A narrow street stretched out in front of me. Warehouses lined it on either side, all the ones to the right having an ugly, dirty, maize-colored paint. To my left, an alleyway emptied onto the street between one building with wooden siding and another made entirely of brick. The alley made me feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, standing all alone in the middle of the street like that.
My discomfort was answered by a young Asian man emerging from the alley. He was slightly heavyset and wearing glasses. I didn’t care much for his baggy clothing, skull cap and hanging trousers. So many guys dress like that, even some girls I know. Maybe it didn’t mean anything. I held my breath hoping he would turn up the street, but instead he stepped out onto it and walked straight toward me.
“Stay passive, Annie,” I began repeating to myself silently. “Maybe he will just cross the street. Passive… passive… just give him your purse. It’s not worth dying for.” Then I realized I wasn’t holding one. I looked down. I had on blue jeans that were tucked into very cute fluffy beige Mukluks, a little bit weird because I don’t own a pair. I definitely didn’t have a purse or anything in the way of pockets really either. I could feel my cell phone tucked in my right boot. It occurred to me that if the man was approaching me, it must be me he was after. My discomfort became panic.
I stood still, rehearsing in my head. As the man got within a few feet of me, he drew a knife. I tried not to show any reaction at first. “Open palm,” I reminded myself. He raised the knife, making sure I got a good look at it. “You must be lost,” he said, reaching the knife up and scraping the blade slowly across my cheek. I tried to tremble as noticeably as I could. “I don’t have any mon…” the blade came away from my cheek and I drove my hand up hard into his nose, striking upward the way I was taught.
My attacker was dazed and I didn’t hesitate. I hit him several times in the throat as fast as I could. There was a sickening crack as one of my punches landed. The knife fell and he grabbed his throat. I realized he was asphyxiating but there was nothing I could do. There was so much adrenaline rushing through me I could barely see. I stepped back and watched in horror as he fell to the street and suffocated to death in front of me, blood pouring out from his nose into a large pool on the blacktop.
Composure found its way back, and now I was suddenly afraid someone would see me with the body. I grabbed him by the feet and dragged with all my might. He couldn’t have weighed even two hundred pounds, but it felt like a ton. I managed to get him moving and dragged him back across the street and into the alley he came out of.
I walked back out of the alley. There was still the huge puddle of blood. Looking nervously up the street, of course I saw a squad car turn onto it, heading in my direction. The best thing I could think was to walk casually toward the car. It passed me by and I kept walking. When I got to the intersection, I didn’t look back. I turned and ran up the street as fast as I could.
A city bus was crawling slowly along in heavy traffic. I saw the bus stop up ahead so I raced the bus to get there ahead of it and I flagged it down. The bus driver turned out to be a man I know. “I’m sorry Lloyd I don’t have any money for fare,” I said as I got on. Lloyd waved me off. “You can get me next time, Annie,” he said. I walked a few seats back and sat down. It was safe on the bus, but I couldn’t ride it forever, so I rang for my stop. Lloyd pulled the bus over and let me off. “See you later, Annie.” I took a deep easy breath as I watched the bus pull away.
After the bus had gone, I looked at the street and I had to rub my eyes. It was the same narrow street with the warehouses. I was standing right where the man’s blood should have been, but the street was clean. The puddle of blood was gone. I looked nervously at the alleyway. The same man came out just as he had what seemed like only a moment before. Again he stepped out onto the street and again he walked straight toward me.
This time I was terrified and confused. I was certain he would remember that I had just killed him. There would be no element of surprise and I would be defenseless. I didn’t know what to do. Again he reached into his pocket, but this time, instead of a knife, he pulled out a cell phone. He smiled at me watching him. “Good morning,” he said with a cheerful nod. Putting the phone to his cheek, he walked right past me. I turned to see where he went, but he was gone.
Shocked, I stared at the street. I recognized it now. It was my dead end street where my favorite coffee shop is, but how did the bus get there to drop me off? It made no sense. The other side of the fenced-off end was supposed to be the main boulevard, but the boulevard wasn’t there. In its place was a swollen muddy brown river. I looked over at my coffee shop. Why couldn’t I see it before?
What a strange dream! The confusion became too much and I woke up in my bed for the first time in almost a week. It was nice to be in the comfort of my own bed again, but the comfort didn’t last. I stared at the ceiling for a minute, with the memory fading and turning slowly to anger. I was still alone in bed. Stephen never came home at all last night.
He wasn’t home when I called him from the airport and he didn’t answer his cell. I couldn’t believe it. He knew they had canceled the last day of the seminar and I was trying to get an earlier flight home. I had to call a cab. Twenty seven fifty and a tip. Grr!
I came home to an empty house. Stephen still hadn’t picked up my car from the shop. It was supposed to be ready Tuesday. A week of dishes were piled in the sink, he hadn’t bothered to pick up his clothes and the bed wasn’t even made when I dragged myself into it.
I was good and mad now. It was probably a good thing I’d taken out a little violence on that guy in my dream. “I’ll start cleaning up your mess,” I said to Stephen’s empty spot, “but you’re so going to hear it when you get home.” I rolled over in the bed and pulled the covers back. I slid toward the edge of the bed.
My right leg was itching where the cell phone had been tucked in my dream. When I reached down to scratch it, I felt something stuck there. I peeled it away from my leg and held it up to look. It was a condom. I blinked at it trying to process what I was seeing. Stephen and I hadn’t been using them since, well I couldn’t remember when. Even if we had used one it wouldn’t still be sticky after a…
Nausea flooded my body. The condom dropped to the bed. My hands clasped to my mouth but I couldn’t stop my stomach from emptying onto the sheets. I jumped up and raced for the bathroom. I’d never felt this before. My blood felt like it had turned to poison, my brain was spinning out of control, and I wanted to throw up everything that wasn’t my skin.
Both arms grabbed the toilet to keep me from falling off the Earth. I squeezed it for dear life. My stomach was reeling as if I’d been kicked by a mule, and so I just held and squeezed until finally I could feel blood in my veins and hear thoughts in my head again. Tears were streaming down my face but I didn’t remember them ever starting. I didn’t even remember why I was there. I searched my memory and then it came back. I saw myself, peeling it from my leg, holding it in my hand. The world swirled and I had to let it go again, but this time it only lasted for a few seconds and I began crying his name. “Stephen…”
It was the only thing I could think. We had been together almost five years, since my sophomore year in college. We were engaged, “were” being the operative word now. “Oh God, Stephen, why?” If I didn’t have him I had nothing. I conceded. I had nothing. Suddenly this wasn’t my home anymore. I had no home. The nausea wouldn’t leave me but there was nothing left for it to expel. The cramps that refused to subside were producing only pain so I got up and washed my face.
The girl in the mirror was someone I didn’t recognize. I felt sorry for her. Her face was ugly and she really needed to learn how to smile. The way her mouth was twisted up… no one would ever want to kiss that face. I put hot water on the washrag and hid behind it. The heat relaxed my muscles and the steam was friendly. It helped my reflection, but I didn’t want to look at her anymore.
I couldn’t stand up straight from the cramps, but I walked from the bathroom anyway. This wasn’t home. Not my home. I knew I couldn’t stay. I glared angrily at the mess on the bed as if it was somehow responsible for how I felt. I couldn’t leave it like that. I pulled the sheets off, thankful they produced no more surprises, and grabbed the phone on my way out to the garage. I was berating myself for washing his laundry, but it made me feel human. I threw the sheets in the washer and pushed the dial.
The phone stared at me from my hand. The pit in my chest was begging me to call him. There was some explanation. There had to be. I punched in his number, “Hey, this is Stephen, you know the drill…” I hung up before the beep. There was no sense in leaving another message. The wash cycle started and started my stomach churning with it.
Back in the safety of the house I called Jessi, staring at the mess of dishes in the sink. What had he been doing for a week? Jessi answered. “Annie? When did you get home?” I tried to tell her, but I didn’t know where to begin and I just started crying again. “Annie, what’s wrong?” She tried to comfort me while I collected myself again. Then I said it. “I think Stephen’s cheating on me.” The finality of the words was a blanket of security draped over me. I didn’t think. I knew.
Jessi was silent for a moment on the other end of the phone. I grabbed some cleaner and a towel and headed back into the bedroom, sitting down on Stephen’s side of the bed. I pulled the nightstand drawer open. I didn’t have to dig far. I “Are you sure?” Jessi finally asked. I told her about the condom. It was too easy to say. Like somehow I had known this all along.
A parade of colorfully dressed profanities marched from Jessi’s mouth. I opened the box and dumped its contents. An optimist would say it was half full. I tried to occupy myself the best I could while I listened to Jessi rant. “I can’t stay here, Jess. And Stephen never picked up my car. Can you just come and get me?”
Jessi’s language returned to printable. “Is he there now?”
“No. He wasn’t here when I called from the airport last night and he’s been gone all night.”
“‘Kay. I just needed to know if I should be packing my knucks,” she seethed.
I smiled but I couldn’t laugh. She didn’t really have any. “I just need to get out of here okay?”
Jessi said she had a quick errand to run and she’d be over to get me as soon as she could. I ended the call. My eyes focused on my engagement ring, crawling on me like a black hairy spider. I shuddered and ripped it from my finger, without really caring where it bounced.
Meticulously I began working at the wet spot on the mattress with the cleaner. I had it pretty well cleaned up when I heard Stephen’s truck outside. My heart started pounding. At least it was still in there. I swept the condoms into the box, tucked them back in their hiding place in his drawer, and looked out the window.
Only Stephen’s boat was in the driveway, next to the empty spot where my car should have been. He’d parked on the street. I put the cleaner back in the kitchen and waited by the door, not sure what I would say or should say. My heart pounded harder and harder at the sound of his key turning the lock. The thought that he would try to kiss me hello was too much. I had to say something.
“Who is she?” I blurted out the second he was inside the door. I could barely hear my voice, as it tried to cry in spite of me. Instantly, I was fighting the nausea again.
Stephen looked shocked to see me. “Hi Babe, when did you get home?” he asked ignoring my question. “You weren’t supposed to fly in until tonight.” He stepped closer to me and started to reach an arm out. I backed away. He put his arm down and tried to look confused. “What’s up? You weren’t serious were you? Who is who?” He sounded genuine, but I thought I heard a little flinch in the second who.”
The pretense of innocence only made me madder. I squinted my eyes. “Where were you all night?” It should have been my first question. He’d already had too much time to think about it.
“Tyler and I were grabbing some brews,” he said. “I got too drunk and had to crash there. You didn’t want me driving home like that did you?”
“I don’t know. Stupid me. I thought it would be nice if someone was driving me home last night.”
“You weren’t supposed to be home until tonight!”
“I told you Tuesday they canceled the Friday seminar and I was trying to get an earlier flight back. If you’d answered any of my phone calls, you’d have known. And speaking of Tuesday, where’s my car?”
“Oh crap! I’m sorry Babe, I forgot all about that.” For four days he forgot? But he sounded sincere. “What’s with the interrogation shit? You don’t trust me. I hate that! Why can’t you just trust me? Shit, Annie, we’re engaged. You’re going to be my wife! Why would I cheat on you?”
“I don’t know Stephen. Why would you cheat on me?”
Stephen shook his head. I couldn’t tell if the question caught him off guard or not. We had been through this before. The questions, the diversions instead of answers. Every time I felt stupider than the time before for letting myself believe him. He tossed his keys on the table and pretended to look at the stack of mail he’d been tossing there without reading.
“You piss me off, Annie. I don’t know how this is ever going to work if you can’t trust me.” He picked up an envelope and looked at it more closely, turning it over as if there was something on the back. “You just don’t know when to turn your imagination off. It’s like you think it’s real or something.” He tossed the envelope back on the table and turned to look at me again. “You trust your imagination more than you trust me.”
“My imagination?” I pissed him off? At least he made me forget my nausea. “I woke up with your girlfriend stuck to my leg! You call that my imagination?”
“What…” He started to say something and I did everything I could to burn a hole through him with my eyes.
I could see the light bulb come on. He realized there was something I hadn’t told him yet. “What the hell are you talking about, my girlfriend?” he demanded.
My eyes squinted hard on their own this time. “I don’t know. I guess I ‘imagined’ I found a used condom in our bed.”
The silence that followed seemed like hours. I could hear a clock ticking somewhere even though our clocks were all digital. It’s ratcheting gears echoed down some imaginary hallway. His face morphed through several expressions, finally arriving at one that looked like he suddenly expected pity.
“That was just some girl I picked up in a bar,” he finally said desperately. “She was nothing. Just some girl in a bar, Annie. I love you. It’s you I love. You know that.”
“Is that what you told her Stephen? That she was nothing? Is that how you got her to sleep with you? ‘Hi! You mean nothing to me. Would you like to f…?'” I couldn’t finish it. I expected the silence I got. As painful as it was, it felt good to be in control. To know that I had the truth and that it was my loyal ally. “I don’t know what hurts worse, Stephen, that I was stupid enough to believe that once, or just knowing that you think I’m that stupid. I’m surprised she’s not waiting outside in the truck!”
Stephen’s face was pale. He swallowed but didn’t say anything.
“Oh my God, she is, isn’t she? That’s where you were all night? With her?” I started toward the door.
“I told you I was at Tyler’s.” He caught me and held me back from the door. The assailant from my dream flashed through my mind, his blade scraping again against my cheek. I pulled away from Stephen almost in terror. “You can call Tyler and check it out,” he said.
The thought that Tyler was somehow going to cover for his lie, was more than I wanted to deal with. “Why didn’t you answer your phone?” I demanded. “You knew they canceled the seminar and I might get an earlier flight. Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“It must have been off, I don’t know.” He pulled it out and showed it to me. It was off.
“How hard is it to push the On button?” I asked. I snatched the phone and turned it on. “Not that hard is it?” A message popped up on the screen from someone named Corrie, “Miss you already.”
“Corrie? Is that her name?”
Stephen made one last attempt at dodging the inevitable. “Corrie is just a guy from work. We were supposed to be going over a job bid.”
“Oh really? So if I call him is he going to know about this bid?” I pushed the call button.
Stephen snatched the phone and closed it. “You’re just paranoid now,” he said. “You’re acting crazy.”
“Crazy would be being stupid enough to believe any more of your damned stories,” I retorted.
The knock I needed to hear came at the door. Jessi was here. Stephen seemed equally glad for the chance to avoid me and turned to answer the door. He opened it and let Jessi in. “Hey, Jess,” he greeted her as casually as he could.
Without looking him, Jessi politely showed him how cute the back of her middle finger was through her new fingerless gloves. “I thought you said he wasn’t going to be here,” she said pushing past him.
“Oh so this is everybody’s business now?” Stephen asked indignantly. “What the hell?”
Jessi handed me a cup of coffee and threw her arms around me. “Sorry,” she said. “You sounded like you could use a Carmach.”
I took the caramel macchiato. I wasn’t sure if I’d actually be able to drink it, but I wanted to kiss her for thinking of it. I looked at Stephen. “I’ll be back for my things later,” I said. I opened the door and stepped out and waited for Jessi. She wasn’t sure which glove she had showed off, so she showed him both on the way out. “It would be real good if you were gone when I get back.”
“Annie…” I closed the door.
Jessi and I got into her car. She started the engine. “You gonna be okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t dare look over my shoulder to see if Stephen was watching as we pulled away. “Someone named Corrie might not be.” I stared out the window and tried a tiny sip of my Carmach. It was hot and sweet and it tasted like Jessi loved me.
“What do you mean?” Jessi asked.
I took another slightly longer sip. “It only took me a minute to find his box of condoms in the nightstand,” I said. “I poked a pin through every single one of them while I was talking to you on the phone.”
© 2010 Anne Schilde