“Glad you made me bury her now.” Sallie dipped her shovel into the dirt dimly lit by the streetlight in the alley. “Do we tell them she’s buried here?”
“Just tell them she’s in heaven,” Mark said. “That’s enough.”
“Won’t they notice the fresh dirt?”
“They’re three and five. Might take them a few hours to even realize she’s gone.” Usually Mark enjoyed Sallie’s belief that Jimmy and Sarah were highly advanced. He’d had the same view of Margo when she was little. But tonight it annoyed him.
“Hey Sal, could we hurry it up a little? I don’t want to be late for my date.” He hadn’t been with a woman in weeks, and he needed it. Pressing his flesh against the soft skin of a woman, almost any woman, usually brought him a good night’s sleep. He hadn’t had that in weeks either, despite the “miracle drugs” his doctor had given him.
Sallie laid the lifeless dog in the hole and began covering it with dirt. “How is the feisty fifty- year-old?”
“It’s not her.” Mark turned his back to Sallie, shoveling dirt into the hole until it completely covered the dog, carefully flattening it across the canine corpse until all the tiny hills and dips were gone.
“What?” Sallie’s voice rose in pitch. “What happened with her?”
Mark shrugged. “Just sort of petered out.” After he told her he didn’t have time for a relationship. Too much work, he’d texted, knowing she’d think he meant too much office work. Relationships were too much work. These days he lacked the interest and energy to get beyond the third date with anyone.
Sallie leaned her shovel against the fence. “You told me she was smart, funny, sexy, adventurous in bed. Why the hell did you dump her?”
“How do you know she didn’t dump me?” Damn Sallie.
“When was the last time YOU were dumped?”
He didn’t answer.
“Exactly. I think you have a problem, my friend.”
“I think you’re confusing problem with gift.” Mark corrected her, grinning.
Sallie took Mark’s shovel. “I think you’re still running away from the memory of being with Jessie,” she told him, propping his shovel against the fence beside hers and heading toward the house.
“Jesus, Sal, Jessie and I split thirteen years ago! I think of her now as Maggie’s mother and my friend, that’s all,” Mark insisted as he followed her inside.
“How many women have you been with since you and Jessie split?”
Mark shrugged. “I don’t know. A few.” Sallie stared accusingly at him. Her deep green eyes and black hair reminded him of a panther, and when she stared at him without speaking he felt a chill. He looked at the clock. “Forty-seven, okay? Listen, I-“
“Yes, yes you have a date.” She shook her head. “I’m not judging you, you know. I just worry that I’ll find someone just right once the kids are older and you’ll be left, old and grey and alone, throwing back bottle after bottle of beer from the cooler beside your rocking chair.”
“Sounds pretty sweet to me,” he said.
Sallie groaned. “It’s a good thing you have me or you might be drinking alone in that rocker already,” she told him as she pushed him gently toward the door. “Try not to break her heart, OK?”
Driving toward the downtown skyline, Mark counted backwards to the last time he watched Being John Malcovich. Twenty-three days. He had made it twenty-three days without thinking about the woman he’d watched that movie with so many times, and he might have made it longer if Sallie hadn’t mentioned her. He hadn’t expected living without Jessie to get so much harder after Margo left for college. But once their contact dwindled to holidays and the beginning and end of semesters, the realization that he still missed Jessie grew like a cancer. The Friday night drop-offs had been so routine, “Have time for a drink?” asked and answered affirmatively so often, he’d been able to pretend his marriage had been merely altered rather than ended.
He crossed the bridge and turned left into the university area. Remarkable how much it had changed since he arrived in Richmond as a freshman twenty-five years ago. Back then this stretch of road passed abandoned storefronts, pawn shops and a park scattered with homeless men and women huddling together for warmth in winter, spreading out in the shade of elms and maples in summer. But he hadn’t noticed how shabby the university area was back then. Straight out of a decade in army combat, attending any university, even a dingy one, seemed like paradise. Over the years the university grew, replacing the abandoned storefronts with bookstores, coffee shops and student apartments. The university had been reborn, and its new buildings and energetic students made Mark feel older than his fifty-three years.
What would his date say if he told her how different the city had been when he attended the university? Would she laugh and call him “a very hip dinosaur” as Margo sometimes did? He winced at the thought that his date could be almost as young as his daughter. She’ll be my last grad student, he told himself.
Mark descended the narrow stairs into the dim café beneath the tattoo parlor, a favorite of the grad students he had dated in the past. He liked it too, enjoying the sense of secrecy in this space where all you could see through the windows were feet rushing by.
He looked around for his date. A young woman sat at the end of the bar, picking at her cuticles. As she turned to look at the tables behind her, her copper hair fell onto her shoulders and revealed her profile. Beautiful, Mark thought. But too young to be in grad school. He surveyed the booths for an older student sitting alone.
“Are you Mark?” The copper haired girl stood beside him, touching his arm lightly.
“Indeed I am,” he replied with a grin. “And if the gods are smiling on me tonight, you are Elyse.” He still couldn’t believe she was a grad student. The girl nodded and blushed, and her big blue eyes grew even bigger. Mark smiled again and held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Elyse.” Elyse shook his hand and followed him to an empty booth.
“I hate to lead with a cliché, but you are even more gorgeous than your profile picture suggested.” Ah, the blush again!
“Thank you.” Elyse played with the strand of pearls around her neck. “I’m really new to this,” she blurted out. “I mean, the online thing. Not dating, of course.”
Mark called the waitress over. “What’ll you have, Elyse?”
“Oh.” She sounded surprised to be asked. “Well, I ,…wine?” The waitress held out her hand, and Elyse looked at Mark, confused.
“She wants your ID? You know, to show you’re old enough?” Elyse nodded and pulled her license from her purse.
“Happy belated birthday!” The waitress smiled and handed the license back to Elyse. “Red or white, honey?”
“Red.” No hesitation this time.
Mark order a Mohito and launched into his usual opener. “Tell me something you’ve never told anyone before.”
“What?” She moved away from the table, as if the extra physical space between her and Mark would protect her from the potential danger of answering the question.
“It doesn’t have to be titillating, just secret. I’ll go first.” He leaned across the table conspiratorially and lowered his voice. “In the fifth grade, I snuck into the science room during recess and let the iguana out of its cage. It made it all the way to the teachers’ lounge where it jumped into the chorus director’s lap. The chorus teacher had such amazing lungs we heard her scream all the way on the playground!” As usual, the fib hurt a little, as if his conscience were a physical part of his gut. Still, her response was worth it.
“You’ve told that story before!” Elyse accused him, but she laughed anyway, and her laughter rippled across the table, stroking Mark as if it were her fingers across his cheek. He reached for her hand.
“Ah, you see right through me!” Mark exclaimed, feigning hurt. “Now it’s your turn.”
She glanced at their joined hands and Mark wondered if she would pull away. Instead, she placed her other hand on top of their joined two and said, “What I want to do most in the world is run a marathon.” She said it as if running a marathon were as rare as flying to the moon.
“So…just do it! Isn’t that what Nike says? They’ll even make the shoes for you.” He wanted to feel her laughter again. But instead of laughing, Elyse pulled her hands away and played with her pearls.
“Yeah, I guess,” she mumbled.
Oh no. Was she one of those overly cautious, pessimistic types? He liked the adventurous ones who thought anything new or different was awesome!
“What are you studying, Elyse?”
“I’m working on a Masters in Fine Arts.”
“Visual art?” His hopes rose. He’d enjoyed some wild role play with painters and sculptors.
She shook her head. “I write. Poetry mostly.”
Damn. He’d had sex with a young poet once. After the night they spent together she asked him out every week for six months. Sometimes he could hear her holding back tears over the phone. He’d tried to avoid poets since then. Even the most divine orgasm wasn’t worth causing someone that much pain.
Elyse relaxed a tiny bit more with each sip of wine, like a corset being unlaced slowly. She moved across the table and sat with her legs touching his, placing her hand on his thigh. By the time the check came, his resolve to leave her with a simple hug had crumbled. Mohitos always made him do things he regretted in the morning, even when he only had a few. The drink brought memories of the eighteen-year-old he’d been when he’d tried it for the first time, the naive boy who believed everything would be fine as long as he didn’t tell a lie. As he guided Elyse up the stairs and into the crisp night air, he paused and kissed her. She surprised him with her passion.
Elyse’s studio apartment was less than a mile from the subterranean bar. He carried her up the narrow wooden staircase to the second floor so he could continue kissing her, stopping only long enough to allow her to unlock the door to her apartment. Once on her couch, they rapidly removed one another’s shirts. Her breasts were perfect.
“Wait here,” she whispered and slipped away. Mark looked around at the orderly room, coffee pot and mugs on the counter in the galley kitchen, flowers on either side of the fireplace mantel, framed diploma sitting on the end table. Peering at the diploma, Mark learned that Elyse had graduated three years ago. From high school. She couldn’t be more than two years older than his own daughter!
The thought of Margo naked with some balding fifty-three-year-old guy made his blood run cold. He balled his hands into fists, rose from the couch and headed to the door. As he gripped the doorknob, the bathroom door opened behind him. He turned, and instantly regretted it. Elyse stood before him in a black lace teddy. He couldn’t look away from her erect nipples and the inviting triangle of red below her belly button. Spellbound, he let her lead him back to the couch.
“Elyse, I can’t---” Her hand between his legs made him groan. “Really,” he pulled her hands away. “You’re so young.”
“I’m twenty-one,” she informed him as she unzipped his jeans and moved her hands inside his boxers.
“No…wait…” But by then she’d taken him too far.
He moved across and into her in his ordinary way, but Elyse responded with unmatched joy to his movements, moaning and purring, rubbing her body against his in strange circular motions, connecting all of herself to all of him slowly and deliberately. It reminded him of his nineteenth summer, when sex was fresh and new and he was just a boy trying to lose himself in the flesh of a woman before shipping off to war. When Elyse finally climaxed, her entire body shuddered as if the experience electrocuted her. Another moan escaped from her as her head fell back against the armrest of the couch.
Mark leaned against the cushions, running his fingers up Elyse’s thigh to her belly button. Now that they were finished, she wasn’t moving at all. She had even stopped her steady purring. He moved over and kissed her, but she stayed still. Completely still.
“Hey,” he said. “Was it that good? Elyse?” No reaction.
He placed his two fingers on the inside of her wrist. Nothing. His heart raced. He held his ear to her chest and felt the same stillness.
“Holy shit!” Going quickly through his jean pockets he realized he’d left his phone in the car. “Crap!” Elyse had dropped her purse in front of the bathroom door. He dumped out its contents – lipstick, a crumpled twenty, sunglasses – a phone! – and a medical ID bracelet with “Arrhythmia” engraved on it. “Holy shit,” he whispered.
He could barely steady his hand to press the numbers. Nine. One. One.
“I need an ambulance,” he yelled at the dispatcher. “I need an ambulance!”
“Calm down sir. Can you tell me where you are?”
Where the hell was he? Had they turned off of the street the bar was on? He ran to the window. “I’m on Grace Street, near Boulevard.”
“My, my…” Would they believe a girl so young had been on a date with him? “My neighbor is unconscious. I came in to check on her because I heard a noise and, and found her just lying here.” What if they thought he’d killed her? Out. Get out!
“Is she breathing sir?”
Mark searched through the scattered contents of Elyse’s purse.
“Sir, did you check to see whether she’s breathing?”
He found it! “I…no… she, she’s at 2606 West Grace Street---” He opened the door and found the number. “Apartment 3C. Hurry!” Ending the call, he shoved the phone in his pocket and looked hurriedly around the apartment for anything that could connect him to Elyse. His condom lay on the coffee table, the end neatly tied, and he grabbed it before moving quickly but quietly down the stairs into the night air. The sound of sirens came from the direction of his car, and he purposefully walked the opposite way.
He walked without destination, wanting only to get as far away from Elyse as he could, trying not to see her as he’d left her, head back, mouth in a tiny “O”, flesh motionless, the rosy glow already beginning to fade. He wished he’d covered her before he left.
He stopped walking and pulled the phone out. The dead girl’s phone. Less than an hour ago all of the contacts saved in the phone were connected in one way or another to a living, breathing person. Mother, father, brother, sister, friends? People who would never know Mark, who would have nobody to blame. Unless, of course…
NO. He’d done nothing wrong. He had nothing to confess.
Shoving the phone back in his pocket, he retraced his steps until he stood at the corner a block from Elyse’s apartment. Two police cars sat in front of her apartment building, blue lights silently twirling. The officers finished marking the area with yellow tape, mistakenly signaling that a crime had been committed there. What would they say if he approached them now, told them how it had really happened? Was it too late?
“She was so young,” he mumbled. “Too young.” He watched the squad cars drive away. “I knew she was too young,” he confessed.
Mark tossed and turned all night. He imagined Elyse’s mother and father opening the door to find the officers there. “Ma’m, Sir, we’re so sorry, but your daughter was discovered dead in her apartment tonight.” He saw her mother scream and double over, heard her father’s “NONONOOO.” They asked “Why?” and “Why now?” They probably believed they’d succeeded protecting Elyse from her condition and taught her how to protect herself. Maybe they’d thought she was ready to make smart choices.
“How can you make such a big decision at your age?” he’d asked Margo when she’d told him she didn’t want to go to college. He’d stopped Margo from making that choice. Had he known the choice Elyse was making when she started to undress him, he would have stopped her too.
At 6:00 Mark abandoned his futile efforts to sleep and made himself a pot of coffee. He wasn’t hiding. If the police wanted him, they knew just where to find him. And if they came, he could explain. Even if having sex with someone less than half his age was selfish, it wasn’t criminal. Not in this case. Not when he hadn’t known about her fragile heart. Still, he couldn’t stop shaking. His hands trembled so badly he dropped each of his three morning pills twice trying to bring them to his mouth. After finally getting the first two down, he accidentally kicked the third underneath the refrigerator and left it there. None of them seemed to work anyway.
At 7:00 he started pacing around the small apartment. From the kitchen, down the hall to the bedroom, to the other side of the bed, back down the abbreviated hall to the kitchen. Over and over. By 8:00 he felt nauseous. He usually arrived at his office in the mortgage department by 8:30. “I think I have the flu,” he told the receptionist when she answered the phone.
“Fine,” she answered, but her tone told him it wasn’t fine. Like everyone else in his department, she suspected his many sick days were spent on the golf course. Nobody knew how often he lacked the energy to get out of bed, especially on sunny days. When the sky hung grey and heavy everyone was a little cranky, and he felt more normal. But when the sunlight made everyone cheerful, having to paste on a phony smile made him feel odd and alone. And this morning the sunlight shot through every window in his tiny apartment.
He showered, hoping the hot water would soothe him. But as he closed his eyes under the steamy stream, he saw Elyse’s body convulsing on the end of the couch. Had that really been her last movement ever? Maybe they had been able to revive her in the ambulance, or when she reached the emergency room. Perhaps the police officers’ placement of the yellow tape had been not only false, since no crime had occurred, but premature. Perhaps she was still living and breathing.
But what if she wasn’t? And what if it WAS his fault? Could his selfish lack of awareness be so significant he’s missed clues that would have saved Elyse’s life? He had to know what had happened to her!
He drove to three different stores for the newspaper, but all were sold out already. Unusual for the local paper to sell out so quickly. His pulse quickened as he pictured a grisly front page headline about a nude undergraduate corpse.
Sallie had the paper delivered every day. More often than not, it sat on her front porch in its plastic yellow bag until after she put the children to bed at night. If he could read the paper and see that there was no mention of a dead twenty-one-year-old discovered in an indiscreet position in a university area apartment, maybe he could sleep. As he pulled up to Sallie’s house, she stepped onto the porch in her bathrobe and picked up the paper. Was it her day off? He couldn’t remember what day it was. She walked toward his car. As badly as he wanted to drive away, he couldn’t ignore her. He lowered the passenger window.
“Hey there, Casanova, did you come here to tell me about your latest conquest?” Sallie asked, grinning. “Come on in and have some coffee. I’m guessing you need it.” He turned off the engine.
What he needed was to get a look at the paper to see if Elyse was in fact dead and if somehow someone had connected the dead girl to him. What would it mean if the only newsworthy thing he ever did was accidentally kill a girl? While Sallie poured the coffee, he pulled the paper out of its protective plastic and skimmed the first page. Grad Student Found Dead. He set the paper down quickly so Sallie wouldn’t see it shaking in his hands. The story covered the entire page. Thankfully, the accompanying photo showed only the yellow police tape. Sallie picked up the paper, and he held his breath. How could he keep it together if Sallie said something about the story?
But Sallie tossed the paper onto the counter behind her without even glancing at it. “Spill it. How was your date with the woman who was NOT the sexy fifty-year-old?”
“That good?” Sallie laughed.
Mark tried to smile.
“Why are you screwing up your mouth like that? It couldn’t have been that bad!”
Suddenly, Mark had to fight the urge to tell Sallie everything, to lay his head on her shoulder and let it all spill out. The pressure on his chest, his blood pulsing with fear, felt as if his body were punishing him for his horrible secret. “I…It was…OK,” he mumbled. “She was really young.”
He didn’t answer.
“Uh oh, have you decided grad students aren’t enough of a challenge anymore? I knew you’d dip into the undergrad pool one day.”
“Shut up, Sallie!” he shouted, as he grabbed the paper and stormed out the front door.
He got into his car and gunned it. Two blocks away he pulled over and read the front page article quickly. Authorities suspect foul play but haven’t identified a suspect. Thank God! They are waiting to release the name of the deceased until after they have notified her parents, who could not be reached last night. Mark felt as if he might vomit. What if she had mentioned the date with him to her parents during a phone conversation?
Mark drove back to her neighborhood and slowly passed her building. Someone had already put a bouquet of flowers underneath the police tape. Lillies, the same flowers he’d given Margo at her high school graduation, the flower that signified new beginnings. His nausea turned to gut pain and his hands started trembling again. Gripping the wheel to steady them, he wondered whether the police had found her parents yet. Sir, Mam, I regret to inform you that your daughter was discovered naked and dead in her apartment last night. Naked and dead. If someone left Margo like that, naked and dead, he would want revenge. No. Not revenge. He would want to turn back time to protect her. If only he could turn back time and cancel his date, erase the horror of the evening. Or turn time so far back he could erase Elyse’s birth and make room for her parents to have a baby with a healthy heart. Or go even further back and erase his own birth. He thought about the revolver in his glovebox, purchased right after he left the Army, when he thought he still needed protection from the dangers around him. Suddenly, he craved its weight in his hands, its cool barrel against his temple. It would give him the power to erase something, and even if it wouldn’t make anyone happier, at least it would let him take control. But he left the gun alone and instead pulled the dead girl’s phone from his pocket and scrolled through the contacts. Allie, Aunt Trish, Bob, Bill, Babs, Cate, Ed…. She sure knew a lot of people for a person who had only been alive twenty-one years. Had known a lot of people. Only lived twenty-one years. He shoved the phone back in his pocket.
When the light turned green he drove south, to the old neighborhood, where he and Jessie had half-way raised Margo together, where Jessie had finished raising her, and stopped two houses down from their house, where Jessie still lived. Jessie would understand, wouldn’t she? She knew him better than anyone. Jessie would believe him when he told her he had been about to leave when Elyse came onto him. Jessie would realize jeopardizing a life just for a moment of pleasure was something he would never knowingly do. If they charged him, she would defend him. Jessie would be his character witness.
The door to his old house opened and Jessie stepped out, rushing, phone to her ear, talking, laughing. She didn’t even glance in his direction as she opened her car door, settled into the driver’s seat, and drove away. He felt a crushing pain in his chest. It was probably better not to tell her. Even if she understood, she might realize what causing Elyse’s death was finally forcing him to admit to himself: He wasn’t good enough for Jessie, and never had been. He wasn’t good enough for Elyse, for Sallie, for anyone.
The Third Street Diner sat a couple of miles from Jessie’s house. It had been there for as long as Mark could remember, although he couldn’t understand why since it was almost never busy. Mark pulled into the nearly empty parking lot. As he put the car in park, he heard a muted voice.
“What the hell?”
Then he remembered the dead girl’s phone and pulled it from his pocket. He had accidently called Aunt Trish! “Shit!” He hung up and threw the phone in the glove box. It clanked harshly as it hit the gun. Was there any way Aunt Trish could trace the location of the phone? If she couldn’t, he bet the cops could. Feeling his nauseau surge, he opened the car door and leaned out to vomit, but his empty stomach produced only dry heaves and drool.
Trembling, he entered the diner. Its only occupants were the waitress and two old white men arguing in the booth closest to the entrance. “Why is everything always about race to you?” the old man with the thick glasses asked. “How can you NOT see everything that way?” his companion answered. Mark sat down at the counter as far from the old men as possible.
“Hey honey, you want some coffee?” the waitress asked in a strong New York accent. Stray pieces of her jet-black hair stuck out in odd angles where they had escaped from her barrettes, and she had smudged the liner beneath both eyes. Her attempt to reapply lipstick hadn’t been very successful, so she also had a red smudge above her lip.
“You look like you’ve had a rough night, Janice,” Mark observed, reading her nametag. Janice laughed.
“Honey, every night is a rough night when you spend it on your feet serving people you don’t know.” It could have been a lot rougher, he thought, remembering how the dead girl looked.
Janice set a cup of coffee in front of him and handed him a menu. He shook his head.
“Have you ever seen a dead person up close, Janice?” He sipped his coffee and watched her eyes carefully. No sign of shock or even surprise.
“I sure have. You?”
He poured sugar from the canister and stirred it into his coffee slowly. “I have.”
“One of your relatives have an open casket too?”
“What was it then? A car accident?”
Janice stared at him, then leaned her chin in her hands.
“Well what, then? Tell me.”
“I …I, um….” He looked into his cup, trying not to see her naked body floating in it.
“What happened, honey?”
“She…it was…” His cup rattled against his saucer as he set it down. He stared into his coffee again.
“Hey, I’m sorry.” Janice put her hand on his arm. “She was a friend of yours, huh? Was you two real close?”
“You poor thing.” She squeezed his arm gently.
“She had a bad heart and I, I didn’t know.“ He shut his eyes tight trying to block out the image of the dead girl’s naked body convulsing.
“Oh no,” Janice said. “I read about this guy who was a runner. A real good runner. Wrote books about it, even. Dropped dead right in the middle of a morning jog.” What I want to do most is run a marathon. Mark closed his eyes and started to cry. Janice walked around the counter and put an arm around him, and he felt something open up inside him. He cried into her shoulder for what seemed like hours, and might have continued for the rest of the day if the old men in the front booth hadn’t called her over.
“What’s that weirdo doing?” said one of the old men, digging out some ear wax.
“Just a minute,” she told them, but Mark pulled away and started drying his eyes on his shirt.
“It’s OK, I’m OK.”
Janice handed him a napkin and smiled sympathetically before heading to the old men. Mark finished his coffee, laid a five on the table, and walked out to the parking lot. He got in on the passenger side and ran the fingers of his left hand back and forth over the glove compartment button, thinking about the phone and gun inside. He clutched the napkin Janice had given him, still wet with tears, in his right hand.
Tossing the napkin onto the dashboard decisively, he pulled it out slowly, hoping his shaking hands would follow the instructions his brain gave them.
Christie is a native New Yorker who once dreamed of writing for the NY Times but somehow ended up working as a legal aid lawyer in Richmond, VA. Although she cares deeply about social justice and loves her day job, writing has always been her passion. She returned to it once her two children left home to pursue their own dreams. Her stories have appeared in The Write Launch and The Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review. Christie recently started pole dancing and spends a fair amount of her evenings hanging upside down on the pole.