I was hungry, had a headache, but my girlfriend ordered only a pitcher of vodka lemonade. She joked with the bartender and whipped out her wad of cash to tip him lavishly. “Thank you, sweetie!” he trilled. She slammed the pitcher onto the table.
Warm evening air vibrated with competing bass beats of bands, car stereos, and an occasional boom-box balanced on a skateboarder’s shoulders. I could pick out at least three lyrics of current Madonna songs. I snapped some pictures with my cell phone camera. It was Columbus Day weekend. Darkness fell early. Crowds of mostly guys flowed up and down the streets, feet sporting every kind of foot gear from black leather biker boots to Nikes and purple Reeboks, to stiletto heels crunching in drifts of autumn leaves. Skaters wove in and out of pedestrians. We had arrived in the famous Boys Town gay district of Chicago. Though I had looked forward to this trip for 6 months, I was uneasy, borne along like a single lonely leaf…
Neighborhood streets radiated out like spokes on a bicycle wheel. An occasional Victorian painted lady loomed, with elaborate “make-up”, turret room and wrap-around porch, to lend a given block an air of a friendliness; a place presided over by this past-her-prime madam. Old-fashioned street lamps lifted their frosted glass globes to the sky to toast the clouds. The silhouette of downtown Chicago’s tallest skyscrapers was a constant. Here and there small parks nestled. Rusted, working swing sets, benches, some with brass tag inscriptions bolted to back rests seated lovers. Paths for dog walkers wound through. An anorexic looking man in baggy black tights and sparkly sunglasses waited for a chihuahua also wearing sparkly silver sunglasses. The man wore hi-topped, checkered sneakers, cuffs inside-out, hot pink laces loosened.
I took first shift driving when we set out from home. Her snores drifted from the back seat. We’d left our small upstate New York town while dew still coated the lawns with a thousand jewels, sun barely above the barn roof, and cool enough then for sweatshirts.
We continued west. We stayed one night with friends who had a summer place on Lake Michigan. We were not “out” to them, with their conservative religious views, and so spent the night in separate bedrooms participating in a charade of not being dykes. It exhausted me.
As I sank into soft fragrant sheets and stretched my legs and toes, I realized I had not slept alone in a very long time. It was a wonderful night, nobody to complain about me in the morning. No nightmares of a monster slavering after me through the dark. The next day we left early.
Once we’d found our motel from our map quested instructions now a wrinkled wad, we checked in, dumped our bags. Late afternoon we boarded Chicago’s famous L a few minutes’ walk away. Coming to this historic district was exciting. At a time before gay marriage was legal just being in an entire city neighborhood without straight people excited us.
The train stopped at an above ground platform. We unstuck ourselves from the plastic seats and climbed downstairs to mingle with the natives. Rainbow flags hung from doorways. Men dressed in everything from nothing but a rubber cow’s tongue strategically placed, to a guy on a bike with hand-holding, fairy-winged Ken dolls in the basket.
Boys Town appeared to our eyes to be a gay male district. I saw a few shops with signage aimed at lesbians. I tried to memorize locations to come back the next day. I did not see many female faces.
We stopped in a bar for a beer. Dusty board floors, mirror behind marble topped bar, a sticky table with uneven legs. In a front window a shirtless male stripper in camouflage pants danced. I shook my head and smiled. Of course, a boy bar would have male strippers. Another topless dancer gyrated back by the restrooms. He reached down and fondled himself. He wore orange and yellow board shorts, Timberland boots. Pockmarked cheeks belied steroid use. He had buff muscles to prove it. Except for the scars, he was handsome.
An aging queen approached the stage. Jukebox and televisions’ blare made conversation impossible. I got the gist. The bleached blonde patron who was wearing black velvet, “skinny” trousers, Barbie-style low-heeled pumps, dangling rhinestone earrings and elaborate eye makeup tucked a bill into the younger man’s waist band. The dancer grinned. His admirer minced back to a solitary table in a darkened corner to watch.
As soon as we’d finished our beers, we strolled down the street
The shops were closed— Saturday evening. I hoped we could come back for souvenirs. My partner strode on impatiently. I hurried to catch up. From behind in the falling night, sometimes I had the uneasy feeling that her silhouette was more than human. Her voice which could carry the length of a rugby field if necessary growled low in my ears. I was starving.
“Let’s stop for dinner.” I said hopefully. “There’s McDonalds. “
I pointed across an intersection to the familiar yellow arches. “We haven’t eaten since breakfast.”
“No, I don’t want McDonalds,” she said. I didn’t either, but the type of regional bistro we’d been dreaming of eluded us.
I met her on an internet dating site. I studied her profile picture, no red flags, and read her words. In particular her story about relinquishing custody of a pre-teen boy and her grandiose description of her start-up business, piqued my curiousity. A little voice in the back of my mind whispered, “Trouble. This one is trouble.”
I hit “delete”.
One Saturday I sipped my coffee while I listened to the peculiar conversation of shrieks as my dial-up internet connected. Coffee away from computer and inquisitive cat, I checked my email. No longer just her picture, my inbox held a direct message. She had written.
I clicked her profile page to review her photos. The few, a sports event. I watched my fingers fly. Red flags flapping hard enough to rip or not, I pressed “send”.
We climbed another bar’s steps. She commandeered a table. A strange sweaty odor drifted from her. It made the hairs on my neck stand up. I glanced at her. For a second I could not decide what I saw. I rubbed my face.
“The fuck’s wrong with you?” she snarled.
Her mood deteriorated. Time passed. Expressions flitted across her face as if a shape-shifting predator dressed in the flesh of an overweight woman. One who’d spin tales to charm until final devastation and a ditched, twitching victim. We should’ve found McDonalds.
Two eight ounce glasses of vodka lemonade one after another, I watched her long-fingered pianist’s hands, her throat bobbing as she chugged. She bit her nails. Claws rose unexpectedly in my mind’s eye.
She swallowed more lemonade, her querulous tone kept carefully low so nobody around us could hear her haranguing me. She growled, “I don’t wanna have to pay for everything. You are too dependent. You are not the woman I wanted.” She slammed her empty glass on the wet table. Her eyes refused to meet mine.
Her hair was thick, a grayish red, her eyes, blue that varied from overly warm with passion, accompanied by dimples on either side of her wide mouth, to blue so pale and cold it evoked goose bumps when she looked through me. Her complexion was speckled with the freckles of a true redhead.
Her acne scarred face turned an unbecoming shade of “brick”. She ranted. I was dependent on her experience as a world traveler to get around this new city.
“I need help, too!” she screamed at me the easy tears welling up. Any help I might’ve offered, I knew, would be rebuffed. She refused to give up control, never even riding in someone else’s car. My heart pounded. I picked at a loose thread in the hem of my tee-shirt.
A vacation on Cape Cod, as we’d sped down a midnight-dark highway in her truck, she decided to put me out at the side of the road. Only her need for sleep prevented this. We arrived late to our little motel in Orleans. She made love to me with a violent passion I endured.
My current need to pee pulled me from these uncomfortable reveries. I tore myself away to find a ladies’ room. I checked email on my phone as I sat elbows on knees, delayed the return to her. I fantasized her mood might lighten, that we could have fun. A lyric stuck in my brain, “girls just wanna have fun”.
The door slammed as I left the cubicle. I jumped. The sink was wet, filthy with smears of thick, semi-dried, pink soap. The hot water faucet didn’t work. I sluiced my hands with cold, wiped them on the thighs of my cargo shorts. I ruffled remaining moisture through my short, moussed hair-spikes.
It was our second vacation, my second trip anywhere. I glanced into my green eyes in the cracked mirror. My purple-tipped buzz cut, my size 00 gauged ears with small bangles, right eyebrow piercing, smudges under my eyes and tension in my cheek muscles. I shoved the door open with my shoulder. I was relieved to see her bulk still at our table, chair tipped onto back legs. I hesitated hidden in the restroom foyer. If I squinted I did not see my girlfriend beneath that hat, but something blurred. The air in the room darkened. I glanced at her hands and rubbed my face. I swore long blue-black claws tapped, no dug into the scarred table top. For a split second I saw a real monster. I blinked.
Just my partner, fat rolls oozed over her jeans. I wondered what had was in our pitcher besides vodka and lemonade.
I smiled at her as I sat down. She opened her mouth. Fangs glinted in fluorescent light.
“I’m sick of you! We are done! I’m leaving!!”
I shook my head. Fangs?
She lurched to her feet. Lemonade sloshed. She stomped toward the door. People stared. I caught a fleeting glimpse, my own panicked eyes and apologetic smile as I raced past the bar mirror, hustling my bag up onto my shoulder. She was much taller. I struggled to keep up. She was big enough she was often mistaken for a man.
Once, she had hefted me over her shoulder as if I were a bag of flour—I’m 5’5”,150 lbs—to carry me across a stream. I had worn Birkenstocks, not boots. It was affectionate.
She wore an undershirt called a “wife beater”, no bra and the constant ball cap. Her belly showed several white scars. The first time I saw them, I recognized marks of self-mutilation. I had said nothing.
I raced after her.
She had played rugby. A breathtaking professional photo of her hung in our dining room taken during a rugby match— she was captured midair intercepting a pass, her sculpted thigh beautiful. Since, she buried herself. 284 lbs. turned her androgynous. The day she buzzed off her hair only emphasized it.
“You’re not the woman I wanted!” she hectored me. She bumped a man.
“OH!” she simpered at him, his arms loaded with bags of groceries, “Sorry!”
She flashed her dimples. He was charmed.
“That’s okay, honey.” he simpered back.
She rolled her eyes in my direction communicating with shrug and curled lip that it was my fault. He glanced at me as if I were a stain on his shirt, then beamed at her. We stormed on.
I just wanted to go back to our motel. I had not drunk much. I have little tolerance for alcohol. We’d go our separate ways once we got home.
Saliva dried up in my mouth. I was gibbering. I begged her to stop this crazy behavior.
I touched her arm. She flung me off.“It was time” I became “unsheltered.” I was on my own.
All around people swirled. I stepped out of the way of pedestrians. I stood on the curb in despair. I pulled out my phone. Such was the hypnotic power of the monster, coherent thought fled. Calling 911 never entered my mind. I just wanted to email somebody who loved me, even many states away. If I ended up dying here. I wanted to go home.
She snuck up behind me as I hunched my shoulders over the tiny screen. I thumbed “send.”
“That’s MY cellphone!” she screamed. Her fist punched over my shoulder to knock it from my fingers. It skipped across cement and fetched up on a sewer grate. It hung trembling among multicolored leaves, cigarette butts, a Snickers wrapper and a used condom.
Her other hand slapped my shoulder blade. I fell, gravel grinding my skin. Blood trickled down my shin as I struggled to stand up. One shoe slid off. She shoved past to kick my phone down the sewer. I thought of Stephen King. I smelled rotten something from the grate. Water gurgled. If my phone went down, I would be lost. I scrambled, scrabbled it one-handed just in time, an enormous muscled calf whizzing past to stomp my hand.
I stuffed it deep into a pocket of my cargo shorts, safe unless she tackled me to rip my clothes. In spite of the spectacle, as she yanked at the hammer loop on my shorts, nobody interfered. People thought “Let them deal with their shit” The ‘60s news story, NYC woman murdered within earshot of her neighbors—nobody phoned. Kitty Genovese. I was invisible.
She would taunt me for hours. She danced physically just out of reach the few times I tried to approach to beg her to stop this, and chased me the rest of the time, driving me like a predator drives prey to exhaustion before the killing bite. Hidden behind storefronts, jumping from overflowing trash cans,
“Call the cops? They’ll take you to the nuthouse!” she hollered. “They’ll call your parents, put you away! You need some work done!!! Hahahaha!!” she screamed.
Once in my life when I was a teen, I had seen a therapist. I huddled into my clothing, confused, hopeless, positive she was correct. I kept walking. I figured cops just did not make many stops in the gay district.
Around 8:30 p.m. darkness gathered in corners. I wondered how many predators walked among us. I followed her into and out of several coffee shops. She put on a “You know how it is when you break up with someone and they won’t let go?” routine. Everyone accepted her performances. Nobody would look at me. When she‘d achieved sympathy from waitstaff in one place she’d leave to act out the charade all over elsewhere, the minute I trailed in.
One old-fashioned metallic diner reminded me of my childhood town. I smelled fresh coffee and bacon. Tears rose to my eyes. A slender dark-haired waiter dried a white coffee mug behind the counter. Cocking one eyebrow at me, he asked her “Can I help you?”
“Yes, I want a cup of coffee, please.” she said. I dared to feel a tiny bit of relief. He nodded his head toward me. She shook her head.
“No, she doesn’t get anything. We broke up. She is stalking me.”
She flipped off her cap, scrubbed a hand through her hair then flipped the hat back on, shook her head as if the whole thing was too much. I couldn’t understand her power over every onlooker. Not one soul approached me to ask quietly “Are you okay?” It stunned me.
“OH, you poor thing, “ he said to her, pursing his lips. “Been there, done that.”
He raised his eyebrows at me.
“Better get gone, honey. Its over.”
They burst out laughing.
Ominous murmurs of support for her rose from other patrons. I realized she’d duped past therapists, relatives, friends and lovers alike…I left.
I had no idea how to get anywhere. She held all our money, assured me this was safest before we left our motel. I worked part time for her. She paid me in coffee drinks. I did not call a cab… I did not call 911, survival reduced to minute-by-minute. I kept moving, could not stop to catch my breath. I rushed in and out of pools of light. I had been married once. My husband had respected me and been one of the kindest people I have ever known. Nothing in my own experience had prepared me for this.
I wandered into an all-night gas station. I hid between aisles of groceries. I crouched on cracked still-wet, freshly mopped linoleum, the scent of Mop ’n Glo reminding me of my mom, at risk of peeing myself amongst Hostess Twinkies and Rice Krispies. An overhead mirror and camera guaranteed my ejection by the owner at any second. He sounded and looked like he was from India. She was crafty enough never to come within range of any store’s surveillance equipment. He was apologetic. I saw compassion but also anxiety in his dark eyes. I just nodded and shuffled out. I don’t know if he saw her. At the ‘open til midnight’ pharmacy, I raced to the door as it slammed in my face. I kept hoping to see a police officer. Would I wave them down? What would I say? Her threats about psychiatric institutions wreaked havoc with my imagination……
On the street scents mingled, fuel exhaust and sweat.
She screamed, “Fucking bitch! You big, fucking baby!”
Suddenly I thought to call someone I knew, a friend of the friends we’d just stayed with, who lived about an hour east of Chicago. I angled my body, stumbling along, so she could not see me use the phone. His number was in my contacts. He was home. I started jabbering. I had to run and talk at the same time, vigilant for obstacles that might trip me, street people curled up into camouflaged humps, garbage set out for the night. I glanced around for her. As soon as she saw the phone at my ear, she lunged to tackle me.
“Tell me where you are,” my friend was saying.”Are you near signs, landmarks?”. He had never driven to Boys Town. I refrained from telling him it was the gay district.
“ I don’t know.” I breathed.
He said, “I’ll map quest it. See you soon.” He hung up. I slipped the phone into my pocket.
I didn’t want anyone to know that she was abusing me. Since my friend was homophobic, I couldn’t tell him the truth about any of it.
How did I pass that hour as he drove down to find me? Walk and check over my shoulders. I was more afraid of her than pickpockets and muggers.
My friend drove a Toyota SUV. Because it was night, it was hard to read brand logos, license plates or even to tell silver from gold in the light from fizzing street lamps. I remembered trivia—an article in a women’s magazine about body language walking to your car. “Walk like you know where you are going.” If I stopped to squint into traffic for his car, she ambushed me back into aimless motion.
She hid behind fences and bursting dumpsters, taunting me if I came too close, hurling invective at me if I got too far away. Her voice competed with guard dog howls, scrawny creatures chained to dog-houses behind link fencing in lots filled with junker cars.
My ride arrived. He rolled his window down and honked. I ran across the street, grabbed the door handle, threw myself across the back seat. We waited for the light. She exploded from the shadows behind an abandoned gas station.
“Fuck you! How dare you leave me! You bitch.!Asshole, coward…” she stood in traffic.
The light changed. The Toyota eased into the road. I asked if we could go to my motel so I could get my heart medication.
“What the fuck are you doing here?? The streets are crawling with fags!! I got lost coming down, took me over an hour and a half!!” he paused for breath his lips flecked with spittle.
I shrank into my shirt and seatbelt.
I mumbled something. My voice trailed off into silence.
He shook his head. “I have to be up for work at 6 a.m. Look! Its after 11 now and is going to take another hour and a half to get home. Damn! the homo neighborhood of all places! Jesus!” He pounded the steering wheel. I started to give him directions. He interrupted me,
“No! I’m not driving all over the hell further into this sicko place for your damn pills. Why don’t you have any with you?? Besides, you’re just being a baby, I’m sure, “ he sneered, “ you can survive without a pill. All that shit is garbage anyway. It’ ll be Monday in less than 8 hours. You can go get them in the morning.”
He had one of those faces with a constant natural smile. Nothing to do with happiness. He laughed when he was nervous. I found it annoying and a difficult read. Now that smile was frozen like a rictus above his beard. His single remaining long hair was protected, laid lovingly across his shiny bald pate. He avoided eye contact and turned up his iPod. I hated him.
We passed Wrigley Field. Not that I cared for baseball. I couldn’t help reading the sign. It reminded me of weekends helping my dad with yard work while he listened to the game on his transistor radio. Tears stroked my cheeks with cool fingers. He was a gentle, kind man.
I spent the night in the guest bedroom.
Frogs chirped like mechanized toys from the edge of the woods. I had never heard this kind. I was glad of their company. Since I was without my medicine, my pulse swooped and sped, surging me through the night in rhythm to the chorus outside. I wondered if I would have a heart attack.
At 12:45 a.m. my friend’s house telephone rang. He came upstairs and stood over me holding the phone just out of reach. I grabbed for it. He stepped back and stared. Her tinny voice whined.
He did come get me. I tried to focus on that though I was still far from home.
He left early for work the following morning. I had my wallet with my single credit card along with the phone. Its battery was low since I had no charger. I rummaged a bowl of cereal from his kitchen and a glass of juice, grabbed an apple and granola bar for later. I found a phone book in a drawer. I called the bus station, read his address off an envelope near the telephone to a taxi company. I asked the driver to take me first to our motel. He recognized the name.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I asked him to wait for me as I swung open the lobby door and made my way down the hallway to our room. I was scared and fumbled the key card into the slot. What if she was inside? What if she was not?
Wherever she spent the night it was obvious she had not come back here. I blew a gusty sigh. Her leering face haunted me. I pushed it away. I gathered my belongings as quickly as possible, vigilant for her footsteps. I left my key card on the dresser.
As we drove to the bus station, I unsnapped my heart medication bottle and swallowed a pill. A long ago memory of her holding the bottle out of my reach came to mind. She was a whole head taller than I.
Much later, as the dust-streaked, blue/grey dog carried me home I drowsed against the seat cushion. I felt my cellphone vibrate. I flipped it open. A message from her blinked in the inbox, “I love you so much. Why did you leave me? I kept you safe!” I lurched to my feet.
I stood on trembling legs to face the smeared bus window. It took all my strength and a few broken fingernails, but I unstuck the bottom panel, shoved the window up, a couple of dead flies tumbling down my arms. Outside the bus, autumn-somnolent trees streamed past. With as much strength as I could in these cramped quarters, I heaved the phone into the freezing slipstream. I snapped the window shut again feeling a tiny sense of safety as the lock mechanism snicked together. Cold air’s clean scent filled my nostrils.
I was sore, my scraped hands and knees stung, but after pushing my balled up jacket around, I drifted into an uneasy sleep, my head pillowed on it. Suddenly, a large faceless individual towered over me. I was on my back in nothing but a rucked up teeshirt, naked midriff exposed. Barefoot, braless, had lost my glasses. The arm of the seat dug painfully into my kidneys.
“Please, honey,” I whimpered, “let’s get something to eat.”
I held my hands up in front of my chest, an effort that protected nothing. I looked at the electric glint of blue-black, metallic claws. The creature roared. Claws whizzed. I shuddered awake.
I gazed around me at other sleeping passengers. Nobody noticed. I leaned my hot face against the window, touched the bridge of my nose, my glasses on my face. Only a bad dream. Tears leaked out. I tasted salt on my lips.
We rolled into my hometown station after midnight. It was spooky to see ticket windows closed, plastic banks of empty seats and the blackness of parking lot acres. Too easy to imagine the clicking of those claws on the asphalt as they paced toward me.
I gathered my crumpled jacket, purse and back-pack and stumbled blinking into the fluorescent lights. Those debarked there walked in different directions, footsteps echoing. I rummaged for a quarter to call a cab. I counted my crumpled last dollar bills, I had just enough money.
Two in the morning, I paid the driver, then trudged up my driveway. It took everything I had not to look behind me as the rumble of his engine faded. Was she here? I peered through the garage window. No truck.
I unlocked the back door. Our dogs went crazy barking with joy. I burst into tears. I knelt on the floor to gather them into my arms. I lugged my stuff up to our bedroom half afraid she would be there and half hoping she would. The bedspread lay serene from the day we left. I wandered over to her nightstand noticing the plain brown covered book that seemed always to be around. I’d seen her scribbling in it often. A diary? I’d never snooped.
I sat down, one arm around a dog and opened it. My cat jumped onto my shoulders, purring. It was a diary/ledger. Inside she had categorized online women dates. She had printed email conversations and rated women. I was horrified to read something she had sent to a women she had known briefly before me.
Violent pornography followed. I looked at the innocuous photo of the woman who received this. She looked like anyone. There was no reply. She looked like….me. The book slid to the floor, knocked under the bed as I surged to my feet.
During an historic fit of rage my girlfriend had kicked the door of the house in. I remember driving up to the garage, the door swinging open like an empty eye socket, her footprint in the paint, animals loose in the yard. I had called the police. She managed to be out of town, out of area for an extended period. Wood panels were gouged around the knob and security lock. I had assumed she had used a knife to vandalize the wood. I overheard a police officer tell the photographer those marks were unlike any knife he’d seen.
Against my will these memories rose. My hand reached for the headboard. It was handmade, by me, with quilted squares of fabric inserted into a salvaged frame of an old pantry door. On my side, there was also an attached small red wooden box with a drop-down front and decorative brass latch like the kind used for jewelry boxes. A birthday present the previous year to keep my cellphone in at night. It would stay empty until I got myself a new one. I sighed.
My fingers flitted into the marks on the box. I never showed the police, not even the nice female officer in gray with a neat bun on her neck.
What if my girlfriend came home tonight?
I upended my carryalls on our bed. I kept a murmuring monologue of thanks under my breath. A couple of postcards, a pen, my camera, a crumpled receipt, ticket stub from the L, underwear, toothbrush, comb and… two objects I did not recognize. I checked to be sure I was wearing my glasses. I stumbled to the dresser to turn on the light. One of the cats suddenly fuzzed up, pupils wide and dilated. My oldest dog crawled under the bed to hide, growling low in his throat.
I extended a trembling finger toward a candy-apple colored Razr phone. I could tell the text screen was lit though the phone was closed. Next to it lay one broken-off, blue-black… claw. It was hot to the touch. My bladder let go, urine gushed, burned down my icy thighs. I screamed.