Welcome To The Harem
Lilies Know A Ghostly Birth by Rachel Anton
Summary: Deslea's rec: "The latest gorgeous installment in Rachel's Crashing In The Same Car universe. Marita's account of Alex's sacrifice is raw and touching. A powerful read." See also Crashing In The Same Car and Shades Of Scarlet Conquering.
Lilies Know A Ghostly Birth *NC17*
AUTHOR: Rachel Anton
CATEGORY: S, R.
FEEDBACK: Would be lovely.
DISCLAIMER: These character don't belong to me.
SPOILERS: Very small ones for DeadAlive.
SUMMARY: Where do international spies, assassins, and triple-agents hang out in their free time? Starbucks, of course.
NOTE: This story is the third in a series. You can read the first two stories, Crashing in the Same Car and Shades of Scarlett Conquering, here: http://hometown.aol.com/ranton1013/midlength.html
I'm pretty sure this one won't make much sense if you don't read the other two first.
THANKS: To Laura for help with dialogue and inspiration, to Cynthia for working her beta magic, and special thanks to Deslea for convincing me this story needed to be written and helping me make it a hundred times better.
New York is full of idiots. Most towns are, he knows, but the thing about New York is that it wasn't supposed to be this way.
He remembers when he was an idiot, one of those stupid kids, sitting in some dingy coffee house with a bunch of other stupid kids, talking about Kafka and Kandinsky and Karl Marx. Talking like they knew something about the world, something that didn't come out of their own assholes.
"God, why do you come here?" he asks her with a sweeping hand gesture, encompassing the entire idiotic content of the entire idiotic Starbucks: the wretched book club meeting by the faux fireplace, the black-clad, throwback beatnik couple talking intensely in the corner, the middle-aged, harried mother trying to talk intensely with her disinterested teen-aged daughter, the tacky, gaudily colored decorations, the merchandise rack with seven dollar Starbucks brand mints and thirty dollar Starbucks T-shirts.
Sometimes Alex wonders why he's trying to save humanity. Fuck humanity. It makes him sick, all these people and places and things. What a mess we've made of a perfectly good planet, he thinks. Maybe I should stop fighting the invasion and just let them finish in peace. Maybe we deserve it. Maybe we'd be better off.
"This coffee tastes like mud," he tries again. She's ignoring him, burying her head in that stupid notebook. She was writing when he came in, almost twenty minutes ago, and she only stopped once to give him a perfunctory greeting and ask him for a refill. He hasn't seen her in two damn weeks, and it's all she can do to acknowledge his existence.
She didn't seem to notice his split lip, or if she did, didn't care enough to comment or ask. Just wait till she sees what he did to her car, though. She won't be able to ignore that.
"Look at those fools over there," he sneers, pointing towards the eager beavers by the fire. "Talking about some book like they're goddamn Ph.Ds. They oughtta read a real book. James Joyce? That British faggot. I oughtta go over there and ask them what they think of Nietzsche."
He allows his voice to escalate to the point of rudeness and waits for her to admonish him, but she doesn't. He slaps his hand on the stupid, tiny, round table between them. Nothing.
He can't believe she's not the slightest bit interested in what he's just done. He told her on the phone about his greatest accomplishment- sneaking Mulder the vaccine- but he hadn't had time to share the details. Granted, the details aren't all that important or exciting. In fact, he's growing weary just thinking of them. But she's the only one he can share them with, and they are the only things he's got to share at the moment.
"What are you doing, Marita? What are you writing?"
"Hmm? What? Me?"
Finally, a response. She's still not looking at him though, and her pen is still scratching on the paper. Scratch scratch. Scratch scratch. He'd like to grab that pen and stick it where the sun don't shine.
"Yeah, you. You haven't even touched your coffee. I spent six bucks on that no-fat double mocha latte looty thingy and you haven't even had a sip."
She lifts the cup to her lips, takes a sip, gives him a disgusted glance, and resumes her novella. Is it so strange for him to expect a little conversation with her? Everyone else in this damn place is talking.
"I hope you're not planning on dragging that notebook everywhere we go like Harriet the freaking Spy or something. It's weird, Marita."
"You're one to talk about weird," she mutters.
"Well what the hell is it? You writing me love letters? Not another will, I hope..."
She sighs and puts the pen down on the table. Finally, she looks him directly in the eye, and he's glad for that, and glad for the fact that she doesn't look unhappy. Annoyed, yes, but not unhappy. Thank God it's not another will.
"If you must know, it's a journal."
"A journal? What is that to bring back to your quack shrink or something?"
He doesn't like her seeing a psychiatrist. It makes him nervous. Who knows what she'll think of him when forced to analyze her life through the eyes of a normal person?
"She's not a quack, Alex."
"Well, you'd better be careful what you put in that thing."
"She hasn't even seen most of it. I destroy almost everything I write."
Of course. He shouldn't have expected anything less from his clever little girl scout. First thing they teach you in covert operations school; destroy the evidence. He feels a sudden, strong flush of affection and desire for her. She's in his favorite blouse and her hair's down for a change. Even the grotesque lighting can't hide her appeal.
Still, he wonders why she bothers writing at all if she's not keeping it. What the hell's the point? She's got it all in her head anyway.
"She is a quack. They all are."
"Drink your coffee, Alex," she tells him, rolling her eyes. Then she's writing again and he's back to watching the book club, trying to ignore the onset of his arousal.
There's a girl, sitting on the floor with Finnegan's Wake spread open on her legs. She's not looking at the book, though. She's looking at him. She wants him. Or maybe she's just glaring at him because of his rude comments earlier. Who knows? Who cares?
Alex quickly peruses and assesses her. She's young, probably just out of high school, with long brown hair and dark skin. Her jeans are tight and worn and her sweater's as blue as her eyes. Full lips and breasts, long legs and delicate hands. Not bad for an idiot.
"That girl over there is looking at me."
"You mean you're looking at her," Marita smirks without bothering to take a look herself. Like it's so peculiar for a woman to be interested in him.
"No, she was checking me out. Must be this new coat you got me."
"Why don't you go ask her what she thinks of Nietzsche?"
Under the table he grips one of her silk-clad legs between his calves.
"You want me to ask her back to the apartment?" He winks when her eyes dart up. He's just being juvenile now. You don't have to be a shrink to recognize this moronic ploy. Still, it usually works.
"Sure, Alex. Maybe we can top the night off by getting arrested for statutory rape."
"She's not that young, you think?"
"I dunno. If you're that interested, go ask her."
"I'm not. I'm just trying to get your attention."
She smiles faintly, a ghost of a smile really, and shakes her head.
"Very subtle, Alex."
"Hey, maybe we should make our own book club. But what would we discuss? Hmm...oh, I know!"
He reaches between them, taking advantage of her temporary distraction, and swipes the blasted notebook out from under her hands.
"Hey!" she cries, grabbing for it. "That's personal!"
"We are practically married."
He thinks it should probably concern him that those words roll so easily off his tongue. It should probably concern him that he wants to read her journal in the first place. What the hell is happening to him?
She reaches for the notebook again and he holds it up over his head. Maybe he wants to read it simply because she's so adamantly against the idea. Some part of her must want him to look at it, though. Why else would she be writing it in front of him?
"Damn you, Alex," she sighs, sinking back into her chair. "All right, read it. You know the whole story anyway."
"Don't be such a dud, Marita. Maybe if I read this I'll know more about 'where you're coming from' or something. Isn't that what doctor quack told you my problem was?"
"No, she told me your problem was that you're a sociopath."
He smiles and laughs through his nose. Like you need a fricking diploma to figure that one out.
He puts the notebook on the tabletop and leafs back a few pages to what seems to be the beginning. Several sheets before it have been ripped out.
"Dear diary..." he teases her. She doesn't laugh, or even smile.
He was wrong. She really doesn't want him to read it. She wasn't just being a tease- this is upsetting her. Although that realization piques his curiosity even more, he considers handing the book back to her. She's been more open with him recently, almost annoyingly so, but maybe there are some boundaries he shouldn't be allowed to cross.
Or, maybe it means she's hiding something from him again. Maybe the tumors are back, or maybe she's done something horrible in his two week absence. They've sorted out a division of labor over the past few months, and he's been leaving her alone more or less- letting her do her own work as he does his. Maybe she's been doing things he doesn't know about, things he wouldn't like.
Yes, he has been learning to trust her again, slowly. Yes, he has been learning to let go of a little bit of control, to give her the benefit of the doubt. But maybe he was mistaken about that, too.
He takes a deep breath, and begins to read silently.
The months following Oron's death passed quickly, in a haze of work and alcohol and sleepless nights. My job at the UN took me overseas just days after the funeral, and I was glad for that. Glad to be relieved my role of the grieving widow so soon, glad to be sent far away and out of the line of suspicion. But it was a difficult time, a lonely and fearful time. It seemed whenever I closed my eyes I saw visions of interrogation, imprisonment, and my own execution.
I thought of Alex often during those months- not with any concern for what he might be enduring as a result of his actions on my behalf, I'm ashamed to say, but with longing. I missed him as much as I had during my marriage, but now my only distraction was work, and I threw myself into it with the little energy I had left. My job and supposed devotion to it were, after all, the reason for the entire mess.
I thought of Alex, but I didn't call him. After that night in his apartment we didn't speak for almost six months. I was afraid, afraid of so many things, and that fear kept me from contacting him until I was back in the States, living in Oron's house in the Hamptons, driving Oron's car, spending Oron's money, seeing ghosts in the halls and crying into my pillow every time I remembered my bed was empty.
Of course, even if he'd been in my bed I wasn't sure what I would have done with him. I couldn't bring myself to think of making love to him or anyone else.
I was drunk when I finally made the call. It seemed like I was drunk all the time that year. Alex was short with me and very unpleasant over the phone, but when I asked him to come over he said yes. I put on my best silk dress, fluffed my hair, and doused myself in perfume like some trashy Bette Davis impersonator in anticipation of his arrival.
I don't think it even occurred to me that he'd be angry, that he had been angry when I called him.
It was raining when he got there. It seems like everything with us happens in the rain. He was in black jeans and a black sweater, his hair shorter and neater than last time I'd seen him. He looked sleek and shiny and new, drenched as he was.
"Welcome to my humble abode," I slurred, wine glass in hand, wanting him on sight despite my long-standing disinterest in all things sexual. I beckoned him in and he followed me wordlessly to the dining room.
"S'nobody here," I told him. "I sent everybody away."
He stood at the head of that obscenely long table with twenty-six empty chairs, staring at me and waiting for...something. Probably an apology, or an explanation. I was too far gone to realize I owed him that.
I took a seat at the head of the table, gesturing for him to join me. He hovered uncertainly for a moment, and then sat down a few chairs away from me.
"I had chef make some food for us. You want some wine?" He shook his head, but I sloppily filled a glass for him and slid it down the table in his direction.
"How much have you had?" he asked coldly.
"Not a lot," I lied. Honestly, I had no idea how much, but it was obviously a lot. His face was turning blurry and I couldn't remember where the food was.
"Are you hungry, Alex? I'm hungry a little."
"No," he sighed. "I'm not hungry, Marita."
"You know this is all mine now?" I asked, giggling a little, staring up at the beautiful mural of stars and sky on the ceiling. "This humongous house, the servants, the cars, the pool and the guest house. I have a guest house! And the penthouse in the city, and the house in Tuscany. It's all mine, Alex. Can you believe it?" I dropped my head to look at him, but the motion made me dizzy and he turned into three people.
"It's very nice," he said. I felt like I was going to vomit. I couldn't think of anything else to say so I was quiet for a long time. I stared at my multiple visions of him, willing them to merge back into one Alex.
He broke the silence with, "I guess you've been busy?"
"Um, yes, very busy. Lots to do."
"You took a trip I suppose?"
"Yes, a trip. Work. You know."
"No, I didn't know. Where were you?"
"Oh, you know. Here and there. Overseas." I couldn't remember the countries.
"They don't have paper overseas? Or phones?"
I couldn't understand what he was asking me, but I finally managed to solidify his image and his face became clear. His jaw was tight and his eyes were nearly black with rage.
"Huh?" I asked, confused.
"Why didn't you write to me, or call me, or send me a fucking smoke signal for God's sake? Something!"
"Uh...I don't..." Yes, I was really on top of things. I'd use my inebriation as an excuse again, but even sober it hadn't occurred to me until that point that he'd want me to call, or that I should have.
"Marita, did you ever think about the fact that I'm the reason you've got this house and those cars and all the money and crap and everything else, and that maybe you should drop me a line once in awhile to let me know you're still alive?"
"Well, um...I...it would have looked funny. I mean, if anyone found out. I mean...."
"You mean you were scared someone would figure out our connection and that if I ended up getting caught you'd be going down with me."
I think that was partially the reason, as much as I hate to admit it. But more than that, I feared his rejection. It was only desperation that had driven me to him now.
"I...I didn't know if you'd want to hear from me. I didn't wanna push."
"Push? You think one phone call is pushing? Jesus Christ, you are so fucking fucked up, Marita!" He slammed his fist on the table and stood up, and I was terrified. He'd never raised a hand to me, and I knew he never would, but seeing him angry is always a little frightening. "I don't even think you realize how fucked up you are!"
"Don't yell at me," I whined, starting to cry. It was sickening. I'll always be grateful to him for not walking out at that moment. "I just...I thought you wanted to throw me out of your apartment that night."
"Well I didn't, did I?"
"Well...no, but..." I choked on a sob, wiped my wet face with my lovely silk sleeve. Everything was spinning again, and I just wanted to die right there. It was all such a mess. "I thought...I thought you hated me. I thought the...the thing...that you did...I thought that was all I'd get."
"You know, Marita, even if you did think that, even if it was true, I can't believe that..." He trailed off with a sigh and ran his hand over his face. "You're just so selfish sometimes. So spoiled," he said quietly.
He was right, obviously, and in a sudden flash of drunken insight- the kind that hits you when you've reached absolute bottom and it's too late to redeem yourself- I recognized what a sad waste I'd made of things. I recognized that there was only one man I'd ever love, and I treated him worse than my maid.
I was woefully unable to articulate that, and settled instead for wailing, "My life is a mess, Alex."
I buried my face in my hands and collapsed onto the tabletop, sobbing. Soon I felt him behind me, rubbing my back in awkward circles.
"Don't cry, Marita. You don't have to cry."
"I hate it here, Alex. It's so big and empty and lonely." And I miss you, I thought. There's no one here to argue with me or tell me when I'm being foolish or remind me what it's like to feel things.
"Why don't you move? This place is like a mausoleum."
So simple for him to say, just like everything else. His suggestions were always logical, they always sounded easy. I wanted to think that I'd changed, that I'd started living my life for myself, but really I was still in a world of appearances. It wouldn't have looked right for me to just move out, and I didn't think it would solve the essential problem anyway.
"Let's get out of here, Rita."
I looked up, slightly cheered by the soothing tone in his voice and the promise of going somewhere else. He handed me a linen napkin from the table and I wiped my face with it.
"Where would we go?"
"I dunno, anywhere. We can drive into the city and go back to my apartment."
I was afraid to go to his apartment. It was so small. Where would I sleep? With him? I didn't know if I was ready for that. I couldn't believe he'd even want me there after everything.
"What's wrong with my apartment?"
"Nothing just...are you sure?"
"Yeah, go pack a bag or something."
So I did. I packed everything I'd need to live in Alex's apartment for a week, and forced myself to throw up before we left.
The drive to the city was long and slow in the rain, and I slept off the remnants of my drunkenness in the passenger seat of Alex's Trans Am.
We stopped for Thai takeout and ate straight from the containers, side by side, on Alex's ugly, brown, fold-out sofa. The apartment was as small and peculiar as I'd remembered it. Nothing matched and the walls were mint green and there was a bucket to catch raindrops from the leaky roof, but it was cozy and it wasn't my dreadful house.
"I am going to sell that place," I announced as we finished our dinner. "And I'm going to give you half the money."
"You don't have to do that."
"I want to." You shouldn't have to live this way, I almost said, but stopped myself, realizing he might be offended. "You deserve it, and I don't need it. I have too much money, Alex. I don't even know what to do with it."
"Well, I appreciate it, but I'm not sure I'm gonna need it. From what I understand FBI agents make a pretty decent salary."
"FBI?" I asked, perplexed. I knew he was graduating soon, that he'd have a Ph.D. and a whole world of opportunity ahead of him. He was going to be a professor or an author or a psychiatrist, not an FBI agent. It was just wrong somehow. It wasn't him. "What are you talking about, Alex? Why in the world would you pick that?"
"I didn't pick it. It's my assignment."
He rolled his eyes, understandably irritated. "Remember, Rita? How we got here in the first place?"
I must have still been a little tipsy, because it took me a minute or two to put it all together. This was it, his debt to the smoking man. This was the price he was paying for the arrangement of Oron's death. This was the sacrifice he was making for me- his entire future.
"You have to go there because of me..."
"I have a debt to pay."
I put the soggy paper container on the coffee table, my appetite lost.
"You've sold him your soul. Because of me."
"It's not my soul. It's just my job."
I wonder how many times he's said those words to himself. I wonder if he still believes them, if he ever did.
He continued to eat with nonchalance which, in retrospect, must have been feigned. I knew he had dreams, plans, things he'd been working for during the past four years. Working so damn hard. I looked at his little desk, piled high with papers and books and fast food wrappers. He was still working hard, even though his future was now completely out of his control.
"I don't deserve you, Alex."
He shook his head slowly, and I couldn't tell if he agreed with me or not. Didn't really matter, and it still doesn't. It was the truth. I couldn't understand how he could even look me in the eye, how he could keep taking me back, helping me, again and again.
"Look, you don't need to blame yourself, Marita. I knew what I was doing when I made this decision."
"But what are you getting out of it? Nothing."
"Well, I was hoping to see you happy, but since you're as miserable as ever..." He shrugged, putting the remains of his dinner beside mine, and wrapped his arm around me. I let my head sag on his shoulder, feeling like the weight of the world had fallen upon us.
He wanted to see me happy. He may have expressed his desire in the most passive-aggressive manner possible, but I knew the sentiment was real. I resolved to enjoy his company while I had it, to let him see me as happy as I knew how to be. It would never be enough to repay him, but it might be a start.
"Why are you so nice to me?" I asked.
"I dunno. Maybe cause I don't have anybody else to be nice to."
It was at once the saddest and the most touching thing I'd ever heard.
"You're my friend, Rita. My best friend. My only friend."
My throat seemed to close in on itself, and I was afraid I'd start to cry again, but I didn't. I sat beside him, and soon we moved into the bedroom.
The room was small, but more pleasant than the rest of the apartment. The walls were a sedate brownish color, and he had some pretty red Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The futon was uncomfortable and lumpy, but the presence of his half naked body made it much more bearable than my bed at home.
We held each other tight and listened to the rain against his window in the dark. I thought that I wanted him to make love to me, but I was afraid to ask for it. It surprised me to even want it in the first place, and I sensed that if we attempted it I would fail him somehow. I wasn't sure if that part of my body was even functional anymore. I was relatively certain that Oron had ruined me forever.
I wondered how many other women Alex had been with since the last time we'd been together. It had been almost four years. I wasn't sure he'd even want me anymore. And if he did, I wasn't sure I could measure up to what he was probably accustomed to.
He held me like a friend that night, almost like a brother. It reminded me of nights we'd spent together as very small children, before I'd been so twisted and tarnished. It gave me hope, however small, that someday we might be able to regain our innocence. I had no idea that we'd only just begun to lose it.
end chapter one
She should have stopped writing as soon as she saw him headed for the table. She knew it would turn out like this. His curiosity always gets the better of both of them.
She should have stopped, but she hadn't been able to. The words were flowing again, finally. Before tonight, it had been almost six months since she'd even opened the journal. The relative peace in her life since her surgery has been good for her soul, but somewhat detrimental to her writing. She's been too busy, and perhaps a little too content, to sit down and ponder the mistakes of her past.
But it's raining tonight.
She watches him covertly, feigning rapturous interest in the view of wet city streets, but focusing on his reflection in the window beside them. He's got his chin in his palm, elbow resting on the table, and his head is bowed over her book. His eyes are narrow, squinting the way they do when something's got his full attention.
She shouldn't be this nervous. He's not a publisher and this isn't her manuscript. But it is her life story, and he is both the most important person in that story, and the smartest person she has ever known.
"You stopped before the best part," he says when he's done, pushing the book back in her direction. He's smirking and his eyes are playful and amused.
"I was getting to it before you started yammering at me."
"You were? Gonna write about it?"
"Well, yes. It is part of the story."
She feels his calf against hers, rubbing a little. She'd already been thinking about that particular part of the story when he came in and her thoughts have been growing progressively more explicit and distracting. It's been two weeks since she's seen him, two weeks since he's touched her. Long distance phone sex is fine, but it's hardly a substitute for the real thing. Still, she'd been hoping to finish the entry before her hormones obliterated her memory.
"You know, if you're gonna send this to Harlequin publishing I expect a cut of the profits."
She feels a tremor of giddy excitement at the thought. Does he really think she could be published? But Harlequin? Surely she could do better than that.
"I told you, I throw away most of what I write."
"Well, that's a shame. It's quite good. If you're intending to write a novel, that is. If not....well, let's just say you've got a pretty strange memory and an even stranger way of writing in your journal."
She reviews his words in her mind, rolling them around, trying to decide if he's delivered a compliment or an insult. Sometimes it's hard to tell with Alex.
He likes her writing, but...what? Does he think she's making it all up? Twisting their history?
Unable to reach a conclusion, she focuses on the insulting portion of his comments first.
"What do you mean I've got a strange memory?"
God, that smirk. Sometimes she wants to rip it right off his pretty little face.
"Oh, Marita Marita, what am I gonna do with you?"
She stares at him, waiting for an answer.
"What I mean is, don't you think this is a tad melodramatic? I mean, it didn't happen exactly like this."
Of course it didn't happen *exactly* like that. She'd have to possess a photographic memory to recall every word they'd exchanged, every detail of every encounter. But surely she's captured the gist of it. She certainly captured her own feelings, and that's really the purpose of the entire exercise. She wants to know what he thinks of her feelings, not her attention to detail. What did it make him feel to read this?
"I think it did, Alex. Maybe you're the one with the strange memory."
"I don't remember you crying so much. And I don't think I was as nice as you've written me."
So that's it, then. He can't face up to the man he used to be. Perhaps he can't face her, remembering what he sacrificed. She wishes she'd shown him another passage, one where he treated her like shit.
"Anyway," he continues, "This reads more like a novel than a journal. I like it. Makes a lot more sense than my journal."
He keeps a journal? She wonders where it is and why she's never seen him write in it. She'd give her own left arm to be able to read it.
"You don't think I write well enough to be published, do you?" she asks with some shyness. It's an embarrassing question. Really, she only asked to stop herself from asking him what she really wants to know, what he'll probably never tell her. "Never mind. Don't answer that."
"No, no. I do. I always have. I kept all those letters you wrote to me when we were kids."
She can't believe he'd do something so...sappy. But then again, he's always surprising her. Even now, after so many years. She wonders where he keeps them.
"My favorite's from that time your father grounded you, after he caught us feeling each other up in the living room. Remember?"
She nods, although she doesn't remember the specifics. There were many such incidents.
"You were so sad," he tells her, reaching for her hand across the table. He runs his thumb over her knuckles, looking deeply into her eyes. She doesn't know where the sudden sentimentality is coming from, but she hopes it's the result of her words. Maybe they did have some effect. "It was like the end of the world, you said," he continues. "I think some of the ink is run from the poor tears you shed over the paper."
Nope, no effect. He's just being a smart-ass, making fun of her.
"Alex, you are a sap."
"And I can still make you blush. With your clothes on, even."
"I'd like to look at those letters sometime."
"But they're mine."
"So? I can't look at them? I wrote them, didn't I?"
"I'll show them to you if you finish the story," he tells her, picking up her pen and placing it gently back in her hand. So, he wants to read more. She supposes that's worth something.
He takes her cup and rises from the table. "More?"
She watches him as he walks towards the counter, admiring his saunter, wondering how she can still want him so much after so many years and so many terrible things between them. She wonders why she cares what he thinks of her stupid journal and her confused feelings.
She turns to a blank page, and finds herself staring at it for a long time. How can she write the rest of this, knowing he's going to read it? Aside from being nerve-wracking and potentially upsetting, it seems to defeat the purpose in a sense. She's supposed to be writing for herself, isn't she? Now she's going to agonize over every word, wondering if she's gotten it exactly right, if it's going to make him feel...anything.
It's all in the past, she tells herself, writing a few tentative words. It's over. Whatever he may think of it now, if he thinks of it at all, makes no difference. There's no point in wondering, no point in caring. No point at all.
He brought me bagels in the morning. And coffee. And lilies. Lilies. He'd never given me flowers before. In fact, he'd told me many times that flowers were a waste of money, and an insulting gift. Flowers die, he'd say. What's the point? But something that morning motivated him to stop and buy me lilies. There were six of them; blood red with golden centers.
I didn't ask questions, though I wondered if he'd chosen lilies because of their association with funerals or their similarity to female genitalia. I just accepted them with a nervous smile and put them in a vase.
He took me shopping in the afternoon, and we spent obscene amounts of ill-begotten money. He chose a low-cut, blood red gown for me (to match the lilies perhaps), and I bought him three beautiful Armani suits to wear at his new job. It still infuriates me that he never got to show them off. Apparently they were too beautiful.
We had dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant, the one he could never afford, and I wore my new dress for him. He admired me from across the table, and I felt sexy. I hadn't felt sexy in years.
He was wearing a purple silk shirt and black dinner jacket. I'd never seen him so well dressed.
"I am going to move out of that house, Alex," I told him again over our fried calamari appetizer. "Maybe...maybe we could get a place together, in DC. You know, when you start at Quantico."
I hoped it sounded like a casual suggestion, that he wouldn't be able to tell how badly I wanted it.
"You want me to live with you?"
He sounded shocked. I tried to ignore it.
"I just think...I mean, you'll be moving to DC and I've got business there. It seems...practical."
It wasn't practical. Not in the slightest. In fact, it turned out to be one of the most dreadful and impractical ideas I'd ever had, but it sounded like paradise at the time.
"I just...think it would be nice," I muttered, staring at my plate, wondering if I'd be able to live with the sting of his rejection. How had he lived with mine? So many times?
"You think it would be nice?"
"Yes, we can get a place together. If you think you can handle it."
I don't know what I thought except that I didn't want to be alone anymore.
When we got back to his apartment he took me up the fire escape and onto the roof of his building. We brought blankets and our third bottle of wine for the evening. It was peaceful up there. The sounds of the neighborhood- cars and sirens and yelling- all seemed distant and muted. The clouds had finally cleared, and we had a perfect view of the stars. Perfect as you can get in the neon haze of New York City.
We huddled together for warmth. He was wearing the cologne I'd picked out on our shopping extravaganza, and it was difficult to be so close and not bury my face in his neck.
"I don't know if I'm going to be a very good FBI agent," he said, passing me the bottle. We hadn't brought glasses so I took a swig. Some wine dribbled down my chin and I wiped it away with my fingers.
"You'll be fine. You're good at everything you do, Alex."
"That's because I don't do anything I'm not good at."
I was a little too tipsy to understand that sentence, but I knew that he was feeling insecure, and it confused me. He was supposed to be the confident one.
"You'd be a good profiler," I told him. I still believe he would have been if he'd ever had a chance.
"I guess we'll see," he said, taking the bottle back and tilting it to his lips.
"I like it up here, Alex. It reminds me of when we were children, when we'd sneak onto the roof of my house in the middle of the night."
"Yeah, only this time your father isn't gonna find us and ground you for letting me in the house."
"I never understood why he was so angry. Why all of them got so angry when we were together. Even when we were too young to do...anything."
"Do you understand now?" he asked. I shook my head. The reasons Father had given me seemed vague and hollow in retrospect, although I'd taken them very seriously at the time. Too seriously.
"They're afraid of us, Rita. They always have been."
"Afraid? Why would they be afraid?"
"Because they're getting old and slow, and we're young and strong and smart. Because we've always been curious and we've always asked questions. Not like the other kids. They knew we'd find out what was going on and that we'd cause problems for them. Especially together. That's really why your father never wanted you to have anything to do with me."
It made sense, but even then I don't think I believed it. Not completely. It would take several more lessons learned the hard way before I'd really understand.
"He knows about Oron," I said.
"I figured. Did he say anything to you about it?"
The memory of the conversation made me queasy. First he'd scolded me, like I was still a child. Then he'd commended me on my craftiness. "At least you got his estate," he said. "Good girl."
"Are you gonna tell him we're moving in together?"
I hadn't considered that. I wondered if he'd ever find out if I didn't let him know, if there was a way to make sure he wouldn't. I was still afraid of him, after everything.
"Come on, Alex. I don't want to talk about Father anymore. Let's go back in. There's something I want to show you."
I'd taken a little side trip that afternoon, to my favorite lingerie shop, and picked up a lacy, red thing to wear when the time felt right. The time seemed to be at hand. I slipped into the bathroom and changed into my new nightie.
I was still nervous, but the wine had dulled my anxiety a bit, and making plans for the future had assured me. This wasn't going to be a good-bye fuck or a payment to him for services rendered. It was going to be starting over, starting fresh.
I stared into the mirror, wondering what he would see when he looked at me. Would he see a small, wounded, terrified girl- a pathetic shell of the woman I should have become, but never did? Or would I be the temptress, his weakness, the woman he couldn't resist, the woman he couldn't stand, the one who'd destroyed him?
Who did you see, Alex? Who do you see now?
You're sleeping, Alex. Sleeping on the couch in the middle of a Starbucks, in front of a dozen people. I've noticed that you've been sleeping more lately, sleeping easier. The nightmares have been less frequent. But how can you fall asleep here? How can you be comfortable enough to do that? Is it because I'm here, Alex? Because you know I wouldn't let anything happen to you? I hope that it is.
I don't know if I can write this, Alex. You want to read it, for whatever reason, but I don't think that I can do it justice. I don't think I can put to words what you did to me, what you did for me that night. I'm not sure there are words. And if there are, I'm certain you'll find them foolish and hackneyed.
Do you want to know why my journal reads like a novel? Because it's easier for me that way, Alex. It makes everything that's happened seem somehow removed, distant, unreal. Maybe therapy is a crock, because fifty-two sessions and ten thousand dollars later, I'm still afraid to face my past. Our past. Our future.
I can't write this like it happened to someone else, though. This is mine.
Do you remember it, Alex? Do you remember what you thought when I walked out in that ridiculous lingerie, skinny and shaking? I didn't want you to look at me.
When I came towards you, you were sitting on the couch, rubbing the petals of a flower between your fingers. I asked you why lilies, but I don't think you answered me. You never told me why. Do you remember why?
God, Alex, you're right. My memory is strange. I try to fill in the gaps when I'm writing, but there's so much I've lost. Sometimes I don't know where the truth ends and my imagination begins. I want to recapture every moment of that night, to hold it and cherish it and relive it again and again, but all I've got are snapshots- small remnants of conversations and touches and looks.
I remember that you asked me if I was sure, more than once. If I was sure I wanted to wear skimpy lingerie in front of you, if I was sure I wanted you to kiss me, if I was sure I wanted to be touched. I wasn't sure, Alex, but my body was. I was on fire, flushed and fevered, from the moment you laid your hungry eyes on me in that thing.
I remember that when you did touch me, it hurt. It hurt, Alex. It had been so long...I hadn't even touched myself since Oron's first foul violation of my body. I told you that, and I think you looked very sad. I didn't understand why at the time, but I think I do now.
I told you I wanted to feel good again, not like a whore. You told me I wasn't, that I never had been, but that's not true and we both knew it. Still, your words, your kindness, reminded me that even if I had been a whore it didn't have to be like that. You reminded me that sex can be beautiful and good and meaningful, that it didn't have to be used as currency. It didn't have to be a chore. My body was a gift, to be given to the person I loved. Not a tool, not a burden. I'd been brainwashed, and I was only just beginning to realize the truth.
You felt young, full of life and vigor and everything else my life had been missing for so very long. You reminded me that I was young too, that I'd been letting myself grow old before my time.
Your kisses were like a drug, like life's breath.
When I was naked, you said, "You look good, Rita," and I believed you. You wanted me. You loved me. It didn't matter that you'd only said it once, under duress. I could feel it in the way you ran your fingers delicately over my chest, could hear it in your uneven, ragged breathing, could see it in the crease in your forehead as you struggled to maintain control.
You asked me if I remembered now, how good it was between us. You asked me like I'd ever forgotten, like I could forget. I hadn't forgotten, Alex. I promise you. I always remember, and it's haunted me whenever we've been apart. No matter what I've said or done to you, I've always remembered how good we are, how good we can be.
When you were finally inside me again...oh, Alex, how can I even explain it? I don't think that I can. I know that you're hoping to read an explicit account, something hot and exciting, but I honestly can't remember the positions or the motions or anything really aside from the way you made me feel. You made me feel cherished and loved, safe and beautiful. And you made me hot, Alex. You know you always have. You brought me back to life.
You filled me with hope. You made me forget, just for a few hours, that our lives were out of our control and that our future was forever hovering, like a malicious phantom in the background.
I hate them, Alex. I hate them for taking the promise of that moment and crushing it like a sick little bug. I hate them for everything they did to you, for everything I did to you. I know that I'm to blame for many things. Please don't think that I don't. But sometimes, sometimes I wonder...
What if we'd been born into another life? If our souls had met, but our bodies had been different? I truly believe that we would still share the purity, the sense of perfect union that we had on that night. And maybe there wouldn't have been so much pain, so much division.
So much has happened since that night, so many terrible terrible things. I never thought we'd get that back, Alex. I never thought we'd be innocent again, that we'd be able to start fresh.
Maybe we never will, but looking at you now, sleeping on a couch in the middle of Starbucks, trusting me, I hope that we can.
After we made love, you held me in your bed and you told me that you were glad you'd experienced freedom at least once. You'd been free for almost four years, until I came staggering back into your life, dragging you back into mine. I think you knew what was coming, Alex.
Now we're here, and you say that we're free, but I sense a weariness in you. Are you tired? Sometimes I'm very tired. Sometimes I wish we could go back to that night and run, run far away and change our names and just...be.
I'm not looking forward to showing you this, Alex. There are things here that I want you to know, but I'm tempted to toss the whole book into the fireplace and be done with it. I know this isn't what you want to read.
Or maybe it is. Sometimes I still wonder what's inside you, Alex. I think that I know, but maybe you can't ever truly know. You still surprise me sometimes.
I suppose I should wake you up and take you home. You need a bed. But you also need to know this: I am yours, Alex. I always have been, and I always will be.
end chapter two
In his dream he is a carny, working the roller coaster at a traveling fair on the moon. He has become grizzled and ancient and every time he coughs, black oil bubbles up through his mouth and nostrils. The moon is ugly, rocky and gray. The carnival provides the only color and light on the desolate landscape.
Doggett and Skinner and James Joyce are on the roller coaster. They have been for as long as he can remember. In the beginning they screamed and begged him to stop, but now they don't move or make noise. He thinks they might be dead.
He looks up from the controls and sees Scully waddling towards him. She's the size of a small aircraft. He's not sure if she's been pregnant for ten years or eleven.
"You need to give it to me," he tells her. There should be passion in his voice, desperation, but there is only weariness- the monotonous drone of a man who's said the same thing to the same person every day for his entire life. They've had this conversation a hundred and one times, and her answer never changes.
"You can't have it!" she insists, trying to cross her arms over her elephantized abdomen. They won't reach.
He moves towards her, extends his prosthetic arm which, for some reason, is bionic on the moon. It grows, spanning the space between them, and the fingers spawn steely Freddy Krueger style blades. He rips into her stomach, feeling no remorse, and pulls a bloated, gray corpse from inside her.
She is crying and there is blood, red and black and green, spraying in every direction.
"I'm sorry," he says, even though he isn't. "I have to do this. If I don't, the carnival will never end."
He wakes up, feeling the spiny finger of death poking at his shoulder. He opens an eye cautiously.
Oh. It's just Marita.
"Alex, what are you doing?" she asks, laughter in her voice.
He's on a couch, by a fire. Still at that stupid Starbucks. There were people here before, but now he's alone. Except for Marita.
"What happened to the book club?" he asks.
"I suppose they went home."
"Huh," he shrugs. "Just as well I guess. They bored me to sleep."
He stands up, stretching his arm and yawning. She looks up at him, a gentle smile on her lips.
"I finished the story," she tells him, holding up the infernal notebook. Ah yes, the story. He wonders what kind of nonsense she'll try to pass off as truth this time. Doesn't matter, he figures. If she wants to remember him as a doomed martyr, so much the better for him. Certainly makes him look better than the truth would. Who knows, maybe her faulty memory is the reason she hasn't given up on him yet.
Still, he can't believe she doesn't realize that Spender would have found a way no matter what. The bastard had always believed Alex owed him for his life, for not having him killed with the rest of his family. He would have tracked Alex to the ends of the Earth.
"Is it dirty?" he asks, flipping a few strands of yellow hair over her shoulder.
She shrugs. "I don't know. Not really."
Her eyes wander, from his forehead to his nose, then down to his mouth. She lifts her hand, runs her index finger over his lower lip. It hurts. He realizes it's bleeding again. Must have re-opened it with his teeth as he slept.
"Alex, is everything all right? Did you run into any trouble?"
Finally she's interested, but somehow he's lost all desire to talk about it. It seems so meaningless now, and boring. All he wants to do is kiss her.
"Nothing serious," he says. "There was an...unexpected confrontation. I had to destroy one of the vials."
"You had to?"
He sighs, not prepared or motivated to justify his actions to her. The argument might have been stimulating an hour ago. Now it would be tiresome and annoying.
"Yes, I had to. Can we leave it at that?"
She nods, her fingers lingering on his mouth. "Yes, we can. I'm sure you made the right decision."
That surprises him. He doesn't think he's ever heard her say such a thing.
"I do have something to ask you though, Alex. It's rather important."
"What is it?"
Her hand roams around his face, to his upper lip and then down to his chin.
"You're not growing a goatee are you? Because I think that would look really stupid."
He smiles, relieved that it's not something serious and depressing. Although, he is a little wounded that she doesn't care for his new look.
"I'll shave when we get home."
"Good." She puts her hands on his shoulders and raises herself up on her toes to give him a kiss on his stubbly cheek.
"So are you gonna let me read that?" he asks, reaching between them for the journal. She holds it to her chest protectively, and shakes her head.
"Not here, Alex. Let's go home."
She turns and starts walking. He reaches for her shoulder, stopping her. There is something that can't wait until they get home, something that's been knawing a hole in his stomach for the past two hours.
He looks at her face for a long time, wondering if he should even bother.
"What is it, Alex?"
He takes a deep breath, touches her cheek. She looks suddenly vulnerable, suddenly afraid. Yes, he should definitely bother. "I've never regretted the decision I made," he says. "Never."
He leads her out to the sidewalk before she can react. He's not sure what made him say it; guilt can be a powerful weapon. Maybe he's just tired of using his arsenal on her.
In the cab, she kisses him. She kisses him long and wet, and he starts to forget about the journal. Who cares about the past when he's got her in the present? He untucks her blouse and slides his hand up, feeling the expensive silk covering her breast.
He doesn't notice that the car has stopped moving until the driver shouts "Eighteen dollar! Eighteen dollar!" and starts tapping irately on the glass divider.
Alex reluctantly removes his hand from Marita's chest, and reaches into his wallet. He pulls out a fifty and tosses it into the front seat.
"Keep the change," he says. "I'm gonna get laid."
By the time they get to the elevator, he's got her shirt unbuttoned and her skin bright red. Once inside the relative safety of their apartment, he pulls her to the ground and pushes his entire body against her, grinding her into the floor.
"God, Rita," he moans, unashamed. "My dick hurts. You're so fucking hot."
And she is. The hottest woman he's ever known, and he's known quite a few. She may be difficult, infuriating at times, but she is also delicate and graceful, soft and warm and wounded and careful, smarter than anyone, with cast iron balls bigger than his own.
And she wants him. She wanted him then and she wants him still.
She spreads her legs wide for him and he shoves his hand down her pants, grabbing at her clumsily. She feels like fire and she's soaking wet, gasping and thrusting. Yeah, she wants him bad. Even with distasteful facial hair, she wants him. Even with one arm and no sense, she wants him.
He looks down at her, flushed and spread, and thinks of how many times they've been apart. Two weeks isn't very long, but God, it felt like two years.
"Just fuck me, Alex," she begs, and he does. He fucks her hard and fast, barely bringing her to completion before he explodes inside her in an unbearably sweet release.
Afterwards, he lies on top of her, wondering where his need for her comes from, where it originated. Has it always been like this? Since they were born?
He wonders about God and soulmates and other stupid things that he only thinks about after she makes him come.
And then he remembers the journal.
"Are you gonna let me read now?" he asks her.
She looks up at him, panting and sweaty, her eyes suddenly wide and nervous. "You really wanna read it?"
She doesn't want him to see it. Why did she even write it? Just so he'd show her the letters? He would have done that anyway.
"I really wanna read it, Rita."
He rolls off her, letting her move to retrieve the book from the corner she'd tossed it to when they stumbled into the apartment. He lies on the floor, watching as she slowly and warily carries it towards him. He wonders if she kissed him in the cab so that he would forget. He feels a flash of anger at the thought, but it dissipates quickly. That was no distraction fuck. Their coupling might not have been tender and sweet, but her desire had been evident. Maybe whatever she wrote brought it to the surface, and that thought makes him more curious than ever.
He begins working through his own memories, the vision he has of the night she'd been recalling in her journal, and then he feels another wet tongue on his face. The stupid dog is licking him.
"She missed you," Marita tells him. "We both did."
Then she places the notebook gently on his chest and walks into the bedroom, Anastasia trotting behind her.
Alex moves to the couch and kicks his dirty pants off and onto the floor, wondering why he can't ever seem to manage to get out of his pants *before* he fucks her. He puts his feet on the coffee table and begins to read.
When he's done he joins her in the bedroom, finishes undressing, and begins the arduous task of removing his plastic limb. She's lying under the covers, watching him.
He doesn't know what to say, what to do. He doesn't know if she wants a response, if he's capable of responding in anything resembling an adequate manner. He wants her again, looking at her and thinking of what she's written- perhaps her final love letter to him. His heart shatters in a million places when he realizes that he can't give her any kind of sex that will truly show her what her words have done to him. He knows she enjoyed his frantic screw on the floor, but he feels clumsy and oafish thinking of it now. Would she ever recall that moment with the kind of affection she displayed in her journal?
It hurt to read it, and it hurts him to think of it. It's a phantom pain, similar to the ache of his missing arm: the sting of something that once was, but is no more. He remembers the weeks after he lost the limb and the way she salved his pain. He'd expected her to be disgusted when she saw him, but if she was she didn't let him see it. She was passionate and kind. Truly perfect. She healed him.
It was only a year later when she stabbed him in the back.
When he's done with the prosthetic, he lies down next to her and turns on the television.
"Look," he tells her. "It's Crippled Masters." He can't think of anything else to say to her.
"They're showing that on television?" she asks. She doesn't sound upset. Maybe she doesn't want to know what he thinks of her journal.
"I think it's USA or something."
He enjoys a guilt-free, distracting laugh, watching the legless Kung-Fu guy riding on the shoulders of the armless Kung-Fu guy, unleashing much Kung-Fu mayhem.
"Alex, this movie is sick."
Whatever. She's just jealous she can't make fun of it like he can. Aside from upping his creepy factor by about two hundred percent, it's the only benefit of being crippled himself, and he's determined to milk it for all it's worth.
Besides, it's noise. If it wasn't on, they'd be sitting in silence, listening to the unspoken thoughts bouncing around in his brain.
"She's not a quack, Alex," Marita says, continuing their argument from earlier. He thinks maybe she's right, but he doesn't want to say that. He doesn't want to think that the raw, emotional honesty he read has anything to do with anyone but them.
"They're all quacks, Rita. What do they do? Just sit there and listen and take your money."
Listen to God knows what. What the hell has she been telling that woman? He hopes, prays that she won't show her psychiatrist the things she wrote tonight, that she's never said anything like that to this woman he's never even met.
"Listening is doing something, Alex."
He listens, doesn't he? He wonders if she thinks he listens enough.
"Well if that's all it is then I could do it and make two hundred bucks an hour."
"Wasn't that your plan in the first place?"
He doesn't have an answer, so he pretends to be engrossed in amputee Kung-Fu. What the hell is he supposed to say to that anyway? Yeah, I was gonna be a shrink, but then I found out that aliens from outer space were planning to take over the world and I decided that might be a little more important?
"I think I should learn Kung-Fu," he says.
"Your Kung-Fu is fine," she tells him. She kisses him on the cheek. "I love you, Alex."
He doesn't know what to say to that either and she doesn't wait for a response, just rolls onto her side as if she were going to sleep. After everything else she's given him tonight, after baring her soul to him like that, how can she say that to him and not expect anything in return?
Sometimes he thinks they don't have the time, the luxury of love. Other times he thinks they've had it all along and there's nothing to be done about it. Either way, it's an inconvenience. It slows him down, makes him weaker. She is the only thing that makes him lose his control, his discipline. Sometimes he hates her for that, but not now. How could he hate her now?
He remembers what it said in her book, that he'd only told her once. That wasn't true, though. There had been other times. She just doesn't remember. He's sure of it.
Still, how can he give her nothing now? Does he really have nothing to give, after all these years?
"Sometimes I wanna run away, too," he blurts out. It's stupid and far from the point, but maybe it's a start.
"You do?" she asks quietly. She rolls back towards him, propping her head up on her elbow to look at him.
"Sometimes I think maybe I'm proving them right by continuing their work, that maybe we're not really as free as we could be."
Sometimes he thinks about faking his death, changing his name and taking her to a strange, deserted island, building a shelter and hiding with her, eating coconuts and bananas and making love on the beach all day.
"You really believe that, Alex? You think the work is a waste?"
No, not a waste. It has to be done. But occasionally he wonders why they have to be the ones to do it.
"I dunno. I'm just talking. I just think it would be nice to get away, to just...be."
"Yes," she sighs. "It would. But we have responsibilities, Alex."
"Sometimes I wanna just disappear," he whispers, partially hoping she won't hear. She kisses his neck and rests her head on his chest, and he wraps his arm around her, runs his fingers through her hair.
She's quiet for a few moments, and he begins to think she has fallen asleep. Then, her voice heavy and tired, she murmurs, "Just don't leave me behind, Alex. I'll follow you."
He winces, the unfamiliar feel of tears itching the back of his eyelids. Does she really think he ever would? That he ever could?
"I won't, Rita," he says, gravely and thick. She looks up at him, surprise in her eyes, and he kisses her. He kisses her with the need and the adoration that's been building in him since he started reading her words, and he thinks maybe he can still give her the kind of pure love she was writing about. Maybe.
She falls asleep on his chest, but soon rolls back to her side of the bed. When he hears her snoring, he turns off the television and walks to the dull pastoral painting hanging on their wall. He takes it down and opens the safe hidden underneath. There is a box inside, one that he hasn't touched in a long time. He brings it into the living room and removes the contents.
He places the bundle of letters carefully on the coffee table and begins reading the first in the pile.
I feel as though the world is ending...
When she wakes up Anastasia is her only companion. She feels a flicker of panic, wonders for an instant if he has decided to run away and leave her in the lurch, until she looks at the clock. It's almost ten thirty. He let her oversleep.
She's not sure if she should be annoyed or touched by the gesture.
She drags herself out of the warm cocoon of their bed, away from the dog and the blankets, and pulls on her robe. She walks into the living room, following the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Alex is gone, but he left her breakfast. And something else.
She sits on the sofa, regarding the pile of letters on top of the coffee table. Her letters. Next to the pile there's an index card. On one side, in Alex's handwriting, are the words "This is why." She turns it over and reads, of all things, a poem.
Roses, rooted warm in earth,
Bud in rhyme, another age;
Lilies know a ghostly birth
Strewn along a patterned page;
Golden lad and chimbley sweep
Die; and so their song shall keep.
Wind that in Arcadia starts
In and out a couplet plays;
And the drums of bitter hearts
Beat the measure of a phrase.
Sweets and woes but come to print
Quae cum ita sint.
Oh, Alex, she thinks. You are a sap after all.