Rachel Childs and Brian Delacroix crossed paths again six months after their last e-mail contact, in the spring, at a bar in the South End.
He ended up there because it was a few blocks from his apartment and that night, the first of the year to hint of summer, the streets smelled damp and hopeful. She went to the bar because she’d gotten divorced that afternoon and needed to feel brave. She worried her fear of people was metastasizing and she wanted to get on top of it, to prove to herself she was in command of her own neuroses. It was May, and she’d barely left the house since early winter.
She’d go out for groceries but only when the supermarket was at its emptiest. Seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning was ideal, the pallets of shrink-wrapped stock still waiting in the middle of the aisles, the dairy guys talking smack to the deli guys, the cashiers putting their purses away and yawning into cups of Dunkin’s, bitching about the commute, the weather, their impossible kids, their impossible husbands.
When she needed her hair cut, she always scheduled the last appointment of the day. Same for the rare manicure or pedicure. Most other wants could be satisfied online. Soon, what started as a choice—staying out of the public eye to avoid scrutiny or its bedfellow, judgment—grew into a habit that bordered on addiction. Before Sebastian officially left her, he’d been sleeping in the guest room for six months; throughout the summer prior to that, he’d slept on his boat in the South River, a tidal flat that emptied into Massachusetts Bay. It was fitting—Sebastian had probably never loved her, probably never loved any human being, but, man, he loved that boat. Once he was gone, though, her primary motivation for leaving the house—to escape him and all his toxic disregard—was neutralized.
But spring hit, and she could hear voices, unhurried and pleasant, return to the street along with the shouts of children, the clack of stroller wheels along the sidewalk, the squeak and snap of screen doors. The house she’d purchased with Sebastian was 30 miles south of Boston in Marshfield. It was a seaside town, though their house sat a full mile inland, which was fine because Rachel wasn’t a fan of the ocean. Sebastian, of course, loved the sea, had even taught her to scuba back in the early days of their courtship. When she finally admitted to him that she hated being submerged in liquid as potential predators watched her from the depths, instead of being flattered she’d temporarily conquered her fear to make him happy, he accused her of pretending to love the things he loved in order to “trap” him. She’d retorted that one only trapped things one wanted to eat and she’d lost her appetite for him a long time ago. It was a nasty thing to say but when a relationship collapsed with the speed and severity of her and Sebastian’s, nasty became the norm. Once the divorce was final, they would put the house on the market and split any profit to be had, and she’d need to find another place.
Which was fine. She missed the city, had never taken to having to drive everywhere. And if her notoriety was difficult to escape in the city, it was impossible in a small town, where gazes came steeped in gradations of provincialism. Just a couple of weeks back, she’d been caught out in the open while pumping gas; she hadn’t realized until she pulled in with a bone-dry tank that the station was self-serve only. Three high school girls, reality-TV-ready in their push-up bras, yoga pants, satiny blowouts and diamond-cut cheekbones, exited the Food Mart on their way to a boy in a skintight thermal sweatshirt and distressed jeans, who pumped gas into a pristine Lexus SUV. As soon as they noticed Rachel, the trio started whispering and shoving each other. When she looked over, one of them reddened and dropped her gaze but the other two doubled down. The dark-haired one with the peach highlights mimed someone guzzling from a bottle and her honey-blonde partner-in-bitch screwed up her features into a pantomime of helpless weeping, then wrung her hands in the air as if freeing them of seaweed.
The third one said, “Guys, stop,” but it came out half lament, half giggle and then the laughter broke from all their pretty-ugly mouths like Friday night Kahlúa vomit.
Rachel hadn’t left the house since. She almost ran out of food. She did run out of wine. Then vodka. She ran out of sites to surf and shows to watch. Then Sebastian called to remind her the divorce hearing was scheduled for that Tuesday, May 17, at 3:30.
She made herself presentable and drove into the city. She realized only after she’d gotten on Route 3 heading north that it had been six months since she’d driven on a highway. The other cars raced and revved and swarmed. Their bodies gleamed like knives in the harsh sunlight. They engulfed her, stabbing at the air, surging and stabbing and braking, red taillights flashing like furious eyes. Great, Rachel thought as the anxiety found her throat and her skin and the roots of her hair, now I’m afraid of driving.
She managed to make it into the city, and it felt like she was getting away with something because she shouldn’t have been on the road, not feeling this vulnerable, this hysterical. But she made it. And no one was the wiser. She left the garage and walked across the street and appeared at the appointed time at Suffolk Probate and Family Court on New Chardon Street.
The proceedings were a lot like the marriage and a lot like Sebastian—perfunctory and bloodless. After it was over and their union was, as far as the Commonwealth was concerned, legally dissolved, she turned to share a look with her newly minted ex-husband, a look if not of two soldiers who’d found a modicum of victory in walking off the battlefield with their limbs intact, at least of common decency. But Sebastian wasn’t across the aisle any longer. He was already halfway out of the courtroom, his back to her, head up, strides long and purposeful. And once he was through the doors, the rest of the people in the courtroom were looking at her with pity or revulsion.
That’s who I’ve become, she thought, a creature below contempt.
Her car was parked at the garage across the street, and from there it was two right turns and a merge onto 93 South to head home. But she thought of all those cars merging and speeding, tapping their brakes and switching lanes with violent jerks of the wheel, and she turned west into the city instead and drove over Beacon Hill, through Back Bay and farther on until she reached the South End. She felt okay during the drive. Only once, when she thought a Nissan was going to pass her on the right as she approached an intersection, did her palms sweat. After a few minutes of driving around, she found the rarest of all things for this neighborhood, a parking spot, and pulled into it. She sat there and reminded herself to breathe. She waved on two cars that mistook her for someone who was about to depart, not someone who’d just arrived.
“Turn off your fucking engine then,” the driver of the second car yelled, and left a burnt-rubber vapor in his wake that smelled like a smoker’s burp.
She left her car and wandered the neighborhood, not entirely aimless but close, remembering that somewhere around here was a bar where she’d once spent a happy night. That was when she was still in print journalism with The Globe. Rumors had circulated that the series she’d written on the Mary Ellen McCormack housing project might be nominated for a Pulitzer. It wasn’t (though she did win the Horace Greeley Award and the PEN/Winship for excellence in investigative journalism) but she didn’t care in the end; she knew she’d done good work, and back then, that was enough. It was an old-man bar with a red door called Kenneally’s Tap, tucked in one of the last ungentrified blocks in the neighborhood, if she remembered correctly, the name itself a throwback to a time before all Irish bars had to sound vaguely literary like St. James’s Gate, Elysian Fields, the Isle of Statues.
She eventually found the red door on a block she hadn’t initially recognized because its Toyotas and Volvos had been replaced with Benzes and Range Rover Sports, and the functional bars on the windows had been replaced by filigreed ones with more substantial aesthetic appeal. Kenneally’s was still there, but its menu was posted out front now, and they’d gotten rid of the mozzarella sticks and the deep-fried chicken poppers and replaced them with pork cheeks and braised kale.
She walked straight to a free chair in the far corner near the waitstaff station, and when the bartender found her, she ordered a vodka-rocks and asked if he had the day’s paper lying around. She wore a gray hoodie over a white V-neck T-shirt and dark blue jeans. The flats on her feet were black, scuffed and as forgettable as the rest of her ensemble. It didn’t matter. For all the talk of progress, of equal footing, of a post-sexist generation, a woman still couldn’t sit alone at a bar and have a drink without drawing stares. She kept her head down and read The Globe and sipped her vodka and tried to keep the addled sparrow in her chest from flapping its wings.
The bar wasn’t more than a quarter full, which was good, but the clientele was a lot younger than she’d counted on, which wasn’t. The old-timers she’d expected to find had been reduced to a quartet of geezers who sat at a scarred table near the back room and slipped out for frequent smoke breaks. It had been naive to think that here, in the trendiest of all Boston neighborhoods, the shot-’n’-a-beer crowd could have held the line against the single-malt cohort.
Old-timers who embraced day drinking and swilled PBRs and ’Gansett tall boys without an irony chaser rarely watched the six o’clock news. The younger crowd didn’t watch it either, at least not in real time, but they might DVR it or stream it through their laptops later. And they certainly accessed YouTube on a regular basis. When the clip of Rachel’s meltdown went viral last fall, there were 80,000 hits in the first 12 hours. Within 24, there were seven memes and a video mash-up of Rachel blinking, sweating, stuttering and hyperventilating, backed by a remix of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love.” That’s how it had played out—a drunk reporter loses control during a live report from a Port-au-Prince ghetto. Within 36 hours of the incident, the video had 270,000 hits.
Her few friends told Rachel she likely overestimated the number of people who recognized her in public. They assured her that the very nature of the viral age, its need for constant replenishment of content, ensured that the video, while watched by many, was remembered by few.
It was fair to assume, however, that half the people in the bar under 35 had seen it. They may have been stoned or drunk at the time, which raised the possibility they’d see the single woman at the bar in the baseball cap reading the newspaper and make no connection. But then again, maybe a few of them had been sober and possessed strong memories.
With a few swift upticks of her gaze, she got a sense of the other people at the bar itself: two office women sipping martinis with an added splash of something pink; five male brokers who pounded beers and fist-bumped over whatever game was on the TV above them; a mixed-sex group of techies in their late 20s who managed to keep their shoulders hunched even when they drank; and a well-dressed and well-groomed couple in their early 30s, the male clearly drunk, the woman clearly disgusted and a little afraid. Those two were the nearest to Rachel—four seats to her right—and at one point one of those seats half toppled into another two, the front pair of legs rising off the floor. The woman said, “Jesus, enough,” and it was in her voice as it had been in her eyes, the fear and disgust. When the guy said, “Fuckin’ calm yourself, you spoiled fuckin’——” Rachel accidentally caught his eye, then his girlfriend’s, and they all pretended it didn’t happen as he righted the chair.
She neared the end of her drink and decided this had been a bad idea. Her fear of particular people—i.e., people who’d seen her have an unrestrained panic attack on the six o’clock news—had blinded her to her terror of people in general, an ever-burgeoning phobia she was only now beginning to suspect the breadth of. She should have run back to the house after court. She never should have sat at a bar. Jesus. The sparrow flapped its wings. Not too spastically, not frantically, not yet. But the tempo was increasing. She was aware of her heart dangling in her chest, suspended from cords of blood. The eyes of the bar were on her, and in the garble of a group of voices behind her, she was nearly positive she heard someone whisper, “That reporter.”
She couldn’t imagine waiting. Couldn’t sit a second longer. Her throat closed. Her vision blurred at the edges.
She put a $10 bill on the bar, relieved she had one, because she couldn’t imagine waiting for change. Couldn’t sit in this seat a second longer. Her throat closed. Her vision blurred at the edges. The air looked as if it had been smelted. She went to stand but the bartender placed a drink in front of her.
“A gentleman sent this over with his ‘respect.’”
The group of suit-clad guys across the bar watched the game.
They gave off a former-frat-boy-rapist vibe. Early to mid-30s, the five of them, two going fleshy, all with eyes that were too small and too bright at the same time. The tallest of them gave her a chin tilt of recognition and raised his glass.
She said to the bartender, “Him?”
The bartender looked over his shoulder. “No. Not the group. Another guy.” He scanned the bar. “He must have hit the head.”
“Well, tell him thank you, but——”
Shit. Now the drunken boyfriend who’d knocked over the chair was approaching, pointing at her like he was a game show host and she’d just won a dinette set. His disgusted and frightened girlfriend was nowhere to be seen. The closer he got, the less good-looking he was. It wasn’t that he wasn’t fit or didn’t have a luxurious tousle of dark hair and full lips draped over a white, wholesome smile, or that he didn’t move with a certain style, because all of that was part of the package. As were the eyes, as rich and brown as English toffee, but, oh my, Rachel, what lies behind them—what lies in them—is cruelty. Self-impressed, unreflective cruelty.
You have seen this look before. In Felix Browner. In Josué Dacelus. In projects and high rises. In self-satisfied predators.
“Hey, sorry about that.”
“My girlfriend. My now ex-girlfriend and that’s been a long time coming. She’s got a thing for drama. Everything’s drama.”
“I think she was just worried you’d had too much to drink.”
Why are you even talking, Rachel? Walk away.
He opened his arms wide. “Some people when they have an extra one or two, they get mean, ya know? That’s a problem drunk. Me? I get happy. I’m just a happy guy looking to make friends and have a fun night. I don’t see how that can be a problem.”
“Well, good luck. I gotta——”
He pointed at her drink. “You gotta finish that. Be a crime to let it go to waste.” He held out his hand. “I’m Lander.”
“Actually, I’m good.”
He dropped his hand and turned his head to the bartender. “A Patrón Silver, my good man.” He turned back to her. “Why were you watching us?”
“I wasn’t watching you.”
The bartender brought his drink.
He took a sip. “But you were. I caught your eye.”
“You guys were getting a little loud and I looked up.”
“We were loud?” he smirked.
“Offended your sense of proprietary, did it?”
“No.” She didn’t correct his malapropism but she did fail to stifle a sigh.
“Am I boring you?”
“No, you seem like a nice guy, but I’ve got to go.”
He gave her a big friendly smile. “No, you don’t. Have that drink.”
The bird was starting to flap hard now, its head and beak rising to the base of her throat.
“I’m going to go. Thank you.” She slung her bag over her shoulder.
He said, “You’re the woman on the news.”
She didn’t feel like living through the five or 10 minutes it would take to deny it and then redeny it and then ultimately give him his due, and yet she still played dumb. “What woman?”
“The one who flipped out.” He glanced at the drink in front of her that she still hadn’t touched. “Were you drunk? Or high? Which was it? Come on. You can tell me.”
She gave him a tight smile and went to move past him.
Lander said, “Hey, hey, hey,” and put his chest between her and the door. “I just want to know….” He took one step back and squinted at her. “Just want to know what you were thinking. I mean, I want to be friends.”
“I’d like to go.” She gestured with her right hand for him to step aside.
He reared his head back, curled his lower lip and mimicked her gesture. “I’m just asking a question. People put their trust in you.” He tapped a single finger off her shoulder. “I know, I know, I know, you think I’m drunk and maybe, you know, maybe I am. But what I’m saying is important. I’m a fun guy, I’m a nice guy, my friends think I’m hilarious. I got three sisters. Thing is, point is here, that you think like it’s okay to start throwing back the sauce on the job because you probably got a net to land in if it backfires. Am I right? Some doctor or venture capitalist hubby who….” He lost the thought, then caught it again, splayed his pink fingers against the base of his pink throat. “I can’t do that. I gotta go make the money. I bet you got some sugar daddy pays for your Pilates and your Lex and the lunches where you hang with your homegirls and shit all over everything he does for you. Have that drink, bitch. Somebody bought it for you. Show some respect.”
Nobody was moving. No one was trying to help. They were all just watching the show.
He wavered in front of her. She wondered what she’d do if he touched her shoulder again. Nobody was moving in the bar. No one was saying anything. No one was trying to help. They were all just watching the show.
“I’d like to go,” she repeated and took a step toward the door.
He put that single finger on her shoulder again. “One more minute. Have a drink with me. With us.” He waved at the bar. “Don’t make us feel like you think bad of me. You don’t think bad of me, right? I’m just a guy in the street. I’m just a regular dude. I’m just——”
“Rachel!” Brian Delacroix materialized by Lander’s left shoulder, slid past his hip and was suddenly standing beside her. “I’m so sorry. I got hung up.” He gave Lander a distant smile before turning back to her. “Look, we’re late, I’m sorry. Doors were at eight. We gotta go.” He took her vodka off the bar and downed it in one easy swallow.
Brian wore a navy blue suit, white shirt with the top button undone, black tie loosened and slightly askew. He remained quite handsome but not in the way that made you think he’d hold up the bathroom every morning. His look was more rugged, his face just on the right side of craggy, his smile a bit crooked, his wavy black hair not fully tamed. Weathered skin, crow’s-feet around the eyes, strong chin and nose. His blue eyes were open and amused, as if he were perpetually surprised to find himself in situations such as these.
“You look spectacular by the way,” he said. “Again, sorry I got held up. No excuse.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Lander squinted at his own drink for a moment. “Okay?”
This could easily be a scam perpetrated by the both of them. Lander played the wolf, she was the unwitting sheep, and the part of the shepherd was played by Brian Delacroix. She found their just happening to find each other on the day of her divorce a bit too coincidental.
She decided not to play along. She held up her hands. “Guys, I think I’m just gonna——”
But Lander didn’t hear her because he pushed Brian. “Yo, bro, you need to step off.”
Brian gave her an amused cock of the eyebrow when Lander called him “bro.” She had to work at it to keep her own smile from breaking out.
He turned to Lander. “Dude, I would, but I can’t. I know, I know, you’re disappointed but, hey, you didn’t know she was waiting on me. You’re a fun guy, though, I can tell. And the night’s young.” He indicated the bartender. “Tom knows me. Right, Tom?”
Tom said, “I do indeed.”
“So—what’s your name?”
“Honey,” he said to Rachel, “why don’t you pull the car around?”
Rachel heard herself say, “Sure.”
“Lander,” he said, but met Rachel’s eyes and flicked his own toward the door, “your money’s no good here tonight. Whatever you imbibe, Tom will put it on my tab.” He flicked his eyes at her again, a little bit more insistently, and this time she moved. “You want to buy a round for those girls over there by the pool table? That’s on me too. The one in the green flannel and the black jeans has been looking at you since I came through the door….”
She made the door and didn’t glance back, though she wanted to. But the last look she’d caught on Lander’s face was of a dog waiting, head cocked, for either a treat or a command. In under a minute, Brian Delacroix had taken ownership of him.
She couldn’t find her car. She walked block after block. She cut east, then west, turned north, retraced her steps south. Somewhere in this collection of wrought-iron fences and railings and chocolate or red brick townhouses was a light gray 2010 Prius.
It was Brian’s voice, she decided as she headed up a side street toward the lights of Copley Square. It was warm, confident and smooth, but not huckster-smooth. It was the voice of a friend you’d been hoping to meet your whole life or a caring uncle who’d left your life too soon but had now returned. It was the voice of home, but not home the reality, home as a construct, home as an ideal.
A few minutes later, that voice entered the air behind her: “I won’t take it personally if you think I’m a stalker and pick up your pace. I won’t. I’ll stay planted to this spot and never see you again.”
She stopped. Turned. Saw him standing back at the mouth of the alley she’d crossed 30 seconds before. He stood under the streetlight with his hands clasped in front of him, and he didn’t move. He’d added a raincoat over the suit.
“But if you’re open to a little more of the evening, I’ll stay 10 paces back and follow you wherever you’ll let me buy you a drink.”
She looked at him for a long time, long enough for her to notice that the sparrow had stopped flapping in her chest and the base of her throat had come unblocked. She felt as calm as she’d felt since she was last safe behind closed doors in her own home.
“Make it five paces,” she said.
From Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane, out May 9, 2017 from HarperCollins.
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