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A rather unusual gatekeeper stands guard at Stella’s bedroom doorway. When you nudge the door ajar, a superman figure the size of an adult man’s face swings out, to greet the intruder. An inauspicious noose around his neck, this supermale sways like a hanged pirate. Stella also drew another face on the back of his head, as if to send a message: he monitors you from whichever side. The Superman’s merry smile and impeccable teeth remind Steve of his childhood dentist. Also the familiar, nerve-wracking surge of guilt. Let’s see how good you’ve been all this time.
Even well into his 30s, Steve kept finding himself in relationships that went nowhere, no great tug at parting, until Katherine came along. And she came along so assuredly, their transition to each next stage so natural and effortless, that he somehow ends up misremembering the day they are supposed to move in together – or the day Katherine’s furniture is to be delivered to the ranch they’re now leasing together – drunk he has been in the seamless flow of their romantic progress. So it happens that when he receives Katherine’s call and is reminded of today’s gravity, he’s standing on the shoulder of a highway, fifty miles south of their new home. When Steve says his car backfired and is about to be towed away so he might need a ride, Katherine replies, “Take the Coach.” She’d of course pick him up under normal circumstances. but with everything – furniture being unpacked and Stella to look after – she cannot see how.
The tow truck’s heading in an entirely different direction, and this part of New Jersey is a wasteland as long as Uber goes, so Steve just walks for a few minutes to the nearest bus stop. The Coach driver allows him on the bus reeking of sweat and a toilet in the back, after a grumbled “Selling tickets isn’t my job,” even though Steve clearly remembers that the Coach USA website informs otherwise. Steve takes a seat, bracing for the stench.
Not long after they started dating, Katherine confessed to Steve that she had a nine-year-old daughter who, according to her, was premature in her own way. One thing Katherine didn’t say was that her daughter Stella looked as if she’d walked straight out of Rembrandt’s paintings, an ensemble of innocent looks with cherubic curls. The other thing, as it turned out, was that Stella didn’t want to change anything about her densely woman-populated home. Even now, every time Stella turns her pretty head and says hi the way a kid does, Steve sees in her innocuous face a bull dog baring teeth to a stranger in the house. It’s obviously immature of a man nearer 40 than 30, Steve knows, to say that he doesn’t like a girl who’s likely to be his stepdaughter, who’s also only recently become a teenager. But Stella has always unnerved him, and even more so because he cannot bring himself to tell anyone about this. During his first sleepover at Katherine’s place, Stella made it clear that her approval needs to be earned.
It was an autumn night when a rainsquall swept the whole of New Jersey and turned their Friday rendezvous into a sleepover. When Steve’s car managed to crawl to a stop at her house after many detours, rain blindingly drumming on the roof and windshield, Katherine decided it was not safe for Steve to drive home, and invited him in for the night. When they were toweling off the drizzle, Stella made a drowsy appearance in the hallway, her sitter probably dozing off somewhere in the house. Buzzing lights from the living room across her face, Stella rubbed her eyelids, hard, almost theatrically, and looked up at Steve, her bottom lip ominously protruding.
“Who’s this man, Mom?”
The word, “man,” took Steve off guard. Katherine must have taken this as a child’s slippery output of language, because all she did to respond was a nonchalant “Meet Steve, honey.”
Steve put on an awkward stranger’s smile, which quickly faded at Stella’s measuring eyes. She went straight for Katherine’s open arms without paying attention to the “man,” as if his very presence encroached on her right to cherish the moment with her mother alone. Locked tightly in a hug, Stella threw sideway glances at Steve’s arms clumsily hovering midair, then the mess he’d made on the doormat, before burying her face back in Katherine’s belly. Then the soft voice of a thunder-fearing child came out. “I need to sleep in your bed tonight.” That little monarch, Steve thinks every time, didn’t even try to disguise it as a question.
A sudden rumble-tumble of the bus jolts Steve out of reminiscing. He looks out the window foggy with fingerprints and dust, only to find out that he’s heading south instead of north. Muttering curses under his breath, Steve squeezes himself out of the seat, and in some wavering, frantic strides, reaches within the driver’s earshot. When he finally manages to persuade the driver to drop him off, Steve feels ready to call it a day, but first, he walks what feels like more than a few miles, crosses an overpass, and continues to a nearest bus stop, this time on the right side of the highway. About the time that a bus arrives and he hops on, Steve finds himself mildly depressed and profusely sweating. His cell phone vibrates angrily in his back pocket, a sure sign that Katherine wants to know where the hell he is. He chooses not to look and confirm the obvious, although he knows that ignoring her calls would only make her sourer. Right now he needs no second opinion on the self-diagnosis that he’s being quite pathetic today.
The idea of moving in with Katherine always felt natural even before she first brought it up, and yes, she was the one who brought it up. It felt right, like the time when he’d felt the unmistakable taste of an imminent glory, solid as gold, dashing across his high school football field, with a voice repeating in his head: “I’m gonna score.” And no, not just because of his Asian parents who, when he was in his late 20s, wondered loudly and jokingly about his continuous status of bachelorhood, and then silently and with a glint of worry and even dread in their eyes as he crossed the threshold between the acceptable age of sowing wild oats and the growing possibility that he’s just incapable of commitment, like one of the uncles they always spoke of only in passing and always disapprovingly. Yes, Steve was sure of Katherine, even though his parents didn’t seem anything more than just relieved when she was introduced as a serious girlfriend.
But now, he’s having doubts, right here, sitting on the second bus of the day, finally on his way home. He doubts if moving in with her might have felt too natural a course to take. Natural enough for him to forget when. And he doubts he’s the only guy who ever asked himself this question – is it natural that something feels this natural?
To begin with, Katherine used to be one of his patients. But the fact did not tickle his conscience even in the slightest, since he was her dentist. He first met her only a couple of years into his practice. At that time he was going through a phase that he still believes all medical doctors have to go through at some point of their career; they begin to fixate on that part of the human body they specialize in, for which they develop either hate or obsession. Steve, back then, had already determined he was the former. Until Katherine walked into his office, and he realized how intimately hatred and obsession, aversion and fascination, could be intertwined in a human mind.
Full lips painted a modest shade of red. Steve saw Katherine’s lips before he saw her entire head resting slightly uncomfortable inches below. They looked nearly artificial, like a rose grown in a greenhouse, trimmed before display. Natalie, one of Steve’s assistants, informed him that Katherine was in for a regular checkup, and that Doctor Jenkins referred her to him. No hint of anxiety showed on Katherine’s face all the while. It seemed that the usual chitchat Steve learned to prepare for many anxious patients would be unnecessary.
Steve had peered into many mouths before hers, and examined countless teeth. The reality of oral hygiene is nasty in various ways and on unimaginable scales. At some point, the act of kissing might start looking dismal. One of Steve’s dentist friends even came to make a fetish of perfectly shaped, perfectly pink tongue and gum, as he did of nipples or similar features before. On the other hand, Steve had gradually lost interest in every activity that required intense oral involvement. So when he peered into Katherine’s mouth and discovered there could exist such an ideal specimen of mouth, he became instantly infatuated with her, or rather with her mouth, which didn’t make much difference to him at the time. And when they began to go out almost every weekend, it didn’t feel less natural that he found himself more attracted to Katherine than anyone he’s ever dated. They just clicked, he would tell himself. It only took this incident of morbid forgetfulness for Steve to begin to doubt. Shouldn’t there be something unnatural about things that one accepts without question this way, almost as a matter of course? And his mind continues to drill into that doubt, wallows in it, as the bus mindlessly rumbles on.
It’s nearly afternoon when Steve finally arrives at the ranch house he vaguely recognizes. Katherine stands outside the front door gesturing to three movers carrying a king-sized bed he paid for towards the garage. Their bed, now. A truck is parked in the driveway. Steve stops in his tracks to catch his breath, easing his legs that he’s overworked yet again during the long walk from the bus stop. Elderberry hedges surround the house, completing the suburban setting of Northern New Jersey and bringing it to familiar perfection. But at the moment, the humble, ten-foot high house seems oddly unsettling, disorienting, even. Cartons lie everywhere on the lawn, books clumsily tied up with yellow cords towering all over like anthills. Steve picks up in high grass what seems to be one of Stella’s collections: another action figurine. This girl might grow up to be a cartoonist, Steve thinks. He imagines Stella, twenty-something, wrinkling up her nose while her ink-stained hand is busy drawing bold WOWs or BOOMs. Or maybe she’ll prefer tablets and Adobe programs. He slips into his pocket the thumb-sized figurine that feels a little bit sticky to the touch. Katherine, having spotted him, hurries over.
“Where’s your stuff?”
Her reproaching eyes take him in. Her forehead gleams with a film of sweat, her lips a neat, pale pink without a trace of lipstick or gloss. Before Steve can answer, Katherine says, “We’ll talk about it later,” and grabs his arm, guiding him into the house and towards the dining room.
The house is in complete disarray and filled with the tangy smell of freshly painted walls. Steve glances at what he secretly calls the “unhealthy gum lavender” walls. Surrounded by these walls on three sides, Stella is sitting on the dirty floor, in the center of the dining room. Her head glows a Florida-beach white under the lampstand that’s the shape of an upturned Florence flask. Katherine puts one hand on Steve’s back, another still clutching his arm, as if restraining a wayward kid. Suddenly he feels his polo sticking to his back, all the way down to the hipbone. Katherine says, “Say hi to Steve, sweetie.”
In front of Stella lies a Dunkin Donuts box, along with a tomb of Munchkins on a plate. Stella elaborately licks sugar powder off a Munchkin, rolls the whole thing in her mouth, puffing up her cheeks like a frog, and then flops it onto the plate without using anything but her tongue. There’s no denying, Steve thinks, that Stella knows too much about him now. For one thing, she must have taken note of those subtle signs of guilt he tries to hide whenever letting himself or others indulge in cane sugar. Stella lifts the plate of clean-licked Munchkins, which now look like a tartare made of eyeballs. Only then does she acknowledge his presence. “Hi. You want some?”
“No, thank you, Stella.”
Stella shoots a smile that’s a disturbing imitation of Katherine’s. “Too bad. I’ve prepared this for you.”
Steve hesitates, as always, to decide if this superficially childlike behavior should be corrected at all and if Stella is actually daring him to another tug of war. Katherine seems interested in neither, or even aware, for that matter. That’s usually how much Katherine cares about conversations between Stella and him. Katherine’s the kind of woman who’s always preoccupied with other things that require more urgent attention. This time, a squeal from outside distracts her. In a few seconds, one of the men comes to the door looking for Katherine. She squeezes his arm and shortly after leaves, muttering: “They must be ruining my treadmill.”
On their first date, Steve learned that Katherine taught European History at a private high school. On their second night out, he learned that she was also a poet. Her poems were published in several magazines and a collection of her twenty five poems was on the way to a chapbook. If he’d read such a profile on a dating website, he would have taken a look at the picture and concluded, self-absorbed, in slightly different tones depending on what he saw, and then moved on all the same. If he’d learned that she was also a single mother with a nine-year-old daughter, he would have also thought about all the complexities that might ensue, if things get more serious than a date or two.
With any other woman, the relationship wouldn’t have lasted long. Steve wanted some form of stability, an anchor, and undeniable, publicly flauntable intimacy. A single child, he was raised by mostly verbally absent parents who, despite being first-generation immigrants, only spoke English at home in order to help him become more American and eventually get into med school. After all those years in school and then as a part-time employee and intern, on top of many unsuccessful relationships, he wanted to catch up in life, and find someone, but not anyone. Katherine wasn’t exactly the kind of woman he was looking for. Or so he thought, because Katherine often made him feel as if he had very little role in her life, like an extra on a movie set where she was the lead. And that wasn’t far from the truth. Always oscillating between her work and Stella, Katherine had little time to spare for him. Despite everything, Katherine made him feel less of a dentist but more of a man. She was a challenge he could take on, he felt, and so Steve wanted them to work, badly.
In order for their relationship to work, as Steve realized, he needed to be an essential part of Katherine’s life. He needed his place among her daughter and her job and her poems. Even though his sleepover at Katherine’s ensured that Stella wouldn’t act in his favor, Steve still hoped her initial antagonism meant nothing more than a child’s wariness of a stranger. It wasn’t. Stella had no intention of being his leverage, that much was clear. The harder he tried to earn Stella’s support, the more hurdles she seemed to make him jump. No bars too high, but little thorny bushes that proved to be a nuisance. As if she was testing him: Show me what you’ve got, is that it?
Seeing that her mother’s out the door, Stella abandons the plate and springs to her feet. As she tiptoes into the bathroom, Steve watches her leaving little toe-prints all over the dust-gray hallway. A loop of dust is left on the floor where she’s been sitting. On top of the Dunkin Donuts tomb lies a Munchkin that looks like a broken skull, pink with some type of jam Stella must have been slathering over it. For a second Steve is possessed with an irrational thought that it was his head Stella meant to toy with. To scare the unwelcome bastard away and win back Katherine’s undivided attention. Steve looks around the dining room and starts collecting solo cups that the movers must have left behind. There are two Dunkin Donut boxes and a large coffee carton on the countertop. He pours some coffee.
When he’s done throwing away most of the bubble wraps and cords lying around, Steve hears a squeak from the bathroom door. Crouching over some plates, he notices Stella out of the corner of his eye. As he straightens up, he feels the figurine he’s slipped into his pocket earlier. Their eyes lock, and a brief, awkward silence follows. Stella’s now in wet flip flops, standing in a pool of water. Then out of nowhere, she brings her tiny hands to her face and starts pulling its skin towards her ears, stretching her face into what seems like a tight, reptilian smile. She stares at Steve with her hands on her face like that for a moment, head tilted to the left. Then, as suddenly, she shrugs, and comes straight for the donuts, dripping water all over. Watching her close in on him like a flash flood, Steve thinks gloomily, more sarcastic than irritated: Premature in her own way. This phrase has been in the back of his mind ever since that sleepover.
“Do you want me to get you a towel, Stella?”
She shrugs slowly, “I’m good,” then asks, “aren’t you supposed to be helping Mom?”
For once, Steve considers sitting side by side and having some serious open-hearted talk with Stella. It’s now getting more and more unlikely that she might take a sudden liking to him and it’s not like he can avoid her presence at all once they all start living together. Steve makes up his mind and starts, trying to find the right tone.
That’s when Steve makes out Katherine’s voice in the noise outdoors, a sharp, hysterical note that’s unlike her. Stella gives him the I-told-you look and heads for the door, her flip flops sputtering every step. At the doorway she looks back, an indecipherable expression on her face that probably, Steve tries to convince himself, he just imagined, and she hops out.
When Steve follows Stella outside, he finds a boy around her age on the roof of their ranch house, taking cautious, exploratory steps. With Stella clawing into her chest like a kitten, Katherine turns to Steve. “How did he get there? There’s no ladder anywhere.”
“No matter how he ended up there, he should know how to climb back down just as well,” Steve answers without thinking. Stella snaps: “That’s not true. Cats are good at climbing but they can’t get down by themselves.”
Katherine quickly adds, “We need to get help,” in a tone that makes every other opinion sound ludicrous. Steve tries hard not to point out that this boy is trespassing and has no business up there anyhow. Something about the way Stella reacts to the whole situation also makes him suspect that she knows the boy, or even orchestrated this entire scene. Then again, Steve knows it can also be nothing more than a stepfather-to-be’s anxiety. “Should we call 911?” He asks, hoping he doesn’t sound too indifferent or paranoid.
A loud clash disconnects Steve from the thought. Someone, or some people, shriek. The boy on the roof is gone. As the movers go into a frenzy around him, running to the other side of the house to see where the boy landed, questions flicker through his head, like a deck of cards. Who the hell is this boy? What was he doing, what has he done to us? His legs resist moving, and his stomach turns, when he finally asks: Am I safe? Steve thinks he catches the verge of a smile flitting across Stella’s face.
Stella presses herself against Katherine’s subtle muffin top, her tiny hand crawling up to Steve’s elbow. The ten year old’s bony body bridges Katherine and Steve, pulling them together with the surprising force of a ligature. They stand there gaping, Stella in the middle like a latch. The perfect image of a family, from afar, united in the face of an outsider’s tragedy.
“Oh my God. Do you think he’s gonna be okay, Steve?”
Whispering it’s okay honey, Steve suddenly realizes the unshaking voice has come out of Stella’s mouth, not Katherine’s. Stella’s fingers are a tight, cold grip on his arm, almost encouraging, as if he were a rookie actor whom she’s at long last enlightened to his part in the script, whom she now expects to play his role right.
For all they know, the boy might have broken his neck, might have jumped into a safety net of some kind, a bouncy castle, anything, or might be barely hanging at the eaves, fingers slipping.
“Thank God you’re a doctor,” Katherine whispers, still not moving. He almost says, I’m a dentist and for a reason, but stops himself, and stands frozen on the spot. The only thing that seems to be moving is Stella’s hand – persistent, searching, and dry. Steve lets Stella’s tiny hand find his elbow and lock there, a tendril tightening its parasitic grip, and in the following waves of nausea, he thinks: Good, at least she believes I can protect her, good, good.