by Elizabeth Brown
- a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts
- a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect the acts performed
It’s a heinous slaughter. Scarlet blood like raspberry sauce glazes Canadian snow. The few survivors, stunned, slide awkwardly along the carnage. Hunters, afoot, search for more live ones swinging bloodied clubs with hooks called hakapiks, slinging guns. One survivor drifts away from the herd on an ice floe.
“Maybe he has a chance.”
“I doubt it.”
“I wonder why others don’t catch a ride, or at least try,” I say.
“They stay with the herd.”
“Not me. I’d be gone.”
“Repulsive,” Leo says, aiming the remote at the television. “Those cowards should be shot on spot.”
I watch his mouth when he says it and feel a strange urge to kiss him.
I’m passing time, waiting for my date to pick me up. We are sitting on Leo’s couch, the one his Aunt Victoria left to him after she died from leukemia last month. It’s a love seat so we have to squish. But that’s just fine with me. I don’t mind being so close to Leo. Sometimes, I even forget his limbs aren’t mine. Leo’s Aunt Victoria owned a dog-grooming business, Pet Pleasures, and when she died, she left most of what she owned to Leo. I don’t blame her. Leo is an unusually nice guy.
Aunt Victoria (the only normal person in Leo’s family) loved us and was always visiting; she lived a few miles from our studio apartment in Shaftsbury, Vermont, which is only 37.5 miles away from Glastenbury, the ghost town that was unincorporated in 1937. Although I’m too chicken to go there, Leo went a few times with Victoria, who was a self-proclaimed ghost hunter. I’ve watched some of the footage she left to Leo—images of quick-moving shadows on the wooded trails, unexplained bright lights in the background, the interior of abandoned houses and sheds and the sounds of creaking, doors opening and closing, moaning, crying, hushed conversation, children laughing. And the creepy pile of newspaper clippings dating back to the late 1930’s and 1940’s of the people gone missing on or close to the mountain (ages ranging from eight to seventy-five). In each case the lost person set out on a different path, separated from the group, voluntarily, as if the mountain itself bewitched them and then devoured them.
Before Leo knew me, I liked to wander away from the herd just like the lost people and the seal adrift on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I can’t say why. It wasn’t like there was a man wielding a hakapik trying to get me, and I don’t recall any voices beckoning me. Still, I used to hide in our black steamer trunk in the basement, and behind bushes, in small concealed spaces—the untidy corners rarely visited. I became well acquainted with sharp pine needles and squished yew berries, with the smell of cedar wood and damp earth and moss, the stale musty air that haunts the underbelly of elaborately laid porches. And I wandered away in crowds; I liked to hear the muffled voices, obscured, see the back of someone familiar fading, further and further away. I craved it. Life moved around me; I experienced it as a bystander, trancelike, incited by unseen forces. Maybe it was the muses who lured me away.
No wonder I was almost kidnapped twice.
The first time, I was four or five, had wandered off, and wound up at the beach store four-hundred meters from our cottage. A teenager with freckles appeared like a ghost, opened the door for me, and whispered, “Come on in, little one.” He was long and lanky, with arms like tentacles.
“Where are candies?” I asked.
He squatted down close to my face, near enough that I could make out the freckles on his forehead, smell garlic and cigarettes, and then he smiled and I saw his long teeth and gums—pink like bubble gum.
“No candy here.” He straightened up, snorted like a pig. His voice twined around me like dense smog. “Watch my trick,” he said. I saw him pull out a long match and strike it on the bottom of his shoe. “Voila . . . Fire!” I fastened to the flame, the enchanting sway of it, and his eyes like pale green sea glass, how they fixed on it too. I decided he might burn down the store.
“I want to go home, please,” I told the man with the cigarette; he was at the register swearing under his breath that no one was waiting on him. He glanced down at me. And then he laughed and coughed. “Oh, you pretty little thing, you, let me take you home.” And then he laughed more and the red-haired fire boy laughed with him.
I imagined they were both going to tie me to the tree, the one with the wooden swing next to the garage outside the store, and light me on fire with the match. I was too scared to yell. I started crying instead. The red-haired fire boy pulled my arm. “I’ll get her home.”
He dragged me along. He was skinny but strong, and squeezed hard on my wrist. I couldn’t get away. I passed colors that blurred—the long strings of red licorice, boxes of taffy, brightly colored balls of string, butterfly kites and neon-orange cap guns. We came to a different door—he placed his hand flat on it. I saw dirty fingernails and cut knuckles. He had a cigarette in his mouth and an ash fell onto the floor, just missing my foot. He coughed and spat, mumbled something under his breath. I heard the door squeak, and then a familiar voice from behind said, “What are you doing to her?”
The red fire boy became instantly reposed when he spoke. “Hey, there little man. Cool your jets. I was just getting her back home.”
My brother grabbed me like an eagle to prey. He moved faster than I ever remembered.
“Better keep an eye on that cutie!” fire boy shouted after us.
The second time, my hair was longer, dirty blonde, snarled and unkempt. I was clad in my favorite jean shorts and blue-and-white striped tee-shirt. I was dirty-kneed, bruised shins, humming some tune, riding my bike home from my friend Lauren’s house. I was thinking about our seance in the basement, her brother Greg’s pointy chin and thin lips glowing in the candles, clutching his grandmother’s coffee mug (pale blue) in one hand and holding his sister’s hand in the other, chanting, “Our beloved Gram, Hazel Freemont, if you are here speak to us, show us a sign, any sign.” Lauren was convinced she saw her grandmother’s face on the wall. “I smell chocolate chip cookies.” Greg said. And Lauren added, “Oh, my God. Gram’s favorite!” All I smelled was a musty basement. But maybe I saw her face. So I said I did smell the cookies because I wanted to get home before dark.
Despite the sun waning, I took my time, swerving back and forth, seeking swells in the pavement to feel the jolting, my bottom flying off the seat. I liked being alone, the feel of September air, the chorus of crickets, smells of hewn grass. I was only a few feet away from our street sign, Maple Wood Drive, when I saw the shadow of an older woman hobbling by; I decided it was definitely Hazel Freemont. I was startled, frozen, so I barely noticed when a burgundy wagon pulled up next to me, so close I felt its heat on my leg. A man opened the door, stepped out and said, “Get in.”
He wore a grey trench coat and looked like Inspector Gadget. I noticed another man behind the wheel. It was all surreal. I dropped my bike against the curb and bolted from the road, onto the lawn, and ran all the way to the Benoit’s where my brother and his friends were playing football. My brother walked me back to my bike and then home.
“See? No one is here, jerk,” my brother said angrily, upset I interrupted his game. At home, in the kitchen, the table was set, illuminated by the pale yellow glow of the Tiffany lamp. My mother was slapping burgers into patties and placing them onto a broiler pan. When I told her what happened, she said I needed to be more careful on my bike.
Fifteen years later, Leo doesn’t believe me either. I recount it to him while we are on the couch. My legs are draped across his lap, his arms are up overhead, remote still in hand, Gordon Ramsay shouting at a cook who is insisting his meat is not spoiled.
“The first one was probably a dream. You were too young to remember. And the second time, your mother was right. It sounds like you were riding in the middle of the road. Maybe the man was a neighbor, almost hit you with his car, and he wanted to bring you home to tell on you.”
“No way, I remember,” I insist. I’m not ready to abandon my abduction memories. They are too much a part of my identity. At first they were bothersome, haunting, but now they are comforting.
I decide Leo believes me but is just being argumentative because I have a date. He doesn’t like the idea of me going out with Brett. He remembers him from high school, said I can do much better. But that’s Leo . . . like a brother.
Two hours or so later, after lobster bisque and two glasses of Pinot Grigio at Monroe’s Steak and Seafood House, I am partly mesmerized and partly buzzed as Brett fiddles with his switch blade, sticking it in the ground and pulling it out, repeatedly.
“What’s with the knife?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not getting ready to rape me are you? I’m just not up for that.”
He laughs—deep and bellowing, bordering on hysteria, which makes me wonder whether he is Brett or incarnated with some new being.
“Jesus. No rapes tonight, darling. It’s a custom made Italian Stiletto switchblade. I collect them. This one is from my grandfather. I take it you don’t like knives?”
“Not like that one . . . too sharp.”
“Oh, but sharp is sweet. This this one slices through corrugated cardboard like butter.”
He fingers the tip, caressing it as if it were a breast. I feel my own tingle.
“Did you do that on purpose?”
“You know what.”
“Would you ever kill with it?”
“I guess. I mean if I had to.”
“How about seals?”
“Seals? Why would I kill a seal?” He chuckles.
“For the blubber, pelts, for the thrill of it . . . I don’t know why you males have these urges.”
“Maybe I might. I don’t know, Moonie.”
“So you would?”
“Jesus, let’s move on.” He flips it back in. I hear a soft click. He puts it into his side pocket, falls backwards onto the grass.
His body is longer than Leo’s; he is heavier but still athletic. I see the swell in his pants and feel an urge, a primal desire to climb onto him. He begins a diatribe on knives, types, and his grandfather’s mansion in Georgia.
“It’s a plantation home . . . I used to spend my summers . . . there was a gigantic oak with Spanish moss on it in the front that I climbed using this rope . . . we hunted fox and rabbit and—”
He goes on. I’m barely listening. I’m back on the couch with Leo, thinking about the Gulf of St. Lawrence blasphemed with annual massacres, Leo’s mouth when he said “repulsive” and held out the remote, how my hand inadvertently touched his privates.
“Do you like to think?” Brett asks me.
“Anything, I suppose.”
“I suppose I do,” I respond, halfheartedly.
“What does that mean?”
“It means I’m thinking. I’m a thinker like Socrates, you know?”
His voice fades out again. I return to Leo, how he didn’t flinch when my hand touched him. Instead he looked at me head on. His eyes were unfamiliar.
“Ok, Moonie Browne . . . let’s see . . . what about the forbidden topic—politics?”
“What about it?” I am becoming annoyed at Brett’s pointless questions.
“What are you?”
“What am I? I’m independent, for now. I have been Democrat and maybe even Republican at one point.”
“What? Why do you keep saying that?”
“Well, you know, you independent women are always on the fence.”
“I’m not on the fence.” Then, I decide to humor him. “Okay, maybe 50 percent of the time. No that’s too high . . . 25 percent of the time I’m on the fence.”
“See? See what I mean?” he gloats.
“You can’t even make up your mind about what percentage of the time you can’t make up your mind! You are a riot! I think I like you, Moonie Browne.”
Twilight sneaks into dark. The crickets chirp so violently I feel as if they are going to swarm us.
“Hear those crickets?” I ask him.
“They are hungry for some flesh!” He puts his hand on my leg and squeezes. I detest him and like him simultaneously. He is alluring. But he knows it, and his responses are scripted like a stock character cast in a B-rated horror or some cheesy porno.
“Man, do you see that?” he says.
“How it all just happens?”
“What just happens?”
“Night, Moonie, look around you.”
“I suppose.” My voice is stilted, too much so. I can never get things perfectly enough.
“I love it . . . like magic.”
I decide I might like him. He is interesting, after all, and somewhat passionate. I envision us together embracing, the kiss, hand on breast, the works. I start to feel something . . . lust? I wait. But he removes his hand, stands and brushes himself off. I feel as if he’s ending the date, brushing me off.
We are sitting on the grass at the Black Bear Park. He convinced me to go, said we could find black bears digging in the dumpsters. I was partially interested. But we never saw any and he wanted to show me another spot, one he used to sit in when he was young, underneath a weeping willow.
“It’s like a fort, see?”
I didn’t care, and it was dark and getting cold by the time we found it. And when I sat down, the ground was wet. Now, the dampness seeps through my polyester skirt and onto my underwear. My rear-end itches from the wet. I look up at him. It’s unnerving—I can’t tell if he is looking at me, or not. I think it’s purposeful and that he likes the obscurity. The dark seems contrived, haunting, as if it’s part of a set. He puts his hand out. I reach up and grab it. He pulls me up and I brush up close to him, smell a mixture of metal and musk and it becomes more real.
The ride home is silent. He holds his phone in one hand. I hear texts coming in. I am curious. Maybe it means I like him.
We hit a construction blockade. Steam rises off the road, machines hissing, drills, blinding lights.
“These poor dumb fucks working all hours of the night in this hell just to pay the bills.”
“Beats McDonalds,” I offer.
I imagine Leo, home, writing poetry, or watching television. Just the other day I told him to go work at McDonalds. “I saw a wanted sign. Why don’t you apply?” He rolled his eyes at me and looked away.
I’ve taken care of him financially for the past year because he can’t find a job in his field. He refuses to admit that he needs to switch career paths, take a job outside of his MFA degree.
“Hey, I live with a guy I’ve known since grade school,” I say. This guy is a poet, got an honorable discharge from the Army, went and earned himself an MFA degree for free. Now he loafs around the apartment all day, watching reality television, and playing Candy Crush on his phone. So yeah, those guys have my respect.”
“What kind of poetry?”
“I don’t know . . . free verse narrative type.”
“I think he may have a few in some literary journals. He’s been editing this chapbook, trying to get it published. But I don’t encourage it. How does that pay the bills, right?”
“So you think poetry is a waste of time?”
“I think he needs a paying job, Brett. He needs to be something, not just a poet. Poets are admirable, but they need a practical profession, too. I mean, I’d love to be a famous film director, but it’s not to be.”
“Then what do you want to be, Moonie Browne?”
“I don’t know what else I want to be.”
“Oh, Moonie. To be or not to be. That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of . . . something or other. I can’t remember the rest.”
“. . . of outrageous fortunes.”
“That’s right! So what are the outrageous fortunes?”
“I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’s all just bad karma.”
He laughs belligerently, and it’s unnerving. He pulls up in front of my apartment. He is leaning in as I fumble for the door handle. I’m ready for him. I expect something substantial. Instead, he gives me a quick peck on the cheek. I’m convinced I shouldn’t have mentioned Leo or the bad karma comment.
“Talk to you soon, sweetheart.”
On the walk in, I salvage my ego and decide Brett is simply respectful, the kind of guy who moves more slowly. I imagine Leo’s reaction when I tell him about Brett.I turn to look at him one last time, to wave, but he’s gone.
I am in the kitchen, making coffee, feeling a need to stay awake. I don’t like to sleep, the possibility I’ll never wake scares me. Leo is opening his Corona, slicing a lime.
“Do you like knives?” I ask him.
“Not particularly. Why do you ask?”
“This guy has a knife collection.”
“Oh, man, watch out for those types, Moo.”
“I know what you mean. But he’s not like that at all.”
“Oh, sure he’s not . . . famous last words.”
“Would you ever become a sealer?”
“What does that mean?”
“A seal hunter . . . you know.”
“You mean would I slaughter seals? No, I would not. Do you want a beer?”
“Not right now.”
I consider his answer, how he probably had to slaughter people, never mind seals, how little I know about him, what he’s been through on his two deployments to the Middle East.
I’m emptying the dishwasher, drinking my coffee, thinking of Brett, feeling giddy and more alert from the caffeine, deciding maybe I’ll give Brett another chance. Leo is in his usual spot on the couch, bottle of Corona, lime on the rim, bowl of peanuts, feet up on the coffee table, yelling at the news reporter about something political.
“Fucking protestors . . . look at them all like a roach infestation, crawling over the center of town. Old crags—what do they know about war? Not a goddamn thing, that’s what. Not one of them have ever been to the Middle East. They have no fucking clue.”
“Hey, Leo,” I interrupt. “What do you think Hamlet meant by outrageous fortunes?” I like that I can say anything random to him.
“Bad luck, lots of it, and no way out because we’re all too fucking scared of the alternative.”
“We’re all too what?” I ask, barely listening. “Sorry, the water was running!”
“Hey, maybe this is the one for me, huh?” I say, peeking around the corner.
“Hamlet or the knife man?”
“Funny. It’s Brett.”
“Come on. Get off it will you?”
“I’m serious this time. This one is different.”
“Oh sure. I bet he’s amazing too, right? Just like the others.”
“Really, this one . . .”
“Moo, please, spare me, please. I don’t care, okay? You’re talking to the wrong guy.”
Leo kept on ranting about the news, and then mentioned how I am too eager to get a guy to take care of me. I tell him I think he’s just jealous and that he needs to get his own life. I wait for the retort, something. Oddly, he gets real quiet after that, like it struck a chord in him. He clears his throat. I watch him pull out a cigarette and put it behind his ear, toss shells onto the coffee table; a couple hit the floor.
“You’re cleaning that up right?” I refuse to give him the satisfaction of pity. No way. I know he is itching for it. He has that woe-is-me look painted all over his face. “Hey, I’m not cleaning your mess.”
“Just let it go, Moo.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think you know.”
He changes. I see it. In that one moment, he becomes somber, complex, the kind of guy I like, the kind of guy I might try to figure out. I begin to question if he is really sitting there. Maybe I’ve passed out on the couch and this is all a dream. It’s too weird that Leo could change so instantly. He wants me to be serious. I default to what’s comfortable.
“Leo, is that you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You love me, right? Why the down face?” I sit down next to him and rub the back of his neck, needing to feel his skin.
“Jesus, you don’t let up. Do you?”
I am fixed on him. I watch him closely, his every move. He bends down scoops up the shells, looking up at me the whole time. “You’re something else, Moo.”
That’s the name he’s called me since fourth grade. It’s when he liked me more than just a friend, even though I was a tomboy. He told everyone I was his girlfriend. “My sweet little Moo,” he’d say. He pulled me around, and I obeyed like a dog on a leash. I liked it because I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have to think or make decisions. It felt good to zone out, have someone else want me with them so much. I could have cared less about sexism, gender inequities, even if someone did try to explain it.
We stayed friends up until he got fostered out, had to go and live in a different town. We wrote letters back and forth. He saved all of his. We read them together a few weeks ago. I still like to dig them out of his drawer. I said I saved mine but couldn’t find them. “No you didn’t,” he said. He made me rethink whether or not I did lose them. Maybe I threw them out by accident, or on purpose. I’m not one to hoard.
Leo knows me too well. I can never lie to him.
I found him again in high school, English class. He passed me a note in the shape of a football that read Want to play with me?
We became best friends all over again. He was the only thing that was real to me. The rest of high school—the cliques and teachers and exams and dances and partying—passed in a fugue state. When we graduated, I lost him for a second time. He enlisted in the Army and I went to study film at the University of New Orleans. It took me three years, forty-thousand dollars in loans, grants, and my parents’ money to realize that I wasn’t going to be the next Spielberg.
“What does that mean . . . something else? You always say that. Do you realize that you always say that? It sounds so vague.”
He stands and stretches. His shirt lifts, revealing his stomach. He is obsessed with running, lifting and crunches. “I’m not going to be that thirty-year-old with blubber hanging over my pants. Fuck no,” he had said just yesterday.
“Your shirt is riding up.”
“So, come and get it.”
“You’re a real piece of work.”
“I know that. I work hard at it too.”
In honesty, I think it irks me, his vanity, the way he flaunts his physical prowess, spends his time preening himself, quoting poets pretentiously. I know the real Leonardo Bonganelli. He is that guy who was born poor, whose father beat his mother until she lost her baby, the same guy at ten years old that had to be fostered out because his mother lost her job and couldn’t feed him anymore. None of it matters to me, really. Why he thinks it does, I don’t know. He is my friend, my best friend, and has been there for me since fourth grade. So what that he’s a male? He has seen me skin and bones, depressed, vomiting into the toilet because I was seventy-five pounds and thought I was fat, and he has seen me naked, racked with acne and rashes. “What the hell is that?” I’d ask him, my go-to person, regarding strange pimples and growths and imagined illnesses.
“My stomach needs some toning,” I told him yesterday. I was trying on clothes for my date, getting his opinion. We live in a two-room apartment, so privacy is not an option.
“You look fine,” he said.
“Hey, at least I’ll have fewer wrinkles when I age. Who wants to be a scrawny forty-year-old, right? That is so gross.” I slapped my stomach as I said it, felt the skin jiggle. “I think this damn skirt is too tight now. I must have put on a few pounds since last week. How’s that possible?”
I recall buying the skirt last week with my bestie, Bonnie Weatherby. She warned me to buy a size bigger. “You’ll regret it,” she said. That’s what we call each other, besties. Leo hates when I say it. He says we’re too old to use that term. But at least he’s polite to Bonnie, for the most part. Tad, my last boyfriend, hated her. But that’s because he was jealous, wanted me all to himself. He said he loved me, promised to stay with me forever, even called me his soul-mate, and he had tears in his eyes when he said it! And then I found a strange text message on his phone from Hula. Love u sweetz. “Who is Hula?” I asked. I was calm. He wasn’t. He raged, started foaming at the mouth, shouting obscenities. I knew, for sure then, he and Hula were a thing.
Tad met her on the Carnival Breeze. It was supposed to be our dream trip. We were sailing the Caribbean. We were supposed to be having sex every night under the glow of a Mediterranean moon. That’s what he said. Instead, we were fighting nonstop. He said he needed space. I didn’t see him the rest of the night. He snuck back into the cabin. I smelled a sweet perfume odor. He conjured up some lame story about a woman on the deck who was distraught, hanging over the side, claiming her husband left her, and how she wanted to jump. “She hugged me,” he had said.
“I couldn’t let her jump. I couldn’t leave her like that, Moo.”
“Don’t call me Moo,” I said. “Don’t ever call me that.”
“Oh so it’s okay for Leo to do it?”
I knew where he was going with this one. I wasn’t going to let him. The lady in distress thing, I didn’t buy it.
He left me for Hula. That was her user name. Her real name was Hau’oli. They married and he went to live in Hawaii with her family. That was that.
Bonnie forgave me. I knew she would. She’s like that.
The day after my date with Brett, I’m sitting across from Bonnie trying hard not to watch her indulge in a bacon burger. I love her, but she has horrible table etiquette and always talks with her mouth full.
“So what does he look like?
“Eat slower,” I tell her.
“Oh, come on. The suspense . . .”
“He’s blonde, brown-eyed, six feet, in shape.”
“What does he do for work?”
“He sells cars. But he is very philosophical too. And he makes a ton of commission.”
“Oh my gosh, it sounds amazing. I’m so excited for you.” she says, spraying bits of food.
“Don’t get too happy about it. I don’t want to disappoint you.”
Bonnie stops chewing, gives me that look.
“What? Don’t look at me like that. I don’t want to make a fool of myself, that’s all,” I say.
And I mean it. I have the highest regard for Bonnie Weatherby. I don’t want to disappoint her. She was my inspiration, my light, my reason for staying alive; after Tad, when I was ready to die, had the pills in hand, she saved me, forced me to take a trip. “Let’s go,” she demanded. “Pack for a long weekend girlfriend.” That was that. She put me in her car and we drove.
I was in one of my I-just-want-to-get-lost kind of moods. I considered a couple of times, during a bathroom break, running away. I never did. I loved Bonnie too much. But we drove for miles and I never once cared where we were going. I never even bothered to look at the road signs.
Eventually I thought to ask “Where are we?”” and those were the first raspy words I’d spoken in 24 hours.
She was clever. She knew how to create suspense, pique my curiosity. I gradually perked up, looked around, trying to figure it out. When I couldn’t and became distraught and anxious, Bonnie gave me a Xanax, and I zoned out again. When I woke up I knew I wasn’t in Vermont anymore. I saw palm trees lining the interstate, white sand on the sides of the road, felt the sultry breeze blowing into the car.
Shortly after, we arrived. It was her Aunt Marilyn’s bungalow. It was adorable, with bright pinks and outlandish kinds of paintings—cubism, Marilyn called it. She, too, was frenetic with platinum blonde hair framing her round face. She moved so quickly I could barely make out her expressions. Outside on the veranda, we drank from tall glasses filled with iced tea and ate key lime pie. I felt like I was in a dream surrounded by an Eden of oversized ferns and exotic plants and bushes with yellow, orange and red fruit dangling. What a fertile place, I thought. Forget the long weekend, I wanted to stay forever. I never felt more cognizant of myself and my environment.
But then something hit me, like when you’re going along okay and then you remember the bad, the thing that made you want to die, or lose yourself. It wasn’t just Tad. It was more. It was the other thing that made Tad so hard to forget. And then it came to me. It was when the word fertility popped into my head. That’s what triggered the memory, blasted its way through my synapses into my consciousness. Damn it. I had one of those things inside me. I knew I had to do something about it soon. It was the end of my life. I could never live with a baby or with the fact that I got rid of one. Aunt Marilyn’s key lime pie became tasteless, superfluous.
“Stay with me,” he had begged after I told him about the pregnancy. He was crying like a wimp. We had met at a Bernard’s Donuts in town. We had coffee. I liked it, how he pleaded. The more he begged, the more confident I felt to say, “No way. Go home to your new wife.”
We parted ways with him saying, “Fuck you then,” because he couldn’t have me. And me thinking I’m free. But I was deluded; I wasn’t really free, and it hit me later. And it lingered like a restless spirit invading my brain. That’s when I went for the pills.
I told Bonnie at the beach, Key West. The sand was silky soft, so white it was blinding. We lay there, motionless, with bottles of Corona. I thought of Leo, the way he sucked on the lime as he drank his beer. It gave me a sense of comfort. I took the lime and put it on my lips, imagined him there, his hands holding it on my mouth, squeezing, and then his lips. One time Leo kissed me. We were fooling around, play-hitting, and he wound up on top of me. I was punching him, laughing, threatening to beat his ass. He was still then. I didn’t understand it. I wanted him to punch back, pull my hair, grab my arms and pin me. Instead, he leaned his face in really close and put his lips on mine. I felt his hardness on my leg; a surge of panic and passion gripped me. I couldn’t decipher. But it was too much. I pushed him away. Leo was like a brother. It was too much for me, way too much to take in.
The lime juice dripped down my chin. I wiped it off and then placed my hand on my stomach. I felt a chill, a desire for someone, maybe for the embryo inside, maybe for Leo.
“I’m pregnant,” I said.
“I said I’m pregnant.”
“Holy shit. Oh my God. Holy shit.”
“Jesus, why do you keep saying that?”
“I don’t know. I just . . . I don’t know what else to say. Are you sure?”
“Oh, gee, thanks.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Moonie.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Die.”
“Moonie, just stop saying that. I don’t want to hear you say that anymore. Dying is not an option. I’ll help you, I promise. Whatever you decide, I’ll be there.”
She helped me. We got drunk. On the walk back, after four Coronas, I tripped on a shrub, fell on my face, woke up on Aunt Marilyn’s king size bed with a doctor standing over me.
“I’m sorry to say, you lost the baby.”
“So why do I still want to die?” I asked him. He looked down, shrugged his shoulders. He offered some advice, but his words were indecipherable. He vanished from my vision.
Bonnie put her hands on my face. We cried until we laughed, holding each other for, like, twenty minutes. And then I was fine.
Bonnie insisted I move in with her. She lived in her parent’s condominium, on the outskirts of town. It was nice, rural, lots of cows and horse farms. I got a job at the Shaftsbury Repertory Theater as a receptionist with a promise I could advance to a more administrative assignment like prop design or even script writer. Pay was decent. I forgot about Tad and life was good. But then Bonnie tried to kiss me.
We were sitting on the couch, hanging out like usual. I was partly reading partly watching some movie on the Syfy channel. Bonnie grabbed my arm, screeched. No big deal. I laughed at her. I always do that. Then we both ended up hysterical, crying—the works. Well, this time she collapsed onto me. When I tried to pull her off, she grabbed my face. “What are you doing?” I didn’t get it. Then she put her hands on my cheeks, pulled my mouth in towards hers. I still didn’t get it, decided she was on some new med that was making her weird, or that maybe she was playing a trick on me. I felt myself slipping. Her lips were on mine and it felt weird. But still it was okay. Then it was a tongue. I pushed her away. In that one moment my life changed. “I love you, Bonnie, but I’m not interested,” I explained. “Not that way.”
She acted fine, initially. I was shocked, scared even. The person I thought I knew, my bestie, my sister, my favorite person dematerialized before my eyes. It was an altered state of being, like when you witness something horrible and it becomes surreal and illusory. I was numb, inaccessible. If I had my steamer trunk, I might have climbed inside to hide. She became distant, then angry. I had to move out.
I was consumed with it, the weirdness of it all, agonizing about what to do, when I bumped into Leo at Cumberland Farms in town. He was holding up the line with coupons. I didn’t pay attention, didn’t know it was Leo because I was too busy in my head, thinking of how to tell Bonnie, and where I might go. I had no plans. Then I saw his profile as he turned to the guy behind him.
“Sorry, dude, trying to survive here.”
We talked, laughed and drank coffee in Elaine’s Café.
“Help me,” I asked him, just as he bit into his biscotti.
He said okay, that he needed a roommate. We got a place together that day. Aunt Victoria co-signed our lease.
He drove me to Bonnie’s that night. I made him wait in the car. I was hesitant, considered not going in. “Just do it,” he told me.“You have to tell her, for God’s sake.” So I did what Leo told me.
“I got a new place,” I told Bonnie. She never responded. I was paralyzed. I sat on the couch. I couldn’t move. I thought about Leo down in the car, waiting. The door slammed. Then I stood. I packed. I moved into my new home, a cute studio apartment downtown above Genie’s Consignment and Tony’s Pizza House, across from a Quick Mart and Jack’s Books. Perfect for starving artists like us.
I like my home. I feel like Arietty Clock from The Borrowers hiding away, mini and indiscreet. I fall asleep to the hum of car engines, headlights beaming on and off my wall, cats howling, dogs barking, car radios, and the smells of pizza and wood stoves. I have no bed. I sleep next to Leo on the floor in his Spider-Man sleeping bag he’s had since he was ten. If he has a date, which rarely happens, I sleep in the living room. It’s not perfect, but it’s safe. I don’t know why I think it’s safe. There are frequent break-ins in the neighborhood, druggies on the corners, all that, but it just feels okay. And eventually I reconnected with Bonnie. She was over it all, found herself a partner.
So life is fine, for me. Leo is the perfect roommate. But, lately, he’s been surly, seeming like he wants me to find another place.
“You can’t stay here forever. What about your parents?” he keeps saying.
“They hate me,” I tell him.
It’s not entirely true. My real dad would have never left me, if he were alive. I always tell myself that, even though he died when I was in my mother’s stomach and I never knew him. She married when I was one. My parents sold the house, paid for most of my college, and moved to St Lucia, where my step-dad’s family lives. They left me with enough, more than most—a car and a bank account and a credit card. But it feels like I have had to fend for myself, emotionally. I’ve asked to stay with them, during my most extreme moments of upheaval. The answer is always the same: “Moonie, you need to manage without us. We won’t always be here.” I don’t even try my brother or sister because they are much older than me. I was the afterthought—colicky, added stress, the straw that broke the camel’s back, put the daddy they knew and loved in an early grave. So my theory is that they blamed me and moved away, far enough where I couldn’t bother them—one in Missouri and the other in Ohio. I’ve always “managed,” believed I had a safety net, even if they did live so far away. After all, we were blood.
But now I think I might be mistaken. Maybe it’s all imagined. I thought Leo needed me as much as I needed him, and now he wants me gone. We both had a mutual agreement, so it seemed. He had his own friends, girls and other. And, meanwhile, I enrolled in a graduate MFA low-residency film program at Vermont College and had encounters with professors, just for sex. But one, Emilio, said he loved me, wanted to set me up in an apartment near his home. He was twenty years my senior. I was tempted until I noticed the photograph on his desk: he and his wife and two children standing on a dock, yachts in the background. One looked just like a miniature Emilio, and the other like his wife. “I can’t,” I said. He didn’t let up, kept calling me. I had to drop his course, get a new phone number. He showed up at our apartment. We were eating Tony’s pizza, drinking beer, arguing about the sauce tasting different.
“I’m telling you there must be a new cook,” Leo kept on. The buzzer rang. Leo answered the door. “Get the fuck out buddy, or I’ll call your wife,” he said, before slamming it. Emilio disappeared.
“Oh my God, you are brilliant!” I shouted. I fell over laughing when Leo animated Emilio’s reaction. I thought of kissing him that night. Anyone would have in my situation. I was tipsy from three beers, he looked good—his hair hung just right, down around his chin—he wore his skimpy boxers, no shirt. I never did kiss him.
I’m waiting for Brett, by the window. It’s my second date, and Leo is sulking about a rejection he got from The New Yorker. Brett pulls up in his white Mercedes Benz Coupe.
“Shit, he’s here.”
Leo jumps up as if he has a second wind.
“How the hell can he afford that car?” He is in his underwear, peering out the window. His hair is mussed; he is in his depressed-brooding-poet mood.
“Perks of the job? I don’t know. Does this shirt look too baggy?” I’m nervously touching my hair, my shirt. Nothing feels right.
“Just forget it. You’re beautiful. You know it.”
I stop, see Leo. I magnify him. I notice his parts, all of him. He rakes his hand in his hair. It’s brilliant, his pose. “Alas, the pained poet. I wish I could paint you.”
“What? You wish you could fuck me?”
“I said paint, smart ass.”
“You don’t paint lovey, remember?” He assumes his famous Mr. Howell accent from Gilligan’s Island.
I hear the horn. But there’s something else. I’m not finished. There’s something I want to say, do.
“Get out of here so I can pleasure myself, lovey.”
“You’re a pig.”
“At least I used polite terms.”
“Indeed you did.” I pause at the door, feeling a desire to kiss him, run my hands through his hair, and wrap my arms around his waist, press against him.
The horn beeps again. I leave him there.
The door shuts and the noise is deafening. I imagine how it must feel to hear it as the one left behind, the exit and then quiet. It is what I do next which is impulsive, even neurotic, that confuses me because it is so unlike me. I reopen the door and peek inside. Leo is there, still standing in the same spot. I wait, thinking I may catch him. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’d caught him before. “Was that as good for you as it was for me?” he’d said, winded, just so I knew he knew. I wasn’t ashamed, or embarrassed, but more curious than anything.
Now, I watch and wait. I feel voyeuristic, but I can’t help myself. There is something about seeing him, alone, when he doesn’t know I’m looking. He surprises me. He crouches down and brings his knees into his chest and sobs. I don’t know why. I look on, helplessly. I shut the door, leave him there. I walk down the two flights of stairs, aware of each step moving further away from Leo. I step outside and smell autumn. I recall To Autumn, Leo’s favorite poem by Keats. Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they? He used to recite it for me. Think not of them, thou hast thou music too. I told him he was a show off. Just get a job, Leo.
And now the verses make me feel weirdly depressed.
Brett does everything right on our second date—takes my hand, kisses me, tells me about his old girlfriend, how she used to talk shit about him. I half listen. I drink Merlot, pop a Xanax in the ladies room, crawl inside myself, imagine Leo sobbing, Keats poem, To Autumn. The night passes in a fog. And later, when Brett’s mouth is on mine and his hands move across my stomach, my breasts, and lower, when I shudder and explode in the backseat of his coupe, I imagine Leo.
When I get home, Leo is not on the couch. The bedroom is dark. I find him in bed, facing away from me. I see his army duffel bag packed at the foot of it. I strip down, crawl inside my Spider-Man bag. He’s leaving it for me, I decide. Don’t go. Don’t go. I want to say it. Instead I ask him about the Army.
“Do you still think about it?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I love you, Leo.”
“Please, don’t go.”
I reach up out of my sleeping bag, and find his hand, his leg and the other. I have never touched him this way. I hear a gasp and am not sure if it’s me or him.
“Please, Moo, don’t. What do you want from me?”
I’m not sure. So I pull my hand back, say nothing.
I wait. He is quiet. So I go under then, inside my Spider-Man bag, and I hide.
I lay awake, listen to his breathing, the eerie gusts of wind outside. I plan how I’ll say it, how I’ll make him stay. “I’ve always loved you, Leo,” I’ll confess.
The wine, the Xanax, the sex makes my eyelids heavy.
I wake to horror—the sun streaming in, a door closing, a horn—the way I used to feel when the school bus was outside my window, beeping. I rush to the window to see him. He’s wearing his light brown corduroys and his dark brown hoodie. I was with him when he bought these. He won a poetry contest—five hundred dollars. He wanted to get me a bracelet. I refused, told him to save his money. You don’t have a safety net like me. Save your money, I told him. He seemed sad. But Leo always got depressed. I didn’t know why.
Now I do. And it’s too late.
He’s getting inside the cab. I want to open the window, but it’s jammed. I consider running downstairs, but it’s all happening fast; the scene plays out independent of me, like a movie with no music. But it isn’t a movie and I have no script. I am a bystander, inconsequential. He is in the car now, fading, nothing but a mere shadow of him, my Leo, in the backseat. I think he looks up at me, so I wave, wait for the door to open, for Leo to emerge.
The car drives off. Leo is gone.
When the car is no longer visible, I look away from the window, to Spider-Man disfigured, lying in a heap next to Leo’s bed, which is neatly made. The sleeping bag, my sanctity, seems suddenly insignificant, irrelevant. I fold it neatly and put it away in the closet. I know I will never use it again. I sit down on Leo’s bed. Leo made his bed every morning. In Leo’s absence, these things become excruciatingly apparent, how I was the scared one. It was Leo who took care of me.
The silence stuns me, renders me immobile. The truth is jarring, that there are no muffled voices outside the trunk, no familiar bodies moving in front of me, no one to save me from the red-haired fire boy, or the trenchcoat man—no returns. I feel it for the first time like a suffocating weight bearing down, worse than fear, a menacing, haunting void, how Leo must have felt all along—alone, dispensable.
I shower. The water purifies me. I feel it enter my pores, my flesh, my organs. I will do something astounding, I decide. I am alone, but I am magnanimous.
I go into the kitchen, empty a carton of milk and a carton of orange juice, and I fill them with water and ice. I am taking a trip. Somehow, I know this is true. I curl up on Leo’s bed and think about my new life. At some point, my eyes close.
Cold and wetness consume me.
I wake to something else—hushed voices—women—whiteness.
“She is barely conscious, severely emaciated. Not sure . . . can’t find anything physically wrong aside from weight loss and dehydration.”
“How long was she on that bed?”
“At least a week, I believe.”
“Luckily she had water. That’s all she consumed for days.”
I remember it now. Leo was taking me up the Glastenbury Mountain. No, I don’t want to go, I kept saying. I’m scared, Leo. The ghosts, I don’t like the ghosts. He held my hand, pulled me up with him. I was okay for a time. But then I saw them, other hikers, and I knew they were the lost ones. I couldn’t stop looking. See them, Leo? They are the missing people. Watch your step, Moo. Don’t pay attention to them, he kept telling me. I didn’t listen. I slipped, lost my footing. I rolled down the mountain. I rolled for what seemed like hours. Leo’s screams echoed after me. But I couldn’t reach him anymore. I landed on an ice floe, and all around me was the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The hunters and trenchcoat man and red-haired fire boy waited for me on shore. The snow was blood-red streaks. I heard screaming, people pained, sobbing, calling out for loved ones. So I stayed there on my space. I slept, revived, drank, paddled away from shore, and repeated the pattern.
But I won’t tell them, the nosy women in the white coats, the ones who gloat, think they are better, smarter. I won’t give them the satisfaction.
They will never believe me. And this disbelief will make them more self-righteous.
I will never tell them I was in a real place, that it wasn’t a dream.
I barely believe myself.
Elizabeth Brown is a native of Connecticut. Her short fiction is published or forthcoming in BareBack Magazine, TreeHouse, Bartleby Snopes, Contraposition, and Sleet Magazine’s spring edition (2014). She studied writing at the University of Connecticut under Wally Lamb and Joan Joffe Hall and is a two time recipient of the1997 and 1998 Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction. She is currently at work on a dystopian novel.