Ill stay, p.22

I'll Stay, page 22

 

I'll Stay
 



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  Of course I remembered. It was one of Freud’s most famous studies; in it, a patient talks about a torture method he’d heard from a military officer whereby a rat would eat its way into the anus of a victim. It freaked us out. It still freaked me out. But what did this have to do with anything? Still, I didn’t want to upset her. “We wondered if the torturer had had this done to him, too.”

  “Right! That’s what we decided. I wonder if we could ever find this out. You know, so we would know for sure.”

  The breeze blew my hair across my face again, and I felt my hand tremble against my cheek as I pulled it away. I was fairly certain that she was talking about more than the Rat Man case. “I feel horrible about today and not telling Sarah and Ducky that you, well, you know, that you told me to go that night. That you’d stay. I don’t blame you for being mad.”

  She kept her face tilted away from me. “I’m not mad at you for not telling them. And I’m not mad at you for leaving. I told you to go.”

  “But you’re mad about something.”

  She glanced at me. “You know what was odd today? You told them that we talk a lot about what happened.”

  “We talk every day.”

  “But not about what happened. I hardly ever bring it up but when I do, you cry or get defensive. Then I feel bad because you feel terrible about everything.”

  Wait, I cry? I get defensive?

  “You know what?” Her voice was suddenly so soft that I had to lean into her to hear. “I think I’ve been depressed all these years and just going through the motions of living.”

  “But you’ve been okay, too, right?” I stammered. “I know you don’t like your job but you’ve got a new apartment now and—”

  “Remember how we used to talk about our psychology classes and Patricia and everything? It was so much fun. It made me feel so alive. I don’t think we do that much anymore because what happened gets in the way. It shuts us down or something. We don’t talk about anything meaningful anymore.”

  I shook my head. I didn’t feel shut down. And I wasn’t fucked up, either. “What do you mean we don’t talk about anything meaningful?”

  “It’s all about jobs and logistics.” She sighed loudly. “I’ve been so stuck.”

  “We can still talk about all of that,” I said.

  I didn’t think she heard me. She’d turned toward the water and her voice was dreamy and distant. “It was something today when Ducky said that I deserved my dream. The good dream, the happy dream. I want to figure out how to get back to that. Honestly, I don’t know what I’ve been doing the last three years.”

  “Living in New York. That was always part of your dream, too, you know.”

  “I want to make films.” Lee’s voice choked with tears. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted. I can’t let my life slip away. That’s what’s been happening, you know. I’ve got to do something. Now. I’ve got to take some risks.”

  “Risks, like going to Thailand?” I asked.

  “Maybe. Other risks, too. Like, thinking about things, you know? What am I doing? What’s important? What kind of filmmaker do I want to be? What kind of person? Is this a life worth living?” She paused. “Maybe you should ask yourself some questions, too.”

  I felt myself stiffen. “I’m happy with the way I am.”

  “Really?” Her voice was abrupt and tinged with anger. “You can truly say that you have no questions about yourself? Nothing you want to rethink? No regrets?”

  I frowned. “Other than leaving you in that hellhole? No.”

  But I wasn’t so sure. She’d surprised me with this talk and I wasn’t reacting well. Something was growing inside her, excitement over getting back to her dream, or maybe anger.

  “You introduced me to this kind of thinking and talking,” she said.

  “In college? For God’s sake, we were all experimenting and testing things out back then,” I said. “But I can’t live with that kind of chaos. It’s too hard to keep asking questions and evolving. People are counting on me. At some point, you accept things and live with them.”

  “We’re only twenty-five!” she cried. “Don’t you die if you stop growing?”

  “Lee—”

  She burst into tears. “I don’t want to die. And that’ll happen if I stay like this. I know it. You know it, too. We have to change. We both do! We can’t die!”

  She was scaring me. I felt the muscles seize in my lower back and I stepped back. “I just want to be happy.”

  “Please don’t be defensive, Clare,” she cried. “Please!”

  “I don’t understand what we’re even talking about! Why does everything have to be such a big drama all the time?”

  “Because that’s how it feels to me! And I bet it would happen to you if you’d just let yourself feel, too,” she said.

  “You think I don’t feel?”

  We were yelling at each other now, our voices echoing off the water.

  “I have no idea what you feel sometimes,” she yelled. “Last night as we were leaving the restaurant and you were upset, I thought, okay, here we go. You were exposed and hurting and I thought I could help. But you can’t stand to feel that way. You can’t be open and vulnerable with me. Or anyone!”

  “My brother was being a complete jerk to me and my mother!” I yelled.

  “And that’s another thing,” she said. “I never realized how much you take care of her. I was shocked! You never told me that! You keep everything so close to the vest, especially with your family. God! I’m an idiot. I look to you way too much. How are you supposed to help me when you don’t even know what you feel?”

  “That’s so mean.”

  “Mean? It’s truthful.”

  “It’s mean!” I was screaming so much that I sprayed saliva down the front of me.

  “Me, mean?” Lee yelled. “How can you say that? After what you did?”

  The words sent a shudder down my back. “I knew it! You say you’re not mad at me for leaving, but you are. You had those premonitions and dreams before we left for spring break about how I was going to leave you. Then you made it happen. You’re the martyr and yet you’re pissed at me!”

  I’d never screamed at anyone like this. I barely knew what I was saying and wasn’t sure I even meant it. Premonitions? Martyr?

  “You have no idea what you did on the Florida trip, do you?” She was still angry but her voice wasn’t as loud.

  “Other than leave you? No. Tell me!”

  “You fucking figure it out.” And then she turned and walked back up the beach to the stairs.

  I started to cry again—why was I always crying?—as I watched her go. I began to shiver although I wasn’t cold and I didn’t want to think about Florida but I couldn’t help it. I turned to face the water. The cold rain on the Outer Banks. Sleeping in Sarah’s car. The Sigma Chis. Donny’s house. Charlie’s house. The Jittery Man. The window. Let her go, I’ll stay. Glass shattering. Hurry. Hurry! So many things had gone wrong on that trip. How was I supposed to fucking figure it out?

  “Clare! Clare, where are you?” Sarah yelled. I saw her silhouette at the top of the stairs. “Clare?”

  “Yeah,” I said.

  “Come on! You’re missing everything. We’re just about to take a picture of all of us. From the house.”

  I turned back to the water. What had I done that was worse than leave her or not tell the truth to the others? How was I supposed to figure this out?

  “Clare, come on,” Sarah yelled. “We need you!”

  I cringed. So many people needed me. It was unfair, that people asked so much of me. But I shook my head because this made no sense. Sarah needed me only for a picture. Get it together! I wiped my face, turned, and walked up the stairs.

  * * *

  I was drunk and not myself and after the picture—Lee and I had stood on opposite ends of the group—I plopped down in my chair and stared so hard that I saw two flower centerpieces, not one. I wasn’t there for more than a minute
when Christopher leaned over from behind and asked me to dance.

  I followed him to the floor. Everyone around us was dancing wildly, but Christopher put his arms around my waist and I reached behind his neck and then he drew me close. The heat from our bodies caused my cheeks to flush. I wanted to close my eyes and drift—maybe even sleep—but I was suddenly wired, my heart thundering in my chest.

  “This is a surprise,” he said. Hair fell over his eyes but he didn’t swing it away.

  I didn’t know what he meant; was it a surprise that we were here together, that my heart still beat madly for him, that I was wearing a dress meant for someone more confident, sexier? I felt my knees begin to wobble and I wanted him to kiss me and why didn’t I feel this way with Ben? He didn’t take my breath away or make my skin beg. This was passion. Was this love, too?

  “I’m full of surprises.” Then I stumbled, my sandal catching on something, I didn’t know what, and Christopher tightened his grip on my waist.

  “And full of alcohol,” he said. “Which seems to be our routine.”

  It was true, I was drunk. And I didn’t know what I was doing and you fucking figure it out and Sarah and Ducky would be so disappointed in me if they knew and then I rested my head on Christopher’s chest. Why hadn’t I taken more risks? My God, I lived at home with my college boyfriend. Live a little. Take chances. Don’t keep everything so close to the vest. Be vulnerable. Let her go, I’ll stay.

  When the song was over, Christopher dropped his arms and stepped away from me. His eyes weren’t playful and he no longer had that sly grin on his lips. I remembered that somewhere, maybe over near the bar, was a date. A friend.

  “What time is your flight tomorrow?” he asked.

  “One.”

  “I’ll meet you in the hotel lobby at nine,” he said. “We’ll get coffee and spend some time together. We’ll see if anything’s really there.”

  Did I want to do this? “Are you sure you’ll remember?”

  “I never forget anything. And I’m never late.”

  “Right.” I laughed, nervous, still unsure.

  He reached inside his jacket, pulled out a pen, and wrote nine a.m. in black ink on the inside of his palm. And then he wrote it on the inside of my palm, too.

  “Okay.” I nodded, squeezing my palm closed. He put his pen back, winked, and then walked to the bar. I stumbled over to our table and slid into my chair. At my place was a slice of wedding cake, the white frosting curled into waves on the edges and little red roses so intricate, so perfect in their dimensions, that they looked real. Were they real? Why couldn’t I tell?

  Sarah, her cheeks rosy and a layer of shimmery sweat across her forehead, plopped down next to me. “This is a blast. I’m so goddam happy to see everyone.”

  I nodded. But it was too much, this thing with Christopher, my fight with Lee, and seeing everyone again. And I didn’t like balancing on the edge of being very, versus moderately, drunk, either. I kept my fist in my lap, and with my other hand, I took a long drink of water. Across the way Ducky laughed with the handsome square-jawed boy while Susie and Lynn crowded around Amy. I looked for Lee and when I didn’t see her, I had to admit that I felt relieved.

  CHAPTER 16

  At 9:03 the next morning, I stood on the second floor of the hotel and peered over the railing to the lobby. I saw a family with two small children, dressed in swimsuits, walking to the doors leading to the pool. An older couple, sipping coffee, sat at a table next to a giant plant while a younger couple, arms around each other, stared at a map shared between them. Two women, dressed in matching beige shirts with shiny silver nametags, talked quietly behind the counter. I scanned the room again, in case I’d missed him, and found the same results. No Christopher.

  I rubbed my screaming temples. A shower hadn’t helped my hangover nor had the aspirin I took. I needed coffee. As I started down, I held my hand to my forehead, shielding my eyes from the sunlight that pierced the windows lining the stairs. Next to the concierge desk, I found a coffee urn and poured a cup. I shuddered. Lukewarm, weak, tasteless. No way would Lorenzo serve something this bad.

  I looked at my palm. The shower water hadn’t erased the bold, sharp letters, nine a.m. But now my watch read 9:07. Of course Christopher might be late. He said he was staying with his parents, who lived nearby. Which could mean anything. Nearby in Evanston. Nearby somewhere on the North Shore. I took another sip, walked to the front of the lobby, and looked out the revolving door. Then I hurried away, not wanting to seem too eager if he suddenly appeared. I felt a sheet of cold sweat on my forehead and wiped it away with my palm. I sat on a couch, hidden behind the plant.

  We’d gone to bed by one o’clock but I hadn’t slept well. My mind kept spinning from the wine and all that had happened. I felt anxious around Lee and didn’t know what to think about Christopher. Would he show? Why was I here? But I knew why. I was still attracted to him. I needed to see if something was there, too.

  Lee left early this morning. I heard her wake and shower but I pretended to be asleep until she’d gone. You fucking figure it out. Every time I said those words, I tensed and last night’s argument began playing in my mind.

  The revolving doors turned and I sat up and peered through the plant leaves, but it was only an older man, dressed in a suit and wearing a fedora.

  Christopher and I were meeting for coffee, in daylight with people around us. We would see if anything was there. I opened my palm again and stared at the letters. This wasn’t a joke.

  I moved to the far end of the couch and kept my head down when I saw two of Dougy’s friends stop at the front desk and then walk out the door. Suddenly Ben’s face flashed in my mind but no, no, no, I wasn’t doing anything wrong and couldn’t think of him now. I lunged for a newspaper next to me on the couch. I tried to read but couldn’t concentrate and when I looked at my watch again, it was nine twenty-five. I walked the length of the lobby, empty now except for the two behind the counter, and stood to the side. A half hour was more than fashionably late. I’d give him five more minutes and then leave. But when nine thirty came and went, I was still there.

  What if this was a joke? Maybe he’d meant it at the time but had since forgotten. Maybe he was in bed with his friend who was actually his fiancée. Maybe he wrote nine a.m. on several girls’ palms last night.

  I checked the front desk to see if a message had been left for me. And as the minutes ticked by, I felt a prickly, hot sensation on my neck that began creeping into my cheeks and up to my ears. Even if he arrived now, what did it mean that he was forty minutes late? And that I was still waiting?

  I threw my coffee cup into the trash. He wasn’t coming. Maybe he wasn’t ever coming. I felt so angry and flustered that I had to get out of there before anyone saw me and wondered what I was doing. I hurried up the stairs but instead of shading my eyes again, I looked out the window and saw Christopher strolling across the street toward the hotel. He stopped on the sidewalk below, next to a very pretty woman in a flowered sundress.

  I gripped the railing. So, he’d come, after all. Had he been delayed by car trouble? An alarm that didn’t work? The woman, her blond hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, was talking and Christopher, a slight smile on his lips, seemed to be listening, attentively. Perhaps she was lost and explaining where she wanted to go? Maybe they knew each other. Any moment now he’d excuse himself—he was forty minutes late, for God’s sake—and run into the lobby. Maybe I’d let him wait before I came down. Just so he wouldn’t think that I’d been standing there, looking for him, all this time.

  But Christopher didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Not once did he look up at the hotel or begin to move away. Instead, he leaned over the woman, as I’d seen him do so many times, and smiled as his hair fell into his eyes. When he reached up and tossed it back—how often I’d seen those pretentious Back Bay businessmen do the same thing—I felt last night’s overindulgences rumble in my stomach and start up my throat. I gagged and took the back of my
hand across my damp forehead.

  I imagined our life together, the parties where I’d always wonder about every female he greeted. The nights I’d be home, worrying about why he was late and who he was with. The flirting that would inevitably dissipate between us and turn into something else. Boredom? Hostility? Or worse, indifference? I deserved this, didn’t I? To be with someone unreliable who didn’t treat me well, who disappointed me?

  No. Maybe I didn’t quite deserve Ben, but I didn’t deserve this, either.

  I hurried up the stairs before I could change my mind.

  * * *

  I got home from Chicago two hours before Ben was due back from work. I let myself in the back door and stood in the kitchen, eyeing the empty tray on which I’d carried my mother’s tea and food just three days before. My parents were still in Chicago and tomorrow would go straight to the Vineyard where they’d spend the rest of the summer. Ben and I would have the house to ourselves again.

  I perked up. Why not make dinner? I might not be very good at this yet but he always appreciated my effort. I imagined him walking through the door, his tie hanging limply from his neck and his shirt untucked, and smiling as he smelled the meal. I’d set the table with candles and our good china, too.

  I felt giddy and fortunate and took the stairs two at a time, unpacked (the red dress went to the back of my closet) and cleaned my room until it was as tidy as Ben’s. Downstairs, I washed the dishes in the sink, swept the floor, and then opened the refrigerator. Not much here except yogurt, lox, and the spaghetti sauce I’d made. I opened the container and tasted it; much better than when I’d served it the other night.

  I walked to the market where I picked up bread, lettuce, fresh pasta (it cost twice as much as the boxed), and a chunk of expensive Parmesan cheese. Back at the house, I turned on the radio, opened the windows, and got everything together. I didn’t mind when Ben called to say that his boss, Patrick, was keeping him later. Because it was so considerate of him to call and because I knew where he was. At his desk. His nose in a book. I could count on this.

 

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