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A room away from the wol.., p.14

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 14

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  She held up the water bottle again, and I ducked, shielding my head.

  “I’m only messing with you,” she said. “Don’t be so serious.”

  I wasn’t laughing. “Hey,” I said. “You haven’t seen Lacey today, have you?”

  “Funny you should ask . . . I have.”

  “Is she okay? I thought I saw—I thought something happened to her. I guess I was confused.”

  “You weren’t confused.”

  Wasn’t I? I held up the green reptilian thing that had been hanging on my shoulder. In a way, it was evidence. “I have her purse.”

  “I see that. Listen, you weren’t confused. Lacey’s upstairs in her room, recovering. She shouldn’t have tried to leave again. Ms. Ballantine’s going to have a talk with her.”

  Recovering. Tried to leave. Upstairs in her room. How did she get back inside, avoiding the EMTs and the police and even me, right out on the sidewalk? There was only one way out of the garden, as far as I knew.

  Monet put a finger to her lips so I wouldn’t ask. “Don’t you get it?” she said. “You shouldn’t have called nine-one-one. Not about something happening in here, with us. We have to take care of it ourselves.”

  “I need to go check on Lacey.” I headed up the stairs.

  “You sure?” Monet said. “Maybe the one you need to worry about is yourself.” She seemed to know things about me she wasn’t telling. I’d sensed that from her the very first time we met.

  I kept climbing, but before I could open the door she called down once more. “How was your walk today? Did you wander around SoHo again?”

  She knew my habits. She knew where I was.

  She gazed down on me as if I should know what was coming right at me, as if she were shouting directions from a moving truck.

  Then she climbed the ladder to the fourth floor and into her room beneath mine.

  I didn’t know which room was Lacey’s now, but I went to the second floor and called her name. Finally one of the doors popped open and Lacey herself stuck out her head. Her face was puffy and pillow-creased from sleep. Her braids were loose, without any leaves or debris from the garden in them. She was alive, but she didn’t seem too thrilled to see me.

  “Hi,” I said. I had my hand on the door, which she wouldn’t open all the way.

  “Hi, what?” It wasn’t that she was being mean—more that she was being careful.

  “I just needed to see if you were . . .” Dead? I couldn’t say it.

  “Can’t you see I’m still here?”

  I leaned in, hoping no one in any nearby room was listening. “Do you need me to call your parents?”

  She leaned back, gaining distance. There wasn’t a speck of trust in her eyes. “It won’t matter.”

  It was a perplexing thing to be so content with something no one else seemed to want anymore. How many of these girls hoped to abandon their rooms in this house but felt tethered here, feet in cement and willed to stay?

  Couldn’t Lacey have gone home with her parents when they came for her stuff? I had questions, but the insistence in her eyes told me I should stop while I was ahead. All I ended up doing was holding up her purse so she could see. “I have this for you.”

  She pushed her hand through the crack and grabbed it. The door closed in my face. I hadn’t taken anything she’d miss from her wallet—no money, nothing worth even a cent, though I could have.

  On the stairwell heading back to the top floor, a familiar face came into view. Dark freckles like black ink spots; shifty eyes, gray. She slipped by me without stopping, a blur of motion swallowed by shadow.

  “Hey,” I called after her.

  She was gone, though her feet didn’t even make an audible patter down the stairs. When I looked at the closest portrait of the tenants—I was smack-dab in the middle of the 1970s, aimed right at 1975—I almost thought I saw the girl who’d avoided me on the stairwell. But hadn’t I also spotted her doppelganger in a photo from the 1920s? Maybe I did have a concussion.

  ━━━━━

  That night, in my own room, while I was hiding Lacey’s library card, the one item I’d slipped out of her hideous purse, I let myself go over my slowly growing collection. Each day I had something new to put in the hollow space behind the radiator. I removed each thing so I could run my eyes over it and remember where it came from—the place and the moment. The comb was the first—how the silver caught the sunlight, how it gleamed. Also from the parlor downstairs, I had a tiny ivory elephant. Little carved ridges in the body made it feel like a crushable thing. A ceramic ashtray, a folded purple silk fan, a rook from a cobwebbed unfinished game of chess. From the open doorway of a room on the third floor, I had a delicate necklace, a string of tiny silver seeds. Other items from the house included a beautifully decorated spoon from the sugar bowl in the dining room and, from my own common area, one of my floormates’ abundant shoes. I took only the left one.

  All I collected were items they wouldn’t notice: the beaded necklace among the other beads, the hair clip dropped beside the sink, the red-inked pen nestled among the black.

  But at the far back of the hollowed-out area behind the radiator, burrowed in deep, I had something else, something special. I didn’t have my mother’s blue scarf to wrap it in, and I’d returned Anjali’s shirt, so I used a sock.

  I’d thought of selling it—I’d scoped out a pawnshop in a basement storefront in the East Village—and I’d stood, wavering, on the top step, not yet ready to go down and see about giving it up.

  I wanted to ask my mother how she’d gotten hold of it—how it could have possibly appeared in a photograph from a hundred years ago that hung, framed, behind a pane of glass, over the mantel, and ended up in her possession, but I couldn’t call to ask. If Monet was to be believed, which of course she wasn’t but sometimes I pretended she was, it was from a countess in Prague who escaped to live a new life, and beyond that I didn’t know who else had worn it or where else it had lived.

  My mother once told me it was a gift—but from who, and for what occasion?

  She also said it saved her life.

  I removed the opal from its cave and let it loose from the sock. Within a moment, it was on my finger, and I was closing the lights and crawling into bed. I slept with it tucked under my pillow, my cheek on top. It was a hard knob digging into the mattress, oddly as cold as a cube of ice that never melted, but I was so comforted by the weight. I had to pull it out. To see.

  For a moment, the smooth black stone captured the light and shimmered, showing it wasn’t black after all but a swirl of many colors, uncountable colors, changing by the moment and shifting from every angle, the way opals do.

  Some girls wanted to leave Catherine House, and I couldn’t fathom why. With it on my hand, it felt like nothing bad could happen within these walls, beneath this roof, to me.

  City of Strangers

  A couple days later, I spotted the blue van again.

  It was parked at the end of the block, when before I swore it had been around the corner near Waverly Place. Someone had moved it, even though its tires were still locked by the city and its parking tickets still wriggled in the wind. Now it was much closer to Catherine House. I could see it from the front stoop.

  I left the gate and crept closer. Wrinkled stickers, rust swirls, and dents made it seem urgently out of place, a desperate girl screaming into a stone-faced crowd with everyone looking the other way. The porthole windows were covered by curtains or, it occurred to me as I checked more closely, loose and soiled clothes pressed up against glass to keep curious eyes out. Murmuring came from inside, an argument of some kind. Heated and furious, then shushed, then contained. I rested my weight ever so gently against the side of the van, trying to get my ear closer. A hubcap was missing, and one of the tires was bald.

  The van door could have slid open with a roar, and any monstrou
s thing could have happened, but I stayed put, listening.

  Placing my ear against the side of the derelict vehicle, dirty and sticky with some unidentified city substance, was like cupping my ear to a seashell. Ordinary, earthly voices stopped, and something else made itself known. A rush of wind could be heard coming from the belly, the air whipping itself into a frenzy, battering against walls and breaking branches, as if a forest of trees crowded inside. Then it calmed, as if it knew I was there listening, and I recognized the sound. I knew the exact timbre, the swell and hold, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the rustle, the whisper. It was the sound of home.

  I pushed off, went running. Not for the boardinghouse but beyond it—I didn’t even know where. Uptown or downtown, east or west, closest avenue or any beyond. I was far away from the van in no time—and some passersby, probably tourists, saw me running and seemed alarmed, but others, surely locals and used to minding their own business, didn’t bat an eye.

  ━━━━━

  I slowed to a walk, and then I was walking for a while. A stretch of blocks came and went. At some point, I stopped. I’d come this way for a reason, and I didn’t want to let myself know it yet, but things were taking shape. Something clicked.

  I knew that lamppost. A yellow storefront on the corner pulsed with familiarity, and I found myself pulled toward it. I stood beneath the yellow for a long moment, under the protruding awning that kept me out of the sun, until I saw the flowers lining the block. I remembered.

  The only time I’d visited the city, I’d come here, to this place. That lamppost, this awning, and my memory shrank my hand to child-size. I sensed the ghost of my mother’s hand in mine.

  It was the visit my mother’s husband and his daughters ruined, when I was thirteen. Something else happened that visit, something that took us here.

  We’d separated from them for an hour or two. She wouldn’t tell me where we were going, but she’d led us to this corner and stopped. There was so much noise. Color. Activity. I wanted to memorize every inch, to drink in the outfits and accents, to carve my initials in fresh concrete so they would dry and stay forever, like some initials I’d seen. We stood in the glow of the yellow awning while she got herself together. Her fingers were trembling, which made me hold tighter, glancing up at her, trying to understand.

  She breathed out. Then she led me down the next block, a street filled entirely with bright, blooming flowers and plants in pots. We traveled for what felt a long time through green shade, which sometimes reached over my head, and it confused me, this part of the city so much like upstate, as if we’d returned to our garden we’d had to give up. But she set me straight: She said this was only the flower district. It had made me think this city must be made up of different divisions, magical islands separated by crosswalks, and if someone wanted a daisy in the city of New York, they had to come to this street only and nowhere else.

  Now I was back. Somehow I found myself here again.

  A series of flower shops and gardening stores lined the street now as it had then. Not a thing had changed. I walked, buckets of bright blossoms and tall arching ferns on either side of me, basil and oregano and other herbs and spice plants giving the air a tangy scent, and the roses, every last color to be imagined, crowding the sidewalk. To walk this street felt different, now that I was taller and more sure. I could see up and out. I could see where it ended.

  When the block was over, the city emerged again, gray and charming in a different way. A traffic sign glowed at me with a beckoning figure: walk.

  I came to a stop right in front of the same destination from that visit with my mother so long ago, when she’d forced herself to ask my father for money. This was where he worked.

  My father still owned the same art gallery he’d opened after my mother left him—there was some kind of small inheritance he got after his own father died, and he used it all for this. We’d always known where it was, though we’d visited only the once. I remembered the wide pane of glass, the white insides. I remembered some pictures on the walls and an ugly, stumpy figure in the center of the floor—a sculpture of something I couldn’t understand, maybe an animal of some kind, a creature. It was lumpy to the touch, colder than I expected. Something slimy had come away on my wandering hand, as if the sculpture were oozing and alive. My father had yelled at me for touching it.

  As for my father, I’d forgotten what he looked like in specifics, but I’d recognize him if he were there. He was my father. He would know me, and I him.

  I hadn’t meant to seek him out. My feet had done it for me. They’d traveled through the corridor of flowers and carried me here, for this. I would tell him who I was, and I would ask him for money, and I would be able to eat lunches and dinners in restaurants and buy new shampoo, and wouldn’t even have to think of pawning the opal then. He’d never sent a child support check in his life, and when we’d visited those years ago we’d left empty-handed. He owed me, and my mother, and I would tell him. I hadn’t known it at first, but it was why I’d come.

  Through the glass, I could see a series of large paintings hung on the walls—long legs and bare bellies, pinkish flesh and flushed faces—but the art barely registered. I sensed he was close, the tremble of my mother’s hand again in my hand. She never wanted to ask him for anything. She would have torn me away from this place before she’d let me go in there and ask him for as much as ten dollars. My being here was the last thing she would have wanted. She would have shoved me down the sidewalk and into the green.

  And yet I didn’t move. He was in there on the other side of the glass, I felt it.

  “I don’t get art sometimes,” I heard from behind me. “I mean, why’s it always got to be naked girls? Are we so special they can’t be satisfied painting a tree?”

  Her low voice made me unsteady.

  I turned.

  Monet was resting the weight of one leg on a fire hydrant. She kicked off and came closer, running her fingers through her hair. It was blond today. Her bare arms gleamed in the sunlight, muscled and curved the way an artist might render them in permanent, glistening paint. I wondered what it would be like to be her.

  I wanted to act outraged that she’d found me here—confront her, make her unsteady—because of course she’d followed me from the house. She had to have.

  But the thought of it pleased me. She’d followed me.

  She moved up close to the glass, and now we were both there, hip against hip and shoulder to shoulder, peering in.

  “Which one’s your favorite?” she asked.

  They were all blurs to me. There were nipples and bellies and pointed toes. The girls in the paintings all had dark curly hair, sometimes a hand running through it. They could have been one girl.

  Monet squinted. Her mouth fogged the window in the shape of a crescent moon plunged out of the sky and lying sideways.

  “I like the giant one in the middle,” she said. “In that one at least she doesn’t look dead and murdered on that hideous plaid couch.”

  The mention of the couch caught my attention, and I found myself studying it instead of the painted girl. The hideous plaid couch—tan and brown, composed so it mimicked a hunched creature itself, moldy and furred—prickled my memory. The arms were tall, the cushions sunken. I recognized it from somewhere, maybe.

  Monet seemed to think I was ignoring her question on purpose.

  “Don’t be so sensitive,” she said. “People tell you that all the time, don’t they?”

  I nodded, because they did. I was gullible, I was sensitive, I was too unsure in my own skin. She didn’t know me, but she knew that.

  “Are you stalking me?” I tried to smile.

  She shrugged. “You’re the one who called the cops over. Maybe you thought you knew something you don’t. Something you can’t know yet. Because you’re not supposed to.”

  The way she spoke made the sunny street d
ark for a moment. I heard the whistle of wind, as if I were back inside that gated garden, down on my knees in the dirt by the grave, where the city didn’t seem to touch. I had dirt under my fingernails. I noticed it right then and tried to pick it out, but it was so deep in there.

  “You’re going to see some things while you’re here, and they’re not going to make sense. And you’re going to try to make sense of them, but your brain is too small to take it in. So stop fighting.”

  The dirt was embedded under my fingernails, and I imagined it, plush and dark, seeping into my blood and contaminating me.

  “So why are we here?” Monet said, sweeping her hands over the view of the empty gallery. “Out purchasing some art to liven up your tiny room?”

  I scoffed. “I have fifty-three dollars to my name.”

  I was about to say more, but I saw him then. I saw him.

  He was standing near where I recalled the slimy sculpture had been when I’d visited. His shadow was wider but just as tall. He still had that beard. I remembered the beard, and I remembered something else. When I’d touched the sculpture and he’d yelled at me, he’d also pushed me away from it, a shove that landed me on the ground, which was concrete, hard and cold. This alarmed my mother, and a fight began, one that propelled us out of the gallery soon after, without any cash in hand and with him yelling after us that she was a greedy Jew whore for coming to ask him for money after refusing to take his calls for years. I plugged my ears until we were across the intersection and in the flowers again, back with the flowers, away from him, safe, but that wasn’t what hit me as I saw him standing there.

  It was that I didn’t want a thing from him after all.

  My mother had taught me that. How had I forgotten?

  It was too late. He was looking out the wall of windows, straight at me.

  Monet didn’t notice my father, even though he was the one person inside the gallery and he was right there. She had eyes only for the paintings. “How much do you want to bet a dude painted those things?” she said. “I’ll bet you twenty bucks it’s a dude. If you win, you’re up to seventy-three bucks. C’mon, let’s go in. Let’s see.”

 
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