A short story
I met her at a five-dollar-latte café in Park Ridge, Illinois. One of those Chicago suburbs lashed with overhead wires, strip malls, and crisscrossing asphalt arteries. The kind of town whose best feature is serving as a portal to somewhere else.
Stuck in traffic, I fiddled with the radio. Turning my head, I saw an oversized coffee cup hanging from a shop awning. The sign said, Viva Café. Coffee. That’s what I needed, so I pulled my orange and black computer geek car off the main drag, and into the café’s parking lot. Tried, unsuccessfully, to park the car out of sight of the café’s windows to avoid the inevitable wisecracks and jokes.
There was always one.
I’m that guy. The geeky IT tech that people call after the cat spills coffee on their laptop. There is no hiding that. Sometimes, an uptight suburbanite will try to convince me it was the recent power outage that caused their computer to crash, when I can tell the computer was dropped. And then there is the client who blames his favorite video game for locking up the screen, never guessing I can see his porn site history for the last week, and know what really jammed up the works.
Mine is a profession founded upon involuntary voyeurism. There is no way to pry a hard drive from someone’s computer without taking a high dive into their identity. Rummaging around their cyber underwear drawer. After I’m done, I can’t wait to get the fuck out. Jump in my cartoon car, hop back on the interstate, and head for home. Order in Thai, take a shower, and watch a good dystopian thriller. Something that blows the world up. Gives me the false hope that the suburbs of Cook County, my territory, may not be there in the morning.
That is the kind of day it had been the afternoon I walked through the front door of Viva Café. Wafts of espresso greeted me. Strains of Edith Piaf played overhead. On the chipped plaster walls, Bridget Bardo posters hung at cockeyed angles. A tall illuminated replica of the Eiffel Tower flickered in one corner of the room. Against a wall, sat a worn gold and pink brocade sofa. Propped on one of its pillows sat a black stuffed poodle. Behind the counter, a bevy of blonde, pony-tailed baristas pumped out coffee with robotic aloofness. Clad in black and white striped shirts, a la Marcel Marceau, the baristas had me believing I was watching my dystopian thriller from the inside out.
Edging around a crowd of high school girls, I took my place in line behind a slender young woman dressed in a black hooded cape, trimmed in red. She was tall, dark, and sleek. A glistening obsidian sculpture, in a sea of white suburbanites.
As out of place as Paris in Park Ridge.
When the line shifted forward, she turned to me. “So crowded in here. Care to share a table with me?”
My programmed response was to tell her I was in a hurry. But there was something in her toffee-colored eyes that made me reconsider. Say yes.
We took a table at the window. Joked about the pseudo French setting, the chaos of Cook County, and the monotony of the suburbs. She told me her name was Almandine. That she worked as a paralegal for a law firm in Geneva. I told her my name was Alan. That I was an IT guy, from Batavia.
“That yours?” she said, squinting out the window to my car.
“Yep. A mandatory perk, if you want to call it that.”
She smiled. Pointed to my clothes. “And you’re required to wear the white shirt and skinny black tie?”
I straightened my tie. “You don’t like the look?”
“Oh, I like the look.”
I reached for my coffee cup. Hoped I wasn’t blushing.
“So you’re a geek, then.”
“That’s the job description.”
“But it isn’t who you are, is it?”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
She leaned forward, coffee cup in hand. “I think you do. I sense that there is much more to you, Alan, than your little car and your skinny black tie. And I’m not just talking about your smile and that amazing head of hair.”
I cleared my throat. “Really.”
“Yes. I sense curiosity. Intelligence. I know I’m right. You see, I’m a helpless sapiosexual.”
“Yes, I am very much attracted to intelligent men.”
First time ever that a girl has hit on me using the word sapiosexual. I was speechless.
“Am I too forward?” she asked.
She was, but I shook my head no.
“Good. Now tell me more about yourself, leaving out the job description. Don’t overthink it. You can tell your story the way you want to tell it. Isn’t that the best part of meeting someone new?”
So I did. Told her how I was fascinated with the physics behind pyramids, bridges, and skyscrapers. How I wanted to go to Iceland and see the Northern Lights over Reykjavik.
“Iceland. I’ve always wanted to go Iceland,” said Almandine.
“Yes. I’m attracted to its extremes. Fire and ice, light and dark. I want to swim in a hot spring while it’s snowing overhead. I’ve heard you can do that in Iceland.”
I nodded. “You can. And in the summer, the sun doesn’t go down until close to midnight. Imagine swimming under the midnight sun.”
She sighed. Leaned forward and whispered, “Maybe you and I should go together.”
I looked down at my coffee cup.
“Ah, definitely too forward, right?”
“Not necessarily,” I replied. “How about you? What are your passions?”
“For one thing, sand cats.”
“Yes, Alan. They love the desert. The sand. Mew, like domestic cats but also bark. Like Chihuahuas. And they don’t need water to survive. They get all the fluids they need from their prey.”
I smiled. “Okay. What else?”
“I love the poetry of Dora Gabe, the Bulgarian poet. I want to go there and see what she saw when she was writing.” Briefly, a wistful look came over her face. “Do you like poetry, Alan?”
“Not really my thing. I just don’t get poetry.”
“Read Gabe’s, ‘Don’t Come Near Me!”. It’s short, but powerful. I think you’llget what she’s saying.”
“If you say so.”
She smiled. “One day, I’m going to move to Provence. Live on nothing but French cheese, melons, and bread.”
I stared at her, watching her perfect mouth form words. As I continued listening to her, I found myself dreaming about sitting next to her on a beach overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Sipping wine, eating cheese and bread and melons while she read poetry to me. I pictured us swimming naked in an Icelandic geothermal pool.
But it was more than carnal desire I was feeling for this fascinating woman. I wanted to see the world the way she did, in all its diverse and simple splendor. And I wanted to experience that splendor with her.
Was it possible, after just one hour, that I was falling in love with Almandine?
Before going our separate ways, we agreed to meet the following week, along the Fox River in Kane County. She said she liked to walk, so we made plans to begin — or rather continue — our love affair at forest preserves and walking trails.
Walking with Almandine was a massive boost to my ego. Whenever we passed someone on our walks, they stared at me in admiration, or so I believed. What they were probably wondering was why this gorgeous creature was holding my hand, hanging on to my every word. I’m not bad looking, mind you. A little skinny, a little pale. A bit like a young Jeremy Irons, I’ve been told. But maybe that’s just because of my hair. I have lots of it. Women like a guy with lots of hair. Women usually like mine.
But never a woman as beautiful as Almandine.
Consummating our relationship was a bit tricky. I couldn’t bring myself to take her back to my place. At the time, I lived with a roommate who was a slob and video game junky. She laughed when I told her that and said her place was off limits, too.
“I’m in transition. Moving. Boxes everywhere.”
So our lovemaking took place in cars and hotels. A few times, in a secluded cornfield. Once, in a dimly lit library.
Two months after we met, Almandine and I took what would be our last walk. It was in winter, along the river in St. Charles. The edges of the river had frozen. She loved walking on it.
“Listen to that, Alan. The sound the ice makes when I step on it. Isn’t it thrilling? It makes me feel like I’m walking on a floor made of crystal. So fragile. So vulnerable.”
“And dangerous,” I added. “Please get back. I’m not a very good swimmer.”
She laughed. “Oh, Alan. No need to fret. I have no intention of drowning today.”
That was the most incongruous aspect of Almandine’s personality; the way she spoke. Like a tiresome English teacher, her speech was always proper, sometimes bordering on haughty. Nothing about it fit with her appearance. When we made love, though, she was a different creature. Ravenous. Slightly unhinged. At times, I felt as though she might devour me. It was her shift between propriety and passion that kept me utterly fascinated.
I’ll never forget that final walk. Snow started to fall as we made our way back. It looked like icing against her dark skin. Suddenly, I wanted her. So I pulled out my phone. Called the Hotel Baker and booked a room.
When we arrived, I wanted to rush her upstairs, lick the snow off of her. But Almandine made me wait. Insisted we head to the atrium restaurant first, where we lingered over Manhattans. Gazed out the tall windows and watched twilight settle over the water. She ordered oysters, I ordered grilled lamb chops. I could have eaten more, but she stopped me there. Leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I think it is time for us to retire for the evening.”
Up in our room, Almandine once again dropped the librarian rhetoric as soon as we began making love. She moaned and arched her body with my every touch. Afterwards, she repaid me with lovemaking that left me bone-heavy, bruised, and gasping for air. Rolling onto my back, I stared at the curves of her bare, jet body. Gently, I brushed away strands of her curly black hair from her face. Looked into her caramel-colored eyes.
“Who are you?” I whispered.
“The girl you see before you, silly.”
“No, really. I want to know more about you. Everything about you.”
She shifted. Sat up. “You want explanations.”
I shook my head. “Details. I want to understand you. Where you came from. How you got here. Everything.”
Grabbing the bed sheet, she covered her breasts. “A story of my life, then. That is what you want?”
“Where shall I begin?”
“At the beginning. Tell me about your parents.”
She sighed. Paused. “Well, my mother was half-Cherokee, half-Thai. My father was African-American.”
“Yes. They are deceased.”
“I’m sorry. How did they die?”
Almandine cleared her throat. “I don’t remember it. I was very young. I just know it was quick. A bridge in winter. Ice. No guardrails. The car skidded and. . . I don’t think they suffered. That’s what the family tells me.”
“Who raised you?’
“My mother’s sister. The raising part is questionable. My aunt resented the responsibility of caring for a child. She never let me forget it.”
“How sad for you.”
She smiled. “Not entirely. My aunt’s husband was very good to me. He was like a child himself. We played card games, hide-n-seek, and tag. He taught me to play the piano. I think I loved him more than she did.”
“Loved? Did he die, too?”
“Oh no. Nothing like that. My aunt divorced him. I think she did it to spite me. It destroyed me when he left. I was getting older and my aunt was making comments. Insinuations, about me and my uncle. It wasn’t true.”
I stroked her face. “That’s terrible. How about brothers and sisters?’
“None. No cousins either. It’s just as well.”
“Why do you say that?”
She tilted her head toward me. “I’m not very good at sharing.”
I kissed her cheek. “What do you know about your parents?”
“Dad was a welder. Mom drove a school bus. They got married young, just out of high school. They met at a summer youth camp. Dad’s brother, Cincinnati, told me it was love at first sight. I haven’t seen Uncle Cin in years. He’s a drunk but a musical genius. A homeless cellist, who has parted with everything in his life except his cello. He and Dad were pretty close.”
“Let me guess. Your uncle was born in Cincinnati?’
“And your dad’s name was what, Toledo?”
“Close. His name was Monroe. He was born on a family road trip to Monroe, Michigan.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m afraid to ask your mother’s name.”
“It’s not so bad. Mom was born in Canada. Her name was Ottawa.”
“Well, of course it was,” I said.
Almandine giggled like a small child. What an enigma she was.
Again, I looked again into those strange eyes. “And your name. Tell me how you got it.”
She took a deep breath. “Rumor has it my Thai grandmother came up with it when she saw my mother and father together. She said, ‘Little bit of black, little bit of red, little bit of yellow. Maybe you will have a baby the color of almonds. You should call her little almond. Almondine.’ ”
“Interesting concept, mixing blood like finger paints.”
“It is. But my grandma got it all wrong. I guess she imagined the Thai blood would rise to the top. That I would be a bit more yellow. That’s why I changed the spelling. Changed the o to an a. It’s A-l-m-A-n-d-i-n-e. Like the black-red stone, not the nut. More fitting, don’t you think?”
“So there,” said Almandine. “That is the story of my life. Now we go to sleep.”
She slid down on the bed. Rolled away from me. In the moonlight streaming in the window, her body looked like a piece of garnet. I wanted her all over again, yet I did as she asked. Closed my eyes and drifted into slumber.
When I awoke, Almandine was gone. Then I heard the door pop open. Saw her walking into the room, arms loaded with bread, cheese, and fruit.
“Sustenance. Much needed, don’t you agree?”
There it was again, that formal verbal wall. The woman who had made mad passionate love to me last night had changed form again. Left me feeling exposed, awkward, and conspicuous in my nakedness. I reached for my clothes. Dressed, as Almandine turned her back to me.
“I would very much like to walk with you, again. Unfortunately, my work takes me out of town this coming week. Shall we meet here again? Next Saturday? Same time. I’ll wait for you in the lobby.”
I cleared my throat. “Of course. I’ll be here.”
We didn’t text or email that week to confirm. We never did. Almandine didn’t believe in it. Said that was for relationships that didn’t matter. With me, she preferred to converse in person. Our plans for our next encounter were always made before we departed.
The next Saturday, as planned, I went to the hotel. Got there early to enjoy watching Almandine make her appearance. Wondered which version of her would be in attendance. As the minutes ticked away, I grew restless. Paced the lobby, my heart pounding with excitement.
“May I help you with something, sir?” the clerk at the main desk called out.
“No thanks. I’m just waiting for someone.”
“Would your name be, Alan?” he asked.
I nodded. Approached the lobby’s heavy mahogany desk.
“I thought so. I have a message for you.”
Reaching under the desk, the clerk held out an engraved card to me. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
I looked at the card. Read it over and over. But it didn’t make any sense.
“Did a woman drop this off?”
“Can you tell me what she looked like?”
“Certainly. She was very attractive. Mids 50s. Fair-skinned. Blonde hair. Very sweet. She didn’t leave a name.”
“Blonde? There’s been a mistake. This can’t be for me,” I said, handing back the card.
He slid it back across the counter. “She said you might think that. She was very insistent that you go to the address on the card. Said to tell you she’d be looking for you.”
So I drove to the address on the card. A funeral home, not far from the hotel.
Entering the lobby, I searched for Almandine. Expected it wouldn’t be hard to see her elegant frame rising above the crowd. But I didn’t find her. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. Turning, I looked into the face of a woman matching the clerk’s description. I could see she’d been crying. A lot. Her voice trembled when she spoke.
“You’re Alan, aren’t you?”
“I’m Karen. I left the card for you. Come with me. She’s in the other room.”
The name outside the door said Megan Crawford 1989–2018. The final chapter.
Taking my arm, Karen took me closer to the coffin. From a few feet away I saw the ruby-dark skin. The mass of thick black hair. My heart started pounding in my chest. I couldn’t breathe. Bile rose in my throat. I doubled over, trying to catch my breath.
“This can’t be…doesn’t make sense. I. . . I have to get out of here.”
Breaking free, I turned and rushed out to the parking lot. Kneeled down and gave up my stomach behind a row of manicured yews. After a few minutes, Karen’s hand was on my back again.
“You didn’t know. I’m so sorry, Alan,” she whispered.
Slowly, I rose and turned around. Saw that a gentle snow had begun to fall. “I just saw her last Saturday. How did this. . . was she sick?”
My heart was still pounding, my mouth dry. “Then what happened to her?”
Karen’s eyes filled with tears. “Could we, um, do this inside? There’s a private room downstairs.”
I nodded. Stared into her face and saw the pain in it. “I’m sorry. Who are you?”
She took out a tissue. Dabbed at her eyes. “I’m her mother. Megan’s mother.”
In a daze, I followed her to the lower level of the funeral home. We sat side by side on a brown imitation leather sofa. In between sobs, Karen Crawford told me about her daughter. The girl in the coffin. The girl she called, Megan.
The girl I’d known as Almandine.
Nothing about Megan’s story matched with what Almandine had told me about her life. Karen told me a sad story about a tragic little girl who had been abandoned, then adopted. Given an ordinary name, in hopes that it would help her fit in. It didn’t.
A loud buzzing in my head deafened the rest of Mrs. Crawford’s story. I just sat there, letting her words roll over me. Tried to let them sink in: Almandine was dead. Or rather, she had never existed at all. Shock, grief, anger. It was hard to distinguish what I was feeling.
When she was done, Almandine’s mother let out a long sigh. “The stories. How she could tell stories.”
The stairs behind us creaked. A voice called out. “Karen? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, John. I’ll be right there.”
The footsteps receded back up the stairs.
“My husband. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. Neither do I. It’s been hard. So sudden. Such a shock.”
I nodded. “How did you find me? Know where I’d be?”
“The police gave me a note from Megan. Actually, two. One for you, one for me. The notes were in her car, at the hotel. That was how I learned about you, from the note. And how to get in touch with you. Make sure you’d be here today.”
“Wait. I don’t understand. Are you suggesting she planned this?”
Almandine’s mother paused. Covered her mouth and choked back a sob. “Yes, it seems that way.”
A chill ran through me. “But why?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that my girl was very troubled. And now she’s gone.”
Then it hit me. The lies. Every detail of Almandine’s life had been fabricated. Her Uncle Cincinnati. Her parents dying on a slippery bridge. The mean aunt. Even her name. All lies.
“She lied to me,” I whispered.
“Megan lied to everyone, dear. We thought we could love her hard enough to make her stop. Forget.”
“Forget her story. Where she really came from. As I said, my husband found her, just outside our small grocery store. Poor little thing, sitting out in the cold, strapped into a car seat. She was about a year old. Terrified. Out there by herself, wailing and wailing.”
“No one came looking for her?”
“No. We tried to find her parents. After a time, we stopped looking. They were going to put her into foster care but we’d already fallen in love with her. So we adopted her. We felt blessed, because we couldn’t have children of our own.”
“So you’re the only parents she ever knew.”
“Yes. I’m not sure what she remembered, of course. Or thinks she remembered.”
“Was she happy? As a child?”
“Oh, Alan. That’s a hard question,” said Mrs. Crawford, her voice cracking. “You see, Megan never recovered. Not really. The way she coped was by going inside herself. Creating stories of her life to tell other children and people. It was heartbreaking for her . . . and us. She could be very loving, very gentle. But there was something. . . unfinished about her.”
“I take it she wasn’t a paralegal. Didn’t live in Geneva.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. We hadn’t heard from her in months. We always kept a checking account open for her. She usually contacted us when it was running low. We aren’t wealthy, but we tried to help our daughter out that way. We’d tried everything else.”
“How exactly did she die?”
Again, Mrs. Crawford blotted her eyes with her tissue. “She was walking along the river, I’m told. The ice isn’t stable this time of year, you know. She fell in. The current pulled her under.”
“That sounds like an accident.”
Almandine’s mother fingered the buttons on her cardigan sweater. “Yes. I suppose it does. But then that doesn’t explain the notes in the car, does it?”
“No need to fret, Alan. I have no intention of drowning today.”
“You don’t suspect anyone else was involved? That there was foul play?”
“No. But then again, I don’t know what I believe. I just know Megan was never really happy with her story. The one we gave her.”
I stood up. Leaned against the wall. “I want to understand, but this all sounds pretty crazy. Sure, she was unusual. Different from anyone I had ever met. But she never seemed depressed. Suicidal.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. Megan hid her sadness well. She’d been doing it all her life.”
“You said there was a note for me?”
“Yes,” she said, reaching into her purse, withdrawing a blue envelope addressed to me. “She told me, in her note to me, that she loved you very much.”
I took the envelope and shoved it in my jacket pocket, anger rising in me. “If she loved me so much, why did she kill herself?”
“It was never about love, Alan. Megan knew she was loved. None of this had to do with love. It had to do with identity.”
“I know it doesn’t make any sense. Maybe in time, it will.”
I came and sat down next to her again. Shook my head. “I doubt it.”
Almandine’s mother put a hand on my shoulder. “You know, I think you gave my daughter the one thing she’d been looking for all her life.”
“The freedom to be anything she wanted to be. I think you freed her.”
I grit my teeth. “Freed her so she could kill herself?”
Mrs. Crawford grimaced and looked away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
“It’s all right, Alan. I understand that you’re angry.”
“And you’re not?”
“At times, yes. Mostly, though, I’m sad. Heartbroken, that I’ll never hear her voice again. See her.”
I drew in a deep breath. Nearly gagged on it, that funeral home scent of roses and cleaning agents. “If only she would have told me. Let me help her.”
Mrs. Crawford rose. Walked towards the stairs. “Stay here, Alan. Read the letter. I have to go. My husband.”
Stopping, she turned back to me. “She told me about Iceland. In the note. About how you two were planning to go together. Swim under the midnight sun.”
“Yes. You should go. She would want you to.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
She nodded. “Maybe someday.”
I managed a weak smile. Stuck my hands in my jacket pocket. Felt the crumpled blue envelope. Shook my head. “Nothing will ever make me understand why she killed herself.”
Almandine’s mother brushed aside a strand of blonde hair. Hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. “Read the letter,” she said, over her shoulder.
When she was gone, I leaned back on the sofa. Closed my eyes. Why did Almandine choose me? Why was I the one she decided to love, then leave behind?
Sitting up, I reached into my jacket pocket. Took out the envelope. Opened it and began to read Almandine’s words to me.
Dear Alan, please don’t hate me. I love you. I really do. Thank you for loving me and allowing me to write the final chapter of my life. Stories, though, have a way of changing. At least mine do. This is the only way I know of making sure that doesn’t happen to our story. I hope, one day, you’ll forgive me.
I stopped and thought about Mrs. Crawford’s words: None of this had to do with love. It had to do with identity. And I tried to imagine what it felt like to be abandoned in a grocery store parking lot. Discarded, along with the spoiled produce and expired canned goods. Never really knowing where you came from. Never really fitting in. And I thought about something Almandine had said the very first day we met: Don’t over think it. You can tell your story the way you want to tell it. Isn’t that the best part of meeting someone new?”
Pulling off my jacket, I settled back on the sofa. Continued reading Almandine’s letter. On the bottom, were her last words to me: For you, Alan. Because I know you still haven’t read it. Below her words, was a poem. The poem she had talked about that first day, in the café.
The one by the Bulgarian poet, Dora Gabe.
The one called, “Don’t Come Near Me.”