Excerpt from ‘The Cartography of Goodbyes’

Mar 9, 2014 | 0 comments

A longer work being written in and out of workshops.

by Matthew Curlewis

The little red light blinked at him. Three messages. He had hoped for more—he always hoped for more, but realized at this point three would have to do. Earnest with details about dinner and a play tomorrow night, with his endless rambling through information that Douglas already knew. Beep. A call from a casino in Atlantic City offering some holiday package. Quick index finger to the erase button. Then Christine. Her warm voice, her concern that always gave his heart a little lift. It sounded like she was walking around her kitchen, eating something. Three year old Katie was squawking happily in the background, and he was surprised that he recognized the strains of a song beyond her, perhaps from the living room. “I think I’m Going Out of my Head.” Was that from the sixties?

“Dougie? Hey honey it’s Chris,” crunch, crunch, “Sorry, mid-bagel. Look, I dug through my old issues of Harpers and found that ad I’d mentioned. It was in the July issue of last year, the one with that cool bird and waterfall sort of image on the cover, remember? Anyway, it’s on page 76, bottom right corner. OK. Gotta go. Love ya babe. Call me.” And then she was gone, and he was back in his apartment, staring at a black plastic recording device sitting neatly on his antique mahogany phone table, next to his cell phone, his pager and his palm pilot. For a moment he felt a sort of daze of not knowing where he was or why he was there, before Christine’s reference to the Harpers magazine spurred him into action. He crossed his polished wood floors into the den, and for once thanked the Lord for making him a compulsively neat, organized person who insisted upon an anal degree of order surrounding him at all times. He didn’t always like this quality, but in this moment as it allowed him to walk directly to the shelf, do a quick riffle and then select the exact issue, he felt a certain satisfaction that he wasn’t Christine, knowing that it would have taken her half a day to complete the exact same task, in her chaotic tenement strewn with to-go containers, nappies, and four thousand swatches of fabric.

Page 76. Nothing unusual. He’d subscribed to Harpers for years for the reading, the content, and had never had occasion to bother looking at the small, finely printed classifieds in the back. But sure enough there it was. The ad Christine had mentioned at the dinner party in SoHo the previous week. Teensy-set type in a corner that was barely noticeable. Cartographer. Reasonable Rates. Specialist in unusual geographies. Call Milos, followed by a lengthy phone number. He peered closer and then realized that Milos lived in Prague. Not exactly accessible by taxi, but hey, Douglas was a very frequent traveller, and was sure to be in Europe before the end of the month. He padded in his socks back to the phone table, retrieved his Palm Pilot and then diligently added Milos’s number to a rapidly expanding list of contacts, all indexed under the letter C. Cartographic Services.

The following weeks proceeded without remarkable incident. Douglas’ work as a successful, in demand Manhattan interior designer prevented him from having too much time to dwell on the past or the future—he was always racing to simply keep up with himself in the present. If he had continued with the therapy sessions that he had finally ceased a few years previously, Joellen his therapist, may have chosen precisely this subject as a topic “header” as she called them, for a session. Gently, as always, she would have lead him into a discussion of his “issues with time” and then without any accusation or prodding, let him discover his own discomforting truths about how much his work kept him closed off from his emotions. But now Joellen, like so many other people Douglas came in contact with, had been relegated to his past. She had offered that he could call her at any time if he needed—and there were definitely times when he had needed—but he had never picked up the phone.

His work days were punctuated with occasional trips to the movies, his regular excursions to the gym and the odd weekend brunch down at some café or other in the village. His old friends Anne and Roberto were fond of Les Deux Gamins, and Douglas would join them there because he always liked to see them, the coffee was good, and more often than not there would be some famous personage from the film industry at an adjoining table. And usually Roberto would know them, and there would be hearty handshakes and interested enquiries about Roberto’s latest screenplay, and Douglas and Anne would get introduced, like small moons who knew their place within some larger and more spectacular planetary system. Sometimes they would even be invited to breathe the new planet’s atmosphere for a moment or two, but mostly they would just take the opportunity to catch up on some quick topics between themselves.

“So, and what European capitals will the Douglas Martins roadshow be visiting in the upcoming months?” Anne enquired one day after Roberto had become embroiled in a discussion about a contentious Miramax deal rumoured to have been brokered on a chairlift ride at the Sundance Film Festival.

“No matter how many times I tell you, you will never believe that I actually work while I’m on the road will you?” Douglas sighed good naturedly, even as he tried to sound annoyed. “You think it’s all garden parties and boating afternoons on private lakes around fourteenth century chateaux I suppose?”

“You forget. I’ve seen your photo albums,” Anne volleyed.

“OK!” Douglas snorted. “I took a ride around a moat in a gondola. Once. So shoot me!” and held up his hands in mock arrest. “But let me tell you, that castle hadn’t had a new tapestry or a table since about 1820. The rest of that trip was very, very hard work.”

Anne chose to say nothing in response, but allowed her eye-brows to rise a fraction as she peered over her coffee cup at her friend. She knew that was all she needed to do to make her opinion on the subject clear.

“But really,” she changed tack, trying to sound less accusatory. “Are you going to take some time on this trip for you? Just for you?”

Douglas was a constant source of worry in her life. Not that Anne didn’t worry about a lot of her friends. It was something she was endlessly capable of, and actually quite good at. After all, she was the one who had lucked out. She’d met Roberto in the midst of the frenzy of his first signing from a major film company. With only the occasional, inevitable hiccup, his career had been close to stellar ever since, and she’d been having a great time riding along in his slipstream, lit by the glare of the paparazzi flashes, but mainly using their income to finally put focused time into her painting. She was getting laid on a regular basis by a handsome, intelligent Italian, she had her big, airy studio in Long Island City, and she had actually been able to say goodbye to her day job at the law firm. She was, in short, in the perfect position from which to worry about her friends, and to scheme for their happiness—even if some of the motivation stemmed from wanting to feel less guilty about her own.

She inspected the fine features and contours of Douglas’ face. The dark, long lashes that spoke of white sand and blue Mediterranean waters. The rich black hair he had been wearing trimmed short this last year or so, and the smooth, supple skin that belied his 45 years. There was an aspect of care she loved about Douglas’ good looks. It wasn’t that he was prissy or effeminate, but in saying that she had seen his photo albums, Anne had also seen his bathroom cabinet, and Douglas was a man who definitely knew the lowdown on the real meaning of ‘moisturizer.’ Then she let her little tour of his physiognomy finally inspect his eyes, that right now were cast sideways, regarding Roberto in his conversation. That’s where the real Douglas was located. Somewhere, deep beneath the layers of greenstone and blue glacial waters of his native New Zealand. Anne had been trying to plumb these depths for what? ten years now. And sometimes she was granted a diving permit, but most often the pool that was Douglas’ inner life was closed for some kind of renovation or other.

“Hello? Earth to Mister Martins. I’m asking you a question Monsignor.”

“Hhmmm?” said Douglas, surfacing from some mysterious, distant realm.

“I know you’ve been out of sorts lately, and you really have been working like a mad thing. Are you going to allow yourself a little chill out time on this trip? Take yourself off to some glamorous pensione in the South of France or something? I’m sure Rick and Diane at the firm would understand.”

Douglas smiled, but berated himself inside. Had his behavior really been such that his friends were noticing, and now suggesting in their kind ways that he either take some time off, or batten down the hatches and get ready for a breakdown?

Sounding as calm as he could, in an effort to cover the phone calls, faxes, web searches and emails that had already locked down his trip into an itinerary of military precision, he mumbled into a space somewhere over Anne’s right shoulder, “Yeah, actually. I’m thinking of going to Prague.”

“Really?” Anne said, suddenly animated. “That’s terrific! Roberto!” she exclaimed through the middle of his Miramax discussion. “Douglas is going to Prague! Isn’t that great?”

Seeing his opportunity to extract himself from endless industry talk, Roberto widened his eyes at Douglas as if Anne had announced a job promotion or a new pregnancy.

“Douglas. That’s wonderful news. I’m very happy for you!” Then “Excuse me Simon,” to the producer-type at his elbow. “ I really should get back to my friends. But do call about the matter we just spoke of huh?” Hands were shaken again. Nods and waves to the inconsequential moons, then Roberto sat back down, and with a small roll of his eyes his industry obligations for the moment were declared over.

“So what’s in Prague? Oh you are going to love it there. Anne and I adored it didn’t we honey?” and Anne nodded enthusiastically, her eyes still fixed on Douglas.

“Um I don’t really know,” he feigned. “I guess its always just somewhere I’ve wanted to visit, and of course I remembered how highly you had both spoken of your trip, so I guess figured it was about time,” and then shrugged his shoulders somewhat helplessly, like he imagined someone who was prone to following through with whims would do.

But even as his shoulder-blades slid across his back, another part of his body was conscious of the Palm Pilot in his jacket breast pocket and the information it contained, that had all emanated from a simple new entry under the letter C. Anne and Roberto were his good friends. He should be able to explain to them what he was up to, but so far only Christine knew of his search to find a map-maker, and only knew the barest information about why he needed one. Christine was Christine. Uncomplicated. Always happy to help, but never one to pry beyond the information she was presented with. Anne was far more inquisitive—and since Douglas could barely articulate for himself his obsession to find a cartographer, was feeling very guarded about his motivations under the x-rays of Anne’s curiosity.

Indeed Anne was pondering pressing for more details, but now that Roberto had re-joined their group, decided she would pick up the thread in a follow-up phone conversation. She knew, and suddenly realized actually respected, Douglas’ need for privacy, and so breezily changed the subject by announcing she was going to order another coffee, and would either of the handsome gentlemen seated with her be ordering anything else?

With a tiny smile of his eyes, Douglas silently thanked her for her discretion, and said that yes, he would like a glass of water please. Sparkling.


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