I arrive home late, want to tell Stan about the calls, but he’s in his office with the door closed. This means he’s either writing or grading essays. Whatever he’s doing, he won’t appreciate being interrupted. I yank the refrigerator open too energetically. The door bangs against the cupboard, loudly announces my presence.
I sit at the butcher block counter, eyes assessing clean white tile and warm pine. This is a kitchen made for a woman who loves cooking. Acres of counter space, an infinity of drawers, all wasted on me. Plum tomatoes for sauce, I decide, dice fleshy fruit. They bleed off the cutting board into the waiting pan. Cooking as aggression. The knife strikes against wood dully, over and over, reduces garlic to fine splinters.
An arm wraps around my waist. I gasp, push the arm away before I realize it’s Stan. “You’re pretty jumpy,” he mutters, mildly offended,”Rough day?”
I tell him about the calls, first here, then at work. How I am learning to dread the telephone’s shrill summons. He thinks I’m unreasonably concerned, as usual. “It’s probably nothing, Jane. And there’s not much we can do about it.”
“Sure there is. It’s harassment. I get at least three calls a
“I guess you could report it to the telephone company,” he recommends.
He always suggests the simplest alternatives, as if he’s certain I don’t have the intelligence or practicality to think of them myself.
“Really?” I ask, my voice saccharine.
“And what do you think they’d tell me? That there’s nothing they can do about it, that I haven’t been threatened.”
Despite the air conditioning, a pearl of sweat travels the course of my spine. I will have to handle this myself. Stan is a Pilate washing his hands of any unpleasantness as he changes the subject to his day, the clever things a student said in class. I throw angel hair pasta into boiling water, stir to separate, don’t respond.
“Hey, are you all right?”
He wants me to think about him. In his clumsy way he’s offering me solace, the safety of his daily routine. My stomach rolls into a ball,forces acids to the back of my throat. I am disintergrating for no reason in particular. “No, I am not all right,” I say, my voice squeezing past the soreness in my throat.
I hand him the spoon I’ve been stirring with. “You finish, I’m not really hungry,” I say, retreat to the bathroom.
Tampa water is well water, stagnant and tainted with sulphur. Still, it is hot and massages tension from the base of my neck.
I wrap myself in thick cotton, skin pink from steam. The comb catches my hair in its’ teeth, yanks hungrily. I welcome even this small discomfort; my mind mercifully silent. I take advantage of this borrowed calm, sink into sleep without effort for the first time in days.
In my dream there are eyes watching always and an even easy breathing. A denser shadow emerges from shadows. I am dreaming voice and form I cannot escape. My dream is some child’s nightmare, arms too heavy to defend, legs sunk into earth greedy as quicksand.
Pale light sifts between eyelids rough as sandpaper, forces them open. I am awake too early. Uneasy sleep clings to the inside of my head, insistent as cobwebs too high on a ceiling to brush away. I work my way delicately beneath Stan’s arm relaxed across my waist, slip from the bed slowly so I won’t disturb him, close the bedroom door. Ii I wake Stan too early he’ll grumble about it all day.
The cat coils herself around my legs, purring, hungry. I bury my nose in warm orange marmalade fur. She leaps heavy-bellied from my arms to the counter, head-butts the bag of food I’ve just taken from the counter. Her honey-colored eyes are still sleep clouded but, like any creature of habit, she must eat precisely three minutes after I wake up.
I start coffee, am escorted to the front door by the cat, who wants to roll in the morning paper as much as I want to read it. I open the front door, find my own roses cut in a wilting bouquet, a note pinned tothem that says only “for you” in heavy, thick scrawled ink.
I wake Stan, tell him not to touch the bouquet. All my roses, even buds half-open, are cut and fading on my front step. Stan rubs hiseyes,inquires sleepily, “Are you going to call the police?”
“Yes. I’m sure it’s the same guy, whoever he is.”
I don’t tell him I’m sure the call is pointless. This man has done nothing except breathe on the telephone and mow my roses. Although these actions are unsettling, as of yet they carry no threat of violence. The police will resent my squandering their time. I decide to waste it anyway.
An hour later, Stan and I and two uniformed men sit around the kitchen table, an unlikely breakfast group. One of the cops, the older one with tired eyes, finishes his cup of coffee as I end my story. He sighs. “Care to guess who this guy is?”
He’s the stereotypical good old boy who wants nothing more than to tell me that I’m a good looking `girl’ and should be flattered by the attention. He knows the rules have changed, though, and alters his language to fit the times. His face strains with the effort.
“I have no idea at all. It started about two months ago, the breathing on the phone or hang-ups when Stan answered,” I say, repeating myself.
“Are you sure? No old boyfriends, no guys spending a lot of time at your shop?”
“If I knew who it was, would I have called you?”
“You should. Unless you think this man would stop bothering you if you asked him nicely,” the younger cop interjects.
I play the scenario in my mind– “Hello, my name is Jane Ross and John Doe is stalking me.”
“Thanks, Miss, we’ll tell that bad boy to stop.”
I had a mostly sleepless night and am becoming impatient. The younger cop gives me a sympathetic smile and his card. “Well, Mrs. Ross, there’s nothing we can do right now, but please call me if anything else develops.”
What a lovely way to suggest that I should be bleeding on the floor, or at least bruised, before calling them next time. Very few people bleed on floors in Clearwater–our police are sleek, well fed meter maids.
“That’s Ms. Ross. My husband’s last name is Keller.”
The older cop rolls his eyes. I remember an older uncle telling me there was no such thing as a Ms. When I asked him what the word meant.
I push myself hard this morning, pedal ten miles at full speed,instead of my usual five. Bicycle trails thread most of Pinellas County. In the hours before heat builds to oppressive levels these trails are full of older men and women walking off breakfast, and the occasional younger person roller-blading, running, or cycling to the peak of physical fitness. Already the air is heavy with moisture,clings to my skin like damp gray wool.
We all want rain. Despite constant humidity, it hasn’t rained in weeks and the grass along the trail, unless nourished by well water, is dry fodder for fires. Home again, I call the Hand Store, tell Stephanie that I won’t be in today, don’t explain. David Ryhs calls around noon, asks if I want to go to lunch. Tired of waiting for more breath on the telephone, I accept. We meet at a Greek restaurant in Tarpon Springs, sit at another small, teetering table. When I set my hand down, the table shifts, sloshes water over the edge of our glasses. “Jane,” he begins, “You seem upset. Want to talk about it?”
I tell him about the calls and this morning’s roses. He seems concerned, more so than Stan or the police. “Please be careful,” he warns, “My sister had a similar experience, although the man involved was her ex-husband.”
“What do you mean by similar?”
Did he cut the flowers in her garden down? Did he call at least five times daily? If our experiences are similar, it is because we are both women who are hunted: easy prey.
“Well, she was stalked. Unless you think your secret admirer is harmless, your situation parallels hers, with one disadvantage: you don’t know who’s doing it.”
Stalked. Hunted. I don’t like the words. I shift in my chair, spill more water.
“What did she do about it?”
The flesh under his skin hardens to granite. I have never seen a man’s face so perfectly express a range of feeling before. “She got a restraining order against him. He continued to violate it, the police refused to do anything, and she ended up raped and with a broken jaw before it was over.”
I don’t want to talk about this any more. I am intact physically,free of bruises and broken bones. “Do you think I’m over-reacting? After all, he hasn’t threatened or approached me directly.”
He almost touches my hand, stops himself. We have not known each other long enough to permit touch. “Please, Jane, take this seriously,” he implores, eyes sincere, “this is no adolescent admirer.”
“Maybe the police aren’t taking this seriously, but you should. Please be very careful.”
His voice is warm oil flowing smooth over frayed nerve endings. I don’t feel like a hysterical female jumping to conclusions with this man. “Thank you. For listening, not to mention taking me seriously.”
He smiles, stands. “I have a class to teach. I’ll tell Stan I saw you this afternoon and that you’re all right.”
Underneath his words is the assurance that he and I are friends, that his interest in me does not span the sexual, that I am safe with him.
“You do that,” I smile as well, the first time today.
His hand is warm and strong in mine.
Katya calls me later in the afternoon. “Your friend called today,”her voice teasing.
“The one who can’t talk, who just breathes.”
“Great. He left roses for me this morning.”
Again I pencil in the details of my morning. I am tired of the story already, don’t want to talk. I am sick of concerned faces,cautious voices asking how I am as if I’ll shatter into ten thousand fragments at any moment. Katya clears her throat. She’s ashamed for teasing me now. The tone of her responses shifts from lighthearted to brittle. “Of course the police can do something. They could watch the house, the store!”
I agree with her, become sarcastic. “Well, I’m not battered or dead yet. Police are only helpful after the fact.”
She wants to keep me company until Stan comes home. I thank her,don’t feel like company, even hers. “Don’t worry about me. I’m driving to St. Pete’s to sit by the marina and maybe visit the Dali museum.”
She knows I do this only when life constricts around me like some jungle snake. That beautifully smooth water rocking boats with its slight shifting, the paintings with light falling through them, as if they are stained glass and not canvas, provide a balance and serenity I take into myself like fresh air. “Please be careful,” she begs.
She is the second person to ask that of me today. I don’t want to disappoint her. “Sure. Thanks for your concern. Normally I would welcome your company but I’m sick to death of talking about this wierdo.”
The Dali museum works its magic– I emerge two hours later dazed, as if from a holy experience. The sky is now a heavy blue that fills my lungs like water. Concentrated sunlight strikes my face, pulls sweat from my pores almost instantly. I decide to skip sitting by the water to watch the boats, return to my car. Underneath the left windshield wiper a florist’s red rose darkens to the color of old blood in midafternoon heat. No note this time; his message is clear. My back tenses under the weight of a stare, eyes assessing from a calculated distance. I spin on my heel to catch who’s watching, see only the back of a tall man walking fast out of my vision.
What kind of man uses roses and love letters to inspire fear?
Before I left this morning I had the telephone number changed, one small evasion and pathetically ineffective. I am a china doll waiting to be taken off some shelf and used in any way this faceless man sees fit. My dream again, the inability to use arms or legs to run or defend. In this man’s eyes I am powerless and easily broken.
What kind of man makes a woman an animal to be hunted?
When I ask Stan this question, he says sex has a predatory edge, spotting the prey and luring it forward.
“So you’re telling me,” I begin, “that this guy’s trying to seduce me?”
“In his own very sick way.”
“Well, his method sucks. I think this has nothing to do with sex. He’s using the traditional tools of passion to terrify. I wish he was a garden-variety rapist, knocking me down in some alley. At least then I’d have an opportunity to defend myself, maybe kick him in the balls once or twice.”
We are on the patio again; no outdoor love scene this time. I am curled in the chaise, arms around knees, making myself small as possible. Stan patrols the screened perimeter, a doberman waiting for flesh to sink fangs into. We are both angry. I called the police again, told them about the flower on my car. The young cop whose name I can’t remember was politely interested.
Tonight we sleep at opposite poles of our mattress because I can’t stand the weight of Stan’s touch, brush it away from my skin after our lovemaking like something unpleasant. He understands my aversion but is still hurt by it. His turned back accuses me silently. I dream I am a small brown animal, crouching beneath the shadow of some bird of prey.
In sleep I forgot boundaries. I wake coiled around Stan tight as vines wrap the live oak in front of my house. His breath fans my cheek gently, evenly. Safe in this nest of flowered cotton and arms, I don’t want to open my eyes, begin a day that will bring no pleasure, only more slowly-growing fear and vague anxiety.
At breakfast, coffee bitter as ash and a cigarette rasping my
throat, I notice Stan’s silence, his gray eyes lusterless stones in hollowed sockets.
“I’ve been so concerned with my own problems lately that I haven’t even asked you how you feel about all this,” I say, cover his hands with my own.
“I’m angry because I feel useless. All I can do is watch this creature reduce you to a twitching stick of a woman.”
My husband is actually communicating with me. For the first time in years he’s sharing more than routine information about his day, the cat’s latest bad habits, or newspaper articles. “You’re not useless at all. You talk to me, you’re as angry as I am, and you care about what happens to me.”
He shrugs uncomfortably, shakes the paper open. “But I can’t stop him. Do you think he’s done this before?”
“What? Annoyed a woman, made her uncomfortable? He hasn’t really done anything to me yet.”
“That’s what the police think. What they don’t care about is that this man knows where you live and work, and had the gall to follow you to St. Petersburg yesterday afternoon. What will happen if he follows you someplace less public?”
I decide to ease his anxiety a little bit. “Kayta’s going to join me on the bicycle path for the next few weeks, so you can relax.”
“Thanks. I’ve never liked the idea of you riding alone in the middle of nowhere.”
Never mind that I am flanked by an army of senior citizens, that I have to be careful to avoid hitting them. I distract easily and don’t always pay attention to what’s happening directly in front of me. I relish that hour or two of silence in clean air. Katya had to bully me into accepting her presence, promised not to talk or otherwise distract before I agreed. Stan leaves for work, relieved. I prepare for a morning that offers a solitude that is no longer comforting.
Ten hours later I am leaving the Hand Store, ten hours free of calls, flowers, and letters. Ybor City in the early evening is almost empty– no tourists and the young uberchic haven’t woken up yet. I walk Katya to her car, who has complained all day of aching muscles.
Despite her strength and absence of excess weight, Katya is an essentially lazy woman, has never expended energy unless it promises pleasure. She squeezes my shoulders. “Take good care of yourself and call if you need me,” she mumbles, half-ashamed of herself for having nothing more to say, like a casual acquaintance crashing a funeral.
“Katya, I love you. But please don’t coddle me–you’ll just make me angry.”
She sighs, lifts her face to taste the fine drizzle that’s spotting her glasses. “That’s the last thing I want to do. But would you like it if I didn’t care, changed the subject as soon as you brought it up?”
“Of course not. Be concerned but don’t baby me, that’s all I’m asking. I need you to make me laugh,” my voice catches, “I haven’t done that all day, practically all week.”
“Okay, okay. Just go home and rest. Call me if you feel like it,”
Katya is deliberately casual now, closes her car door and sweet-talks the starter into ignition.
I walk to my car, head full of plans for the fine light clay I found early this week and haven’t touched. Today I am relaxed enough to approach my wheel before dinner, can’t wait to feel that clay’s smoothness spinning under my palms.
There is a plain envelope on the driver’s seat of my rental. Before I open it my mouth is dry and tastes of metal, as if I know what’s inside. Block letters made by some old typewriter cover the unlined index card. No overstrikes, so he’s precise in his typing but not his grammar–one endless chain of words–words my mind won’t process.
I drop the card off at the station. Neither one of my cops are there, but I could care less. I can imagine the older guy– Bill McSomething– rolling his eyes after I leave the room. The desk officer,surprisingly female, is genuinely sympathetic and promises to have it dusted for fingerprints. “Oh. I touched it,” I say, feeling foolish.
“Next time, don’t,” she orders.
Her voice is not unkind, simply businesslike and a bit abrupt. She’s aware of this, softens her tone, remembers I’m not there to post bail or for questioning. “I’ll call Bill and Joe later. This guy sounds serious.”
“Thanks. How d’you think this guy got in my car? I’m the only one with keys.”
“Good question. He either knows how to pick locks or you left the door unlocked. Either way, you’d better be more cautious.”
I thank her again as she turns to place the index card and envelope in a clear plastic bag. “Lady?” she calls after me, “if I were you I’d buy a gun.”
“I hate guns,” I mutter under my breath.