(Dear Reader, have you missed any earlier scenes? Catch up with this link: Stalker)
Portland, Oregon. 1994
“I’m looking for a house. It’s time for me to buy a house,” said James, sitting across the oak dining room table from me. Doing the NY Times crossword puzzle. Not looking at me. Looking at the puzzle.
What’s wrong with this house?
“I don’t want to live in someone else’s house. I need my own. So I can do what I want to it. Without asking anyone’s permission.”
I can understand.
Now he’s looking straight at me. Cold, unblinking blue eyes. Stern broad chin. Thick, light brown hair — more hair than is fair on the head of a man his age. Shoulders set in resolve: he’s made up his mind. I see that.
I went upstairs to the second floor of our rented house and sat on the edge of the antique wood bed (from his mother’s house, the house before the nursing home days), in the front bedroom — the largest bedroom — the one I had made my own. I lit a cigarette. A Camel. Filtered. Looked out the single-hung window — yellowed glass melting from the gravity of age — and gazed on the white oak and cherry tree-lined street and the crooked, buckling sidewalk and the struggling, anemic petunias I had planted and tended from early spring to this on-the-brink of summer evening.
The red, pink and white flowers sat unhappily married with the Shasta daisies next to the volunteer pin oak tree sapling that James had refused to let me pull up when just a few days old. It possessed not a germ of a soul yet, I was sure: I wanted to pull it up before the sapling took over my front yard flower beds. If I could give the pull of death to the weeds, mercilessly yanking out every leafy hint of a non-petunia, a non-Shasta Daisy, a non-tiger face pansy — then why shouldn’t I pull up a tree, too, before it sapped the strength and light and moisture from the tender flowers?
“No,” he said. “Leave the tree alone.”
Perhaps I took too much credit when I said I planted the flower beds. Yes, I picked out the baby plants and brought them home and I changed into my dig-in-the-dirt clothes. But, the dirt was so hard; I didn’t realize the ground would be so hard from winter. All I knew was how to rip open thick plastic bags, spill the store-bought dark potting soil over the kitchen counter and push it into the flower pots I had lined up in the sink. And I knew how to put seeds or cuttings into this make-believe soil and get it all nice and wet from the kitchen faucet and put the pots out on the balcony. Or line them up on the window sills. The apartment window sills. To borrow some sunlight.
But I had not known how to remove the barkdust from an earthbound flower bed and how to slice into the heavy black plastic barrier the landlord had hidden beneath the barkdust laid to keep the weeds out of the flower beds and then how to use all my strength to dig into the dirt. I didn’t know how to do that. Luckily, James never waited for me to give up trying, for me to collapse into tears, or to beg him for help.
He knew if he didn’t intervene, I would never get it done. The petunia starts would stay too long in their flimsy nursery green plastic containers that weren’t big enough to hold much dirt or much moisture for long. The starts would wilt and die, waiting for me to plant them.
And he couldn’t let my neglect destroy these young lives. So James would grab his shovel, the man-sized shovel that I could barely lift, and dig up the dirt in those flower beds and he plopped those plants in so quickly I was ashamed of myself for having taken a whole afternoon and not even having a single plant in the ground yet. But James just laughed and made light of it. He knew how to do things. He had the touch. The experience. And the brute strength.
He was so good to all the plants, especially the tender, young ones. I loved him for it.
As I smoked another Camel and watched the breeze catch the sheer cotton curtain and flutter like an invisible heart, I contemplated my choices.
First, did James expect me to move with him? He did not say “we should look for a house.” He did not say “we” at all. He did not ask my opinion. Think, Baby. Think. What does this mean?
Was this his way of telling me that we were parting? Going our separate ways? After all these months of separate bedrooms. Years of my working and going to class and doing homework as he worked and . . . did things separate from me. What were those things?
Was he hoping we wouldn’t have to talk about it? He hated to talk about it.
Don’t think about it, Baby. Don’t even notice that, I told myself.
Next — what would I do if he did want me to move with him? Would I join him? More of this? Yes, it was better than being alone. On my own. Anything would be. And — this is where the bottom went out of my belly: I wondered, what would I do instead, if he didn’t want me to come along?
Almost ten years invested with James. And now the prospect of being left behind, of being abandoned. No discussion. No explanation. Oh, the very thought of it squeezed the bile into my throat. I watched the cotton sheer curtain tremble in the breeze. My invisible heart beat in time with it. The beat was but an airy flutter; a faint shadow, a bare tremor.
I remembered this taste of being left behind. I saw it before my eyes, behind an almost-opaque film, hiding the bad memory. Don’t look at it. Don’t remember. My mother leaving me behind, alone in the apartment. I was barely nine. I was too bad to be taken along. July 4th. As dusk came to the neighborhood, I watched the fireworks from the window. The other children playing in the street. My family outside, with the rest of the neighborhood. I watched from my jealous window perch, leaning into the glass as far as I could, to get as close as I could to the others down below. To somehow span the forever distance between me and them. To spend a lifetime, trying to span the distance.
I was left because I wasn’t good enough to take. That was my punishment. For what? I remember the punishment, but not the crime, not the sin. The lesson was lost on me. Perhaps none existed, except her need to remove a badness from her own heart. To cast it out so she could be left pure and good. To lock me away, with her badness swallowed into my void, so she could be empty of it. She could be safe.
I knew this taste, and I knew what to do.
Whatever happens, don’t let anyone know they hurt you. Don’t let anyone know you care. Don’t let on that you even noticed they were gone.
Abandonment? Oh, that’s nothing. You get used to it, after a while. You don’t even notice.
Lonely? Grow flowers. They always smile at you, and never walk away.
. . . to be continued
Also — Stalker, the Soundtrack
© Barbara E. Berger, 2011, all rights reserved. “Stalker” is a work of fiction.