1,10 - tess
The change in the weather was a springtime sudden mood swing. No-one was ready for the rain. A few years now in L.A. and in the mountains we’d had hot, dry springs like seasons in the desert. Not this year. Some evenings so far, brief showers had moved in and blown over, but the storm that hit Park Heights that one afternoon out of nowhere, that was really something.
I was at Mrs. Markova’s house, halfway through my Green Machine workday’s delivery route, when the downpour started. I sat with Mrs. Markova at an uncomfortable wrought iron table and chairs in a little atrium addition at the side of her house where the walls and roof were greenhouse glass. We drank apple tea from delicate porcelain cups ringed red-brown with ancient stains. She had been telling me a story about her circle of Bohemian artist friends in Moscow in the ‘60s—this was before she had defected to the U.S.—a story that involved an awkward amount of casual sex. All at once the rain was hammering down on the atrium glass and we couldn’t hear each other even if we shouted. We retreated to the kitchen, where Mrs. Markova poured out two small glasses of vodka, one of which I would refuse, as usual.
“I like this rain very much,” she said, drinking down first her vodka, throwing back her head as she did it, then the one she had poured out for me. “It makes me think of a poem. Do you know this poem? ‘Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux, / Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux.’”
I knew that Mrs. Markova had been a famous poet in Russia, and in the U.S. as well, after she and her husband had come here. “Did you write that?” I asked.
“In French?” she smiled. “No, no, that’s not me, it’s Baudelaire. The poem says, ‘I am the King of a rainy country, / Rich but powerless, both young and very old.” But it sounds better in French, doesn’t it?”
“Everything does.” There was a brief lull in the conversation and I took my opportunity. “Unfortunately, Mrs. Markova, I really have to go, I’ve got a few more deliveries and you’ve put up with me for too long.”
“Backwards, of course,” she said. “It is you putting up with me.”
“Not at all. And thank you for the tea.”
Before I could get away she took hold of my arm with surprising strength. She really was a tiny woman, but it was like there was more force of life in her than in most people. “You have not told me about meeting a boy.”
I blinked rapidly. How did she know? “Well,” I said, “nothing’s really happened yet, but I guess I did meet someone.”
“Ah, I knew I was right. I thought, today Tess is different, there is more lightness in her. ”
I laughed. “I like him. We’re going on a first date, more or less, tonight.”
“Oh yes,” she said, “this is very good. So good for you. I’m happy.”
As long as you’re happy, Mrs. Markova, I thought, but that was uncharitable and I shook it off, instead saying, “It’s been a while. I’m a little nervous.”
“If you are nervous, he is terrified,” she said.
“I doubt that. He’s a cool customer, this one.”
She gestured at me, head to toe. “You are lovely, perfect girl, even if you think maybe not so much. Trust me to say this, he is in chaos inside, all of today before coming to see you.”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “you’re right, he’d better be in chaos inside.”
“There, now that is acceptable attitude for first date,” Mrs. Markova said, sounding pleased with herself.
My next delivery of the day was the Mayfair Bed & Breakfast. Actually Mona Wrightson had mentioned them that morning, Jenny and Karen. Apparently Jenny had called in the day before to cut their order in half, and she had sounded weird about it, so I was supposed to do a little spying to see what was going on. I think I had suggested to Mona that she just ask Jenny herself, but Mona had shaken her head and left me to my work without another word about it. I recalled there was some kind of history between these three women. Small towns. You can’t escape the melodrama.
I drove cautiously through the crazy rain from Mrs. Markova’s house to the Bed & Breakfast. The Roadmaster wasn’t always my best friend in bad weather. Thankfully Jenny and Karen’s place has a veranda out front where I took shelter after lugging the box of groceries from the back of the car to the front step.
Jenny answered the doorbell, which was odd—it was always Karen who came to the door, to the point that I’m not sure I’d even met Jenny before. Except that Jenny said, “Hi Tess,” to me like we’d known each other forever. I gave her the invoice and she gave me cash for it plus the usual generous tip that I always felt like giving back to them.
“Everything okay?” Jenny said to me.
“Oh, yeah, of course,” I said.
“Okay, see you next time, Tess,” Jenny said.
I was turning out to be a complete failure as Mona’s spy. Oh well. “Mona wanted me to ask you something!” I said to Jenny before she went back inside.
“She did? And what would that be.”
This wasn’t going well. “Just that you’ve cut down on your order.” I had hit on a business angle as a line of inquiry and I went with it. “She just wants to make sure you’re happy with us, that everything’s going okay.”
“Okay,” Jenny said, nodding slowly, “well, Karen has an old friend staying with us for a while. We decided to cancel our bookings and take some time off from bedding and breakfasting, just to visit.” Jenny seemed to read my mind and head me off before my follow-up question. “No, it’s not anyone that Mona knows. Like I said, it’s an old friend, from before Karen moved out here.”
Jenny’s tone of voice was becoming increasingly terse and I was becoming thoroughly mortified by this whole situation. “I didn’t mean to pry or anything,” I apologized meekly.
“Just tell Mona not to worry. It’s not her place to worry, not for a long time now. Bye, Tess.” And she turned back inside, closing and locking the door.
Heading back to Beech from the Bed & Breakfast, I thought I saw the Severands' black Mercedes turn down Mayfair Street, but someone cut me off as I pulled up to the intersection and I lost the Mercedes, if that’s even what I’d seen, into the interruptive rain that filled the rear view mirror. Could be Will Severand, I thought, or Mr. Severand—Marius—or even Linna on some errand in town.
In fact Linna was supposed to meet me at my house after work to help me get ready for the date with Zach. And sure enough she was right on time—the sleek black Mercedes, tinted windows, pulled up at five thirty sharp, and Linna rocketed out of the backseat, holding a plastic garment bag over her head as she sprinted through the rain to the front door.
She looked like she had been outside all day. Her hair was soaked, her cheeks held high color, her eyes were fever-bright. I wanted to ask her what she’d been up to but she thrust the plastic garment bag right at me and my train of thought derailed.
“Here,” she said breathlessly, “it’s for you.”
“What is it?”
“For you to wear, Dummy.”
The last time I had seen Linna had been the night of our quest to get drunk, the night that concluded at Crazies, when I had agreed to go out with Zach. I remembered just then, seeing Linna again, how she had run out of the diner after the older black man who, apparently, had been giving her some kind of Tarot card reading.
Zach had said, “What exactly is happening right now?” as we watched her confront the man in the parking lot, before he eventually turned and walked away, leaving her standing there alone.
I had gone out after her. She wasn’t upset, exactly, and I didn’t know what had gone on between them, but I thought she seemed freaked out by what had happened—there was an overcharged brightness in her eyes, and I saw that her teeth were chattering.
“I have to go home,” she said. “Right now.”
“I can call us a cab,” I said, “but Linna, what’s going on? Are you alright?”
“How long will a cab take?”
“A few minutes, at least. I’ll call one now.”
She was nodding her head rapidly. “I can call my driver instead.”
And just at that moment a taxi with its light on cruised us on Beech Boulevard, slowing down. I hailed it and Linna got in and that was it.
I made my way back to Kevin Cho’s, where my car was, and I crashed at his place, after, I’ll admit, having a few more beers with Kevin and Frantz and the guys from White Mask, who were nowhere near finished their night of inebriation, and were disappointed that I’d somehow let Linna slip away from them.
Linna, in my house a few days later, took off her coat and boots and followed me into my bedroom. My mother wasn’t home; I would have guessed she was at the Wellness Centre, doing whatever it was she did there.
I felt awkward with Linna just then. There was a disconnection between us—she had never explained to me what had happened at Crazies and she didn’t even seem to be aware that anything needed to be explained. In a way I didn’t even want to know. Maybe I was already taking on Zach’s unconcerned attitude about Linna, about her strangeness: that it was just her, it was just who she was—you couldn’t take her anywhere, Zach had said at the diner, she just gets into trouble—and I’d already decided that Linna needed, more than anything, a friend who’d accept her without much inquisition into why she was the way she was. Still, I was curious.
“Come on, take it out already, put it on,” Linna was saying impatiently. “I want to see how it looks.”
“You shouldn’t have got anything for me.”
She shrugged. “I saw it in the store and knew it was right for you. At least I think so. I didn’t even consider not getting it.”
I took her gift out of the garment bag. It was a long-sleeved, lace-pattern blouse with a high collar, the color of a deep red sunset, rust-hued. I shook my head. It was exceptional, probably worth more than every other piece of clothing I owned combined.
“Try it on,” Linna said again.
I felt that once I put the blouse on I would never take it off, and true enough, once it was on me it looked like it had been tailor-made for me, just for me, it was just that perfect. Both of us admired the blouse for a long time. I turned around to have a few angles at it in the full-length standing mirror that occupied a corner of my bedroom.
“You know I can’t accept this, Linna,” I finally said.
“Then just borrow it.”
“It isn’t your size at all.”
“I’ll return it to the store when you give it back.”
“I just love it.”
“Linna,” I said.
“You have to wear it. Look at it. I won’t let you leave without it.”
“Linna,” I said again, “thank you.”
She paused. “You’re welcome.”
“It’s generous of you, but I don’t want you buying me things like this. You don’t have to.”
“I wasn’t trying to purchase your friendship,” she said with a sudden sharpness, “if that’s what you’re trying to say.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Well, show me what you’re going to wear with it,” Linna said, moving abruptly past that moment of tension between us, as if it hadn’t happened. “I have to approve these choices.”
While we went through my wardrobe, with Linna vetoing nearly everything I brought out to match with the blouse, I decided to see if I could get some information out of her.
“I was talking to Zach, that night at the diner,” I said while I tried on the second pair of jeans for Linna to appraise. “He had a lot to say about you, you know.”
“Of course he did. Zach’s been my brother’s friend for ages.” Linna shook her head. “Next pair. Those are ratty. Zach was really in love with me.”
That made me stop what I was doing. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s kind of what he said, too.”
“I couldn’t reciprocate,” she said simply.
“You didn’t like him?”
“He’s not my type.” She thought for a moment. “Oh, it’s bad that I said he was in love with me, isn’t it. You’re dating him now. But he was. Not anymore, but he was. I’m sure he’s not now, he hasn’t written me anything or called me or done those kinds of things for a long time now.”
“He wrote to you?”
“He did,” Linna nodded, “all the time. Love letters. They’re really embarrassing. Can I ask you something?”
I looked at her. These sudden shifts in her thinking were sometimes hard to follow. “Go ahead.”
“Who would you say is your best friend?”
I considered her question. “I think what you’re really asking me is, why am I spending all this time with you, don’t I have a hundred girl-friend Besties I could have called over to my house to try on clothes with and share make-up tips with and have them brush my hair….”
“You want me to brush your hair?”
“Not really. But you’re right, I’m not that close with a lot of other girls. I did have a best friend, growing up, her name’s Iggy.”
“Iggy,” Linna echoed.
“I know. Her actual name was Gloria but everyone called her Iggy, even her mom and dad. Anyway, she’s in New York now. She’s in pre-Law at Columbia, which is amazing, but she’s focused, she’s busy. We email, we call each other up now and then, but—I don’t know, it’s like everyone just scattered after high school, everyone went somewhere different, went into their real lives, I guess. And we said we’d all be friends forever. But that was never going to be true, not even when we said it.”
I sat on the bed next to Linna. She was watching me closely, like she was absorbing what I was saying into some deep part of herself. “And I’ve never hit it off with many girls. I don’t know why. Guys just seem so much more relaxed to be around. Kevin, and Frantz, we really get along, they’re not in competition with me for anything, they don’t judge me, we can just be there, wherever we are, it’s no big deal.”
“I would love to be more like you,” Linna said.
“Whoa,” I said, “where did that come from?”
“I’m—” Linna started, then stopped herself. “It’s nothing.” She looked down at the covers on the bed. “I’m afraid that you won’t like me, if you get to know me.”
“I am getting to know you and I like you very much.”
She looked up at me. When she spoke her voice was as plaintive as a small child’s. “Maybe I’m a bad person. Maybe I’ve done terrible things.”
“Linna,” I said. “I don’t know if someone’s told you that, or what’s happened to make you think that, but I don’t believe any of it, not for a second. You’re good. I only see that you’re a good person. You’re a little intense, but I like it.”
“You don’t know everything about me,” she said.
I held my breath.
The silence exploded. He shouted, I screamed.
His arm came at me from behind the tree. His hand went into my hair and yanked my head back, bashing it against the tree trunk. My vision swam. I tasted blood in my mouth.
How had he come up on me so quietly? I’d been listening for him. I thought I’d lost him. I thought I was free.
I twisted myself away from his grasp, feeling hair torn out by the roots. I was screaming, snarling like an animal. This was a fight for my life. The knife, the black-bladed hunting knife, was in his other hand. It would cut me open now, any moment now, I could feel its desire to cut me open.
But I got away again. I looked back and saw strands of my hair between his fingers. He was circling out from behind the tree.
I tried to move. I could hardly move. The blow to the head. Or the fear, the paralysis of fear that lightninged through me, riveting my feet to the ground.
I was going to lose. I couldn’t run anymore. Good, I thought. Good.
Just want this to be over.
“I’m all jittery,” he said. He was close. He was right behind me. “I’ve got goosies!”
Just as I gathered myself to make another run for it, he took hold of me again, pulling me off-balance. The front of his knee rammed into the back of mine and he forced me down to the ground with his hand wrenched into my hair, pushing my face into dirt and loam and moss. Then he let go, turned me onto my back—he was crouched down, his knees digging into my stomach, pinning down my arms—I couldn’t move, could barely breathe.
His face was above me. He said, “I’m happy. Really happy. It’s like it’s our wedding night.”
The tip of the knife went to the front of my dress.
Not cutting me open. Not me, not my body. Just clothes.
“This dress is indecent. You’re better than this. Let’s take it off.”
“No,” I said, “No no no!” The fight had come back. I pushed at him. My legs kicked. I twisted, heaved, bucked at the weight of him crushing onto me. “No no no no” kept pouring out of my mouth, getting louder, surging to a scream.
“Stop it,” he said, holding me down.
I shouted, “No! Never! No!”
“Stop being bad,” he said.
My arm came free. My hand flew up and I clawed him across his face.
His head tilted back and he howled. Then he bore down. His knees pressed into my chest, one hand closing around my throat. Squeezing everything out.
No breath. Nothing left.
“Stupid girl,” he said sadly.
In his other hand, the knife rose up into the air.
Then it plunged down.
I opened the door. Zach was outside, his hands in his pockets, whistling tunelessly. His long hair was across his face; I wanted to reach out, pull it back, smooth it down.
“It stopped raining just for us,” he said.
“Are we having a picnic in the dark?” I said.
I saw him take in the beautiful blouse Linna had bought for me. My hair was as done-up as I ever did it: blow-dried, brushed, parted in the middle to give it two loosened cascades that, right just then, had been artfully arranged to fall across the shoulders and down in front.
“That’s—” he said, “wow, that’s… you look….”
“I’ll take that speechless stuttering as a compliment.”
“It is,” he agreed.
I slipped on my jacket, locked the door behind me, got into Zach’s car. He was driving a nondescript Ford Taurus, nothing like the BMW race car his friend Dylan had been driving that night when I’d pulled over and interjected myself into Linna’s life. Zach glanced at me in the passenger seat next to him, he smiled but it was odd, strained somehow, and he drove us to the restaurant he’d chosen.
And so we went on our date. Dinner and a movie.
It was excruciating.
The whole time, I found myself double-thinking everything. What had happened to Zach? It was as if he just disappeared. We hardly had any conversation over dinner. And the movie, a romantic comedy, was terrible, and both of us sat in the theater, expressionless, silent, as people around us laughed whole-heartedly at the inane jokes and cliched situations.
I knew that he liked me—otherwise what were we doing here exactly? I knew that I looked good and was game for some easy, fun flirtation. Throughout the night I tried to draw him out with the little jabs I was getting used to in our interactions, and then I tried other tactics, asking him about himself, making sly observations about other people in the restaurant. Nothing worked. He responded, of course, and at times I thought the Zach I liked was emerging finally, but then he seemed to stop himself.
He kept glancing at me, and looking away. It felt like he wanted to tell me something but couldn’t start in on it.
And I didn’t mind. In fact I liked it. The date was a dud but I had relaxed myself into it; I even started enjoying, on some sadistic level, Zach’s awkwardness and inability to get his charm working.
So the movie was over. We were coming back to Park Heights from the exurban retail power center where Zach had driven us for our big night out at an unremarkable chain restaurant next to a multiplex cinema.
The night was gorgeous, warm, inviting. It was like all the recent storms had scoured the sky completely clean. You could see stars.
I knew what to do. “Are you up for more?” I said to Zach.
He looked over at me in surprise. “Of course!”
“Park us at Prospect Point then.”
Zach’s brow furrowed. Then he laughed. “I really didn’t think you were going to make out with me after tonight,” he said.
There he was. “I’ve never actually made out with anyone at Prospect Point. Seemed corny to be doing what everyone else was doing.”
“Or you just never found the right guy to make out with?”
“Was that a question?”
Maybe Zach had done this on purpose. He had absented himself from the night to give me the lead, to let me decide when to test the spark I knew was there between us. If that was true he was probably the most emotionally intelligent man in the country—I was probably giving him too much credit.
Prospect Point is a park on the easternmost edge of Summit Estates. It’s a strip of green space that runs north-south along the side of the mountain, at the top of Park Heights. You can park your car in the lot there and look out over L.A. and, yes, make out with your date. I think everyone I knew except for me had spent some moments in a car in the lot of Prospect Point, had a cop knock on the steamed-up window, interrupting the occasion.
As soon as Zach parked us there and turned off the car, I got out. I didn’t even wait for him; I made a straight line for the boardwalk promenade that was built on the edge, where the hillside dropped right off. Zach followed behind me.
Along the promenade there was a wooden platform, an overlook, that extended out form the hillside, supported below by wooden beams angled up and anchored in the slope. Benches lined the outside verge of the structure. I headed right for one of these benches and sat down sideways there. Zach joined me. We spent some time looking over Los Angeles, distant below us, the city lights like a milky-way mirror of the many-starred night sky above.
Everyone called this place Coma Jump. We all knew someone who’d leapt off the edge of the platform: to kill themselves, on a dare, I don’t know why. Some of them died. A lot of them landed in the trees below, free fall broken by branches, winding up alive. And those that lived: most were still in comas they would never wake up from.
Finally Zach said, “Coma Jump. Are you trying to suggest something to me about tonight’s date?”
“It wasn’t the best, was it?” I returned.
Zach let out a huge lungful of air that maybe he’d been holding in all night. “I don’t know what happened!” he admitted. “I’ve never felt so intimidated, ever. I didn’t know what to say.”
“Why?” I said to him. “I was basically waiting all night for the night to start.”
“I couldn’t shake the feeling that… well… I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I feel like I’m in over my head with you.”
“You’ll have to explain that.”
Zach got up from the bench. He produced a small silver flask from his jacket, offered it to me first. I took a sip without thinking. It was top-tier Irish whiskey. It flared pleasantly all the way down. I handed the flask back to him and he took in an impressively massive swig of it.
“God I needed that,” he said huskily. He flipped his hair back out of his face. “I’ve really only ever dated girls. Sometimes nice girls but mostly… well mostly some pretty vain and vapid girls.”
“Like the one at Crazies the other night.”
“Exactly. But you, Tess. You’re way more than that. I guess I didn’t really think about it. I guess it just hit me when I saw you tonight. It really hit me. You’re way more than I’m used to. I froze. Like I had no idea where to start. And… actually, there’s something else.”
“Did Linna maybe choose that shirt for you?”
“Um,” I said. How the hell would he know that?
“It’s… that’s exactly the same shirt that she wore, once.” He sighed.
“I see,” I said. Although I didn’t. Linna had some explaining to do. Maybe I’m a bad person, she’d said to me—was this what she’d been talking about?
“There was a dinner party at their house,” Zach was saying, "at Arcyn, This was a few years ago. It was right when I was thinking about her all the time, when I thought I was in love with her. That was the shirt she wore, at the party. How could I forget it. I was trying not to watch her all night. Then, I was coming back from Will’s room, I think I’d gone in there to get something from him, a book I was borrowing. She was in the hallway, in the dark, waiting for me. And she asked me to kiss her. She took my hand and forced it up underneath her shirt, over her bra—it was so strange, almost violent. But I didn’t kiss her. I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t right, even though it was the only thing I wanted in all the world at that moment. It just felt… wrong.”
“Wow, Zach,” I said into the pause in his story. “This really is the worst first date of all time.”
He shrugged. “Yeah. I guess I’m trying to break records here.” He scowled at me—not at me exactly, at the blouse Linna had dressed me in, for him. “It’s that shirt. That fucking shirt. It’s my nemesis.”
He sat down heavily next to me. It was like he was spent.
There was something about Linna. We were in her shadow. Zach was deep within it and I was entering into it.
I asked him the only question that really mattered to me. “Are you still in love with her?”
“No,” he said immediately.
“That’s something,” I said.
Then I made a decision. It could have been that I wanted to have something of this night that wasn’t affected by Linna Severand. I was apart from her, after all, I was myself, and just at that moment I needed to assert who I was, I needed to feel the weight of my own past, feel it as real and solid as skin and flesh and bone.
I decided to tell Zach about my year in L.A..
They were words I hadn’t spoken to anyone since I’d moved back to Park Heights.
“My boyfriend left me last year,” I said. “He thought I cheated on him.” It was the only place to start. Far away and far below, the city itself, Los Angeles, glittered like a promise. “And I loved him. I thought I loved him.”
Zach shifted, next to me. It felt like he had moved closer.
“I moved to L.A.,” I said, “the week after I graduated from Pali High. I couldn’t wait. Already I had auditions lined up. Some of them were from my mom, of course she had to have a hand in me following her footsteps. There were a few auditions I had found on my own and those were the ones I was excited about, they were for one or two theater productions going on in the city, nothing important, nothing major, but I wanted them. More than anything I wanted to start. I wanted to be on stage. My mom had arranged auditions for some commercials, some walk-ons, with producers that she knew. I was committed to those too, of course, I was serious about it. I was going to be an actress.
“And I met Mark. All those auditions, even if they didn’t lead to parts, led to parties. It’s how it works. You show up at parties and meet people and you’re networked, you’re known, you’re on your way. And I had a name. Tess Bellamy, Barbara Bellamy’s daughter—and hey she can act, and wow she looks like her mom. So Mark was at one of these parties in Beverly Hills at someone’s obscene house where there were three pools. Mark’s a writer, he has all these screenplays in development, and he’d had a run on an HBO show. He’s older than me but I didn’t care about that. I loved his humor and his intelligence.
“I moved in with him. It was probably only a few weeks after I’d met him. Things had gone so fast with us. That’s how I was. I wanted everything and I wasn’t going to wait for any of it.
“After a few months of auditions I finally got a part in a play. It wasn’t well-received but I didn’t mind, I loved doing it. I had to play a hooker with a heart of gold but so does every girl at some point, it’s a rite of passage. Then I landed a commercial. It was for home insurance. I was the professional at the call center, answering someone’s hysterical emergency phone call with expertise and reassurance.
“It was all going so well. It really was. But I wasn’t myself. I don’t know where it came from but I all I could think about was making it, getting parts, being on film. Nothing else made me happy. I wasn’t happy, I was driven. If I stopped to think about who I was, a year out from high school, how different I was from that other girl—she had been naive but sweet, shy, troubled—I looked back with hate in my heart.
“Mark was working with a producer on one of his screenplays, and I got a face-to-face with him. This was a younger guy in Hollywood, like Mark was, and these were the guys you wanted to work with, they were hotshots already, hands in all these different projects, making waves.
“I met the producer for dinner. He wasn’t what I’d expected at all, he was more like a fan or a nerd at a convention than some rising-star Hollywood insider. He kept ordering drinks for us while talking at me the whole time about this part he had for me, a part in Mark’s script. I was eating it up. And I was drinking up martinis, bottles of wine, shots of tequila.
“We took a taxi back to his place. I don’t even remember agreeing to go back to his place. I kind of came to my senses on the walk up to the front door of his house in Malibu. I’d go inside with him, I decided, but I’d call Mark right away, I’d call another cab, I’d get myself home.
“Right inside the door the producer grabbed me, pushed me against the wall, kissed me with, well, a lot of force. I got away from him, pretending it wasn’t anything, You’ve got the wrong idea, I said to him, I’ve got a boyfriend, you know I’ve got a boyfriend because he’s your writer. I was laughing like nothing had happened, nothing was ruined.
“The producer grabbed my arm again and this time he got his fingers in my hair and he pulled it, hard, like he wanted to hurt me, like he was out of control.”
Zach made a sound. I realized I’d been talking straight through what I wanted to say without stopping, as if stopping would mean I wouldn’t start again.
“Don’t worry,” I said, and I put my hand on Zach’s arm, “I got away. He wasn’t a big guy, this producer, he wasn’t that strong. I got away, I got home. By the time I got out of the cab and went up to our apartment, I had already convinced myself I’d escaped pretty unscathed from it, from this inevitable thing that comes when you’re Nineteen and there’s power on one side, not your side, and you want everything and the man with the power wants what he wants.
“I wasn’t unscathed, though. The producer started telling everyone a different version of what had happened, and in his version I had begged him for sex and he’d had no choice because I was unstoppable, insatiable.
“And later, when my mom’s health took a bad turn, when I was alone in L.A., before I came home, it came back to me again and again, what that man had done to me that night. I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t get over it. I would lie on the floor of the apartment all night, not sleeping, staring up at the ceiling, and what happened that night happened over and over again in my mind.
“I looked in the mirror and I could see the person I used to be in high school right there looking out at me, as if all the work I’d done since then to get rid of her had all been for nothing.
“And I realized I was sick. I had stopped eating. I wanted to hurt myself.
“And my mom was worse and worse.
“So I came home.”
Zach took my hand and held it and I let him. I had done this without breaking down, I had gone right through it.
I felt tears coming. “Mark didn’t believe me. He was so angry. It didn’t matter what I said. I showed him the bruise on my arm from where I’d been grabbed and still he didn’t believe me.”
“Fuck him,” Zach said.
“And he left me.”
I was finished. I had told it now.
Except there was more. There was the last part, the end of the story, the rest of it. I wouldn’t tell Zach about it and I wouldn’t tell anyone.
The rest of it unspooled inside me.
Coming home to my mother’s house. All my suitcases by the front door. The quiet of the house, like it was listening to itself.
Outside, in the yard, out beneath the trees that bordered the property. My mother stood there, out on her own, out in the dark. She was naked and her body was shivering with the cold. I found a bathrobe in her bedroom and I brought it out to her.
“She’s a whore,” I heard her saying as I came closer. “Everyone tells me Tess is a whore.”
“Mom,” I said, “I’m here now. It’s Tess. I’m back.”
“I didn’t raise her to be a whore,” she said.
“Mom who are you talking to?”
“Heinrich.” She meant Amen Auf der Nacht, the horror film director. No-one except for my mother had ever been allowed to address him by his real name.
“You know he’s dead, Mom.”
“He’s right here, Honey.”
“No, he’s not.”
She looked at me for the first time as I put the bathrobe around her. “Oh, Tess,” she said at last.
“Yes it’s me.”
“You poor thing.”
I started crying. “I’m home now, Mom.”
“You shouldn’t have come back for me. You should go back there right now and show them what you’re made of.”
“Because you’re just a whore.”
“A whore and an ungrateful bitch.”
“Let’s go inside.”
“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked. “Get away!”
Her hands came at me like claws. She lunged forward. She took hold of my hair and pulled it as hard as she could.
© 2016 by C.D. Miller