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By Rachaelz All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Horror

Chapter 1

I was hungry,  had a headache in fact, but my girlfriend ordered only a pitcher of vodka lemonade. She joked with the bartender and whipped out her wad of cash to tip him lavishly. “Thank you, sweetie!” he trilled. She slammed the pitcher and two plastic glasses onto the table.

Warm, breezy evening air vibrated with the competing bass beats of bar bands, car stereos, and an occasional boom-box balanced on a skateboarder’s shoulders. I could pick out at least three lyrics of current Madonna songs. I snapped some pictures with my cell phone camera. It was Columbus Day weekend. Darkness fell early this October Saturday. Crowds of tourists, mostly guys flowed up and down the streets, feet sporting every kind of foot gear from black leather biker boots to Nikes and purple Reeboks, to stiletto heels crunching in drifts of autumn leaves. Skaters wove in and out of pedestrians, the occasional  shouted curse and apology signifying a collision.  Some couples held hands, some rubbed up against each other and burst into raucous laughter. We had arrived in the famous Boys Town gay district of Chicago. Diesel fumes mixed with steak and fries on the breeze. Though I had looked forward to this trip for 6 months, I was, none the less uneasy, borne along by the crowds like a single lonely leaf…

There was nothing remarkable about the architecture of the area. The land’s flatness surprised me, though proximity to the lake probably had something to do with this topography. Neighborhood streets radiated out like spokes on a bicycle wheel and  brick storefronts or apartments or double family houses climbed only 2 stories with a fair amount of dilapidated, peeling paint on windows and trim. An occasional Victorian painted lady  loomed, with elaborate  “make-up”, turret room and wrap-around porch, to lend a given block an air of a friendliness, comfort; a place presided over by this past-her-prime aging madam. Old-fashioned, double street lamps lifted their frosted glass globes to the sky to toast the clouds.  The silhouette of downtown Chicago’s tallest skyscrapers was a constant back drop no matter where I looked. Here and there small parks nestled on odd shaped lots like triangular post scripts. Rusted but working swing sets and slides, wrought iron benches, some with brass tag inscriptions bolted to back rests seated lovers, and little paths for folks to walk their dogs wound through the grass. An anorexic looking young man in baggy black tights and sparkly sunglasses waited for a chihuahua who also wore sparkly silver sunglasses to decide which blade of grass to anoint. The man stepped as if he was avoiding broken glass in his hi-topped, checkered sneakers, cuffs inside out, hot pink laces loosened.

I took first shift driving when we set out from home day before yesterday. My partner had been pressuring me for weeks over my supposed fear  of highway interstate driving. I wasn’t afraid, but the idea had taken firm root in her mind. Nothing I said deterred her. Therefore, to avoid argument, I decided to drive first. Her soft snores drifted from the back seat. We’d left  our small upstate New York town early while dew still coated the lawns with a thousand jewels, and the sun was barely above the barn roof. It had been cool enough then for sweatshirts. As the day progressed the temperature rose. We continued west. We stayed one night with mutual friends who had a summer place in a wooded neighborhood within walking distance of Lake Michigan. We were not “out” to them, especially not with their conservative religious views, and so spent the night in separate bedrooms at opposite ends of the ground floor participating in an elaborate charade of not being dykes. It exhausted me.

As I sank into soft fragrant sheets and stretched my legs and toes, I realized I had not slept alone in a very long time. It was a wonderful night, nobody to complain about me in the morning. No nightmares of a shapeless monster slavering after me through endless night. The next day we drove up the entrance ramp to the interstate. I mentioned what I call the genericism of America. Strip mall and big box store, one after another. Long ago, I had thought you could tell what region you’d visited by the architecture. New England salt box houses jumped to mind. Yet presently through four states so far, everything looked kind of creepy as if our whole country had become cookie-cutter malls and paper-doll people. I don’t know if my partner agreed with me or not. Often she chose not to simply to be contentious. She ignored me and remained silent.

Once we’d found our way to our motel,  our wad of map quested instructions now wrinkled and sweat soaked, we checked in and dumped our bags on the floor. It was late afternoon. We boarded Chicago’s famous L from an underground train station a few minutes’ walk away, to ride into the city. We had talked about the exotic midwestern sights we would see here. Coming to this historic district was exciting. At a time in history before gay marriage was legal just being in an entire city neighborhood without a straight person in sight appealed to us.

The train stopped at an above ground platform. We unstuck ourselves from the plastic seats and climbed downstairs en masse to mingle with the natives.

Rainbow flags hung from many doorways and telephone poles. Men dressed in everything from nothing but a rubber cow’s tongue strategically placed over his privates, to a fellow on a rainbow bicycle with hand-holding Ken dolls in the basket in fairy wings, a sign hung from said basket “burn fat, not oil.” (a sentiment that made me smile) thronged the narrow streets. 

Boys Town, while technically gay, really appeared to our eyes to be a gay male district more than anything. I saw a few shops with signage that indicated they were aimed at a lesbian demographic. I tried to memorize the locations to come back the next day. I did not see many female faces in the crowds.

We stopped in a boy bar to have a beer. Dusty board floors, smeary mirror behind the marble topped bar, a slightly sticky round table with uneven legs.  A front window showed off a shirtless male stripper in camouflage pants. I shook my head and smiled to myself. Of course, a boy bar would have male strippers. Duh. Another topless dancer gyrated back by the restrooms. He reached down his pants and fondled himself to semi erection. He wore orange and yellow board shorts, Timberland boots his only other fashion accessory. Pockmarked chin and cheeks belied signs of steroid use. He had the muscles to prove that theory.  Except for the scars, his face was handsome.

An aging queen approached the stage. Though jukeboxes and televisions blared, made conditions impossible to talk and hear, I could pick up the gist of their conversation. The bleached blonde patron who was wearing black velvet, “skinny” trousers, Barbie-style low-heeled pumps, dangling rhinestone earrings and elaborate eye makeup tucked a bill into the younger man’s waist band. The longing on the 60 something customer’s face saddened me. To me, everything about him felt tragic, faded, and too late for a lot of things. The dancer grinned at whatever the patron whispered and fondled himself more vigorously. His admirer minced back to a solitary table in a darkened corner to watch.

As soon as we’d finished our beers,  we strolled down the street to see what else might attract two women from back east.  My ears felt like the’d been stuffed with cotton in the aftermath of the volume of the dance music.The gift shops and artisan studios I saw were closed because it was after-hours Saturday evening. Some of the nooks looked really interesting, hand thrown pottery, beaded jewelry and other hand made art objects in display windows. I hoped we could come back to shop for souvenirs. I would pause to shield my eyes and look in thew windows, exclaiming in delight. My partner strode on impatiently. I hurried to catch up. From behind in the falling night, sometimes I had the uneasy feeling that her silhouette was more than human. Her voice which could carry the length of a rugby field if necessary growled low in my stunned ears. 

On every other corner sprouted either another boy bar or a ‘pop and pop’ style  coffee shop. Gay men from all over the world surged in packs  beneath street lights. I heard many languages I recognized,  Spanish, French, German and Italian and many I did not speak. I saw every color of skin imaginable along with more acres of colors of  tattoo ink than I’d ever seen in one place. From the flaming queen to the studly, preppie bear, the guys were in a definite party mood. I was starving.

“Let’s stop for dinner.” I said hopefully. “There’s a McDonalds. “ I pointed across an intersection to the familiar yellow arches. “We haven't eaten since breakfast.”

“No, I don’t want McDonalds,” she said. I didn’t particularly either, but the type of regional bistro we’d both been dreaming of eluded us.

I had met her on an internet dating site. This online service delivered five matches a week into my email. Each time I looked at her picture, a fairly generic, pleasant headshot taken outdoors,  no obvious red flags, and read her words as she described her interests and experiences, in particular her story about relinquishing custody of a pre-teen boy and her rather grandiose description of her start-up business, I felt uneasy. A little voice in the back of my mind whispered, “Trouble. This one is trouble to avoid.” and so I would hit “delete” and go about my days. 

One Saturday morning I sat sipping my coffee while I gazed out the window behind my computer at the woods where leaves drifted down for winter. Several blue jays screeched at one another. I listened to the peculiar conversation of clicks and shrieks as my dial-up internet connected with the server. As soon as that finished, I set my coffee carefully away from the computer and the inquisitive cat who had aspirations as a keyboard saboteur and checked my email. No longer containing just her picture, but after all these weeks, my inbox held a message from  the woman my gut told me to avoid, She had written me directly.

Heart speeding up,  I clicked over onto her profile page to study all of her photos-there were few, again. Most seemed to be at a sports event on some field. As if in a dream, I watched my fingers fly over the keyboard. I answered her. Whether the red flags were flapping hard enough to tear or not, I was unable to ‘delete’ as if my hands were taken over by unseen forces. 

My index finger pressed “send”.

I pondered these memories as we we climbed worn stone steps of yet another bar rather than a restaurant where we could’ve had food.  She commandeered a table. We were sweaty. A strange odor drifted from her. More than perspiration, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I glanced at her. For a split second I could not decode what I thought I saw. I rubbed my face.

“The fuck’s wrong with you?” she snarled. 

Her mood had deteriorated as the day progressed. Expressions flitted across her face as if a shapeshifting predator dressed in the flesh of an overweight woman sat opposite me. A being who could spin a good enough tale to capture the unwary and vulnerable, seduce with blushes and tear-filled eyes, until final devastation and a ditched twitching victim. We should’ve found a Burger King or Pizza Hut.

Instead she gulped down two 8 oz glasses of the lemonade one right after the other.  I watched her long-fingered pianist’s  hands on the pitcher, her throat bobbing as she chugged the drinks. She bit her nails in lieu of using a clipper. Claws rose unexpectedly in my mind’s eye.

She swallowed more lemonade, her querulous tone kept carefully low enough so that nobody around us could hear her haranguing me. She growled,

 “I don’t wanna have to pay for everything. You are too dependent. You are not the woman I wanted.” She slammed her empty glass on the wet table. Her eyes refused to meet mine.

 Her hair was thick, a  graying red, her eyes, pale blue that varied from overly warm with passion, accompanied by dimples on either side of her wide mouth, to a slate blue so pale and cold it evoked goosebumps when she looked at or through me. Her light complexion was speckled with the  freckles of a true redhead. 

The skin of her acne scarred face turned an unbecoming shade of “brick”. She ranted.  I was dependent on her vast experience as a world traveler to get around this new city. 

 “I need help, too!” she screamed at me the easy tears welling up like a faucet tap just opened. Any help I might’ve  offered, I knew, would be rebuffed because in truth, she refused to give up control to the point of never even riding in someone else’s car. My heart pounded, and I bowed my head. I picked at a loose thread in the hem of my teeshirt. 

On a previous vacation to Cape Cod, as we sped down a midnight-dark highway in her truck somewhere in the Berkshire mountains, she decided to stop and put me out at the side of the road. Only her supposed need for sleep prevented this. We had arrived late to our little motel in Orleans. She made love to me with a fierce passion I did not understand or respond to.

My current need to pee pulled me from these uncomfortable reveries  so at last I tore myself away to find a ladies’ room in this Chicago bar. By reflex I checked my email on my phone as I sat on the toilet elbows on knees to delay the inevitable return to the diatribe.  I  still hoped her mood might’ve lightened and normalized  and that we could have some fun That stupid lyric stuck in my brain, “girls just wanna have fun”. 

 The door slammed the frame as I left the cubicle. I jumped, startled. The sink was wet and filthy with smears of thick, semi-dried, pink soap and wads of used towels. A shriveled air freshener stood with mummified orange wick on the edge of the counter. A faint ghost of cinnamon mixed with scents of urine and sweat. The hot water faucet didn't work so I sluiced my hands with the cold and gingerly wiped them dry on the thighs of my cargo shorts. I ruffled remaining moisture through my short, moussed hair-spikes. 

It was our second vacation together and my second trip anywhere in years and years. I  glanced into my own green eyes in the cracked mirror over the sink. My purple-tipped buzz cut, my size 00 gauged ears with small bangles through,  right eyebrow piercing, my eyes showing the strain of both this trip and living with her, smudges underneath and tension in my cheek muscles. I couldn’t really bear to meet my own gaze any longer so I shoved the door open with my shoulder to go back to our table. I was relieved to see her baseball-capped bulk still seated on one side, chair tipped onto back legs. I hesitated just hidden behind the foyer to the restrooms. If I squinted I did not see my girlfriend beneath that baseball cap, but something blurred. The air in the room darkened. I glanced at her hands and rubbed my face. I swore long blue-black claws tapped, no dug into the scarred table top. For a split second I saw a real monster. Then I blinked. There she sat, fat rolls oozed over the waist of her jeans. I wondered what else had been in our pitcher besides vodka and lemonade.

I smiled at her as I seated myself. She opened her mouth to attack. Fangs glinted in fluorescent light.

 “I’m sick of you! we are done! I’m leaving!!” 

I shook my head. Fangs?

She lurched to her feet, half the pitcher of drinks inside her by now. She knocked the table. Lemonade sloshed. She stomped toward the door to the outside. Other patrons and staff stared, some with open mouthed amazement. I caught a fleeting glimpse into my own panicked eyes and apologetic smile as I raced past the bar mirror, hustling my bag up onto my shoulder. She was much taller and heavier than I so I had to struggle to keep up with her on the crowded side-walks. She was so big she was often mistaken for a man.  One afternoon, on a weekend date early in our relationship, she had hefted me over her shoulder as if I weighed no more than a bag of flour—I am 5’5” and weigh 150 lbs—to carry me across a stream on a hike because I had worn Birkenstocks, not boots. It was funny, seemed loving at the time.

 She often wore a shirt under her clothing that she called a “wife beater” and no bra and kept her head constantly covered with a ball cap. She had a beer belly, several white scars across its wide skin. The first time I noticed them in the shower, I recognized immediately marks of self-mutilation. That  long ago morning, I had said nothing. As I raced after her, the ground trembled with the force of her stomping. I wondered if those scars had been made by something else altogether.

 Her sports of choice had been rugby and competitive weight lifting and she’d once medaled in both. At home I had hung a breathtaking  professional photo in our dining room of her during a rugby match where she was captured midair intercepting a pass, the muscles of her thighs sculpted and beautiful. Since then,  she had buried herself under layers of fat. 284 lbs. turned her androgynous, her facial features coarse, and slovenly looking. The day she buzzed off her hair only emphasized her size below her neck.

 “You’re not the woman I wanted!” she hectored me as she strode down the cracked concrete and out into packed intersections. She accidentally bumped another pedestrian. 

“OH!” she simpered to the small man, his arms loaded with bags of groceries, “I’m so sorry.” 

She smiled sweetly at him her dimples popping into view. He was completely charmed. 

“That’s okay, honey.” he simpered back.

 She rolled her eyes in my direction somehow communicating with head tilt, shoulder shrug and a curl of lip that her bumping into him was my fault. He glanced at me for all of two seconds as if I were a noxious stain on his shirt,  then looked back and beamed into her face. We stormed on.

 At this point I just wanted to arrive safely back to our motel. I had not drunk much vodka lemonade as I have little tolerance for alcohol. We could go our separate ways once we got home back east. Saliva had dried up in my mouth. I was close to gibbering.  I begged her to stop this crazy behavior. If I touched her arm, she flung me off. She declared she was leaving me in Boys Town to survive on my own or not. “It was time” I became “unsheltered.”

All around us people swirled, laughter and colors.  I stepped out of the way of more pedestrians. I stood near a curb. In despair I pulled out my red flip Razr phone to text or email a friend.  Such was the hypnotic power of the monster yelling at me, all coherent thought fled and calling  911 did not enter my mind.  I wanted somebody who loved me to know where I was and what was happening even if they were many states and another time zone away. Even if I ended up dying here. I wanted to go home.

She snuck up behind me as I hunched my shoulders over the tiny screen to protect it, while I hit “send” with one thumb. 

“That’s MY cellphone!” she screamed in my ear as her fist reached over my shoulder to knock the device from my fingers. It skipped and skittered across cement like a pebble on a puddle and fetched up on the top of a sewer grate sunk into the road asphalt below the curb.  It hung there trembling among multicolored maple leaves, a few cigarette butts, a Snickers wrapper and a used condom. We were on a mobile share family plan through her business. When she suggested adding me to her plan so I could both have a cell and we’d save money, it never crossed my mind she would one day try to take the phone from me.  

Her other hand slapped me between the shoulder blades and jolted me forward. I fell to my knees, gravel grinding into my skin. Blood trickled down one shin as I struggled to stand up. One shoe slid half off. My heart was about to burst out of my chest.  She tried to shove past me to kick the phone into the storm drain. I thought of Stephen King.  I could smell rotting plant matter and possibly a decayed rodent carcass floating up in a miasma from the grate. Water gurgled down there. My white fingers braced the pavement. If my phone disappeared between those bars, it would be gone forever. I scrambled to retrieve it, scrabbled it into one hand just before she got to me,  one enormous muscled calf whizzing past my eyes in her attempt to stomp my hand, and I stuffed it deep into one pocket of my cargo shorts where she could not reach unless she tackled me and ripped through my clothes. This possibility  loomed more imminent with each passing moment. In spite of the spectacle, as she yanked on the hammer loop of my shorts, unbalancing me. Nobody walking past gave us more than a cursory glance. I imagine people thought “Let them deal with their shit. It does not concern me.” The ‘60s news story of the woman in NYC being murdered within earshot of her neighbors and nobody even picked up a phone flew through my mind. Kitty Genovese. I felt invisible.

Besides, my partner was scary-big to all the small gay men streaming around us.

For the next hour, she taunted me.  She danced physically just out of reach on the one hand the few times I tried to approach to beg her to stop this insanity,  and yet chased me the rest of the time, driving me like a predator drives a prey animal to exhausted apathy before the killing bite. Hidden behind storefronts, lamp posts or  jumping from behind reeking, overflowing trash cans, she continued to yell as she stalked me about a constant block’s distance away.

“If you call the cops, they’ll take you to the nuthouse!” she hollered. “You call the cops, they’ll call your parents to put you away! You need some work done!!! Hahahaha!!” she screamed. 

Yes, once in my life when I was a teen, I had seen a therapist. How could this woman turn around and hurl that at me? I was already so insecure. I huddled into my clothing, positive that the surreal way things were going, she’d turn out to be correct. I kept walking. Besides, I figured cops just did not make a lot of stops in the gay district.

It must’ve been around 8:30 p.m. Darkness gathered itself in corners on this street of night crawlers. I wondered how many other predators walked among us.  I followed her into and out of several coffee shops. She put on an act for clerks, a “You know how it is when you break up with someone and they won’t let go?”  routine.  I was stunned. Everyone accepted her performances. Nobody would even look at me. When she‘d achieved the right amount of sympathy from waitstaff  in one place she’d leave and enter another establishment to act out the charade all over again the minute I trailed in.  

One diner was built in a nostalgic old-fashioned metal style similar to one in my childhood home town.  The smells of fresh coffee and bacon assailed my nostrils. Tears rose to my eyes. A slender dark-haired waiter was drying a white coffee mug behind the counter. Cocking one eyebrow in my direction, he smiled at her and asked “Can I help you?” 

“Yes, I want a cup of coffee, please.” she said.  I dared to feel a tiny bit of relief. He nodded his head toward me. She shook her head.  

“No, she doesn't get anything. We broke up. She is stalking me.” 

She flipped off her cap, rubbed a hand through her hair then flipped the hat back on with a head shake as if the whole thing was too much for her to comprehend. I could not understand her power she had over every onlooker we encountered. Not one soul approached me to ask quietly “Are you okay?” 

“OH, you poor thing, “ he said to her, pursing his lips in a sympathetic moue. “Been there, done that.” 

He raised his eyebrows as he looked at me. 

“Better get gone, honey. Its over.” 

They burst out laughing.

I could hear ominous sympathetic murmurs of support for her from other patrons and, I realized nauseatingly,  she’d also duped past therapists, relatives, friends and lovers alike…

 I had no idea how to get anywhere. After the repeated apathy of passersby, I did not feel I had the option of asking someone how to get to an L or bus station. She held all our money, had assured me this was safest plan before we left our motel.  While I was an artist, I also worked part time for her. She paid me in coffee drinks and chai teas. My calling a cab was out… I did not call 911. I was too brainwashed by terror, survival reduced to minute to minute.  She peppered me with verbal assaults and ambushes. I was forced into constant movement. I could not stop to catch my breath or to think. I rushed in and out of pools of street light. I had been married once. My husband had respected me and been one of the kindest people I have ever known, my entire life. Nothing in my own experience had prepared me for this.

After awhile I wandered into an all-night gas station. The little grocery shop portion was open, too,  and I hid between the aisles. The surrealistic situation was beyond my ability to wrap my shell-shocked mind around. Here I was crouching on cracked still-wet, freshy mopped linoleum, the scent of Mop ’n Glo reminding me of my mom, at risk of peeing myself between rows of Hostess Twinkies and Rice Krispies beneath overhead mirror and camera, sure to be ejected by the owner at any second. He sounded and looked like he was from Pakistan or India. She was crafty enough never to come within range of any store’s  surveillance equipment. Eventually the clerk, who had been watching me, did ask me to leave. He was very apologetic with his almost incomprehensible accent. I saw compassion but also anxiety in his dark eyes. I just nodded and shuffled out.  He was probably a fairly new immigrant and had no doubt a healthy fear of the police. I  don’t know if he had seen her. At the ‘open til midnight’ pharmacy, I raced to the door only to have it slammed in my face and the night shutters cranked down.  I kept hoping to see a police officer, but no such luck. If I saw one would I have the courage to wave them down? What would I say? I wondered, her threats about psychiatric institutions wreaking havoc with my imagination….. I wondered if I even existed any more.

Out on the dark street again,  scents of hamburgers and  fried chicken, pot and cigarette smoke, alcohol, perfumes mingled with fuel exhaust and sweat of many overheated bodies.

She screamed, “Fucking bitch! You big, fucking baby!” 

My brain finally kicked into feeble action. I thought to call someone I knew, a friend of the friends we’d just stayed with, who by chance lived about an hour east of Chicago. I angled my body, while stumbling along, so she could not see me use the phone. Luck had it, his number was in my group contacts, and  he was home. When he picked up, I started jabbering hysterically. I had to run and talk at the same time, vigilant for obstacles that might trip me on the dark, tree-root-broken sidewalks, street people curled up into camouflaged humps, garbage set out for the night and to glance back for her. As soon as she saw that I was talking on the phone, she lunged out of the shadows to try tackle me again. If she had grabbed my wrist, the bones would’ve snapped.

“Tell me exactly where you are,” my friend was saying.”Are you near street signs? any landmarks you can see?”. He had never driven down into Boys Town and except for tonight never would. I refrained from telling him it was the gay district. 

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” I breathed.

He said, “I’ll map quest it. Find somewhere safe to wait. See you as soon as I can.” He hung up. I slipped the phone deep into my pocket. 

I did not want anybody to know that she was abusing me. Since my friend was homophobic as well, I couldn’t tell him the truth about any of it. My explanation to him was thin. On the phone he had asked me whether she coming with us. I had replied that she was having health issues and and gone on to the motel alone. It was the best I could come up with under the circumstances. He rolled his eyes and snorted at me when I climbed in the back seat.  He intimated that I was not a good friend to be leaving her behind.

I no longer remember what I did during that hour as he drove down to find me,  other than to keep walking and to check obsessively over my shoulder. I was more afraid of my girlfriend than of random pickpockets and muggers. Crowds ebbed and flowed.

My friend drove an SUV. Because it was night,  I found it difficult to read brand logos, license plates or even to tell silver from gold in the light from fizzing street lamps. I remembered random facts like an article in a women’s magazine about body language even walking to your car. “Walk like you know where you are going.” If I stopped to squint into traffic, she would ambush me to drive me back into aimless motion.

She continued to hide behind fences and bursting dumpsters, taunting me if I came too close, hurling invective at me if I got too far away.  Her voice competed with the barking of various guard dogs, many scrawny creatures chained to dog houses behind barbed link fencing in lots filled with junker cars.  

Finally, my ride showed up at a traffic light at a bustling intersection. He stopped, rolled his window down, waved and honked. I ran across the street and grabbed the door handle. As we waited for the light to change she tore out of the shadows from behind an abandoned gas station. I heard her voice, 

“Fuck you! How dare you leave me! You fucking bitch. Asshole, coward…”  she stood out in the street by now.

The light changed, he tapped the accelerator. The Toyota eased into traffic.  A football buddy  accompanied him. They were listening to a game on the radio. From the back seat I asked if we could go to my motel so I could get my  heart medication. 

“What the fuck are you doing here?? Looks like the streets are crawling with fags!! I got lost coming down here, took me over an hour and a half” he had to pause for breath his lips flecked with spittle from his diatribe.

I shrank into my shirt and hunched in the seatbelt.

I mumbled something about my partner’s wanting to meet a gay guy friend. My voice trailed off into silence.

He shook his head. “I have to be up for work at 6 a.m. Look! Its after 11 now and is going to take another hour and a half to get home. Damn! and in the homo neighborhood of all places! Jesus!” He pounded the steering wheel for emphasis. I started to give him directions to the motel, but he interrupted me,

“No! I’m not driving all over the hell further into this sicko place for your damn pills. Why don’t you have any with you ?? Besides, you’re just being a baby, I’m sure, “ he sneered, “ you can survive one night without a pill. All that shit is garbage anyway. It’ ll be Monday in less than 8 hours. You can go yourself and get them in the morning.” 

He had one of those faces that has an anatomical natural smile at rest. Has nothing to do with happiness. He also laughed when he was nervous. I’d always found it annoying and him a difficult read. Now that smile was frozen like a rictus above his beard. His one remaining long hair was protected, laid lovingly across his shiny bald pate under his constant baseball cap.  He avoided eye contact with me the rest of the trip, ignored the cursing figure in the street and the rear view mirror and made elaborate football conversation with his friend. I hated him.

 I noticed we passed Wrigley Field. Not that I cared for baseball or football. I couldn’t help my tired eyes seeing the sign. It reminded of childhood weekends helping my dad  with yard work while he listened to the game on his transistor  radio or while he watched it under the newspaper on the couch. Tears stroked my cheeks with cool wet fingers. He was such a gentle, kind man.

I spent the night at my friend’s house in his guest bedroom at the top of the stairs. He was having company, relatives and friends for a late European-style dinner. I squeezed in on the end of the table. I was not hungry, but I hadn’t eaten all that endless day. My head throbbed in rhythm with my heartbeat. I tried to choke down some corn and rice but my mouth was too dry. I disappeared to the bedroom. Frogs chirped loudly all night long like mechanized toys just outside in a pond beneath some trees on the edge of the back yard.  I had never heard this kind of frog before. I was glad of their company. We were not far from one of the Great Lakes. Since I had not been able to take my heart medication, my pulse swooped and sped, surging me through the night in rhythm to the chorus outside. I wondered if I would have a heart attack.

My friend was not happy to have me there nor was he pleased to have had to offer me food in an effort to keep up appearances to his other guests.  At 11 p.m. his house telephone rang. She had figured out his phone number  probably by searching on the internet and was in the process of leaving him a message to the effect that she had tried her best with me but I was “just not the right woman for her.” He came upstairs and stood over me holding the phone just out of reach. I grabbed for it. He stepped back and just stared. Her tinny voice whined on and on. I imagined a mosquito.

His homophobia nauseated me, but he did come get me. I tried to stay focussed on that fact. I was still far from home.  He left early for work the following morning without speaking, thank God for one small favor. I still had my wallet with my single credit card stowed in a cargo pocket along with the phone. Its battery was low since I had no charger. I rummaged a bowl of cereal from cupboards in his kitchen and a glass of juice from the fridge, grabbed an apple and granola bar for later. I found a phone book in a drawer. I called the bus station, read his address off an envelope near the telephone to the taxi company. I asked the driver to take me first to our motel to pick up my medicine and bags.  I had a business card from the front desk in my purse.  

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I asked the driver to wait for me as I swung open the glass lobby door and made my way down the hallway to our room. I was nervous and fumbled the key card into the slot. What if she was inside? What if she was not?

Wherever she had spent the night it was obvious she had not come back to our room. A gusty sigh blew out of my nose. An image of her face leering at me from behind a stinking dumpster on a city street haunted my brain. I pushed it away. I gathered my own belongings and carried them back to the waiting cab as quickly as possible, vigilant for any sound of her return. I left my key card on the dresser and disappeared into the city. As we drove to the bus station, I unsnapped the bottle of my heart medication and swallowed a pill dry. Unbidden, a long ago memory of her holding the bottle out of my reach and taunting me came to mind. She was a whole head taller than I.

Much later,  as the dust streaked blue and grey dog carried me home and I drowsed against the seat cushion, I felt my red cellphone vibrate. I removed it from my pocket and flipped it open. A message from her blinked in the inbox, “I love you so much. Why did you leave me? I kept you safe!”  I lurched to my feet.

I stood on trembling legs to face the smeared bus window.  I felt like vomiting. It took all my strength and a few broken fingernails, but I managed to unstick the bottom panel, shoved the window up,  a couple of dead flies tumbling down my arms. Outside the bus, autumn-somnolent trees streamed past. With as much strength as I could muster in these cramped quarters, I heaved the phone out the window into the freezing slipstream. I snapped the window shut again feeling a tiny sense of protection as the mechanism to lock it snicked together. Cold air’s clean scent filled my nostrils.

I was sore from stress, my scraped hands and knees stung, but after pushing my balled up jacket around a few times, I drifted into an uneasy sleep, my head pillowed on my backpack. Suddenly, a large faceless individual towered over me. I found myself on my back in nothing but a soft teeshirt which was rucked up exposing my naked midriff and shorts. I was barefoot, wore no bra, and had lost my glasses. The arm of the seat dug painfully into my kidneys. 

“Please, honey,” I whimpered, “let’s get something to eat.”

I held my hands up in front of my chest in a weak effort that protected nothing. I looked up into the electric glint of blue-black, metallic claws. The creature roared. Claws whizzed down with an audible buzz. Heart in my mouth, sweat-drenched, I shuddered awake. I gazed around me at other sleeping bus passengers. Nobody had been disturbed. I leaned my hot face against the cooler window, touched the bridge of my nose, reassured to feel my glasses on my face. Only a dream. Only a bad dream. Slowly, my heart eased.  A tear leaked out of my left eye and down my cheek. I tasted salt on my lips.

We rolled into my hometown bus station well after midnight. I had been here many times in my life though during the day when bustling passengers filled the halls. It was spooky to see all the ticket windows closed, all the dirty plastic banks of seats empty and the  blackness of empty parking places stretching indefinitely outside. Too easy to imagine the clicking noise those large claws would make on the asphalt as they paced toward me. However, it was my turf. I gathered my crumpled canvas bag, purse and back-pack and stumbled blinking into the fluorescent lights. The few of us debarked there walked in different directions, footsteps echoing in the cavernous space. I rummaged in my coin purse and found a quarter and a pay phone to call a cab.  I asked how much the ride would cost. As I counted my crumpled last dollar bills, turned out I had just enough.

2 a.m. I paid the driver, then trudged slowly up my hilly driveway. It took everything in me not to look behind me as the rumble of his engine faded into the night. I had no idea if she was here. I peered through the garage window. Her truck was not there.

 I unlocked the back door to our home. Our dogs went crazy barking with joy. I burst into tears. I had thought never to see them again. I knelt on the floor just over the door jam to gather them into my arms. We were all crying. Then, I lugged my stuff up to our bedroom half afraid she would be there and half hoping she would. The bedspread lay serene and unwrinkled from the day I had made it right before we left. I wandered over to her side of the bed noticing the plain brown covered book that seemed always to be lying around. I’d seen her scribbling in it often enough. Must be a diary.  I’d never snooped out of respect for her privacy. All bets were off now. I sat down, one arm around a dog and opened the cover. My cat jumped onto my shoulders, purring. It was a diary/ledger. Inside she had categorized potential women dates met online. She had printed their email conversations with her and rated them. I was horrified to read something she had sent to a women she had known briefly before me.  

She began, “I really get off on taking it up the ass for hours from 2 or 3 well hung black men.” 

I sat there stunned. More pornography followed. I leafed back to the innocuous photo of the woman to whom this email had been sent. She looked like anyone. There was no print-out of her reply. She looked like….me. 

 The book slid soundlessly to my feet. I knocked it under the bed too overloaded to cope with anything else.

  During an historic argument,  my girlfriend had kicked the door of the house in, in a fit of rage. I remember coming home, driving up the driveway to see the door swinging open like an empty eye socket,  her footprint tattooed on the door’s paint, animals loose in the yard. I had called the police. She  managed to be out of town, out of area, and without cell coverage for an extended period of time after this event.  There were gouges on the wood panels around the knob and security lock, in the doorjamb, too.  I had always assumed she had used a jack knife to vandalize the wood panels first. I overheard one police officer say to  the state police crime scene photographer that those marks were not like any knife he’d ever seen.

 Almost against my will as these memories flew through my overstimulated mind, my hand rose to the headboard of our bed. It was handmade, by me,  with quilted squares of fabric inserted into a salvaged frame of an old pantry door from the house I had shared with my husband. On my side, there was also an attached small red wooden box with a drop-down front and decorative brass latch like the kind used for jewelry boxes. She’d built it for me for a birthday present the  previous year to keep my cellphone in at night. It would have to stay empty until I got myself a new one. I sighed.

My fingers flitted into the gouge marks on the box. Something I did not show the police, not even the nice female officer in gray with her hair, a neat bun on her neck. I had no idea what I would do if my girlfriend came home tonight.

I petted various cats and accepted doggy kisses while I upended my few carryalls and dumped the contents on our bed. I kept an audible murmuring monologue of thanks just under my breath. Mementos, a couple of Chicago art museum postcards, a pen from a cafe, my camera, a crumpled receipt, a ticket stub from the L, dirty underwear, toothbrush, comb and then… two objects I did not at first recognize. I checked once again to be sure I was wearing my glasses.  I squeezed my eyes shut then opened them wide. I stumbled to the dresser to turn on the ceiling light. One of the cats suddenly fuzzed up, pupils wide and dilated. My oldest dog crawled under the bed to hide, growling low in his throat. 

Breath held, I extended a trembling finger toward a bright, candy-apple colored Razr phone. I could tell the text screen was lit even though the phone was closed. It glowed against the bed spread. Next to it lay one broken-off, blue-black claw. It was hot to the touch. My bladder let go, urine gushed, burned down my icy thighs. I screamed.

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