The most wanted, p.25
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       The Most Wanted, p.25

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  As he made love to me, I watched my own face in the mirror, watched my lips part and grow plump with the sexual rush, the gold in my hair and on my chin catching the intermittent gusts of street light that entered the room—first hidden, then revealed by wind swaying a branch on the pecan tree. Stuart’s head and face were lost behind me in the shadows. In the bronze gloom of that mirror, I could have been a ghost myself, with my ghostly lover. The pulse of Stuart inside me became deeper, more rhythmic. . . . I thought of trying to wait, to tease myself and make it better, but I was already too far gone, and I crumpled against him gratefully, holding my breath, reaching down between us as if to seal us together. Then, as I finished, Stuart gripped my arms with both hands, and then pulled back abruptly, coming, awkwardly, hot against my cool bare backbone.

  “What?” I asked. “What’s happened? What’s wrong?”

  “I’m sorry. Force of habit,” he told me, breathing in gasps. “Remembered we didn’t have any birth control . . .”

  “Oh Stuart,” I cried, suddenly furious. “We just agreed we were getting married, what do a few months matter . . . ?” Unceremoniously, I stepped around him and left him, pants down, in the dark bathroom.

  “Wait, baby.” He followed me into the library, and curled up next to me where I’d thrown myself down on Charley’s painter’s cloth. I noticed a similar cloth, draped over the old Victrola in the corner. I thought of that night at Christmas, of our dance. “We didn’t agree to have kids right now, Annie. Tonight.” Stuart sounded peevish to me, tiresome.

  “Well, I probably wouldn’t have got pregnant anyhow. I’m probably sterile.”

  “Well, then we won’t have one. Or we’ll adopt.”

  “At a time like this, Stuart, having just practiced college-boy sex on me, you’re supposed to reassure me, not think logically.”

  “Okay,” he said. “Well, then I’ll tell you something really sappy. I’m sorry.” I was silent. “Okay?” he persisted. “Should I say the three most beautiful words in the English language?”

  I started to smile against my will.

  “I was wrong.”

  “Okay, okay.” I nodded. “It’s not that big a deal.”

  “You know, when I was buying that ring,” Stuart said, “I was thinking, you know, what if I’m already too late?”

  “Too late?”

  “Like, what if she doesn’t say yes?”

  “Stuart, come on . . .”

  “No, Anne, it’s not, that’s the thing. I never thought it was a given. I’m lucky, Annie. I’m a lucky guy is all.”

  “You’re not the only one.”

  “What?” Stuart sat up, spiking his hair with one hand. “And all this time, I thought I was the only one! Isn’t that what all this means to you?”

  “Stuart,” I said, “you can be such a doof. Cut it out.”

  “Well, I’m not all that good at this stuff. It’s not something I’ve practiced. I just . . . wanted you . . . to know. Now can we plan the wedding?”

  “I’m the girl. Aren’t I supposed to say that?”

  Throughout that long and good night, we talked and dozed. We agreed on a wedding in April—Stuart wanted his anniversary to be in the cruelest month. I thought I might have enough money by then to buy a fancy suit, at least at a vintage store. Charley could get the yard cleaned up so that we could have an outdoor tent here. And by then the house itself would probably be more or less habitable—or so I thought, though it did not turn out to be in anything near move-in condition until the end of the summer. Sometime during that night, we woke up and made love again (a not-so-common phenomenon after ten years, but then, neither was an engagement).

  “Stuart,” I asked him when we finished. “Are you scared? About this marriage? And about me? I mean, you’re the one who says all life is timing. What if we passed our moment and we didn’t know?”

  “Then we’ll get divorced, Anne. We’re both lawyers, and neither of us has any property”—I glanced up at the moldering ceiling, and Stuart followed my eyes—“of course, besides Castle Dracula here, and honey, I’ll stipulate to that exclusion, for real, so it would be easy. Our parents would be happier, because it would be more respectable to get married so we could actually get a divorce like decent people instead of just—”

  “I’m not kidding.”


  “It’s a big chance. The way we’ve lived—it’s just so . . . like we were still college kids. . . .”

  “And was that a bad thing, Anne?”

  “It’ll be a big change is all.” I sighed. “Well, fortune favors the brave.”

  “Who said that?”


  Why did I want to cry? It wasn’t like we didn’t goof this way all the time. But now, this night, this night of our afterthought engagement.

  Stuart was quiet for a beat. And then he said, “Annie, I’m lying here with you, in this ruin, agreeing to become a husband and maybe a father, even given my bad demographics and my advanced age, so I must be pretty brave.”

  “You make me sound like Omaha Beach, Stuart.”

  “Never change, babe.” He sighed and wrapped himself in a clean corner of the dropcloth to go back to sleep. I got myself dressed and went back to sleep too.

  The following morning, Charley found us there. As he shared his breakfast of tortillas and coffee with us, Stuart kept nudging me. “Aren’t you going to tell him?” he asked.

  “Tell him what? That we stayed over?”

  Stuart motioned toward my ring, and I all but jumped, recalling with a shock what the pearl on my ring finger meant. “Look,” I told Charley then. “We’re engaged.”

  “That’s a beautiful piece,” Charley said, his hand lifting my fingers, gently, for an instant, as if he were a knight about to kiss my hand.

  “You mean Annie or the ring?” Stuart laughed. Charley smiled thinly, with just a hint of a head shake. Stuart didn’t notice, but I did.

  “Congratulations, y’all,” he said then. “They say pearls bring tears, but this one’s going to bring happiness, I guess.” I knew that I didn’t mistake a certain heaviness in his voice, though. And I felt odd myself. It took me a couple of days, but I finally figured out that what I was feeling in front of Charley was embarrassment. As though I’d done something behind his back, somehow, or the little pearl on my hand had somehow ruined our great collaboration on the house in a way I couldn’t really name. It was stupid; Stuart and I had always been together. But I deliberately kept away from the house for the next few weeks, though I found myself driving by sometimes, at night, to see if Charley’s truck was parked at the curb.

  And then, one night early in March, our apartment buzzer rang, and a small voice I no longer recognized on first hearing asked for Anne Singer. When I opened our door, there was Arley, carrying her soft green raincoat and a striped bag with a Tasmanian devil screened on it. “Hello,” Arley told me. “I was wondering if I might get some phone numbers from you.”

  “Phone numbers of . . . ?”

  “Of places, I guess. Places I can go. I’m pregnant, Annie, and my sister Langtry is moving back in to help Mama. . . .”

  “To help Mama? What’s that got to do with your being pregnant, Arley?”

  “Well, ’cause my mama threw me out.”



  TO TELL THE TRUTH, although he’s a good person, Stuart hated me being there. Not just because I was such a kid back then—though having a teenager around couldn’t have been too much fun for a guy as tired and nervous as Stuart was all the time. What really drove him nuts was how Annie and I were. I think he was jealous.

  Around me, Annie sort of acted like a big girlfriend. When I showed up at her house, I expected her to say something like, “Well, we better talk with Dillon and your mom about this . . .” the way most adults would, so that you’d think they all signed some promise never to give in to you too easy. She didn’t, though. She just made me some food and st
arted hanging my stuff in the coat closet. And later, when I heard her on the phone with Mama, Annie was saying, “You’re all heart, Rita. You’re all heart. . . . You sure don’t deserve this. . . . Actually, to hell with you. Yeah, well, I’d do a better job of it. . . .” It upset me so much, I just turned over on the sofa, where I was going to sleep that first night, and put the pillow over my ears.

  I was glad she said it, though. Mama deserved every word.

  I always knew Mama was selfish, but I did not think that her first reaction to my being pregnant would be to say right out that I wouldn’t be much use to her very long, and a baby would be no use to her at all. She told me right then that Lang had been wanting to move back in anyhow, and that she’d take care of Cam and other stuff for Mama. She gave me until the following Friday. Said she considered that generous, considering what I’d done. No shit. No fooling. Since that time, for sure, I’ve learned some things about psychology, so I know that this is probably what happened to her. When her own mother found out that Mama was pregnant, she probably just showed her the door. I loved my grandma Amelia, but I don’t think she would have put up with a pregnant girl, especially since Mama wasn’t married. In Grandma’s day, there was the scandal involved, I guess. But also, Grandma didn’t much like taking care of her own stuff. She always needed somebody around, Mama or Lang or somebody. Plus, I remember the story she told once, of when Mama’s little sister got her high school diploma, how Debbie Lynn thought she was really smart until she woke up next day and found all her suitcases packed and on the front porch. “She had her a degree and it was time she used it,” Grandma said.

  I didn’t know anything back then, though, about why people did things. And even if I had, it wouldn’t have made it any easier hearing my mama just tell me to get on out of the house I’d lived in all my life. It wasn’t like she was angry about it. She didn’t act mad. She just said I was grown up enough to have a child, so I was grown up enough to go my own way. I asked her where I was going to go. She said she didn’t know, but she reckoned I was smart enough to figure something out. She did suggest I call Elena’s parents, though—as if I would have told them, when I hadn’t even but taken the stick test that afternoon.

  I hadn’t even told Dillon yet.

  I don’t know what I’d have done without Annie. The way Annie acted was as if I gave her this big present by showing up on her doorstep like a cat in the rain. What else could I have done? Gone to a shelter or something? I didn’t want to take that risk for the baby. Even though the baby wasn’t but a speck yet, she was real to me.

  In fact, though Annie kept saying “it” would be “pretty easy at this stage,” I didn’t even realize at first that “it” meant having an abortion. As soon as I did figure it out, I told Annie right away I was keeping this baby. I give her credit; she just took it in her stride. She’s had a lot of experience with unwed mothers—which I wasn’t, of course. But I was as good as.

  Stuart was under a lot of stress then. His job was going to end. He was probably worried about what was going to happen with him and Annie, even though they’d just got engaged. So the big attitude toward me was likely enough a case of getting mad about one thing but acting mad about something else. How he acted was like he was jealous of Annie and me.

  And she did make a fuss.

  Right from the first, she changed my doctor and insisted I go to hers. She took off work to go get me signed up for Medicaid, and she brought the papers to the hospital for Mama to sign to make me an emancipated minor. Annie explained that it would protect me from Mama ever getting her hands on my property, in case I ever got any. Annie got me a whole bunch more new clothes, because almost right away, I couldn’t zip my jeans. And when I started bleeding in my third month, she wouldn’t let me get up even to cook my own dinner—though, afterward, I cooked everybody’s and I did the laundry, except Stuart’s because he didn’t like how I ironed. While I was having spotting, Annie would leave me these little lunches, with fruit (“Raw food, Arley, you have to have raw food six times a day”) and sandwiches, right by the bed for the whole two weeks, until the doctor said I could get up. She got a universal remote so I could run the stereo and the TV at the same time.

  When I quit bleeding, I could have gone back to school. But not to my school. I was supposed to go to a special program school, for at-risk kids, but I refused. We went there for one hour, and it was all these really bad kids with supreme BTH and straight razors, and I was afraid they’d hurt the baby. So Annie arranged for me to get a tutor. The tutor didn’t show up, though. (Texas is really not that great on education.)

  Annie got exasperated then and said she should sue Travis High, the Alamo Heights School District, the school board, and the whole fucking state of Texas. I didn’t want her to, though. I didn’t want to call that much attention to myself. Then Annie decided to “home school” me, which basically meant I would school myself, because Annie was mostly always at work. I thought this was going to do the trick. Mrs. Murray sent me assignments every day on the fax machine at Women and Children First, and she even came over to see me a bunch of times. Mr. Hogan sent my math, too, at first. But then he seemed to lose interest in me—maybe because he used to be a DEA agent and here I was, more or less expelled for being married to a convict.

  The more they ignored me, the madder Annie got. She started having huge ambitions for me. I was going to keep up with my work and take the GED and pass it . . . this year! I was going to tell the school board to go fuck themselves. She bought this used laptop for me from Stuart’s friend Tarik and she got me hooked up to the Internet. She got somebody to give her a copy of the “goals and expectations” for twelfth graders in Texas, and she more or less showed it to me and said, Here, you can do all that, can’t you? I didn’t want to say a word to her, because I knew she really believed in me, but I was scared to death. When I saw stuff like “basic principles of geometry” and “major events in U. S. history,” I panicked, because that stuff wasn’t ’til junior year! One day, Annie had this psychologist come and IQ test me, and I got 129, which Annie said was almost a genius. She said if the public education system here wasn’t so bad, I’d already be a genius, which made her mad. The next day, she suggested maybe I should take it over again, but I said no, thanks, almost a genius was good enough. I was already getting hives on my arms from worrying about the test, the baby, Dillon, and everything else.

  At first, Annie was going to borrow all the lesson plans from public school and teach me the same way I would have learned at Travis. But she got bored of that right away. What she ended up doing was getting me a whole bunch of books each week from the public library—books about the invention of time and about the Civil War and about the tsars in Russia. If I didn’t understand the books, or they were too hard, she would go get me a novel about the same thing. Like, she got me the novel Andersonville about the Civil War, which I really related to, because it was about prison and a teenager in love and the importance of lots of fresh water. Annie didn’t care that I didn’t know all the names of the battles or anything; in fact, she would say, “Just read those things, because you won’t realize how much you got out of some of them until you’re grown up.”

  The worst part for me was geography. I still think that Switzerland ought to be in Scandinavia instead of Europe, and if it wasn’t for all those maps I got on-line, I’d still think it was. I started looking up stuff on the Net about twenty times a day, and then talking to other kids, some really far away, like in Illinois. That was so much fun it took off some of the stress.

  So did our dance breaks.

  Annie was this killer dancer; she could even do this mechanical-person stuff like Madonna, and she taught me how to do the jitterbug, which is what kids her age used to do along with regular dancing. A couple of times a week, we’d end up putting all these CDs on the twenty-five-CD changer of Stuart’s—everything, from the old Michael Jackson and Aretha stuff Annie had to Reba and Coolio—and we’d dance around the little L
from the kitchen into the living room, laughing so hard that the first time I got morning sickness (and I didn’t even get it until my fourth month, and then it was at night; Annie called it “evening sickness”), I thought I’d made myself puke from all that laughing and jiggling. You wouldn’t think you could have so much fun with an adult, though I’ve always sort of liked adults.

  Sometimes Stuart would come in and smile at us. But mostly, he’d come in and say, “A little less volume, please? I have to make a few phone calls here about a man’s life . . . ?” We’d start laughing even more then, not at Stuart, but at how bad we were. I felt pretty guilty about it, but not enough to stop laughing.

  Not that Stuart was ever there that much. You’d have thought that if your office was closing, you’d figure you could take it easy a little, but of course, it wasn’t like that for Stuart and Tarik and those guys. They had to do even more than they did before, because every brief or whatever they filed and every hearing they got before every judge meant one more guy on death row in Huntsville might get another chance. At first, in what became my room, Stuart’s papers were laid out all over the place. It used to be Stuart and Annie’s study. What Stuart finally did was scoop them all up and load them in copy-paper boxes and take them to his office. “Don’t worry about it,” Annie said.

  But it didn’t take a genius to notice how disruptive I was to the way they had their apartment, just from nothing but sitting there. I’d be lying in my room at night, reading or writing letters to Dillon, or poetry, or talking on the phone to Elena. All of a sudden, I’d hear Stuart getting mad. He didn’t yell or anything, but he’d start saying, “Anne! Anne! Come on, Anne!”—like hitting a wall over and over with your open palm. It would make me jump, especially knowing that some of it was about me. I would hear them talking about moving, about selling Annie’s totally beautiful house on Azalea Road. “But I couldn’t give it away right now, Stuart,” I heard Annie say one night, in a little voice that made me want to bite Stuart for making her sound that way. “It’s worse than it was when I bought it.” Stuart said something cranky, and Annie went on, “It isn’t Charley’s fault at all, Stuart. He’s only one guy, and for what I pay him, he’s probably losing money every day he works there.”

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