When you spend weeks on end close to another person, so close that you know every hiccough, every smell and every scratch on the skin, you either come out of it hating each other or so deep in each other’s gut that you can’t find a way out. Klara and I were both. Our little love affair had turned into a Siamese-twin relationship. There wasn’t any romance in it. There wasn’t room enough between us for romance to occur. And yet I knew every inch of Klara, every pore, and every thought, far better than I’d known my own mother. And in the same way: from the womb out. I was surrounded by Klara.
And, like a Klein-bottle yin and yang, she was surrounded by me, too; we each defined the other’s universe, and there were times when I (and, I am sure, she) was desperate to break out and breathe free air again.
The first day we got back, filthy and exhausted, we automatically headed for Klara’s place. That was where the private bath was, there was plenty of room, it was all ready for us and we fell into bed together like old marrieds after a week of backpacking. Only we weren’t old marrieds. I had no claim on her. At breakfast the next morning (Earth-born Canadian bacon and eggs, scandalously expensive, fresh pineapple, cereal with real cream, cappuccino), Klara made sure to remind me of that fact by ostentatiously paying for it on her own credit. I exhibited the Pavlovian reflex she wanted. I said, “You don’t have to do that. I know you have more money than I do.”
“And you wish you knew how much,” she said, smiling sweetly. Actually I did know. Shicky had told me. She had seven hundred thousand dollars and change in her account. Enough to go back to Venus and live the rest of her life there in reasonable security if she wanted to, although why anyone would want to live on Venus in the first place I can’t say. Maybe that was why she stayed on Gateway when she didn’t have to. One tunnel is much like another. “You really ought to let yourself be born,” I said, finishing out the thought aloud. “You can’t stay in the womb forever.”
She was surprised but game. “Rob, dear,” she said, fishing a cigarette out of my pocket and allowing me to light it, “you really ought to let your poor mother be dead. It’s just so much trouble for me, trying to remember to keep rejecting you so you can court her through me.”
I perceived that we were talking at cross-purposes but, on the other hand, I perceived that we really weren’t. The actual agenda was not to communicate but to draw blood. “Klara,” I said kindly, “you know that I love you. It worries me that you’ve reached forty without, really, ever having had a good, long-lasting relationship with a man.”
She giggled. “Honey,” she said, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. That nose.” She made a face. “Last night in bed, tired as I was, I thought I might upchuck until you turned the other way. Maybe if you went down to the hospital they could unpack it—”
Well, I could even smell it myself. I don’t know what it is about stale surgical packing, but it is pretty hard to take. So I promised I would do that and then, to punish her, I didn’t finish the hundred-dollar order of fresh pineapple and so, to punish me, she irritably began shifting my belongings around in her cupboards to make room for the contents of her knapsack. So naturally I had to say, “Don’t do that, dear. Much as I love you, I think I’d better move back to my own room for a while.”
She reached over and patted my arm. “It will be pretty lonely,” she said, stubbing out the cigarette. “I’ve got pretty used to waking up next to you. On the other hand—”
“I’ll pick up my stuff on the way back from the hospital,” I said. I wasn’t enjoying the conversation that much. I didn’t want to prolong it. It is the sort of man-to-woman infight that I try whenever possible to ascribe to premenstrual tension. I like the theory, but unfortunately in this case I happened to know that it didn’t account for Klara, and of course it leaves unresolved at any time the question of how to account for me.
At the hospital they kept me waiting for more than an hour, and then they hurt me a lot. I bled like a stuck pig, all over my shirt and pants, and while they were reeling out of my nose those endless yards of cotton gauze that Ham Tayeh had stuffed there to keep me from bleeding to death, it felt exactly as if they were pulling out huge gobbets of flesh. I yelled. The little old Japanese lady who was working as outpatient paramedic that day gave me scant patience. “Oh, shut up, please,” she said. “You sound like that crazy returnee who killed himself. Screamed for an hour.”
I waved her away, one hand to my nose to stop the blood. Alarm bells were going off. “What? I mean, what was his name?”
She pushed my hand away and dabbed at my nose. “I don’t know — oh, wait a minute. You were from that same hard-luck ship, weren’t you?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. Was it Sam Kahane?”
She became suddenly more human. “I’m sorry, sweet,” she said. “I guess that was the name. They went to give him a shot to keep him quiet, and he got the needle away from the doctor and — well, he stabbed himself to death.”
It was a real bummer of a day, all right.
In the long run she got me cauterized. “I’m going to put in just a little packing,” she said. “Tomorrow you can take it out yourself. Just be slow about it, and if you hemorrhage get your ass down here in a hurry.”
She let me go, looking like an ax-murder victim. I skulked up to Klara’s room to change my clothes, and the day went on being rotten. “Fucking Gemini,” she snarled at me. “Next time I go out, it’s going to be with a Taurean like that fellow Metchnikov.”
“What’s the matter, Klara?”
“They gave us a bonus. Twelve thousand five! Christ. I tip my maid more than that.”
I was surprise for a split-second and in the same split-second wondered whether, under the circumstances, they wouldn’t divide it by four instead.