Anna

I grew up in foster care. Not my entire childhood, but a significant portion of it was spent in the homes of strangers. Never having my own things, never having my own memories, no common thread but change and the expectation of it.  From the ages of nine until 18, the people who inhabited my life were there by government mandate, paid a salary to house me, ask me questions, take note of my wellbeing or lack-thereof.

Office of the Warden, California State Prison, Corcoran

It can be hard sometimes to work out why any of them would admit to additional crimes. Usually they are looking for some kind of leverage, some extra privileges or reduced time. Though reduced time would only apply if the crime was someone else’s, and if the information proved useful, which it often doesn’t. And anyway, people as a general rule don’t do something for nothing, prisoner or civilian.

But Hanssen was here for life, many lifetimes in fact, assuming he could somehow figure out the secret to living longer, buck biology and physiology and the aging process and make it 350. He would die in prison for his crimes regardless.

His crimes were numerous and explicit, a long list of things he had done and been convicted of and an even longer list of things he was suspected of and implicated in.

It was possible of course that he was boasting. Or even lying. And even if neither was true, and the information could be relied upon for any kind of accuracy, was there really anything to be done about it? Was there any kind of justice in naming it, letting it enter into the public consciousness? Who would it serve, the victim or Hanssen? There was no doubt in the warden’s mind that the only person Hanssen ever served was himself.

Full of doubt, but nonetheless feeling the appeal of discovery, he reached for the phone. It wouldn’t hurt to look into it, after all. Quietly and carefully.

The warden couldn’t get the name of the victim out of his mind.

California State Prison, Corcoran

The chair made a guttural scraping sound as he pulled it towards him. The same sounds, always, everyday. Rubber soles. Keys jangling. Rustle of institutional clothes that made you hyperaware of the sound of everyday clothes. The same smells too, antiseptic but with food smells mixed in. A floor cleaner that your school used from back when you went to college. Not unfriendly, nostalgic even.

Here, where everything is labelled and in its right place.

Oscar is waiting. Not uncommon, really, there is a procedure here to everything, and sometimes those procedures take time. The waiting time is a good space for thinking; Oscar does some of his best thinking at these times.  During one of these thinks he realized that his organization system for files could be more efficient if focused on index crimes, rather than last name. Or that the mouse models for behavioural systems simply had no relevance to solitary confinement prisoners in supermax.

Or that his marriage was over.

When the prisoner is finally ushered into the room Oscar finds the sound of his shuffling feet comforting. Stable and predictable. He expects to wait some more as the prisoner makes himself comfortable, but prisoner Hanssen is ready in no time, eager to say whatever it is that he has come here to say.

Well Mr. Hanssen, what can I do you for today? Oscar is convinced that his casual manner wins him points with the prisoners.

Hanssen stares at him: I want to confess to a crime.

 

 

Anna

When I was younger, before I married, I dated quite a bit. I think that would surprise you if you knew me, which you don’t. Yet.

Every date I went on was the same date, with only the male protagonist swapped out.  It became so routine that I would wear the same clothes, same hair, same makeup, each and every time. Routine, and efficient. Easy.

Some of these dates would be a one-and-done deal. Some, would become a relationship, lasting months, and on four occasions, years. I would have these relationships concurrently, because after all, it would simply take too long to run this sort of massive dating experiment by dating men one after the other.

Not a single person I dated ever posed to me the question: Are you seeing anyone else? I think it never occurred to them that I could be. Or would be. That I would cheat on them many times over. They made this assumption about me. So you could say that the only thing I’m really guilty of is letting them have their assumption, which isn’t much.

Hardly my fault at all.

Part 1: Mark

On our third date my wife told me she had no friends. It was dark and quiet and she spoke the words softly. We sat together in a car park, not touching each other. The less she let me touch her, the closer to her I felt.

It was slightly too warm in the car and her face was shiny from the heat. It gave her a serene glow, like a child, and I couldn’t picture anyone not liking her. She was sweet and quiet and poised and I’ll always remember that moment because it was the moment that I fell for her. Her cheek was slightly damp and I was moved by this show of emotion. I felt love cramping my stomach.

 

I am going to kill that bitch.

Scavenger Hunt

When I was a child there was a meeting. It was an important meeting and everyone who attended got a map. Only I didn’t realize how important the meeting was and I showed up late and by then all the maps were gone.

The map told you almost everything you needed to know. If you didn’t get a copy you were doomed to spend your life on a scavenger hunt trying to find all the sign-posts and clearly-marked roads that everyone else took for granted. You fumbled about like the lights were permanently off in a room where the furniture was moved on a daily basis.

You tried to take a peek at other people’s maps, but this was much later, and too late to make any tangible difference.

As you were growing up you were constantly getting into trouble, for things that seemed to only make sense to other people.

You never smiled and this was a problem, though you could not understand the utility in smiling. Eventually you practiced, the muscles around your mouth aching. Sometimes, you were only a series of other people’s impressions of you.

You kept forgetting that the future would happen to you, though people were always reminding and reminding you about it. When your mother gave you plants to look after, they died in your room. When your mother gave you pets to look after, they died….. elsewhere.

Love seemed conditional and it came and went for mysterious reasons. You were clumsy with other people’s feelings and had no sense of urgency.

Many of these things are told to you later in life, while seated in a doctor’s office, the doctor unravelling these mysteries for you one by one, making your life come into focus, finally- you nodding, only partly understanding what is being said, and do you need a moment to take all this in? It confirms for you what you have been seeing for some time, everyone you know somehow moving forward while you languish in the same place, all of them having access to a place from which you are permanently barred.

 

 

En Vacance

It is late summer, and we are on holiday in a beach town along the Golden Coast, a place that is a mix of locals and British expats. It’s easy to tell who the expats are, their skin always looks burned from the strong Spanish sun; they try to blend in with the locals but their patina of uneasy sweat gives them away,

Dinner here is eaten very late- we walk along the beach trying to choose between seafood, or skipping dinner in favour of dessert. When are you going to have seafood this fresh?- My husband cajoles me as we clumsily translate the menus posted outside each restaurant. The boardwalk and the sea press right up to the main drag, and we stroll alternately along the narrow sidewalk and the sandy boards that abut the beach. The sea looks black at night, spilled ink, indistinguishable from the sky, no horizon line.

There aren’t many people on the beach at this time of night; the few that are here are strewn about haphazardly, camped on folding lawn chairs in twos or threes. There is a couple seated a few feet from us, the woman with her back to her partner, her face visible to me in the glow of the street lamps. She looks distant, annoyed, her paramour’s hand is resting on her shoulder, his voice floating up from behind her, soft and coaxing. To see them is to know instantly the nature of their relationship: her, much younger, him, trying to enjoy an early retirement. He probably spent 35 years in middle management; 35 years in middle management affords you a mid-tier retirement in a mid-tier city with a mid-tier girl, a girl who is pretty, but not too pretty, young, but not too young. I wonder if either of these strangers is happy with the deal they have struck- her posture is resentful, her tone lackluster, his hand rubs her back, his attitude says please turn around. He looks up at me, briefly, and I haven’t read him quite right- his mouth is lifted at the corners and I think part of him is enjoying her resentment.

***

Afternoons are so quiet you could hear a pin drop, everything closed, siesta still practiced and taken literally. We spend them with friends, the only people we know here, on a wrap-around balcony under an awning wide enough to keep the sun at bay. Charcuterie, sliced fruit, prawns dipped in olive oil, chilled wine. The wine is for everyone but the hostess; they are pregnant, their fourth, another boy, her DNA so weak-willed that her womb cannot produce a single girl-child.

Every woman wants a daughter. Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime.

On the weekend they take us to a market, small and grubby, a place where mostly locals go to buy their fruit and eggs and olives; cramped stalls and the sellers looking like they spend all day out in the sun. The poverty here grips the south like a plague; the people our age look 15 years older than us.

There isn’t much beauty to be found here among the locals, and the tourists are mostly older. There are pretty girls everywhere, the one maxim you should be able to count on in life, but no, not here.

There is just the one girl, walking in front of me, in front of us, but only I’ve taken notice of her. Black hair down her back, curls, tanned skin, hips swaying like a hypnotic pendulum. She evokes that feeling in you, the one that feels like a visceral gut-punch, makes you feel close to god, love or almost-love, the one you feel when you hold something soft and vulnerable in your palm: I want to save it, I want to crush it. She is stopping, off to the right, not quite in my line of sight and my husband is in my ear: Do you want the black olives or the green with almonds, should we just get both? I’m nodding, well, which is it Claire? and can’t he see that I’m busy, just pick whatever fucking olives you want, christ, and she has moved on and the moment is over and it’s just us left here to walk back to the car with containers that we hold upright so nothing will spill.

***

At night we leave all the windows open, hoping for a cooling breeze, but it’s only relentless humidity here. We lay in the dark holding hands and I wait until I feel his fingers loosen and his breathing slow and deepen before I turn over and look outside. I can see a thin sliver of moon and the black sky, bathed in a gentle glow from the street lamps. The things I cannot see but I know are there: a tree, just the one, that grows lemons and is randomly placed by the fence, the cracked sidewalks, the colourful stucco of our building turning pastel with age. My husband moves beside me, slightly restless, the way he becomes when he starts to dream. I feel a stab of envy at his easy departure from wakefulness. But I don’t really want to sleep. I want to get up, go out, but I can’t, I can’t, because I’m not familiar with this city, not even that familiar with this building, and he would know. No doubt I would bump into furniture coming back in or step on the one floorboard that creaks and he would wake up. He would know what he already knows and pretends not to. And then one of us might have to say something and it would break the peace that we have, the contract that is our life together, the scaffolding that keeps our marriage upright, the many small and big trade-offs that we have made to stay together. Love, but don’t ask, look, but don’t see.

My husband thinks that people are either clocks or bombs; he worries that I am a bomb, but he has no respect for clocks. He does not know himself as well as he thinks he does, and I know the one essential truth of him that breathes life into his feelings for me: He would rather be scared than bored.

I close my eyes and ignore the voice that I hear- it sounds like a heartbeat, relentless, persistent. Hungry.

You promised me, it says.

You promised to show me things, give me things, to feed me.

Does your word mean nothing?

 

 

 

 

 

Choke Point

Every other Thursday I have a standing appointment with my therapist. It was supposed to be every Thursday rather than every second one, but I bargained it down to twice a month.

I’ll call the therapist Dr. X.

Dr. X and I have a routine. Routines are nice. You always know where you stand in a routine. Ours is that I come in, drop my bag on the centre console, plop down in a chair.  Dr. X asks: What would you like to talk about today? I turn my head and stare out the window for 45 minutes and say nothing. I am required to be here, physically, but nowhere does it state that I have to talk.

I think most people would find it daunting to ignore someone for this long, and especially on such a regular basis. I find it helps to have something to think about, and most days, for me, that thing is music. Not just a song either, I’ve done entire concertos, one movement at a time-I have a lot of time to kill. Today I spent the morning listening to Carmina Burana because the bombastic O Fortuna section can sufficiently distract me while I’m here waiting for the clock to signal my release.

After ten or so weeks of this Dr. X decides to change tact. She begins to vary her question, the only thing she will have a chance to ask me during an entire session before my face has gone blank and I’ve made it clear that the only thing of interest to me is the dumpster that stands 20 feet from her office window.

Are you angry about being here?

Do you think you would benefit from seeing another therapist?

Do you want to talk about what happened?

This becomes a variation on a theme. It’s almost tempting to give her something. Almost. But each time I come here is one time less I’ll have to come here. One less time I’ll have to feel Dr. X trying to sniff me out, find the password that will unlock me.

She misses every time but one. The one after the one where my husband picks me up. I don’t know where she sees us exactly, maybe it’s us in the car already, maybe it’s him moving me towards the elevators, palm on my lower back.

But she’s found the key and she isn’t shy about using it.

Life is a gamble, she tells me. Marriage is a gamble too.

I stare at her for a long time, the window and the dumpster forgotten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The White Rabbit

I’m too old to be hanging around the mall so often. But it’s conveniently located on my way home from work, and everything I need is easily found in this one place.

By everything, I mean the girls. So many of them, herded into one building like sleek cattle. It can be quite dizzying to try and take them all in. I live in a city full of beautiful women and the sight of so much of it can overstimulate the senses, crowding out everything else, pushing the rest of the world to the peripheries. Sometimes I just stand in the centre of the mall in quiet awe, dazzled and sated but overeager.

I come to this mall in particular- there is a girl here, one that I always look in on when I make my rounds. She works in a jewellery store, the kind where you buy charms for a chain or bracelet. By her blonde hair and the angles of her face I judge her to be eastern European. She is a girl who wears her feelings on her face- her moods, her inner life, her circumstances, all dictate the way her face looks. Today she is looking haggard, her hair dyed a strangely unflattering colour. I always try to work out these moods of hers. A fight with her boyfriend? No, more likely to be a break-up. Women change their hair when they go through break-ups.

She can be truly stunning, which was why I took notice of her in the first place. I must have caught her on a good day, because when I saw her the first time, that face of hers stopped me dead. She radiated. It was Real Beauty, the kind you can’t buy from a surgeon, the kind that is bone-deep. The thing about girls-and beautiful ones in particular- is that you can’t truly understand their beauty until you see it up close. These are the days of filters and makeup tutorials and winged liner and girls wearing lashes like spider’s legs and it’s all so distracting. You need to get real close, to make sure, you need to know that you aren’t being sold a false bill of goods. You walk by the girl that first time, and the first pass tells you that she might be the real thing. You need a pretext to circle back around, come close enough to make sure, it’s very important to be sure. I have been disappointed more times than I care to count.

Some girls get suspicious. They notice you watching. Their mothers and fathers and teachers and principles have been telling them forever to be wary, that strangers are not friends, that a girl cannot trust what she does not know, and perhaps not even what she does know. There is some leeway here for me, you’d never think it to look at me, aren’t we all in some kind of unspoken sisterhood, all of us girls?

I look at their legs too. I like to imagine how hard they could kick.

There are girls that are easily watched, at least for me. Their attention is only for men, and to them I am completely invisible. My girl in the jewellery shop is one of these girls. She is distracted easily by shiny things, like a crow. Would she be as easy to woo into a cage?

It takes longer than you think to find beauty, even in a city of beautiful women, even in a sea of girls with the infallibility of youth on their side. And when you find it, you aren’t so much an observer of it, but its slavish devotee. An invisible chain ties you to the object of your desire, and that chain pulls you forward to some place where you are locked together for better or worse. The only difference between her and I is that I know it, and she doesn’t. She is my white rabbit.

Tag, you’re it.

 

 

 

The Cabin That Jack Built

It is a cold snap when we drive up to Jack’s cabin. I am in the passenger seat trying to keep the temperature in the car from fogging up the windows. Jack keeps up a constant chatter as he steers along the roads he is familiar with, the blur of trees and snow so soft-looking that it melts into one long reel of green-white.

I was thinking of Jack recently. I was on a trip, wandering around a museum, and his tooth was in my pocket. I rubbed it absentmindedly like a talisman. It isn’t easy to remove a tooth, it requires a lot of persistence. The ligaments hold out longer than you think.

In the car I turn to Jack, tell him to pull over. From the trunk I fish out the duct tape and make four circles around his head with it. We continue the trip in silence. I’ll let him talk when we get there. Or maybe I won’t.

The cabin is Jack’s year-round home. It serves its purpose as more than just a home; it gives Jack a ready-made excuse to bring girls to the middle of nowhere. I can picture them here, shivering from the cold, their pink nipples hard. I know how he sees them, because how he sees them is how I see them, and I like to think as I walk up to his cabin that I can see the prints of their bare feet still etched into the hard ground.

From the cabin we make our way on foot, our tracks covered by the falling snow, nature abetting our crimes. It’ll be like falling into a pillow, a soft, welcoming cloud of a bed, a pristine almost-grave. I tell Jack to stand still and I count 20 paces like we are duelling. I really don’t know if this is enough, but I pretend to Jack like I do, and really, every experiment has its premier iteration, how else are you supposed to learn these things?

Afterwards Jack sits up, leaning forward, left hand feeling the right side of his chest tentatively. I think you broke my ribs, he tells me. He spits blood onto the white carpet of forest floor. He looks pale by the time we return to the cabin, he wants to leave. Don’t worry, I say, you’ll be fine. I’ll even drive. Just wait a little longer.

What I really want are my trophies. I make him wait long enough for the bruises to appear, purple blooming into black, and the photos of them come out so well. I still have those pictures, the secret spot in an empty moisturizer container, a tiny flash drive on which Jack is posed, naked, grimacing, mine forever.