I saw her on Churchill Street, a mane of raven-hair hanging straight down her back. Achingly familiar. I looked up at the Royal Center building, my destination, and said aloud to myself, “The shrink can wait.” Then I followed her, keeping pace just meters behind. She wore a black skirt that stopped at her knees, a narrow skirt that slowed her down. My mouth hurt, lips pressed together to the point of welcome pain.
She didn’t see me. I kept pace with her, my hands in the pockets of my purple ski jacket, my collar hitched up like Dracula’s cloak. She marched down the snow-littered sidewalk with a purposeful stride, and I knew in that moment that she was meeting someone along here, someone in one of the coffee shops along Churchill. I could see ahead of us the rectangular green-bordered sign of the Center Street Cafe. My hands became fists in my pockets.
My feet were cold; I’d opted for sneakers this morning, not my winter boots, since I was taking the underground most of the way here – Churchill Station was half a block away.
She hiked her enormous purse up higher onto her shoulder. I sucked a breath through my nose, smelled gasoline and perfume. I was in her vapor trail.
I wanted to call her name. But I couldn’t remember it.
She wasn’t going into the Center Street. But someone else stepped out just as she neared the door, and this woman walked towards me. She had a face that was narrow, and made of sharp corners rather than soft slopes. A shock of dark brown hair perched on the top of her head. My eyes flickered from her to the other, and I realized I’d made a mistake. She didn’t have long black hair. She was this one walking towards me, past me, glancing my way and flickering a detached smile at me. I turned and looked at the back of her head, then looked at the woman I had been following. She was one of them, she had to be. I looked back and forth, struggling to find a memory that fit either of them. One in a skirt and jacket and black hose; the other in a long mahogany coat, her hair shaved from the back of her neck where her collar met her skull.
That was her. I turned and started following.
In minutes I was outside my shrink’s office building again. She passed a plump woman with a fake fur hat on her head. I gasped. Some essence of her leaped from the thin woman, and my attention shifted again.
I hunted my thoughts for her name. Maureen? No, that had been my mother’s name. It was…Stephanie. That was it.
No; Stephanie was that girl I knew in high school, in my last year. I took her to my graduation and danced badly with her beneath the hard yellowish lights of R.H. Talbot High’s gymnasium.
“Shit,” I muttered. Her face was gone from my mind. No, not quite gone: changing. Constantly shifting. Her eyes were wide apart, separated by the bridge of her too-large nose. No, they were close, sharp and piercing above a sharp nose and angular face, eyes like amethysts – no, brown eyes as big as quarters…
“Goddamn!” I said. A tall man walking past me glanced my way, shock drawing his mouth into a line.
I stopped and watched after the plump woman as she continued on down Churchill. A moment later she turned at the corner of Arthur Street, and was gone. I shut my eyes.
Frank would be waiting. I ground my teeth together and shoved my hands into my pockets. Then I strode up the marble steps and into the warmth of the building.
His receptionist showed me into his office.
“How are the wife and kids?” I said, almost sneering at him.
“They’re fine. How have you been?” Mitchelson was a tall skinny balding bastard wearing dress pants and a cream-colored sweater – trying to look professional and casual at the same time.
He motioned me to his burgundy couch. I dropped my ass into it. “Fucked,” I said, by way of answering his question. “I’m totally fucked. I can’t think.” I pounded the side of my head with my right palm. “This thing is wrecking my brain.”
“It doesn’t cause damage,” Mitchelson said calmly. “It simply randomizes your memories when you attempt to focus on your obsession.”
“It’s driving me crazy.”
Mitchelson shook his head. “Jason, the loop doesn’t change your memories, doesn’t wipe them. We can’t do that. All it does is disrupt your recall. You don’t remember her properly, so you add false details to your own memories. Over time you will no longer be able to fixate on your obsession.” He smiled. “Like trying to remember a face in a dream.”
My obsession. That’s what he called my ex. Like she was some kind of drug. He didn’t get it at all. We were going to get married. She was supposed to keep her promises.
“It isn’t right,’ I murmured.
Mitchelson pursed his lips and leaned back in his easy chair. His ‘office’ looked like a living room out of a movie: old-style leather couch, with ornate wooden armrests; a chair that matched the couch. There were bookcases all over the place, and he kept a coffee pot on a round wooden three-legged table next to the windows. He actually had drapes for his windows, not Venetian blinds like those in his outer office.
He had a couple of family photos on his bookcases. His wife was pretty. Envy stabbed at my belly.
“That may be true,” he said. “And you can always change your mind about the surgery. You can choose jail.”
“Great fucking choice.”
“There’s no call for language like that.”
He smiled in forced sympathy. “What have you been doing with yourself lately?”
I made a crude motion with my fist. “Lots of this. And work. Bob looks at me like I crawled out of the sewers and into his lock-box.” Bob owned the parking lot where I worked. He hadn’t been keen on having me work there when he learned I was up on charges, but he couldn’t fire me on that account. I was careful to make sure the till tallied every day.
I’d lost my job at the Radio Shack at the Railway Square Mall after the cops took me in the first time. That hurt.
“This damn thing is driving me out of my head.” My voice came out shrill and girlish. I ran my fingers along the line of bristles along the side of my head. They had shaved a track around my head above my ears. After three weeks the stitches were out and the hair was growing back.
“It will come out when you can show us you’re able to manage your obsession,” Mitchelson said.
I looked at him hopefully, and wrapped my coat around myself. I was sweating like a son-of-a-bitch, but I couldn’t take the coat off. It was a shield between me and him. “What can I do to speed things along?”
“Just get on with your life. Put her behind you. What did you do today?”
“It’s my day off, like usual.” I shrugged. “I saw her again, on the street outside. What does the law say about her hassling me?”
Mitchelson straightened up. His mouth was a pencil line. “You know that Ms….your ex, I mean, hasn’t been near you. She has no reason to be.”
“Well, she was.” Then I remembered how she’d changed, right in front of me, raven hair to brown to…
“Shit,” I breathed. “I screwed up, didn’t I?”
Mitchelson watched me through narrowed eyes.
“All right,” I said hastily. “I just thought I saw her. Big deal.”
“Jason,” the shrinker said, “you have to get out of this zone you’re in. Find something to do with yourself when you start thinking about her. Get your focus off her.”
Twenty minutes later I dropped my coat next to my door and grabbed a beer can from the fridge, then sat down in the living room and picked up the remote. Click click click, through the cable band.
The crap on my coffee table was piling up. I hadn’t done anything with the papers they’d given me about the surgery; I still had the brochure – they actually put out a brochure advertising it, a three-fold, double sided glossy. My tax dollars at work.
The Cure, the cover said. The picture showed a silhouette of a human head, outlined in black. And within it, the loop, just above the ears, a noose around the brain instead of the neck.
I looked like I had a punk-rock haircut, what with the shaven strip around my head. I could feel the loop beneath my skin in some places, like along my forehead just above my brow. They didn’t have to crack my skull-bone to put it in, just opened the skin and laid it in the flesh.
Sometimes I thought about taking a knife to the side of my head, seeing if I could run a serrated blade through the skin, cut the wire, free my brain.
I looked at the mess on my coffee table. Then I laid my arm across the table and swept all the junk onto the carpet. I collected a Glad bag from the kitchen, and started filling it with the crap on the carpet. A bunch of old magazines, Time and Road & Track. The latest issue of Discover had an article about the loop in my head. I threw it into the bag also. Out went all the papers they’d given me after my court hearing. Screw it all.
I picked up a little red book from amid the papers. For a moment I didn’t recognize it. My address book. I opened it and turned pages. Addresses and phone numbers: my brother out west; a couple of computer dealers, from when I was hunting for a new machine; my work numbers. I lifted the book and aimed it at the bag.
I opened it with my thumb as I readied to throw, and my eyes caught the page I held. A name: Alison Bly.
Recognition. I looked at the address below her name. 4378B Grafton Street. Newcastle. That was her. She lived up in the ’burb.
My heart wound up. Damn, damn, damn. I had her name again, the way it had been on the tip of my tongue for weeks, never quite coming to me.
Don’t think about it, I said to myself. Don’t think about it or it’ll go away.
I felt like I had just woken up when I reached the bus stop. There was a book in my hand. My thumb on the page. I looked down at it.
In big red letters somebody had written:
Trust me. The address above is HERS. Don’t forget.
Hers? I thought. Whose?
Then I remembered. I looked at the numbers. Grafton Street. Was that where she lived now? My breathing raced.
I caught the number 101 to Newcastle, flashed my bus pass at the driver. He was a fat mustached guy with dark skin. “Uh, listen,” I said. “I don’t know Newcastle very well. Can you tell me when we reach Grafton Street?”
“Sure.” His voice sounded like gravel pouring out of a dump-truck. I nodded thank-you and sat down in one of the empty old-folks seats at the front.
The bus rattled north into Newcastle. I watched the traffic go by. My folks lived in Newcastle.
“Grafton Street,” the driver said.
Mom and Dad lived on Robert Street. I sat looking at the back of the bus. Nobody was getting off. The other four people on the bus stared at me like I was dogshit.
“This is Grafton Street,” the driver rumbled, and glared at me.
I looked down. My address book. An address: Grafton.
Jason. Trust me. The address above is hers.
“Shit,” I muttered. Then, louder, “Thanks.” I heaved myself up and hurried off the bus.
I could feel the heavy rhythm of my heartbeat as I walked. My hand held the book by its bottom edge, a page folding over and creasing in my grip. I fell into a routine of glancing down at the page every few seconds, absorbing the message there and the address, keeping my memory on track.
Once (or twice, or maybe more) I turned up the wrong walkway and double-checked the address.
The building was a duplex, a house with a bottom floor (A) and a top (B). The siding was aluminum, and the balcony railing was wood painted brown. Snow had been shoveled off the sidewalk and onto the lawn.
The entrance walkway led to a door tucked between the side of the house and a hedge. I hitched up my collar and strode down the concrete slope. My thumb landed on the white tab of the doorbell button. My breath made a white haze before me. I had to look down at the address book again to remember why I was here.
Footsteps, the rapid-fire sound of feet descending a staircase. Then a click of the deadbolt going back. The door opened slightly.
“Jason? Dammit – !”
I saw a sliver of darkness and a pair of wide eyes. I slammed my shoulder against the door and it burst from her hands.
“You aren’t supposed to be here,” the woman said. Her eyes were big beneath her straight blonde hair. She stumbled back against the steps behind her. They were covered in worn green carpet. She fell and caught herself with her left arm.
I knew her, but she didn’t matter; she wasn’t her.
“Where is she?” I demanded.
“Who?” She spoke in a voice I could barely hear.
I closed my eyes and sucked breath through my teeth. Struggled for a name. Stephanie? Gwen. No, Gwen was my sister. Yvette? No, she was…
“Her,” I said. “You know who I mean. We were together for almost a year.” A book was in my hand. I lifted it, saw a name. “Alison.”
The blonde’s eyes took in the address book. “Oh. Her.”
“She’s here, isn’t she?”
The woman’s mouth seemed to chew on something that tasted bad. “No, she’s not.” Her throat twitched. I felt like I was looking down on her from some great height, like she was a bug on the pavement.
“Where is she?” I put a rough timbre into my words.
“She moved,” the blonde blurted out. “She moved away. I don’t know where. France, maybe.”
“Don’t bullshit me; she’s here.” I stepped over her and bounded up the steps. The layout was what I remembered, though the furniture had changed – I’d taken mine with me. The couch was smaller than mine, and with a dark flower print. White bookcases, a small portable Sanyo stereo with detached speakers.
“You aren’t supposed to be here,” the blonde said. “There’s a court order against you.” Her jaw hardened. “Get out. Now.”
“Can you get a message to her?”
She looked me up and down angrily. “What do you want to tell her?”
Suddenly I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. What words were there? During that period in my life – the one year we were together – I’d been whole, complete. I’d found that one who was meant for me. I could look at her and see kids and grandkids, all the pieces fitting together like a grand puzzle. And ever since we’d come apart, my life was out of my control.
The words came out exactly as I had thought them, stream-of-consciousness. I stood gasping, almost sobbing, salt water stinging my eyes.
The blonde shook her head. “There’s no such thing as the only one. You watch too much television.”
“We were meant for each other; don’t you understand that?”
“She disagrees.” The woman’s mouth pinched. “You want a fairy tale, that’s your problem. But phoning constantly all night, and yelling threats from the front lawn, those aren’t exactly tried-and-true wooing techniques, especially after she says it’s over. The balcony scene worked for Romeo – but Juliet wanted him. Now you can get out or I’ll phone the police.”
She called the cops anyway. They nailed me a block from the house, on my way back to the bus stop. One of them, a tubby guy in sunglasses, came up to me and asked me my name, and when I told him he said I was under arrest for violation of an order of the court. His partner was bald and black. He opened the police car’s rear door.
Tubby Cop put his big meaty hand on the top of my head when I bent down, and pushed me into the back.
They put me in a cell that stank to high heaven of cleaning products. An hour later Frank Mitchelson and my lawyer, Mr. Garfield, arrived. Another cop – a lady this time, small and plump, with her dark hair tied in a bun behind her head – led me to a tiny room with gray walls that looked like they had been whitewashed in a previous epoch.
“Don’t say anything,” was the first thing Garfield told me. “Let me handle this.”
I shut up. The cop told them how I had gone to visit my ex and how the cops were notified that I had “violated a court injunction forbidding the suspect from approaching within 200 meters of his former cohabitant or her domicile.”
She was really gone. Some people say they knew when their mothers or wives or husbands died – they felt it like a thread tearing apart between them. I felt that too; a connection between us was broken.
Then I played back what the lady cop had said.
She was still talking. “This is grounds for having Mr. Parsons returned to minimum security.” Her gaze fixed on Frank the shrink.
“I don’t believe that would be wise,” he said in his high-brow voice. “This treatment is experimental, but for the most part it seems to be working.”
‘I think i’s in my client’s best interests,” Garfield piped up, “to remain in the community. He is clearly no danger to society; nobody was threatened in this incident.”
The cop’s mouth formed a sneer. “Ms. Bly says Mr. Parsons practically kicked her door in.”
“That’s not what I found in your report. Ms. Bly stated – ”
“Perry Mason,” I said casually, “shut up for once.”
Garfield stared at me. “Mr. Parsons – ”
I held up my hand, snapping my fingers out in front of him. The lady cop opened her mouth to speak.
“My hack lawyer wasn’t paying attention,” I said. “You can’t hold me, and even you can figure out why. The court order says I can’t go near my ex or her house, right?” I grinned. “Well, it says nothing about Ms. Bly or whatever the hell that blonde’s name is. I didn’t see my ex, so how did I violate her dickhead court order? And her friend told me she doesn’t even live there anymore, so how the hell was I anywhere near my ex’s doe-mee-sile?”
The lady cop stared at me with a look that suggested she’d sat on a tack and didn’t know how to get up gracefully.
Frank pursed his lips.
Garfield’s gaze bounced around the room, me to Frank to Ms. Sunshine and back.
The shrink was the first to talk. “I think we should finish this discussion without Mr. Parsons here.”
“Hey, you can’t put me back in a cell.”
The cop got up and went to the door. The two constables who brought me in stood outside, and they made it clear that, yes, they could put me back in a box.
But ten minutes later I was out.
The lady cop did the talking. “We’ve decided that you’re right. There isn’t any point in holding you.”
Frank and Garfield led me to the front desk and told me to sign for my coat and a little red book they’d found in my pocket. I picked up the book, wondering why the hell I’d brought it with me. I opened it and twigged that it was my address book. A couple of pages had been torn out near the front. I didn’t remember doing that; but lately I didn’t remember a lot of things.
Frank gave me a lift back downtown, to my apartment building.
“You’ll be all right?” he asked.
“Good,” he smiled. “I’ll see you next week.” His car pulled away from the curb.
She was gone. I could feel it now. There was a hollow place in me.
But when I turned, I saw her half a block away. Short dark hair, her body clad in a thick blue parka, jeans, black boots. Casually walking away. I opened my mouth to yell, to call her back.
My tongue stalled. I couldn’t remember her name.