by Laura Stout
Driving home, Faye can’t shake the image. Over and over, it seeps back into hollow corners and blacks out everything else. Her mind can’t make it past stopping at the quick mart for milk and a cheap bottle of Chardonnay before the image comes barging back in.
She had seen a woman’s bare, white legs, knees bent, bare feet clawing at the plush carpet of the conference room floor. Between them, a man in blue, skinny jeans, kneeling, hovering above the woman. All she could see were legs, but she imagined their faces close, grazing one another, hot breath on cheeks, necks, mouths. She moved slightly, her vantage point changed a fraction to the right, but enough to have seen a jagged, stain-like shadow near the hem of one leg and the man’s white sneakers, toes bent, digging into the floor.
Light beams down from iron poles planted like saplings along the sidewalk, and caravans across the surface of Faye’s sedan. She turns a corner, accelerates her car and is instantly jarred from her thoughts by the harsh screech of metal against metal. She feels the side of her car rip and pull, feels the laceration of steel, it vibrates through the door panel. A small car pulls up hard in front of her. Its brake lights hiss red and she slams her own bakes to stop from smashing into them. Faye’s mind scrambles before she realizes what has happened. She stares ahead at the back of the car, its paint is flat, the faded red color nearly indistinct under the streetlights.
The night pauses. Time plays tricks, compresses. It is as if a music player has suddenly switched tracks into a silent, ticking wasteland and little memory of what has been playing before, remains.
Her heart bangs in her chest like a small tin cup against a tile floor. The sound of labored breathing fills the car, out of sync with the low hum of the engine. She throws the transmission into park and shuts the car off. The red car sits motionless in front of her, some stunted, nondescript two door automobile. Its motor pants then switches off too. Outside, the night is museum still.
Up and down the street, houses perch behind neatly manicured yards with straight, narrow driveways and curling walkways. Exterior house lights shine like beacons and the street’s wide black pavement gleams like oil from a recent rain. The neighborhood is safe, she thinks. But it is late at night. Only a few lights glow from windows, most are dark and still.
She’d also thought it safe to return to the office just a while ago, swipe her keycard, pull open the heavy glass door and stride down the dimly lit hallway. The Kensington file had been forgotten on her desk, and she needed it to finish her projections by the next morning.
She had expected Millhouse and Lane to be empty, but as she passed through the maze of cubicles, desks crammed with stacked files and black faced computer screens, throaty, murmuring voices came down the hall. A dim slice of light fell out of the doorway to the conference room, the gap wide enough to see the image that’s now stamped into her mind like a handprint pressed into fresh cement.
Faye opens her car door and the interior becomes bathed in a dull yellow that spills out and hits the pavement. In the same moment the red car’s door opens and a short, puffy woman with blunt-cut black hair emerges. A red polyester tracksuit tugs at her broad torso. She hurls an indignant glance at Faye, then stomps around to the other side of her car to inspect the damage. She squats down and disappears.
Faye gets out, pushes her door shut and sees the smooth, smoky gray steel of her brand new Lexus is ravaged. A gash runs along the lower half of the door where the metal has bent and splintered on impact. The paint above and below is rubbed a smudgy black.
The woman side steps between the cars, then comes at Faye, talking at the same time. “I cannot believe what you do to my car. What you thinking?” Her arms heave upward, pushing at the air. She lodges herself directly in front of Faye and looks up with eyes like slits spitting venom. “You crazy. You not pay attention to the road.”
The woman is giving off a sort of heat and indignation contorts her face; her sallow skin stretches in agitated angles with each word. Faye’s hands come up and face out at the woman as if she would like to push the whole mess away from her. “You’re insane.” She points her arm at the door, muscles flexing with anger. “You sideswiped me and cut me off.”
The woman barks out a sharp laugh and Faye feels her hot breath and smells nicotine and bitter tea. She starts spouting what sounds like Chinese as she turns back towards her car. She reminds Faye of a hot geyser, inflamed and sputtering.
Down the street a car’s tires squeal as it turns a corner. Its headlights flash white-hot beams into Faye’s eyes and she looks away as it speeds past. Cringing, she drops onto plump leather seats and shuts herself inside her car. In the blackness she retrieves papers from the glove box and with trembling fingers clicks on the overhead light. Words overrun the papers, words about insurance coverage and effective dates. It’s unsettling to think she must share any of it with this stranger. Looking up, Faye sees the woman coming back at her like a weapon locked in on its target so she picks up her cell and pretends to be talking, holding up one finger telling the woman to wait.
She thought Mark had worn blue, skinny jeans today. The same Mark who had called her at precisely 7:21 that evening. She had seen the time pop up on her cell right above the picture of him, the one with the slanted smile and his head cocked, as he stood in the surf, waves lapping at his knees, the sun sinking into an endless horizon of blue water.
At 7:21 he had told her he was with friends at the Turnstyle, the place for drinks after burnout at Millhouse and Lane. She heard a woman’s voice in the background calling to Mark above the din of bar talk and laughter. It sounded like the saccharine sweet voice of Leesha, the new hire in her department. They’d had lunch a few days ago and seemed to hit it off. She wished she could join them, but then Mark didn’t ask. Faye clicked off her cell, staring at Mark’s slanted smile.
“I make left turn and you run into my car. I drive fast ahead of you so you stop. So you not try to drive away. People do that all time.”
Faye looks down, ignoring her as they exchange documents. The woman’s registration reveals her name is Kwong Lee and her address is only two streets away. She hopes she never sees her again.
“We’ll let the insurance companies work it out.” Doubt twists inside her gut as Faye walks back to her car, and when she squeezes her eyes shut, events begin to rearrange and blur. Did she not see Kwong Lee driving, turning left?
Remember, she thinks, and sees herself turning onto an empty street, dark houses, shadows spreading across green-black lawns, but no other car, none, not until after it hit her.
The little red car swerves out from the curb and its tires squeal and carve black shadows into the pavement. Under the streetlights she sees them stretch out and disappear like a thin, narrow rug. She thinks Kwong Lee must be shoving anger out from the back of her car.
Remember, she pleads with herself. It is morning and she sees Mark from the corner of her eye as she wipes down the counter. He is bundling together papers and files from the bruised Formica tabletop, then cramming them into his laptop case but she can’t see what he is wearing. He isn’t dressed for the office. It will be a day of team building – playing golf at the local country club. She’d seen the blue jeans first thing in the morning as she dressed for work. They had been lying folded, topping off a basket of freshly laundered clothes in the closet. She had tried pre-washes and stain removers, but nothing worked. The jagged, dark stain stubbornly remained. Later, after Mark had left, she returned to the closet, fishing for a sweater, and they were gone.
She is fairly sure the white sneakers had been in the wicker basket of shoes that sat by the front door. But the picture in her mind keeps fracturing and splitting, until it becomes a jigsaw puzzle of missing pieces, receding and lost.
They met at a rain soaked movie premier, black umbrellas nicking one another. Faye was dazzled by Mark’s shiny good looks, his sweet caramel eyes. He held a steady palm against her back as they moved forward in line, already possessing her. Afterwards they sipped icy gin in a straight-backed booth, a candle flicking smoke into their words. He asked her questions that split open her heart. She told him of a faceless father and part-time mother. He held her hands in his like he would never let go, held her eyes in soft currents of trust. He told her of his boyhood home in Nebraska with three older brothers that taught him to shoot and how to court a girl and parents that still kissed in the hallway. They married two months later under a pounding hot August sun.
She drives her damaged Lexus home and parks by the curb. Heavy leaves of lilac crowd a concrete square outside the front door and a bare bulb casts a halo of light across white stucco walls. They’d shared the tiny house for a year now. A brackish fog scrolls through the streets, right up across the front yard to the lilacs. It seeps into her mind, as well, thick like quicksand. It is clouding her perception of how things happened on the street with Kwong Lee, of how things have been inside the white stucco house. The truth slips under the mix of crabgrass and green lawn, folds itself under the cracked sidewalk. It hides and she doubts she will ever find it again.
She unlocks her front door and drops the Kensington file; the papers fan out across the floor in scattered layers of black and white. Her key is still lodged in the lock as her eyes clamber to the basket of shoes just inside the door. A pair of brown leather sandals and scuffed black clogs stare back at her. She stoops to collect the papers, her bare knees knocking against scuffed oak.
In the living room empty wine glasses and TV remotes dot the coffee table. Last night looms up like a frothy wave. It will, she is sure, suck the life out of her. But then, the memory, Mark on the leather couch, feet up, clicking from channel to channel, her head on his lap, grows thin and watery. It leaks out of her head as if it had never existed.
Of course she forgot to stop at the Quick Mart so there is no wine, no milk for the morning’s coffee and suddenly tomorrow is too close and too far all at once. Out of some ingrained insistence of order, she folds herself into a kitchen chair and flips open her laptop. She stares at the digits and letters, but they fly off the screen and slam against the walls and windows. Nausea boils up in her chest along with a clean, clear anger; the kind that’s not yet ripe, but on its way. She brings her fingers to her temples and rubs hard. Stars the size of pinheads flash behind her eyelids as the pain that is beginning there and sliding down her slender neck writhes and curls with a life of its own.
She stands and a gray, fading silhouette of Mark passes through her, stalks the room, her memories. It is the Mark she knows, the only one she recognizes. He’d been clear and doubtless, always. Not once had he waivered. Not all those times their fingers entwined, pulling each other close until no space existed between them, hearts thudding like cinderblocks against one another. Not ever.
Turning away from her desk, she climbs hardwood stairs leading to the second floor. She studies the walls. They are filled with silver framed photos of her and Mark, heads together, drinks in hand; others of them standing before jagged snow covered mountains and rippling blue oceans. She doesn’t want to think further than the next tread or how when she reaches the top she’ll see the rumpled bed she pulled herself from that morning. How she lifted Mark’s arm from around her belly, extracted herself from a sated warmth.
When she reaches the bedroom, cold sheets and denim duvet tangle together like a river and she doesn’t want to think about which silk blouses and wool skirts she will pull from wooden hangers inside their closet; if she’d pull every scrap of her lingerie from the drawers of the oak dresser or leave one or two pieces just to say “fuck you.”
There is a tall corner dresser where each night Mark empties his pockets of change and receipts, maybe notes from ‘her’, into a blue and white porcelain plate. Faye looks over the dull wooden surface, sees the small leather box where he keeps his grandfather’s gold watch and silver cufflinks she’s never seen him wear. She thinks she might find an answer here. They revolve around each other, leaving space between their affection, room enough to leave details unattended. He could have been sloppy or forgetful and left something out here for her to see. But there is nothing. On Mark’s bedside table lies a copy of Car and Driver magazine. He had been reading it in bed last night. On the cover is a bright blue Mustang. It’s like the one Leesha drives. She knows this because Leesha drove them to lunch the other day. And that’s when it hits her. She’d seen the car tonight, sitting in the parking lot of Milhouse and Lane.
Her mind travels to that morning when she poured black coffee from a silver carafe, peeled tangy oranges and buttered thick slices of toast. Mark had leaned into her as she stood by the kitchen sink, her coffee cup held to her lips. His lips, scratchy from bordering a three-day beard, grazed the nape of her neck. His fingers leathery, hard-boned and strong slipped under silk and sketched the flesh above her hipbones. Something feral tugged deep inside her and she pushed him away as she emptied her cup into the sink, turned, and said they’d both be late if this didn’t stop now.
She fingers a coin from the porcelain plate. It is cool now, hours from Mark’s touch. Time is thinning out. The wall clock bangs out the hour, eleven. Her world has burst open and icy shards of anger melt all around her. They mingle on the floor next to Mark’s bath towel, still damp from his morning shower. They flow into a cardboard box of love letters she keeps under the bed, simple notes he’d written on scraps of paper and hid around the house since the day they moved in.
Faye doesn’t think further than packing her things into the blue paisley suitcase she used when she and Mark flew to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. They had drank shots of thick amber liqueurs and rolled down the streets with the crowds like schools of shimmering fish.
She doesn’t want to be here when Mark gets home, can’t fathom a confrontation while looking into eyes that will trip her up and make her second guess things she’s seen, things she’s certain are solid and true.
She drags the suitcase down the stairs; it slaps each step and the sound echoes through the empty house. Her laptop and files get shoved together in a scrambled heap and are quickly tucked under her arm. If she looks back, the paisley suitcase could slip from her hand and sink to the floor as if a mooring had been cut and her escape would sail out from under her. So her eyes pin themselves to the front door as her hand locks around its handle.
Outside the sky is a rubbed out black and not one star can compete with the lights that rise up from the city. The night air leans down and wraps Faye in breathtaking clarity.
Betrayal, white hot and smoldering, is unfamiliar to Faye. She will have to learn the contours of its weight, live with its enduring presence. But the doubt, she lets it go and it slips up into the heavens, unraveling its long futile strands, gliding and spinning until it is forever bare and useless. The heavy weight of it lifts from Faye’s bones, the pressing in of it thrown upwards into distant constellations. She walks away and thinks about how easy it will be to fix the damaged Lexus.
Bio: Laura Stout, a retired C.P.A., resides in sunny Manhattan Beach, California with her two teenaged children and her very patient husband. When she is not stringing words together, trying to build her stories, she is walking her dogs and living life. Recent work has or will appear at Fiction on the Web, Ether Books and Writers Type.