Miriam waits in the corridor after the seminar. He recognizes the conspicuously flared feather in her hat. She reaches for his hand. He removes his twisted fingers from their nest in his pockets. Then they walk in wind toward the faculty club luncheon reception. She has appeared on time, somehow, the coordinates worked and her hair is extremely yellow in the noon October light. Itâ€™s an essence of autumn, he decides, the core of its inflammation. He wonâ€™t touch this. He could contract yellow fever that way. Cholera. Diphtheria. New strains of antibiotic resistant tuberculosis.
In Amsterdam last year, she didnâ€™t sleep for six nights. Her disorientation was shocking. He designed Amsterdam as a second honeymoon. Thomas was started by her tangled hair and ashy skin. Her hands trembled. She shook him awake.
â€śI watched them hang their little flags in shoe stores and bakeries,â€ť she reported, sitting down on the bed. â€śI drank six espressos. A man, Turkish or Italian, tried to pick me up. I wrote postcards to people who care more about me than I can bear. I thought about the night we met. How you looked.â€ť
â€śHow did I look?â€ť He sat up, leaning on both pillows.
He is curious about how she perceives him. He can barely tolerate glancing in the mirror, focuses only on necessary areas of his face where he is shaving. He declines photographs. He believes he is, by generous interpretation, merely ordinary. A medium man at best, unexceptional, brown hair graying at the temples, bifocals, a tendency to stoop. He had brilliance once. It was a fuel. Now he looks like a professor, generic. All he needs is the pipe.
â€śI watched your life flash inside your eyes. They were like twin computer screens. And you decided to make an irrevocable pact,â€ť Miriam said. â€śYou looked like youâ€™d just found precisely what you never imagined you wanted.â€ť
It is true. He hadnâ€™t entertained the possibility that one human being could completely engage him. Research was enough. He inhabited a realm of formulas and equations, infrared spectrometers and Geiger counters, protocols. The continual analysis of data. The media, the running of gels, bottles of chemicals on shelves, glass tubes in racks. The inventory of ingredients for the next experiment. Love was an abstraction on a periphery he no longer considered an option.
They were walking alongside a canal in Amsterdam. He toured molecular biology laboratories while Miriam searched for tulips and windmills. There werenâ€™t any. It was the wrong season, too early or too late. Her tone implied fraud.
Then he realized she constantly wore something on her head, straw sunbonnets, and hats with veils, turbans, and scarves. And once, enormous pink silk flowers pinned behind her ears like a ravaged tiara. Or a vestige from a ghastly spring of unnatural floods. Crops refused to rise and fields burst with swollen stems offering bloated savage flowers. Her headdresses were symbolic equivalents of ace bandages. There was a sprained organ, yes. It was inside her skull.
On the Allegany Hills College campus trees are in transition. Heâ€™s located autumn for her. Paths are avenues of astounding russet and ferocious yellows. Miriam wears heavy bronze earrings and gold eye paint suggesting a wild-stripped cat. She smells of vanilla, sandalwood, wind and something foreign and forbidden, hashish, perhaps, or opium. A woman from a mythical port, abandoned by a wharf, collateral damage of a gambol or intrigue gone astray.
â€śSometimes I can still see where I am,â€ť she points vaguely with a red leather glove, â€śthough it takes an astonishing act of autumn to do it. See that dull plum?â€ť
â€śThe oak?â€ť he ventures. Everything is rinsed in henna and dyes from antiquity.
â€śItâ€™s an anchor,â€ť she replies. â€śMaybe I wonâ€™t drown today.â€ť