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Authors: Elizabeth Brundage

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense

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BOOK: A Stranger Like You
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“What are you working on now?”
Tom poured himself a drink and took a seat across from him. “I just finished a film about a shelter in Hollywood. In fact,” he reached into his pocket and produced a postcard, “there’s a screening tomorrow night if you’re still around.”
“Thanks. I’ll try to make it.” Hugh put the postcard into his pocket.
They sat there a moment, drinking. There was the possibility that she’d show up, he thought, although it seemed unlikely. The car was gone; someone had taken it.
“Where do you suppose she is?” Hugh asked.
“I don’t really know. It’s not unusual, really, she’s done this before.”
“Done what?”
“Disappears for a few days. Usually means she’s pissed off. Mature, huh? Probably gone off to Sparta for a few days to brush up on her ashtanga. It’s out in the desert, no cell phones—I tried calling her office, but everybody was already gone for the weekend and Harold’s on his way to Cannes.”
“Harold?”
“Her boss. Where are you staying?”
“In Beverly Hills,” Hugh managed to lie. “At the Hilton. I live in New York,” he emphasized. “I’m a writer.”
“Ah,” Tom said. “Good for you.” Apparently satisfied with Hugh’s biography, he stretched out his legs on the coffee table and relaxed. He had the expansive body language of a king or a rock star. At the moment, Hugh was playing the loyal servant.
“What do you write?”
“Screenplays,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m not very good at it.”
Tom laughed. “Well, then, you’ve come to the right place.” He raised his glass. “May you be paid handsomely for your humble efforts,” he said in a King Arthur voice.
“I guess it’s not all crap,” Hugh said, thinking of Ida. “Some of it’s pretty good.”
“You’re starting to sound like Hedda. She’s unbearably optimistic.” Tom finished his drink and got up and brought the bottle over and poured more whiskey into their glasses then set the bottle down on the coffee table.
They drank intently. Tom was sitting on a wood chair that had been covered in cowhide. It didn’t look very comfortable, too small for his long, lanky build. His loose trousers and wrinkled blazer made him look as though he had suffered a lengthy illness. The dark circles around his eyes were those of a chronic insomniac’s. He lit a cigarette and tossed down the pack, then leaned back and again stretched out his legs on the coffee table.
“This is a nice place,” Hugh said.
“This? It’s a dump. It’s only temporary, of course.”
“What do you mean?”
“Until the house is ready.” Tom looked at Hugh. “She told you about the villa?”
“Oh, yes, right,” Hugh said. “The villa.”
“Although I sometimes get the feeling that she has second thoughts. Buyer’s remorse.”
“I had that with my house.”
“I thought you were in the city?”
“My wife wanted a house in New Jersey. It was a mistake to move out of the city,” he said, suddenly clear on what had happened to his marriage over the several months inside that house. “It destroyed our marriage.”
“Wives have a knack for sabotage. It’s Freudian, actually.” Tom dragged on his cigarette with obvious pleasure. “They can’t help themselves.”
The house in Montclair was blue clapboard with plastic shutters upon which a horse and carriage had been replicated. When they’d gone to look at it for the first time, there were plastic pansies in the window box. The fake flowers had dared Marion, the purist, to save the pathetic Colonial from terminal kitsch. After they’d moved in, she’d replaced the plastic pansies with real geraniums and pulled out the colossal shrubs and lilac bushes surrounding the house. Hugh had tried to be happy about moving out of New York, but it wasn’t easy for him. Unlike the suburbs, the city presented small opportunities for escape. He could get out for a walk, or run a suddenly essential errand, grateful for a few minutes to himself. He found Marion’s silence oppressive. “And we had squirrels in our attic.”
“Suburbia plus,” Tom said knowingly. “All the comforts of home.”
It occurred to Hugh that, at the moment, sitting there in Hedda Chase’s living room with Tom Foster felt like the most natural thing in the world, as if they were old friends, as if what he’d done to her last night had been nothing more than a bizarre fabrication in his mind. Now he wished it had been. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if she walked in here.
“It’s getting late.” Hugh stood up. “Look, I should go. Say hello to Hedda for me.”
Tom glanced at his watch. “Here, let me try to call her again.” He opened his cell phone and pressed send. He shook his head. “She’s not picking up. I’ve been calling her all day. It’s pretty obvious she doesn’t want to talk to me. For a woman with such big balls she’s pretty goddamn histrionic.”
Hugh held up his hand as if he didn’t need to hear it—it wasn’t any of his business.
But Tom confided, “She wants me to leave my wife.”
Hugh tried to hide his surprise. “You’re married?”
“Of course I’m married.”
“Does your wife know?”
“Of course she knows. This isn’t a town where people are particularly skilled at keeping secrets. Discretion isn’t exactly a virtue here.”
“Oh. Well. I’m sorry.”
Tom shook his head. “It’s my own fault. Lucia is very emotional.”
“Your wife?”
“Here, you try. Let’s have your phone.”
It wasn’t smart to take out his cell phone, but Hugh handed it to Tom and watched him punch in the number. He put on the speakerphone. They sat there listening to it ring. Just minutes after putting her in the trunk, Hugh had set her pocketbook on the front seat of the car. The phone had continued to vibrate and, out of frustration, he’d dug it out and tossed it into the glove box. He pictured it there now, vibrating. Stupidly, he hadn’t turned it off, but perhaps it had been deliberate. He had thought, perhaps, that someone might be able to locate her; an open door that invited in the world.
Sweat prickled his skin as he waited in anticipation of Hedda’s agitated voice, but it was someone else who picked up—a man. “Yeah?” The voice gritty, tentative. “What?”
“Who the fuck is this?” Tom shouted.
“Who the fuck is
this
?”
“Where is she?”
“She’s not here,” the stranger said.
“Look, I know she’s fucking there.”
“Nobody here but me,” the man said.
“You put her on the phone—right fucking now!”
“Hey, go fuck yourself.” The line went dead.
Tom checked the phone to make sure he’d dialed right. He hit the send button again, but this time her voice mail picked up. Now they heard the voice of Hedda Chase identifying herself, the characteristic inflections of condescension as it requested the caller to leave a message—she’d call you back, her tone seemed to suggest, if you were important enough.
Tom sat there shaking his head and muttered, “I don’t fucking believe this.”
“What? Who was that?”
“I don’t have a clue.”
The queasy feeling Hugh had had before came back. A sour taste coated his tongue. He washed it down with some more scotch. Tom sat there with his head in his hands. He looked at Hugh. “Could she be fucking somebody?”
Hugh shrugged.
“I didn’t recognize his voice.” Again, he looked at Hugh as if waiting for his answer. “This is her getting back at me. I guess it really is over.” He shook his head and conceded, “She should be with someone else; I can’t give her what she wants.”
“What does she want?”
“What do any of them fucking want?”
Hugh thought about Marion. Before they were married, she’d been livelier, more convincing about her love for him. Once they’d gotten married, she’d become secretive, remote. It occurred to him now that he didn’t have the slightest idea what she wanted.
“Truth is, I’ve never had much luck with women and I’ve had no shortage of opportunities, I can tell you that. But with Hedda it was different. It makes me feel
hollow
to admit it, but I’m in love with her—and I’ve never had the decency to tell her. I think about her and I get a stomachache. It’s not the same with my wife. There’s something about Hedda that makes me—” He stopped himself and shrugged it off.
“What?”
He shook his head. He looked upset. “Whole, I guess.”
“Whole?”
Tom nodded. Hugh had been in love only once. The girl had worked in the billing department. Once they’d ridden up on the elevator together. She’d been crying over something, her face turned away. Her lips were pale, chapped—it was winter—and her cheeks were rosy, burned by the wind. Around her neck was a scarf the color of cornflowers. If she were a painting, he had thought, her surface would be cracked and yet it was exactly the damaged nature of her features that intrigued him. He’d put his hand on her shoulder and said, “It’s going to be all right.” She’d smiled, briefly, her eyes glassy, and nodded appreciatively, and then the elevator doors opened and she walked out. He never saw her again because she never came back to Equitable Life. He tracked down her address, a walk-up apartment on 43rd Street, but the apartment was empty and the superintendent would not supply her forwarding address. Still, for a period of time, the memory of that day in the elevator remained fresh in his mind, and he would think of her from time to time, grieving over the life they’d never had together.
“She makes me feel complete,” Tom added.
“My wife is just the opposite,” Hugh admitted. “I’m like rejected merchandise. I think if she could she’d return me with a whole list of complaints. Not only would she want her money back, she’d want to speak to the store manager.”
“Sounds to me like you need to get back on the shelf.” Tom stood up and staggered into the bathroom to take a piss. The sound of his urine hitting the toilet seemed alarmingly loud. When he came out he was holding something—an empty soap dish. His face was pale, and his hand trembled slightly. “May it please the court,” he said gravely, presenting the empty soap dish to an imaginary jury. “Apart from me, she has one single obsession: her skin. It’s one of her few vanities—uses this terribly expensive black soap—never goes anywhere without it—it’s a soap for fucking witches, looks like charcoal, never misses a night, and where is it?”
It wasn’t there because Hugh had thrown it into her bag, attempting to produce, in the minds of the police, the possibility that she had left on her own accord. “Look,” Hugh said, scrambling for some clarity. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation, Tom.” Saying his new friend’s name aloud made him feel important. “Maybe something happened to her. Something bad.”
But Tom shook his head. “Bad things don’t happen to Hedda Chase. She’s with
him
,” he pointed to the cell phone. “The fucking tart,” he muttered.
“Couldn’t it be . . . couldn’t you be jumping to conclusions?” Hugh attempted to speak clearly. “What if something happened? You never know these days. There are lots of bad people out there.”
“Let me tell you something about that woman,” Tom said, his voice lit with spite. “Nothing happens by chance—it may appear that way—but trust me. She’s strategic. She’s got all the moves planned out way before anyone else has even sat down at the table.”
Hugh felt a fresh surge of hatred for Hedda Chase—almost to the point where he could rationalize what he’d done—like maybe even he’d done Tom a favor. He swallowed the rest of his drink. “I hope, for her sake, you’re right.”
Like a pair of drunken comrades they took the Bronco and stopped at a package store on Franklin for some beer. It was nearly two a.m., but the city was alive. All the creeps had crawled out of their dark little corners. The extras, he thought, the filthy, ugly, stinking people you rarely saw in daylight. They were nocturnal, like all the other unpleasant creatures that came out at night—
including me,
he thought.
They drove up to the snake, a circuitous road that ran along the canyon, the city of Los Angeles twinkling below. They were unlikely brothers, Hugh thought, at once awkward and intimate. Tom parked the jeep in an overlook and lit up a joint. The moon was fat and dirty. It was a big fat bundt cake of a moon, he thought. The lights of the city winked like the lattice wings of dragonflies. They passed the joint back and forth. The pot was good. It made him languid, amphibious. His skin stippled with goose bumps. His face hot, and yet cool and damp too, as if he’d just stepped out of a sauna. He could hear everything. The sound their bodies made, taking in air. Swallowing; sniffling; moving. The sudden wind. The branches of trees like magic wands, casting spells.
He focused on his own breathing, the sound of his beating heart. He had this same feeling when he’d gone to court to contest a speeding ticket. Sitting there with all the other infracted people, waiting to speak to the judge. Some of them had serious problems. For one reason or another, they had all been caught.
Hugh thought:
What have I done?
He thought of his wife, alone in their house. He imagined that she had fallen asleep watching television, as she often did. He’d find her there in the morning lying on the brown couch they’d inherited from her parents, under a crocheted blanket some distant aunt had made, surrounded by crumpled tissues. Marion didn’t get high, she didn’t approve of it, and he rarely smoked in front of her. Pot had saved him from the ravages of suburban blight, all the hours he’d spent alone in his basement getting stoned and watching movies. He hadn’t been ready to leave her, he supposed, but he was ready now. For months, she had been a vacant presence in their house; they were roommates, sharing a place. Even on the rare occasion when they’d make love it was a silent, absorbing act, akin to some sudden physical drama that they didn’t discuss. They had met at Keene State in a behavioral science class and started dating, he a freshman, she a sophomore. He’d lost his virginity to her on the narrow bed in his dorm. He could remember feeling a certain terror when he’d entered her for the first time. Her touch had been tentative. Light and abrupt as the sudden, deadly appearance of a praying mantis, the iron smell afterward, of one crushed bug. He didn’t really know why he’d decided to marry her. He supposed it was because he hadn’t met anyone else. No one who showed any interest in him, anyway—not because he wasn’t good-looking—he fancied himself a rather attractive man and even his mother had told him he was—she’d described him as having aristocratic good looks—clean and well-groomed with neatly trimmed fingernails and fine clothes that she’d find on sale at Lord & Taylor’s—but he was and always had been exceptionally shy, a gentle, unassuming manner, his mother called it, and always polite. His parents had encouraged their marriage, wanting him out on his own, wanting some other woman to wash his dishes and do his laundry and iron his shirts—relieved, perhaps, that it was a woman he’d chosen after all. Shortly after their marriage, they lived in a studio apartment on the fourth floor of a walk-up on Cornelia Street. It was a lively neighborhood, and the city was a good distraction, the restaurants and theater, the cinema. Marion worked in a small flower shop and was often busy on weekends, doing weddings and bar mitzvahs and funerals. Aside from an occasional blowjob from a male prostitute—something he spoke of to no one—he’d remained faithful to Marion for six years and then, quite by chance, about a month after they’d moved out of the city, he met a woman named Jolene in a Hoboken bar. She lived in Newark, in city housing. She brought him to her apartment, complaining of the mice, the slow elevator, the spotted orange carpet. The corridors smelled of cumin and cloves, turmeric and cinnamon. The apartment was nicer than he’d expected. Jolene was an unemployed graphic artist who worked as a temp at a printing company in Hoboken. She wore long skirts and g-strings and bright scarves. They would smoke pot and make love, her skin the impenitent green of old bay leaves, her nipples like the smudged rubber thimbles of a bookkeeper, and then she’d make him tea with mint that she grew on her windowsill. Compared to his wife, Jolene was easily satisfied, uninhibited about her nakedness, her smells, her moody breath. She moved with the unhindered heft of a wrestler, whereas Marion moved very little, as though the weight of Hugh’s body upon hers was too much to bear. He knew he could not satisfy her—nor did he feel he could discuss it with her. She was not willing to be open to him, he thought. For him, he supposed, she endured sex, but she did not enjoy even a second of it. It made him feel bad, like he had no right. With Jolene, he could be himself or some closer version of himself. She would grip his shoulders and throw back her head, her breasts swaying, her flesh rumpled and damp. After sex, he would lie on her mattress naked, his penis soft, and she would feed him slices of apple. She’d stand at the mirror and fix her hair, using a pungent wintergreen oil that he carried home on his clothes. His affair with Jolene didn’t last; she’d gotten a job in Cincinnati and moved away. Eventually, she’d married and they’d lost touch, but whenever he’d open the closet he could smell her there on his coat.
BOOK: A Stranger Like You
10.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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