He took a long, hot shower, then dressed in the cleanest clothes he had, and washed his dirty clothes in the sink. As he brushed his teeth, he stared at himself in the mirror. His hair was too long and shaggy, and he’d gone almost completely gray. He hadn’t been able to shave this morning, so his sunken cheeks were shadowed by a thick stubble. The bags beneath his eyes were carry-on size. He was like a piece of fruit, slowly going bad from the inside out.
He finger-combed the hair back from his face and turned away from the mirror. Really, it was better not to look. All it did was remind him of the old days, when he’d been young and vain, when he’d been careful to keep up appearances. Then, he’d thought a lot of unimportant things mattered.
He went to the door, opened it a crack, and peered out. There was no one nearby, so he slipped into the darkness.
It was completely dark now. A full moon hung over the lake, casting a rippled glow across the waves and illuminating the cabins along the shore. Three of them were brightly lit from within. In one of them, he could see people moving around inside; it looked as if they were dancing. And suddenly, he wanted to be in that cabin, to be part of that circle of people who cared about one another.
“You’re losing it, Joe,” he said, wishing he could laugh about it the way he once would have. But there was a lump in his throat that made smiling impossible.
He slipped into the cover of the trees and kept moving. As he passed behind one of the cabins, he heard music. “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. Then he heard the sound of childish laughter. “Dance with me, Daddy,” a little girl said loudly.
He forced himself to keep moving. With each step taken, the sound of laughter diminished until, by the time he reached the edge of the woods, he had to strain to hear it at all. He found a soft bed of pine needles and sat down. Moonlight glowed around him, turning the world into a smear of blue-white and black.
He unzipped his backpack and burrowed through the damp, wadded-up clothes, looking for the two items that mattered.
Three years ago, when he’d first run away, he’d carried an expensive suitcase. He still remembered standing in his bedroom, packing for a trip without destination or duration, wondering what a man in exile would need. He’d packed khaki slacks and merino wool sweaters and even a black Joseph Abboud suit.
By the end of his first winter alone, he’d understood that those clothes were the archaeological remains of a forgotten life. Useless. All he needed in his new life were two pair of jeans, a few T-shirts, a sweatshirt, and a rain slicker. Everything else he’d given to charity.
The only expensive garment he’d kept was a pink cashmere sweater with tiny shell buttons. On a good night, he could still smell her perfume in the soft fabric.
He withdrew a small, leatherbound photo album from the backpack. With shaking fingers, he opened the front cover.
The first picture was one of his favorites.
In it, Diana sat on a patch of grass, wearing a pair of white shorts and a Yale T-shirt. There was a stack of books open beside her, and a mound of pink cherry blossoms covered the pages. She was smiling so brightly he had to blink back tears. “Hey, baby,” he whispered, touching the glossy covering. “I had a hot shower tonight.”
He closed his eyes. In the darkness, she came to him. It was happening more and more often lately, this sensation that she hadn’t left him, that she was still here. He knew it was a crack in his mind, a mental defect. He didn’t care.
“I’m tired,” he said to her, breathing in deeply, savoring the scent of her perfume. Red by Giorgio. He wondered if they made it anymore.
It’s no good, what you’re doing.
“I don’t know what else to do.”
You break my heart, Joey.
And she was gone.
With a sigh, he leaned back against a big tree stump.
Go home, she’d said. It was what she always said to him.
What he said to himself.
Maybe tomorrow, he thought, reaching for the kind of courage that would make it possible. God knew after three years on the road, he was tired of being this alone.
Maybe tomorrow he would finally—finally—allow himself to start walking west.
Diana would like that.
LIKE SUNSHINE, NIGHT BROUGHT OUT THE BEST IN SEATTLE. The highway—a bumper-to-bumper nightmare at morning rush hour—became, at night, a glittering red-and-gold Chinese dragon that curled along the blackened banks of Lake Union. The cluster of high-rises in the city’s midtown heart, so ordinary in the gray haze on a June day, was a kaleidoscope of sculpted color when night fell.
Meghann stood at her office window. She never failed to be mesmerized by this view. The water was a black stain that consumed nearby Bainbridge Island. Though she couldn’t see the streets below, she knew they were clogged. Traffic was the curse Seattle had carried into the new millennium. Millions of people had moved into the once-sleepy town, drawn by the quality of life and the variety of outdoor activities. Unfortunately, after they built expensive cul-de-sac homes in the suburbs, they took jobs in the city. Roads designed for an out-of-the-way port town couldn’t possibly keep up.
Meghann glanced down at her watch. It was 8:30. Time to head home. She’d bring the Wanamaker file with her. Get a jump on tomorrow.
Behind her, the door opened. Ana, the cleaning woman, pushed her supply cart into the room, dragging a vacuum cleaner alongside. “Hello, Miss Dontess.”
Meghann smiled. No matter how often she told Ana to call her Meghann, the woman never did. “Good evening, Ana. How’s Raul?”
“Tomorrow we find out if he get stationed at McChord. We keep our fingers crossed, ¿sí?”
“It would be great to have your son so close,” Meghann said as she gathered up her files.
Ana mumbled something. It sounded a lot like, “You should have a son nearby, too. Instead of all that work, work, work.”
“Are you chastising me again, Ana?”
“I don’t know chastising. But you work too hard. Every night you’re here. When you gonna meet Mr. Right if you always at work?”
It was an old debate, one that had started almost ten years ago, when Meghann had handled Ana’s INS hearing pro bono. Her last moment of peace had ended when she handed Ana a green card and hired her. Ever since, Ana had done her best to “repay” Meghann. That repayment seemed to be an endless stream of casseroles and a constant harangue about the evils of too much hard work.
“You’re right, Ana. I think I’ll have a drink and unwind.”
“Drink isn’t what I’m thinking,” Ana muttered, bending down to plug in the vacuum.
Meghann was almost to the elevator when her cell phone rang. She rifled through her black Kate Spade bag and pulled out the phone. “Meghann Dontess,” she said.
“Meghann?” The voice was high-pitched and panicky. “It’s May Monroe.”
Meghann was instantly alert. A divorce could go bad faster than an open cut in the tropics. “What’s going on?”
“It’s Dale. He came by tonight.”
Meghann made a mental note to get a TRO first thing tomorrow. “Uh-huh. What happened?”
“He said something about the papers he got today. He was crazy. What did you send him?”
“We talked about this, May. On the phone, last week, remember? I notified Dale’s lawyer and the court that we’d be contesting the fraudulent transfer of his business and demanding an accounting of the Cayman Island accounts. I also told his attorney that we were aware of the affair with the child’s piano instructor and that such behavior might threaten his suitability as a parent.”
“We never discussed that. You threatened to take away his children?”
“Believe me, May, the temper tantrum is about money. It always is. The kids are a shill game with guys like your husband. Pretend to want custody and you’ll get more money. It’s a common tactic.”
“You think you know my husband better than I do.”
Meghann had heard this sentence more times than she could count. It always amazed her. Women who were blindsided by their husband’s affairs, lies, and financial gymnastics continually believed that they “knew” their men. Yet another reason not to get married. It wasn’t masturb**ion that made you go blind; it was love. “I don’t have to know him,” Meghann answered, using the canned speech she’d perfected long ago. “Protecting you is my job. If I upset your”—no good, lying—“husband in the process, that’s an unfortunate necessity. He’ll calm down. They always do.”
“You don’t know Dale,” she said again.
Meghann’s senses pounced on some nuance. Something wasn’t right. “Are you scared of him, May?” This was a whole new wrinkle.
“Scared?” May tried to sound surprised by the question, but Meghann knew. Damn. She was always surprised by spousal abuse; it was never the families you expected.
“Does he hit you, May?”
“Sometimes when he’s drinking, I can say just the wrong thing.”
Oh, yeah. It’s May’s fault. It was terrifying how often women believed that. “Are you okay now?”
“He didn’t hit me. And he never hits the children.”
Meghann didn’t say what came to mind. Instead, she said, “That’s good.” If she’d been with May, she would have been able to look in her client’s eyes and take a measure of the woman’s fragility. If it seemed possible, she would have given her statistics—horror stories designed to drive home the ugly truth. Often, if a man would hit his wife, he’d get around to hitting his children. Bullies were bullies; their defining characteristic was the need to exert power over the powerless. Who was more powerless than a child?
But none of that could be done over the phone. Sometimes a client sounded strong and in control while they were falling apart. Meghann had visited too many of her clients in psych wards and hospitals. She’d grown careful over the years.
“We need to make sure he understands that I’m not going to take his children from him. Otherwise he’ll go crazy,” May said. There was the barest crack in her voice.
“Let me ask you this, May. Say it’s three months from now. You’re divorced, and Dale has lost half of everything he owns. He’s living with Dance Hall Barbie and they come home drunk one night. Barbie’s driving because she only had three margaritas. When they get home, the baby-sitter has let the kids demolish the house and little Billy has accidentally broken the window in Dale’s office. Are your children safe?”
“That’s a lot of things going wrong.”
“Things go wrong, May. You know that. I’m guessing that you’ve always been a buffer between your husband and kids. A human shock absorber. You probably learned how to calm him down and deflect his attention away from the children. Will Barbie know how to protect them?”
“Am I so ordinary?”
“Sadly, the situation is. The good news is, you’re giving yourself—and your children—a new start. Don’t weaken now, May. Don’t let him bully you.”