Revised January 16, 2000
When Melissa went out to check the mail at eleven, the thermometer had already passed ninety. Cocoa danced around her sandaled feet down two flights of stairs and she shushed him twice when he gave a little whelp of excitement. In the lobby where he could see trees and squirrels through the outer door, he tugged at the leash while she wiggled her key in lock of the tall aluminum mailbox. She flipped through the catalogs, bills, and MasterCard offers. It was amazing, she thought, how quickly the mailing houses had pegged her as a twenty-something young-married, promising her happiness through the good offices of Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, and Williams-Sonoma. But then a long white envelope caught her eye. Written in the lower left corner were the words "Photo. Do Not Bend." There was no return address. The junk mail went back into the box and she fanned herself with the mysterious envelope as she and the terrier pushed out the door.
The park was two blocks down a shady street lined with three-story brick apartment buildings dating from the twenties. The maples, ash, and an occasional surviving elm arched overhead, irregular patches of blue sky breaking through the thick green foliage. She sidestepped the shafts of light--not friendly emissaries from the sun today but deadly spears of fire--without caring how she looked weaving her way down the sidewalk. On weekends, when she and Charles went out hand-in-hand, the sidewalk was full of men in sports jerseys and women in halter-tops running errands or pushing strollers, but weekdays it seemed as though she was the only one alive. She and Cocoa.
The full force of the heat struck her as she crossed to the park, recently denuded of its old elms. Melissa released Cocoa's collar and sat in the thin shade of a young maple to consider her letter, turning it front and back. She pushed a loose strand of damp, auburn hair behind her ear. The envelope felt cheap, as if it had been made from recycled newsprint. Big block letters spelled out the caution and the same handwriting, smaller, gave her name and address. A heavier hand had corrected her zip code. The postmark said San Francisco, a week ago.
Cocoa came bounding back with a stick he had found among the chopped up trunks of the elms. They tussled for a minute until he released it for her to send flying across the withered grass. As he dashed off, she ripped a corner of the envelope, wormed her little finger in the edge of the flap and slowly tore along the top. Inside was one photo, wrapped in a sheet of lined, 3 hole paper. The words said simply "Those were the days." Dennis stared at her from the photo, yellow-white hair in spikes, eyes crossed and mouth twisted into a mock scream. On the ground under his feet lay a headless baby doll. Melissa giggled aloud. He had always made her laugh back in college where they had progressed rapidly from friends to lovers. Everything about him was intense, unpredictable, impulsive, and his mind raced ahead to places she didn't know existed. During his mile-a-minute fantasies and rambles, his green-gray eyes focused entirely on her.
Melissa flipped the picture idly in her hand. On that day, hot like today, they had cut class and wandered into the neighborhood of Victorian frame houses squeezed together on narrow lots, but in his mind they were on a quest full of dark caves, fierce dragons, and treacherous canyons. He continued to spin tales at a deserted playground where they had run up and down the old metal slide and pushed each other in the rubber swings. Just before she snapped the picture, he'd squeaked out that his manhood was being crushed by the tight sling. How like him to burst back into her life eight years later with a crazy old picture. Smiling to herself, she looked at it again. The broken doll was pale pink against the wood chips. It wore only a diaper, and one leg stuck straight up. On it, her memory was a blank: not stepping over it, not watching Dennis kick it away, not hearing it play a macabre role in his story.
They passed no one on the walk back to the brick and stone courtyard building with the wrought iron gate. Charles had picked out their apartment alone when he interviewed for his promotion in Chicago. On a snowy Saturday three weeks later, the movers had hauled their furnishings up the stairs -- his family antiques and her kitchen appliances and their wedding china. As Melissa gave them directions to put the French armoire in the corner and the sofa bed by the window, her imagination served up a picture of new friends around her dining room table eating warm honey cakes and trading tips about pregnancy and preschools. At first, she and Cocoa had kept their eyes open for the new friends and when she told him what they would be like, Cocoa always nodded in agreement. In the heat, though, there was no point in speculating. The friends would not materialize today.
When Charles returned late again that evening, Melissa was lying on the sofa listening to a Gershwin CD, an old birthday gift from one of the interchangeable boyfriends who had followed Dennis. She used to listen to the record endlessly, wondering how a long-dead songwriter had pegged her longings so well. Under the sway of the witty lyrics, lost love had always seemed like a matter for sweet nostalgia, a call to put aside memories of how Dennis' laughing mood could turn cold and serious and his stare would pin her in her seat. When Charles came along, she kept hearing "someone to watch over me" at the back of her mind, even though she knew it was irrational to match her various boyfriends to song lyrics. He was the first real adult she'd ever dated, she remembered thinking, attentive rather than self-absorbed, responsible. Someone who understood that love was more than an evening's laughter and a sweaty good-night.
"God, it's hot," he said, dropping his briefcase just inside the door. Sultry weather rumpled Charles's self-assured façade and made him look vulnerable: designer tie loose, the gray linen jacket slung over his shoulder, his long, lean face flushed and slightly shiny, and the hornrims halfway down his nose. She jumped up to greet him, grabbing the picture from the coffee table. His chin scraped lightly over her skin as he leaned in to kiss her on the forehead, ignoring the photo. "How delicious and cool you are," he said softly. Putting his finger to his lips, he backed into the bedroom. Ten minutes later he emerged damp from the shower, brown hair slicked back from his high forehead, a bit of gray at the temples.
"Now what was so urgent, honey?" He had changed into a forest green polo shirt and khaki shorts.
"Oh, not urgent, I guess. Just a funny thing in the mail." She held out the snapshot and barely shrugged her shoulders. "This came today. No letter, just one old photo. From when I was in college. What's odd is…"
He took it from her and held it under the light. "Is this the wacko Dennis? Strange looking guy."
"C'mon. He was just making a face there. Actually he..."
"Actually he looked like Brad Pitt and all the girls lusted after him."
"No, actually, he liked to joke around a lot." She took the picture back, turned slightly away from him, and reconsidered it. The spiky hair no longer looked as cool as it had a decade earlier, and the whole adventure would seem childish if she had to explain it to Charles.
"I didn't know you kept in touch with him." He raised an eyebrow.
"Then how does he know where you live?"
"I don't know. Alumni records?"
"So he just finds you out of the blue? I trust you're not planning to answer." He finished threading his belt through the waistband of his walking shorts. "I got a call from my folks…"
"Wait, Charles. I wanted to say, it's so odd… I remember everything about that playground, but I don't remember the doll."
"Why would you?" He had turned away to pour himself a glass of wine. "Did I tell you my parents are coming to visit?"
"Oh, that's fine." She scraped her fingernail over the doll as if she could pry it loose. Charles was right: an inconsequential detail. No point in worrying.
Charles had been the first man who really made her forget Dennis, made her quit looking for a saner version of the same imagination in every guy. She supposed she'd scared a lot of them away, trying to provide frenzied energy to make up for what they lacked. She tried on different personalities to see what worked, but either the men failed to call back or she had to chase the moony ones away. She had stumbled against Charles at a holiday party when she was being groped by a half-drunk date. Charles had steadied her and told her she had beautiful eyes. He took her to concerts and museums and read to her from the books he loved. He ordered in French and quoted poetry and bought her a sexy black dress so they could go to galleries on weekends. He was cool and calm and spun his own world around her, and she saw her old friends less and less, learning how to speak of films not movies, and how to appreciate harmony over energy. It was possible to imagine him a father. She looked into the mirror before their third date and wiped off the heavy eyeliner. By the time he finally undressed her one night on the bed at his apartment she had longed for him for months. He'd said later that it would have been a mistake to rush. He did that: he protected her from bad decisions. When he flew out to Chicago to pick out the apartment, she hadn't worried that he would make a bad choice. He was far too sensible. She feared only his displeasure, that he might find her silly and stop loving her.
On Saturday about ten days later, a thunderstorm blew in just before noon. Charles came back from a run down to the local deli to pick up some roast beef for lunch. A handful of mail tumbled from underneath his green plastic poncho and Melissa stooped to pick it up off the wet linoleum. The ink on the white envelope had run a little, but the handwriting was clearly the same. This time the postmark said Reno, Nevada. She knew Charles was watching her but when she glanced up, he had turned to unpack the groceries. She opened the envelope with a steak knife. One photo, as before, was wrapped in a sheet of school paper that shook out to read "The memory of your arms." She and Dennis and three other friends were celebrating at the local Burger King, just after finals. She was sitting at the front of the booth, her long auburn hair pulled back, baring the roundness of her face and calling attention to her eyes, outlined in gray eyeshadow and black mascara. Dennis's arm reached around her shoulder and pulled her against him. Underneath his low dark eyebrows, he was frowning while she and her friend Yvonne laughed into the camera. He always liked to have his hands on her, and even in public would keep her close with an arm around her shoulders or her waist or maybe just a finger tickling the back of her neck. Now and then he had bruised her with a squeeze or a grab and had kissed the site profusely in apology. She always forgave him. The color of the photo had turned slightly yellow, except for the red spot on the table underneath her hamburger. It was bright red, like fresh blood.
"What have you got, honey? Another one of crazy Dennis's old photos?" Charles stood behind her and ran his hands over her upper arms.
"He wasn't crazy," she murmured, handing it to him. "He got stressed out sometimes."
"Ah, was that it? Looks like you OD'd on catsup here."
"I don't remember that."
"Probably repressed it. Or maybe you were high." He chuckled softly. "These going to keep coming?"
"I have no idea. He was a long time ago, so just forget it." She tore the photo in half and threw it in the kitchen trash. Charles followed her, mumbled something, and tried to kiss her neck but she busied herself in the refrigerator.
Dennis had stressed out, all right. She and Rebecca had gone off once for a weekend in April of their senior year. Rebecca knew a boy from high school down at Madison and had talked Melissa into going with her. A break, she said. Everyone should let up sometimes. We're graduating seniors, so what can they do to us? When they got back, Dennis was nowhere to be found. Two days later, he called from a town fifty miles away where he had hitchhiked and ran out of money. She'd had to find someone with a car to cut classes and drive her out to get him. He looked a mess, sitting in the bus station, looking indistinguishable from any other down-and-out, except for the leather jacket she'd given him for his birthday. His hair, growing out black at the roots, was greasy and matted in back, his eyes were red, and he refused to meet her look. She had rubbed a bit of dried food away from the stubble on his chin and kissed the taste of old smoke and stale sandwiches on his lips. Back on campus, she bathed him and got him settled into bed, but things were never the same between them after that. He begged her to stick with him; her friends all told her to save herself. She cried when she returned the locket he'd given her by dropping it into an envelope and leaving it by his door. She avoided him for a week, her friends serving as lookouts and a phalanx guard. She was ready to go back a thousand times but Rebecca and Meg and Lisa sat by the phone, fielding his calls. He left then, three weeks before graduation. She moved to Boston to find a job, and later heard that he was hanging around campus the next year, but not taking classes. That was seven years ago, three years before she met Charles.
The third envelope arrived the day her in-laws were scheduled to have dinner with them. She slipped it into her purse, unopened, on her way upstairs with a bag of salad greens, French cheese, fresh baguettes, and cold pasta from the corner deli. She left the envelope untouched while she tore up the spinach and lettuce, sliced the tomatoes and cucumber and shook the vinegar and oil together the way Charles had taught her. The purse sat out of sight sat on the mahogany sideboard, but it may as well have been flashing a red light or sending out the ping-ping-ping of a black box. The postmark had said Salt Lake City, an unlikely place for someone with Dennis's bad habits. She wondered if he still held his cigarettes Russian spy-style between thumb and index finger as he blew smoke in women's faces. She closed her eyes for a moment to summon his face from her memory, but shook it off. He'd have some other woman now, and just as well.
Finally, after the lace placemats were set out on the polished wood surface, the good silver laid, napkins folded, and wineglasses in place, she broke her resolution and tore the edge of the envelope. Same old drill. First the words: "There's never been anyone but you." Then the picture: they were on the roof of her dorm where she had loved to spend springtime afternoons, ostensibly reading Kafka or Joyce, but actually daydreaming of life as writer or listening to Dennis tell her about his plans to hitchhike to California. Here she was, lying stomach down on an old pink beach towel, squinting against the bright light. In sunglasses, Dennis kneeled behind her, his hair still a blaze of white, his chest thin, but stronger than she was. One hand rested on the small of her back, the other held up something that looked like handcuffs. She stuffed the Polaroid back into her purse, flung the purse onto the bed, and slammed the door.
Charles arrived shortly before his parents with a bottle of chilled Chablis under his arm and a bouquet of asters, his mother's favorite he reminded her.
"You're quiet," he ventured.
She shrugged and looked away. "A little tired, I guess."
"Well, isn't that one of the first signs? Have you tested?"
"No, not yet. I don't want to, in case I miscarry again."
"That was a fluke. It'll be okay." He kissed her on the forehead, then pulled her chin up with his hand. She nodded, then took the asters away to put them in her best crystal vase and center them on the table.
Mother Bradley sat to Melissa's right. Her salt and pepper hair was swept smoothly to the side, not the least wilted by the heat. Her tan linen trousers held a sharp crease, and a loose black silk tunic was belted at her waist. Around her neck was a turquoise necklace she had picked up in Phoenix one winter. Carl sat to her left, wiping his hands on a napkin. Although he was bald now, the family photos in the album showed a young man with a thick brown hair combed over Kennedy-style, mortarboard in his hand at the medical school graduation. His face was jowly now where the jaw had once traced a line of self-assurance, but his eyes retained their sharpness and made Melissa uncomfortable, always judging, she thought, the person hiding inside her.
Melissa was about to clear the table when his mother put her hand on Melissa's arm. "So, any progress yet? We're all so eager. You know, I was barely twenty-two when Charles was born."
The corners of her mouth turned up. "We're working on it. You'll be the first we tell." She glanced at Charles, hoping for reinforcement, but he and his father were deep in a discussion of his parents' portfolio of stocks.
"Well, with Charles's thirty-fifth coming up, another milestone. He can run for president." She smiled at Melissa. "An old family joke."
Melissa reached down to pet Cocoa, who had settled at her feet. Mother Bradley continued, "Are you doing anything special? I have a friend who swears that her daughter got pregnant when she started doing yoga, just the light kind, of course. She was too tense before."
"I really think I'm fine. It's just… my doctor said it can take time."
"Charles said the same thing earlier. But we both know how eager he is, don't we? I told him you might want to see someone with a more aggressive approach. Carl knows everyone on the North Shore."
"I'm really quite happy with Dr. Schoenbrun."
"Honey?" Charles reached across the table and covered her hand; for a moment she thought he'd come to her rescue. "Honey? Dad reminded me I owe him a hundred bucks. Where's the checkbook."
"In my purse." He waited a second, then raised his eyebrows. "Oh, sorry," she said, "on the bed."
He winked at her and left the room, returning a few minutes later, smiling stiffly. "Thanks for the loan, Dad. And for the tips. I'll talk to my broker Monday."
Charles's parents left right after the coffee, with hugs and a promise to call when they returned from Vermont. Melissa bussed the good china to the kitchen and Charles followed her, tense and silent. He leaned against the back door, watching her scrape the plates into the garbage.
"You didn't tell me you got another one."
"Another…oh. I'm sorry. It slipped my mind." She held her breath waiting for his rejoinder.
"Quite interesting, this time." He left the room and returned a moment later, the photo in his hand. "I guess it was lucky I needed the checkbook."
"Your parents were coming. It wasn't the time…" The rinse water splashed off a plate and sprayed across her blue silk blouse. "Damn."
"This is a story I think I'd like to hear." He held it out. She glanced at it and returned to the dishes.
"I swear I don't know anything about the handcuffs."
"That's a little hard to believe."
"We were fooling around…He had my top. He's saying 'Oooooo' or something. Look at the picture." She scraped a piece of bread out of the drain. "It's just stupid. My top is off. That's what he was really holding up."
"So that's your top. What a relief. It's a nice look for the beach."
"Stop it. We were just joking around. Obviously, there was someone else right there. With the camera." She opened the cabinet beneath the sink and pulled out a pair of blue rubber gloves. "You had girlfriends before me. You lived with Barbara for three years. This is nothing."
"She doesn't send me nude bondage photos."
"No, the picture's all wrong. Don't you understand?" She imagined his voice softening now and his hands slowly turning her to face him. She held her breath for half a minute in anticipation, then dropped her shoulders and continued, "There were no handcuffs, I swear. The other photos've been doctored, too."
"Ah, so he is crazy after all? Remind me how you got involved with this guy."
"He was fun. He had this incredible imagination."
"Fun. Yes, indeed." He folded the picture in half. "What kind of photo should I expect next from Mr. Imagination?"
She let the sound of water filling the sink with bubbles substitute for an answer. Charles would see it if she wiped her eyes, and so the tears accumulated in the corners, ready to spill. How could she possibly tell him about the postmarks now? What would he say? Slipping a crystal wineglass into the water, she rubbed gently around the rim with her sponge.
"Don't you see? He's trying to pull me into some fantasy. He's trying to con…" She stopped midsentence and looked out the window. An empty birdfeeder swung with the breeze. Had she always been part of somebody else's fantasy, living in their imaginations rather than in her own?
"To con what?"
She shrugged. "Charles, I'd like to find a job."
"Oh? How did we get here?"
"I need to be out of the house, have something to do. I don't want to sit here, those images filling my head. If I had a job, I could make some friends."
"Just give it a little time, honey. I know it's hard to be in a new place, but we agreed this was the best move. I thought you'd like to have time to work on your projects, huh?" He wrapped his arms around her.
"I've been to the museums, walked along the lake. I'm on a first-name basis with all the clerks at Jewel."
"Have I been neglecting you? I've just been so busy settling in at the firm. We'll do whatever you want this weekend. What'll it be? Theatre? Dancing?"
"I'd love that, Charles, but it doesn't change…"
"Look, once you're pregnant, you'll want to stop working, anyway, right? Better to find some friends around the neighborhood. I've seen lots of people our age."
She tried to call up the picture of the new friends sitting around her dining room table. Instead, Dennis's wicked grin popped back into her mind, and, involuntarily, she pushed against Charles' embrace. "Hey." He held her by the arms. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Let's go someplace, right now."
Charles left for New York on business the following Monday. After she kissed him at the door and promised that she would be fine alone for a few days, Melissa brushed her hair back and fixed it with her tortoiseshell clips. Pushing aside feelings of deceit, she dressed in her beige linen suit, navy tank top, and low-heeled sandals and set out to apply for a job at the local school district. A Mrs. Anderson greeted her over the rims of her reading glasses and shook hands across a desk piled high with papers. Melissa filled out the application slowly, stopping to watch mothers with kindergartners in tow, secretaries sorting through stacks of files, and teachers clutching bags full of colored paper and storybooks. A few of them nodded at her in a puzzled way, and she turned back to the application with a blush. As she walked out, she was sure she would find a way to explain it all to Charles and he would finally lean across the table and say, "You were right all along."
The letter was waiting when she opened the mailbox. She carried it upstairs and left it on the dining table, unopened, while she made a salad and boiled an egg. It faced her through lunch as she picked slowly at her food. "Stupid," she said aloud. She balanced it on top the remains of her salad and dumped the whole mess into the kitchen trash. The postmark had been Denver. Denver a week ago.
She changed into shorts and got the vacuum cleaner out of the linen closet, its low roar cutting off the creaks from neighboring apartments and the sounds of passing cars. She'd been in Denver once, in August just like now, and the mountains had seemed dirty and sad behind the haze. To the east dry brown plains stretched interminably, one flat surface tilting all the way to Chicago. If you set a ball rolling, it would get here sooner or later. He could be here by now, she thought. He probably was. She turned off the vacuum and flopped onto the couch. That's exactly what he wanted her to picture: him working his way closer with his doctored pictures and hints of reckless times. He was all posture and game, she told herself. He invented this stupid joke on a whim and was probably laughing with his buddies about throwing a scare into old Melissa. Nothing was going to happen.
In the kitchen, she tipped the swinging lid of the trashcan and pinched the corner of the envelope, shaking off the wilted lettuce and tomato core that had landed on top. She tugged at the flap and tore it unevenly. Words spilled across the paper, scrawled in anger. It took her a moment to focus. "You were keeper of my soul. You had no right to destroy me. You are still mine." The photo had been clipped from the newspaper. A neat little hole annulled every mention of Charles's name in the wedding announcement, and Dennis's face was pasted atop the groom's neck. He was grinning broadly, a photo from one of those cheap booths at an arcade.
At the window, the glass was warm against her forehead. The crenellated tower at the front of the building had delighted her when she first saw it and Charles had pointed out the stone faces carved into the lintels at each entryway. Now it seemed that all she needed was a pointy hat and veil to complete the picture. In the courtyard below, the gardener appeared from around the corner, pushing a lawnmower slowly. He stopped, tucked his black baseball cap under his arm, wiped his sunburned neck with a blue handkerchief pulled from his pants pocket, and for a second glanced up at her window. She shivered and stepped back. Dennis was out there someplace, too, waiting for her, maybe watching from across the street. How long had he tracked her? How long would he wait? She looked again at the clipping. The dragon is here and the knight is out of town at a tourney. Dennis wouldn't go away until she broke the spell he had worked on himself. She had abandoned him. Walked off, without a word. Closed her heart and saved herself. And he never believed the truth of it.
Heavy clouds rolled in bringing an early dusk. In the darkened apartment, Cocoa lay alongside the couch whimpering softly, every few minutes raising his muzzle to his mistress who lay back against the cushions, arm over her eyes and cordless phone on her stomach. It rang four times before the answering machine picked up. Charles's voice stumbled a little. She let him get through a sentence or two, then punched the Talk button and said, softly, "Yes?"
"Melissa? What's going on? I've been trying to get through for half an hour."
"I had the phone off the hook."
"I was just lying here, thinking." She pushed herself to a sitting position and swung her bare feet onto the carpet, nudging the dog to the side. "Dennis is here."
"Here? What do you mean? He's with you?"
"No, he's in Chicago. I'm sure of it."
"How? How can you know that?"
"The postmarks kept getting closer. The one today said Denver, but that was a week ago."
"Why didn't you tell me this before, for God's sake?"
"I…you would…I didn't want to sound ridiculous." She ran her hand through her hair, tugging it a little in back.
"Melissa. Melissa, you're not going to see him." It was a statement, almost an order, and although she knew it was the right advice, she wanted to scream, <You don't know. >
"He's not going to just go away. He's been following me for years. I can see that now. This is his big mission. I've got to explain to him…"
"Look, Melissa, stay in. I'm going to try to see if there's another flight out tonight. Don't move, for God's sake. This guy is dangerous."
"I've got to take Cocoa out. Just for a few minutes."
"You don't know what he'll do. He might be armed. Don't do anything else stupid."
Her stomach sank, and she breathed in and out several times. "So that's it, underneath it all. I'm stupid. Stupid for having a friend with problems."
"No, that's not what I meant. Of course, you're not stupid. I don't want you to be hurt."
"I hurt already. Right now."
"I meant physically. Look, call someone. I don't want you to be alone."
"Call someone? Who, Charles? Who exactly?"
It was silent at his end, and she wished she could look at his face and hear his breathing. Was there was a little perspiration glistening at his hairline or had his cheeks had turned pink? Had he taken his glasses off and put them on the night table so he could pinch the bridge of his nose? She waited a moment longer, then said, as carefully as she could, "That's been my point. Who could I just call up? You haven't let me make friends…"
"Me? Melissa, we decided…"
"No. You decided. You did. For me."
She could hear the sounds of him moving things around -- packing, she supposed -- then they stopped. There was a slight creak. "Do you want me to come back?" He sounded confused, uncertain.
"What? Of course I want you back here. What do you think is going on?"
"You seem to want your freedom."
"God, Charles. How can you think…? When you say something like that, it means Dennis has won. He's pulled you into his fantasy, made you hurt me. He didn't have to do it himself. He's way ahead of us."
"All I wanted was to take care of you."
"He's hurt you, too."
Would Charles understand if he were by her side? Could she send touch across the lines and make him feel her arms around him? Over the distance, there was only his sigh. "Please stay in, Melissa. I'll be back as soon as I can get a flight. I'll call you when I get to the airport. Please be there. Please."
"Of course, Charles. I promise it'll be ok." She waited until an electronic whine replaced his voice, then clicked "Off." Dropping the phone on the coffee table, she crossed to the window, turned off the air conditioner and cranked open the side window. Lit by flickering gas lamps, the courtyard was empty, no figures in black staring up, no shadows fluttering around the corner, no cigarettes flaring suddenly in the darkness. The coming storm had blown away the heat and the air smelled fresh with rain. Cocoa's nails tapped against the floor as he trotted to her, tail wagging. "Nobody out there, Cocoa. Not that it matters. Dennis got what he wanted." A loose muffler clanked down the street and stopped. "Five minutes outside, Cocoa. We'll be okay."