The next morning, I awake with a start. I impulsively call out to my mother before remembering that she had returned home the night before after delivering the edict that I was to call her if anything untoward happens. I had retorted that everything in my life these days was untoward so I would be calling her continuously. This morning, I awake with my heart pounding. I had another one of those nightmares where I can’t remember anything that happened, but I can still feel the aftermath. I stumble out of bed to get ready for work, feeling less enthusiastic about it than usual. I start thinking about changing my job. I’m almost thirty and have been a receptionist at one place or another since I graduated from college. Now, it’s fine to be a receptionist at my age if in your spare time, you’re a struggling writer or painter or musician, but not if you’re just a lazy ass who has no direction in life.
I used to derive some satisfaction for a job well done, but no longer. Each day is excruciatingly long, and my coworkers are really getting on my nerves. I see the director of the agency sit on his fat ass all day long, doing nothing more important that decide where to go for lunch. My immediate boss works hard, but she only puts in five to six hours a day. Of course, Alicia, the wonder counselor strolls into work late and is among the first to leave. It bothers me that I’m the hardest working person in the place. I know that nobody is getting paid much money, but supposedly, we’re working for a greater cause. Some of the counselors and teachers have been there for years doing the same thing year after year, sliding by. In some ways, it’s a cushy job without much pressure to improve on performance. There are no concrete objectives other than to graduate kids out of the program, which is subjectively decided, anyway. If it weren’t for the kids, I’d find the job intolerable.
I sigh. The idea of scouring the classifieds or surfing mega-job sites depresses me. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t quit my job—inertia. As frustrating as my current position is, it’s the poison I know. There’s no guarantee that a new job will be free of the corrosive office politics found at my current place of employment. Most days, this argument is enough to keep me, not happy, but complacent. I trudge to work, hunkered inside my coat. I hate San Francisco weather, though the Mission is better than the rest of the truly windy city. Other people scurry by, grim looks on their faces. San Francisco is more laid-back than NYC, but it’s slowly growing more uptight. Another reason I like the Mission—it still retains some residual funk. One such funkster holds his hand out to me, boldly staring in my eyes.
“You are truly a vision of beauty,” he beams, his dark brown eyes glowing. His frame is gaunt with his walnut-colored skin stretched tightly over his bones, as if he hasn’t eaten in days. I have a bagel in one hand, a cup of untouched coffee in the other. I thrust both at him, and he doffs his hat at me before accepting. “God will show mercy on your soul, beautiful lady,” he laughs, taking a bite out of the onion bagel smeared with cream cheese. He closes his eyes in delight as he washes down the bite with a sip of coffee. I hurry away, not wanting to be the target of his fulsome praise. I make it to work with a minute to spare.
“Did you read this?” Quinn asks, tossing the Chronicle on my desk. She hasn’t darkened my foyer since her futile attempt to procure me as a present for her ‘roommate’ but appears determined to make up for lost time. I glance at the front page, disconcerted to see Mariah’s face splashed across it.
“Second-generation Death,” the headline runs. I frown. They really need better headlines to grab people’s attention. Although, the picture of a dead Mariah clutching a rosary is more than enough to turn my stomach. I skim the beginning of the article which seems to be asking the question if death can run in a family, much like blue eyes or fat stomachs. I wrinkle my nose in disgust. There’s nothing new in the article, and it’s clear they are just capitalizing on the tragedy. I’m about to toss the paper back at Quinn when something else catches my eye—a sidebar interviewing Carol. She offers her condolences but takes pains to add that she thinks the latest death indicates there is absolutely no connection between the therapy group and the murders. She goes on in this vein for some time before sliding in the obligatory mention of her book. My mouth tightens. I can’t believe she’s done it again.
“It’s that maid’s daughter,” Quinn explains, her eyes round. I snap back to the present, pushing Carol’s comments to the back of my mind. I make a note to myself to ask Carol about the article at the next meeting and not to let her off the hook. Then I let it go. “Remember I told you about my friend who was blackmailed by that maid!” I vaguely remember the story. I wonder if Quinn has any more useful information.
“What else did your friend tell you?” I make my voice friendly, not wanting to piss her off. “About R—the maid, I mean.” I correct myself quickly as there’s no reason to introduce Rosie’s name into the conversation.
“Not much,” Quinn shrugs, fiddling with the papers on my desk. I hastily remove them from her reach. The last time she rifled through my papers, I couldn’t find anything after she had left. “Oh, Jessica did say that Rosie used to drop hints about other people. Like, that dead girl’s mother having an affair.”
“Mother? I thought it was father?” The words slip out of me before I can stop them.
“Oh, he was, too, which was what spurred the mother to have an affair. But really, what else is she supposed to do when she didn’t have a job?” Quinn giggles, covering her mouth with her hand.
“How long did the maid work for the Stevensons?” It occurs to me that there has been little focus on Ashley’s death other than the initial report. At first, I think it’s because of Rosie’s following hers in rapid succession, but that doesn’t wash. I wonder if Mr. Stevenson had a hand in downplaying his daughter’s murder and if so, why.
“I asked Jessica that, too. She said at least as long as she worked for her—a year.” For a minute, I have nothing to say. Mrs. Stevenson was having an affair, too. I want to know more.
“Do you know how long the mother’s affair was going on?”
“Jessica says it ended well before she got cancer. It was more of a fling than an affair.” I wonder what’s the difference. A matter of time? The intensity of the feelings? This is the first I’ve heard of Ashley’s mother having an affair, and I try to fit it into the puzzle. It occurs to me that maybe Mrs. Stevenson was unduly rushed to meet her maker, perhaps by her husband. If Ashley discovered the truth, would she have confronted her father? If so, what would he have done? I frown. There are too many suppositions in my thinking. I try to remember what Ashley said the only night I knew her—which is rapidly fading from my mind.
She said something about guys being roped into paying for abortions. She also became incredibly upset when Astarte made a fairly-innocuous comment about her—
Ashley’s—father. Then there was the letter she had seen from her father’s lover threatening to expose him if he didn’t pay her money for an abortion and for ‘emotional damages’. What if her mother had gotten pregnant by her lover and somehow Ashley found out about it? I shake my head impatiently. I can buy one pregnancy in the picture, but not two. I certainly don’t buy more than one abortion. It’s just entirely too coincidental for me to swallow. I sigh. It seems like the more information I dig up, the less I know. I need to sit down and make lists of everything I know. It’ll be tedious—the kind of work I like least—but it’s unavoidable.
“Jessica refuses to have another maid since she fired the dead one,” Quinn informs me. She is overflowing with information, but I wonder if it would be better to go directly to the source. Then again, I don’t want Quinn to know what I’m up to, so I decide to pump her as much as I can before she becomes suspicious. “She says it’s too much trouble, especially for a house like hers.” She makes a face. “I would give anything to have a house like hers!” She leans forward. “I’ll tell you something else.” She looks around her to make sure that no one is listening. I want to tell her to knock off the James Bond act, but I can’t afford to alienate her.
“What?” I ask when it becomes clear that she’s waiting for a prompt before revealing this juicy nugget.
“She stole things!” Quinn says dramatically, gauging my face for effect.
“The maid?” My eyebrow lifts. She frowns; I haven’t reacted as she anticipated. “What did she steal?”
“Jessica’s husband’s gold cufflinks for one,” Quinn retorts, pushing her lower lip out in a pout. “One day, he needed them for some black-tie affair, and he couldn’t find them. They had a big fight about it because he thought Jessica had lost them!” Quinn smiles, relishing her tale. For all her political correct viewpoints, she sure loves to gossip. I wonder what her strident dyke friends would think if they saw her now?
“Are they sure it was the maid?” I ask, glancing at my computer. Outlook is up and running, and I have ten emails clamoring for my attention.
“Who else could it be?” Quinn asks blithely, not catching my increasingly pointed stares at my monitor. “Jessica is positive she never touched them, and Scott swears he put them in the same place he always keeps them.” It doesn’t sound like an open-and-shut case to me, but what do I know? I’ve never had a maid in my life. “That’s another reason they let her go. The snooping is the main reason, though.” Quinn glances at her watch before sprinting for the stairs. “Gotta go.” I don’t bother replying as I turn to my emails. There are three from my sister, all within a half hour window this morning. Each is increasingly anxious in tone until by the third, she is having a panic attack.
Oh, Rayne! It’s a disaster! Wallace simply refuses to pitch in, saying it’s ‘women’s work.’ He can be so infuriating! Doesn’t he know how important it is to pick our colors early so we can plan everything around them? We are definitely sticking with mauve, but I’m not sure about the second color. Ivory is nice, but so common. Cream is slightly better, but not much. I like silver, but Wallace says it’s tacky. Perhaps white? What are your thoughts on this?
You’re lucky that you’re not likely to marry, and if you do, it’ll probably be some thrown-together affair on the beach at sunset or something. Planning my wedding is the hardest thing I’ve ever done! Anyway, I want to know about your dress, etc., etc. Please email me when you have a minute.
I am flabbergasted. Libby never displays her temper unless it’s directed at me. She’s never ruffled, and seldom flappable. It’s heartening to see the human side of my sister, even if it’s at the expense of her peace of mind about her wedding. I wonder about Wallace and what kind of guy he is. Most likely, a typical Wall Street guy—squash three times a week with the VIPs at his corporation. He’s probably an up-and-comer, expected to make partner by thirty. He puts in insane hours at the job, leaving little time for anything else. He fits Libby in for sex three times a week, missionary position. I stop. I don’t even know if Libby has ever had sex, let alone if she’s boning Wallace. Wallace Sutton. Libby Sutton, if she takes his last name. I wonder if this email is an indication of cracks in their relationship, or if it just reflects the strain of trying to coordinate a wedding.
I hesitate while I decide how to answer her missive. I start with a few blandishments about compromise and trying to understand the other person’s point of view. Knowing Libby, she’s peppering Wallace constantly with minutiae from the planning. He’s probably reached his limit on tolerance for inane girly conversation. I can see Libby saying to him, ‘Should we have silk napkins? Cloth? Paper? Do we want chocolate cake with vanilla frosting, vanilla cake with chocolate frosting, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, or vanilla cake with vanilla frosting? Do you really think we should invite your Uncle Shem with his little alcohol problem? I think this is a nice pattern for the invitations. What about this one?’
When my sister decides to do something, she throws herself wholeheartedly into the project. Some admire her and call her ‘focused’; I look askance at her and call her ‘obsessed’. It’s one of her weaknesses as well as her strength —the thoroughness with which she completes something. No stone is left unturned which means the job is done well, but there are usually casualties along the way. Three days after the twin towers came down, Libby was back to her no-nonsense self, even though she had many friends who perished in the tragedy. To this day, she refuses to talk about them—or the day. I actually feel sorry for poor Wallace; he obviously doesn’t know what he’s let himself in for. If he had any sense, he’d run as hard as he could away from the whole nonsense or have an affair with a barfly just to put some distance between himself and the wedding.
I say none of this in my email to Libby as it would only agitate her more. I want to be as supportive as I can without going overboard. If she senses my pity, she’ll turn haughty. I want to keep the waters smooth before the wedding, so I’m careful not to include anything that will upset her. I let her know that my dress has been delayed again, which isn’t actually true. Nordstrom’s delivered it days ago—I just haven’t bothered to try it on. I have yet to buy any accessories or to think about what to do with my face and hair. I have already resigned myself to the idea of makeup, but I’ll be damned if I pay a hundred dollars to have someone spray the hell out of my hair. I don’t want to be a walking advertisement for a depleted ozone layer. On this, I stand firm. I also won’t wear high heels for the wedding. I have to reiterate this to Libby in every email so she can’t later claim I never told her. I want things as excruciatingly clear as possible in order to CMA.
By the time I’m wrapping up my email to Libby, I’m feeling pretty good about it. We’ve made progress the last month in our relationship. We can actually email each other without resorting to threats. I’ve even talked to her on the phone without one of us hanging up on the other. This may not seem like much, but it’s baby steps. I fire off the email, optimistic that we can continue to communicate like adults. After all, she actually shared her feelings with me and asked for my advice. I can’t remember the last time she wanted to know my opinion about something. Even though I am older than she, I often feel like the younger sibling in terms of measuring the accomplishments of our respective lives. When I heard about her engagement, I’m ashamed to admit that the first thought in my head was, ‘She fucking beat me again.’ She’s been the star in the family for so long, I’ve accepted it’s her due place in life. To know that she’s human is reassuring. I devoutly hope this isn’t the last time we actually talk.
The next email is from Vashti. I hesitate, but open it. Much of my anger at her has dissipated, leaving only a lingering pain in my gut. It hurts more than the worst menstrual cramps I’ve ever had. She says she misses me and can’t stop thinking about me. She rambles on, touching on this subject and that. That’s her email style in general, one I find endearing. She talks about her hatred of Bush, her unhappiness with her job, the date she had last weekend. The last causes me to raise my eyebrow, but I let it go. I don’t know if she’s baiting me, but I don’t need to hear about her love life. She goes on to mention that she had known the little girl who had recently been killed as the girl was one of the girls she mentored for free when she had time. It was one of the services her agency offered. That stops me. If Mariah needed mentoring, why wouldn’t her aunt find it for her at A Ray of Hope? I shrug and finish reading the email. It’s clear that Vashti is shocked to hear that a child she knew was killed in such a heinous manner.
My fingers are poised over the keyboard, but I can’t force myself to type. I know I have to respond to Vashti’s email, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to write anything. When I think of her, so many emotions surge through me, I have difficulty concentrating on any one. I also have the dilemma of what kind of email to send because I’m not just trying to be sociable. She knew Mariah, and I need any scrap of information Vashti can give me. Yet, I’m worried that if I email her, I will raise her hopes falsely that I’m coming around. In the end, duty triumphs over uncertainty, and I email her back requesting information about Mariah. I tell her I can’t reveal why I want to know, but that she should trust me. It’s a subtle reminder to her of the time she didn’t trust me, and it almost cost me my life. Not very nice, I know, but necessary.