GhostGirl2

Ghost Girl Part Deux

Later, checking my email, I was surprised to find a message from MaddyGirl: Joe – thanks for last night. I had a great time. I really like you, Maddy.

And that was it. And maybe that was all there would be, the end of it. Just as well, I thought. What else could there be? I wrote back anyway, I had a great time too. How about a bike ride later, or tomorrow if you're busy? Joe.

I sent it off and waited for a reply, checking my email several times until late. But I got nothing further from her.

That night I went to bed too wound up to sleep. But I must have drifted off at some point, after staring holes into the dark ceiling. Then it was suddenly morning. The first thing I did was check my email again. Still nothing.

Later that afternoon a knock came at the door. When I opened it I saw an Asian woman peering in at me. For a second I thought it must be a neighbor—my section of the complex housed more than a few Asian men and women. It would be an unheard of occurrence, though, for one of them to come to my door. The feeling lasted only a second before I realized this woman was too young to be a resident—the minimum age was fifty, and she looked to be in her late thirties. Maybe she was a caregiver for one of the older infirm women.

“Are you Joe?” she said, her eyes narrowing.

“Yes.”

“I’m Maddy’s sister.” Her expression wasn’t friendly, and I was too stunned to say anything. But I could see the resemblance in her cheekbones and eyes and her chunky body, though she was not nearly as pretty. After a few seconds she went on, belligerent now, “What are doing going after my little sister?”

“Going after?” was all I managed to get out.

“An old man like you. What do want with a sweet young girl like Maddy? I know about men like you.”

Her voice was loud, amplified by the enclosure of my patio. My nearby neighbors often left their front doors open to the warm Southern California air, and I pictured them sitting in front of their TVs, hearing this.

“Look, Miss.” I held out my hands in a calming gesture. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not like that.” Her chin went out and her eyebrows rose, as if to say, bullshit.

“Please come in,” I said before she could say anything else. I opened the door wide and, after a few seconds of looking suspiciously inside, she pushed in past me. When I closed the door, she was standing there, glaring at me, her chin out, in the same spot Maddy had stood writing her email address on the little pad.

She pointed a finger at me. “You leave my little sister alone.”

“Look, first of all, how did you even get in the complex? People who don’t live here need guest passes to get in.”

“I have a pass.” She produced a bright pink cardboard rectangle from her pocket and shook it at me. It was the same pass that residents gave to non-residents so they could come to visit. “I have a friend who works at the medical center.”

Of course, the medical center friend Maddy had mentioned. “But how did you know my name? How did you even know where I live?” I was pretty sure I already knew the answer, though.

Her expression hadn’t changed, and she still held out the guest pass like an accusation.

“Maddy didn't come home last night. She called and told me she was staying at a girlfriend's place. She stayed here, didn't she?” Saying that, her hand waved around as if showing her contempt. Before I could say anything, she went on. “After she came home she used my computer. I checked her email and saw the message she sent you. Thanks for last night.

“You checked her email?”

“I did. I know her password. And I saw your message too. How about a bike ride later?” Saying this, her sarcastic tone grew louder.

“That's spying.”

“I keep an eye on my little sister. For her own good. I asked her about you. Who is this guy? Did you spend the night at his place? And she told me. She can't lie to me. She said she stayed here because it got too dark. She slept on the floor, she told me.” She glared around as if to find the spot where that was even possible. “She told me nothing happened. Ha!”

I was about to say something when she interrupted, “She told me where you live. I know this place. My friend knows people in the main office, and they know you. Guy always riding a bike. Hanging out at the gym trying to make himself look younger.” Her last words were accompanied by a sneer.

Of course. I was easy to spot, one of the youngest residents, though I hardly hung out at the gym. And traced by my goddamn bike? I almost laughed, but I couldn't. I said nothing.

“Men like you. Dirty old men who just want to get into the pants of pretty young girls. You should be ashamed.”

This was getting out of hand. What else had Maddy told her?

As if reading my mind, she said, “My sister’s twenty-two, but she’s younger than that, if you know what I mean. Probably not, though.” She looked me up and down, her nose wrinkled as if at a bad smell. “She doesn’t know about men yet, especially your kind.” Finally she seemed to wait for me to say something. When I didn't, she shouted, “Did you sleep with my sister?”

I held out my hands in a helpless way. “What did she tell you?”

She recited in a mocking tone, “Oh, Joe's just a friend I met down at the beach. Really interesting guy. Nothing happened.” A pause then for another accusing look.

“Nothing did happen. She was telling the truth.” Luckily I hadn't deflated the air mattress from the night before, maybe to remind me. It stood on end, leaning against the wall. “She actually slept on that,” I said, pointing.

“Then why did she tell me she slept on the floor?”

By then I was starting to regain my footing, even though what was in this older sister's mind might not be that far from what I'd been thinking last night.

“Obviously, it was on the floor. But nothing happened, is the point.”

“I don't believe you. I know about men like you. Old bachelors in their dirty old apartments, thinking dirty thoughts about young girls. Why don’t you find somebody your own age?”

This was becoming too much. “Look, miss, whatever your name is.”

“My name is Helen, if you must know.”

“All right, Helen, then. First of all, I'm not an old man, like you're thinking. I just barely qualify to live here. And I did have somebody my own age. My wife, but she died over a year ago. And I couldn’t stand where we used to live anymore. I moved here into this little dirty old apartment, as you put it. And I don’t prey on young girls. I just happened to meet Maddy when we were both bike riding, and she seemed very nice and friendly. She's training for a triathlon, she told me. I thought that was great. I mostly keep to myself, but she was easy to talk to and we talked, that’s all. And then, like she said, it got too dark, and she stayed here because I didn't want her riding home without lights on her bike.”

“I'll bet that's what you wanted.” Her expression had started to soften at the mention of my wife, but I might have gone too far with the part about Maddy being nice and friendly. Chatty Maddy. At that her eyes narrowed to slits, sending nothing good my way.

“I’m sorry about your wife. But I still don't believe that nothing happened.” She waited for me to say something about that.

“Well, she is of age, after all,” I said, which was the wrong thing to say.

She shouted, pointing a finger at me, “You keep away from my little sister, you hear?”

“How could I do anything else? I don’t even where she lives.” With that a deflated feeling came over me. That was that; it seemed obvious.

She glared at me for a few seconds more. “I came here to say what I wanted, and now I said it.” She started for the door as if she would bowl me over if I didn’t get out of her way. Then she was gone, leaving me with nothing but confused emptiness. Or maybe it was guilt because what she’d thought was at least partly true. I had slept with her sister. But nothing had happened, as I'd told her.

I sat in the overstuffed recliner, with only the blank TV for company. I still had Maddy’s email, MaddyGirl, but hard-assed Helen—instinctively not a nice warm-sounding name like Maddy—would intercept my messages anyway.

Still, I checked my own email a little later. Nothing. And again later, the same.

Days following, I went back to my old routine, doing my insignificant work, sometimes riding my bike, mornings going to the gym. Routine checks of my email went back to old habits: logging in several times a day looking for messages from clients I worked for. I got a few from eBook sites hawking cheap books and useless ads from mailing lists I had no idea how I’d gotten onto. Then it showed up in my Inbox one day, a message from MaddyGirl.

Joe, I’m so mad at my dumb sister. She had no right to do what she did. Then I couldn't email you because she changed the admin password and she wouldn't let me use her computer anyway. I thought of calling your cell, but I don't have your number. I was afraid to anyway. I thought you might be mad at me. I hope not. I'm using a friend's computer now. I changed my email password so my sister can't see. I hope you're not mad at me. Maddy.

I answered, Of course I'm not mad. I hope we're still friends, Joe. I got a reply the next day.

Joe, I'm using a computer at school now. I’ll buy my own, or at least a tablet when I can afford it. In the meantime, the hell with her. I'm moving out anyway. I'll stay with my friend for now until I can find a place of my own. That might be awhile, I don't have much money. Do you want to go for a ride sometime?

I answered back, A ride sounds great, how about tomorrow? I suggested meeting at the same bench down at the end of the river trail. She replied, What a great idea.

She was already there, sitting on the bench when I came down the trail the next afternoon. I pulled up and parked my bike in the same spot as before and sat. It was like that first day all over again, though her smile looked wan and tired. She said, “I hope my dumb sister didn't give you too hard a time.”

“No, not really,” I said, not wanting to say anymore.

“Well, you look good.”

“You do too,” I said, despite her tired eyes.

“Probably got big bags under my eyes. I haven't slept very well lately.”

I waited to hear more.

“I'm still at my sister's place. It's like we're at war with each other now.”

“Maybe you should move out, like you said.”

“Nothing's ever simple like we want it to be.” She looked over at me, her mouth turned down in a reverse of her old happy smile. “Stuff gets in the way. Like money. Like maybe my friend who I was going to stay with isn't such a friend. Said her mother's coming for a long visit and there won't be room. I didn't believe her, though. Her and her mother don't get along. I know that much.”

“And you can't afford a place on your own.”

“All I have is a part-time job at the library at school. Not much pay. My sister's been more or less supporting me, you know? Which I appreciate, but still. She's not my mother.” She made an effort to brighten then. “But let's not talk about that. Let's go for our ride.”

We rode a few miles on a side street, me leading the way toward the same pizza place of that first day. “How did you know pizza is my weakness?” she said when she saw it.

“A wild guess.”

When our slices were ready—pepperoni for me, pineapple and ham for Maddy—and we took a booth, she told me her story. “My Dad died when I was too little to remember. My Mom died when I was fifteen. Cancer.” For a second her face turned downcast. “You probably know about Asian parents. Real big on education. They left money for that, for both of us. But my sister is the one who got control of it because I was underage.”

“Wasn't there a will? Usually, wills specify that underage kids share the money once they come of age.”

“There was no will, not really. My parents were old-fashioned. My sister just got the money, and maybe they expected she would give me my share when I turned twenty-one.”

She stopped there, eying me as she took a bite of her pizza. After a minute of chewing and swallowing, she said, “I got a full scholarship as an undergrad. Tuition and books. But that's over now. Grad school tuition comes from the money my parents left. But Helen doles that like the tight-fisted bitch she is.”

I wondered if she was making a joke at the sister's expense. But she seemed serious.

Devouring the last of her pizza, she raised her eyebrows, looking at me, as if to say, Well, that's that.

When I asked if she'd like to ride over to my apartment, she said she couldn't that day. She had an appointment with a fellow student to work on an assignment together. Maybe she thought I wanted sex, but that wasn't it. I wasn't sure what I wanted, maybe just to relive the day we'd first met.

At the trailhead we stopped to say goodbye. Still sitting side-by-side straddling our bikes, we stared at each other. She seemed to be waiting for me to say something more. I leaned toward her and kissed her for the first time, and she kissed me in return, her hand at the back of my neck, her fingers in my hair.

We got together two more times that week, once for pizza and a ride, and the second time for an afternoon movie. We sat together in the dark watching a romantic comedy she'd said she wanted to see—not my favorite kind of movie, but holding hands with her like a kid, watching it in the darkened, mostly empty movie house made the story for me.

I didn't ask again, on either of those two occasions, if she would go with me to my apartment, and she never brought it up. The thought of a nice dinner somewhere beside the pizza joint seemed like a nice idea, a change of pace. She asked if I would pick her up in my car at Long Beach State, where she was taking classes.

She was waiting for me where she'd told me. It was the first time I'd seen her in anything but her usual riding gear. She wore designer jeans, sandals that revealed her turquoise-painted toenails, and a sleeveless, scoop-necked top with lacy trim, starkly white against the tawny skin of her arms and chest. She got in the car and settled into the passenger seat .The sight of her next to me was dazzling. “No bike today?” I asked.

“A friend from school picked me up. I decided to look like a girl for a change.”

For the first time I noticed the definition of slender muscle on her exposed upper arms. As with her painted toenails, I was struck at the sexiness of that. “You must work out,” I said.

Holding one sleek, hairless arm up, with a slight flex that showed off the smooth bicep, she said, as if she hadn't noticed it before, “I guess so. I try, anyway.”

We drove to the seafood restaurant I had in mind, not saying much. After parking in back, as she started to open the passenger door to get out, I reached over to stop her. I had rehearsed this, but still I wasn't sure.

“I've been thinking.”

She looked over with raised eyebrows.

“What would you say to moving in with me?”

Her eyes went wide and her mouth opened. She waited a minute before saying, “I never lived with a guy before.”

I didn't know what to say to that.

She went on, “You never told me anything about yourself.”

I waited for her to ask.

“You've been with women, obviously,” she said. “Were you ever married? It seems like you were.” A few wisps of her black hair hung low over her forehead. She brushed them back with her fingertips, perhaps nervous over this out-of-the-blue offer.

“How do you mean?” I said.

“I always felt like you had a history you didn't want to talk about. I could see it sometimes, like there was a sadness behind your eyes.”

After a minute I said, “I was married once.”

“Divorced?”

“No.” I stared out through the windshield, not looking at anything in particular. “She died a little over a year ago. It was an accident. Her car slid on some ice and crossed over a median and was hit by an oncoming truck. She was killed instantly.”

It was strange that I felt something relax inside me as I told her. I let out a breath. “We lived outside Chicago. It was winter. It snowed the day before, but the streets had been cleared. She was always a careful driver, but there was a patch of ice she must not have seen. It was one of those things that could have happened to anybody.”

“But it happened to you.”

“It happened to my wife, but it happened to me too. She went to work that morning, and I never saw her alive again.” There was nothing else to say.

“Did you have any kids?”

“No.”

She sat sideways in the passenger seat, facing me.

“She wanted kids,” I said, “but she couldn't have any.”

“Did you want them?”

“I thought it would be nice to have a son. We even talked about adopting, but we never followed through. You always think you have time, until you don't.” I could see the start of tears in her eyes. “Her name was Christina.”

“That's a nice name. And you loved her.”

“Of course.” I stopped for a minute, my late wife's face coming into focus in my head. How do I tell this? “But it's not always true that you love the person you're with for years. Sometimes it's just inertia.”

“But you did love her, right?” she persisted. “How long were you married?”

“Almost twenty-five years. I was not quite twenty-five when we got married. She was twenty-one.”

“So you married her before I was even born.”

“I'm afraid so.”

“Why, afraid so?” she said, smiling despite the tears that were about to spill from her eyes.

“I don't know. Because it could change everything.”

“Because now you're thinking I won't want to be with you?” When I didn't say anything, she continued, “Because I'm too young for you, or you're too old, you're thinking.”

“Something like that. But I don't think age should have anything to do with it. We like being with one another. Shouldn't that be enough?” I kept going, perhaps to delay what she might say next. “And it would solve the sister problem, at least. I was thinking about getting a two-bedroom place anyway.”

“Do you still love your wife?” She sat there, waiting.

“You don't stop just because she's gone. I miss her. But my life is something else now. And somewhere else.”

“You moved from Chicago to here,” she said. “To this somewhere else.”

I held out a hand, palm up, as if to help me explain. “My life here is not my life there.”

“I guess that was the point then, right? Starting over here because you couldn't live there anymore.”

“I guess that's it,” I had rehearsed what I wanted to say, but then it had gone in this different direction.

She went silent for a minute. “One question. When you moved here, why did you pick that place?. Where old people go. You're really young to live in a retirement community.”

It took a minute for me to start, staring through the windshield.

“I thought it would be like an island. Not a part of the world outside. I didn't feel like I was ready for that. Especially this craziness of L.A., all the traffic, the people piled on top of one another. ”

How do I tell this?

“I was fifty, just at an age that qualifies you to live there. And I thought yeah, I'd have this place, like a retreat. I could go out in the world, but I could get away from it too.”

But isn't it like an asylum or something?” she said. “A place where old people go to wait out their time?”

“Maybe it is. Maybe I felt like I needed that too.”

“To wait out your time?”

“It was like that.”

She watched me as if there would be more. “Will you always stay there?”

“I don't know. It depends.”

“You mean, it depends on if I moved in with you.”

“Maybe, yeah. Would it bother you, living there?”

She said nothing for a minute. “I don't know. It's creepy, in a way. Would you like to move?”

“If you were with me?” I had to be honest here. “I'm not ready yet. But maybe, after a while.”

She took a deep breath. “I'm glad you told me,” she said. “All of it, I mean.” She settled back, her fixed gaze staring off at some distant spot in front of her.

“I'm glad too. But now what?”

Maybe it was her turn to not know what else to say. “Well,” she said. “You just asked me to move in with you. Into a new apartment. Two bedrooms, you said”

“I've been thinking about that anyway. Having more room.”

Her tears no longer threatened to spill. “You mean we'd have separate bedrooms?” she said in a teasing way now.

I couldn't keep a smile from forming. “That's not what I meant. Just more room, that's all. Two people need more room.”

“Still, how does that solve my sister problem? She'd cut me off. I'd have to drop out of school.”

“I make more money than I need. I'll take care of school. And anything else.” Those were almost the words I had rehearsed, but still it felt like I was stepping off into the unknown. But what else did I have?

“Joe, that's a big step. Do you really think it's a good idea?”

“I do. I really like you, Maddy.”

Like was one “L” word. But I wasn't yet ready for that other “L” word.

“I like you too, Joe.” She went silent, looking out at the back of the seafood restaurant. “Do you mind if I think about it?”

“I think you should.” We sat side-by side, not talking for a minute. I said, “Maybe we should go inside now.”

As I made to reach for the door handle, she stretched an arm across to stop me and leaned over and kissed me. The kiss lasted for a while, and my hand slipped over and caressed her, lingering on her breasts. After a minute, she broke the kiss off and said, her face an inch from mine, “I hope nobody's watching us.”

“Who cares?” I said. She laughed, and we got out and went inside to eat.

The next day I received an email from her, one word: Yes. A few minutes later there was another: When do you want me? I knew it meant when did I want her to move in, but I liked thinking of it in another way.

I answered, How about tomorrow? I can drive over to your sister's and pick up your things.

Her reply came back quickly, I'll have a girlfriend drive me over with my stuff. I don't have much, and I wouldn't want any confrontations with my crazy sister. I'm sure she'd get in your face big time. But one question. How will my friend and I get past the Nazi guard at the gate of your complex?

I laughed at the Nazi reference. I'll meet you outside. There's a strip mall just outside the gate.

The next afternoon I waited in my car, parked at the strip mall. I spotted an old van driving in, with a young girl behind the wheel and Maddy sitting in the passenger seat, waving when she spotted me through the windshield. I saw her bike in the rear of the van as it pulled up next to me.

I had one moment of something—doubt, possibly—after we drove into the complex, the van containing Maddy and her belongings following my car past the guard shack. After parking the van near my apartment, the girlfriend jumped out first. I had already parked and was waiting. She gave me a quick, guarded peek over the top of her van, and then Maddy got out on the other side, and they began chattering like two teenagers. They weren't that far removed from it, it occurred to me. They started unloading Maddy's belongings, just a few boxes from the back. When I made a move to help, Maddy said with a broad grin, “Us girls can handle this.”

I stood aside and watched. The girlfriend, who immediately struck me as Maddy's opposite—tall, blonde, plain looking—kept casting sideways glances my way. She hauled a box from the rear of the van and held it pinned against her side, a long arm wrapped around it. She did the same with a second box, using the other arm against her other side. Maddy grabbed the remaining box—all there was to her belongings—and walked off toward my front door. Obviously, she remembered the way. The girlfriend turned to me as if waiting for instructions, eying me in the same guarded way as before. Then she strode off, following Maddy, the boxes held on opposite sides as if they weighed nothing. Amazon, came to mind as I trailed behind.

Inside they dropped the boxes in the living room. We would sort things out later. Maddy said, “I'll go get the bike.” She spun around and headed out the front door, seemingly all in one movement. The girlfriend, who hadn't said a word to me, again looked as if she were waiting to be told what to do.

I reached out a hand to her. “Hi, I'm Joe.”

She placed her limp hand into mine, offering no return grip. Through the open blinds I glimpsed Maddy hustling down the sidewalk toward the van. The girl's eyes followed mine. “I'm Bridget.”

She let her hand drop and moved toward the open door. Making her escape, I thought as I watched her through the window, hurrying to catch up with Maddy. A few minutes later they returned, again happily chattering, Maddy pushing her bike. She set it against the patio wall in the same spot as that first day. An old woman, with whom I'd never spoken but recognized as living in the end unit of my building, shuffled past. She looked sideways beneath lowered brows at the teen-like enthusiasm going on in front of my place. Probably thinking my daughter was moving in with me.

It was then that the moment came, and I thought, Why am I inserting myself into the life of young girls? What am I doing to Maddy? A gloom came over me, like the gloom of that first day, when Maddy had “spent the night,” because it was too dark for her to ride home.

She must have sensed it a minute later, after hugging the girlfriend and saying goodbye, looking incongruously small in the big girl's strong arms. She came inside and gave me a wide-eyed smile. Her expression turned serious. “Something wrong?”

When I only smiled in return, she added, “Second thoughts?”

“No chance,” I said, not sure what I thought.

She walked over to where I stood. “You know what I keep thinking about?”

“No, what?”

Grabbing me around the belt buckle, she started walking, tugging me toward the bedroom. I followed, my gloom dispelled by the sensation of being pulled along to what was apparently about to happen. I said, with a look at the door, still half open, “Maybe we should close that.”

She ignored me, continuing to haul me down the short hallway into the next room. There, she turned and sat back on the bed, still hanging onto my belt. She laid back, letting go, and I sank down on top of her. Her breath came loud into my ear and her hands were in my hair, her fingers running through it.

She whispered, “After we slept together that first time and didn't do anything.” She paused, and let out a breath. “Later I knew I wanted this.”

It could have just been the moment, of her being swept along by it. “Even with the old guy?” I said, only half teasing.

I felt her face smiling against mine. “I told you I'm an old soul.”

I stood up over her and stripped off her top, seeing she wore no bra. I tugged down her shorts and panties, having a bit of trouble with that until I shucked off her sneakers. She looked up at me, her eyes dark and luminous. Then she laughed, playful.

Her body looked the way I'd imagined, the small breasts slightly flattened from her lying down, her skin smooth and taut and tawny, her pubic hair black and sparse. She reached up and unbuckled my belt. It seemed only seconds before I was naked, and I sank down onto her again. I hadn't had sex with a woman since my wife, over a year ago, and realized now I hadn't wanted to. But that was before. I relaxed, my weight pressing her down. She wrapped herself around me, her fingers tracing patterns over my bare skin. I entered her and she took in a sharp breath and grabbed the hair at the back of my head with both hands.

Later we drifted off to sleep, and it became like that first night, relaxing in the same way after she'd entered my bed and we had lain together and I had remembered what it was like to fall asleep next to a woman, listening to her breathing and feeling the warmth of her against me.

* * *

She had been right about not having much. Earlier I had emptied two drawers of my dresser for her things, but she didn't even need all of that for the few clothes she folded and stowed there. The rest of her scant wardrobe she hung in my half empty closet.

Over the next few days I kept expecting a visit from the irate older sister, but it never came. And Maddy never mentioned her again. Within a few weeks I secured a vacant two-bedroom apartment I'd known about for a while, in the next building over, and we moved from my old place to that one.

I replaced my double bed—my bachelor bed as I thought of it—with a queen-size, even though we both liked the smaller bed for after-sex snuggling.

The new apartment allowed me to have an office in the second bedroom, which also freed up space in the living room, formerly taken by my desk and computer. We carried the dilapidated couch out to the trash collection bins, where discarded items were always carried off by someone, and I bought a proper one with thick, comfortable cushions. It immediately became an important lolling spot for her.

A problem could have come up with the rules of the complex; residents had to be at least fifty to live there. But spouses of residents were exempt from that, and I simply told them in the main office that Maddy and I had gotten married. I thought they might ask for proof, a marriage license, which would have brought up a different problem. But they didn't.

The idea of marriage had some appeal to me, of having a wife again, though I didn't bring it up with Maddy. That might come later, or maybe not. It was still too early to tell.

She started in decorating the place with a young woman's touch, hanging framed posters bought at Pier One of hip L.A. scenes and renderings of European capitals, placing arrangements of dried flowers in vases around, even in the bathroom, which I never would have thought of. She cajoled me into painting two walls of the living room a bold pumpkin color, to set off the drabness of the other all-white walls. I liked all of it.

At first I volunteered to drive her to school and pick her up each day. Long Beach State was only about five miles away, and it wasn't as if I didn't have the time. But she insisted on riding her bike. “Do you want me to get all fat and out of shape,” she said with a comic expression. There were a few days, though, when she had to give in on that, when infrequent rain poured down on Southern California. Even then she gave in reluctantly. And she had me let her off at the main entrance, after I offered to drive her inside the complex. Maybe she didn't want anyone to see her with the old guy. I mused about that some, but let it go. She still had her life, and maybe I was a secret to her friends. But that couldn't be true. There was the tall, blonde, Amazon girlfriend. Whatever, I thought. I could live with it.

So on most days she rode her bike to school, a sight to behold in this old-people's complex, drawing a lot of attention from the other residents, especially the old guys. She got many a long wistful stare, energetically pedaling off in her tight-fitting pants and snug jerseys, her muscular legs pumping. She must have looked as impossibly young to them as she had to me, that first day.

She had her dark moods, too, which came on suddenly, out of nowhere so it seemed, when she would go off inside herself and act as if I wasn't there. But they left as quickly as they'd come, and afterward she was likely as not to drag me into the bedroom for enthusiastic sex. So I never minded the moods, looking forward to the aftermaths. I put it all off to the pressures of her studying for an advanced degree, the way I remembered from my student days.

After about six months of living together, I finally did bring up the subject of marriage, having thought about it for a long time. And the other “L” word finally had taken hold in me. “I do love you, you know,” I told her in our darkened bedroom one night, my eyes fixed on the blankness of the dark ceiling. She was snuggled against me in her usual after-sex posture.

“I love you too, Joe,” she mumbled, sounding sleepy, her face pressed against my bare chest. It was the first time for her too, saying it.

“Did you ever think about getting married?”

I could feel her body grow still, or maybe it was just that her breathing changed. She raised her head and looked at me in the dark. “I don't know, Joe. It's perfect the way it is, isn't it?”

“It is. I just thought, you know. Just a thought.”

She relaxed again, settling against me until it must have felt just right to her, and I thought she would go to sleep quickly then. She could always do that, like turning off a switch. But after a few seconds, she mumbled, her lips moving against my bare skin, “It's a nice thought, though.” Then she was asleep. I could always tell by her breathing.

She finished her “pharm” training and got her advanced degree. By then we'd been together about a year-and-a-half. One day I went off to visit a client, spending most of the morning and afternoon there. When I came home I found that her bike and her riding gear and clothes were all gone. I stood not breathing, looking wide-eyed into the bedroom closet at the empty hangers. I checked her dresser drawers, now bare. I looked everywhere, before spotting a tiny post-it note stuck to a pillow on the bed.

Joe, I'm sorry this didn't work out. Best, Maddy.

Not Love, Maddy. Just Best.

I got no answers to calls from the smartphone I’d bought her, and none from the messages I sent to her email. I went out, got into my car and drove over to Lakewood. Having never learned where she'd lived before, under the thumb of the older sister, I drove the streets aimlessly, not even sure where Lakewood ended and Bellflower or Cerritos or Hawaiian Gardens began. I drove with the ever-present feeling in me that I couldn't breathe. It occurred to me to drive over to Long Beach State. It wasn't that big a campus, and maybe I'd have a better shot. But I wasn't thinking clearly. She was done with that, finished with her courses and graduated. She wouldn't be there anymore.

It was dark by the time I returned to the apartment. Maybe she'd changed her mind and had come back, but the place was as empty as before. It felt as if the air had been sucked out of it.

A final call to her phone resulted in a message that the account had been disconnected. I sent her another email and got an immediate reply that no such address existed on her email server. Apparently, she'd deleted that too. This was swift and it was total. I was numb.

The aimless trips to Lakewood went on. Nights I couldn't sleep, listening for the sound of her key in the front door. I managed to get in touch by phone with Helen, the irate older sister in Lakewood, who said she didn’t know where Maddy was, her voice no less derisive than that day she’d confronted me in my old apartment. “It’s what you get,” she said before abruptly hanging up on me.

The sister could have been telling the truth. Maddy had never had a kind word for her, and would probably avoid her now.

There were a few more sporadic patrols of the Lakewood streets, even though I knew it made no sense, and the not sleeping much at night went on. Then, one day, a feeling came over me, like cobwebs being cleared away in my mind, and I was startled to realize that I was no longer that surprised. In a strange way I was beginning to lose the terrible feeling of that first day, of discovering she was gone, of being blindsided by swift and awful events. My mind went back over the last year-and-a-half, to the very beginning, and saw the inevitability of it. Maybe I'd been right after that first night she had spent with me, when I'd watched her pedaling away the next morning and wondered if the whole thing had been a ruse just because she had wanted a free lunch and a place to crash. Then it had turned into a year-and-a-half ruse. I imagined some young guy Maddy had met, or maybe had known all along, someone from school close to her age. My mind went back to those days when I'd driven her to school, when she would insist I drop her off at the main entrance, as if she didn't want anybody inside to see her with me. But maybe there was a guy waiting for her, and she didn't want me seeing him. Maybe that was why.

Still she was gone, and that was all. But she was still out there, I knew. I could feel her presence somewhere nearby. And over time, on days when I rode the river trail, a little slower now, I always looked, as our bench came into view, for her sleek racing bike to be lying on the ground next to it.


End

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