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1986, Portland, Oregon
Only one person warned me about James. Shirley Henry. Shirley Henry was a senior member of the university’s Personnel Department, and had known James for almost twenty years.
“It was too bad, when James got caught,” she said.
Got caught? My face went into instant, defensive neutral. My right hand, holding a kahlua and cream, tightened its grasp — I hoped not visibly. I was hanging out at the Cheerful Tortoise, celebrating the end of the week with about 30 other university staff members. Shirley came up to me, got right in my face. I don’t think she had ever talked to me before this moment. How did she know about James and me? His divorce wasn’t final; I didn’t want people to know yet. I met her eyes, though I kept mine silent. Her gray hair’s frizz and curl was smothered with gel. Her thick bifocals’ frame missed the shallow bridge of her nose. I thought her ugly. I felt small next to her girth, but I did not break from her stare.
Did everyone know? I felt the red — the shame shade of red — creep up my neck.
“I felt sorry for him, that he got caught,” said Shirley. “Baby, if you were smart, you would get out now. If you knew what was good for you, you would run.”
Who the did she think she was? Who asked her? I don’t even know this bitch of a woman. And, by the way: What the hell was she talking about? How could James leave out something this important? I hated the feeling of someone else knowing more about him than I did.
Oh, I knew where this was coming from. Shirley was a bitter woman who didn’t want anyone else to be happy. I knew the type. Jealous. Old and wrinkled and infected with envy. Just last week, another of this ilk came up to me, and said, “Oh, to be young and beautiful. It must be so grand.” She said it with venom, in her crackley, wrinkly, weathered voice, with the juice of the evil eye shooting out from each orb. Oh, I knew the type. They are the ones I must get away from, before the knife goes in my back.
But Shirley knew James for so many years. She must know more about his past than I did. I was blindsided by his reticience. I resented it.
I said nothing. I hoped she would explain herself, without my having to ask and show her the distance between James and me. But, she said no more, and I was not going to lose face by asking.
I turned my back and walked away. I was four years old, turning away from my mother, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of seeing the wound she inflicted.
I didn’t tell James about Shirley; I didn’t ask him when he got caught. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it didn’t exist. Don’t ask, don’t tell. I filed the warning away, and forgot all about it. Until I needed it. Later. Much later.
Our apartment was near a firehouse, and the neighborhood often needed its services. James and I would be asleep, or in bed talking — with our glasses of wine and late night sweet togetherness — when the sirens would pierce through the bedroom walls.
“Get on your fire boots!” I would yell. And we would be up and out and looking for the fire. We turned into fire engine chasers. Nothing as exciting as a good fire to get the adrenaline moving. Then back to the apartment, grilled cheese sandwiches for everyone!
On the other hand, we didn’t chase the any of the steady stream of cars coming into the parking lot, most nights, especially weekends. People would jump out of the cars, run up to one of the apartments across from our bedroom view, dash back to the car and be off. Didn’t even park the car, just pulled into the lot. Finally one, night, they were busted. An army of Portland Police in the parking lot. Sirens. Blinding, flashing lights. Handcuffs. After that, quiet. Except for the nights we pulled on our fire boots!
Although I was comfortable in the apartment, James felt the pinch. He had grown up in rural Nevada, where even poor families, like his, lived in stand alone houses separated by stretches of empty land; not like New York City, where lower middle-class families, like mine, crowded into dense public housing project apartment buildings. I had thought only rich people lived in “private houses.” I was mistaken.
One night, I parked my car in front of an Irvington four-square turn-of-the-20th-century house that sprouted a “for rent” sign in the morning. “James! Hurry! Before it’s gone!” We ran over — it was just around the corner from our apartment — and added our rental application to the stack atop the fireplace mantel. The house was perfect! A backyard for James’s vegetable garden, a basement for his wood workshop, and bedrooms for each of his children (to use when not rotating with their respective mothers). Even a closed sun porch for my painting. I insisted on attaching a deposit check to our rental application — a special touch that surely made ours stand out from the heap.
The house was ours! We could be so happy now!
But, my name was on the rental agreement, along with James’s. We had never added my name to the apartment’s; I could tell myself I wasn’t truly living with James. I was “visiting.” This felt official: I had crossed a line: one that divided me from my parents, my family, and from who I used to be.
A week after moving into the house, my mind snapped.
. . . to be continued
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.