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Inevitables

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No ghost, no rattling chains, no wailing in the wind or footstep on the stair, no glimpse of eyes in a dusty glass, no bloody dishes levitating themselves around the room during afternoon tea. It's only Eleanor's absence--no, Max knows better; it's his own awareness of her absence--that follows him through the house.

Also her books, of course. He's allowed Esme to sort out the clothes and things and cart them off to the attic or her own closet, to Oxfam or the starving children of exiled pop stars; Max doesn't care. But Eleanor's books stay where she left them, primly lined up on the shelves and tottering in a stack on her desk. A working text of Ovid, tucked underneath a sofa pillow like a fairy's gift.

The pages are dog-eared, the margins bedecked by her handwriting. Max closes the Ovid and replaces it between the pillow and the cushion, knowing even as he does it that the gesture is foolish. Pointless.

Lenka calls up to him from the kitchen. "Fish or chicken?"

He's always hated shouting across the house. When he stands, the joint in the back of his knee pops. He ignores it and walks to the top of the stairs. "What does the I Ching recommend?"

"It's a sacred text, Max, not a takeaway menu."

The stairwell magnifies the sound of her heavy footsteps, a drawer sliding open and a jangle of silverware, the efficient noises of a woman when she knows her way around a kitchen. It hasn't taken Lenka long to find herself at home here. Lenka, assimilating into the role of hausfrau. The thought makes his mouth twist into a smile. He walks down to the kitchen to watch her.

She's ladling curry from waxed-paper cartons into mismatched bowls, and doesn't look up when Max comes in. He leans on the doorjamb and says, "If divination worked, it would always work, whatever the significance of the question. Gods who play dice with the universe wouldn't differentiate between 'fish or fowl' and 'life or death,' or between human beings and ants, for that matter. There's no difference in proportion if you're looking down from the heavens."

"How would you know? Have you been up there?" There's a sarcasm in her tone that he's heard before, but he can't quite decide whether it's irritation or only the playful pretense of irritation. With women, it's never easy to be sure. "Anyway, I've told you before, it's got nothing to do with gods. It's about finding the patterns in everything that happens around you. It just helps you channel your own awareness--"

Max cuts her off with a groan. "I'll have the fish, please, before you make me lose my appetite."

They carry their bowls into the dining room. Lenka strides ahead and sits down in his seat at the head of the table. He takes the place opposite her, aware of her eyes searching his face as he takes his first bite. He's used to people looking at him, with curiosity or nervousness or idiotic pity, but Lenka doesn't jerk her gaze away when he meets it, doesn't hide the scrutiny behind a smile. It makes him feel self-conscious eating. "Did you never believe in destiny, as a Communist?" she asks, finally.

He's so tired of "as a Communist" questions that the fatigue is physical as well as mental; it's this and not a sore knee that makes him feel every day, every endless minute of his age. "Evolution is not the same as destiny," he says.

"Evolution toward an inevitable future." She leans forward, elbows on the table, chin in her hands, glasses sliding down to the end of her nose. Still that steady look. "That everyone would naturally find ways to work together. Just like ants."

"Just like ants? People worked and bled and died for this. I don't have to tell you. The revolution was made--is made--in suffering and sweat. It wasn't the luck of the draw, and we didn't find it in some fucking head shop next to the velvet paintings!"

He brings a fist down on the table and the clatter surprises him. He hears his own breathing, realizes he's started shouting. He hasn't shouted at anyone since the last time he spoke with Eleanor's doctor.

"And anyway, if I believed it was inevitable I wouldn't bother with you," he snarls.

"No," she replies, "If it were inevitable I'd have been deported and executed by now."

The wind goes out of him, slowly, and he rocks back in his chair. "Get me a whisky, will you?"

She rises, serene as a Buddha, and walks past him to the side-bar. "I don't believe in destiny either," she says, over her shoulder. "The point of the I Ching is to be aware of what's happening to you, inside you and around you, and that gives you the power to change it. Isn't that the point of Marx, too?"

"Magical claptrap," he says, putting as much force into the words as he can, not sure where the flare of anger came from or why it's fading. It felt good, in a savage way. Better than silence. He wants to hold onto it. "You can dress it up however you like, but you're still expecting a random jumble of symbols with meanings ascribed by dead Chinese princes to tell you your fortune. It's a venerable superstition, but it's no less stupid for age."

Lenka sets the drink down before him. She's made one for herself, too, and she takes a sip while he takes a long, deep swallow. "It doesn't work the way you believe everything in the world works. So fine, it's a superstition. Better--call it supernatural. That's why it annoys you. Anything supernatural is allowed to break the rules. It doesn't exist within your system, it just exists."

The whisky warms his throat. He looks at Lenka hovering near him, her sloppy hair, her pale face red at the cheekbones, the beginning of a smile as ambiguous as her sarcasm and every bit as maddening. The heat spreading in his chest has something to do with the woman sitting across from him, but more to do with Eleanor's books and the way they're strewn about the place as if they're waiting for her to come back, pick them up and resume her work where she left off, as if she's only been temporarily distracted. Absent-minded.

Shit. He tightens his hand around his glass until his knuckles hurt.

"You're expecting me to prove a negative," he says, pushing himself up from his chair. He is barely taller than Lenka, and when he stands their faces are inches apart. "Which, besides being an unfair rhetorical tactic, shows that your logic is faulty."

She laughs, almost gently. Her hand finds his elbow and stays there as if she thinks he might fall down. "Logic is your thing. I do transcendence."

He knows, then, that he can kiss her, that he won't do it now, not with the unlikely marriage of curry and whisky on his tongue, and not before he's gotten the last word--but that he will, and it won't be long. She makes him angry, which is more than anyone else has had to offer lately even if it isn't enough, even if it does not fill the void but only illuminates it. There are no ghosts, but Eleanor's absence takes up a different space from Lenka's presence, the way two women avoid each other when they're walking around the same house, sharing a kitchen.

"Well, don't cry to me when one of your fairy tales runs aground on cold, hard facts," Max says, turning away. He drops into his chair and picks up his fork, to finish the curry before it congeals. He already knows she will kiss him back.



I'm on the run, I hear the hounds
My luck is up, my chips are down
So goodbye baby, so long now,
Wish me luck, I'm going to need it, child--
The hand of fate is on me now,
It picks you up and it knocks you down.

- The Rolling Stones, "Hand of Fate"