Lunch with Rachel rolled around. "How's Maggie with all this?" she asked.
"About what you'd expect."
"Can't be that bad.
"Jesus," I sighed. "Give it a rest. Anyway, what'd she ever do to you?"
"You know it has to be Sarah."
"No, I don't" I said, pushing an unripened watermelon ball into a mound of low-fat curds.
"Who else then? Who'd you dump Sarah for, anyway? Coleen, right?"
"Right. Not her for sure. She benches more than I do. If she were this pissed she'd just deck me and I'd be afraid to get up again."
"The blonde from the phone company."
"No way. Didn't have the brains to lick the stamps, much less remember my address."
"Stephanie. The one who used to follow you around the gym clenching her fists."
"Now engaged to some weasel. Stockbroker. Two and a half carats and a house on the water in Westport." I snorted. "Yeah, she'd fuck that up to annoy me."
"So, Sherlock," she said. "When you've eliminated the impossible. . . ."
I was silent.
"It has to be Sarah."
"But she was always so nice to you."
"So what? You've known it had to be her all along. You just don't want to deal." She finally picked up her turkey club.
"Shit. You're right, of course. I mean, what the hell can I do? Just call her up and say, ‘Enough's enough'?"
"You could. You'd have to talk to her again. She might be a little pissed."
"Jesus. I guess so. Well, I don't see any choice. But boy, I really really don't want to do this."
I didn't. Even though this crazy little episode had put me on the moral high ground, the amount of intellectual dishonesty I'd have to invest in justifying my own conduct left me a little breathless. I was still feeling tenuous when I got home. I'd taken to going back to the house after lunch to hide the mail. I didn't want Maggie to see it, and I couldn't just toss it. There was always the off chance the police would find it helpful after they'd zipped up our body bags. So I stuck it in my study. That night Maggie found it. I thought she was about as far gone as she could get. I was wrong.
All the little pricks cheat. All of them lie. All of them leave. The trick is to know this. The trick is not to let them have too much of you. Then they can't take too much away.
I thought this one was different. Then he started to get these things in the mail. They were copies of a cartoon he had found in his car. When that happened he asked me if I had left it. "My God, why would I do something like that?"
He looked a little confused. "Oh, I don't know. Something romantic, I guess."
"Try passive-aggressive. This isn't someone who likes you. At least not in any way I'd like to be liked." I tried not to sound suspicious. His confusion looked genuine, but I had done a lot of hard work to trust a man again, and I could backslide the first time I saw his eyes wander.
I hated them showing up at the house. That was the worst part. It took away something I loved. It surprised me the first time I saw it; with his snappy suits and little car I thought he'd live in a high-tech condo with a rotating bed and underwater stereos in the bathtub. Instead it was a little cape he'd bought when he was married. That first time things between us were still perfectly innocent; I couldn't be sure whether we were dating or just making friends. I saw the old pictures and big gold damask couch and had a sudden sense
that I could live there. Then I saw Aveda shampoo for redheads in the bathroom and I almost cried.
The bathroom was worse than the kitchen but better than the basement. The house kind of deteriorated as the space became less public. The living room and bedroom were all masculine and English-looking, with lots of wood and leather and gilded frames and books piled up in every corner. Everywhere you looked there was a dead king staring at you. His bed was so huge that I was sure that when he slept alone he must have looked like a bunny on a pool table. When you got to the kitchen you realized that the guy who lived there was after all just a regular guy who drank beer right out of the bottle and left the empties on the counter. Everything was formica or linoleum and the appliances were twenty years old, and the ones he didn't use didn't work. He didn't even know how to use the oven. The bathroom was where the ghost of the first owner lived. The tile was turquoise. It was amazing. It looked like fiestaware. I loved it.
That first time in the house I wondered if he would kiss me. He didn't. The next day he did. I gathered the courage to hear an answer I didn't want and asked him about the shampoo. I expected to hear that it was none of my business, and I swore to myself that this time if it wasn't I wasn't going to be any of his. Instead he surprised me by looking embarassed and a little sad. "Loose end," he said. "I didn't know for sure what was going on between you and me. So I didn't tie it up. Selfish. Not fair to anybody." We slept together that night. The loose end called and called. He must have known she would because the volume was off on the answering machine. I didn't think until much later that what he had done to her he could do to me.
At first nothing went the usual way. He didn't kiss me goodbye that morning and lose my number until Thursday. He called twice the next day. I don't think we slept apart five times in the next two months. When he asked me to move in with him after so short a time I was surprised. I was more surprised when I did.
I loved that house. But the past started to weigh on me. At first I thought that it was its slightly goofy fifties aspect that kept leading my mind away from the present, especially in the Donna Reed kitchen and Joe Friday bathroom. But after I started to dig around the vanity I realized that the first owner wasn't the only ghost in the house.
The vanity was one of those things you see at Home Depot for about a hundred bucks. It didn't have drawers or rotating lazy susans or any of the other luxuries; it was just a big white box with a sink on top and a door in the front which, when opened, revealed some plumbing and a lot of stuff that probably shouldn't have been there. I decided to clean it out. I felt like one of those archaeologists digging through layers of ancient civilizations.
He came home when I was just finishing up. "What are you doing?"
"Uh. . . . I thought the place was pretty clean."
"Well, I just opened the hallway closet and found your ex-wife in there crocheting.
So I thought it was time to get rid of some souvenirs." I went back to my knees and continued to root through the vanity. "You sure go through a lot of saline solution for a guy who doesn't wear contacts." Thunk into the garbage. "Hey, do you keep all your old toothbrushes? Good idea. Maybe you can recycle. But not now." Thunk thunk. "Oh, hey,
tampons. I know. They're for first aid. Plug bullet wounds. Quite a variety, too. Great. One for every caliber." Thunk thunk thunk thunk.
He found his voice. "Ah, well, you know, you never know. . . ."
"Slut." He looked so relieved to see me laughing.
The depression settled in just after that. At first I wondered about the timing. It didn't make a lot of sense after all the garbage I'd been through to give in to despair when things looked good for the first time in my life. Only much later did I understand that it was the first time I'd felt safe enough to let it happen. At least down deep. On the surface I sure didn't feel anything like security. I expected him to throw me out. Instead he took care of me. He made sure that I made it to work in the morning, that I ate, that I kept my appointments with my doctors. He had always been attentive before, but I half suspected that that was just part of the seduction; now he woke up with me in the middle of the night whenever I got scared and talked me through it until I could sleep again. I couldn't figure it out. I had never known a straight man capable of that much kindness; I thought that for a man to be that female he had to want other men.
That was my problem. Because he was different I thought he was perfect. I should have known that he had to have the same dark side as all the others, but that he had it hidden under deeper and smoother layers of polish.
When the pictures showed up at the house I realized my mistake. He denied that there was anyone else. I tried to believe him. I always do; I don't know why I'm still so eager to trust the really bad ones. After the third set arrived I knew I couldn't deceive myself any more. I started to root around for evidence of betrayal like a raccoon in a dumpster. Finally I found a box of old photographs and letters in a dresser drawer under a stack of silk boxers. Love letters, some with perfume still clinging to them. Pictures of women, all young. All pretty. I imagined him with them, performing like an acrobat. I put them back and never told him what I found. I still tried to listen to the reassurances. The cartoons kept arriving. He kept telling me they were nothing. Nothing was one of the girls in the underwear drawer.
Whenever he kissed me I wondered who I was tasting. Soon I wouldn't let him touch me at all. I told him I was feeling sick again. He said he understood but when he got into the shower with me in the morning and I turned away and covered my breasts he looked as though he's been slapped. When the frustrated horny marching around got to be too much I would do him, in the dark, eyes closed, counting the seconds until it was over so I could curl around the sick certainty that it was all happening again.
She must have found them when I was at the gym. I walked into a dark house. I dropped my gym bag. "Honey, I'm home." Just like Mr Cleaver. Pretty quiet.
They were in the kitchen. It looked like a collage. About fifteen of the cartoons had been taped to an otherwise bare wall. To each Screaming Man was attached an item of memorabilia I had thought safe in an underwear drawer. She had been busy. It must have taken her hours to arrange them. On closer inspection I saw that she hadn't stopped at simple found art. Each letter had been annotated with marginalia. Not flattering. Each photograph had gained a little word balloon containing the kind of invitation you see in ads for 900 numbers. I turned out the light and left the house.
I should have known that something was up when he asked to meet me someplace other than Mory's. Just coffee in the middle of the afternoon. I did know something was up the moment he walked in. It was the first time I'd ever seen him look his age. The Airedale strut was gone. He looked as though he'd had trouble shaving every morning that week. When he kissed my cheek I smelled the Camels he'd given up five years before.
"You look like hell," I said.
"Thanks, kid. That should get me through the rest of the day." He settled back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. "Look. Bad news. Maggie left. I can't find her."
"Is that bad news?"
"God dammit, yes it is bad news." He caught himself. "I'm sorry. I know you didn't like her. I don't know exactly why. I just realized this, but I never told you I love her, did I? How funny. I always told you everything else. So anyway. I try to tell myself it's for the best. If she'd lose it over something like this, how could I—-ah, never mind."
"Why? What was it?"
"Those fucking cartoons. I mean, they started it. You know, like a gunshot starts the avalanche. At least that's what I keep telling myself. All that fucking snow was there anyway, and it would have come sliding down on me some time. As I say, I guess I'm better off that it happened now." He shook his head. His eyes looked like wet stones. "Jesus. I really let myself hope. God damn it." The last words were meant literally and precisely. Like an objection. It was the first time I'd ever seen genuine emotion from him. It made me a little afraid.
We sat in silence. He twisted lemon into his espresso but didn't drink. Absently he stuck an end of the rind in his mouth and chewed. Finally I couldn't stand it. "She didn't leave a note?"
His laugh sounded as though it hurt his throat. "Not exactly."
I didn't want to ask what that meant. "Are you still getting the cartoons?"
"Haven't for a couple of days. But there were little breaks before."
"Maybe she was sending them."
"Maybe. Maybe it was all some big crazy game to give herself an excuse to run. I doubt it. But who the hell knows."
"I still think it was Sarah."
"Yeah, well, you may be right. When she finds out about this I'm sure she'll be satisfied." He shook his head again. "Listen, kid, I've got to go. I just wanted to tell you."
Then he was gone. He wasn't going to get any more cartoons. I wasn't going to have any more lunches. I looked in my open purse. The original cartoon was still there. I was going to give it to him. I was going to explain it was all a joke. But it was better that he didn't know. He never would. I wonder why I thought he was so smart. I wonder why he did. I wonder what he thought was happening at all those lunches, once a week, when I kept showing up at a restaurant I didn't like, always on time, always ready to listen to whatever story he wanted to tell. I wonder if he knew what listening to those stories felt like. About the other women in his life.
He was always running out on someone. Just like my father. But this little bastard didn't get away with it.
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