The Lucky Ones
It could have been one thing, or all of the things. Or I held her too close, or not close enough, or close enough but not often enough, or too often. Or it started before she was born, or after that but before she was old enough to crawl. Or after that. Way after. I came home from work one night to find the police in the living room. My daughter was crying. Shed gone knocking on all of the neighbors doors to ask if there was news she hadnt heard about. What news? Id said. The police didnt know, and Lucy didnt know. She was 15. She was shocked I was alive.
You were late, she said. And you didnt answer your phone.
Or before that, too, when she still needed babysitters, and screamed in their faces, or cried, or paced for hours. I used to say that I understood, which was true. I used to tell her to bring Tylenol to school, just in case she got a headache. I gave her other medicines, too. I called the babysitters too often. I told Lucy to wear a coat, even when the sun was out. I held her hand at the mall, and told her kids got stolen there. I burned the chicken, just to make sure she didnt get sick from it.
I bought gas when I still had half a tank. I made her pee before going anywhere. I didnt let her play outside if the sun wasnt out, or sleep with her door closed, or eat anything from a food-truck. She checked my moles to make sure they werent getting bigger. She felt my bumps, my lymph nodes. She saved her money, like I did.
I was guilty of all of it, Im saying.
And, anyway, so was she.
And then last year, she killed herself.
After, I read these books that said kids learn their problems from their parents. I also read some books that said kids are born as worriers. Then I talked to this doctor who said it could be both, and that no one really knows for sure, and that whatever the case I shouldnt blame myself. I asked him if he had kids and he said no. He asked me if I wanted to schedule regular sessions and I said no.
Maybe I should have, or maybe nothing and no one ever changes. Youd think something like a daughters death would trigger some shift, at least one way or the other. Id be inspired and healed and no longer spiral into panicked searches on the Internet about the pain in my jaw. Id stop coming back into the house to check the stove every time I go somewhere. Id stop counting to get to sleep.
Or Id count more and check the stove twice and crumble every time I turn a new corner. Youd think that. Youd be wrong.
She was in her dorm when she did it. Id suggested Casper College over and over, because then she could have lived at home. But she was determined. Determined to get better, I now think. They found pills in her room, which I didnt know she was taking. They found the note, which Ive still not read. I never will. I keep it in the lockbox, with the other important documents.
I dont mean to be misleading. She lived on the seventh floor, and jumped out the window.
Theres nothing a person can do about it. You blame yourself and read the books and say you dont blame yourself anymore, but you do. You call her disorder what it was, and yours what it is, and you say you cant blame yourself, but of course you can. And you do. And you quit your job and sell the house and rent something smaller and eventually work for a local phone company doing mostly filing in the back, so you dont have to face people anymore.
My name is Paula.
* * *
My apartment complex is generally quiet, which is why I chose it. Its isolated, set between the more residential neighborhoods and downtown, where the college is. The tenants are mostly older, or anyway past college age, and dont have families, and just work and come home and then go elsewhere if they want to get loud or crazy. I have a parking space reserved for me, and at the end of the day that kind of thing makes me feel calm. Lately, theres been a little more excitement than usual because, somehow, a tenant in the B building got robbed. The police came and questioned a bunch of people, but they didnt catch anybody. It seemed weird to me from the start because who would come all the way down the hill to our complex to look for something to steal? Plus, theres a gate with a security guy. Plus, it wasnt just valuables stolen, it was stuff like microwaves and comforters. It didnt make any sense. Then another person in B got robbed, and I thought it was another tenant from the building breaking into neighbors places, as perhaps a prank. Then someone in C, my building, got robbed, that tall kid across the hall, and I paid the maintenance guy to install another deadbolt on my door. The police made a joke about all my locks when they came to me to ask questions. I was breathing my words at them.
They still havent caught the guy. Its annoying, and troubling, but Im trying not to think about it. You know Im not sleeping.
* * *
The tall kid isnt actually a kid. He seems like hes about 30. He goes to work around the same time I do, and returns around the same time. We dont talk and we dont know each other and if you asked me his name Id not know it.
His apartment is bare now, though, so apparently things are changing.
Sorry, hi, he says, today, now, this Thursday evening, as we ride the elevator to the seventh floor. Weve never actually met.
Yeah, hi, I say.
Im Paula, I say.
He waits, and then the doors open and he asks, Sorry, do you have an iron?
They took my iron. I They took my iron. I dont respond. He goes on, They took a lot of stuff, and Im trying to get everything again. An irons low on the list, but my boss is saying I look like, um He stops, and I look at his clothes. Hes right, they look rough. Sorry, he says.
Well, I say. OK, wait in the hallway for a second. When I come back with the iron, he takes it, then just stands there. Ironing board, too? I ask.
Sorry, he says.
I come back with it and close the door behind me. We dont move at first, and then he nods.
Yeah, I can do it now and get it right back to you, he says.
Thanks, I tell him.
His apartment is a lot like mine. Thats how this complex goes. Its even clean, too. The difference is his appliances are all missing. TV, microwave, coffee pot. He sets up the board in the living room, plugs in the iron, and heads to his bedroom. The irons pretty close to the edge of the board, and I move it back some, so its less likely to fall.
Its a nightmare, Paula, he says, returning. Have you ever been robbed? He spreads a shirt on the board and sets to work.
Nightmare. And the stuff theyre taking. Its ridiculous.
Yeah, it seems weird.
How long have you lived here?
Almost a year.
Almost a decade, he says, for me.
Whats your job?
Retail, he says. You?
I was a health inspector, I tell him. I work in an office now.
OK. Thats OK.
He doesnt have any pictures around his place. Same as me.
He does a few shirts, a few pants, then helps me carry the stuff back.
* * *
On Sunday, he knocks on my door, this time to ask about my car. You have an SUV, right? he says. Youve got that gray, boxy thing?
Are you busy today?
I need a ride, he says. Im so sorry. They took my bike, and I found this good one on Craigslist, and its going to get bought any minute, I know it.
You have that red car, I remind him. Ive seen it.
No space for a bike.
My boyfriends busy, he says. My friends working.
I I start, but I dont want to say the truth, which is that I dont want to be alone in a car with a man whose last name I dont know, even if he is gay. And I dont want to go to some strangers house to look at any used items. And I dont want to brave the Sunday traffic, the church traffic. I want to sit on my couch and do puzzles until the days gone.
I get it, he says. But please. Neighbor to neighbor.
Whats your last name? I ask, finally, and then he sighs and says it, and then we go.
Say its his sweet face, his sweet voice. Say its sympathy. Say I see someone who needs help and feel I have a responsibility, because of everything thats happened. Say whatever. I dont know.
But the house we end up at, 20 minutes across town, has a racecar in a rock-pile beside the garage. Theres a truck on the street. A bronco in the yard. A skeleton of some vehicle in the garage.
Come with me, Austin says.
I dont want to, I say. Sorry.
I cant haggle, he says. Come on.
I cant haggle, either.
Just, itll help me if you come with.
I dont do well alone in these situations.
Say its his honest face, his genuine tone. Say whatever. Out I go.
A man in a tank-top leaves the house before were even halfway up the driveway. Hes wearing sandals and sunglasses and looks tan. Austin? he says, and Austin nods. We follow the guy into his garage.
Its dirty, for one. And theres grease. You can see the dust and the silk from the spiders webs dangling from the rafters. Theres camping equipment stashed up above. Theres tools and all kinds of stuff for sports. And the bikes. He pulls one off some hooks on the wall and bounces it a few times in front of us.
Two hundred dollars, like the ad says, he says.
Why are you selling it? Austin asks.
Not doing road stuff anymore.
So, its in good shape?
Youre here, man. You know it is.
Yeah, Austin says, and looks at me, as though hes forgotten why weve come.
Maybe he can ride it, I say.
Maybe, the guy says, but its odd how he says it. I cant tell if hes trying to be mean, or if hes just busy and eager to finish this business up.
Im stuck with him as Austin rides around the block. You know Im counting down the seconds until hes back and we can go. Escape. I can feel every hair on my body, I can, and all of them are spiders, really. The grease and dust are getting into me. And the guy, he catches me backing away from his car-skeleton and says, You like rally, girl?
Thats what sticks with me after weve left. That and Austins embarrassed smile. That and the dirty bike in the back of my clean car. That mans voice. That guy whose name I dont know, asking me if I like rally, whatever that is. Calling me girl.
I shower for an hour after I get home. I cant sleep a wink that night, and in the morning I swear to God Ive caught a cold, early summer and all.
* * *
Work is hard. I dont mean usually. I mean now, Monday, with my headache and stuffy nose.
And I cant help it. Every time I see someone, I think rally and shudder. The Internet tells me rally is some kind of special racing with special cars. The races are usually off-road. In Wyoming, these guys go up into the mountains and skid around hairpin turns. I cant stop picturing them sliding off the mountain. Then Im lost in the woods, too. Then that guy with the bike is looking for me, and Im the skeleton at his home, in his dirty garage. Im his little girl.
My boss, Earl, comes in for a cup of coffee and I start crying. He knows about Lucy and thinks everything is about her, which is true and not true. A big part of it is about me, which is selfish and not selfish. What about my mother? She died at 81 from liver failure.
Hey, its not you, Earl says, then doesnt elaborate. He doesnt touch my shoulder, because he knows not to. Not you, he repeats.
But it is. And when I go home that evening, I do that thing that I do sometimes, which is just stand outside pacing and fidgeting, watching the windows of my building, just in case someones got it in their head to do something thoughtless. I focus on the seventh floor because it seems more prone to pain, because history, or because I live there.
Paula, hey, says Austin, who apparently rode his new bike to work.
No, what? Are you OK? What are you doing?
Say its how sweaty he is. Say its his tie. His one pant-leg rolled up. Say nothing. Dont say anything at all. Its nothing.
I tell him Lucy jumped out of a window and somehow didnt bleed a lot when she hit the ground. I say Im scared and have a cold and cant take the medicine I have at home because now Im scared itll be too hard on my liver. And Im already 56.
Are you? he says.
Her, I say. Her skull? Like a bag of rocks.
Shit, he says. My dad doesnt know Im gay.
I dont know, he says. Were sharing our stuff? I just look at him. Why dont you come inside? he says, finally.
I cant sit on his couch. He can, and does. Hes made tea for me and set it on the coffee table. The mug is too close to the edge, and I move it.
He says, Do you want to talk, or not talk? Or talk about you? Or me? What?
I want you to decide, I tell him.
Um, then Im sorry about your daughter. Its a tragedy.
Yeah, its that.
I dont know what else to say about it. I cant imagine the sadness.
Do you want to sit?
He scratches his head. Do you take pills or anything?
Do you want one?
I have Ativan.
Why? What for?
It doesnt matter. Its expired. He pauses, then adds, We could get high?
I dont Ive never
Its legal in like four states now, including Colorado, so dont worry about it. He goes back into his bedroom, and returns with a little box. Fuckers stole my pipe, would you believe it? he says. Itll just be like a cigarette, OK?
Ive never smoked a cigarette.
Breathe in slowly. Hold it in.
Shouldnt you open a window?
Yeah, I will.
People will smell it, I say. What if they call the cops?
Paula, look at me, he says. No one will call the cops.
Have you ever smelled me smoking?
I cant. I cant do it.
Also, I texted Dwayne.
My boyfriend. Hes coming over. He finishes rolling the paper and sighs. I move backwards toward the door, and he says, Paula, my new friend, stop. I saw you panicked on the street. You dont take pills. You dont ask me to call anyone. You dont sit down. You unload on me in the lot and then stand like this in my apartment. All right? Just trust me to make you feel different. You want to feel different, dont you? Different from what this is right now? I nod. He says, So, say yes.
Say its his eyes. His smooth fingers. Say the tea smells good. Say yes.
* * *
Dwayne is Asian, and muscly, and very handsome. And hes smiling and praising how I can inhale the smoke without coughing. He and Austin are comfortable together, its clear. They laugh a lot. Neither one of them is at all what I expected, and its so embarrassing for us.
Theyre on the couch, and Im still standing, which Dwayne also praises. Its how youre in such good shape, huh? he says. Look at you.
I dont know if I feel anything, I say, which is a lie, which Im telling because I dont know why. The truth is that I feel different, just like Austin said I would. I feel like Ive fallen into a painting that I like, a colorful one that I never really understood or knew how to talk about. The mural in the hospital where Lucy was born, for example. I recall that. It had clocks and sunlight.
Theres me now, in it, dangling from a branch.
A health inspector, Dwayne says. No shit.
What? I say.
I told him stuff, Austin says.
Whats Dwayne do? I ask.
Dwayne, Dwayne says, is a paralegal.
Oh, I say.
What did your daughter study? he asks.
Dwayne, come on, Austin says.
No, its OK, I tell them.
Lets hear about her, Dwayne says. Her life. Its all right.
Yeah, its all right, I say.
So? Dwayne says.
She studied Spanish. She wanted to be a Spanish teacher. She was back and forth on whether to go for high school or junior high.
She spoke Spanish? Austin says. Do you?
No, I say, and I cant help it, Im laughing, its simply hilarious. Its gut-busting. Picture Lucy in Mexico, putting in the time to learn the language for real. Would she have made it? Would I have? Picture me speaking Spanish to someone in a place Ive never been to. Picture me listening to her over the phone. Picture us apart, picture us together. I heard that there are feelings Spanish-speakers have that we dont, just because they have words that we dont.
Dwayne speaks Korean, Austin says.
Yeah, says Dwayne.
Thats just, I say. I dont know what.
Kamsahamnida, he says, and bows a little.
Both of your parents are Korean? I ask.
My mom is.
Wheres your dad from?
Do they live there still?
Where do they live?
Denver, he says. And Chicago.
No, Dwayne says.
Oh? I say.
Dwayne laughs and sort of leans into Austin. Theyre happy, dont sweat it, he says.
Do they know youre gay? I say, then cover my mouth with my hands, because no, I cant ask that. I shouldnt ask that.
He says, Yeah, of course.
I can ask that?
Yeah, of course.
I asked because Austins dad doesnt know he is.
Right, Dwayne says. He wont tell him.
Does his mom know?
Whyd you only say your dad doesnt know?
I dont know, Austin says. He thinks about it. No, I dont know.
My dad was on business in Seoul when he met my mom, Dwayne says, like he enjoys remembering it. He had a year-long contract, and left her when his visa expired. No hard feelings or anything. Just left her. Then six months passed, and he missed her so much that he quit his job and went back there and found her. A year later they were married in Detroit. A year after that, they had me. Its incredible, right?
Yes, I say.
Bravery, Dwayne says.
All right, all right, I get it, Austin says.
What? I say.
Its not so simple, Austin explains. To me, he says, Dads a piece of shit.
Im sorry, I say.
Hes not a piece of shit, Dwayne says.
Youve met him? I ask.
I dont get it.
When I was young, Austin says, like he doesnt enjoy remembering it, I was fast, you know? I could run really fast. Dad noticed pretty quick. Mom, too. My PE teacher noticed. Everyone was like, this tall kid can really go. Go, go, go. He gestures so I can see how he used to go. I got on an AU soccer team, even though I wasnt that great at soccer. I got on the track team later. Dad was always so happy when I won. So happy. Proudest guy around. Fuck.
I still dont get it.
You cant love that way. As a reward. Thats how people develop complexes.
Oh, I see what you mean.
Mom played tennis. She was good. Dad used to say tennis was for retards.
Thats terrible, I say.
I wanted to play tennis, but I dont know if its because he hated it, or because I actually wanted to. Austin pauses. He used to say ‘faggot this, faggot that. ‘That faggot Clinton, and on and on. He touched my head and shoulder every night before I went to sleep.
To say, Keep it up, son. Run your way out.
Out of where?
I dont know.
It sounds complicated, I tell Dwayne. Whos Clinton?
Bill, Dwayne says.
When I turned down a track scholarship he punched me in the stomach, Austin says. I didnt want to run. And I didnt want to go to that school, anyway. So. I went to college in Boulder.
But you work in retail, I say.
Yeah, he says. Right. I work in retail.
Nothings wrong with retail, Dwayne says.
You cant tell your parents because they wont be nice about it, I say, kind of as a question, but mostly not. Its awkward to say it out loud. Awkward to acknowledge parents who wont support their children in the way their children need. Wont, or cant. I never punched Lucy at all, I say.
What? Austin says.
Dwayne laughs and says, I like her. Hey. Hey, Paula.
What you think?
About all this.
This, Austin says, grinning.
Well, I say.
* * *
What I think is that this thing with Austins parents wont stand. Wont, or cant. I think my headache is gone and my cold feels gone and Im worried the thief is in my apartment right now. Im sure of it. Im sure that new deadbolt was nothing and fell to pieces in the jamb today, while I was out, while I was imploding at my desk.
I think Lucys dad is probably dead by now. Thats what I always told her. I think I probably shouldnt have told her that. Thats the kind of thing that makes people develop complexes. Thats the kind of thing that keeps young girls from getting in cars while its snowing, or from crossing busy streets, or from petting big dogs.
Love is beyond me now, I think. I had this friend back before Lucy died who was only in her 40s. She went on so many dates, and when she finally found a guy who was even halfway-harmless, he stuck around for only a few months, then stopped messaging her altogether. No word, no explanation. She would say, Ill give him two more weeks to respond, and then Ill agree its over. Then Ill stop texting him. She gave more than two weeks. She gave much, much more.
And also I mean love in general.
I have to go to my apartment, I tell Dwayne and Austin.
Can we come? Austin says.
Um, I say. Im about to say they cant, but I picture the thief, this hulking monster, and I change my mind. Can you bring a frying pan? I ask.
What? Austin says.
Yes, says Dwayne. Absolutely.
Its all panic and nerves as Im unlocking the door. I hold the handle for a moment before pushing forward. The place is quiet, until Dwayne taps the pan on the counter.
Dont, I say.
What? he says.
I check the living room, the hallway, the closets. The bedroom, the bathroom. It seems just how I left it, save the window in the bedroom, which I never leave open. Never.
I start fumbling with the blinds, I guess so loudly that Austin and Dwayne hear. They come in all curious, asking, What? What?
See that woman out there? I say. Look by that tree.
Why? Austin says.
Look. Near the light.
Thats my purse.
What? Paula, wait a minute. Thats
No, I say. No, and then before I know it, Im dragging them out, locking the door behind me, running to the elevator, running to the dark parking lot. Say its the drugs. Say its everything I thought about when Austin said, This.
The womans leaned forward, twisting her key in her car door. Its a Bronco. I stare at it and at her. Im out of breath.
You OK? she says.
Thats my purse. Its you.
Dwayne catches up first. He says, Paula, listen.
The woman says, No, this ones mine.
I bought that at JC Penneys.
Oh, me, too, she says.
Paula, were on the seventh floor, Austin says.
You dont think I know that? I say. Huh? You dont think I know which floor it is?
Im just saying, your logic with the window doesnt
Im not having any more things taken from me, I say, and thats true. I feel that it is. I snatch my purse from the woman, who just stands there dumbfounded. And I think, yeah, she knows what she did wrong. She gets it. She wont fight.
I turn around, to head home, but Im blocked by the boys.
No, no, Dwayne says. Paula, honey. Give back the purse.
Is she the one breaking into everyones apartment? the woman asks.
Its you! I say.
Its not me, she says.
Then whys my window open?
The weather? she says.
As gently as he can, Austin pulls the purse from me and hands it back to her. She opens it and pulls out a phone, which is not mine. Sorry, Austin says, but more to all of us than to only her.
Who should I call? she says.
No one, please, Austin says.
How? I say, but Im being pulled back, past the tree, through the lights in the lot. The woman drives away. Where is she going? I ask. Its late.
Yeah, its late, Austin says.
Dwayne says to him, Hey. OK?
Yeah, Austin says.
And thats how it happens, so simply, the three of us sleeping together in Austins bed.
Me in the middle.
* * *
The week goes by. We, Austin and me, dont talk beyond a few pleasant words in the elevator. My sleep is terrible, nothing like what it was with him and Dwayne. With them and the drugs. With them and the complete exhaustion. I havent seen the woman again. I think maybe she works nights, and sleeps during the day.
I dont mean to be misleading. Austin isnt cold to me. He seems available. He also seems busy rebuilding his apartment. And maybe Im a little embarrassed, as well.
But on Saturday, whatever the case, I find myself knocking on his door, not sure what I want to say until his face is in front of mine. Then, apparently, its easy. The words spill from me: that Im thankful, that hes kind, that its not lost on me, that the stuff he told me about his parents is unfair and terrible and cannot and should not stand, that Im here for him, that I can be strong for him just like he was for me. Im digging in, getting going, when he stops me.
To say, Thanks, but Im not interested in being pushed to tell my parents anything.
Thanks, but dont push, please. Its not your thing to decide. He pauses. He adds, Dont worry, I have to tell the same thing to Dwayne from time to time. Just. All right?
Its strange, because I can picture it. Us at his parents house. Him doing all of the talking. Me just sitting there next to him, perhaps nodding, perhaps smiling. Maybe when his parents ask who I am, he tells them, This is my friend Paula.
I see his dad. Hes drunk. He berates Austin, and quickly becomes angry. Hes pissed before Austin even attempts to come out. I touch his shoulder and nod and smile and he stands up to his dad. He says, Im a gay man. His dad gets ugly and worse, and his mom cries, and then Austin cries, too, and then it doesnt matter because were running out of the house, out of everything, into nothing.
Or, into what?
And wheres Dwayne in all of this?
Are you coming in or going home? Austin asks, shaking me from the dream.
Home, I guess.
Either is fine.
You need to worry less, Paula.
Yeah, I say. Hey, I wanted to ask you. Where
Just come in already.
Yes, I say. Yes, yes. Sorry.
Just come in.
Inside, he sits, and insists I do the same. My heart starts pounding and I think I must have eaten some eggshells with my eggs earlier. Will they cut me? Do I have an ulcer? Its my liver. It will all end before Im ready. Austin, where do you get the marijuana? I blurt out.
What? Paula. Hes laughing. Its gut-busting.
Hes rolled over onto the arm of the couch because his gut simply cant take it.
I cant sleep. Im counting. I slept so well with you and Dwayne.
About that, he says. Probably not sustainable.
Yeah, so, Im asking about the drugs.
Gosh, Paula, you want my source? he says. For drugs? Really? Last week you were terrified just to smoke it. And then you ran out at that woman.
My daughter died.
You cant keep going to that. Look, sorry. But, like
I just mean
I know what you mean.
No, you dont. I mean that you dont know this feeling and Im tired. So tired.
Take the Ativan.
I dont want pills.
Whats wrong with pills?
You didnt take them. You know whats wrong with them.
I thought Id get addicted, he says. Then I thought Id lose my mind.
Are you going to tell me, please? I say. Austin.
Just buy some from me.
Thats not how I want to do it. I want to go. I want to do it myself.
Say its a bag of rocks. Say its 56 years. Eighty-one years. Say its ending.
Austin says, Im not sure Rex would even be up for it.
But Rex is.
* * *
Yes, and so here I am. Saturday. I suppose I needed something. Its not Austins parents house. Its not a deep sleep. But Im somewhere.
Rex lives on the hill beyond the Eastridge Mall, in one of the huge houses overlooking the east side. One of those tall stone things with windows everywhere. Ive had no reason to ever drive around this neighborhood. And here, here, here I am.
The rules are pretty simple. I park in front of the house, without trying to hide anything. I knock on the door, say Austin sent me, and then shake hands with Rex, before walking casually inside. Im supposed to have cash. Ive brought lots.
There are flowers in front of the house, in barrels, and aspens nearby. The air smells good.
There are no kids or families anywhere, which makes me wonder, because are they inside with all their nice things, or out traveling because theyre all rich and can afford to go places every weekend? My brain gets away from me, like it can. Health inspectors make decent money, but nothing like what Im seeing now. Would the security of a neighborhood like this have made Lucy better? Would I have been better, felt safer?
Wind on my face, and I swear the authorities are behind these huge double-doors. The authorities, in their blue windbreakers, smiling with Rex, waiting to pin me to the floor. Im walking into the great danger, but how, honestly, is that any different from every other place I walked, every day before this one?
OK, and a woman opens up.
Austin sent me, I tell her.
Shake my hand now.
Inside, twin staircases lead to the second floor. Everythings hard and shiny. Theres a glassy light above me. Theres a stone table between the staircases with a massive bouquet of flowers on it.
Go there, she says. Wait in that room.
Sit while youre waiting.
Its a study, essentially. Leather couches, a desk, a bookcase. Its clean, but also seems unused. Theres no computer or TV or anything. Theres a window, but the curtains are drawn. The window faces the street, with my stupid little car among the gorgeous homes.
Rex returns 10 minutes later with a tray of tea. She says, I told you to sit.
Then take this cup.
Theres pot in it, she says. She sees my face and says, Its not a lot. Austin told me youre a worrier. Cut that shit out.
How old are you?
At first, she seems like she doesnt want to answer. She rubs the soft spot between the bridge of her nose and her eye. I went to high school with Austin, she says, and sits. He said you two live in the same building.
Your clothes are nice.
Im not going to ask why an older person in nice clothes is living in a building like Austins, she says. Are you going to ask why a young person like me is living in a house like this?
My husbands famous, but I wont tell you why. No one knows why. We tell the neighbors hes in investor. Hes not. She pauses. What he does is legal, though. Rexs hair is long and brown and very pretty. Youre going to stay here for another 30 minutes, then leave, and then walk out looking relaxed, because what I am is a masseuse, and what youre doing is getting a massage from me, here, in my parlor. You got it?
I got it, I say.
Hes a writer, my husband, she says. Thats all I can say.
Youre not drinking the tea. Drink the tea. Paula, right?
My real name is Rex, she says, before you ask me.
I wouldnt have asked.
Why not? she says. I dont think its rude. People think its rude. Its not. Hang on. She leaves and returns after another 10 minutes. Ive finished the tea. I can feel the warmth spreading in me. Its soothing. And she was right, its not too strong. There you go, she says, laying some Tupperware containers out on the coffee-table. You look better.
I have so much trouble sleeping, Rex.
Yeah, yeah. Ill get you sorted.
No, I say.
She opens the containers and pulls out some plastic bags, which she also opens. Everything smells fresh, like pine. Kids?
I pause before saying, No.
I see. Motherhood, right? What do I know? Tom and I were close once, real close, but then we lost it. She thinks. Them. Lost them. What, though? Should I sit in the house all day? She laughs. Duh. Look at me. I love this house. Im wearing yoga pants. I sleep like a baby.
Wow, I say.
Yeah, wow, she says. Theres a room upstairs? I dont even know what its in it. I dont go in there. I told Tom to never tell me whats in there. What a world to live in.
You dont want to know? Who decorated it?
I dont know, she says. Huh. She smiles. You want to see it?
Really? I dont know.
Yeah, OK. Shes holding the bags up to my face, so I can smell each sample. Austin was an absolute loser in high school. I mean no offense. Closeted kid in Wyoming, in the 90s. Bless his heart. Plus, I was a loser, too. I have so many clients now. Dont tell anyone, but some are actually only for massages. Wouldnt have guessed it, right?
No, I say.
Dont tell Tom.
Do I have to tell you what will happen if you tell anyone about me?
No, you dont.
I trust Austin. I trust the losers.
Im a loser, I say.
No, she says. You cant say that. I dont know you. You cant say that. Shes gauging my reactions, and brings the second sample back to my nose. This one, she says. I think this one for you. Very calming, no paranoia, very smooth. And Ive got some in teabags.
All this, I say. Its beyond me.
Yeah, she says.
I was afraid of smoking it. People can smell it.
So, the teabags. I got you.
I like it. That tea.
Good. Wait a minute, OK? No, hang on. Come with me, maybe. You seem sweet.
Thanks, I say.
No ones sweet, she says. Do you know what I mean? No ones like, �Hello, Im here for you, look into my soul, you know?
I know exactly what you mean.
We cant be friends or anything, though.
All right, I say, as we climb the stairs.
I never really got friends, she goes on. I used to think I was selfish or narcissistic or something, because I never wanted to hang out with people. I like having friends on the phone, or on the Internet or whatever. I like when people come to me with something they need. And then I have it and give it to them. She rests at the top of the stairs, looks left and right. No, never mind, I get friends. I just dont think theyre for me, not in the sense were all used to. I met Tom on the Internet.
Is he from here?
Paula, do you think I can tell you that?
I dont know.
Heres the room, she says, pointing. Go on in.
Thats OK, I dont need to.
Its not for you. Its for me.
The going in.
Dont worry. Just go.
But I dont get it.
Just go. Ah! I dont know, whatever. Fine. Give me your cash. Ill go get you as much as possible. Ill meet you back here. I pull out the money and hand it to her. She smiles. Yeah, good. Right here, in five minutes.
Yes, I say. Rex.
The door is big and brown. It seems like oak. I dont go in. I mean, I almost do. But I dont.
I like the mystery, I find, like Rex does. And I like the house, like she does. And I like needing something and not saying what it is. I like getting it anyway.
It strikes me that we should have had another robbery by now at our building. Were due. Could be the robber is laying low. Could be they got everything they need. Could be.
Rex is the opposite of me and the opposite of Lucy and I dont care what that means. I was sweet to her. And she was sweet back. And Im in her bathroom now, the door locked behind me, digging through the drawers and cupboards for something I can steal from her, because surprise, Im alive. Im due. I could be. The bottle of face cream seems expensive, so I pocket it. Theres fire in me. I havent felt passion in so long. I havent wanted sex in so long. I always convinced myself afterward that I was sick.
But now. But this. I meet Rex in the hallway, the bottle burning a hole in my jeans. Later, I think, Ill put it in the box with Lucys note. Keep these things closed and possible forever.
Dont even tell me, she says. Dont even begin to react.
Yes, I say, and I dont.
As Im driving home 20 minutes later, I pass our old house. Whoever lives there now has painted it a bunch of different shades of blue. It looks good, though I was never one for that color. Its weird to me. Blues not right for any food, or any animal. It seems sad more often than not. It was like the last big color that humans named.
And yet, on that house.
There were times, its true, when I taught Lucy real things, important things. Things mothers are supposed to teach their daughters. I swallowed my own fear and got her through puberty. The period, the changes, everything. I showed her how to drive carefully, defensively. I made sure she knew she was important, and strong, and didnt deserve any nonsense from people who didnt believe in who she was. Who she was! I dont remember her ever going on a single date. Imagine.
And that, even though Id prepared myself for it. Or, no, I didnt. I had nightmares where she was pregnant. I had dreams that shed got cancer. I had dreams that Id got cancer. Dreams that I had cancer and gave it somehow to Lucy. Dreams I was pregnant again, and alone.
She asked me once when she was a kid to show her how to do her makeup. I never really knew that much about it, and still dont, but at the time that didnt stop me. One of the good memories, us so close in the bathroom, her sitting on the sink, me standing before her. Her back to the mirror. I washed her face with a washcloth and smoothed in the moisturizer. Mascara, eyeliner, shadow, pencil on the eyebrows. Foundation patted in. Blush. The whole nine yards. She asked for it, and I really laid into her. All finished, she looked just like me, but a younger version, obviously. A younger and a freer and braver version. And I was holding that me and smiling and listening to the laughter surrounding the both of us. It was outrageous. Stupid and gut-busting and wrong. And yet our love bloomed, like the light before you dream. The lucky ones call that kind of thing grace. It stayed, then went.