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The windows have no bars but they’re sealed tight, triple-glazed. They’re too thick to smash, though I tried. That first night I pounded them with my fists until a huge Jamaican nurse rushed to me, held me tight, cushioning me against the springy softness of her breasts.
I long for fresh air. It’s so hard to breathe in this tiny room. It’s painted an acidic yellow: an attempt, perhaps, at cheerfulness or sunshine. I can see the grounds from my window, the long lawns, and the walls made of Cotswold stone. The gate is wrought iron, automatic, and clanks shut. In two days, I will be out of here. The words repeat in an echoing loop in my head: I will be out of here, out of here.
They took away my clothes, the white raincoat that was an exact copy of Samantha’s, the red woollen dress like the one in her closet and the shoes, bag, and perfume I stole from her. And they took back her pearl earrings.
I asked for a candle with a lavender scent. They gave me the candle, but no matches to light it.
The problem, they told me at that first session, is judging whether someone is a danger to herself or to another person.
“That’s absurd,” I said. “I don’t want to harm myself. And I never intended to harm her. I wanted to be her.”
My husband brings me grapes, paperback books and divorce papers to sign and looks at me with bleak, hollow eyes.
“Well, couple of days and you’ll be home,” he says, his voice too loud.
He’ll be my ex-husband soon, of course.
How simply it began; how quickly they unravelled, those eight years of marriage. And the unravelling began with a cliché. When I first discovered his betrayal, I laughed out loud. I found a crimson smudge on his white business shirt. Lipstick on the collar? Oh please.
I watched him carefully when he returned from work. His eyes shifted away, he seemed distracted. Then I listened to telephone calls, noticed his voice dropping. Once, he moved away, took his mobile phone into another room, his voice changing as the door closed.
I remember the tone of his voice that first time I realised he was talking to her; how gentle he sounded, how warm. I’ll come straight from work, he said. Promise.
Not a work call, then. Nobody says promise softly like that to a colleague.
In the morning he told me he’d be working late. I nodded, unable to look at him, my eyes on the illegible newspaper.
The following day I waited outside his office, my small black Honda invisible in the sea of vehicles in the town car park. I could see his car. I saw him walk towards it with a long carefree stride, briefcase swinging. A happy man, done with work for the day.
I followed him, amazed at myself. I was a stalker. The word itself gave me a sharp, strange thrill. It was late afternoon and raining; a hard, slanting rain pelted my windshield and it was difficult to keep track of him on the slippery, busy streets. But it was a short drive to a townhouse on wide, tree-lined street. I didn’t intend, then, to confront him. Or her. I wanted to see what she looked like. I imagined her tall, young. And thin. He likes slender women.
“Those pants,” he would say to me. “Aren’t they a bit tight?”
He meant – you’ve put on weight, you should lose it. He said that a lot before the miscarriage. Then, after five months of pregnancy when I lost the baby, a little girl, he stopped saying even that, for I never completely lost all the pregnancy weight. To be left with the baby fat and no baby seemed unjust. He never mentioned my weight again.
The townhouse stood in a smart row of five, an end house. He didn’t bother to ring the doorbell. He had his own key and inserted it like an owner before he disappeared inside. A light flickered on an upper floor. I could see his outline as he pulled the blinds closed. I parked under the trees as water dripped from the branches and slid down the windshield. I watched for shadows. Nothing, nothing. Why no silhouettes? No merging bodies?
Another car stopped in the parking lot five minutes later and a young woman got out. Young, thin, but not pretty, no. Not as pretty as I am. As I was. Her hair a cap of chestnut brown, face pale and small, a neat red mouth. She wore a white raincoat, a well-cut raincoat, crisp, tied tightly at the waist. Her handbag was black leather, a good bag.
She ran through the rain, light steps, towards the same door. I watched the window. One more shadow crossed it. I was holding my breath. I couldn’t see shapes, or shadows or silhouettes, but I knew he was making love to her right then, as I watched the windows.
When he returned home, he poured a scotch for himself. I looked at his hands; imagined them on her body. Could he taste her on his fingers? Smell her? I stood quickly and went to bed.
Buried under bedclothes, I felt, at last, the pain I had ignored all evening. I let it wash over me; swamp me. Not only the pain of his betrayal but the pain of loss: of lost love and my own lost self. My young, bright self, who could wear a raincoat tightly belted at the waist and run through a shower to meet her lover.
For a week I watched him, a weight pushing down on my chest, ears tuned for lies, phone calls. I wanted to ask him to tell me the truth. I tried. I heard the words in my head, but they stayed there, echoing, echoing.
Then he told me of a conference out of town. It would last two days, he said. His eyes fixed on mine as he spoke, willing me to believe him.
“I suppose wives aren’t invited?”
“No. You’d be bored out of your skull anyway. Not much time for seeing the sights.”
“Where is it?”
He looked confused for a moment, named a town a hundred miles north. Hardly a tourist spot. I knew he was lying. They were going to the beach, perhaps. Or the Lakes. Or a theatre weekend in the city.
Later that evening, I remembered the key he had, and knew then what I wanted: a copy of that key, a visit to their little love nest.
When he began to snore that night, I crept out of bed to study his key ring, left as always on the hall table. I recognised our own house keys, but there were four others. I took the entire set, pocketed it quickly, hid it in the old blue cardigan I used for gardening.
His panic in the morning was loud and predictable.
“Where the fuck?” he began. He stormed around the house, slamming drawers.
“They were there on the table,” he yelled. “Where they always fucking are.”
“Take my keys,” I said. “Take my car. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll look for yours later.”
He took my keys, grabbed them from my hand. How easy it was. I had copies made in town, called him before ten a.m. Found your keys, I said in a light voice. Down the cushions of the sofa. Must have fallen out of your pocket.
The night before the conference he hummed as he packed. He was imagining a whole night with her. He was full of anticipatory joy. I clenched my fists all day so that the nails cut into my palms and they began to bleed. In the kitchen, I dabbed at my hands with a paper towel.
I waited until evening before I drove to her townhouse. I wanted to be sure that she had gone with him. The place was dark. Her car was parked in the lot.
I sat, watching, until after midnight, cramped and uncomfortable in the car. At twelve thirty, I walked fast to the front door, reaching for the keys. Four possibilities. The first key slid in, then stuck. Sweating, I pulled at it, got it out. The second did the same. The third turned with a smooth, clean motion and I was inside a dark hallway, a small night-light at floor level to illuminate the stairs. I could smell lavender.
I had a flashlight and I tiptoed around, the light illuminating the silver patterned wallpaper, the gleaming chrome of a hall table. On the ground level I found a neat fitted kitchen, a lounge with a television, stereo, a long leather sofa, glass-topped tables. I studied the sofa. Long enough for lovers. I sat on it, and then stretched out. She was taller, but still it was long enough. The pictures on the walls were abstract: Rothko, Rauschenberg. The carpet was Berber with a thick rug in front of the fireplace. Upstairs, a bedroom decorated in pale pastels, one wall a soft pink. A framed print of Klimt’s The Kiss hung on the wall, across from the bed.
Candles were everywhere. And cushions.
I patrolled the house like a cat, noting the colours, the softness, and the femininity of it all. I studied her perfumes: she liked Issy Miyake. I sniffed at the bottles, sprayed some on my arms. Sweet. Nice. The clothes in her wardrobe were mostly tailored, work clothes, though there was one long black evening dress I tried to struggle into. Too tight, I felt the thread snap as I pulled up the zipper. I admired one soft wool red dress. The colour would suit me. I tried on a pair of pearl earrings and loved them at once. As dawn began to show in slanting rays through the blinds, I stripped off my clothes and climbed into bed. The sheets were cool, soft against my skin. The pillow smelled of the perfume I now wore.
I was careful in the morning to replace everything as I found it. Then, I made a mistake. I studied her mail as it slapped through the box – Samantha Harrington, a pretty name – and placed it on the hall table. I had closed the front door behind me and was halfway down the path before I realised my error: the mail should be on the floor, on the mat. Damn. Damn it all. I looked up and down the street. A middle-aged woman walked with a small dog; she didn’t look at me. Again, I fumbled with keys, cursing, my heart skipping and leaping. What if Samantha Harrington returned? What if someone saw me in this bright morning light, so visible on her doorstep? At last the door opened. I scattered the mail on the floor, slammed the door shut, and ran to my car, stood by it, taking, long slow breaths, my body trembling so badly I felt it vibrating like a steel high wire.
At home, I made my first shopping list. The lavender air freshener and the bathroom candles first. He didn’t notice them when he returned from work that day. The Issy Miyake perfume had a small, confusing impact on him. I’d sprayed it on my wrists and neck, and then, in case he did not come close enough, sprayed a little in the hallway. He paused, as he took off his coat, puzzled. Something was edging at his memory, something making him uneasy. He left so early in the mornings that it was simple to drive to the townhouse and watch Samantha go to work. She wore the white raincoat most days, sometimes a short leather jacket. She liked tailored pants, silk blouses. Once, she wore the red dress.
It was easy to find a white raincoat in the same style, though the cost of it surprised me. I bought one in a good gabardine with a wide tie belt. The pants were simple, I already had the red dress. The wig was trickier. In the end I found a medical wig supplier. The girl assistant talked to me gently, touching my hair with soft hands.
“You’re sure you want dark brown? Your colouring is so fair.”
“Yes. Chestnut. Short. Something different.”
The wig was longer than Samantha’s hair, but I could trim it. The colour was right. It gleamed. Under the light, I saw red strands that appeared burnished. I looked at myself in the mirror. My face was too round but make up would help with that. I must not forget the crimson, gleaming mouth.
Only two days later, I had my opportunity. He would be working late, he said. Don’t wait up.
After he left for work, I practised. I tried on my wig, my makeup. The crimson mouth looked dramatic. I pursed it in the mirror, pouted, made a kissing sound, and then laughed. The red dress looked good, if a little tight. And last, the pearl earrings. They glowed in the soft bedroom light. An elegant young woman was reflected in my mirror; a little pale perhaps, her lipstick too red, but the burnished chestnut hair was pretty. And so was the white raincoat on top of the dress. I saw a young woman, ready to meet her lover.
I drove to the townhouse, parked under the trees. I intended to simply walk in, use my key. Enter smiling. But as I switched off my car engine the door opened and out they came, talking together.
She wore the white raincoat. I could not see if she wore the red dress. I swallowed, trying to calm my heartbeat. I could wait until they returned. I could enter the house, wait for them, wait for them on the leather sofa, or in the soft, scented bed. Or I could follow them.
I followed them. The restaurant was Italian, softly lit and crowded with diners. I watched from the other side of the street as they entered the warm light of the restaurant; I saw them seated.
I took a breath, checked my hair and lipstick in the mirror; then I tightened my raincoat belt and crossed the street. I walked into the place with my head held high, right to their table.
She saw me first and gasped, a strange, strangled cry. She looked scared. The sound unnerved me and I hesitated. He stared at me, frozen in place.
What the hell, he said. She whispered something and he reached out to touch her hand. I pulled a chair from the next table and sat down next to him. My knees trembled; people were staring. I reached for his hand also. He held mine for a second and then let it go, shaking his head. He looked at me then, something in his eyes I could not recognise, had never seen before. Pity? Fear?
“Why are you dressed like that?”
I shrugged and glanced at her. She was pale, her hand on her mouth.
He talked in a low voice about stress and exhaustion and I heard the words but did not pay attention to them because I wanted him to tell me how pretty I looked, how beautiful I was now.
Samantha moved then, stood abruptly. She stared at me, her eyes wide, sparked with something that looked like anger. She had seen the earrings. She reached towards me, murmured something. I thought, I truly believed, that she would tear them from my ears and I stood, too, and stepped away and my chair fell backwards. Oh, the stumbling chaos then. A bedlam of noise and panic. The waiter behind me shouted. I felt him bang into me and then a crash as something fell to the floor and liquid spewed and yelling from the next table and above it all, a cry, a raw, high-pitched scream of pain and outrage. My voice.
“Stop it, Jessica,” my husband said, shaking my shoulders. “Shut up!”
It’s not a hospital for serious mental illness. It’s a hospital for people with minor psychiatric problems, nervous breakdowns, addictions. I have simply broken down like an old car, stressed too much. If I agreed to commit myself and get help, Samantha would not press charges for the thefts my husband said. I agreed to all this. Of course I did.
A woman doctor talks to me every day. Martha Kim, a neat Korean with an impassive face, is a practical woman. She asks impossible, practical questions.
“You didn’t confront him about this affair?” she asked.
I blinked and shook my head.
“I tried. I just couldn’t.”
“Did you think he would leave you?”
“No. Not before this. No.”
I know this for sure. When they came to tell us about our baby girl, he turned his face to the wall. I wanted to see her, but he cried out – no, no, don’t be stupid. Stupid seemed a cruel word to use then, under those circumstances. When he looked at me finally I saw that his eyes were frightened, trapped. That tragedy locked us together. I tried to explain this to Martha Kim. She listened but I don’t think she understood.
“He’s leaving now,” I said. “He’s giving me the house in the divorce settlement.”
“And you’re happy with that?”
“Yes. Fine. I can sell it.”
“Why would you sell it? A nice house, in a good area?”
“I don’t need a family home. I’m alone now.”
“But maybe one day with another man you could -”
I stared at her, confounded.
“Another man? I’ve never even kissed another man. I was sixteen when we met…”
“You could meet another man. You could have a child,” she said.
Another man? A child?
I swallowed. The concept bewildered me and I stared, puzzling, trying to make sense of it. Then, like a window thrown open, a draft of clear, clean air. It is possible. It may never happen. But it is possible.
“See?” she said. “Now, you understand.”
I thought about it all that evening, staring out at the rich green of the lawns.
And here, tonight, I feel a surge of something that might be anticipation, might even be excitement. In two days I leave here and I toss and turn thinking about the changes I could make to my old home.
I could paint the walls pink, like Samantha’s townhouse. Or not. Maybe pink is not my colour after all. I’ll throw away the lavender candles. My candles will smell of roses or lily of the valley.
I could use a soft green for the walls, and I’ll plant the garden again. It’s been neglected this last year. I’ll get in touch with the people who called after I lost the baby and I never did return their calls and I’ll say yes, I’m fine now. Why don’t we get together?
No. No. I’ll paint the walls, all of the walls, a clear sweet blue, like a pale, washed sky and it will be like living near the ocean, or high in the mountains, in the air.
And I will be able to breathe.
Mary McCluskey is a journalist with a base in Los Angeles and a home in the UK. Recently she's been concentrating on fiction which she loves because she can make things up. Her short stories have been published in literary journals in the UK, US, Australia and Hong Kong. Her novel, INTRUSION, is to be published by Little A in June 2016.