Laura has published three YA novels with Penguin’s Berkley Jam imprint (the Queen Geek Social Club, Queen Geeks in Love, and Prom Queen Geeks) as well as the LGBT-themed dystopian novel Out (currently in development for film and television),and Lica’s Angel.
She won a Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize for her short story, "The Murder of Crows"; her work has been published in the North American Review, Hysteria Magazine, Scribophile, NEA Today, Writer’s Digest. She is a former journalist with the San Diego Union-Tribune. As a journalist, she was awarded the Copley Ring of Truth award as well as a Janus Award for business writing.
Laura has taught writing seminars at the Southern California Writing Conference, Canyon Crest Academy Young Writers Conference, San Diego Writers Ink, and through author visits to schools including the Monarch School (a San Diego school for students without homes.) She has also done book signings in Columbus, Ohio, Kauai, San Diego, La Jolla, Ca, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. She's worked with two independent San Diego bookstores, Mysterious Galaxy and Warwick's, for events and signings.
Laura worked previously as a public relations director for the San Diego Repertory Theater and for Walcher Inc, a media and public relations firm in San Diego. Her campaigns for all of her books has been extensive, resulting in favorable media clips from both print and television.
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A compulsive woman takes an abandoned teenaged hitchhiker on a road trip to stop the wedding of the woman's British therapist/ fantasy lover.Share Tweet LinkedIn Embed pszr.co/pSLnD 3601 views
|Literary Fiction Women's Fiction|
|11 publishers interested|
Anna Beck is determined to stop the wedding of her boundary-challenged therapist/ fantasy British lover, and nothing is going to stop her: Not that the ceremony is 1,300 miles away. Not her intense fear of germs that keeps her housebound most of the time. Not the fact that she needs to borrow a car and hasn't driven in years.
I have worked with people with mental illness for decades, and I see how society marginalizes the problem and wills people who have it to gracefully disappear. My own struggles inform this knowledge; I have seen first-hand how mental illness is used as an excuse, a weapon, a way to exclude people, and a way to divide families. That is why I am the person to write this book. Although it is fiction, it is drawn from life, and I believe it can offer hope to those who fight mental illness and personal tragedy.
Anna Incognito deals with mental illness, loss, and renewed hope and acceptance of flaws through the insightful, biting wit of a main character at odds with herself, her past, and the world; still, she sees the humor and absurdity in it all. “Lots of narrative pull...wonderfully complicated,” says Jincy Willett, author of The Writing Class, whose work David Sedaris anthologized in Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules.
Anna Beck is determined to stop the wedding of her boundary-challenged therapist/ fantasy British lover, and nothing is going to stop her: Not that the ceremony is 1,300 miles away. Not her intense fear of germs that keeps her housebound most of the time. Not the fact that she needs to borrow a car and hasn't driven in years.
Nevertheless, she is going to crash the wedding of Dr. Edward Denture, come hell, high water, or bacterial invasion. After convincing (or tricking) her neighbor, Petra, into finding a car for her to drive, she organizes, sanitizes, and heads east.
Making a road trip is a special challenge for someone with an obsessive fear of contamination, but Anna finds a way. And along that way, she meets Mellow, a teenaged hitchhiker who shoplifts Oreos, and sets off casino alarms so she can use the bathroom in private, and the girl’s mother, Rhiannon, a drug addict. When Anna reluctantly gives them shelter for the night (making sure everything is as clean as can be), she is stunned to learn that Rhiannon has abandoned her daughter the next morning. Anna struggles with what to do with the teenager, but ultimately decides to take her rather than abandon her as her mother did.
On this journey, intercut with memories of her time with Edward Denture and the exploration of the cause of her mental illness, Anna comes to grips with the driving tragedy of her life: she lost a child and a husband, and has felt responsible for their deaths.
Ultimately, the road trip provides healing for both of Anna and Mellow, but not without a Cadillac-sized helping of soul-searching and bad diner food. Anna confronts her former therapist at his wedding, and realizes that she no longer needs to feel love from him or anyone else to be healed and whole.
Anna Incognito touches on several subjects important to several different subsets of readers. I have researched some of the most prominent groups to whom I'd reach out:
1- TLC Foundation for Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors www.bfrb.org in the largest group that deals specifically with people who have conditions like trichotillomania, dermatophagia (skin picking), and similar conditions, as my main character has. It is estimated that about 3 percent of the population has BFRBs. (Psychology Today)
Skinpick.com is another site built for information and support for those with these behaviors.
2. Grieving families who've lost children or spouses would also be a target audience for this book. www.dougy.org and Dr. Ken Druck's Jenna Druck Foundation among others are groups primarily set up to support those who have lost loved ones.
3.Children who live with parents who have drug abuse issues and/or who are homeless is another target audience, which would then include educators and those who work with foster youth and students with homeless families. Stand Up for Kids www.standupforkids.org is one of the most prominent in the country, and advocates for students who are homeless. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) www.samhsa.gov is another national group that offers information and support for those living with mental illness or substance abuse.
4. Educators who work directly with homeless youth would find this book compelling as well, because of the dynamics between the teenaged hitchhiker, Mellow, and both her mother and Anna, the main character. National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (www.naehcy.org ) has a national network of resources for homeless youth, and might be interested in a narrative like this one, where a caring adult takes an unselfish interest in an abandoned teen.
5. High school libraries and readers groups would find this book especially interesting since it touches on so many topics with humor and grace. Since I have a lot of experience with high school students, this would be a unique opportunity for me to also book school visits to promote the book.
My marketing plan involves contacting organizations as listed above, plus the following strategies:
1. Updated author website highlighting the new book.
2. Facebook social media campaign with giveaways and promotional perks. Total social media following : 1,500
3. Email subscribers: 522
4. Community events to contribute to book promotions: Warwick's Books, Mysterious Galaxy Books, local Barnes and Noble, SD Writer's Ink, San Diego Festival of Books, Canyon Crest Writing Conference (annual), LA Times Festival of Books
5. Potential podcast, blog and major publications: San Diego Tribune, Blogtalk Radio, Scribophile, Bustle, Omnivoracious (Amazon's book blog), Book Riot, Book Club Girl, the Zen Teacher, The Millions, possible blogs posts with other well-known writers whom I know like Catherine Ryan Hyde, Jincy Willett, Kathy Arons, Mary Pearson, Cindy Pon, Barrie Summy, Jonathan Maberry, Christopher Moore.
6. Mailing list of over 300 independent bookstores and libraries with postcard mailer campaign.
The whip-smart wit of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? mixes with Kathleen Glasgow’s poignant Girl in Pieces, melding into a quirky road trip that frustrates, baffles, and restores Anna and her teenaged hitchhiker, Mellow. Like Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson’s best-selling memoir about her (hilarious) struggles with anxiety, Anna Incognito is an inside look at human suffering as seen through an Alice in Wonderland mirror.
1. Where's You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, published by Back Bay Books. Similar in the quirky main character and the wit-infused tone of the writing.
2. Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett, published by Picador, "explores, through the experience of one character, the role that accident plays in all our lives. " Anna's life is framed by accidents and her reaction to them, and shares the same dark humorous tone that Willett's writing so expertly displays.
3.Girl in Pieces by Katherine Glasgow, published by Delacorte Press. As the teenager in Glasgow's undertakes a journey of healing and self-discovery, so does the character Mellow in Anna Incognito.
4. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, publisher Flatiron Books. "She’s unapologetic, candid, outrageous, and the book reaches new levels of hilarity because of it." ―Entertainment Weekly. Anna Incognito would get a similar review from Entertainment Weekly; Anna, despite the blows life has dealt her, navigates with a stumbling grace and natural wit.
5. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.
"Brunt strikes a difficult balance, imbuing June with the disarming candor of a child and the melancholy wisdom of a heart-scarred adult."—The Wall Street Journal. Similarly, Anna sees the world as a dangerous and magical place, and despite her deep-seated fears, charges in with the hope of a child to achieve what she believes her heart wants.
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Anna Incognito by Laura Preble
On this germ-infested dirtball called Earth, creatures called humans eat, drink, shit, and otherwise play elaborate games of hide and seek. All of these things carry with them enormous risks. Food-borne illness accounts for a significant number of deaths each year, and forget about water. Heard of the cholera? Typhoid? Flint, Michigan? Water. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. And don’t get me started on shit. Hence, the game. Hiding, seeking, hiding again…on and on, an endless cycle.
I am currently hiding from a small, cream-colored envelope printed on high-end paper stock, the kind you find in the quaint stationery store in a quaint neighborhood that stopped being affordable two years ago.
It’s lying on the counter next to the sink. It’s an invitation, actually; I haven’t opened it. I haven’t opened it for two weeks. It catches at the corner of my eye every morning, taunting me. If I don’t open, I don’t have to answer, and if I don’t answer, I am not committed to attending anything. I hate crowds.
This fancy cream-and-gold envelope bears a stamp in the corner, with one edge partially folded up, that has a drawing of a duck on it. Why would anyone design postage stamps? Why do we need art on postage stamps in the first place? With economic times the way they are, it certainly seems that we could do away with something as unnecessary as waterfowl on our government documents. Stupid duck.
“Anna?” I hear the nasal whine from below my kitchen window. My downstairs neighbor, Petra, is waving to me from the alley where the trash cans lie, ready to assault me with bacteria. I know that sounds paranoid, but seriously…they are full of dog hair and flea detritus and god knows how much fecal matter. Petra owns a grooming salon for pets, and the stuff she throws out in those tin cans should be categorized as hazardous waste. I am probably breathing a toxic mixture of dog doo and flea cancer every time I open the window, which I don’t. Unless she yells at me, in which case I can’t avoid it.
I slide the aluminum frame up, and hold my breath, waving.
“Anna!” she yells again, motioning for me to open the window wider. I shake my head, and she sighs loudly, exasperated. “I’m coming up.”
Petra comes up to my apartment about twice a week, usually to complain about a client or a boyfriend. We’re not exactly friends; I’d say that it’s more a kidnapper-kidnappee relationship. I cannot escape. When she decides to bluster into my rooms, it’s like a Macy’s parade float escaped from its moorings and I just duck, hoping not to get run over.
I hear the inevitable galumph of her broad ass up the stairs, the click of the tiny patent flats she somehow wedges onto her hippopotamus feet.
“Anna?” she says, sing-song. I won’t escape, I know, so I open the door and she hurricanes in, a sweep of spicy perfume, yards of red crepe flowing like a pirate flag from her massive chest. Tiny purple bows dot the neckline, nicely framing her turkey wattle. She tries to hug me, and I dodge it.
“My god, this day!” She throws herself onto my sofa, and tiny motes of anti-bacterial talcum powder rise up like dust devils from an arid polyester desert. “I think it’s going to get up to 90, easy.”
“It’s summer,” I mutter, backing into the corner by the fireplace. Petra’s orange hair, straw-dry, could ignite at any moment.
“Of course, it’s summer,” she says, nodding, using the ends of her red shirt to mop the fat lady sweat from her forehead. I imagine salty drops embedding themselves into the fabric of my couch cushions, and I shudder. “Everybody wants their poodles clipped, their cats de-clawed and such. I’m so busy I can’t even take time to eat. Anyways, I came up to ask you: Are you going to Dr. Denture’s wedding?”
Sound is sucked into the vacuum of crisis, crumbs of birdsong and motorcycle engines and ice cream truck jingle-jangle mixed together into a heady cocktail of nothing. A rush of thunder hits my ears, and the next thing I know, I’m flat on my back, looking up into the untended fields of Petra’s nose hairs. “Ohmygod, Anna, are you with us? Darling, come on! What happened?” She’s fanning me with the sweat-stained pirate flag shirt. Jesus! I’ll be fully engulfed in infectious disease before mid morning!
“I’m fine,” I mutter, waving away her swollen sausage fingers.
“You don’t look fine. You look like you passed out.”
“I did pass out.”
“It might be the heat,” she offers, motioning toward the window, the sun, the conspiracy of God and the Weather Channel.
“It’s not the heat.” I struggle to stand, and I still feel woozy. My wig is askew, I can feel it, so I try to tug at it without her seeing. “Excuse me for a minute.” Weave a path to the bathroom, close the door, turn on the bare bulb above the sink, and in the mirror there is a pale woman, 42, with a dark, straight bob of a wig perched on her head sideways. Bad, bad, really bad. Dr. Denture’s wedding. That’s what the goddamned invitation was. I’d tell myself I never would have guessed, but that would be lying. Of all the things it could have been, I mean, an invitation to the inaugural ball of Howdy Doody would’ve been more predictable, but Dr. Denture’s wedding?
Tap, tap, tap. “Anna?” From the other side of the door, Petra’s whine fills my hallway. “Honey, are you okay?”
I dab a cloth at my eyes, which are round dark spheres, planets lacking anything to orbit, root beer jawbreakers rolling around in the gumball machine of a head attached to my narrow shoulders. “Dr. Denture. Married.” The statement rings through the bathroom, echoes off the scrubbed white tile, swipes silver off the mirror, and lands in the back of my throat, where it swells and threatens to choke me.
My translucent skin stretches over my skull like a balloon, moon-white and thin to the point of breaking. That skin, that balloon, tethers my soul to the Earth, the germy dirtball full of disease and disappointment. I guess this is why I pick at my skin incessantly, trying to breach the membrane that holds me in. I bite at my fingers until I turn the geography of my hands into a bloody bas-relief map of my sins and transgressions. I’m hoping for release.
That doesn’t mean I want to…leave. I think I resent my balloon. I don’t like being that committed to something physical.
“Anna?” Petra stands sentinel on the other side of the door. A frightened tap-tap, a jiggle of the door handle.
“I’m washing my face,” I call, violently turning the tap on so the water gushes into the porcelain bowl and onto my pants. I splash some water to support the story, pump some soap into my palm, but the soap stings and finds all the ragged crevices in my fingers, the cracks and fissures I break open anew every day. I am my own Prometheus. It heals, I bite it, it heals, I bite. Rinse and repeat.
Soap stings like a bitch. I try putting Band-aids on my thumbs, but they get wet, and then the skin underneath looks like a fish belly, bloated and white and dead. But if I don’t put on the Band-aids, I constantly pick at the ragged edges, trying to smooth them down with the imperfect instrument of my teeth, which are, ironically full of germs.
Whoever designed this life had a wicked sense of humor.
“I’ll come back later,” Petra says as she clip-clops away. “I hear my client’s cockapoo having a panic attack. Hang on, Sugarbucket!” She’s yelling support to the dog, not to me. At least, I assume I’m not ‘Sugarbucket.’ Plus, a dog panic attack is a much bigger deal to Petra than a neighbor panic attack since I’m unlikely to crap on her carpet. But then again, this has been an unusual day.
I don’t go very many places due to the unusual demands of my trichotillomania. That's the uncontrollable urge to systematically yank every hair from your body. It’s a very high-maintenance disability, actually, and when you combine it with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, things can often become downright unmanageable. My problem with mental illness is that most people see it as something of a choice. Just think about the context of comments like “that’s crazy!” or “that’s nuts!” You just don’t hear people saying things like “that’s diabetes!” or “that’s epileptic!” when something is cuckoo and considered weird.
Somatic psychologists like Dr. Denture would have you believe that mental illness is absolutely the equal of physical illness, that they are simply twins born of the same womb (that being the frailty of the human condition, otherwise known as that germ-ridden meat bubble, the body.) Dr. Denture preaches that the body and its engine, the brain, are the physical manifestations of all of our flaws, psychic, spiritual, and dermatological. If there were some efficient way to Botox your brain the same way you can your wrinkles, probably everybody would feel better, and our collective cerebellums (cerebelli?) would look and feel younger.
That would be great, but so far, it’s much easier to fix the paint job than the computer navigation system in the ol’ soul sedan. Minds are a terrible thing to waste, but in order to make sure they work, we have to pump them full of pills and potions, and wear wigs, and stop biting our fingers, and cry about our mommies, and analyze our collective penises (Peni? Penne?) for obvious signs of cigar burn.
So, my point is, I don’t go out much. You can probably see why. My version of small talk tends to frighten people, men especially.
Edward Denture was an exception. He was exceptional. Watching Petra wrestle an overstuffed chocolate Labrador retriever by the curb, I absently rub the blue glass dish, trying to wear the fingerprints off my thumb with uniform pressure and small, circular motions.
Counting the rough, uneven tan and gray stones in the wall opposite my apartment, I think of the time six months ago when Edward and I first met. It was at the laundromat. I know that’s an unusual place to meet someone who would change the course of your life, but we both had run out of underwear, so it seemed very practical, and Edward was nothing if not practical.
The Fluffitorium was the closest washing place to my apartment, and, through special arrangement with the management, I had thoroughly cleaned the facility after hours with a potent mixture of Lysol and volcanic pumice. Some people with more sensitive noses complained that they lost consciousness, but in general, I think that had more to do with the proximity of the Whistle Stop bar and a certain absinthe Happy Hour special than with my cleaning solution.
Although I had cleaned thoroughly until two in the morning (the kind owner who lived above the shop had locked me in so I could stay as late as I wanted), I had slept later than I intended, and since it took me nearly three hours to sort my clothes, I didn’t get to the Fluffitorium until nearly one in the afternoon. Luckily, I had had the forethought to stripe yellow caution tape across the best washer and the best dryer before I left for the evening, just in case I wasn’t the first one in, so I knew that, despite my lateness, I’d have a sparkling clean machine with which to launder my clothing. It took a lot of stress out of my day, I have to tell you. Washing at a laundromat is one of the most frightening things a germophobe can do. You’d think it would be fine, with all the soap and hot water…but you have to factor in the low socio-economic level of the launderers, and the fact that with that lower socio-economic status comes poor hygiene habits. You might be talking about full-on poopy pants spinning about, undersoaped, on a delicate cycle. With cold water. It’s all just a wild card, and I’m not willing to gamble with my life.
So, I walked into the shop carrying my hypoallergenic Egyptian cotton washbag with super micro-hepa filtration, and there was Edward Denture, wantonly using the machines I had cordoned off with caution tape.
“Excuse me.” I whispered, a nearly inaudible croak, to this tall, ridiculously handsome man who hovered like a folded preying mantis over my washer. He didn’t hear me at first.
A rage, familiar only to those with a hair-trigger temper and a familiarity with psychotropic drugs mixed with premenstrual hormones, overtook me, and I closed in on him, coming within two feet of his massive shoulder. Stretched over it was one strap of a pair of suspenders patterned with a black-and-white negative print of Sigmund Freud’s face.
The preying mantis man turned to me, and I stared up into a ferret face, a weasel idol carved of alabaster, studded with greenish sapphire eyes wild-white at the edges. His eyes reminded me of the horses I frightened at my father’s stables when I was a child; they expressed just a hint of panic edged with the desire to run like hell. "Yes?" he asked expectantly.
"These are my machines." I said it sub-audibly. With my mind. He just stared at me.
"Did you say something?" He asked in a deep velvet voice, British, cultured.
I nodded. I felt my wig shift slightly. He noticed. He noticed! I felt flattered.
Again, he said, "Did you say something? I thought I saw your mouth move." He was looking at my mouth. That put me in such a state of excited fear that I nearly bolted out of the place despite the fact that my underwear was in desperate need of washing. Underwear. He would see my underwear. And that's when he touched my arm.
I felt like someone had lit a rocket under my wig.
I stared at his hand. You can tell a lot about a person from their hands, actually; whether they work outside, whether they're married, whether they wash properly. This man had the most perfectly manicured fingers of anyone I'd ever met. It made my heart leap with joy. No nasty germs under those fingernails, certainly. Curved on top, perfectly spatulate nails (a sign of intuitive insight), a healthy shell pink, crowning long, slender pianist fingers. The skin was smooth, white, almost doll-like in its perfect porcelain texture. Seemingly no pores. Perhaps he didn't even sweat.
"Could we sit for a moment?" His voice snapped me out of the hand-xamination. When I focused on his face again, the wild look was gone. His eyes were calm, and slightly crinkled at the edges like the crust of an unbaked apple tart. I felt hungry suddenly. "Could we sit?" he repeated in that lovely baritone. I nodded.
He gently steered me by the elbow to a wooden bench trimmed with iron scrollwork. Before I could sit, he took a package of wet wipes from his pocket, efficiently plucked one from the pack, and he cleaned the seat and back before gesturing toward it. I sat, ecstatic.
He didn't clean his side of the bench, but he did sit down next to me, keeping an appropriate distance. I clutched my bag of underwear nervously.
"My name is Edward," he said, smiling. He waited, and I guess I was supposed to introduce myself, which I did, sub-audibly. "Could you say your name aloud?"
"Could you tell that I said it in my head?" In my amazement, I forgot to be paralyzed with my fear of strangers.
He grinned, those beautiful blue-green eyes crinkling again. "I sort of thought you might have. But it would help if you said it out loud."
An awkward pause. So many remarks were swirling around in my head...but I couldn't say any of them. So, Edward spoke again. "Listen. I'm sorry about the machines. I came in and all the others were being used, and I was in kind of a hurry. I just started a wash cycle, though, if you'd like to put your things in with mine. As long as they're permanent press, of course."
He grinned congenially as my insides melted. The thought of my underwear co-mingling with his clothing nearly caused me to have a syncopic episode (that's fainting. I prefer the term syncopic episode because fainting sounds like something a Victorian lady does on a fancy couch, and I am far from Victorian, and I am far from being a lady.)
"Could you look at me?" he asked. I turned to face him. He smiled again. "You have very lovely eyes." I felt a hot blush rising from my neck to my face, and I stared down at the floor again. "You do. Well, anyway, I can see this is making you uncomfortable, so I'll just take my things and get out of your way." He rose and stretched, and when he did, my face was parallel with the snap of his khaki pants. I felt the blush intensify as I thought about the snap of his khaki pants.
He was going to go away if I didn't say something. I watched him walk to the washing machine, open the door, and scoop out a pile of wet oxford shirts in a rainbow of colors. He piled them into a white plastic basket, turned, and tossed me a casual wave before he scoped the laundromat for another open washer. There weren't any. The place was packed. He shrugged, turned to me again, and waved as he snugged the basket against his hip and started to walk toward the door.
"Wait!" I heard myself yell as I bolted straight up from the bench.
Edward turned, and standing in the doorway he was framed with a golden corona of pollution-filtered sunlight from behind. It was as if we were alone, as if everyone else faded into the dark shadow of a movie scene. Just as I took a step toward him, a 400-pound Samoan woman trailing a cloud of children muscled through the door, knocking Edward inward with the force of a brown-flesh tsunami.
And then she made a beeline for our washer and dryer.
This is how I knew it was love: I went right to his side. I paid no mind to the underwear, or the other people and their various germs. I knelt next to his prostrate form, fanned him with a circular from Pests-R-Us, and saw nothing but his injured body. "Are you alright?" I whispered. I nearly took his hand.
He sat up, shook his head, and blinked twice. "What happened?"
I gestured toward the brood of flip-flop wearing Samoans who were loading the washer with the efficiency of a surgical strike team. "I guess they needed to do their laundry."
And then he smiled at me. He looked into my eyes. "What's your name?"
I tried to tell him, but I couldn't. My own name stuck in my throat, a boulder of insecurity.
"Okay," he said, a slight grin tugging at the side of his mouth. "Want me to guess? How about Matilda?"
I shook my head. I felt my wig slip slightly. I couldn't do too many more of those shakes or I'd lose it all together.
"Anna. " My voice sounded like a distant recording of a weak, wispy spirit trying to communicate across the divide between the worlds. Plus, it squeaked. I cleared my throat slightly, and tried again. "My name is Anna." Better that time. Clearer. Now I sounded like the wispy spirit of a large Samoan woman with many children.
"Anna. Nice name." He pointed to his suspenders. "That was the name of Freud's daughter, you know."
"Anna." When he said my name, it sounded like music. I felt something stir, somewhere below my belly button, and it really disturbed me.
"I have to go," I muttered, gathering up my things to make a dash for the door, dirty underwear be damned.
"Wait." He blocked the door. With his height, it was easy to do. "Listen, if you ever want to talk, give me a call." He fished his business card from his wallet (Moroccan-red eel-skin) and handed it to me. My fingers brushed the skin of his hand; an invisible zing of electricity traveled up the length of my arm as if I'd been hit by lightning. I couldn't even look at the card. I tucked it under my wig and scampered out of the Fluffitorium, watching the dirty ground with every pace, monitoring the hurried steps of my immaculate canvas shoes.
"My name's Edward," he called after me. "Call me if you'd like to."
I didn't look back. My heart pounded, oxygen disappeared, colors ran in party-bright streaks as I followed my shoes back home. Not until my door, my good solid door, was shut behind me, and my laundry was safely stowed in the antibacterial hamper, did I pause for breath, pause to really look at his business card.
My pulse beating in my ears, I traced the edges of the card, and examined every molecule. Ivory, thick stock, with a sage trim (a wonderful color for mental illness: it denotes a non-threatening atmosphere as well as growth, as in plants.) His name was embossed in sans serif letters (very non-pretentious): Dr. Edward Denture. Beneath his name, in smaller type, it read Somatic Psychologist/Life Coach.
Married. Dr. Denture. Edward. Married.
The same words keep pinging through a dark field of emptiness, neon streaks that you pass on a freeway when your bus drives really fast through barren nighttime desert. I try to ignore them, close my eyes, hum, curl up on the sweat-infested sofa, but I still see, eyes open or closed, the words streaking by as if speeding toward the inevitable end of the world. The invitation, crumpled in my hand, mocks me.
Petra clomps up the stairs again; presumably Sugarbucket is either subdued or deceased. "Anna?" she calls as she raps her pig-sausage knuckles on the door.
If I don't answer, she will not go away as most people would. Petra and I share a bond, despite our polar opposite habits regarding hygiene and wild animals: we were both clients of Edward Denture. Because of this, she feels the need to protect me and I feel the need to try and avoid her as much as possible. This, I believe, is one of God's roguish jokes: pair an obese, codependent woman blithely unaware of infectious disease with a thin, reclusive germophobe cursed with an obsessive-compulsive desire to be left alone. God probably works for cable television.
"Anna, I know you're still in there," she wheezes. "It's hot as blazes out here. Don't make me go downstairs and come back up. I might have a stroke." She's also a hypochondriac.
Might as well unlock the door and let her in. In my careless freak out, I only locked one of the twenty bolts on my door, so it’s a snap to open. I retreat to the sofa.
She sits next to me. "Honey," she says gently as she attempts to pat my hand. I bury the hand between couch cushions. "Let's talk about this."
I shake my head.
"Here." She pries the wrinkled invitation from my left hand; I hadn't realized I was still clutching it. "Now. I know this must be a bit of a shock, hmm?"
"When was the last time you talked to him?"
When was it? Suddenly, I feel hot and dry, scratchy and unbearably dirty. "I need to take a shower."
Petra, who is somewhat used to my idiosyncrasies, sighs heavily and pulls a fashion magazine from the ponderous, pet-hair festooned bag she carries everywhere, which is now shedding on my clean floor. "I'll wait."
In the bathroom mirror, my reflection seems older than I am. Ah, the wig. It's so wonderful when it comes off and I can pass it off to Annabelle, my wig head. She's shiny porcelain, decorated in a pattern of mosaic colors and shapes, like someone on an LSD trip threw up hippie rainbows. He bought it for me, as a present. He named her, too, I remember, when we were sitting at a picnic in Collier Park.
"Open it." He shoved a big box wrapped in blue-green-gold striped paper toward me. The gold satin bow waved in the breeze at me, looking like a willowy naiad or dryad from Greek mythology.
Spring. I had been his client for a year, nearly, and he knew how much I hated being outdoors. Too unpredictable and full of contagion, but he had made me do it because it was my birthday.
"Could we just go inside?" I squeaked, eyeing the nearby homeless man scratching at the living creatures in his beard-condo. Ants crawled in the dirt at my feet, and despite the fact that I had worn a black hypoallergenic leotard and leggings, and neoprene boots (germs do not like neoprene, just so you know), I felt uneasy.
"Just relax and breathe," Edward said, leaning against the rotted bark and probable termite detritus of an old oak tree. "Come sit by me."
Shuddering inside, but excited about sitting next to him, I moved incrementally closer, scanning our plastic picnic blanket for dirt or, especially, animal feces. Oh, what the hell, I thought to myself. It's worth it. I snuggled close, and his long, dampish arm draped across my shoulder, releasing an invisible scent cloud of Aqua di Gio, glycerin soap, and burnt matches. The scratch of the pink oxford broadcloth of his shirt, the feel of his chin resting on my wig, our hips nearly touching. It was as if a bubble of wonderful enveloped me, and I was blissfully able to just forget. To forget the world, the germs, the tree, the ants, the homeless beard-condo and its residents. Well, I couldn't totally forget, but enough that I could simply feel…something.
Was it pleasure? As I thought about it, it rolled through my mind, down to my tongue like a delicious cold fruit, a frozen cherry, foreign and exotic. I felt good.
"Open your present," he insisted.
"I don't want to move."
I heard him laugh, I felt it, a wave of sound from his chest to my body. "I'll do it, then."
He very slowly and carefully slipped his finger through the shining lines of tape that held the wrapping together, careful not to rip it. When it was done, there was a large, sage-colored box with a square lid.
"There. Now open it," he said.
I lifted the lid and saw the top of a glassy sphere, riotous with color. "What is it?"
He lifted it from the box and turned it so I could see the blank features. "It's a head. For your wig."
I didn't know what to say. I slept in my wig. I never took it off, except to shower, and he knew that. "Why would you get me that?"
He smiled gently, put the head back in the box. "This is Annabelle," he said. "She's your relief pitcher."
"You know baseball?"
"I've heard of it." I unconsciously stroked the top of the glassy, colored head. Smooth.
"So in baseball, when the pitcher gets tired, he gets a reliever. So, Annabelle is your reliever."
"What does she relieve?" I took the head from him and brought it closer, just slightly, so I could see the face...a nose, mouth shape, indentations for eyes, but no eyes painted there, just more of the amorphous paisley shapes of turquoise, amber, deep blue, copper, forest green. I noticed patterns in the colors: a spiral swirl, a Celtic knot, a star, a crescent. "What are all these things?"
"Ah. Sacred symbols, from bunches of religions. I know you're not religious," he said immediately before I could protest. "This isn't about religion. These are all...like, lucky charms."
I lifted Annabelle from the box. Now that I really looked at her, I saw the range of colors, and they were all my colors. And smooth, so smooth.
"Do you like it?" He grinned expectantly at me. I turned to look into his eyes, those aqua-sapphire eyes I could never really look into for any length of time.
He sighed, contented. I felt something. I just stroked Annabelle's head until the feeling went away.
"Anna!" Petra pounds on the bathroom door as I sit on the toilet, staring at my wig perched on Annabelle.
"You've got to come out of there." She shifts her weight; my floorboards groan. "It's not that bad. Can we talk about it? Anna?"
I open the door.
Petra hovers like a fat fish, gasping for air. "Your hair." A statement, fact, said with astonished admiration. "Your hair."
Mmmm. The fuzzy baby duck near-baldness of my ravaged scalp catches the breeze from the hall fan. "You've seen it before."
"I have not," Petra says, shaking her head, still staring as if she expects to see a special message from Yahweh spelled out in dying follicles. "Can I touch it?"
"No." I brush past her, into the hall and to the kitchen, my scalp still breathing delicious freedom. "I need to eat something."
"Oh." Petra's latent Jewish mother tendencies roll right over her need to feel my hair. "Sure, honey, if you need to eat. Got anything chocolate?"
She follows me into the kitchen, which is, as usual, immaculate. As if she's my personal Martha Stewart, she opens the fridge and starts rooting around for yummies. "Got any of the Nutella? I love that stuff." All I see is her massive haunches sticking out of my refrigerator, as if an unlucky beast had collided head-on with a shiny white semi. Removing herself and closing the door, she says, "What are you having?"
"I think I'll have this." I pull a large tin of Belgian-chocolate-covered cookies from my alphabetized pantry (the cookies are between Baking Chocolate and Bisquick) and pry off the green-gold lid to reveal a pristine landscape of un-nibbled butter cookies drizzled with milk chocolate. Petra hums in delight, picks out a striped delicacy, and extending one red-nailed pinkie, she takes a chomp, then spits it out.
"How old are these?" She discreetly takes the piece of cookie to my trashcan and shoves it in.
Looking at the bottom of the tin, it appears that they are a bit past the best-buy date. "They were made in 1988."
"Well, sweeties, that's not edible." She grabs the tin and purposefully sets in on the counter. "You could get some kind of disease from that!"
"I don't know!" she burbles. "Like worms, or something."
"You can't get worms from cookies." I grab the tin and pitch it neatly into the trash receptacle, and Petra gasps as if I've committed a heinous sin even though she refused to eat the ancient goodies.
"Well, what else have you got? Want a drink?" She opens the cupboard over my stove as if she's hunting. "You must have some cognac."
I stalk over to the pantry and part the gray curtains in front of my alphabetized foods. "I don't drink."
"Why not, for god's sake?"
"I don't know." A box of water crackers. I think if they're sealed they're still okay. I hand them to her.
"Sweeties, listen." She pulls my arm until the rest of me follows, and she plants me in one of my chairs. She sits in the other, and it groans in protest. "This just can't derail all your progress."
"What progress?" I take the box of crackers from her, rip the end off the package savagely, and extricate the plastic-covered wafers from their coffin. Ripping it with my teeth, I ease a handful of crispies from the sleeve.
"Don't use your teeth!" Petra screeches.
"You could break them!" She grabs two crackers and starts to munch noisily, dropping crumbs like snow onto my clean floor.
"What progress?" I ask again.
Her large brown eyes (one with a severely drooping eyelid) focus on me sadly. "You were just getting over him."
"No." I shake my head. My bald head.
"Yes, you were." Petra touches my hand and I instinctively jerk it away. "After he left...I was kind of worried, to be honest." She leans forward, the parasail shirt flapping open to reveal the upper slope of her Alpine breasts. I'd hate to have to carry around anything that big, especially without some kind of mechanical support, a winch and pulley system or something. She's still talking. "Now, maybe you should just forget all about this. Forget about the wedding. I don't even know why on earth he sent you an invitation."
"Because we were friends." I'm still staring at the crinkles and wrinkles and fine lines traversing Petra's chest. It's almost like photos of Mars I've seen, the dusty red soil crisscrossed with dessicated river valleys, the ancient memories of liquid and the flow of life. "We were friends." I'm trying to convince myself.
She pats my hand. "Sure you were, honey. But why torture yourself? Even people who aren't crazy don't do that."
Crazy. I really hate when people use that word.
That day in the laundromat, Edward gave me his business card. I kept it for a long time before I actually called. I set it on my counter, and each day I would have a staring match with that business card. I sat on my sofa and tried to watch some inane television program, but the card kept calling me like an unwanted telemarketer. (By the way, if you really want to get rid of unwanted telemarketers, one of two strategies has worked for me: one, tell them you are deceased and cry hysterically about how much you miss yourself. Second, tell the person on the other end of the line the truth, the absolute truth, about how crazy you are. If most people were honest about this, it would scare the living scat out of anyone.) And still that business card stared at me, no matter how many times I cried or told it I was crazy.
So, in the end I called him.
"Golden Hill Associates," a smooth female voice greeted me. I hung up.
Who was this woman answering his phone? What kind of a whoremonger was this man, Edward Denture? Why did he have wanton women with smooth voices answering his phones? And what else were they doing for him? Rage. Rage bubbled up from beneath my wig.
Petra came to visit that day. "Everybody has a secretary, sweeties," she said. "That's nothing. Call back."
The next day, I went through the same routine with the sofa, the inane television shows, and the business card, which taunted me from the counter. I ate nothing; I didn't even put on my wig.
At exactly 2 p.m., I called again. "Golden Hill Associates," the same voice answered, in the same sweet, smooth, soothing tone as yesterday.
"I'm calling for Dr. Edward Denture." My face felt hot, flushed.
"Are you a client?"
A client? I had no idea how to answer her. A client of what? "I have a disability advocate," I blurted.
Miss Smooth Voice paused. The open space over the phone line filled with disapproving frowns, wry arching of eyebrows, internal chuckles. I knew she was laughing at me, probably making that stupid cuckoo sign to some other secretary sitting next to her. "Oh. I meant, are you a client of Dr. Denture's?"
Another pause full of hilarious contempt. "Would you like to make an appointment?"
"Well, I certainly didn't call to order a pizza."
"No, of course not." Smooth Voice woman chuckled. "He makes lousy pizza anyway. Don't tell him I told you."
She'd eaten pizza with him. The skin on my face grew hotter by degrees.
"So, you'd like an appointment," she said smoothly. "When would you like to come in?"
"Whenever he wants to see me."
Now Miss Smooth Voice sounded confused. "So, you have been in before, or no?"
"No. Are you deaf in addition to being condescending?"
A choking sound. Ms. Smooth Voice apparently gagged on her own superiority. "No, no. I apologize if you...if I didn't answer your questions. Could I have your name?"
Pause again. "Anna. Last name?"
"Alright Ms. Beck. What about coming in...tomorrow? We have a cancellation at 10:30 in the morning. Would that work for you?"
"Yes." A date! I had a date with him! Heart racing, pounding, and my face started to pulse as if the blood was rushing in rivers all around my body, at hyper speed.
"Alright, Ms. Beck. We'll see you tomorrow. Could you come a bit early to fill out some paperwork?"
"Of course." The phone call ended with a click, and Ms. Smooth Voice was snuffed out, just with the depression of a button. I imagined that it was attached to a tiny nuclear device that exploded in the confined area around her desk, vaporizing her and the other good-looking secretary next to her. My nuclear bomb, unlike conventional weapons, would have no fallout. It would be untraceable.
As I replaced the phone on its cradle, something snapped in my chest, something small and intangible but real nonetheless. I had to tell somebody.
Since the only person I actually spoke to in whole sentences was Petra, it was the pet grooming salon or nothing. Ugh. The smell of the place nauseated me. Old, wet dog mingled with cat pee and cabbage to create an unforgettable scent sensation.
I carefully settled my wig on my head, adjusted it, picked my way down the creaking stairs to the first floor landing. The wooden boards were full of pockmarks, pits in the dirty grain of the dark wood. Sunlight just emphasized the tapestry of stains and footprints and food spills and who knows what else, an archaeological record of all of the nasty human and animal detritus that had landed and bounced on that floor over the years. Even with shoes on, I flinched.
I had to walk outside to get to Petra's salon. I hated going outside, and avoided it whenever possible. It smelled of people and gasoline and garbage, and I always felt that when I left the house, especially in the daylight, all the smells and stains were waiting to pounce on me, a passel of bloodshot-eyed corruption perched, vulture-like, on the edges of trashcans and fire hydrants. Light made them stronger.
The blue and green sign read Petra's Pet sPot. I had told her when she first put it up that is sounded as if she were cooking poodles and Pekinese in a big cauldron, but she thought it was unbearably clever, so she ignored what I said. The screeching of a devil cat emanated from the salon; I grimaced and grabbed the door handle with my sleeve, pushed it open as wide as I could, and dodged inside before I had contact with the door.
Petra wore a navy blue sailor suit with what had been a pertly tied red bow around the collar. Unfortunately, some beast at some point in the day had smeared a yellowish substance along one sleeve, and the current feline client had clawed through the red bow, leaving it shredded like the fringy scrubbing strips inside an automatic car wash.
When Petra saw me, she gasped. "Anna?" She dropped the evil cat, then dropped a lid over its bathing area so it couldn't get out. "What happened? You're all flushed."
I was unable to speak. I just stared at her, words sticking in my throat. “Anna? Did something happen?” She came to the door, ignoring the screeching cat.
She stared into my eyes as if I’m inanimate. “Can you hear me?”
“Of course I can hear you.”
“Oh, good.” She backed up a step. “I thought maybe you were having one of those, you know, one of those spells. What are they called? Dish Disorders?”
“Yes, that’s the one.” Petra went back and peeked into the cat bath, frowning at the yowling of the detained feline. “You remember, we talked about it the last time, when you were sitting on the curb not moving? After I came back from the dermatologist who burned off that mole? That was terrible. I hurt for days after.” Since the fact that I answered her implied that I was not having an episode, Petra started moving bottles and brushes around, pulling a huge pair of yellow rubber gloves from a drawer so she could wrangle the wet cat.
“No. I’m not dissociative. I just…I just made an appointment.”
“Hmm.” She tipped the lid of the cat bath, and a large drippy paw swiped at her. “Bad tempered little shit. I should drown him and help out the owner.” Her brain caught up with what I just said. “You made an appointment? With who?”
“Whom. With whom.” I had almost reached my exposure limit, and felt the tug of my apartment. But I had to tell her. “I made an appointment with a doctor I met.”
“A doctor.” She said it slowly, as if it were a magic spell. Her eyes widened. “You mean, like, a therapist? But that’s wonderful, sweeties!” She grinned, bounded over to me, and threatened to hug me, but I stopped her with one very firm hand placed in space between us. “Oh, yes. Sorry. I’m just so happy for you. You’re going to see a therapist? How did that happen? I’ve been telling you that for months!”
“We met in the Fluffitorium,” I began. But then I realized I didn’t want to share all the details. I wanted to keep this secret, this private joy, to myself, to be sure it stayed fresh and pure. “I’m going tomorrow.”
“Oh, Anna. That is excellent news. Do you need a ride or anything?” She went back to the cat bath, ready to extricate the understandably miffed kitty.
Did I need a ride? I had no idea. “I might.”
“Well, you let me know. I’ll be glad to close up and give you a ride. What time?”
“10:30.” I really didn’t want a ride, but I had no idea where the office was. I must have been excited. I never leave such things to chance. But obviously, the universe planned for this to happen, so all the details would be worked out.
Dr. Edward Denture. He would save me.
I have to save him.
I realize this in the middle of the night. I'd spent the afternoon avoiding the invitation, but it stares me down. No matter where I go in the apartment, its eyes are on me, but when I confront it, it would lie there innocently on my kitchen counter. I realize that it wasn't really talking to me. I'm not crazy. Not in that way, at least.
But it has been on my mind all day. I couldn't think of anything else. And now, at 4:40 in the morning, I'm unbearably jittery, anxious, my legs won't stay still, and I have the sense that I'm out of phase with my body, vibrating at a frequency that isn't within the realm of the normal world.
I go to the kitchen for some water, and take the opportunity to open the kitchen window. The only time I can safely do this is in the middle of the night when Petra has sealed up the day's pet poop in bags and closed the can lids. There's still a bit of a smell, but it's manageable. And the night air feels so good, so unlike the day. I'm really a creature of the night, and except for my dreadful eyesight and fear of flying, I'd most likely be a vampire.
Mmmm. Baking bread smell. Also something slightly spicy, maybe curry, yellow, exotic, wrapped in a sun-splattered sari like an Indian princess. I must be hungry.
But then it's back to obsessing. He's getting married, and it is clear that I have to go. I've never been more clear on anything in my life, other than the fact that I loved him, do still love him, and I know that we were meant to be together. How to get there, that's the question.
I pick up the card where the gold-trimmed curlicues of information are stamped. Have to switch a light on, of course. And get my glasses. I'm so tired of everything being a three-step process, no matter how simple the thing is. I can't read pill bottles, directions, invitations, anything, without light and glasses. "Doctor Edward Patterson Denture and Doctor April Fennimore-Klein...couldn't she at least have the good grace to have an ugly name? cordially invite you to witness their marriage on Saturday, June 22nd, 2 p.m. June. How original, April Fennimore-Klein, you bitch. You are obviously a bride who never conforms to convention Ceremony and Reception to follow at The Broadmore." Inside the card was printed the address, somewhere in Colorado.
How thoughtful of Edward.
He knows I don't travel. I can't travel. Planes...just watching the news is enough to make me stay put. I could never take my shoes off in front of strangers, and the idea of getting patted down by one or more over-zealous Filipino men with latex gloves makes my upper lip sweat. Not to mention the planes themselves. A system of ventilation that would kill people if they had the good sense to breathe deeply. Germs just re-circulate on a plane, so whatever hideous disease your plane-mates have, you are likely to contract it as well. Oh, and the bathrooms. Well, I can't even discuss that without feeling absolutely vertiginous.
Colorado. Why would he get married in Colorado? Maybe she's from there. April. Dr.. Fennimore-Klein. Perhaps a train? No. It would take so long, and it's almost as germ-ridden as the aircraft. Driving. I would have to drive to Colorado to attend the wedding of Dr. Edward Denture and his lovely fiancee, Dr. April Fennimore-Klein.
I do have a driver's license, oddly enough. Edward helped me get it reinstated. I suppose in a more literate world, that might be considered irony, but Petra would just say it was a sign from God. Either way, with the blessings of God or irony, I would have to find a way to drive to the accursed state of Colorado, and I would have to do it soon, because time and Edward Denture wait for no woman.
I have to stop that wedding.
The next day, Petra makes it sounds as if I plan to circumnavigate the globe on the back of a white whale. “Sweeties, you simply cannot drive to Colorado. How in the world would you do it? You barely leave this apartment!” I’ve invited her to come up, formally (or as formally as a phone call permits) because I need help.
Once I make a decision about something, it is final, and I have decided that I must go to Colorado. I must stop this wedding. Clearly, Edward has forgotten that I am the love of his life, and I have to remind him before it’s too late. Like in that movie, The Graduate. I’m no Dustin Hoffman, but he’s no Mrs. Robinson, so I guess that makes us even. However, I cannot do this on my own, for many reasons. And although Petra annoys me, and constantly intrudes on my personal space, she is, in fact, my only friend other than perhaps the Chinese Laundromat man, but he speaks so little English it would be impossible to ask him for help.
Petra follows me around the Apartment, resplendent in a harvest gold suit made of shantung silk, she tells me. Why anyone would wear silk to groom dogs is beyond me, but I don’t want to broach that subject, because I’ll be in for an hour-long lecture on the feng shui of fabrics. “This is why you called me? Because of this fakakta plan of yours?”
I can’t expect her to truly understand. I don’t think she’s ever been in love. However, I need her on my side. “I know it sounds unconventional—”
“No, it sounds crazy.”
“You know I hate that word.”
She realizes her mistake and regroups. “I’m sorry, Anna. I just meant…it’s not very practical. Do you know how long it takes to drive from California to Colorado? Do you? It takes days. How would you survive?”
“I’m not incompetent.” I grab my step stool from the kitchen. “Come on. Help me get the suitcase down from the closet.”
“I can’t go with you, you know, if that’s what you were going to ask.” She follows me into the dimly lit hall.
“I don’t want you to go with me.” Since I rarely use it, my suitcase is stowed in the very back, top shelf of my closet, along with my box of Unwanteds. I suppose I’ll have to take that too, if I go. Another complication…but I’ll push on. I have to.
Petra grabs my hand as I unsteadily mount the step stool to access the top shelf. Thankfully, I dust frequently, so there is little debris, but it is difficult to reach. I stretch and Petra puts a hand on my hip to steady me, which is extremely uncomfortable, but I don’t react. “Careful, dear. You don’t want anything to fall on your head.”
The suitcase comes crashing down, along with the box of Unwanteds. I stay on the stool, thankfully.
“Oh, dear,” Petra mutters, prancing heavily out of the way of the falling objects.
The lid on the box has flown off, and its contents have spilled onto the floor. We both just stare at it for a moment, but then I remember myself, scurry down the step stool, and try to sweep everything up before she has a chance to stick her nose in it.
“What’s all this?” she asks, squinting at my Unwanteds.
“Nothing,” I mutter, madly scooping.
“Oh.” She picks up a photo with curling edges. “Who’s this?”
I snatch it from her hand. “Thank you.”
“Anna, who was that in the picture?”
“No one,” I answer, shoving the lid back on the box. I obviously need to buy some packing tape before I leave.
Petra is not content with this answer, of course. Honestly, I don’t know why I even let her into the Apartment. She’s a terrible friend, always so nosy. “Was that a family member there, in that picture?”
I have the box firmly under my arm. It’s an old sage-colored shoebox, Naturalizers, and still in very good shape. With my other hand, I grab the black suitcase and drag it into my bedroom, throw it onto the bed, and unzip it.
“Fine, Anna. If you don’t want to talk about it, just say so.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Have to do laundry before I leave, of course. I wonder if I can get into the Fluffitorium after hours? That would mean calling the Chinese man, probably bribing him with something. Maybe those expired Belgian chocolates? No, I threw those out. Petra prattles on, but I hear her voice as a buzzing fly.
“Anna, let me talk you out of this foolishness.” She grabs my hand, which makes me stop my frantic running around. Best talk to her, then maybe she’ll leave.
“Fine.” I perch on the edge of the bed next to the open suitcase.
Petra lowers herself into a too-small slipper chair. It has no sides, so her gold-upholstered bounty gloops down the edges of the cushion like molten caramel sauce. “You going to Colorado—what good is it going to do? You think you’re going to stop the wedding?” I don’t answer, but she can see it in my face. “Oh, Anna. That’s just—you can’t do it. It’s setting yourself up for disappointment.”
“Why is that?” I still clutch the shoebox, and for a moment consider throwing it at Petra. For some reason, her jabbering makes me angry. “You don’t think I can win him back?”
Petra rolls her eyes. “You never had him in the first place! He was your doctor!”
“Patients and doctors fall in love all the time.”
“Not in real life. In real life, those doctors go to jail. Is that what you want? You want him to go to jail?” Petra crosses her fat arms and taps crimson talons in a tattoo along her sleeve.
“He’s not going to jail,” I mutter, springing up from the bed. “And I have things to do. Now, can you get me a car or not?”
“Can I get you a car?” Her voice rises an octave when she’s agitated. It sounds like a leaky teakettle on boil. “Where on earth would I get you a car?”
“What about yours?”
“I need mine!”
“You know people.” I yank my drawers open and being carefully to select items I might need for the trip: a bundle of newspapers from thirteen years ago; nail polish remover; unopened Hanes Silk Effects stockings, size B, in nude; unopened package of cotton briefs; tarot cards with Alice in Wonderland on them (also a gift from Edward); little green faux-alligator cosmetic bag that was a gift with purchase, chocked full of makeup I never have worn. I might need that if I am to compete with Dr. April Fennimore what’s-her-name. I should make a list, really. Too many things could be left behind without a list.
“Anna, listen to me.” Petra’s voice reminds me of my mother’s. I tune her out, but she keeps rambling as she follows me to the phone table. “You need to think this through. How would you live on the road? You can’t stand going outside and you know this neighborhood. What would you do in a strange place, where you don’t know the laundromats?”
She has a point, but I can’t think about that right now. “I have to go,” I whisper. It stops her rambling. “Can you help me get a car?”
Petra breathes behind me, wheezing in the silence. I feel her walk to me, stand behind me, put a chubby hand on my shoulder. “Anna. If you’re decided, I’ll help you. But look at me first. Tell me why.”
I turn to face her; I feel a blush rising from my neck, through my cheeks, into the stubbly scalp under my wig. “He’s the only man I’ve ever loved since—” I whisper, hot tears welling at the corners of my eyes. “I can’t just let him go. Not like that. It might be my only chance. Ever.”
Her mud-brown eyes lined with smudgy charcoal blink rapidly. She steps forward into the bubble of my personal space, but I say nothing. “If it means that much to you…if it means that much, I’ll make some inquiries.”
I blink too, matching her blink for blink. A hot tear trails down my cheek, a renegade. I don’t cry. “I have to leave tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Anna, you can’t just make a car appear and leave on a cross-country trip in one day.”
“Mother, I—” Oh. That is one mistake too many. Get a grip. I clutch the shoebox more tightly. Get a grip. Nothing will happen unless I get Petra on my side. “Let me explain.” I lick my lips, focus. “Time is of the essence, Petra. You saw the date on the invitation. I am already two weeks behind because I stubbornly didn’t open it when it arrived. I need to plan. I need to make a plan. And I need a car.” I look into her eyes. “I desperately need a car, Petra. It’s life or death.”
Petra runs her plump pink tongue around the edge of cartoon lips. “I have a cousin. I’ll make a call.” She reaches out as if to touch me, but thinks better of it. “I’ll make a call.”
I know she leaves the room; her weight causes the floorboards to creak in protest. I’m frozen, willing tears to go back from whence they came. It will not be tolerated.
The shoebox sits on the bed. I haven’t looked at its contents for…seven years? That doesn’t seem possible, but I guess it might be. It was convenient, putting it in the closet. I can’t look at it now, though. I have to make my list.
I veer toward the phone table, where I always keep a neat stack of color-coordinated post-it notes. Blue is for survival, yellow is for bathroom supplies, pink is for clothing, orange is for food (although, in general, I object to orange. It is far too loud. However, there are many orange foods.) I have a small stack of pristine white post-its specifically for longer, more complex lists. The last time I needed the long list paper was two Christmases ago, when I was taking an anti-anxiety medication (crazy juice) and was considering actually doing holiday shopping.
I ease into the spindly chair. My special pen, tucked into the front drawer, waits for me where it always is. I can only write with a specific kind of pen: it must have black ink, it must have a solid metal body, it must have ink that rolls rather than scratches. The dollar store often has them, although they tend to run dry more quickly than pens from other places, but when you’re on a fixed income, you have to survive. Pen supply goes on blue post-its, i.e., survival. Writing is critical for my recovery, Edward always told me.
To my list. I write meticulously at the top of the paper “Travel Necessities”. I underline it to give it special emphasis. Then I write, flush left margin, in cursive (a lost art…they don’t teach it properly in schools any more) the following items:
Cell phone (must obtain)
Credit card (must obtain)
I’m sure there will be more things added to the list, but at the moment, I obviously have some work to do. Petra may be right. I may not be able to do all this in one day.
I do not own a computer or any other electronic device that the modern world deems necessary (except a television, of course. But I rarely watch that. And a very cheap cell phone.) This hinders me severely when contemplating doing anything outside my home. I do realize the benefit of being able to research things on the computer; for someone with my specific qualities, it would be a blessing, really, but I have no way to obtain one. Fixed incomes suck.
Petra has a computer. I sigh and resign myself to descending into the abyss of flea leavings and dog piss.
I pull on my fuzzy black boots in preparation for the trek downstairs. I also have a red vinyl raincoat that I pull on over my clothes; this way, if any errant fluids are strewn about, I will be shielded and can wash it easily when I return home. Although I really dislike the color red itself, I see the usefulness of wearing it, especially when confronted with dog piss. You cannot argue with chakras.
I move as quickly as I can down through the layers of filth that constitute the hallway and stairwell; I open the street door and am slammed with a smell tsunami of steaming dog, soap, burnt coffee, diesel, rubber tires, perfume (cheap), and shoe polish. As fate would have it, a bald male client wrangling a tiny brown dog with the teeth of a Great White Shark struggles to push open Petra’s door.
I stand, mute, waiting for this obstacle to clear. “Could you get the door?” the man asks, words muffled by snarling and the undulating dog body.
I do not want to go near that beast or the man. But if I don’t, I won’t be able to get in, so I snug my raincoat tighter, hitch my shoulder/elbow up so it covers my face, and use the hem of the raincoat to cover the doorknob as I twist it and push the door open.
“Uh…thanks.” The man frowns at me as he dashes in with his devil dog.
Petra’s Pet sPot is hopping. The crowd of three humans, three animals, and Petra (who counts for at least two and a half people) stuffs the room with breath, and noise, and unidentifiable odors. Damp, shampoo-scented air swirls around me, demonic clouds of germ-laced moisture. I resist the urge to gag and/or run. My mission is too important.
“Anna!” Petra waves from her station behind the shampoo sink, where some bedraggled hunk of brown fur shivers miserably beneath a stream of steaming water. “You came downstairs! Come in!”
Steeling myself, I brush past the clients, who stare at me as of I’m a leper from that island in Hawaii. I get as close as I dare to Petra and the tub of devil water. “I need to borrow your computer,” I rasp.
“I can’t hear you, Sweeties,” Petra yelps as she dunks the brown dog under the soapy water. “Oh, Remy, stop squirming! You’d think we’d never done this before! Nice dog!” She pushes a strand of red hair from her face with one sudsy mitt. “Now, what did you need, Anna? Speak up.”
“I need your computer!” From the looks of the other people in the room, I’m yelling. Even the dogs stop barking, just for a second.
Petra pastes a frozen grin onto her cartoon mouth, wipes her hand on a towel, and tethers the dog known as Remy to a post with a little flexible leash. “Follow me, dear,” Petra says soothingly, as if I am a rabid poodle. “One moment, folks, be right back,” she reassures the clients, some of whom shake their heads in disbelief, probably because of her lack of professionalism.
She ushers me into a dim, cramped room, flicks on a fluorescent light (they rob you of essential vitamins), and frowns at me. “Why do you need a computer?”
“I need to get a credit card, apparently.” I gingerly step around anything that might harbor microbes (everything) and inspect the task chair behind the desk. It looks clean enough. Best if I don’t think too much about it. “I need to know how to get onto the internet.”
“Anna.” Petra positions herself in front of me so I’m looking at her over the computer screen. “Is this about the road trip idea again?”
I poke buttons. “How do you turn it on?”
“Anna.” Petra uses the voice I hear her use when she’s trying to tame a Rottweiler. “You cannot do this.”
“I can.” Simple. Two words. Jesus wept. No exit. Got milk? All great observations can be summed up in two words.
Petra scrapes a wooden chair over and lowers herself into it. “Please forget this.”
“Did you get me a car yet?”
“You just asked me fifteen minutes ago!” Barking explodes from the salon. “Just a minute. I have to go deal with this. I’ll be back.” She marches out of the room and her voice echoes off the walls, soothing.
The button that turns this thing on is right there in front, so I get that going right away. The machine whirs and lights up, and after some strange numeric choreography, I am rewarded with a screen emblazoned with Google across the top in jaunty-colored letters. I know about Google.
I type into the little window “credit cards,” and the screen fills instantly. It’s overwhelming. I must stare at the screen for a long time, because the next thing I know, Petra leans down over my shoulder and squints at her computer. “Credit cards? Anna. You’ve never had a credit card, have you?”
“I think I did, once.” I’m sure I did, in my other life, before. Petra parks in her squeaky wooden chair again. “Anna, why are you so determined to do this thing?”
“What?” I pull at my wig. It feels too tight, too constricting.
“Driving? All the way to Colorado? Alone?” She licks her lips. “I’ll get someone to go with you.”
“No!” I don’t mean to shout. The thought of being in a small, enclosed, mobile space with someone over several days makes me hyperventilate. “No. I have to do this alone.”
“I…need to. I need to be able to do it alone, and I need to see him alone, and I need to—“
Petra’s eyes grow wide, as if she’s just discovered a secret. “You’re going to try and stop the wedding, aren’t you?”
“No.” Of course, that’s exactly what I have in mind, but I can’t tell her that. It sounds crazy. “Don’t you have dogs to wash?”
“Everyone’s gone.” She gestures toward the other room. “It’s after five. You’ve been in here for hours. I was starting to worry about you.”
“Hours?” Suddenly I notice two things; I desperately need to use the bathroom and I am hungry as hell. “I’ll…can you come up?” I dash away from the screen.
“Sure, Anna.” Petra’s voice follows me out the door as I frantically unlock the apartment foyer and bolt upstairs.
Once I’m home, I feel better. I pee, I forage for Peanut Butter (stored between Packets of sugar and Pretzels), I sit at the kitchen table with an armload of sticky notes in various colors.
By the time Petra has conquered the stairs, I’m already deep into my planning. She clops into the kitchen and gasps. “Anna, what are you doing with all these notes?” She carelessly picks up an orange sticky labeled NONPERISHABLES.
“Please put that back.” I don’t look up from my writing, because I don’t want to lose focus. “Could you please pull that butchers’ block away from the wall? I need a clear space.”
Puzzled, she does as I ask, rolling the small portable counter to the other side of the kitchen. Ah, a blank wall. Perfect. I gather my few post-its and carefully position them in perfectly straight lines across the top of an imaginary square.
“Are you making a picture?” She tilts her head and studies what I’ve done.
“No, I’m planning the trip.” Under the NONPERISHABLES sticky I add several other orange stickies that read PEANUT BUTTER, CRACKERS, BOTTLED WATER.
“About that.” Petra pulls out a chair and plops into it as I study the wall. “I don’t think I can get you the car after all.”
“What?” I whirl on her, skewing my wig. “Why not?”
Petra stares down at the linoleum. “My cousin…he doesn’t have…it’s not really workable.” She exhales as if the lying takes a lot out of her.
“You’re afraid to lend me a car. You’re afraid I don’t know how to drive.”
“No, it’s not just that.” Her eyes dart to the side. “Do you know how to drive, though? Do you have a license?”
I carefully align a blue post-it labeled HAND SANITIZER under the NECESSARY column. “Of course I have a license,” I lie. “I did know how to drive. I doubt I’d forget it. Mentally retarded people can drive. Monkeys can drive, for God’s sake. I think I can handle it.”
Edward had taught me to drive—well, re-taught me. It had been two months into our relationship, and I was terrified. “You’ll be fine,” he said softly as he drove a battered blue Range Rover to an empty gravel lot. “Driving is a lot like living. You just point yourself in the direction you want to go, step on the gas, and go there.”
“Except living can’t leave you in a mangled heap outside a dirty public rest stop near Fresno.”
He paused. “Actually, sometimes it does.”
As he slowed the car, I felt panic fluttering in my stomach. “I don’t think you can teach me to drive.”
“Why is that?” The car came to a full stop, but the engine kept rumbling beneath us, a tiger ready to pounce if he let go of its leash. “Why do you think I can’t teach you to drive?”
“That is true.” He unwrapped his long legs from beneath the wheel and opened his door. “I promise I won’t make you drive on the left side of the road.”
Madness. Why had I ever agreed to this? I hadn’t driven a car in so long, not since— but that was past. I was going forward. You have to keep going forward, that’s what Edward says all the time.
He opened the door for me, and gestured for me to exit. “Your turn.” I sat, frozen. “Oh, come on, Anna. You can do this. I promise.” I couldn’t look at him. If I looked into his eyes, he’d know me for the coward I was. I sat rigid, staring ahead. “Fine. I’ll help you.”
As if I weighed nothing, he scooped me out of the passenger seat, carried me around the back of the car, and tucked me into the driver’s side, neat as you please. He even strapped in my safety belt. I had no time to register what he was doing, no time to protest or even enjoy it, not that I should have enjoyed it. That was a wicked thought. “There. Now we’re not going anywhere unless you drive us there.” He crossed his arms and smiled. “Right.”
I watched in the rearview mirror as he once again circled the car and eased into the passenger seat where I had been sitting. That thought alone made me blush. Hot. So hot. Why was it so hot here? Perhaps I was ill, or perhaps there was some neurotoxin in the air— not common, no, but they do rear up when you least expect them, like monsters. Not common. That’s what they’d told me, those years ago.
My hands gripped the leather-wrapped wheel like a life preserver as I stared straight ahead. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“Of course you can.” He covered one of my white-knuckled hands with his own, large and soft. A thrill of electricity coursed through me, terminating in my panties. This happened whenever he touched me, even if it was an accidental touch (which it had been, always, except for this most recent moving of me from one side of the car to the other). I stared at his hand covering mine; our skin seemed mingled, liquefied into one magnificent sculpture of human flesh, and I couldn’t feel the difference between my hand and his. I realized: this is what love is. Being unable to tell where you stop and the other person begins.
I stared into his eyes, but saw only gentle concern. He withdrew his hand, scratched his ear, and said “Now, look straight ahead, put your right foot on the gas, gently push the pedal, and go forward. Pretend like the car is part of you.”
I pressed gingerly on the pedal, and the car lurched forward, jerky, like a puppet whose strings had been given slack. I looked to him for approval, and he nodded and smiled. “Is that right?” I asked.
“Yes.” He placed my hand on the stick shift, covered it with his own. I nearly melted. “Now, we’re going to go a bit faster, and shift into the second gear.”
He blinked at me, his hand still damp on mine. “If you don’t go faster, you can’t go anywhere.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere.” Kiss him, a voice said. Kiss him. But I ignored it. My breathing felt labored, I was in a fever. Driving was really not on my mind at all. It was the first time I’d felt — felt anything, really, since—
“Right.” He leaned back into the leather upholstery, then reached over me and turned the key. The engine stopped, and all I heard was my own ragged breathing and the song of birds in the trees.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Waiting for you.”
“To do what?”
“Drive, of course. Look, we talked about this, Anna. If you’re to move on, you have to relearn some of the things you’ve forgotten.”
“But not everything.” I glanced at him to be sure he took my meaning.
“No, not everything.” He looked down at his hand on mine, and quickly withdrew it. ‘Do you want to talk about it? Right now?”
“No.” Sweat beaded on my forehead. “Let’s drive.”
I didn’t look at him. I could sense that he was deciding something, whether or not to push me to talk…something fine was weighing in the balance, some idea that if I talked, perhaps, we would become too close, or that it would ruin his fantasy of me. Finally, he sighed, and put his hand on mine again. “Alright then. Let’s drive.”
I wasn’t good at it. But I did remember, a bit. Oh, the ecstasy of feeling free, feeling mobile. Even though we were only driving slowly, slowly across an open expanse of gravel and scrub, I was soaring to heaven, borne on the wings of my guardian angel. My savior. My lover.
“Anna.” Petra pokes me with a crimson fingernail. “You can’t go on this trip. Not alone. What are you going to do when you…when you have to go to the bathroom? I cannot see you stopping at a rest stop on the interstate. How are you going to survive? Not to mention driving. You get nervous walking to the Laundromat, for goodness sakes. What’s going to happen when you’re dodging traffic on the freeway?”
I realize now that I have to convince her. I have to convince her, or there is no way I can go to Edward. And I must go to Edward.
Think carefully. Choose your words carefully. Find a way.
I lick my lips, put a hand on Petra’s arm, and ease her into a chair. I sit opposite her, leaning in to show interest and intensity (Edward always said body language is the most powerful way of communicating.) I stare into her watery eyes. I imagine myself exuding sanity. “Petra,” I say softly, as if I’m calming a rabid dog. With love. “Petra, believe me. I can drive a car. I can drive a car across the country. I used to function in this world, Petra. It was a few years ago, but I did it. I had a job. Did you know that?”
“No,” she whispers, her mouth frozen in a cartoon ‘O’. “What kind of job?”
“It’s not important.” She’s staring at me expectantly. Maybe it would help if I told her. “Data entry. I spent my days typing useless information into useless documents for useless people.”
“Data entry.” She says it in a hushed tone, as if she’s praying. “I did not know that.”
I nod. “Would you like some tea?” I smile, hoping it’s engaging.
“Well, yes.” Petra smiles, surprised. “That would be lovely.”
I make my way to the kitchen, put the kettle on, turn on the gas, choose two sky-blue teacups from the cupboard. I wash them out as I continue talking. “I’m afraid I don’t have any cream, though.”
“Well, this is just wonderful,” she calls from the living room. “I don’t think we’ve ever had tea together, have we?”
“You know, I don’t think so.” This is how people talk to each other. Edward practiced this with me, after we put all the Unwanteds in that shoebox. He had said I needed to reconnect with the “real” world. Even then he was looking out for me. It’s like a great puzzle, where all the pieces are falling together, finally. When I started the puzzle, I had no idea what it would become, but now…now I see my past spread behind me, a great detailed map of the world, and I see all that came before and all that came after, even Edward’s leaving, as vital pieces in that puzzle. Petra is a piece, too, but she doesn’t know it.
“What did you say, Anna?”
“Oh, I don’t have any cream. I do have sugar, though.”
I shudder. “No. Sorry, no honey.” Honey is ridiculously sticky. I don’t know how anyone can stand to pour it, eat it, or touch the disgusting teddy bear bottles it comes in.
“Sugar it is, then. I’d like three teaspoons.”
Jesus, no wonder she’s fat. Three teaspoons. But I say, “Of course. Just have to wait for the water to boil.”
Tea goes well. I pretend to be normal. Unfortunately, Petra is unmoved.
“Anna, I’m so sorry I can’t help you.”
A teaspoon clatters to the floor. Traitor. But I don’t lose my composure. “Petra, I absolutely understand. It was an unreasonable request.” I think I might smash the kettle against her face. No. That would not help me achieve my goal.
She leans against the doorjamb. “Just curious, though…if you were to get a car, what would you do once you got there? I mean, are you going to talk to Edward? Confront him?”
Oh, I can feel her on the hook. She wants to believe in love, she wants to believe in the power of a movie-star journey across the interstate, she wants to believe we can change our fate.
So do I.
“Of course not. I really just want to wish him well. In person.” I unwind the string from an Earl Grey teabag and gently arrange it in the bottom of the blue china cup. I don’t look at her. “In fact, I think it would really help me heal. Spiritually.”
Petra believes in the power of love, but above all, she believes in the power of spiritual healing. She is as damaged as the mangy mutts she grooms, and although she has recounted (endlessly) the many ways she’s tried locating her higher power, she’s no further along than I am, spirit-wise. But I know this is a cause she can’t resist.
The kettle whistles. Before it can reach an hysterical pitch, I fetch it from the stove, pour the steaming water into the two cups, watch the crystal stream of water flowing, imagine it carrying me to Colorado in a big, fat Cadillac. Breathe. Breathe in steam from tea, imagine the power of tea flowing through my nose into my brain where it will warm my mind and make me say just the right thing to make Petra help me.
“Here we are.” I imitate one of those perky women on TV, the ones who entertain and buy prophylactics. I set the two cups on the table, two teaspoons, a Delft sugar bowl with a chip where the Dutch girl’s wooden shoe should be. What happened to her foot? When did she lose that shoe? I don’t remember dropping it. It belonged to my mother.
“Lovely,” she murmurs, reaching for the Dutch girl’s mangled foot. That foot really bothers me. I’m not sure I like having a gimpy sugar bowl. But I have to keep focused. Yammering on about the footless girl from Delft will just distract her.
Perky, prophylactic buyer, pretty. “I’m thinking I might go back to work,” I offer. Am I? No. Absolutely not. But it might convince her that I’m more normal than I am. Goddamned Dutch girl. Her other foot, milky white, sports a smooth porcelain shoe, recklessly sticking out near a wheelbarrow. Maybe the boy ran over her other foot with the wheelbarrow. Men always hurt women. I wonder if they’re lovers? Or if he’s her brother? Or both? Maybe she’s a dike.
“Why are you smiling?” Petra frowns over the steam from her tea.
“Just glad to be here,” I say perkily.
“So, you’re going to work again?” Petra nods and her cartoon lips stretch into a smile. There’s a smudge of lipstick on her teeth. Like blood on the fangs of a shark. Do sharks have fangs? Or is that only snakes? I think sharks have teeth. Multiple rows of teeth. I wonder if they live near dikes? Could they swim that far inland? Tulip sharks. Two lip sharks. “Anna? Do you have a lead on a job?”
“Yes.” I sip my tea. Normally. “I’ve been talking to the Chinese.”
I should have thought this through more thoroughly. Th-, th-, th- Those words are almost identical except for a well-placed ‘r’. Dikes are R-rated. So are sharks. “The Chinese man. At the Fluffitorium.”
“Oh!” Petra stretches that one syllable into five, varying in pitches of excitement and surprise. “What would you do for him?”
White slavery. Opium harvesting. Wok walking. “I…I believe it would be some form of accounting.”
Petra nods again and sips the Earl Grey. “Well, that’s a whole different story then.”
“What do you mean?” I sip again.
“If you’re going to be working, then I might be able to get you the car.”
I try not to squeal, either with joy or anger. So, if I’m working, she can get me a car, but if I’m not, then she can’t. Or won’t. But I might get the car. Play it cool. When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way. “Oh?”
She sets her cup on the table. “Obviously, you won’t start working until after the trip, correct?”
“Correct. Of course, the details are still being worked out. We have to agree on a wage, and on my duties, and what the Chinese needs.”
“What’s his name?” Petra frowns slightly.
“Oolong. Mr. Oolong.”
“Like the tea?”
She rises from the chair and smiles. “Let me make some calls, Sweeties.” She downs the rest of her tea, sets the cup neatly on the table next to the one-footed Dutch girl.
“I do appreciate it,” I say as she waves and walks toward the door. “Do it now.”
She shoots me a disapproving look. Obviously, that wasn’t a normal thing to say. Dammit. “I’ll do what I can,” she says, her smile just a bit more pale than before. Dammit.
I hear her clomp down the stairs; the door to the street creaks open, slams closed. I walk calmly to the kitchen, take the crippled Dutch girl and her sugar bowl, and hurl them both into the sink, where they shatter into thousands of milky shards.
Thankfully, Petra does not check my Mr. Oolong story. She comes up the next day, raps on my door, and dangles a set of keys attached to a purple rabbit’s foot. “I got your car!”
“Come in!” I sweep my hand in a grand gesture, although in reality I’m trying to avoid touching the purple rabbit’s foot. Disgusting. I wonder how she would feel if someone sawed her porky foot off at the cankle, trussed it up with metal, and hung some keys from it? Not to consider the idea of fleas or mites. Do they live on dead bunny flesh? I will find a way to dispose of it as soon as she’s gone.
“My cousin Raoul…I told him your situation, and he didn’t want to help, but then his wife, Marietta, she heard it too and thought it was romantic, so she begged him to let you use the car, I mean, it was just sitting in their driveway anyway, their teenage son is in jail so he can’t drive it.” She finally comes up for air, a whale breaching the sea of syllables. “You have to get your own insurance.”
“That’s no problem.” It’s not a problem. I won’t have any. I don’t tell her this. “When will I have access to this car?”
“Access?” She laughs, her bounteous chest jiggling. “It’s downstairs, Anna! That’s why I have the keys! Do you want to see it?”
“Of course!” I follow her down the dark stairway, willing my heart to stop beating so fast.
Perched at the curb is a marvel of a vehicle. Impossibly long, sleek, and aquamarine blue, the color of the Caribbean sea, the color of freedom. Panic sparks in my chest, a small trickle at first, welling up into a gusher of full-blown anxiety.
“Anna?” Petra’s wide smile fades into a frightened ‘O’ as I slump to the curb. Dirty, dirty curb. I’m going to have to shower. Dammit! This is going to blow the whole thing. I have to get a grip. Petra crouches as best she can next to me. “Sweeties, what is it?”
“Something I ate.” I half-heartedly clutch at my stomach while trying to lift my butt from the contaminated cement.
“What did you eat?” Petra feels my forehead, which makes me shudder. I wave her hand away and breathe.
“Not sure. But it must have been bad.” I breathe, breathe, breathe. Edward always said that breathing is the key to everything: conception, birth, death. Life. Breathe. Breathe. I feel the anxiety monster shrinking, roaring its way backward into a small, contained space it rents near the back of my mind.
I count to ten. Edward taught me this too. Ten is a magical number somehow, enough time to slow the heart, ten fingers, ten toes, ten little Indians, everything is based in tens, unless you’re American. Americans insist on adding two more, making it twelve, which makes no sense at all unless we used to be six-fingered men and mutated, losing a digit on each hand. I am able to stand. I smooth my wig and smile at Petra, a confident, winning smile, the kind the perky people give without thought. “See? All fine.” I amaze myself.
Petra’s not so sure. She zooms in closer, so close I can see the cavernous pores in her skin. “Anna, listen. If I am going to lend you Raoul’s car, you have to promise me that you will be able to drive it. You have to show me right now, or I’m going to have him come and pick it up.”
“Fine. No problem.” That’s what people always say. No problem. I will let it be my magic mantra, my prophecy of things to come. “Let me just go and get my scarf. I’ll be right back.”
I get to the bathroom, stare at my pale face in the mirror. I should take off the wig. The thought of it flying off into the street terrifies me, so I place it gently on Annabelle and grab a dark blue scarf from a drawer, tie it around my fuzzy head, and see a crazy lady staring back at me. “You need to get your shit together,” I tell her. She nods as if she understands.
We get into the car, me in the driver’s seat. Smooth, aquamarine leather interior, a couple of rips in the passenger seat, a cigarette burn on the darker blue floor mat. Within the steering wheel is the tri-pointed shape of a Neolithic goddess, arms outstretched to take me in. A few breaths, and I recall how to start it, which is especially tough since I’m trying not to touch the disgusting rabbit’s foot. I manage to turn the engine over, though, and the familiar rumble calms me. No problem.
Petra opens the passenger door and climbs in. “Let’s go!” she yelps, putting on oversized sunglasses.
I reach for the…what is it called? Shift? Pull it down, car lurches forward just a bit, I put my foot on the brake pedal. I grip the wheel, asking that dashboard goddess for some help, and I turn it toward the street.
“Check your mirrors!” Petra shrieks.
No traffic, so I coach the behemoth into the asphalt sea, press gingerly on the accelerator, and we’re cruising down Sheppard Street, just like two normal people.
The trip around the block is a challenge; I have to work very, very hard to keep the anxiety monster at bay. Luckily, there is a curious lack of pedestrians or orphan children or grandmothers, so I don’t have to worry about not hitting them. An eternity passes, but I finally arrive back in front of my building, my good solid building with the dirty curb, and I park the car, turn it off. The purple rabbit’s foot bounces a bit after the engine dies, nodding its approval.
Petra beams. “You did so well. I’m sure it will be fine.” She opens her door, scrapes the sidewalk. “Oh, I forget how low these doors are. You better watch that. Of course, you won’t probably be opening the passenger side door anyway. Just be careful.” She peers in through the open door. “When are you leaving?”
When am I leaving? Leaving has been such a dream, such a wild impossibility, that I realize I haven’t done half the things I need to do to actually leave. My mind races, but I calm it, trying not to freak out in front of Petra. “I still need to get a few things together, but I’d like to leave by Saturday.”
“That’s in two days,” she says dubiously, her red lips pursing, eyebrows dipping as she fixes me with one doubtful eye.
“I know,” I say. Perky, perky, perky. “I’ve been preparing. I knew you’d come through with the car.” I force a smile. “You’re a good friend.”
“I’ll always be your friend,” Edward said to me the day he told me he was leaving. It was the kind of thing someone would say when they didn’t want to upset the other, more crazy, person.
We were in the Café Savage, a coffee spot for hipsters plastered floor to ceiling with photographs the owner had taken. He was a professional photographer too, in addition to being a coffee maven. The place was full of overstuffed tapestried couches, pillows that oozed dust and skin cells from previous coffee drinkers, and a cool glass case displaying tiny doll house cakes painted with that hard, artistic icing.
Above Edward’s head, a huge alligator captured on film crawled toward me, teeth sharp, eyes glinting. The photographer placed this alligator in a background of polar white, nothing else, so the lizard looked like it was approaching from the clouds, from the nexus, from the Great White Way. No context. It just hovered there, in its white cocoon of nothing, frozen like an artifact.
“Anna, drink your tea,” Edward said as I stared above his head. It looked like the alligator was going to scalp him. I could imagine it, all his strong, lovely hair ripped from his head with those serrated-blade teeth, blood spattering all over that polar white background, oozing down onto the crimson upholstery of the dusty sofa, Edward screaming for mercy as I sat there, sipping as instructed. “Please say something.”
I focused on his face, twisted slightly and appropriately with regret. Sapphire eyes…not real. I wondered if he had the real ones replaced with precious stones. That would explain why he didn’t see the important things. “What should I say?” I sipped.
Edward rubbed a thumb around the rim of his Café Savage coffee mug, polar white like the alligator’s lair. Is white the absence of color, or all color absorbed into one? I could never remember that. “Anna,” (why did he say my name so often?) “I’ve explained it for weeks. I know it upsets you, and I’m really, really sorry about that, but I have a personal life also. You can understand that, can’t you?” Unblinking precious gem eyes. He was probably not even a real person. If I stabbed his hand with a fork, I’d know for sure.
“I thought this was your personal life.” My fingers curled, unbidden, around the slightly worn edge of the fork. There was an alligator on the fork! Etched into the fake silver! That was surely a sign. “Do you see this alligator?” I held it up to show him.
He shook his head, chuckled, adjusted reading glasses, stared at the fork. “I…don’t see anything. You mean here, on the handle? An alligator?” He peered at it more carefully. “I think that’s a rabbit’s foot.” He put it back on the table.
“Why would anyone put a rabbit’s foot on a fork?” I rolled my eyes. Sometimes he was so dense.
He cleared his throat, cracked his knuckles, and started again. “All I wanted to do was take some time outside of our sessions to speak with you about my moving. I know it’s a tough thing to lose a therapist.” He blinked, rapidly.
“But who is this person? Who is she?” The alligator wanted to know.
He looked down at the table. “She’s…a doctor also. Someone I’ve known since university. We— she and I are very compatible, and her family knows my family.”
“Is she British?”
He frowns and looks at me as if I’m psychic. “So happens she is, yes. Why?”
“Edward,” I began, but my head started to itch so terribly that I couldn’t ignore it. “Excuse me,” I muttered, jumping up so I was eye-to-beady-eye with the cold-hearted alligator photo.
The bathroom, a tiny violet water closet festooned with graphic nude photos of ladies from the 1920s, smelled of Glade air freshener and pee. It was a unisex bathroom; these were the worst. Men squirted germs like fire hoses squirted flame retardant. Happily, I didn’t need to use the toilet, because I was sure it was crawling with the microscopic hitchhikers of past bathroom attendees.
I took my wig off, gave my head a blessed scratch, then put it back on my head, adjusting the clipped black bangs, smoothing the sleek, dark sides. I was Mata Hari, lady spy. Hmm. He was being forced into this, it was obvious. A British doctor, family friend? His family was pressuring him. The English never quite got over their snobbishness about class. Suddenly, it was so obvious to me. He couldn’t be with me because his family would not approve.
Close to the mirror, eyelashes nearly touching glass, I blinked rapidly, as he had done. The effect was photographic and dizzying; I could hypnotize him. But I had to get closer. “Breathe,” I told my reflection self. She flipped me off.
Edward was hunched over the table, a folded stork in a brown tweed jacket. I touched his shoulder, and he jumped. “You’re back.”
“Yes.” I sat down next to him on the blood-wine-red couch. He tensed, but I stayed. From somewhere deep inside, my Mata Hari burst forth, and I stared into his eyes, into his flat, wild sapphire eyes. “I understand, about the woman. But you don’t have to do what they want you to do. You’re a free spirit. Don’t go.”
“What? No one is— I have to,” he whispered, beads of sweat sprouting on his upper lip. I could smell him, damp silk linen, soap, sweat, vanilla. I tried to mesmerize him. He tried to pull away.
Bravery came from desperation, I suppose. I knew he was leaving, I knew it in my heart, so I touched his hand. “Edward,” I whispered, never losing eye contact. “I love you. You love me. You can’t go.”
“Anna,” he whispered, but it was strangled, as if someone had a choking hand around his throat. He bowed his head, breaking my femme fatale gaze. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You could never hurt me,” I said, touching his cheek with a finger. Stubble, sharkskin, wheat fields dried in winter; I willed my finger to memorize it.
He grabbed my wrist, not gently, and moored it to the table. “I don’t want to have to say this,” he said in that choking, controlled voice.
“Don’t say it,” I urged, pressing closer so he could kiss me. I knew he wanted to.
He backed away, took a deep breath, and looked deeply into my eyes. “Anna. I’ve been trying to tell you this, but you don’t hear me. I have great affection for you, I do, but I’m not in love with you. I can’t be, I’m your therapist, it would totally unethical, and wrong, and—“
“Love is never wrong,” I said, quoting some awful novel I once read.
A grin tugged at one side of his mouth. I could always make him laugh. “You’ve been through a lot,” he said, rubbing his left temple, massaging unconsciously. He did that when he was nervous. “Your family—“
“Edward,” I said his name like a prayer. I leaned in, pressed my ruby lips against his, smooth and cool, and smothered him with all the passion I had saved up inside. Lightning caromed around my body, from lips to fingers to feet to belly to…other parts. Soft, soft lips, warm rose petal comfort cotton puzzle piece fit right—then he jerked backward as if I’d hit him.
“Anna!” he shouted. His eyes, wide with panic, searched the room for help, for witnesses, for escape. “Stop it.” He scuttled to the opposite side of the table, sat in a chair with that distance between us.
The pressure of this moment pushed on him, dense gravity on a delicate poppy, ground him into the unhappiness I wanted to save him from. “Edward, I understand. It’s not what society thinks is proper, I know that. But we can’t deny our hearts.”
Edward pursed his lips and smiled, a tortured smile. “Anna. Listen to me.” He took one of my hands in his, then hastily let go as if it were scalding. “Of course, I admire you. I’ve never met anyone like you, and that’s the truth. You’re intelligent, and funny, and—“ He looked into my eyes, and I saw there what I knew to be true. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I have to go. I’m getting married and—I have to go.”
Sounds were sucked into a vacuum. Espresso machine whines, clattering cups, spoons clanging, man coughing, insect-buzz music from tiny fuchsia music player on the teen next to us, all were sucked into a silence that swallowed my world. My heartbeat. Steady, rhythmic, a drum in a desperate jungle. The roaring absence of sound.
When I looked up, he was gone. And there was a twenty-dollar bill on the table.
A lovely parting gift.
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