbs “I just missed you too,” he said, and then he shook my hands once.
Our eyes were both all dew-y and wet.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he said and I nodded. He threw some bills on the table, and we wrapped our coats around us then walked outside.
The air refreshed us. It felt clear and not too cold with those big flakes still floating around. I didn’t put my gloves on. I put my left hand in my pocket. Put my right hand into his.
We walked down the street holding hands inside his pocket. He seemed to know where we were going. He was walking so fast I could barely keep up.
At the corner he said, “Where did you park?”
“I walked here from home.”
“Fine, then we’ll go in my car,” and we turned the corner.
That’s how it was with him. Decisive and bold.
After we walked half a block down we stopped at his Jetta. He opened the door for me and walked around to his side.
When he got in the car, he looked at me. And I’m sure he knew how I felt, because I could see it so clear in his face what he felt, and I knew he wanted to make the egg.
Our breath made cold air smoke. He turned on the car, and with the engine came a song; we listened for a moment.
Charlie came invited to my wedding, but he didn’t act like a guest. He didn’t sit on the groom’s side or the bride’s side and listen to our families cough before the ceremony started. Instead Charlie walked up the stairs of the church to the room where I was primping the last of my curls. He opened the door, scattered my bridesmaids like dust bunnies, and then he stood there. We hadn’t seen each other in months and we just stared at each other forever until, he said, “Really?”
And I started to say, “no,” but then Paul must have come around and saw him there. “Charlie!” I heard Paul say, like Charlie was a cat he had caught napping on the dining room table.
“Charlie!” Paul called again on our wedding day, but Charlie didn’t budge. He was looking at me, only at me. I had let one of my hands fall to my chest and sat there feeling like I was popcorn, all twittering and excited in the bottom of pan, just about ready to get up and burst into his arms.
But then one of my bridesmaids stood up and Paul also appeared in the door. Those two scooted Charlie out and then the other bridesmaids re-appeared and rushed to me. They finished with the last of my curls and acted like nothing strange had happened. Got me in the back of the church when I was supposed to be. Pushed me down the aisle when I could barely even stand.
A song I knew we both liked started to play out of Charlie’s car stereo. He nudged the volume a little and sat still listening with his fingers on the dial.
Then he leaned toward me and moved his hand from the dial to my face, covered my cheek with his palm. I leaned into his hand. He brought his head to my head, with our chins pointed down, our foreheads touching, our noses rubbing. Then I tilted my face up, bumping his nose with mine, teasing his head toward the kiss.
His head wavered, his breath on my lips, “Angela,” he said, “I want to tell you something.”
“Mmm,” I rubbed our noses, “What is it, Love?”
He dropped his hand from my face, and grabbed the wheel. He hung his head down, and I put my hand in his hair.
“If you’re worried about Paul,” I said.
“Ang,” he said, “I’m not thinking of Paul.” I took my hand out of his hair and rested it on his shoulder. “I wanted you to know, Angela, that I missed you too. God knows, I missed you.”
“I know, Love, I missed you.”
Then he shook his head, ‘no’ and said, “I just want us to put this all behind us and be friends again.”
“I am getting married now too, Angela. Her name is Becky,” and something inside me popped. Then, he turned toward me. “She’s in my program. I just wanted you to know.”
It was something big that popped. Something I might not recover from. Something like maybe my heart or a lung.
“I want you and Paul to come to the wedding.”
“To the wedding?” I brought my hand from his shoulder, and put it in my coat pocket, drew out my gloves and started pulling them on.
We weren’t about to make the egg, probably would never make the egg again.
“No. No, I don’t think so, Charlie. But. Congratulations.”
That night he dropped me off at my front door without getting out of the car. I let out the dog. Listened to the messages and, of course, there was one from Paul. “Cleveland is great,
Honey, can’t wait to get home though in two more days.”
I walked over to the computer and logged on, out of habit. There would be no more surprise e-mail messages from Charlie; he had to be empty of surprises by now.
“Call me before you go to bed if it’s not too late,”
I went to a search page, typed the words “Homotopy, define”
“I’d like to hear your voice before falling asleep,” Paul called from the machine.
I read the words, “A continuous transformation from one mapping to another.”
I didn’t get it.
Another said: “Two mathematical objects are said to be homotopic if one can be continuously deformed into the other.”
But I still didn’t understand and I probably never would.
There was nothing else to do but, turn off the computer, call my husband, and get to bed.