~This story was previously published in Colorado Review (2009)
After Hannah scraped the decorative border from the nursery walls, she placed an ad in the university housing office. Summer break had just started, but within days someone called. Rune was her name. “Like the fortune-telling alphabet,” the girl said, her voice throaty and low. Hannah imagined thick black bangs veiling the girl’s eyes, a mouth tense with secret sorrow.
In person, there was nothing mysterious about her. She came to see the newly painted room when the neighborhood was silent and shimmering with midday heat. Clive was at a lunch meeting. Hannah kept glancing over her shoulder as she led Rune upstairs. Tucked under the girl’s arm was an orange motorcycle helmet. Her short hair was spiky, inky roots giving way to shades of red. Henna tattoos snaked from beneath her jacket and encircled her slender fingers in ornate flourishes. She was remarkably chatty, hurling questions at Hannah in a breathy contralto. How long was the walk to campus, to the nearest bank and grocery store? Could she have overnight guests? And could she pay half the rent on the first and half on the fifteenth, just until school started and her financial aid kicked in? Hannah’s head started to pound.
When they reached the room, the girl strode past her, craning her neck at the crown molding. “Female students only,” Hannah had been careful to note in the ad. No dirty boxers piled everywhere. And a female tenant felt less intimidating. At the last minute she’d dragged in a wingchair from Clive’s office and angled it by the window. A perfect study spot. Any college girl would love it.
“I guess this’ll work,” Rune said, tossing her helmet on the chair. She sat on the bed and bounced, as if testing the springs, then gazed at the wedding ring quilt, her lips curled in a half-smirk. Hannah pictured the quilt stuffed in the closet, replaced by a threadbare coverlet that smelled faintly tangy and unwashed.
Rune flopped back. “Stars and moons would be nice up there. Bishop and I had them. They glowed in the dark. We made up constellations. Cat eyes in the north, a witch’s wand in the south.” She rested her cheek on the quilt and stared at Hannah.
“My fiancé. Ex-fiancé.” There was the slightest hitch in her voice. She brushed her arms up and down, as if making angel’s wings in the snow. “He got the apartment. I got the scooter. He doesn’t know it yet.”
Downstairs, the front door opened. Clive’s footsteps thumped up the stairs.
“Come meet Rune,” Hannah called and stepped into the hallway.
He stopped on the landing. “Who?”
“Our new tenant.” Like that, she’d committed herself. She hadn’t meant to and wouldn’t have if not for Clive’s knee-jerk frown. She itched to give him a little shove.
“Professor Jacobs, hi.” Rune stood in the doorway, her fists balled in her jacket pockets. “I didn’t know you lived here.”
“Have we met?” he said in his lecture voice. He smiled politely.
“I was in your fall urban myths class.”
Hannah watched his expression glaze. Students passed through so quickly, he often complained, that he’d stopped trying to remember their names.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You don’t look familiar.”
Rune waved her hand dismissively. Her tattooed fingers flickered through the air like butterflies. “I sat way in back.”
He peered into the room. “Is that my chair?”
“I left the other one,” Hannah said. Clive stared at her until she looked away.
“I guess we’ll be seeing more of each other,” he said to Rune and marched down the hall. His study door clicked shut, an unfriendly, obstinate sound.
Later that evening he leaned against the doorjamb between their bedroom and the master bathroom while Hannah brushed her teeth. From the bedroom television she could hear a program blaring about a teen rescued from her family’s handyman, who’d kept her captive for months. Hannah had been following the story, aching when the parents pled on the news for their daughter’s safe return.
Behind her, Clive said through a mouthful of something, “Did you check her credit or ask for references? Something’s not right about her.”
She stared at his reflection. He clutched a candy bag to his gut. His face had a ruddy tinge. She spit out her toothpaste.
“For God’s sake, she’s a college student. One of your students.”
“So she says. What do we know about her, really? She could steal us blind or shoot us in our sleep. I can’t believe you didn’t think about that.”
He sounded like his old self, vehement, impassioned, as if a circumscribed sliver had been dislodged, one that she had been yearning to butt up against. This was a man who could fend off regret, calm the memories that still ambushed her. She had been in the home stretch, then suddenly the emergency C-section. A morphine drip had burned in her arm; restraints had cut into her wrists. So briefly hers, the boy and the girl, with tiny, bluish nails and fluttering chests.
In the bathroom mirror she could see the bedroom TV flickering with images, first a sweet-faced blond girl, then the wild-haired, unwashed handyman turned kidnapper. Day workers abducted little girls, assistants embezzled from unsuspecting bosses, children poisoned parents to collect on insurance policies. Husbands and wives drifted apart, unable to grasp the parameters of each other’s grief, the private rules of the other’s recovery. They needed this tattooed girl. Already she was getting them talking again.
“Clive, don’t you see—”
“Why would you take such a huge risk?”
“I’m trying to put us back on track.”
Instantly his expression went blank. “Right,” he said. “Business as usual.”
He turned away, shoveling more candy into his mouth. She wiped out the sink and pretended not to notice.
Keeping her pregnant had been the main problem. Seven months before, during their final pregnancy try, she had been put on strict bed rest. She couldn’t even sit up to read or type, and holding things overhead made her arms ache. Clive went out and bought two flat-screen TVs, one for the bedroom and one for her study. They hadn’t owned a television in years, since the last one exploded in sparks.
From the start, most shows bored her, particularly the reality ones with their trumped-up animosities and alliances. True crime shows, though, were fascinating. The lengths people went to, only to get caught. Take the novelist who pushed his wife down the stairs. Years before, another woman, a family friend, died the same way. The novelist had been the last to see her alive, too. Such unoriginality and poor planning. Then there was the Naughty Girl Bandit, who wore a T‑shirt imprinted with the word “Naughty” to rob three banks in Hannah’s own neighborhood. She slid notes to tellers, once showed a handgun in her bag. Fairly commonplace, as bank robbers went. But how silly to wear a memorable shirt and no mask, though her features were blurred in surveillance tapes. She was sure to be apprehended.
Clive didn’t approve. “It’s morbid,” he said, “obsessing about the worst parts of life.” And look how jumpy she had gotten, suspicious of even the grocery store clerks. But it was exhilarating to be fearful, to feel something other than an endless cycle of impatience, hope, grief, rage. Even after she was up and out of bed, she watched crime programs until dawn every night, shivering on her study couch as she mentally catalogued clues: open window, unlatched door, abandoned car, corpse in a field, a river, an abandoned water main.
Now there was Rune. She moved in that weekend, bringing a knapsack, a few boxes, and her scooter. Their computer and stereo equipment remained untouched, as did the cash in their wallets. (Hannah counted it every night the first few days, her cheeks warm with shame.) Rune just wasn’t the criminal type. She lacked an iota of stealth, and her emotions dwelled close to the surface, as flamboyant as her tattoos. Once she roused herself (she tended to sleep until noon), she either bounced around the house with enthusiasm or draped herself across a chair in despair. And there was that moment on the first day, the battle between hope and futility on her face as she envisioned the constellations she’d left behind. The need in that gaze was too unguarded to be feigned.
There were oddities. Small, silly things disappeared, a magnet from the refrigerator, a set of rusty keys from the mud room junk drawer, things that Hannah herself could have misplaced and wouldn’t have noticed missing if not for Rune’s presence. Her behavior was a little strange, too. Before leaving the house she peered outside from behind the dining room curtains as if checking for suspicious characters. She kept her bedroom door shut, and no letters arrived for her, no bills or catalogues. During the first week, Hannah asked casually whether she’d had a chance to forward her mail. She kept a P.O. box, Rune said, because she moved so often. Hannah found herself mulling over these details, trying to make them mean something.
“It’s strange, her keeping the door locked, like we might rob her,” she said to Clive one morning at the end of Rune’s second week. They sat at the kitchen table. There was a cherry Danish by his elbow. She dug into her grapefruit. They were supposed to be dieting. A show of solidarity wasn’t too much to ask. “Or she could be hiding something, drugs maybe.”
“You wanted a tenant,” he said.
He stood and nuzzled her ear. She sat up straighter.
“Rune might come down.”
“So what? I’m kissing my wife.”
But he stepped away. She felt cold where he had kissed her, oddly abandoned. They hadn’t made love since she went on bed rest. Before, they had desired each other with a deep, satisfying necessity that showed itself with comforting regularity, like hunger for a scheduled meal. Sex seemed superfluous now, something other people did, younger people with less to lose.
“I ran into Kurt,” he said. “You haven’t returned his calls about whether you’re teaching next semester.”
“It’s barely June. He doesn’t need an answer yet.”
“You’d feel better if you were busy again.”
She whirled around. His arms were crossed, his face stern.
“I’m busy. I got the spare room ready, for one thing. We need the money, remember?”
“If that were true, you’d be teaching. That’s not what this is about.”
“Then what? Tell me what this is about if you know so much.”
Clive frowned at the doorway. There was Rune, her spiky hair mashed, her drawstring pajamas askew.
“Am I interrupting?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Give us a minute.”
It wasn’t like him to be so brusque. Hannah said, “It’s fine. You must be hungry.”
The girl walked in and opened the refrigerator. “Can I drink some juice? I’ll replace it.”
“No need,” Hannah said just as Clive said, “Please do.” What was wrong with him? She nudged his pastry toward Rune. “Have some breakfast,” she said.
Rune smiled gratefully. Clive frowned.
“So, you’re a graduate student in my department.” His lecture voice again. “Who’s your advisor?”
“Actually,” Rune said, carefully, “I’ll be a sophomore.”
“That class of mine you said you took. It’s only open to grads.”
“I audited. I’m thinking about majoring in anthropology.”
“Ah,” he said and cocked his head, as if about to bury her in questions.
“Clive, she just got up. Leave her alone.”
The relief on Rune’s face was reward enough for the annoyance on Clive’s. So what if the girl seemed jumpy. That just might be her way.
Hannah took to dawdling in her study each morning, half-listening to crime shows while she reviewed course materials. She could revive her class on the evolution of marital law. Or there was her seminar on China’s one-child policy. The debates about fairness and the right to have as many children as you wanted, government be damned. Those didn’t seem bearable.
More and more she found herself stretched out on her study couch watching television as she listened for signs from upstairs that Rune was awake. Sometimes she waited until Rune came down and then sat with her while she ate. Other times she knocked on her door. “I’m doing laundry,” she would say. “I could fit some things if you’d like.” Rune never invited her inside; still, she would say thanks and bring out some clothes. Hannah rejected her offers to help, which would have spoiled her sense of purpose. Occasionally, Rune followed her to the basement and settled in a worn armchair near the washer to tell stories about traveling the world with her father, who played trombone in the Army marching band, and her mother, who built a nest egg reading Tarot cards to other military wives. Or she talked about her plans for the school year, or her job at a burger joint in Central Square. The dinner crowd tipped better, she said. Hannah had been there a few times after faculty meetings. It was dark and overheated; sawdust and peanut hulls scratched underfoot.
“I could help you get a job at the law school,” she surprised herself by offering one day. “Clerical work, maybe. Better hours for studying.”
“Are you a professor too?”
“I’ve been on sabbatical. We were trying to have a baby,” she found herself saying. “It didn’t work out.”
“That’s sad. I’d love a baby someday.” Said with an odd yet touching urgency.
The tattoos, Rune explained over lunch another day (breakfast for Rune, whose socked feet had whispered downstairs at one o’clock), caused her broken engagement. She rolled her sleeves to her shoulders; the tattoos swirled upward and beyond.
“They’re not permanent. I had them done in Kenya. Bishop is an anthropology grad student. Professor Jacobs might know him. He got a fellowship this summer to study Kenyan wedding rituals. We were supposed to get married there.”
She thrust her hands across the kitchen table. Up close, the tattoos were lovely, a rich earthy red, like the Sedona clay Hannah knew from childhood. Terrible for growing anything but perfect for mud makeup. She and her friends used to make a sludgy paste and paint each other’s cheeks with flowers and curlicues much like these. A memory she had planned to share with a daughter.
“They were only supposed to do my hands and feet for the wedding, but I thought, when’s the next time I’ll have the guts to tattoo this much of my body? It’ll fade, right? Bishop went ballistic. Told me I was bastardizing a sacred tradition. I always take things to extremes, he said. I have no self-control. He put me on the next plane.”
Hannah glanced at Rune’s twisted mouth and damp eyes, then tentatively patted her hands. “Let me make you some pancakes,” she said and stood.
Rune wiped her eyes and curled her knees to her chin. Hannah could feel her gaze tracking her around the kitchen. Clive was wrong. She was just a child starved for attention, a lost soul in need of sympathy.
Clive’s adoption book was the first thing that Hannah was certain disappeared.
He showed it to her one morning when Rune had been there a month. Hannah was making breakfast, which she had started doing every day, Belgian waffles and biscuits heavy with buttermilk and lard, food that could withstand the oven until Rune got up. For Clive and herself she served protein shakes or oatmeal topped with Splenda and fruit.
“I assume that’s not for me,” she heard him say as she checked a frittata in the oven. She turned. He stood there, smiling slightly, holding out a thick, spiral-bound book that felt weighty when she took it. It looked like something he had compiled for a class. Typed on front was “Chinese Adoption.” Inside were articles about the general pros and cons of adoption as well as about Chinese adoption, including a list of agencies specializing in the region and a copy of the voluminous application materials. It must have taken months to compile. Clive always was a careful researcher.
“Maybe if you knew more,” he said, “you’d see how this could be good for us. We could still be a family.”
If only he would stop looking at her. “Clive, I’m not sure—”
“And it could be a good seminar topic,” he hurried on. “Kurt agrees. You could ease back in with the one class.”
“You talked to Kurt about this?”
“Someone had to.”
“He’s my dean, not yours.”
“I know.” His face reddened, but he kept going. “Look. Teaching makes you happy. I want you to be happy again.”
How dare you, she wanted to yell. But the hope on his face.
“Read it,” he said. “Please.”
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. He kissed her and left quickly, as if she would change her mind if he stayed. At least he still knew her that well.
All week the book lay by the coffeemaker. Crumbs collected around the borders; wavery rings from damp glasses marked the cover. Clive glanced over but said nothing whenever he walked by. Each day he ate his healthy breakfast without complaint. Instead of candy he snacked on grapes. His resolve almost made her read the book. But a child in the house, someone else’s child. A breathing, healthy, growing child.
“Is this for a class?” Rune asked on Friday when she was pouring herself coffee.
Hannah tried not to flinch as Rune turned pages. “Something Clive’s working on. He thought it would be an interesting seminar for when I go back.”
“Is he kidding? This is probably the last thing you want to think about.” She gave Hannah’s arm a squeeze. “Guys can be such jerks.”
The next morning the book was gone, its crumb borders wiped away. Hannah assumed Clive had taken it (finally, he’d realized his folly) until he came down for breakfast and saw the empty counter. “So you read it,” he said. “It made you see, didn’t it, how such an intense process would commit us to a child.”
“I don’t have it,” she said. “Maybe Rune borrowed it.”
“Borrowed what?” Rune was standing behind them, fully dressed, her hair spiked with gel. As if she had armored herself, it occurred to Hannah.
“The book on the counter is missing, honey,” she said, the endearment slipping out. She liked the smile it produced from Rune.
“Oh.” Rune thought a moment. “I haven’t seen it.”
“You might not have realized what it was,” Clive said.
“I try not to touch other people’s stuff.”
His laugh was caustic, totally unlike him. “Except for food.”
“Hey, I’m happy to get my own.”
“Clive, what’s wrong with you?” Hannah said. To Rune, she said, “Ignore him.”
“I’m not doing it, Hannah,” he said. “I’m not fighting with you.”
He stalked out the back door. She should follow him, apologize. He was grieving, too, and trying to move forward. But still wanting children, after everything. It felt like a betrayal.
Rune sat down. “He doesn’t like me.”
“He’ll get over it.” Hannah pulled some waffles from the oven and sat to watch Rune eat.
More of Clive’s things vanished, of no real value except the annoyance their disappearance caused: a dry-cleaning ticket, a backup flash drive, extra seminar materials. Whenever something went missing, Hannah hid in her study and listened to him rush around murmuring, “I was in the car, then I came inside and put it on the counter….” Once, she heard him say, “Damn that girl!” A swell of protectiveness almost pushed her out of hiding. Leave her out of this, she was tempted to say.
But it could be Rune. Hannah meant to talk to her. The timing just never seemed right. Rune had become such a comfort, especially with Clive around less and less. In the weeks since the book disappeared, he left for campus earlier and returned later, rarely pausing outside her study where she lay on the couch clicking through channels. (How long had it been since they’d slept in the same bed?) Often the only traces of him were the candy wrappers that reappeared around the house.
She didn’t let them bother her. Instead, she read cookbooks or watched television (the shows flowing through her now rather than reverberating in her brain) or spent time with Rune, not even pretending to work anymore. She went hours, at times, without thinking. Some days after Rune woke up, later and later it seemed, they chatted until Rune left for her evening shift. Or after work Rune might show up in Hannah’s study with some pie from the restaurant and they’d eat and watch TV until the airwaves filled with paid programming. She noted how Rune asked advice about the smallest things and turned away if Clive walked in. She imagined the growing list of pilfered items stockpiled in Rune’s closet, the girl’s sly satisfaction as she listened to Clive search. That’s what you get for upsetting your wife, she would be thinking. There was comfort in imagining this girl understood what upset her better than her own husband.
She caught Rune in a lie, a small one, involving a time when she and her mother got lost in Amsterdam’s red light district looking for somewhere to buy saxophone reeds for her father. Rune was helping Hannah fold laundry.
“I thought he played trombone,” Hannah said, placing a towel on Rune’s pile.
Rune’s face stilled; then she looked puzzled. “Nope, sax. Alto, tenor, bass, you name it.” Her tone was over-bright, reckless. Hannah hesitated before pulling another towel from the dryer. She could have misremembered. Such a silly thing to lie about, and for no apparent reason. Still, part of her whispered, What is true with this girl? and, louder, She is no substitute.
That night, while Rune was working, she stood outside the bedroom door and contemplated picking the lock. She knelt to peer in the large, old-fashioned keyhole, which revealed only darkness. Tingling with guilt she hurried away, into their bedroom. This girl trusted her, relied on her, even, and she was about to invade her privacy. She had no proof, just a sense, probably misguided, spurred by too much crime TV and her growing anger at Clive. His disapproval of Rune was palpable. How dare he judge her.
She started flipping through his closet, snatched a velvety suede jacket, his favorite, and then she was yanking buttons—tearing scratching ripping—until her breath came in gasps. Somewhere, a keening wail. Her own. Her face was wet with snot and tears. She had to get hold of herself.
After she stopped panting, she spread the coat on the bed, tried to smooth the ruined suede that turned his eyes the color of honey. It couldn’t be fixed. She finally buried it in the trash.
When Clive noticed the coat missing from his closet the next morning, she told him the dry cleaner lost it.
“Stop pretending,” he said. “We both know she’s responsible.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she snapped and started to walk out.
He grabbed her arm. “Dammit, Hannah—”
“Stop blaming me!”
“What’s happening to us?” he said and let her go.
He sounded so lost. To feel his solid, heavy warmth against her; to rest her head in the hollow of his throat. She took his hand, its calloused ridges as familiar as her own skin.
“Do you ever wonder what they would have been like?” he asked.
She dropped his hand. “No. Never.”
“So now we can’t even talk about them? It’s like you’re pretending they never existed.”
“They barely did,” she said and immediately regretted it. What she’d meant to say was that if she let herself think about them, she couldn’t do anything else. She had to let them go or they would consume her. But he would never understand, she could tell by his horrified look. It had been so long since they understood each other.
At the end of July, when Rune had been there two months, Hannah helped her decorate the bedroom ceiling. It was the first time Rune invited her inside. The few scattered possessions made the room look abandoned, like a motel after a hasty checkout. A book on the end table, an empty glass. Hannah held the stepladder while Rune dotted the ceiling with star-and-moon stickers. Yellowish-white, they were barely visible, but Rune assured her they would glow brightly at night.
“They’ll look like a tornado in this long sweep,” Rune said. As she reached up, Hannah noticed how much her tattoos had faded. When Rune paused to rest, Hannah touched her wrist.
“They’re almost gone,” she said. Hard to believe so much time had passed. The decision about whether she would teach in the fall had been made for her. The schedule had been set, said a message from the dean’s assistant (not from Kurt himself, which was its own message). A relief, really. Teaching was part of a past that she was finally letting go.
“I’ll probably have them redone,” Rune said. “Come with me. You could get some, too.”
“I’m a little old.”
“You’re only as old as you let yourself be. That’s what Bishop says.” She climbed down the ladder. “It’s like I’m giving in to him if I let them fade.”
“Have you two spoken?”
“He doesn’t know where I am, the asshole,” she said in a cold, flat voice so unlike her that Hannah shivered. Rune handed her a packet. “You try,” she said, her normal voice restored.
“I’m no artist.” But Hannah climbed the ladder. At the top she reached up with a sticker. Her C-section scar tugged. Such a small incision required to take them. She made a circle, added stars for eyes, a mouth of moons, a crescent nose. When she looked down, Rune was grinning.
“The Smiley Constellation, discovered by Professor Hannah Arnett,” Rune said and handed up another packet. The stickers looked fresh and new, like the beginning of something.
“I’ll do it,” Hannah said. “I’ll get a tattoo.”
They went that day, picking a place on Brattle Street near campus. It was surprisingly peaceful, new age music playing softly, dim lights, blinds pulled against the afternoon glare. There was a low-slung couch and a coffee table littered with magazines. They were greeted by a man covered with tattoos and piercings. When he asked what she was interested in, Hannah impulsively unzipped her jeans low enough to reveal her scar. Even Rune looked surprised.
“Can you tattoo this?” Hannah asked. “Real, not hennaed.”
The man crouched. “May I?” he asked and gently prodded the scar. The coolness of his fingertips raised goose bumps on her belly. He stood.
“It’ll hurt a lot,” he said as she zipped up. “I’d have to go extra deep. Scar tissue doesn’t take ink that well. And it fades pretty fast. You’d need lots of touch-ups.”
She must have winced because Rune said, “Start somewhere easier, maybe. See if it’s worth the effort.”
The man pointed at the couch. “Think about it while I do her hennas. Let’s take a look.” He examined Rune’s arms. “Nice, clean work. Easy to trace. Jusneet over at Cambridge Body Art, right?”
“I had them done in Africa,” she said.
“Huh. Looks just like Jusneet’s stuff.” He went to set up.
Rune sat next to Hannah and flipped through a tattoo design catalog. She looked absorbed, but Hannah knew with sudden force: She was lying. Now was the time to confront her. You don’t need to steal from Clive, she could say. I know you care about me.
Rune pointed to a Chinese symbol in the catalog. “Naked,” the caption said it meant. “How about this?”
She shifted closer. Her narrow shoulder felt fragile against Hannah’s. People lied all the time, to themselves and others, to hide pain, to seem like more than what they were. Hannah was as guilty as anyone. Those tiny nails and fluttering chests would never leave her, no matter what she told herself. But there were other ways to diminish the ache. She wouldn’t say anything to Rune, she realized and felt a slight thrill. Not now or ever.
“Maybe that one,” Hannah said and pointed to a yin-and-yang circle, one-half light, the other dark. Together, they paged through designs.
“Those aren’t for you,” she said the next morning when Clive tried to take a waffle.
“How could I forget?” he said. “Egg whites and low fat toast for me.” He took one anyway, biting it as he walked to the fridge.
He wasn’t going to rile her. She adjusted her shirt to cover the new tattoo on the small of her back. It didn’t hurt, but she kept touching it, hoping to evoke the needle’s exacting intensity, in and out, demanding her attention. Rune got the same one on her left shin. Definitely worth the effort, they had agreed. Already Hannah felt different.
Clive peered in the refrigerator. His stomach strained against his shirt buttons. He kept glancing over.
“What’s that?” he asked when she reached for a glass. He walked over and lifted her shirttail. She went to push him away, but his expression was bemused, playful, like the man she used to know. He brushed his fingers across the tattoo. A chill shot through her.
“You like it?” she asked. God. She sounded like a flirty teenager.
He crouched down, his breath warm on her back. She closed her eyes.
“When did you get it?”
His hair, soft beneath her hand. “Yesterday, on a whim. We found this place—”
“We? As in you and Rune?”
Her eyes flew open. He stood staring at her. Her back still tingled where he’d touched her. She opened her mouth to tell him: Touch me again.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “There’s no time to work or to read the research I slaved over so that we could maybe have a shot at staying together, but there’s more than enough time to pamper some stranger and go off with her to mutilate your body.”
Maybe have a shot at staying together? He’d leave her?
“You said you liked the tattoo,” she said.
“Don’t change the subject.”
“What’s our subject, then, Rune? She’s not a stranger, she’s—”
“She’s a liar, dammit!” He took a step back. “I checked with the registrar,” he said more quietly. “There’s no record of a ‘Rune Zapata’ ever taking a class.”
“Maybe you spelled her name wrong.”
“A grad student of Sid’s came by my office yesterday. Bishop Something. They’re married. She left without a note, nothing, just disappeared. He said she’s pregnant.”
That couldn’t be. She looked the same. But some girls hid their bellies until birth. The constant sleeping, the bounces between lethargy and enthusiasm. They could be signs. Who knew what was true with this girl? Her breath caught; she heard herself gasp. The satisfaction on Clive’s face made her want to hit him.
“If it’s true,” she said, “she needs support. She needs me.”
“She needs to use you.”
“You’ve been awful since she moved in.”
“I’m sorry if I can’t settle for bringing home strays.”
The bowl slipped—or did she throw it?—and shattered at his feet. They stared at the mess. She couldn’t get herself to move. Finally, he stepped over the shards and walked to the door.
“What about what I want?” he said, so quietly that the effort to hear him felt like it would split her.
After he was gone, she cleaned up and walked to the staircase. Upstairs, the shower was running. She had imagined herself posed this way, one hand on the banister, her head cocked, listening before she called, “Candace”—or Portia or Rowena or Kate—“time for school!” She stood there, listening.
During the last pregnancy they had picked out cribs. Clive held the catalogue over her head while she lay in bed. They kept the doors open so they could call to each other while he worked on the room. When he was done, he lay beside her, his hair and arms speckled with paint, and showed her pictures. The bright ochre walls, the cribs end-to-end, matching rockers framing the window. Beneath the crown molding, a decorative border of cows leaping over moons, Clive’s surprise to her. He had been so eager. Careers came and went, books were written anytime or not at all. A family endured. It hadn’t occurred to her that her body would fail them. She had never let herself imagine what it would be like, the daily, crushing weight of knowing that her own deliberate choices—to wait until her next book was published, until she got tenure, until she lectured at one more conference, rather than make the time, take the risk, reprioritize—had led her to this place.
The extra key to Rune’s room required jiggling before it worked. Down the hall the shower was still running, but it would stop soon. She walked inside, climbed on the wingchair to check the closet shelf. Empty. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for. Not just Clive’s things. Something to prove him wrong about Rune.
She stepped off the chair and hurried to the dresser. Jumbled clothes in all three drawers. Crumbled behind the bottom drawer was a tank top with “Naughty” printed across the chest. Bank robbers. Notes slipped to tellers, guns in purses. It didn’t mean anything for Rune to have this shirt. Lots of girls did, at least three in her intro family law class the last semester she taught. And it wasn’t necessarily hidden. It could have gotten stuck by mistake. But what if?
Sneezing from dust, she felt around the box springs cover and found a hole. Clive’s swim goggles were there, and his reading glasses. Farther back, two manila envelopes. One was filled with cash, tens and twenties secured with thick rubber bands. Tips. This was tip money. But so much of it, and such big bills. The other envelope was sealed, its contents stiff, squarish. Passports, maybe, fake ID’s. Or pictures of Rune and a man, the two of them hamming it up, brandishing pistols maybe, or simply smiling and cradling her belly with their clasped hands.
“What are you doing in here?”
Hannah shoved the envelopes under the bed. Behind her, Rune stood in the doorway wrapped in a towel, her bare arms tensed. Hannah tried to imagine her wearing the “Naughty” shirt. News reports hadn’t mentioned tattoos. Still, she could have gotten them afterward, cut and dyed her hair. Appearances were so easily altered.
“We should talk,” Hannah said, still crouched awkwardly by the bed.
Rune grabbed some clothes from an open drawer. “Would you mind?”
Hannah nodded, mute, and left to wait in the foyer.
When Rune came down, she was dressed, her bulging backpack slung over her shoulder. What was inside? Stolen clothes and jewelry? Hannah stepped between her and the front door. “Do you want to tell me something?”
“You should have something to say to me. Like an apology.” Rune unzipped her backpack and pulled out a jeans jacket, which she slipped on despite the heat outside. The backpack looked deflated, unincriminating.
“You could have told me the truth about Bishop,” Hannah blurted. “I would have understood. And I don’t care that you took Clive’s things—”
There was something in Rune’s face, embarrassment or regret. Too fleeting to be sure. Then Rune snorted. “You break into my room and call me a criminal.” She pulled out a scrap of paper, scribbled on it. “That’s my P.O. box. Mail me my deposit. I’ll get my stuff later.” At the door she paused. “I thought we were friends.”
Hannah ran outside after her.
“What about the baby?” she called.
Rune spun around. “I can’t help it if you can’t have a baby.”
Hannah stood gasping as Rune sped away on the scooter. Then she watched the empty street until her breath calmed. She could follow Rune, find out where she went, what she really did with her time. Her midsection throbbed. From the new tattoo, the C-section scar? It didn’t matter. Whether the girl was a student or a bank robber, whether she was pregnant or not—none of that mattered, either. Imagining her possible incarnations wouldn’t bring her back. But Clive. She found herself wondering where he was. When he was coming home.
She walked down the porch steps, across the lawn. The tattoo parlor was a ways, but not too far to walk. She reached the sidewalk, let herself touch the ridge on her abdomen. The needle in and out, deeper and deeper, helping the grief settle in and find its place. Afterward, she would walk back home and lie on the bed to wait for him. They existed, she would tell him. They did. He might have been a soccer player or a chemist, she a sculptor or novelist, something creative and volatile. The needle, its precision. She would coax him to stretch out beside her and she would take his hand and trace his fingers across the design. The boy, she would say. The girl. Touch me. Cyclist. Journalist. Concert pianist. Touch. Her feet stepped forward, tapping out the possibilities. She would round a corner soon, and the tattoo parlor would be there, waiting for her.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I am a true crime junkie. There’s something soothing about true crime shows and their presumption that a semblance of justice will be served even for the most baffling crimes. My addiction intensifies when I’ve got something substantial worrying me. I find myself wallowing in TV shows involving actual criminal events, the bloodier the better.
“Bandit” evolved out of one such phase, during the summer that I was trying to get pregnant. I was in my mid-thirties and had recently gotten married and switched professions from financially-secure-but-miserable entertainment lawyer to pennies-in-the-bank-but-infinitely-happier fiction writer. Having kids was the next logical step. The problem was I wasn’t sure that I could get pregnant, or that I wanted to. Would I be a good parent? Would we be able to afford a child? And if I didn’t get pregnant, what next? Would I move blithely on to something else? Or would being a parent mean so much to me that I would pursue someone to mother at the expense of everything else in my life?
The more these fears obsessed me, the more true crime TV I watched. Then one day I saw a report about the Naughty Girl Bandit, a young woman wearing a “naughty” t-shirt who waltzed, undisguised, into banks and robbed them by showing the gun in her purse. I found myself wondering: who raised that girl? What was she like? What led her to believe she could so blatantly commit a crime and not get caught? Could someone with a steady, kind hand and no one else to love change her ways? “Bandit” spun itself out from there.
ABOUT COLETTE SARTOR
Colette Sartor’s award-winning work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including FiveChapters, Kenyon Review Online, the Chicago Tribune, Prairie Schooner, Harvard Review, Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, and Short Stories from Printers Row. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and very large German Shepherd. Visit her at www.colettesartor.com.