Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.
Shoes. Opening my eyes they're all around me, slowly coming into focus then blurring again, over and over. Sneakers, ballet flats, cowboy boots, scuffed and polished loafers, Birkenstocks with a tattooed ankle like that of every frat-boy cum dead-head I've ever known. My tube of Chanel Metal Garnet rolls past a pair of dark tanned calves teetering on Manolo Blahniks and into the gutter. The gray concrete is dappled with shards of broken glass. About an inch from my nose are a wet cigarette butt and a flattened Doritos bag. Just beyond that I see my own hand and my cell phone, both bloody and broken. I hear voices like a 45 playing at 33. I think Cowboy Boots is saying they should sit me up. Please don't, I want to say, I'm pretty sure this sidewalk is the only thing holding the left side of my face together. Then I recognize the sweeping warm red glow of ambulance light. The shoes all start to jerk and slide, clearing a path for a very official-looking pair of black lace-ups. The policeman bends down and gently puts his hand on my shoulder.
"Stephanie Betts," he says.
Oh, thank God, I think, I can hear quite clearly now.
"Stephanie Betts, you have the right to remain silent..."
This morning as my alarm badgers me awake, I hear Julia Roberts in the next room. “You work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. Huge.” Pretty Woman on television at 6:00 a.m. means that I don’t have to open my eyes or slide my arm over the sheets to know that Jason isn’t there, that he never came to bed at all. It means that at some point during the wee hours after our fight, with nowhere to flee, no more cigarettes, and nothing left to drink in the place, my husband made do with some soft core bullshit on HBO. Then after the big release (and a little self-loathing), he passed out on the Herman Miller couch that had once belonged to my grandmother.
A swift chill of disgust fills what must be my womb and causes my whole body to flinch. I push back the covers and gulp down a bottle of Evian from the bedside table. Quick like a bunny, quiet like a mouse. In almost one motion, I get out of the bed and into a Betsey Johnson sundress. I slink into the bathroom, brush my teeth, curl my lashes, pee, and spritz a little No.5 between my breasts.
Reaching for the doorknob, I find a perverse comfort in knowing exactly what kind of mess is waiting for me in the next room. Barefoot, strappy sandals dangling from my fingers, I tiptoe past his crumpled body on the couch, a tube of KY sticking out from under a cushion, and stumble over the guitar he hasn’t touched in at least a month. I ignore the fist-sized hole in the wall. I ignore the dirty ashtrays and the empty vodka bottle. I try to ignore the envelope where he scrawled a list of goals - pressing down too hard with the pen, making dents in the coffee table under his paper - but I can’t help myself; I pick it up and shove it into my pocket.
I loop my bag over my shoulder, slip out the door and make it half way down the stairs before realizing that I don’t have my keys. Last night when I tried to leave, Jason snatched them away from me and hurled them against the wall. They must have fallen behind the couch. Sonofabitch. There is no way to get back there without waking him, but I have to try; I refuse to give him the power to lock me out of the apartment.
I leave my bag and my shoes on the landing in order to be more agile and creep back inside. Jason is up; the couch is vacant. The sound of him heaving thunders from the bathroom and, like a reflex, my heart sinks. Do not go to him.Just get the keys and get on with your day. His cell phone vibrates on the coffee table - a 245 prefix; that means payphone, and that means bookie. I jerk the couch away from the wall, grab my keys and - hear him retch again, and then whimper. Sonofabitch. Maybe just a little something from the kitchen…
Peering around the frame of the bathroom door, I see Jason on the floor in a messy sort of fetal pose with his face pressed against the cold tile. I set down a tray of ginger ale and saltines on top of the laundry hamper.
“Here,” I say, “I gotta go.”
“Oh. Hi. I thought you were gone already.” He tries to straighten himself up. “Thank you. Listen, Steph, I’m so sorry about last…”
“Eat the crackers. You need to get something in your stomach. And hydrate, for God’s sake. You remember you picked up Tyler’s shift this afternoon?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Well, it’s not even seven yet, so maybe you could…”
“Got it!” he barks, putting up a hand to silence me. “Where are you going anyway? I thought you were off today?”
“Exactly. I’m off.”
In the stairwell I pass Mr. Rabinowitz, the widower who lives in the apartment below us. He gives me that older, wiser look of knowing and I’m sure he’s about to tell me (for the nine hundred sixteenth time) what he wouldn’t give to spend just one more day with his wonderful wife. But he doesn’t. He just shakes his head and keeps trudging up the stairs. Once, when Jason hoisted my newly upholstered vanity chair up over his head like some sacrificial lamb and flung it to the floor with all his rage, Mr. Rabinowitz called the cops. He says he was afraid that I was the thing he’d heard slammed to the ground above him, but I think he was just trying to scare us into being nicer to each other. Either way, it’s none of his business. My mother would die if she knew that in a file at some Brooklyn police station there is a domestic disturbance report with my name on it.
In the narrow dead-end alley outside my building, like some dysfunctional super-hero, I transform myself from the pathetic girl in that apartment to Stephanie Betts, Vibrant Woman of the World. I walk barefoot half-way around the block to the subway entrance humming, ‘I like New York in June, How about you?’ On a bench in front of the newspaper stand, I sit down and strap my sandals onto my pretty pedicured feet. I stand back up, and before I can say anything, Oscar hands me today’s Times.
“Buenos días, mi amiga bonita!”
“Buenos días, Oscar!”
“Hoy es jueves. ¿Por qué está aquí tan temprano?”
“Gracias,” I say, paying him for the paper and desperately translating in my head. It’s no good. “Today is Thursday, I’ve got that much,but the rest…” I look for his help but he just smiles and shrugs his shoulders.
“Es muy fácil, mi amiga.”
“No, if it was easy… Ugh! Okay. Por qué is why…so…Oh! Of course!”
“Oh. Yes. Well, I’m here early today because…I have an interview,” I say, “with the Executive Chef at Thomas Keller’s new bistro. It’s kind of a big deal.”
“Muchas gracias, Oscar. So, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to do the crossword without me today – I gotta go!”
I don’t know why I lied. The truth is that I submitted my resume to Thomas Keller’s people weeks ago and still - no interview. I followed up with a phone call to some perky assistant, casually mentioning my externship at Le Bernardin and politely pointing out that not only did I graduate from CIA near the top of my class, but I’ve also spent the last year and a half cooking on the line for Mario Batali. “I’ll make a note of it,” she chirped, and hung up.
One of the perks of the restaurant business is that I don’t have to deal with rush hour crowds. The dinner shift begins around two in the afternoon, so I’m usually heading into work right around the time Oscar’s business is slowing down for the day. We’ve been doing the crossword together five days a week for almost two years now, and that, he says, is why his English is so good.
Oscar lives with eight other guys in a tiny apartment in the Norwood Avenue ghetto so that he can afford to send money home to his family in Mexico. He hasn’t seen his youngest son since he was an infant, over six years ago. Working here at the newspaper stand for minimum wage isn’t nearly enough, so in order to earn more, he says, he sometimes has to do things he isn’t proud of, things he’s completely ashamed of. He refuses to tell me the specifics - he hangs his head and averts his eyes saying that I wouldn’t be his friend if I knew. He’s wrong. People don’t make sacrifices like that where I’m from. My own father fought with everything he had to keep his child support payments next to nothing. I listen to Oscar talk of love and loyalty, and I feel the truth of my life heating up inside me, burning to erupt like lava, reckless and dangerous, spilling out of me and away from me until I am empty and still. But compared to his, my life is a cakewalk, so I keep my problems to myself.
Who else would I tell? Certainly not my father, he’s allergic to truth. My mother, well, the day I married the doctor’s son was the happiest day of my mother’s life – I’m not going to wreck that for her. And my friends aren’t really my friends. They’re friends of Stephanie Betts, the up-and-coming chef who’s married to the reclusive musician. Food and wine and brooding artist types are fashionable; struggling high school sweethearts from the Deep South are not. Besides, anyone who really cares would tell me to leave Jason, and his coke, and his strippers, and his gambling, and to move on. Because, for them, that would make sense.
Mayrose is one of those modern retro diners jam-packed with green lacquered tables on a black and white tile floor. On 21st and Broadway, the crowd is sort of an upscale melting pot: hung-over hipsters drinking endless cups of coffee, a couple of Puerto Rican nannies from Gramercy Park, publishers making book deals over corned beef hash and eggs. According to the menu, Mayrose serves ‘comfortable food’ which is certainly true, but the real draw for me is the way Manhattan’s morning light smolders through the two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows saturating the place in a dreamy golden glow. I sit at the counter with ceiling fans whirring overhead sipping a cappuccino and perusing the Times Real Estate section. Perhaps, someday, I could actually own a tiny piece of this city I love.
Finally, the couple next to me leaves and the server turns his back. I slip Jason’s list from my pocket, quickly and carefully placing it in the center of my wide open newspaper. I lower my chin, and let my long brown hair fall in front of my face creating a miniature private reading room.
My fingertips brush over Jason’s words. At home, under my bed, there is a shoebox full of decaying love letters in this same handwriting.
I will not lie.
I will control my temper.
I will quit smoking.
I will get out of debt.
I will get help.
Same old shit. I used to help him make these lists. Hoarse and red-eyed in the wake of a fight, I would become his cheerleader, bolstering his confidence, formulating plans for his success, and forgiving him, always forgiving him. Then, after making love in a tangle of apologies and promises, I would fall asleep believing that I had the power to fix him before anyone found out he was broken.
On this envelope, in a separate column, is another list - of times and locations. I don’t recognize any of the addresses. ‘Thursday 8:00 p.m. 199 Carroll St.’is circled twice with a star by it. That’s tonight. Sonofabitch.
The banner in Bloomingdale’s window announces, ‘Buy One Handbag, Get One Half-Off.’ I want a woven basket-style purse. There are a million here; some with great big colorful flowers, some with a simple grosgrain or gingham ribbon running through the weave; there are satchels and shoulder bags, backpacks and clutches. The one by Anne Klein is perfect - not too boxy, not too round, about the size of a football. It’s $135.00.
Security clamps on purses are usually inside, attached to the lining, not as obvious as they are on clothing. I check the linings of all six perfect Anne Klein bags and find an alarm device on every one. There is a similar bag by Fossil. It isn’t perfect, but it is quite nice with adorable bamboo handles, and the first one of them I pick up is good– no clamp. I hook it onto my elbow right next to my own purse, in plain sight. ‘Oh good heavens,’ I’ll say if anyone stops me, ‘I’m so embarrassed! I just completely forgot it was there.’
But no one will stop me. I’m cute and I’m clean and I walk around with confidence engaging the clerks, sampling hand lotion, trying on shoes. A nothing-to-hide attitude. No one notices the extra handbag blatantly hanging from my arm. On my way out, I am sure to look the security guard squarely in the eye with a quick, casual, ‘Have-a-nice-day’ smile. No need for any overtly sexual, flirty bullshit like some movie delinquent played by Christina Ricci or Juliette Lewis. Nope. Stephanie Betts has class, and in the real world, that’s what works.
Outside, I linger for a moment in front of the store…fluffing my hair…checking my watch. If I walk away with any speed whatsoever, and they’re onto me, my story won’t fly; it will look too much like an escape. Wandering away slowly insures that, if need be, I will appear to be more surprised than anyone by the fact of that bag on my arm.
It’s almost three o’clock and I’m a block away from Bendel’s. So I take my cell phone out of my bag and clip it to my dress pocket. Once inside, I go straight to the make-up counter where I sample some lip gloss and chitchat with the Lancôme lady. A chunky turquoise necklace catches my eye and I try it on. Nope, definitely not, looks like something my dad’s wife would wear. I hold up two different kinds of hoop earrings next to my face in a mirror, one pair small and plain, the other large with rhinestones - I like them both. This kind of jewelry is easy, sterling silver on little plastic cards hung from display carousels, with no sort of alarm sensor, each pair under thirty bucks. Then I pick up a pair of white-framed Jackie O. sunglasses and a tortoise shell hair barrette. And I wait.
There it is, like clockwork, the electronic melody of Moon River coming from the holster on my hip. In my left hand (the same arm that carries my twopurses), I clumsily hold the barrette, the sunglasses, and both pairs of earrings sort of out, away from my body, as if to say, ‘I know these don’t belong to me, but my mind is just somewhere else.’ With my right hand, I answer the phone (as though could be anyone.)
“Well, hello there, dear,” lilts my mother, dropping her R’s and sounding every bit as Georgia as Scarlet O’Hara herself.
“Oh, hey Mama.”
“Hon, I just have to tell you the sweetest thing!”
“Mama, I can’t hear you very well. Just a sec, let me walk outside.” And like that, I waltz out of Bendel’s and onto Fifth Avenue’s sidewalk, my handful of loot leading the way. Again, I stay right outside the door for a couple of minutes, showing no urgency to escape.
My mother is still talking, steadily building up to the sweetest thing, “…and I just had a salad, you know, because Dr. Ted says I have cholesterol, but sweet Barb had the Veal Marsala, and do you know what she said?”
“Mama, everybody has cholesterol. You have high cholesterol, very high. And Dr. Ted doesn’t just say it, he knows it. It doesn’t help for you to eat right only when he’s looking…”
“Who’s the mother here? Now. I’m asking you. Do you know what sweet Barb said?”
“I bet I could make a pretty good guess.”
“Well, I’ll tell you. She said it wasn’t half as good as the Veal Marsala you and Jason cooked for her when she was up there in April. Isn’t that the sweetest thing!”
I remember how sunny it was that day, the Veal Marsala day. Jason woke me up with a kiss on the forehead and the Times crossword puzzle folded just the way I like it. The windows were open for the first time of the season, and the scents of Lysol and Windex and fresh brewed coffee breezed through the apartment. “It’s all done,” he smiled. “Clean as a whistle. Now, we just have to decide what’s for dinner.” Jason’s parents were finally coming for a visit that would kick off with dinner at our place.
After omelets at a sidewalk cafe, we walked holding hands to the butcher, the farmers’ market, the wine shop and the corner bodega. Jason called himself my ‘City Sherpa’ and insisted on carrying everything. Back at home, as I sliced mushrooms and taught him how to pound veal, he encouraged me to apply for the Thomas Keller job. There was dancing and kissing and laughing. We set the table together and decanted the wine. The stereo shuffled Elton John, R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt…
“Honey,” Mother insists, “We were at Dominic’s, for Heaven’s sake. People wait for two whole months to get a reservation there and sweet Barb said your Veal Marsala was better than theirs. Now. Isn’t that the sweetest thing.” There is no question being asked here.
“Yes, Mama, that’s really nice. Listen, I’ve got to get a cab. Love you.”
“Well, now, you give Jason a great big hug for -”
I shut my phone and shove it back into the holster. Jutting out my chin, I blow some air up toward my eyes to stop tears from forming. I don’t acknowledge the things in my hand until I am safely in a cab and headed downtown. Then I admire my baubles and put them all in my new bag.
That night, the Veal Marsala night, Jason went to meet his parents at their hotel while I put the finishing touches on dinner and whipped up a little surprise chocolate mousse. Singing along to Rocket Man, I pulled my hair back into a low ponytail the way he likes it. When I heard them coming up the stairs, I lit the candles and straightened my skirt.
The door flung open BAM! against the wall, and Jason marched in with ‘Sweet Barb’ trailing behind.
“Dad couldn’t make it,” he announced to the furniture.
“Oh, you know Dr. Ted. He just couldn’t get away,” said Barb, wrapping her arms around me. “Too many needy patients right now. Oh my, something sure smells delicious.” She pulled back to arm’s length and gave me the once over, “And don’t you look pretty!”
I removed one place setting from the table.
The sun had gone down and Barb complained that she was chilly, so Jason closed the windows and poured a giant glass of wine for himself. It was gone before we even sat down. Barb blathered on all through dinner about who was dying, and who was divorcing, and who knew someone who knew someone whose husband’s cousin is a talent scout in Nashville and why didn’t Jason give countrymusic a try so we could move back closer to home, ‘because that way, if it doesn’t work out, you know, your brother would be happy to give you a job and you could even go back and finish school!’
Jason got up to pour himself a vodka and I noticed that, sometime during dinner, the music had stopped.
The cabbie lets me out at the Flatiron Building and from there I work my way further downtown. I pick up some lovely linen napkins at ABC Carpet and Home and a set of Manhattan skyline coasters from Fishs Eddy. My new purse is full, so at Urban Outfitters I actually have the nerve to ask the clerk for an empty shopping bag as I leave with a pair of flip-flops and a tube of body glitter in my hand. At the shops on St. Marks, I collect a variety of socks, a red patent leather belt, another pair of sunglasses, and a little stuffed owl for my niece.
At Banana Republic, it’s time to shop. Really shop. My father, in an effort to force me to attend, sent me money to buy a dress for my step-sister’s wedding. I take several options into the fitting room and after trying them all on, the winner is clear – red, sexy, and totally inappropriate for a nice Southern wedding – perfect. As I place it back on the hanger I notice that there is no security clamp. Don’t do it. Just take the dress to the clerk and pay for it like a normal person.
The line at the cash register is long and the woman in front is trying to return a pair of jeans, which means the clerk has to wait for a manager’s approval. If I’m going to make it to bust my husband at 199 Carroll St. by 8:00, I’ve got to go. Now. Stepping out of line, I drape the dress over my shoulder and start to finger through a rack of fall blazers. Near the entrance is a sales girl robotically folding T-shirts and stacking them on a table.
“Excuse me,” I say, “What time is it?”
The sales girl looks at her watch, “7:40.”
“Oh, shoot! Well, thank you.” And I’m out the door.
“Thank you,” she calls after me, “Come back when you have more time.”
I hurry to the corner and down the stairs to the subway platform where I place my new dress neatly into the Urban Outfitters bag with the rest of my plunder. The first thing I ever stole was also a dress, but it was an accident.
It was New Year’s Eve and I had a terrible cold, maybe the flu. Jason was already in full-swing resolution mode. He’d gotten up early and gone to the gym. When he came back, he scoured the apartment for every cigarette, ashtray, lighter, and matchbook he could find and made a big production of dumping them all into the garbage can. Then he tuned his guitar and practiced for almost two hours. At lunchtime he brought me some Sudafed and chicken soup from the deli. The combination of his endorphins and a sense of accomplishment had Jason on top of the world.
And then it all started to turn. He sat down at the desk and was scrolling through the want ads, reading one job listing after another for which he had no qualifications. The regrets, the replays of every mistake he’s ever made came crashing in, and he started comparing himself and his life to everyone else he knows. I’d heard it a million times.
“Will is a doctor. Josh is an attorney. Sam is living in Rome teaching war games to Italian Executives for fuck’s sake! And JASON? Jason, ladies and gentlemen, is a LOSER! Just ask anyone. Hell, ask my own father – he’ll tell you! Folding khakis at the Gap is all I’m qualified to do and I should be thankful for it. I mean, come on, Steph! Do you really think anyone believes that it’s just my ‘survival job’ until I become the next Dave Matthews? FUCK NO!”
He continued flogging himself this way until the pain became unbearable. He staggered around the apartment like a person on fire searching for relief, sweltering in anger, panting, and pulling at his own hair and then BAM! He put a quick, mean fist through the wall and fell into a sweaty heap of indulgence.
I don’t know what made this episode different from every other one like it, but this time I didn’t try to solve him. We’d been invited to a swanky party, and I knew that, once again, I’d be going alone. So I bundled myself up like an Eskimo and went shopping for something special to wear. It was the only thing I could think to do.
By the time I got to Macy’s, I was burning up with fever. One by one, I peeled off my hat, my scarf, my gloves, and my coat until I started to feel a little better. I wound my way through the herd of post-Christmas-sale shoppers and up the escalator to the dresses, a shiny holiday wasteland of sequins and fringe and gold lamé. I was dizzy. Trying to stay on task, I scanned the racks and found a simple black sheath with a scoop neck and subtle silver piping. There was a four, an eight, and a ten. Dammit.
“Are you looking for the six?” asked a sales girl. “It’s right here. I just took it off of a mannequin.”
“Thank you.” I added the dress to the pile of winter layers I was carrying.
“Would you like to try it on?”
“Not yet,” I said, “I’m still looking.”
As I moved through more dresses, the Sudafed kicked in and made my head all swimmy. That cup of chicken soup was the only thing I had eaten all day. Feeling more and more woozy, I went to the ladies room, plopped down all my stuff and splashed some cold water on my face. Screw it. I’m too sick to go to this party anyway. I slung my backpack over my shoulder, scooped everything else into my arms and wobbled out of Macy’s in a queasy stupor.
It wasn’t until I sat down on the train with my stuff in my lap that I saw the dress and realized what I’d done. I felt a spotlight of panic and guilt and embarrassment shining on me. My stomach was doing cartwheels. I couldn’t wait to get to the next stop so that I could go back to Macy’s and return the dress. How the hell am I going to explain this? As I mentally retraced my steps to make sense of how it had happened, I realized that no one else had noticed the dress either. The heat of that imaginary spotlight dimmed and my stomach settled. The train came to a stop, the doors opened, and I didn’t move. When the doors closed and the train started to move again, I was overcome with the power of having a secret. My head cleared instantly.
I swore to myself I’d never do it again, but here I am. Usually, it’s just a small item here and there. On days when my life feels particularly out of control, I’ll purchase three or four things, and swipe one. The moment I’m sure that I’ve gotten away with some little treasure, calm washes over me like water.
But today, I don’t know. Today was like some kind of binge. I’m looking at this absurd collection of swag and wondering, Where is the calm? But it’s not going to come this time. Something is looming, something turbulent and vile, and I can’t distract myself anymore. Jason is in trouble. We’re in trouble.
It is almost nine by the time I emerge from the subway onto Smith St. The F train was stuck for 45 excruciating minutes. My feet are moving faster than my brain can think, one block, two blocks, left on Carroll, and there it is – number 199. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church? I check the address on the envelope, and then the street sign, and then the number on the building again. This is definitely it. Maybe Jason wrote it down wrong?
“Are you lost?”
“What?” I turn to face the little Italian woman who’s been sweeping the church’s front walk. “No. I just – I was hoping to catch Jason - my husband. Never mind. This isn’t the right place.”
“Is right place,” she insists, “You. Come with me.”
She props her broom inside a small utility closet under the stoop. I follow her around the corner where I see eight or ten guys huddled together drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes under a streetlamp at the church’s side entrance. The little woman leads me toward the huddle asking them, “New boy, Jason, he leave already, no?”
A man with only one eye steps forward, making it clear that he doesn’t want me to come any closer. The others turn away, or move into the shadows, or go inside.
“Sophia,” says the one-eyed man firmly but with respect, “It’s anonymous.”
“Is okay,” Sophia whispers conspiratorially, like she’s humoring some kid playing a spy game, “She no tell.” Then, as if that isn’t condescending enough, she winks at him.
He slaps a hand against his forehead and rolls his one eye. “Fine. Jason left a few minutes ago,” he says to me, “Nice kid.”
I look at Jason’s list again. I will get help. He always says that ‘writing it all down is the first step.’ Until now, it seemed the only step he knew.
Home is about fifteen blocks from here, only one stop on the train, but walking will get me there faster. I am beaming, I can see it reflected in the faces of people I pass! I try to call him, but it rings and rings and rings and goes to voice mail. He probably hasn’t made it home yet, he might be just a few blocks ahead of me. Maybe I’ll catch up to him and throw my arms around him and we’ll cry and kiss and it’ll suddenly start to pour down rain washing away the sins of the past to make room for new beginnings! My heart is beating out of my chest as I press the redial button, and press it again, over and over. With every step, I pick up speed until I’m practically sprinting.
As I round the corner to ‘transformation alley,’ it’s unusually dark. Both street lamps have been broken, leaving little mosaic puddles of shattered glass on the sidewalk. All of a sudden, two men in baseball caps with the bills pulled way down to shadow their faces come running out of our building. One of them looks up at me.
“Shit,” he hisses.
His fist plunges into my gut and doubles me over. He grabs the back of my hair, swings my head like a wrecking ball into our building’s brick wall, and throws me down onto the glass-splintered sidewalk. The fierce heel of his work boot stomps down on my hand, still desperately gripping the ringing phone.
“No, Luis! STOP!” the second man screams.
He does stop. Then he quickly shifts gears and starts grabbing up my things. The second man bends down over me and pushes the bill of his cap up a little, just enough to let me see his face, his eyes wide with the horror of recognition.
“Oscar?” I say.
“Lo siento,” Oscar says. He is trembling.
“Vámonos!” commands Luis, and my consciousness drifts away with the sound of their footsteps.
* * *
In the emergency room, my left eye is swollen shut and my right eye will only stay open for a few seconds at a time. Jason is gone. It’s like I’m squinting into a kaleidoscope of fluorescent lights and stainless steel and overweight nurses in cartoon character scrubs. He was shot. They’re stitching up my face and putting a cast on my hand, and Tchaikovsky, I think, is playing, and an ambulance driver or a paramedic is telling the doctor about a new cigar lounge in Tribeca. My husband is dead. Through blinding pain and swirling nausea and outrageous cacophony, I am trying to comprehend what I’ve been told.
Jason has been murdered. These words are knocking on my door, but nobody’s home. My heart is suspended in a bubble of hope that feels truer than anything I’ve ever known. He’s getting help! My City Sherpa, my Rocket Man, my list-maker, letter-writer is getting help! Maybe it’s the morphine, this warm oblivion keeping Jason alive. Whatever it is kindly floats me away to blackness.
I wake up, who knows how many hours later, in a hospital room, not the emergency room, but a regular room, with a mechanical bed and a sweaty plastic water pitcher in avocado green. Barb and Dr. Ted are sitting on the bench-like window sill, silent. They must have taken the red-eye from Atlanta with my mother who is pacing, sniffling and rubbing her temples.
The door to the hallway is open about a foot and I see a policeman standing out there with his arms crossed, his back to the room. The sidewalk. The arrest. The ambulance. I remember now the preposterous situation I am in. Because of one stupid ‘domestic disturbance report’ two years ago (thank you, Mr. Rabinowitz!), they think I might have killed my husband and staged my own mugging. The intricate emotional wilderness that I’ve come to know as my life has been reduced to an episode of Law & Order.
“Mama,” I say, and it takes all my strength just to produce an audible whisper.
She rushes to my side. “Honey, you’re awake.”
“I can’t prove my whereabouts, Mama.”
“Yes, that’s what they said, but that’s just silly. Where were you?”
“All day?” She pulls up a chair right next to my bed, getting a notepad and a pen from her purse as if the cops hadn’t already covered this line of questioning. Of course, they had also asked me to describe my assailants. ‘It was too dark,’ I had told them, remembering the wallet-worn photo of Oscar’s little boy standing in front of a chicken coop in Mexico.
“Yes, Mama. All day.”
“Okay, then. Where?”
“All over. I don’t know. Everywhere.”
“Everywhere.” She repeats, in the same tone she used when I missed curfew in tenth grade. “Well, where are the things you bought, the receipts?”
“Those men, they took off with the bags – the receipts were in there.”
“Your Mastercharge will have a record of it!” Dr. Ted exclaims like he’s just rolled Yatzee!
“Nope. I paid cash.”
Dr. Ted slumps back down onto the window sill next to a comatose Barb. I try to imagine the moment they got the news. Who answered the phone? Did Barb burst into tears and collapse on the floor, or did she go straight into this stoic trance? Did Dr. Ted fly into a rage? Did he weep? Or did he simply shake his head with a ‘tsk, tsk’ and wonder aloud about flight times and funeral arrangements? It doesn’t matter. Because still, for me, there is no news and this is all a ridiculous dream and I want to click my heels together and fall into Jason’s arms and start moving forward, forward, forward to the life I always knew we could have together.
“You paid cash?” Mama thinks cash is tacky. “Okay…hmm… The sales clerks. They’ll remember you.”
“I don’t think so, Mama.”
She grasps onto this idea for dear life. “Well, maybe not all of them but… Look. I’ll just write down the names of all the stores you went to, and you try to remember approximately what time you were there. The police will find out who was working and…”
“Mama. Just stop.”
Rolling away from her onto my side, I can see that Jason’s parents are guiltily starting to entertain the possibility that I did it. That I killed Jason. They’re searching for my grief, and so am I. But right now, inside, I find only vigilance. I’m standing guard over what’s ours - mine and Jason’s - knowing that it’s all about to be wrenched away from me piece by private piece.
These people are professionals; they don’t need my help with this, and I have no desire to give it to them. They’ll talk to Mr. Rabinowitz. They’ll go over our cell phone records. They’ll search our apartment, our home, systematically, impersonally tromping over the warped intimacies of our lives to figure out what happened. They’ll find two desperate men in baseball caps who were supposed to simply ransack our apartment - a warning from Jason’s bookie. But these men were amateurs, they’ll discover, and they showed up on the wrong night. So when Jason walked in on them, Luis panicked and shot him twice in the chest. Then, they’ll figure, Luis was so freaked out by what he had done that he let loose on the first person who crossed his path - me. I might have died, too, they’ll tell me, if it weren’t for an anonymous call to 911. And I’ll know it was Oscar.
But for now, my eyelids are getting heavy again and I am grateful for the returning blackness. I know that soon I’ll have to let go. The mess of our marriage won’t belong to us anymore. It will be laid out and taken apart and analyzed and judged like pieces of junk at a yard sale that no one can see the value in except the person who lived with the crap all those years. Jason’s proclivities, his appetite for excess, will be held up as a one-dimensional cautionary tale for which no one, least of all his parents, will take any responsibility.
I try to scratch an itch inside the cast on my hand. It will heal, they said, but I’ll probably never be able to use it quite the way I used to.
“Can I get you anything?” Mama says.
“Yes,” I say, and I ask her for the only thing I can think of.
She tucks the covers in around me and turns down the light. Then she walks over to the little alcove that constitutes a closet and pulls Jason’s list from my dress pocket. Handing it to me, she says, “Is this what you wanted?”