“Hopefully, his new girlfriend’s towels were cheap and smelled of mildew. Maybe she would secretly use his towel as a bathmat in an emergency, hang it up and never tell him about it. I had done that once.”
The living room was exactly as I’d left it just a few hours ago. I searched for signs that my life had changed, but the late afternoon sun streamed through the bamboo shades casting shadows across the second-hand leather couches in much the same way it had yesterday. The Mexican blanket, we’d purchased the previous spring in Cabo, was still hanging limply across the top of the old rocking chair. The books were shelved in their proper places, and yet there was a residue of emptiness in the room. I noticed the unopened bottle of vodka on the kitchen counter. It’s too early.
Maybe there would be signs in the bathroom. I opened up the medicine cabinet: shaving cream, razors, preparation H, deodorant, heartburn medication, and wrinkle cream all gone. My supplies were the only ones left in the cabinet, and the empty spaces in-between made them look pathetic.
There was some good news. He’d left the towels. Hopefully, his new girlfriend’s towels were cheap and smelled of mildew. Maybe she would secretly use his towel as a bathmat in an emergency, hang it up and never tell him about it. I had done that once. Our towels were still hanging on the rack. They reminded me of the color of the ocean once you sailed far enough away from shore. I buried my face into the soft terry cloth and read the tag which claimed that they were made in Pakistan. It sounded so far away.
The cold, hard surface of the linoleum was not a pleasant thing to wake up to. The room was pitch-black. I had been dreaming about my Auntie Jane who, on the night before her wedding, drank a bottle of Russian vodka and then proceeded to eat her wedding cake (the entire thing). My mother had discovered her the next morning in much the same position as I found myself now except I wasn’t covered in pink puke. Turning to face the opposite direction, I could barely make out the empty, mocking bottle.
“If you were a country, you’d be North Korea.”
I had absolutely no retort. I considered saying, “Oh yeah, well, I hate the way you slurp your soup!” But all I could picture was my fourteen year old self rattling off this ridiculous diss. Here I was, almost forty. That in itself was enough to force me into a middle-aged, mental breakdown.
If you were a country, you’d be North Korea. I wondered if it took him a long time to come up with that one. I pictured him driving home in rush-hour traffic, practicing. I wanted to see the other insults on his list. The half-witted similes: you are as cold as an iceberg.
I suspected that Matt had been cheating on me for the past year or two, so I should have been rejoicing when he finally broke it off with me. Instead, I felt like I’d been kicked in the proverbial nuts.
We were having coffee at one of those “oh-so-chic” coffee places that come and go in the South Bay. When I closed my eyes, I could hear the screeching seagulls and the rolling ocean waves. The buzz of people’s movements had a dizzying effect, and the bicyclists were suddenly way too close and too fast. The sounds of gossiping, laughing and judgement got all mixed up in the whirlpool I was creating with the little spoon in my coffee. The beach city beauties were talking and texting on cell phones, and I wondered if anyone had overheard what Matt said. Doubtful. Pulling my sweatshirt up around me, I slumped further into the cold metal chair. There was nothing to say.
Matt sat there, frozen in the moment, waiting for me to take some sort of action. I imagined myself overturning the table with its coffee cups; water glasses; silver, creamer pitchers; sugars (pink packets, brown packets, blue packets, agave syrup, and honey). The table would make a loud crashing noise, but nobody would even bother to look up from their cell phones. So, just as North Korea attempted to make weapons of mass destruction, I too set off to see what kind of damage I could inflict.
This wasn’t my finest moment: hiding in the bushes behind the Gold’s Gym in Redondo Beach. I just wanted to catch a glimpse of him. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I couldn’t stop imagining him with some stuck-up blonde, gym rat. If I waited here long enough, I’d catch them as they left the gym. A lady, walking a golden retriever and pushing a baby stroller, was coming towards me. I couldn’t jump out of the bushes; that would be too obvious. Maybe she wouldn’t notice me if just sat really still. I tried not move or breathe as she passed by, but it was no use. Her dog pushed his way through the ornamental bushes and started licking my face.
“Are you all right in there?” Her foot pushed the brake on the back of the baby stroller.
I didn’t say anything. I was hoping she’d just leave.
“C’mon Maudey, leave that woman alone.” Her discomfort was clear as she wracked her brain to determine the right thing to do. Figuring I ought to spare her anymore wasted brain power, I stood up.
Picking dead leaves out of my ponytail, I rattled off: “I’m fine thanks. I was just looking for my sunglasses. I lost them near here yesterday while I was roller skating.”
I showed her the sunglasses in my hand, which I noticed was covered with mud. “Found them!”
She seemed to buy it. “Okay…” She pulled on the dog’s leash and loosed the brakes on the stroller. She took off, but not without throwing one last glance over her shoulder in my direction. I waved to her anyway.
The sun blinded me as I crossed the street into the used bookstore. I’d been obsessing over Matt’s statement for the past few weeks.I was in search of a book about North Korea-one of those big coffee table books filled with pictures. The clerk was no help. She pointed vaguely towards the back of the store. There was a faded sign that said “Travel Books.” I couldn’t find anything about Korea which I suppose wasn’t a real shock.
I saw a dusty book sandwiched between one about Rome and another about California wine country. It was a travel guide titled: Lonely Planet Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway. I got lost in the cover picture of a stunning, snow-peaked mountaintop. After leafing through the book for nearly an hour, I decided that Pakistan looked like a good place to get lost. They even gave me a discount on the book because the cover was bent.
Waiting for Matt became my full-time job. If I were really honest with myself I could claim that I’d been waiting on men my whole life. Some of my earliest memories were of waiting for my father to pick me up every other Friday evening. I’d sit at the window, my head resting upon the white, chipped windowsill and stare out at the street. The other neighborhood kids would be riding their bikes up and down while I sat confined between two worlds. The hours from three to five were endless. Then later, there was waiting for this guy or that guy to call me, waiting for this guy to meet me at this party, or waiting on this guy to get drunk enough to scam on me. So, waiting for Matt to come out of the gym, or work, or the Whole Foods became my full-time job, and I was good at it on account of all the earlier training I’d received.
Late one afternoon, I heard a loud pounding on my door. It had to be the cops. I dragged myself out of bed and put on my tattered robe. Sure enough, when I looked through the peep-hole two of LAPD’s finest appeared in fish bowl vision. As soon as I opened the door, I saw the pile of newspapers that had built up over the past week or so. The lawn needed to be watered.
“Ma’am, we’re looking for Sarah Westbrook. Is that you?” One of the officers asked. I briefly considered denying my identity and pretending I was Sarah’s roommate, but I was pretty sure they’d see through that.
“Yes, I am. What can I help you with?” I tried my hardest to sound interested in cooperating with them.
“Well, ma’am, you see, we received a phone call from Quest Data Systems, and it would appear that you haven’t shown up for work in the past two weeks. The woman who called felt that this was very unusual for you and stressed that you have always been a reliable employee. Apparently, they tried to contact you, but you never responded. We were sent to make sure that you are really okay.”
The stress on the word “okay” suggested to me there was some concern I had been murdered, or overdosed or something awful.
“No, I’m good. I’ve just got some other things going on right now….some other possible leads that I am following. I’ve just been really busy. Can you let my boss know that I’m okay?”
The officer looked puzzled, “Well, we’re pretty busy ourselves. Can you please contact your employer?”
“Sure. Will do.” I closed the door to the sound of my cell phone ringing in the living room. It was my mother. I let it go to voice-mail, again.
“Jim and I are worried about you. Work called. I told them we hadn’t heard from you and suggested they call the police. Anyway, call us back. We’re worried sick, and I can’t concentrate on anything. We just want to hear from you.”
Jim, was my step-father and a washed up almost tennis pro. He was also practically the same age as Matt. My mom had married him back in her own mid-life crisis days. The first time we’d all gotten together for dinner at this seafood restaurant in Playa Del Rey was totally awkward. Jim and Matt shared anecdotes of growing up in the South Bay during the 1980s, while I twisted the cloth napkin under the table over and over again until my fingers burned. My mom either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
I couldn’t face her. Not today. Reaching for the vodka, I poured myself a drink. I needed time to think about my story. If I told her the truth, she’d jump in the car and be here in no time. I flopped onto the couch and pulled the Mexican blanket over my legs. Pregnant Teen Moms or something like that was on TV. It could always be worse.
She did eventually show up around eight in the morning. I’d only been asleep for about four hours. My mom looked as if she hadn’t slept much either. Her wavy, frosted hair was pulled back with a couple of pink plastic barrettes shaped like poodles. She was wearing the UCSB sweatshirt I’d given her one Christmas during my junior year of college. From a distance, she might have looked like a much younger woman.
“What in the hell is going on here?” she demanded, barging her way through my front door. I watched her scan the room, her eyes resting on the empty vodka bottles that had been piling up around my apartment. I didn’t even have the energy to fight her this time.
“Matt left. He’s fucking someone else.”
“Watch your mouth, young lady!”
“Mom, I am not a young lady anymore. I am almost forty, and my ex-boyfriend is screwing some blonde, beach-body bimbo who’s probably half my age.”
“We always knew he was no good for you,” she said.
Thanks for letting me in on that little secret. What exactly did she expect to find? Would she have preferred to find me dead? I sank into the couch and propped my feet up, ignoring the fact that my open robe exposed my unshaven legs. “Where are you planning on staying? Or are you going back home this afternoon?”
With a sigh she pushed up the sleeves of her sweatshirt and said, “Clearly, we have got to get this place cleaned up. And, you need to get yourself together. Work called, you know? I didn’t know what to tell them. Your supervisor made it apparent that you had missed very few days since you started working there. Anyway, I was worried.”
“Well, thanks, but I’m fine, mom.”
She ignored me and began picking up the vodka bottles. I wondered if she was thinking about her sister and the infamous pre-wedding night jitters. My mother was not a drinker. She never had been. I always figured I got it from somewhere on my father’s side since they were mostly Irish. But I didn’t want to generalize. I looked towards the window and wondered what Matt was doing. This was just about the time I should be heading to the follow him and Blondie.
“I don’t mean to be rude, mom, but I’ve got stuff to do.”
“Stuff? What stuff? What are you talking about? You mean, like, going to work?”
This was my moment to escape. “Yes, exactly. I haven’t been feeling well lately, but I really ought to get myself cleaned up and get over there. I wouldn’t want to lose my job or anything.”
She seemed reluctant, but buying it because she wanted to buy it so badly. “Do you think they’ll take you back? I mean, how many days have you missed?” I wasn’t sure how to answer her.
Her voice mixed in with the noise of the street traffic, “You get ready for work. I’ll just stay behind and tidy up this place a bit. When you get home everything will be back to normal. We can grab a quick bite to eat, and then I’ll get back on the road. You know Jim can’t take care of himself.”
Of course I didn’t go to work. I went out to find the two love birds. They probably missed me. I’d been very careful to conceal myself when I followed them, sometimes even going out in disguise. But they knew something was wrong. They could feel that they weren’t alone.
I found them outside of the gym in the parking garage. He had her pushed up against a bright blue Mini-Cooper. Naturally, she’d drive some kind of cutsie car. I was hiding behind a beat-up, rust colored Chevy which seemed so out of place amongst the BMWs, Mercedes and Cadillacs. It probably belonged to some guy who cleaned the floors. An image of skinny, older man with cigarette-stained nails came to mind. He was rubbing the weight benches with a dirty towel, working hard to get all of the sweat stains off the leather.
I cleared my throat, and Matt looked behind him. Some primal part of his being recognized my sound. Sensing a shift in Matt’s energy, Blondie asked in a concerned voice, “What was that?”
“Probably nothing, babe.” he said, placing his mouth against her neck. He’d never had a pet name for me.
I was close to doing something. Something I might regret many years from now. Something totally against how I viewed myself as a person. I heard my scream fill the parking garage. The echo was intense. I kind of scared myself. Blondie grabbed her gym bag, and after fumbling for a second with her keys, unlocked the driver’s side door, and started the engine of her Mini-Cooper.
Matt turned around, dumbfounded. “Sarah, what in the hell are you doing here? Have you been following me? Us?”
There was no reason to answer any of his questions, so I did what any good coward would do. I ran away. I ran the whole way back to my car even though I had a side cramp so bad I thought I might split open.
When I woke up, it was 3:23am PST. At least that’s what my watch said. The guy sitting next to me was playing Candy Crush on his iPad, and his arm kept bumping up against mine. Instinctively, I drew my arm closer to my body which made me think about Matt. If you were a country, you’d be North Korea. All of the pictures I remembered depicted a barren wasteland; its inhabitants bundled in non-distinct wool clothing. They looked miserable. Was this how Matt saw me? Isolated, frozen, barren? Miserable?
Leaning my head against the airplane window, it dawned on me that maybe Matt thought I was crazy. After all, this was the craziest thing I’d ever done in my life. Not walking away from my job or following Matt and the gym rat, but this.
I’d be landing in Karachi, Pakistan in less than four hours. I’d only been out of the country once, the previous spring, when I went to my cousin’s wedding in British Columbia. After the incident in the parking garage, I went home in a daze only to find that my mother had gone back to Santa Barbara. I packed my suitcase with items that I could readily find, went to the airport and charged a ticket for the next flight to Pakistan on my credit card. I knew that it was going to take a chunk out of my savings to pay for this trip.
I didn’t know anyone where I was going. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have a hotel reservation. I didn’t know how long I’d be staying, but all of these unknowns seemed better than facing the alternative. I figured I’d call my mom soon enough and tell her that I’d brought my towels back home. She wouldn’t know what it meant, but she’d be glad to hear my voice.
Photo by John Davey.