A Decent Enough Man
This is “The Catherine Theory” — unlike “This Fleet of Shadows,” I wouldn’t hug this story. No, I won’t. I like this story. It came from my figurative loins. I have an odd relationship with this piece. Really odd. On one hand, it, along with its “partner” story “You Know I Love You” (Alice’s story), began a slew of interconnected projects. Yes, I want to be a schmaltzier Joan Silber. But. But. Hm. Buy me a beer [UGH I DRINK BEER NOW BYE MARGARITAS] and we’ll talk about it. Let’s. [Story first published in December 06, 2008 issue of Philippines Free Press. And it was instrumental in letting me meet Gregorio Brillantes, who is my new mancrush because he is so swabeh.]
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The Catherine Theory
Michelle took her overnight bag, and put what she could inside it. Always, what was necessary: the toiletries she wasn’t allowed to leave no matter how frequently she went there, some underwear advertised as decadent, a change of clothes, a packet of mints.
It was Friday night. In a couple of minutes, she would go out the door, and hail a taxi. In less than an hour, she would be at Jim’s house, where he would be waiting for her with a glass of wine, because it set the mood for what would happen the whole weekend. On Sunday morning, she’d be back in her apartment again, her overnight bag would hold what she was wearing now, the panties she had gone through, shampoo bottles that were lighter. On Sunday nights, Jim always had dinner with his girlfriend, whose name Michelle always seemed to forget.
It didn’t bother her, that he had a girlfriend, it didn’t bother her now the way it did before. Things like that happened. She supposed she loved Jim, and perhaps Jim loved her back, but that wasn’t important, hadn’t been lately. Jim would always say, usually after they made love, “You’re beautiful, Shell,” and she supposed she was. She was pretty enough, with her long dark hair, her full lips, her light skin. Her sister Alice always said she’d give anything to look like Michelle, then she could be taken seriously.
Seriousness, did she inspire this? Did it matter? Commitment, a voice in her head chided, and Michelle thought of how she’d never felt the urge to ask Jim, “Who’s more beautiful then, me or her?” She felt noble for this; it somehow made her seem admirable. She had no desire to know, beyond what she already knew: a girlfriend, Jim’s, who had him most of the week, and especially on special occasions.
At least he wasn’t married. She never dallied with married men. Her mother would never forgive her if she did, if she somehow knew.
Michelle’s father had had an affair. Beth claimed she’d known from the very start. “It’s those Catherines, up to no good again,” Beth had confided in Michelle one night (she was ten then), as they both waited for him to come home. Michelle asked her what she meant, but her mother had shaken her head, saying, “I don’t think you should know yet.”
A moment later, Beth said, “You know, before I met your father, I had this boyfriend. I thought I was going to marry him. I was so in love.” She sighed, looked at her daughter. “He was so handsome, you know. I often thought of how our children would look like. If they’d have his eyes, or my chin, or something like that.”
What Michelle thought of then was that possibility that she and Alice might have never existed. She asked her mother, “And then what happened?” thinking, for the first time in her life, how lucky she was to be alive.
Beth smiled, her mouth arranged into a crooked line. “One day, I let myself in his house. He always left the key under the mat, the one where you wipe you shoes on before going inside? And so I let myself in, thinking I’d surprise him.” Beth saw how Michelle’s eyes had widened. “Oh, honey, no, I didn’t find him in bed with someone else, nothing like that!”
But Michelle hadn’t been thinking about anything like that. She was amazed that someone would leave a house key for anyone to find. Terrible things could happen, she thought. And, with her mother’s tone, this story was well on its way to that. (Imagine that, Michelle thought still, someone left a house key for my mother to find.)
“Anyway. I was going through the kitchen drawers, looking for a peeler. I was making dessert, see? I wanted to surprise him with homemade dinner, to show him I could cook. Remember, I was already planning how to be a wife to him.”
“But you know what I found?” Beth asked, and in answer, Michelle shook her head. Her mother smiled, pleased to know her daughter was listening. “Pictures. I found pictures.”
“Pictures,” Michelle echoed.
“Yes, pictures. I can’t tell you what those pictures showed. Some of them were innocent enough, I guess, but the others, my god. I was looking at them, kept looking at them over and over, just standing in the kitchen. I’d all but forgotten about the peeler. Just standing there, alone in his apartment, looking at those photographs.” Beth sighed again. “And, Michelle, I thought about it. I thought, I couldn’t marry a man who still had pictures of some old girlfriend lying around in his kitchen!”
No, Michelle thought, she supposed her mother couldn’t, shouldn’t. (Wouldn’t, she would think years later.)
“One photo had a dedication scrawled on the back,” Beth said. “It sickened me, really. It said, ‘Sweetie, always thinking about you. Love, Cathryn.’ That’s what it said. And to think what that picture actually contained.”
“Cathryn,” Michelle murmured.
“Yes.” Beth looked at her daughter for a long time, then looked at the clock. “Of course, this has nothing to do with your father.” Beth sighed, rubbed the side of one hand against the corner of her right eye. “Nothing much, I suppose.”
Later that night, when Michelle had returned to her bedroom to check on Alice, their father came home. From upstairs, she could hear her mother screaming, not an uncommon occurrence. She went to the door to close it, to let Alice sleep on, but when she heard Beth gasp, “Kathy!” and, not a heartbeat later, a jarring crash, Michelle tiptoed to the stairs, and peeked into the living room, where her parents were.
Her mother was hurling wedding china toward her father, wedding china she’d taken out of the cabinet as Michelle said she’d be going up to her room. Michelle had left Beth as the older woman swiped the surfaces of the etched disks of glass, humming a tuneless song to herself. Beth hadn’t seemed to hear Michelle’s murmur of Good night.
“It’s that secretary, isn’t it?” Beth shrieked. “You slept with her, and you came home to me, to your daughters, and you slept with her! Kathy!” And her voice had grown shriller, and shriller, that, Michelle saw, even her father was wincing. “Kathy, of all people, her!”
And Michelle saw how her father had stood as still as he could, knowing Beth would always miss her mark. The plates zoomed past him, hitting tables, counters, walls, the glass against the hard surfaces punctuating her mother’s words, each newly formed shard falling to the floor like cold, clear ice. Michelle looked back at her bedroom door, which was, thankfully, closed.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” Beth screamed.
And Michelle saw her father open his mouth, but she couldn’t hear what he said. Her mother was still screaming, chanting a name.
Her parents separated eventually. Michelle had known something was wrong even before her father had come into the bedroom she and Alice shared, and talked to them about having to leave. “It’s not like we don’t love each other anymore,” her father said.
Michelle nodded. Alice, five, asked, “Is mommy in bed because you want to leave?”
And her father started to speak, but instead nodded. Michelle wanted to tell her sister, “I don’t think Dad really wants to leave,” but she had a feeling she didn’t know everything that was going on in her own home, and so she kept quiet. Besides, she had seen a curious sheen on her father’s eyes, and what suspiciously looked like dew clumping together the short spikes of his eyelashes; she didn’t think saying anything right now would help. And so, she kept quiet.
Beth had refused to leave her bed for the past couple of days. As soon as their father had gone for work, Alice would scamper into the bedroom, and ask Beth what was wrong. Beth never answered her, and so Alice would call to Michelle (who had been skipping school to take care of Alice and the house), saying, “Shell, come talk to Mommy, please!”
Michelle kept her own vigil. At lunchtime, she would walk into her parents’ bedroom, which was slowly starting to smell of sweat, and something rotten and curdled (in a fit of whimsy, Michelle imagined it to be her own mother, decomposing in the bed). The curtains were always drawn, and so it was always twilight no matter what the clocks said. “Let’s eat,” Michelle would say. “Come on, Mommy.” But Beth wouldn’t move.
One day, Michelle on her vigil: she went to the bedroom, urged her mother to eat, knowing as she spoke that Beth wouldn’t. Her mother was all but a lump in the bed, her head bolstered by pillows peeking out of the blankets. Her thick hair was matted around her face, knots raised at her crown. Beth’s eyes were wide open, though the skin around them was pink and swollen. There were gray circles under her eyes, too much like bruises.
“Come on, Mommy,” Michelle said, just as she prepared to leave.
And then, there, in bed, her mother spoke. Her voice was strong, and it surprised Michelle, made her rush back to her mother’s side. “The Catherines of the world,” Beth said. “Michelle, remember? Watch out for the Catherines of the world.”
Michelle was quiet, trying to remember all the Catherines she knew. She had two classmates of that name, though one of them spelled hers with a K. And did the Katrinas count? And the girl next door, her name was Caitlin, what about her?
“The Catherines,” Beth said, her voice growing more vehement. “Ask me about the Catherines, Michelle. Ask me.”
“You know, my first boyfriend, his name was Warren, we were having a grand time, really, we were young. My first love, on all accounts, but you’re really too young to know what accounts exactly.” Michelle saw the smallest smile appear curve her mother’s lips, watched Beth shake her head. “It was my second year in high school. Around Christmas time. That day, I’d been walking around, thinking how lucky I was, that during the Christmas parties, I’d have someone to hold hands with, Warren. God, I was such a girl.”
Beth fell silent for a few moments, so Michelle asked her to go on.
“Good, you’re listening. Anyway. I saw them. There was this girl I never really liked, her name was Kate, just Kate, although she made everyone call her Katie. I called her Kate anyway, which is probably why she did what she did.”
“What did she do, Mommy?”
“See, they sat beside each other in class, her and Warren. Teacher’s seating arrangements, because otherwise, I would have sat beside him. And then, during a boring lecture, I turned in my seat to see if Warren was looking at me, watching me. And there they were. There they were.”
“Were they, um, kissing?”
Beth laughed. The sound was gritty to Michelle’s ears.
“God, no. Of course not. Warren had his hand up her sleeve. For a long time, just holding her shoulder.” Beth snorted. “Oh, heartbreak at fifteen, right in the middle of a Biology lecture. The worst kind of heartbreak there is.”
Michelle nodded, although her mother was no longer looking at her. Her eyes were fixed on the curtains, and she was smiling a smile—that smile—that Michelle realized she didn’t like too much.
“I asked him later on,” Beth continued. “I asked him what he’d been doing to that Kate girl. We were waiting for the school bus to pick us up, and there were just so many people around us, it was all I could do to stop myself from screaming at everyone to shut their mouths, because something really important in my life was about to happen.” Her mother looked at Michelle. “You ever get that, honey?”
Michelle didn’t know. She just shrugged.
“Anyway. He said Kate had asked him to fix her bra strap. Fix her bra strap. Can you imagine the audacity of that girl?”
In her mind, Michelle repeated the word: audacity. She wasn’t sure what it meant exactly, but she was sure that it wasn’t anything nice.
“There are more of them,” he mother went on. “Maybe when you’re older, I can tell you what they did, those Catherines.”
Beth sighed. “Your sister. I can’t tell her this now, the girl’s only five. But when she’s older, tell her this, okay, honey? Tell your sister about the Catherines of the world. No daughter of mine shall go uninformed.” And Beth laughed, and Michelle tried at first to laugh with her, but then she was ten, she had resolved to be ten, and so she just smiled politely.
A few weeks later, her father moved out of the house. He promised to call her, and Alice, whenever he could. He did call, frequently in fact, and sometimes, tiring of hearing her father’s voice, she would pass the phone to Alice, who’d always ask, “Where are you? Why aren’t you here? When are you coming back? Where are you?”
There were afternoons when, coming home from school, Michelle would see Beth playing with Alice, crooning to her in a voice that made the fine hairs on her arms stand. Alice would have lipstick all over her, rouge garish on her young, plump cheeks.
And sometimes, Michelle would find Alice alone in the kitchen, while her mother’s voice wafted out of one of the rooms in the now-big house. Michelle would always take Alice by the hand, and lead her to their bedroom.
Her father had left a college teaching position to go to Antipolo, where he farmed, until now. He always seemed happier, if not content, whenever he came down to have lunch with his daughters. “Are you taking care of yourself?” he would always ask them, Michelle first, and then Alice. Michelle would notice the sunburned skin of her father’s nose, the scruffy beard. And Michelle would say, “Yes, Daddy.”
The name of his new “wife” was Nora (that’s how he introduced her to the girls: “This is my new wife, girls: Nora.”). Apparently, Kathy the Department Secretary was nothing more than a fortunate mistake. Beth always shook her head when Nora’s name was mentioned, as if it was deeper betrayal that her former husband didn’t take up with the woman who’d originally wrecked their marriage.
“But they’re not really married, you know,” Beth would tell Michelle. “There they are with their vegetables, living in sin.” And Beth laughed, the way someone would laugh when they heard a cruel joke.
Michelle had told her once, “It’s because Nora’s not a Catherine, is it?” And Beth had screamed at her so suddenly, that for a couple of seconds, Michelle just sat still, staring at her own mother as she raged. She’d been thirteen when this happened.
The girls had met Nora a couple of times during the early months of their father’s retreat into Antipolo, and then, later on, some summers were even spent in their modest house fronting a field of corn. She was a petite woman, her skin brown, her face lined with years of easy smiles and laughter. She had hugged Alice first, she was seven then, and when Alice had giggled, Nora had opened her arms to Michelle. Michelle tensed for a few moments, thinking about her mother back home, who was probably bent over her pedicure at that moment. Michelle allowed herself be hugged, to smile. Nora smelled like mangoes, picked at just the right time.
“Oh,” Nora said to her husband, “she has your eyes!”
Michelle liked her enough, what was not to like? Alice claimed she loved her. “I want to stay with them forever, and farm,” she would always say, after the visits.
“You wouldn’t like it,” Michelle would always tell her, eyeing Alice’s pale skin, which easily turned red during summers, no matter how much sun block Michelle put on her. “Too much sun.”
When Alice was thirteen, she had come running into the bedroom, where Michelle was reading a book. Alice was crying, her cheeks mottled pink, the skin around her eyes swollen and red.
“Do you know what he did to me?” Alice wailed.
Michelle assumed she was talking about Derek. Derek. She thought it a pretentious name for a thirteen-year-old boy. Since school started, her younger sister had gone on and on about how Derek, school heartthrob, had befriended her, leaving notes inside her books, walking her from school. Alice announced she was in love. She usually announced this during dinners, where Beth would smile widely, and give her a kiss on the cheek. And Michelle would look up from the book she was not allowed to read on the dinner table and make a face at her younger sister.
“Do you know what he did to me?” Alice kept wailing, and wailing.
It seemed Michelle was obliged to inquire. “What, Alice? What did he do to you?”
Her sister stood in the center of the bedroom. “He asked if he could walk me home. He said he had something really important to tell me. I was so –” and she broke off to hiccup. “I was so excited. I thought he was going to ask me if he could be my boyfriend, and I was so excited, I couldn’t stop smiling at him. I’m such an idiot!”
“You’re not an idiot.”
Alice went on. “You know what he did? You know what it was that he was going to ask me? He asked if I could help him with my lab partner. My lab partner.” Alice’s voice was high-pitched as she mimicked, “‘I’ve had the biggest crush on her. Could you tell her that?’” And Alice crumpled to the floor, not crying anymore, though her face was twisted as she stared at her sister. Her voice, when she spoke, resumed its normal pitch, but the sound was rounder, more hollow. “My lab partner,” Alice said.
“What’s her name?”
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not.”
Michelle thought it was probably a ploy. She was eighteen now, and a lot of boys found her pretty, so she’d gone through a lot of ploys already. Some boys had done this very thing to her, pretend to have an interest in someone else, when it was really her they wanted to get close to. Sometimes she helped them out, and sometimes, her matchmaking skills outweighed any original intention those boys might have had.
But she didn’t tell her sister all this. She probably wasn’t right. And she never liked Derek anyway, those few moments she’d met the boy. And so she told Alice, “So it’s what he didn’t do to you.”
Alice glared at her. “You’re not helping!”
Michelle shook her head. “No, I’m probably not.”
There was a story Michelle kept repeating, even when not prodded, about her first disastrous love affair. An anecdote, something to amuse, entertain, though it started out as a signal for a need of sympathy. Or something like that.
The story goes: she’d been a year out of college, working as a library assistant, in the university where her father used to work. She’d been dating the head librarian, Peter, for about six months, when she decided, one particularly slow day, to go to him in his office. On her way there, she thought of how surprised he’d be, how surprised and pleased—and yes, aroused—once she started taking her blouse off, letting him know that she had to have him, had to have him now, and yes, the door was already locked.
The door to his office was open, and she peeked in, to make sure he was alone. She remembered how she’d taken care not to nudge the door, as it creaked. She remembered how her throat had constricted when she saw Peter with a girl, a girl. She remembered how suddenly cold the hallway was, and she’d wrapped her arms around herself, still watching Peter and this student, who couldn’t be less than two years younger than she was.
Peter was leaning against his desk. In front of him was that girl. She was wearing a blue miniskirt, and she was inching the hem slowly up her thighs. Michelle could see the shadows at the backs of this girls’ knees, the taut muscles of her calves.
And Michelle always ended this story by saying she tiptoed out of that hallway, did her work like an automaton. That she went back to his office at the end of the day, and told him she didn’t want to see him anymore, and that she hoped he enjoyed the rest of his life, particularly his job in the college library. And her last words to him were, “Bye now.”
During Alice’s bridal shower, she’d told this story again, to a group of Alice’s friends, who’d all giggled at the beginning of her tales (office romance!), who eventually gnashed their teeth, and shook their fists at her unfortunate ex-boyfriend, and the anonymous college schoolgirl. After the well-wishing had abated (“Oh, you poor thing, he’ll have it coming to him”), and she could feel all the women in the room were thinking about old loves that didn’t work out (they always get that look in their faces, that they were daydreaming, but their eyebrows had come together, confused, unbelieving), Michelle excused herself and went to the kitchen, where she poured herself another glass of wine.
She thought about that story then, and the more she thought about it—the door, the hallway, Peter against his desk, the blue miniskirt—she realized she no longer knew if the story was true. She’d told this story many times, originally to her friends from college, who all demanded why she and Peter hadn’t worked out, when Peter was “such a nice guy.” Perhaps she’d wanted to justify herself? Or disprove that Peter wasn’t the nice guy he seemed to be (and actually was)? Did she actually see this? Did it even actually happen?
Michelle couldn’t remember.
What if, somehow, word got around—to Peter, to that college girl? Peter, a gentleman, would keep silent. He hadn’t even said a word when she broke up with him, not even a calm Michelle. And that college girl, would she say, “I never did that!” and deny everything, thinking she was the victim of deliberate slander? I never did that, she would probably say, and Michelle would think (only to herself, of course), “No, maybe you didn’t.”
Michelle knew she had gone to his office. Knew that Peter was there, that the girl was there. She was sure about the miniskirt, more sure that it was blue. But the hem slowly, playfully, inching up? Was she sure about that?
No, she wasn’t. She’d maintained a fiction for so long, she had forgotten what was real.
Michelle went back to the party, where everyone had raised their glasses, wishing Alice, for the nth time that night, a happy marriage. Michelle raised her own glass, near empty now, and her lips moved, shaping over the other women’s words.
She looked at Alice, who had a red lace thong pinned to her hair, like a tiara. Her little sister, pink with wine and party make-up, grinning at everyone in her room. So young, so in love.
Michelle smiled, and when she spoke, the whole room listened to her, the girl of the broken heart, the one who’d walked into an office wanting to have sex, instead presented with a reason to end the relationship, blue miniskirts and all.
Michelle said, “Alice. Have I told you I’m happy for you? That I’m glad you’re getting married to a… to a decent enough guy? Because I am, you know. Happy for you.”
“‘A decent enough guy.’” Alice shook her head, smiled a little. And then one of the women laughed—her laugh was a spurt of unintended glee shooting across the room—and everyone else, then Alice, then, finally, Michelle, joined in.
Michelle met Jim a couple of months ago, in a bookstore. (“Of all places,” her mother would say, if she knew about them. “Typical,” Alice would mutter.) She had noticed him as she came in: he was in the Classics section, squatting on the floor, browsing a low shelf. What she could see of him—neatly trimmed dark hair, dusted with gray, a checked polo shirt, the veins lightly threading his forearms, his wide palms—she liked, appreciated. She moved around the store for a couple of minutes, picking up books, pretending to read their blurbs, then setting them back down again. In the end, she made her way to the Classics section, where, sure enough, she found the man, still squatting on the floor, still browsing that low shelf.
“Can I help you?” she asked, before she could stop herself.
He looked up at her, but not before he ran his eyes up her legs, bared by a frilly skirt. “You’re not one of the clerks, are you?” He smiled, there was a lone dimple on his left cheek.
“No. But I’m a librarian.”
“A librarian.” And he raised both his eyebrows. Michelle decided she liked his eyes: they were warm, a dark brown, fringed with lashes not too thick as to make him look pretty.
“Yes, a librarian,” she repeated. And then she smiled, realizing it was her first, for him.
They had gone for coffee after that, to a café a couple of stores down the street. He talked about his having a girlfriend, and his voice was steady, matter-of fact. She caught him, though, darting glances at her when he thought she was studying her coffee mug.
She talked about her being a librarian. She had helped him choose a Tolstoy back in the store.
They met up a few more times during that month, bought more books that Michelle was sure he wouldn’t read. One Friday afternoon, a few days before her thirty-fifth birthday, and after two cups of coffee and a slice of cheesecake, Jim said, “Would you like to come to my apartment with me?”
And Michelle said, “That would be nice.”
Michelle stepped out of the taxi. She secured the strap of her bag over her shoulder, and went to the gate, let herself in. Before, she would have spent a couple of minutes just staring at the house, at what landscaping there was squeezed between the wall and the curb. But not tonight. Tonight, she was tired. Tonight, before coming here, Beth had called her, complaining about how her daughters never called anymore, and soon, the conversation veered towards her ex-husband, “that father of yours,” Beth asking her, “Does he still call you, Michelle? Is he so preoccupied with his corn that he can’t even check up on his daughters?” And Michelle could imagine her mother at the other end of the line, lounging on a sofa, a muted television in front of her.
“Daddy called me last Wednesday.” And he had, to say that he was “inexplicably worried” about her, and that the children—his children with Nora—were looking for her and Alice. Michelle had told him everything was okay, Alice was as happy as ever, and how were the children, had they applied to any colleges?
And then after Michelle had soothed her mother, Alice called, and Alice had called to tell Michelle that she was pregnant. “Well, I’m not really sure, you know. I mean, I missed my period, but you know I’ve always been as regular as the damned calendar. I haven’t told him. Oh, Shell, I might be a mom! You might be an aunt!” And Alice had giggled, and Michelle shook her head, wished her might-be congratulations, and felt the beginnings of a headache.
The headache was gone, thankfully, by the time she got to Jim’s house. She felt she would be making a mistake if she’d go to him less than healthy. Once, she had a fever, and she had called Jim to cancel plans. A less-than-peak performance didn’t seem welcome.
Besides, Michelle never thought to share anything, not even a headache.
At the front door, she knocked. Jim hadn’t given her any key to his house, and it seemed, would never plan to. Which was well and good, Michelle supposed. God knew what she would (and could) do to his key.
Besides, it wouldn’t be good if Jim’s girlfriend would decide to pay him a visit, unannounced, discovering there was a key waiting for her to use, under the welcome mat, or inside a potted plant. You never knew. Most betrayals were discovered by chance—few hunted for it deliberately—and if not by chance, then by, perhaps, a subconscious provocation: a sudden desire to look at a boy to see if he was staring at you, dinner made on a whim, walking home from school, a quickie in an office. It wouldn’t be good for any of them if Jim’s girlfriend would walk through the door, as Jim was making love to Michelle, on the bed they must have been making love in long before Michelle saw her boyfriend in a bookstore.
The door opened, and Jim was there. He was wearing a plain white shirt, old jeans, and house slippers. She looked up at him, and at the same time, they said, “Hi.” He stepped closer, took her bag, and slung it over his shoulder. He said, “You okay, Shell?”
Watching him, Michelle thought about the last conversation she had with Alice, the one about her might-be pregnancy. And Michelle remembered that, as she rubbed at the bridge of her nose to ward off a headache, Alice, miles away, had asked her, “Is everything okay?”
Michelle thought then: Everybody should stop asking everyone else if everything was okay. And then she felt bad, she felt like one of those bitter, shriveled stepsisters in fairytales, and she gripped the phone tighter, and she said, “Alice? Alice. I’m happy for you. I’m really happy for you, you know that?”
And now, Jim’s voice, seemingly from far away, asking her, “Hey, what’s wrong?” And then, Jim’s hand rubbing her nape, Jim’s other hand curling around her waist. There, in his doorway, he kissed Michelle, first on her forehead, and then on one cheek, and then finally, on her lips. Just a small kiss, a soft kiss, a fleeting one.
When he drew his head back, she smiled at him, assuring him nothing was wrong.
“My baby sister’s pregnant,” shared Michelle. “Isn’t that great?” □