Ann R. Brown
Cathy finished brushing her hair without glancing in the dresser mirror. She kept her eyes down as she stepped into a pair of gray slacks and pulled a white turtleneck over her head. The itchy wool scratched the sutures on her face. Before leaving her bedroom she tossed a towel over the mirror so that she would not catch sight of herself accidentally.
When she came out into the living room, her father was pacing anxiously in front of the fireplace. Every time he saw the ruin of his daughter’s beautiful face it hurt him physically, and he choked down his emotion in an attempt to console her.
“Sweetheart, it’s only been a month. The swelling will go down, and Dr. Sanderly has scheduled two more surgeries for the scars. You don’t need to prove anything by going out today.”
Her brave attempt to smile tugged the stitches in her cheeks. “I’m getting cabin fever, Dad. Besides, this may be as good as I’ll ever look. I have to get used to going out in public.”
Charles patted her arm in an agony of concern. “Don’t you worry about a thing. I’m here to take care of you, and Tom is, too.”
With a sigh, she said, “I wonder about that. Tom’s a perfectionist, you know.” He had sent a gorgeous bouquet to her hospital room, but had never dropped by.
Turning, she picked up a trenchcoat, then gave her father a quick hug. “It’s been hard, but I survived, and I’m learning to be strong.”
He followed her out the door and into the elevator. “Who gave you that pep talk? Sanderly?”
“No, not Sanderly,” she said softly. Outside the apartment building, the May wind was brisk. She kissed her father lightly and turned up the collar of her coat as Tom’s chauffeur sprang to open the limousine door.
From the back seat Tom spoke curtly to his driver. “Bump the curb again, and you’re fired. And don’t pretend you don’t speak English, amigo.”
Cathy considered reproaching Tom for his rudeness, but decided against it. As her father always said, everyone was allowed three faults. Tom only had one strike against him. She told herself that if the driver didn’t like his boss’s language, he could always quit.
The interior was a warm cocoon of fine leather and paneled wood. The Rolls sailed through traffic like an ocean liner, and Cathy allowed herself to relax. There was safety here, and all the comfort that money could buy. Tom was taking care of her, after all. Maybe, just maybe, the next time he proposed, she would accept. Her dad would be pleased, and all her friends would be wild with jealousy. The thought should have cheered her, and she wondered why it didn’t.
Tom opened a portable bar and poured her a drink. “Here, darling. To brace you for all those bohemians.”
She sipped the sherry and gazed out the smoked glass window at herds of scurrying pedestrians. Before the attack, material security of this sort had been enough, and even now it gave her a boost to be ferried around town by one of the most eligible men in New York.
She mused, “It’s fun to wander around the Village. I thought it might do me good to get out and about. And you know I’m thinking about resigning from Dad’s firm. It’s a big step, and I need to regain my self-confidence.”
He poured himself a shot of Chivas Regal. A frown creased his chiseled features, pulling his hard mouth down. “I can understand your descending to the D.A.’s office if Sanderly can’t repair you, but he assures me you’ll be perfect again soon. So why should you resign? You can still make the grade as a corporate attorney.”
Cathy fought down a surge of annoyance. “Why? Because the earthshaking lawsuit between Grandiose Investments and Gargantua Trust Company no longer interests me. I want to make a difference.”
“Women are …” He checked the time in Bonn on his Rolex, then picked up a cell phone and spoke to his stockbroker for a few moments. She watched him, saying nothing, her lips set in a thin line.
Hanging up, he went on as if there had been no interruption. “Women are conditioned by biology to want to ‘save the world.’”
He made quote signs with his index fingers. “But I thought you were smarter than that. There’s no need to punish yourself by taking a peon job, we know the attack probably wasn’t your fault.”
She stared at him with narrowing eyes. “Explain what you mean.”
Playfully he wagged a finger at her. “Well, it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t walked out on me that night.”
All at once she understood how a person could snap and commit murder. “I wonder if you know what you’re implying. That I was punished by fate for daring to leave your party early?”
He lit a Havana cigar and blew a smoke ring. “It was a hard lesson, but I’m sure you won’t do it again. Listen, darling, you have more important things to do than prosecuting basic brown types for stealing stereos. That’s a waste of your time.”
Rage locked her jaws, while she tried to remember why she had ever dated this man. Strike two. “And as you always say, time is money.”
“Exactly! Calculating my income by the hour, I’m losing twelve thousand dollars by hauling you around town this afternoon instead of going to my office. You can make it up to me by seeing reason, instead of giving in to your female hormones.” He clinked his glass to hers.
Through a red mist of fury, she managed to say, “I understand you’re throwing a party for the Zoning Commission tonight.”
He swallowed wrong and coughed. “Yes, but you wouldn’t enjoy it. Lost of boring politicians and developers. In a few months, when you’re feeling more yourself …”
The limo had stopped for a red light. She rapped on the glass partition, then slid out without waiting for the chauffeur to park and open the door. “You mean when I’m looking more myself. Don’t call me, I’ll call you, if I decide to descend that far. If I decide you make the grade.”
“You walk out on me now and you won’t get another chance,” he shouted.
“Strike three, you’re out.” She slammed the door hard and walked away.
Anger and humiliation warred within her. And yet, as she stood alone on the sidewalk, sudden panic overtook her, and she had a sudden, foolish hope that the limo, now disappearing around a corner, would turn around and scoop her up again. Curious glances of pity and surprise from passersby made Cathy duck her head. All at once she wished desperately that she had never ventured outside the safety of her apartment.
“No,” she decided, half out loud. “I won’t hide. This is just what I need.”
Resolutely she pulled up the collar of her trenchcoat, combed her hair down over her forehead with her fingers, and forced herself to take a table in a coffee house. An old newspaper lay on one of the wrought iron chairs. The first thing she saw was a photograph of herself, taken before the slashing, paired with a photo snapped as she left the hospital. The contrast made Cathy feel ill. In the first picture, she was sailing down a flight of stairs, radiant in an evening gown. In the second, haunted eyes looked out of a swollen face gashed with scars.
She swallowed her cappuccino without tasting it. To herself she said, “Two more surgeries, and I’ll be myself again.” But as she rose and tossed the newspaper aside, Cathy knew that she would never again feel like that woman in the first photograph - perfect, protected by beauty and wealth - invulnerable.
Her depression deepened as she walked on through the Village, past little theaters, bookstores, and brownstones where lovers stood close together, debating on the steps. Instinctively she avoided looking at her reflection in shop windows. She knew that Tom would give her another chance as soon as she was made beautiful again. As soon as she could be displayed, like a trophy, to his tycoon clients. The question remained: did she want to give him another chance?
It was hard, learning to be strong alone. She had to build a new foundation for her life that didn’t depend on perfection, one that was based on her own strengths, which were still untested. Her father did his best, as did her friends, but they didn’t know what she needed. Only one person knew, and he was a memory.
A crooked alley angled away from Bleeker Street, and there Cathy paused, turning her back on a tourist snapping pictures. She found herself staring into the window of an odd little woodworking shop, at a limewood mantlepiece gorgeously carved with chaplets of laurels. Momentarily distracted, she lost herself in the beauty of the designs. A glass-fronted bookcase displayed an open copy of Great Expectations.
“Oh, I remember that,” she breathed, as memories flooded her mind and heart. Even more clearly than the Dickens story she remembered the soft, hoarse voice that had been her lifeline during a time of darkness and fear. So many things in her everyday life reminded her of Vincent: the taste of homemade soup, the scent of herb tea, the sound of a rattling subway, the sight of a black cloak in a costumer’s window. Other recollections might fade in time, but Vincent she would never forget, even if she never saw him again. His face would always shimmer in her mind, a talisman, giving her strength when the struggle got too hard.
To escape the clicking camera she pushed open the narrow door, and found herself in a treasure trove. Lighted candles in wall sconces sent warm shadows flickering over an enormous four poster bed that swirled with dancing angels. Sheaves of wheat, trumpets, and scrolls enriched a set of dining chairs. Awestruck, she touched a pearwood hope chest carved with doves, every feather perfect.
“Wow,” she murmured.
From a back room a tall, gangling man ambled in, whittling a small carousel horse with a pocket knife. Sawdust powdered his hair and dusted his angular face.
“Hi, let me know if I can help you. My name’s Cullen.”
She forgot for the moment to pull up her collar. “This furniture is amazing -- the mantlepiece, the bookcase. In the candlelight they all look like antiques.”
Cullen let out a silent whistle when he saw her expensive clothes and sewn-together face. Putting the toy down, he said, “No antiques. Everything here was made and carved by my friends and myself. We all pitch in. The candles, though, are a necessity. We can manage the rent, but not electricity.”
Reverently she touched an inlaid cradle. A hanging tag read, ‘Kanin.’ A tall folding screen with a painting of the New York skyline was signed ‘Elizabeth.’ As she wandered around the shop, she paused to stroke the four-poster with its pillars of angels.
Cullen explained, “A Broadway star tried to buy that bed, but I wouldn’t sell it to her. Handmade objects have spirits, just as people and animals do, and that bed wasn’t created with her in mind. I told her to come back and get to know us, and then we’ll design one for her.” He propped his fur-trimmed boot on a stool and retied the thongs.
It was an odd way of doing business. Cathy wasn’t sure she liked the idea of being judged before she could buy.
Her coat brushed a table that displayed chess sets and rows of wooden spoons.
Said Cullen, “The cook at our place says that food tastes better stirred with wooden spoons. It’s a small price to pay for his chili and beans.”
On an impulse, she pulled out her credit cards, saying, “Wrap this chess set for me.” Before the woodcarver could judge her worthiness she added quickly, “My Dad’s birthday is coming around soon.”
When he saw the name on the card his eyebrows went up. “Catherine Chandler! Hey, I recognize your name. You’re the one that … you had an accident.”
“There was nothing accidental about it,” she flared. “What happened to me was deliberate.”
Cullen sat down hard on a stool, running a hand through his curly hair. Only now did he make the connection between this disfigured woman and the mugging victim that Vincent had rescued. Rumors had flown like lightning around the Tunnels during those days, but Father had been so anxious to get her out of there that visitors weren’t encouraged. Besides, her face had been bandaged then.
He made a sound between his teeth. “I guess you want to forget everything connected with that awful time.”
Cathy’s eyes became dreamy. “No, not everything. I was confused, I was scared, but I was surrounded by such care and love that it’s a precious memory to me now. Someone watched over me, tended my injuries, and more. He gave me my own life to live in. ...Why am I rambling on?” She didn’t know why she was revealing her innermost thoughts to this stranger, but since returning Above she had longed to open her heart to someone. Perhaps subconsciously Cullen’s Tunnel clothing led her to trust him.
Cullen had loved and lost, and his sympathy made him a natural counselor. Still, he could not forget that the survival of the community depended on caution.
“Maybe he’s thinking about you,” he suggested diffidently. “Maybe he walks the streets every night and stops and looks up at your lighted window, and then goes home and thinks about you.”
“I don’t believe in fairy tales,” she said, but her voice caught in her throat.
Reluctantly, hoping he wasn’t wrong, he pulled from behind a counter an oval mirror beautifully carved with incised roses. “I haven’t shown this to anyone else. It was carved by a special friend of mine, and I have a feeling his soul went into every chisel mark.”
Her hands flew up to ward it off. “No mirrors!” Despite her aversion, she allowed herself one peek. “It’s very beautiful.”
“My friend is talented in lots of ways,” Cullen observed. He watched her shrewdly as he dusted the glass. “For a big guy he’s real poetic.”
“No name tag?”
“He has some good reasons to be shy.”
With a careful finger she traced letters carved around the oval frame. “What an unusual motto.”
“He didn’t intend the words to apply to himself. Not even in his deepest dreams does he hope that much.”
“It doesn’t apply to me, I can assure you of that.” Bitterness like acid rose in her throat, choking her, and she hurried out of the shop, saying, “Forget the chess set.”
Cullen’s smile faded and he put the mirror back under the counter … forever.
With her fists jammed in the pockets of her coat, Cathy stalked through Greenwich Village. On the next corner she ordered a gyro from a street vendor.
“Hey, lady, your face is all messed up.”
“Really.” She stared the vendor in the eyes until he looked away. Tossing the gyro in the trash untasted, she strode on.
Seeking darkness and anonymity, she got in the line of an art movie theatre and moved up gradually until she faced the ticket taker.
“Which film?” asked the girl. “Tractor Cooperative, in Chinese, with subtitles, or The Happy Little Pinecone, in Polish.”
“Forget it. Please.”
Passing the 777 Bookstore, she glanced at the window display of poetry books. Through the open door she could see the bearded bookseller, as round as a cookie jar. It was a temptation to lose herself among the stacks. But Cathy knew that even her favorite authors could not ease her loneliness, her painful self-consciousness. The appalling shock of the attack had left her life in ruins. Tennyson and Keats did not have the power to rebuild her from the ground up. Neither did Dr. Sanderly. She would have to do it herself.
Standing on the curb, she hailed a cab to catch a ride home, then waved it away and walked on. Deep in thought, she didn’t notice she had turned back toward the alley that led away from Bleeker Street.
“I’m definitely losing my mind,” she muttered, pushing the door open.
Cullen was sitting in a rocker with his long legs crossed, whittling the carousel horse. “Changed your mind about the chessmen?”
“No, I’m looking for a happy little pinecone.”
She blurted, “A handsome, wealthy, socially prominent man wants to marry me. Should I say yes?”
Cullen squinted and scraped a few curls of sawdust from the horse’s tail. “Sure. If you love him with every drop of life in your body. If you’d go through fire for him. If you’d follow him barefoot across the desert.”
“Nobody loves like that!”
Cathy found that her heart was slamming against her ribs. “Never mind. That mirror - let me see it again.”
“If it hasn’t been sold …”
“Don’t tell me it’s gone!” she exclaimed, feeling her spirit sink.
He rummaged through a wall rack of gilded picture frames, stalling while he watched her closely, to see if the woman was worthy of his strong and gentle friend.
“So what was he like, the man who rescued you?” he asked casually.
For some reason she wasn’t offended by his curiosity. Tears blurred her eyes as she remembered a voice of rough honey, strong hands that cared for her, and a faith that would never falter, never fail.
“He was - beyond description. He suffered so much himself, and his sorrows made him a deeper person. He was good, clear through. Back and forth, in and out, up and down, side to side. Kind and good, steady and true. He believed in me so deeply that I’m beginning to believe in myself.”
Like a magician Cullen produced the mirror from behind the counter, but kept it in his own hands.
The words carved around the frame brought another rush of tears to her eyes. “It’s foolish of me to sniffle over a proverb.”
Said Cullen, “My friend told me he carved it for someone who needs to see those words every time she brushes her hair. Maybe he was thinking of you.”
“Must be lonely for you, being the only romantic left in the whole world,” she teased him gently.
He shrugged and grinned. “I know of one or two others.”
Cathy gathered her courage, then took a deep breath and allowed herself at last to look into the silvered glass. Slowly she released a sigh, and her expression became peaceful. Cullen nodded to himself: he could see now that she had been beautiful, and would be so again with or without further surgeries, for her beauty shone from within.
He was sure now, and his intuition was never wrong -- this woman had his stamp of approval. Without another word he handed her the mirror.
Her expression softened wonderfully as she touched flecks of gold leaf that illuminated blossoms, leaves, and thorny stems. Just to hold it in her hands gave her an odd rush of happiness. This was one glass she could look into without pain.
All at once she made up her mind. “You can mail the chess set, but I’m taking this with me.”
“Good idea. I had a feeling it was meant for you.” Cullen wound the mirror carefully in bubble wrap, then settled it into a box. “I have ESP, Ms. Chandler. I believe you will see him again before long.”
“You put too much faith in romance,” she teased him.
“I have faith in destiny,” he announced. “If you both want it to happen, it will.”
She sighed. “Maybe one day, when I’ve proved a few things to myself. When all these challenges have made me stronger and better.” Her voice hushed with emotion. “For those ten days, even though my face was bandaged and I was in pain, the words on this frame were true.”
“Once they’re true, they’re always true.”
“I try to be realistic, and keep my dreams under lock and key.”
As Cathy turned to go, Cullen murmured, half to himself, “But sometimes despite all our efforts, a dream breaks through.”
With the box in her arms, she hailed a taxi to take her home. As the cab darted through the traffic, she felt a strange upsurge of confidence. Despite the ordeals of surgery she still had to face, and the unknown pressures of the D. A.’s office, she was beginning to think that everything would be all right.
She had heard Cullen’s final comment, and just this once, she let a dream break through.
“Vincent, sometimes I almost think we’re still connected, as if you know everything I’m feeling. If that’s true, then you know I’m trying to be strong, to find my own place in the world. When I’ve proved myself, I would so much like to see you again, and thank you, but I want you to be proud of me first. When I’m well and strong and standing on my own two feet, then …”
She couldn’t resist opening the box and looking once more at her treasure. Smiling, she leaned back in the seat, letting the words on the mirror warm her heart.
You are beautiful. You are loved eternally.