Nestled in a cheap wicker basket, the carnations and daisies didn’t say, I love you or Congratulations, they said, Sorry for being an asshole. Squatted atop Lou’s thick brown doormat like a hobo taking a rest, they winked as she approached. The homely arrangement somehow fit the potpourri of boiled cabbage and laundry soap that hung in the hallway of her apartment building just north of downtown Seattle.
She bristled at the idea of their sender lurking at her door like a lovesick schoolboy. The tiny vomit yellow envelope was the kind that men with no style picked for girls they barely knew. Squinting down, Lou conjured her neighbor’s voice from a snarled nest of inky blue letters: To better future encounters. She tore it open, her eyes narrowing into green slits. I will do my best to accommodate you, he claimed. My intentions are good.
“Like hell,” she growled. Lou stopped short of kicking the flower basket down the hall, picturing the old Japanese custodian stooping to sweep up her mess. Foiled by her conscience, she unlocked the door and gave the basket a slapshot with the side of her boot, kicking it into the living room where it lodged beneath the radiator. The arrangement remained there for days until the flowers crisped from the popping steam heat and a hole burned in the side of the basket.
“You gonna do something about that?” Sam had asked when the new guy moved in. That was six weeks ago. Her neighbor’s inaugural evening was studded with heavy tumbles and shuddering thuds, as if Greco-Roman wrestlers sparred on the wooden floors above.
“What exactly should I do?” Lou said, swiping a sweaty lock of hair behind her ear. She was perched naked atop Sam, legs scissored astride his torso in a deliciously haphazard arrangement that her colleagues would have called in flagrante delicto.
“I dunno, but I can’t concentrate with that racket.”
Lou sighed and disentangled herself, pulling up the comforter against the October chill. “They say men your age sometimes need help in that area,” she teased, nibbling on his shoulder. He ran his fingers along the curve of her hip, attempting to return her to where she had been, straddling him, but she drew away. “It’s late. We should call it an evening.”
“Yeah. I have to get up early. There’s a stack of depo’s I need to finalize by the end of the week.” She and Sam had dated for more than a year, but Lou only let him stay over if they fell asleep by accident. Early morning meetings and workouts, networking breakfasts or yoga on Sundays, there was always a reason he couldn’t sleep over, but even she could feel the plausibility of her excuses wilting.
“Want me to talk with him man to man? Lay down some discipline? Of course, you might have to reward me. We can talk about payment over brunch.”
“I think I’ve witnessed enough testosterone tonight,” she teased, tapping him on the rump as he stood to gather his clothes. Before he left, she pulled him down for a kiss, eyeing the asteroid belt of freckles spanning beneath his blue eyes, just visible in the dancing candlelight. From the afternoon they met in Sam’s self-defense class, Lou was drawn to his stardust freckles. Sam was picnics and fried clams at the beach, crisp glasses of ale on a summer day and snow angels on New Year’s. He showed her how to block, how to punch, how to roll—how to relax, how to pause, how to breathe. For most of her life, Lou hadn’t believed men like Sam existed.
The guy upstairs maintained his blunderbuss after Sam left, dropping boxes and stepping with what sounded like concrete shoes across her ceiling. At one a.m., Lou couldn’t take it anymore. She really did have a deadline and needed her sleep, dammit. A few twenty-somethings had been hauling cheap furniture from a moving truck that day; her new neighbor was probably another student from Seattle Pacific University. Time to roll out the welcome wagon, she thought, shuffling out of bed. Each year, she trained a new one about the rules. It didn’t take long to understand she meant business—the little minnows obeyed quickly after a few midnight scoldings from the cranky lady on the second floor.
Pulling on a faded purple UW Law sweatshirt, Lou marched upstairs in bare feet. After several robust knocks, a fifty-something man answered the door to unit 308, graying and patchy-bald, sporting a torn yellow T-shirt and stained sweat pants. “Help you?” he said, clearing his throat. An under-breath of beer escaped his mouth like exhaust from an old El Dorado. She was prepared to meet a college freshman, not his washed-up father. His eyebrows raised expectantly, two fuzzy caterpillars ambling over a branch. She swallowed and said, “It’s really late. I know you’re getting settled and all, but you’re keeping me awake. I live right downstairs.”
At this, his bloodshot eyes pulled into focus, as if she had shined a light into them. He sized her up, seeming to uncoil and swell as he wetted his lips. “I had a locksmith here earlier. Trouble with the door. Must be what you heard.”
“Actually, it’s been pretty loud all night. For hours. And just now.”
She had expected an apology, but instead they faced off like an Old West showdown at his door. Unrepentant, he swayed as if drawn by a breeze, his mouth agape, his head tipping back and forth. She shifted in discomfort at the silence. Eventually, the corners of his lips eased into a simpering smile that said, Sorry about that, little lady. “Yeah, sure, I’ll try to keep it down. Say, since we’re neighbors, I’m Nils.” He stuck out a meaty paw.
Giving him her name felt like surrender. It was irritating, his expectation that she would perform like a trained dog and take his hand because he asked for it. She considered spitting into his palm and stalking off, but feared he might stomp louder, if that was possible, in retribution. She smothered the petulant desires of her inner street urchin and mumbled, “Lou.”
He chuckled. “That short for something?”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Lou.” He leaned forward from inside the door frame, his hand suspended in mid-air, his sweaty palm, like his name, demanded a response. She ventured her hand into his with begrudged politeness, imagining his powerful grasp clamping down on her wrist, dragging her into his apartment. After two reluctant pumps, Lou wrenched hers away, wiping his moistness onto her pants. “G’night, Lou,” he called as she scampered down the stairs.
Before returning to bed, she used the bathroom. Nils did the same on the floor above, the stream of his urine echoing in the ventilation pipes until they flushed toilets in sync. She heard him crawl into bed, the springs of his mattress wincing with the weight of his bones, his body lying on top of hers. As Lou went to sleep, she heard the chainsaw echo of his snores, and in the wee hours of the morning, the laden thuds of his feet pacing from room to room.
Lou reminded him of Maggie. Redheads always did. Modern day unicorns.
Each year, Nils taught Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale if only to inform a new crop of students that red hair is a recessive trait occurring in only two percent of the world’s population. Redheads were just as rare in fiction, save for that Harry Potter bullshit or goody-goody Anne of Green Gables. Whatever, as his students said; his ginger friend, the miller, got up to better fun. Nils always debuted him in the fall to set the tone for the school year. To the delight of his yawning freshmen, Chaucer was bawdy and slapstick. It made them intimates, a teacher trusting students with titillating material he could get busted for. Nils had them in the palm of his hand when he brought out Lolita to seal the deal just before winter break. There were always dissenters, but by graduation most called him their favorite teacher. A few even claimed he was their idol.
Nils felt Lou’s door close and lock beneath his feet. Old buildings revealed everything. He wandered into the bathroom to relieve himself, musing on her magical appearance in his doorway as he centered his long stream from the edge of the toilet. She looked nothing like Maggie, really. Lou’s hair was dark copper, almost brown, and straight while Maggie’s had been wispy and corkscrew curly-wild. Lou’s skin was flawless alabaster, a poet might say—the woman must have used 50 SPF since birth—whereas Maggie’s was peppered in freckles that he once spent an entire evening kissing.
The bedsprings whinged as he laid down, the beginnings of an errant wire poking into his back. Nils turned onto his side, grabbing the spare pillow roughly into his chest as if it resisted his embrace. He drifted off to a fitful sleep with red hair on his mind.
Sam’s naked aroma, the one in the middle of his chest, was pure elixir. A poultice of earth and salt, he smelled like the home that Lou had always wished for. Sinewy and hairy in the right places, his rough-hewn body carried no spare flesh despite his advancing 55th birthday. She was tucked into the nook of his arm, her head resting on his chest, when Nils came home with guests in tow, their footfalls spraying across her bedroom ceiling like gunfire. It was midnight.
“That guy has gotta go,” Sam grumbled.
“Maybe he’ll go to bed soon. It’s late. He said that he was going to try to be better.”
“Those flowers were bullshit, Lou. I know how these guys work.”
“Fuck the flowers, okay? Besides, I know as much about men as you do. Probably more. I’m just saying that he seems kinda pathetic. Creepy, but pathetic. I almost feel sorry for him.” A Google search had revealed a few questionable reviews from students at the private school where he taught. “I mean, the guy’s a loner high school teacher, a drunk, and, what, he’s getting high with his former students on weekends? How lame is that?”
“If he’s so pathetic, then let’s go up there and tell him to shut up. We can’t live like this.” Nils’ guttural laughs punctuated the momentary lull, followed by a chorus of his inebriated fans. Something heavy dropped above Lou’s head, possibly a bowling ball, to their whoops and cheers. “That’s it,” Sam said, throwing back the blankets. “I’m going up. It’s been every night for six weeks and your landlady isn’t doing anything about it.”
“No,” Lou sighed. “It’s my apartment. I’ll go.”
“Will you let me be the boyfriend, Lou? You’ve been polite. You’ve been firm. Nothing’s worked. I hate to say it, but he needs to hear it from a guy.”
“Jeez, what century is this?” she said, rolling her eyes. “My name’s on the lease, so it’s my problem. Saving me from the guy upstairs isn’t part of some boyfriend contract.”
“Do you really want to go up there by yourself? I hate the idea of you alone with him, and under the bravado, I think you do, too.”
“Sam, I don’t want to debate this again. You can teach me how to defend myself, but you can’t fight my battles. I’ve been on my own since I was fifteen—I’m a lawyer, for Christ’s sake—I can handle this. I don’t need you swooping in like my on-call Superman.”
“At least call your landlady tomorrow,” Sam insisted.
“I’ve called her every week. I feel like I’m the problem instead of him. Besides, she said if it’s that bad, I should document what he’s doing so she has reasonable cause for eviction. Seriously, Sam, I’ll take care of it.”
“There’s no winning with you, is there?” Sam said, pulling on his boxers as he leapt from bed. “If you would stay over at my house, we could sleep in peace, but I’ve given up asking. A guy can only get turned down so many times. In fact,” he said, tugging on his jeans and shoes, “I might as well go, since I’m not much good for anything around here.” He strode to the door, then stopped. She waited for it to open and slam shut. “We’ve been together for a year,” he called from the hall, his hand on the knob. “Don’t you trust me?”
She shrugged, a heap on the bed, the surface tension of the tears in her eyes threatening to break. He dropped his coat at the door and came to kneel before her, collecting her hands in his. “This isn’t just some noisy neighbor and you’re not so busy that we can’t be together all the time.” She shrugged again, hating herself for acting like a petulant child. “Sometimes, there’s a reason why women come to my class…”
“Don’t,” she said, shaking her head. She drew her arms around herself.
“I see how you study, how you spar, how you hold everything against that jerk upstairs when all he is is a jerk, nothing more. You’re the best student in my class. You absorb every lesson like it might save your life some day.” He paused, softening his tone to a whisper. “You think I don’t know that some guy—”
“Don’t say it, Sam, don’t you say it,” she warned, rocking back and forth. Upstairs, Nils argued with someone and slammed the door, showering Lou’s shoulders with flakes of ceiling plaster. “Fine,” she spat. She wiped the wet from her eyes. “I’ll call Carole and I’ll write the letter tomorrow, but I’m putting a stop to this and I’m going by myself. I don’t need you.”
She took the stairs two by two and pounded on Nils’ door until her hand stung. “Yeah?” he said, swinging it open. An acrid cloud of marijuana smoke plumed into the hallway as a slender nymphette slunk into his bedroom, blinking at Lou from behind a fringe of red bangs. Loosened around his neck, Nils’ thin black tie swung back and forth over his once-pressed white dress shirt. He leaned forward, a ragged grin slashing the lower half of his ruddy face. It looked like he and his companion had come home from a father-daughter prom.
“It’s late. Can you please just go to bed?”
“I have the day off tomorrow,” Nils said, exhaling beery breath through his teeth. “It’s still the weekend for me, girly. Maybe you should relax and come join us.”
Lou felt his puffy red eyes nibbling at her like dessert. She tried to shrug off his comment, but it came out as a shudder. “Well, it’s Sunday night for everyone else. My boyfriend and I need to get some sleep. We have work tomorrow.”
“Well, Lou, I pay thirteen hundred a month in rent and no one—not you, not your boyfriend—is gonna tell me what I can do in my place.” His wandering glance held for a moment in the middle of her chest. She shrank into herself. She wasn’t wearing a bra. “Look, I tried to be friends with you. I bought you those flowers to say I was sorry. I’m not a bad guy, you’re just catching me at a bad time.” He smiled as if she had told him a joke. “Hey, did I ever tell you that you remind me of someone?”
“No. Look, I need you to keep it down.”
“She has red hair, too,” he giggled.
“I’m going to call the building manager.”
“You already did that, didn’t you?” he tossed, and closed the door in her face.
Nils met Maggie senior year at a summer writing workshop in Vermont. They were both on scholarship, the first kids in their families to attend college, long-haired idealists. After graduation, she was going to start a feminist magazine, travel the world and cover the lives of women in politics, activism and war. When he commented that Hemingway had been a war correspondent, too, she yelled, Fuck Hemingway!, her red hair blazing like a hellfire halo against the sunset. She downed a mouthful of cheap bourbon from his flask and wiped her lips with the back of her hand.
At twenty-one, Nils was one of those quiet young men people whispered about. The day he left home—escaped, he described it to Maggie as they lay back on the sun-warmed hood of his blue Thunderbird—he knew he’d never return to the shabby bedroom at the back of his mother’s Kansas boarding house where she had locked him as a child. His father long gone, his mother scrubbed and scrimped night and day for every dollar; the only company Nils had were his books. A dim and friendless youth spent in a dusty room of discarded literature from boarders was what shaped him into the man he became.
He showed up at Middlebury College with the hopes of meeting other young literary men and penning the great American novel. He hadn’t counted on meeting someone like Maggie, let alone falling in love. The girls in his home town wanted to be beauticians or secretaries at best; most of them wanted to get married, have babies and live off of their husband’s pay. Maggie, on the other hand, wanted to slice through jungles wielding a machete and declare Amazon rule. She had fun with his hero worship of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, vociferously and quite elegantly debating their flaws each day in workshop. Where he turned in alpha male fiction, the kind with boats, boxers and bad neighborhoods, she wrote beautiful, scalding essays that grabbed him by the throat and balls. He could barely speak to her without a drink first, let alone admit that her work made him question what he believed in. Maggie shook his faith in the very definition of the words he thought he knew.
Their destinies were entwined, fated, Nils tried to convince her as they drank beer by the lake on their last night at Middlebury. Maggie poked fun at this, too, but she allowed him to assay her with his grand vision of traveling the world together. He confessed that he worshipped the freckles that floated on the surface of her skin like tiny leaves in a stream. He bent slowly to touch his lips to the ones on her shoulder, waiting for her to say no. When she didn’t stop him, he set out to kiss each and every one, moving slowly from her forehead to her toes and everywhere in between. Coaxing off her cotton summer dress, he coated every inch of her body with his affection under a blanket of stars. Maggie was his, like no one before her had ever been.
At sunup, they returned to campus, deserted in the early purple light, as if they were the only humans on earth. He wanted to say something brilliant and unforgettable when he walked her to the front door of her dorm, knowing this was goodbye, but Nils could only summon a crooked smile. Maggie held his face in her hands, looking into his eyes as if snapping an image or exacting a promise—maybe a wish for the future. It took months for Nils to realize that Maggie would never answer the letters he wrote to her when she returned to Oberlin that fall.
Thirty years later, it was four o’clock on the West Coast, the razor’s edge of happy hour. The crisp metallic squinch of the PBR can opening sent a zing through his fingertips, his mouth watering at the thin icy brew. Beer opened his mind like a dam, stirring the muddy depths of his memory the way whiskey, with its heavy languor, never could.
Maggie’s byline pulsed beside yet another whip-smart article in Vanity Fair flung onto the bed. In the author photo, her wild red mane was now tastefully straight-ironed like Lou’s, the blunt ends brushing her freckled collarbones. Her bio described the requisite curriculum vitae, but also a life—a home in the Berkshires, a husband, children, a retriever with the regrettable name of Butterscotch. She had never answered the letters he sent in care of her publisher over the years, nor did she acknowledge the many ‘likes’ he left on her Facebook page.
He lay back in bed dreaming of her, running a hand through his thinning hair the way that Maggie had when she ruffled his bangs all those years ago on the hood of his car. His locks had been lustrous then, solid ebony. The little redhead had done the same the other night, as if she could still see the college boy in him. At first, she played shy like they all did, kissing him tentatively and ruffling his hair. He hated to know what girls her age really saw when they looked at him. It wasn’t bad when he was in his thirties and forties, always on the prowl for a youthful shock of red, but in his fifties, even he could feel the distance between them.
They’re too young for you, Maggie scolded in his mind.
He was single, they were single.
Single and legal aren’t the same thing.
Some were his students. Former students. He was the cool teacher, the rebel, and they were fearless, the way that women his age could never be.
You’re sick, Maggie would say if she knew how he made them believe that they were seducing him, the lonely teacher who cried out for their love and sympathy. They left notes on his car or in his faculty mailbox; his cribbed responses from Wordsworth and Whitman never failed to weaken their knees. It would all make for a great exposé, probably land Maggie in the New York Times if she ever found out.
His loins hitched with a spark of desire as he made out the sounds of lovemaking from Lou’s apartment below. He pictured Maggie and Lou interchangeably rolling on the bed beneath him, his pelvis strumming warm and taut as he imagined their smooth skin gliding over his like white silk. Slow and rhythmic, then hastening to a joyful panic, Lou’s moans enlivened scenes straight from his mind. Nils set the sweaty beer can on a warped copy of The Sun Also Rises, his perpetual coaster on the nightstand. Maggie would have roasted him for such a pathetic cliche. He pushed up out of bed with a little groan, stepping carefully to the radiator, twitterpated by the sounds that grew louder from below.
The steam hadn’t come on yet; the room was still chilly from the crisp November day. The pipe soothed his hot skin as he leaned against it, scanning for a sign of the ending he hungered to witness, his fingertips strumming his belly in anticipation.
Sam, Lou cried from below as she came.
It was always the same dream. Her father hunted her.
It started with the slam of the front door as the blistering Phoenix heat rushed in behind him. One beer. Two. Three. The tin soldiers reported silently for duty on her father’s plastic blue placemat. Her milk drunk and plate cleaned, she stood to leave, feeling his moist breath on her neck. She willed herself to flee, but it felt like she was running underwater. Just as her legs began to pick up speed, her toe caught the edge of the rug. Her fall, too, was in slow motion. One by one, she counted the seconds until she hit the floor.
Lou startled awake at the sound of Nils’ feet pacing above. She felt raw, as if she had been arguing with herself. Dreaming about her childhood always left her this way. Every so often, she considered sharing parts of her past with her lovers or the young people she counseled, but they needed to tell their own tales more than she needed to unburden hers. She listened carefully, even though it was the same story every time. No matter the plot twists, the common ending was why they turned up in her office, lugging a few belongings in a black plastic trash bag. She understood the disbelief in their eyes as they stared back at her from across the mahogany desk: some woman in a generic Banana Republic suit was going to save them after everything they had been through?
Over the years, Lou came close to confiding in a few girls who reminded her of herself. They might have been heartened to see how far she had come, perhaps picturing themselves in her discount designer shoes, but her story mattered little, really. It was one of thousands of sealed files stamped CLOSED. All she could do was ferry her wards to safe places where, maybe, they had a chance of starting over. It would take decades to reclaim their childhoods stolen at age six, twelve or sixteen—if they were able to at all. As cases came to trial, Lou never let on what she knew, that her clients were all defective, beyond help, no matter how worldly wise and collected they appeared. A wire had been tripped at too formative an age not to warp their circuit boards for life. Even for the lucky ones who she guided to foster families, Lou always came too late. Anything that happened after was too late. They never had a chance of being normal, at least, not the kind of normal that normal people like Sam insisted they should be.
And so, Lou never told her after story and she didn’t tell her before story, either. The children she represented never heard about Claelia Luciana Formosa who traveled to Verona at age eight with her mom. Rosy-cheeked with thick, auburn hair that she would lose to chemo two years later, her mother ferried young Claelia to the motherland to meet her Italian uncles, aunts and cousins—a neighborhood of copper-headed townsfolk who lived just outside the city walls. It was rare, her mother said, to find red-headed Italians, but there they were, her people, waiting for Claelia and her mother at the train station. A crowd of strangers kissed her on both cheeks when they arrived and again at mealtimes and bedtime. When she awoke each morning, they greeted her with funny nicknames, like carina and patatina and amore. They clapped, exclaiming, “Brava!” as if she was the brightest child in the world when she responded with the correct words in Italian. For three weeks, Claelia went nowhere without being embraced or given something delicious that was made for her from scratch. It was the only memory she could conjure that was unsullied by her father’s temper or by her mother’s wasting illness, which began soon after they returned to America.
Thirty years later, the memory of being truly loved was more elusive and dangerous than her nightmares of after. It would be cruel to give her young clients any hope that before was possible for them. Yolky sunlight, stable families and safety were things they couldn’t have, not ever. As for love, that was something that people like her—like them—made a mess of. Lately, she had come to suspect that her childhood memories of Italy, amber and gossamer compared to the brittle rest, were most likely a fantasy she had invented for comfort. Maybe the memories of her mother were, too.
Lou nestled into Sam, hoping that he might wake and comfort her, but he slept like the dead in a shard of blue moonlight that sliced through the blinds. She turned over restlessly and considered rousing him. Instead, she scuttled further into the crevice of his shoulder. Besides, if he woke up, she’d have to insist that he leave just to keep up pretenses.
The location of Lou’s apartment was no accident. It was the same wherever she went. Like the townspeople of the Cinque Terre, she forged her homesteads into steep cliffs to keep marauders out. Only the bold bothered trudging to the top of Queen Anne hill, and even fewer up the twisty, narrow alley that led to her building. The brick sidewalks and streets were especially slippery when it rained; cars slid backwards, their tires struggling for traction, and pedestrians often fell, scraping their knees on the unforgiving sidewalks. Hidden in a grove of sap-sticky fir trees, Lou had found prospect and refuge there, at least until Nils.
Would she have to run again? She had moved so many times, changed her name, her hairstyle and even the shade of her tresses; no one from her past could find her anymore, she was sure. Yet, every so often, she froze on the street. A figure might move in a particular way and suddenly she felt her father’s breath on the back of her neck. She might have fled her childhood home, but the fear of it remained with her everywhere she went. It’s what brought her to Sam. She needed to know what to do if life came to that again. It had to go down differently next time.
After her mother died when she was ten, Lou began to lock her bedroom door. It kept her father at bay for a while, but he soon changed out the handles for dumb-dumbs. She wasn’t sure which was worse: cowering under the bed as he pounded on her locked door or waiting for the inevitability of his footsteps in the hallway when he felt low and mean, which was often. She was in sixth grade the first time he dragged her by the ankles from beneath her bed, scratching her tender white belly on the cheap carpet as he pulled her out. In later years, she preferred to hide in the back corner of her closet where she could tuck into a ball. It took more work for him to pull her out by the arms, though the result was always the same. He made her bend over to wait for his wind-up, the anticipation of his strike nearly as smart as the crack of his open palm or the snap of his belt on her behind.
At fifteen, Lou was bent over, receiving the hardest slaps he could deliver, couched under the term spanking, when she realized that the pain didn’t matter anymore. She laughed at the pathetic old drunk hitting his kid for mouthing off, something teenagers were supposed to do, if her friends were any example. Sensing his impending slap the way a fly anticipates a swatter, this time she bolted, only instead of her bedroom closet, she ran for the back door. If she could make it outside, she knew she would run until she reached her godmother’s house. She didn’t care that it was late at night or that her godmother, who she hadn’t seen since her mother’s funeral, lived five miles away. She would run and, finally, she would be safe. Lou might have made it, too, if she hadn’t tripped on the rug.
Until that night, she had never been punched in the jaw or boxed in the ear. Aiming squarely for her head, her father’s third swing even took him by surprise. It was so mighty, in fact, that he couldn’t pull his hand from the hole he made in the drywall next to her cheek. She blinked once, then flew into the night with nothing in her pockets but her fists, wondering how long he would remain stuck there. Maybe forever. She didn’t so much wonder as hope.
She had come so far since then—Running Start, college, a career—but she was ruining everything with Sam. Over the summer, they forged a tender routine: she fetched groceries while he got the grill going on the rooftop deck. They would chop vegetables for slaw and make potato salad with dill to go with the meat he barbecued. On those summer nights, Lou realized she was having fun talking and lounging in the sun, doing nothing in particular. She caught herself thinking, Is this how normal people live? She was a spy, a poseur, in the House of Normal. Just before Nils moved in that fall, they transitioned from grilling meat to baking pies and casseroles. Life with Sam was plumping up her Linda Hamilton frame, but beneath the happiness, lurked an ever-present worry. No mattered where she moved, a part of her remained in her father’s house. She began to doubt if she could ever really leave.
Lou found herself missing Sam that much more as she carried her groceries home alone in the dark late November mist. He hadn’t come by since the other night when they had what she thought was make-up sex. He phoned the next day to say that he needed time to think. She winced as she replayed the conversation in her mind. Time and thinking only drew out dying relationships, if all of her other ones proved true. She didn’t want things to end, but she just couldn’t tell Sam everything, not yet. Maybe he’d leave her if she did, anyway; her past was a lot of shit to place at his feet. But he wasn’t like any of the guys she had dated. He was different.
Her thoughts raced like conflicting stock symbols on endless ticker screens as the front door to the apartment building thudded closed behind her. Nils stumbled into the lobby, nicked by the door as it closed. He had been following her uphill, perhaps all the way, but she was too distracted to notice, she who was always on guard.
“You got me evicted. Did you know that?” he coughed, catching his breath.
She blinked. “I— I’m sorry. I thought you’d get a warning. I didn’t know they’d do that. You were just so loud…”
“You’re sorry? I’m fucking homeless now. I have two weeks to get out. What am I gonna do?” She shrugged lamely, shaking her head. He stepped closer, the stale stink of beer and cigarettes infiltrating her nostrils.
Lou had hoped her letter would bring action, but she hardly expected to be successful, at least, not so quickly. Her landlady insisted that she document the dates and times of each evening he kept her awake, from the parties and general noise to the pot smoke that belched out when he greeted her at the door of his supposedly non-smoking apartment. More than annoying, she was afraid of Nils, she added at the end of the letter; he was hostile and presented a real and imminent danger. Had that been stretching the truth? All men became beasts eventually.
“What can I say? I’m sorry.” Lou stepped swiftly to the stairs. Nils ran past her, raising his arms in the archway to block her path. He aped her as she moved left, then right. “Quit it!” she cried, pushing through. She flew up the stairs to the first floor, then the second, with Nils in close pursuit. He reached from behind her to hold the door to the landing closed as she tried to tug it open. “What are you doing?!” she cried.
His fingers found her wrists, twisting them into his powerful grasp amidst her yelps. The paper grocery sack slipped through her arms, spitting apples and potatoes onto the stairs, tripping him long enough for Lou to escape. She scampered down the hallway and pounded on doors. No one was home. Nowhere to hide. Lou turned around and around in a circle at the dead end of the hall, her tunnel vision closing in as she gasped for air. She heard the door to the landing thud open and shut. Nils was on his way. With no other choice, she yanked open the door to the janitor’s closet and disappeared inside.
“Where are you?” Nils huffed down the hall, his voice muffled by the heavy wooden door. She tried to calm her breath as Sam taught her, inhaling the cool, stale air that smelled like the tinge of sick that lingers on old mops. Her hands shook as she tiptoed farther into the dark vault. Barely wider than the doorframe, the closet was surprisingly deep. She marked ten paces before she reached the back wall, her hands lighting on a large trash barrel that she pulled in front of her. It was as useless to crouch there in the dark as it was to crouch in the back corner of her closet growing up; if Nils was going to find her, he was going to find her. Except that wasn’t true anymore. She had no life line when she was a kid, but she sure as hell did now.
Lou reached down for her shoulder bag, but it wasn’t there. She must have flung it down along with her groceries. Her phone was in her purse. Her keys were in her purse. Her pepper spray was in her purse.
Nils leaned against the closet door, listening. He had checked everywhere else. She wasn’t in her apartment. She didn’t have her keys or her purse. There was no way she could have doubled back. His listened up and down the hall. Nothing moved. The bitch had to be inside.
He fingered the handle, feeling Lou’s heart beating through it. He turned the knob slowly, his pupils growing wide to search the darkness that expanded before him. His fingers fumbled along the wall, but there was no switch or pull cord for a light. No matter. Lou’s scent rose from beneath the cleaning odors, a combination of pink-smelling soap, Oriental perfume and terror. He stepped inside, chuckling. He felt high.
“Get out of here!” she barked from the back of the closet.
“Or what? You’re gonna write another letter?” he laughed, pulling the door closed.
They were locked in.
The sound of the rickety tumbler clicking home sucked the air from the room. Lou heard the voice of her father rush into her ears. “You get back here and help me,” he spat, his arm engulfed in the wall to the elbow. That was how she remembered him: red-faced and bulging from the wall, not asking for help but demanding it. She had wanted to feel sorry for him; he had lost her mother, too. She wanted him to be brittle, fragile, someone you could forgive, like a Dickens villain. But pity for him, if she had ever found it, would have cost her her life. Even as a teenager, she knew it to be true the same as she knew it was true of Nils the first night they met.
“Fuck!” Nils yelled, wrenching the jammed handle back and forth. In his angst, he tripped, knocking into a pile of half-empty paint cans and paraphrenalia that scattered at Lou’s feet. Backed against a metal rack, Lou grasped for something, anything, she could use. Her fingers lit on a tall metal can. She felt the nub of a spray nozzle and the dip that indicated the front. Spray up diagonally. Make sure you hit his hands first. When your attacker rubs his eyes, he rubs the pepper spray in. Sam had taught her this on the first day of Basic Self Defense at the Queen Anne community center, pulling her arms up to the correct angle.
Lou held her breath, aiming in the direction of the slit of light beneath the door. She sprayed the cleaner into the darkness, flooding the space with the smell of atomized silver. “You fucking blinded me!” Nils howled, thrashing against the walls. Mop handles flew in all directions, buckets overturned and rolled. His flapping arms leveled tools and spray bottles from the baker’s racks that lined both sides of the room. Nils shrieked, “God damn it! My eyes are burning! Get over here and help me!”
Help him? The cowardly tremor of his voice, the anger beneath it—how many times had she narrowly survived the same wrath growing up? How many nights had she lain in bed, terrified that her father would wake and remember that she was just down the hall? How many times had she wrapped herself in her own arms, conjuring her mother’s soothing assurance in Italian that it would be okay? These were the memories she couldn’t share with her clients, or with Sam all those nights she sent him home to sleep. They were what kept her up for the past two months, trembling beneath Nils—for the past thirty years, actually. They were a premonition of what would, in the end, undo her.
As the chemicals burned his weeping eyes, Nils’ hands shook with desire. He imagined the downy hair on Lou’s arms raising into gooseflesh when he cornered her. Until Lou, no one had ever said stop. The nicer the girl, the more they liked being chased, but that was only rough housing. He and Lou were going all the way. He was tired of panting after women all his life—Maggie, Lou, the little redheads—they were always leaving, but not before they burned him. Now he was homeless and alone. Blind. Another red-headed bitch had ruined his life. He moaned this into the darkness, his eyes blazing.
“Can someone hear me?! Get me out of here!” Lou hollered, pounding uselessly on the the brick wall. At the sound of her voice, Nils dove full-bodied like a lion, his hands closing around her swan-like throat. He could feel the kickstart of Lou’s pulse beneath his fingertips, her tell-tale heart struggling as he squeezed, her legs scissoring under his as he forced them apart with the bulk of his pelvis. She had dared him, shook that red mane of hers like a toreador night after night at his door. Then she kicks him out. The classic tease: she runs hoping he will follow. Now she was all his and he would do what she had been begging for. Lou was a nice girl, after all; she could never ask for it on her own.
It was the same dream, only it was Nils, and not her father, who hunted her. She had been guarding against the wrong man. Lou’s heart raced as she tried to break free, her legs moving in slow motion, like she was running underwater.
Nils’ weight crushed down on her like her father’s had when he pinned her to the carpet. Rough housing, he had called it. Fun. She vowed never to be helpless and weak beneath a man again, but here she was. All that running and hiding and name changing, all of her training with Sam, down the toilet. She’d die in a janitor’s closet where the old Japanese custodian would find her the next day, a bundle of wretched refuse to leave out with the rest at the curb.
For a moment, she wanted it. She fell back into Nils’ twisting rage, so familiar, clamped tight around her throat. All this, it could be over—no more worrying, no secrets to unburden. A sliver of her wanted Nils to be stronger, to win. She had earned it. At fifteen, when her father punched a hole in the wall next to her head, her reflexes insisted that she flee to stay alive. It was biological imperative. Here, the dizzying pressure of Nils’ weight bearing down on her, a middle-aged warrior who had battled enough, she longed for permission to surrender. No Sam to resuscitate her, no guilt that she didn’t give the struggle her best, or at least, no one to see her concede the fight.
Her panicked thoughts calmed beneath the crush of his hands. The purity of his force compressed her thoughts into diamonds, clear and distinct, a field of brilliant white pulsars in the vast, thundering darkness. Thousands of points of light scattered like stardust into freckles across the bridge of Sam’s nose, twinkling just beneath his blue eyes. He emerged from the void, striding barefoot across the grass into a patch of sunlight. This was a different dream. He spread a white cloth over the table in his back yard, or maybe it would have been their back yard, if she had let it be. Clams and Sam and sunlight. Sam leaned against the table, his close-cropped sandy-gray hair framing his forehead. The table was set. He waited for her to take her place.
As her struggle slackened, Nils knelt over Lou, his mouth huffing with effort inches from hers. Only one of them was leaving the closet alive. “Thought you’d have a little more fight in you,” he whispered near her ear. His mouth lingered there. She felt his desire to kiss her, his wet lips seeking to punish hers with his own, his tongue probing inside like an eel. He’d slither in and suck her very last breath.
Wasn’t that what she was afraid of? Not the pain as much as being utterly snuffed out, devoured and digested, not only by her father or Nils, but by a man like Sam who loved her—beasts one and all? It wasn’t pain or death but anticipation, the purgatory of waiting for her fate, her father’s footsteps in the hallway, Nils stomping on her ceiling, Sam revealing that he was just like every other man as she feared he would be. Just then, Lou’s fingers curled around something cold and blunt that had fallen in the melee, a length of pipe digging into her hip. All of her complicated choices—life, death, love—the ones she avoided making for years, suddenly seemed simple. Simple, but not easy. Nothing ever was.
The hyoid bone, as Sam often reminded her, is not a fragile thing. She felt hers scraping against her windpipe under Nils’ final grasp, but the tiny horseshoe of bone was strong. It would hold for another minute, much longer than her lungs. Funny how something so small stood in between each of them and survival. That’s why the move required accuracy and power, more than she had in her fists alone. It required determination and confidence to the exclusion of all else—a clear head, a clear shot. With the hyoid, she only had one chance, but then again, that’s all anyone ever had. Sometimes one chance is all a person needs. That and a big fucking pipe.
Then, the darkness was no longer her enemy. At least, that’s how she planned to tell it, if she made it out. Lou clenched the pipe in her trembling fist, gathering her last bit of strength as Nils drew back, savoring the taste of Lou on his lips.
Sam, she thought, her blood boiling with a lifetime of rage, you just might get to be the boyfriend after all.