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Have you ever had a moment when you've known -- I mean, logically known in your head -- that you're a fantastically lucky person, that you're truly fortunate to have an education, to live in a nice place in a great city, to have friends who care about you and all that, but you just can't get yourself to actually feel it?
Well, I was having one of those moments on the day it all started. I stood in the dry cleaners, where the temperature was about a hundred eighty degrees from the pressing and steaming machines.
"Sorry, sorry. No clothes for you," the tiny Asian woman said as she came back to the cracked linoleum counter for the third time.
I clicked my nails on the counter and expelled a massive breath of hot air, trying to maintain rational thought. "Can you please look one more time? I brought in a whole bag of clothes last week." I tried not to think of my favorite black pants --my skinny pants -- which had been in that bag.
"You have ticket?" The lady waved a pile of pink slips.
"No" I told her. I never saved those pesky things. Never had to before.
She shrugged. "I look again." Wiping sweat from her eyebrows, she turned away. As she disappeared into a sea of hanging, plastic-covered clothes, I tried to guess her size. Was it possible that she had stolen my black pants and was wearing them on the weekends?
I felt one of my temper tantrums coming on, but I forced it down. I am lucky to be alive, I told myself as I leaned on the counter, fanning my face. I am lucky because I am now losing weight at an average of a pound a minutes I am lucky because I have a great town house and a nice boyfriend who is soon to be my fiancé, and a decent job and lovely friends. I've really got the world by the tail.
The problem was this -- I wasn't buying a word of it. My nice boyfriend soon-to-be-fiancé, Ben, was at my great town house, true, but he wouldn't be so nice when he learned that his favorite French-blue shirt had been destroyed by the dry cleaners from hell. And the decent job I had -- as a research analyst at an investment bank called Bartley Brothers -- was starting to look like a ticket straight to nowhere-ville. I'd been toiling for years, digging up information on retail stocks so that my boss could pass on my recommendations and then take all the credit when we made money, or blame me when we lost it. After almost eight years of promises that I would soon be considered for partnership, it still hadn't happened. Finally, my best friend, Laney, my sanity advisor, was off at some marketing conference (read: company boondoggle) in Palm Beach.
"Sorry," the dry cleaner said, emerging from the plastic sea, looking even more red-faced and sweaty. "We have nothing for you." She gave another helpless shrug.
"Can you please keep looking, and I'll stop back later in the day?"
I stomped out of the sweltering store, a crisp Chicago breeze hitting me blessedly in the face. As an El train clamored to a halt on the tracks over my head, I trudged up Armitage Avenue, muttering obscenities about my missing clothes and the incompetence of the dry cleaners. The street was full of couples doing Saturday morning errands hand-in-hand, along with the post-college baseball-hat crowd searching for hangover grub.
I took a couple of deep breaths, but they brought no relief from my cranky mood. Ben rarely, if ever, held my hand and did errands with me on the weekends. Saturday mornings were his time to run with his marathon group or train for one of the other races he was constantly entering. It didn't bother me . . . not really. Because Ben worshipped at the Church of Holy Workouts he had an amazing body, something that benefited me as well as him. Yes, sex was fine. More than fine, actually. But if I were forced to lodge one complaint about Ben, it would be this -- we no longer had any of those couple-y, sappy-eyed rendezvous, such as candlelit dinners or surprise weekends at a log cabin. Romantic interludes just weren't his thing these days, or at least that's what he told me, what I told myself to make myself feel better when I saw other couples having picnics in Lincoln Park and horse-drawn carriage rides down Michigan Avenue.
Ben was sweet and funny and wonderful in his own way, though. He would cheer me up by singing show tunes in a falsetto voice, and when it was time to carbo-load for his next race, he'd cook huge pasta dinners for the two of us. And last January when my sister, Dee, died, Ben was amazing --an absolute rock. I couldn't have gotten through it without him.
At Bissell Street, I took a left and walked along the sidewalk, crunching over a golden bed of fallen leaves, moving past the rusty autumn trees and stone three-flats until I hit the stretch of brick town houses, one of which was mine (something I was inordinately proud of). I'd saved all my paychecks from Bartley Brothers, and this place was the first home I'd ever owned, the place Dee used to love to stay when she came to visit, the place where Ben and I would live when we were married. The sun was peeking through the red curtain of trees, making an X-like pattern on the town homes. Normally, I would have loved to take photos of that -- I liked the way the rays made crosshairs on the brick -- but I was too annoyed by the dry cleaning debacle to think about getting my Nikon.
Before I went inside, I stopped at the bank of oblong silver mailboxes in the little courtyard located right behind the town houses. I stuck the key in the third one, my box, and tried to turn it to the right as I always did, but it wouldn't budge.
I screwed my face up tight and tried again. Maybe the eager-bunny mailman had stuffed a stack of magazines in there, jamming the lock. I tried over and over, but the key wouldn't turn.
I took it out and jiggled it in my hand, as if that would help. I was looking back at the box, lifting the key to try again, when I noticed what was wrong. The tiny black plate with white letters affixed to the box, the plate that should have said my name, KELLY McGRAW, instead read BETH & BOB MANINSKY.
What the hell? I moved down the row of boxes, peering closely, reading each one: LILY CHANG, SIMON TURNER, MILLER/SAMSON, and on and on, but no KELLY McGRAW.
I repeated the process two more times, then stood still, swiveling my head, looking at the trim bushes that were beginning to turn red at the edges and the brick walls of the surrounding town houses. Was there another bank of mailboxes somewhere? No, that couldn't be right. This was the only set, the same place I'd been getting my mail for almost a year.
And then I figured out what it was. The damned management company. The company to whom I paid two hundred dollars a month so that they could refuse to repaint the garage door or fish a spoon out of my clogged sink. They'd screwed up once more.
Muttering again, I strode around the side of the town houses and up the front stairs to my place. The door was tall and painted green to match the trim on the bay windows. I tried the doorknob, but it was locked. Ben must have headed out for a run already. Just as well. I could prolong telling him that he'd probably never see his French-blue shirt again.
I put the key in the lock, or at least I tried, but it didn't insert smoothly. Finally, I got it in and attempted to turn it. Déjá fucking vu. This lock wasn't working, either. I wrestled with the key, grasping it with both hands and trying to force it to the left, as the wind whipped my hair in front of my face so I couldn't see. Deep cleansing breaths, I told myself in a low soothing tone, just like the woman in my meditation tapes would say it. Inhale in, exhale out. I did this a few times, batting my hair out of my eyes, then tried the key again. No luck.
My deep-cleansing-breaths mantra turned to thoughts of violence. I would have to physically harm everyone in the management company now. This was ridiculous.
On the off chance that Ben was still home, I rang the doorbell. Ding, ding, ding -- I could hear it going off inside. If he was home, doing his prerun stretches, he would be annoyed, but I didn't care.
Ding, ding, ding, ding -- I tried one more time, and then, thank God, I heard footsteps inside pounding down the stairs.
As the door swung open, I was already in midrant. "The dry cleaners lost our stuff, can you believe it? They say they'll look some more, but it's as good as gone. Your blue shirt was in that load, and my favorite black pants -- and then the mailbox was messed up and . . . "
My body froze, along with my tirade, as I realized that Ben hadn't opened the door. It was someone else. Someone I'd never seen, some woman.
She had short blond hair cropped close to her head. In fact, she looked a little like the pictures of Ben's high school girlfriend, Toni, the woman he said he'd always love. And then the truth of the situation hit me. Ben was cheating on me, right here in my own house, getting his groove on with some girl who looked like Toni, when I'd only been gone an hour or so. Unbelievable. This wasn't happening. Now I would have to kill Ben along with the management people. A thousand thoughts flew through my brain like birds let out of a cage. I couldn't hold on to just one.
"Hi, can I help you?" the Toni look-alike said, a sweet smile grazing her face.
"Can I help you?" I crossed my arms over my chest, then, thinking better of it, dropped them and pushed past her inside.
The first thing I noticed was that my high mosaic table, the one made of tiny pieces of broken glass, the one I'd bought at an art fair, wasn't there. Instead, in its place, there was a heavy wooden coat tree, its arms jutting out, holding a woman's pink trench coat and a tiny kid's sweatshirt.
"What's going on here?" The woman's voice was low and cautious, the kind of voice cops use with loose criminals on TV.
I wanted to make a smart comment, ask her the same thing, but a flock of doubts flew around in my head along with the other birds. "This is my house," I said, but I heard my voice waver.
I spun around to check something, and sure enough, there it was, next to the coat tree. The dent in the drywall where Ben's skis had fallen against it last year. This was my place, so what was the Toni look-alike doing here? And what was with that coat tree?
"No, " she said. "This is my house. My husband and I bought it a few months ago."
I bit my lip and looked at her, confused. "Is Ben here?"
"There's no Ben who lives here. What's your name?"
She took a step closer to me, as if she was afraid I'd move farther into the house.
I peeked my head around the comer and into the study, expecting to see the big, scarred desk that my mom had given me when she moved to L.A., but in its place was a playpen with yellow mesh sides and a jumble of brightly colored toys.
"Kelly McGraw," I said, yet even that came out a little unsure.
The woman gave me the sweet smile again. "Oh, you're Kelly McGraw! I'm Beth Maninsky. We never did meet you at the closing." She held out her hand.
"Sure. We bought this house from you, but you gave your lawyer power of attorney, so we never officially got to meet you when we closed on the house. We love it, though. Did you stop by for old times' sake?" She tried the smile again, but when I didn't shake her hand, the grin faltered, and now she was looking as perplexed as I felt.
"Closing?" I said again. "I sold this house?" She nodded, gazing at me warily.
From somewhere above, I heard the cry of a baby, short at first, then a full-on wail. Beth Maninsky's eyes shot to the ceiling as if she could see through it.
"A baby?" I couldn't seem to form a full sentence.
"Scottie. I should get him. Now can I help you with anything?"
I just stood there. What was happening?
"Kelly? Are you all right?"
Beth Maninsky looked almost scared now, so I just nodded and moved to the door, then out to the stoop. I stood there looking at the house, my house.
Beth Maninsky stood in the doorway, fairly blocking it with her body. "Can I call someone for you?" There was warmth in her voice.
It took me a second to answer. "No. I'll go to my boyfriend's place."
"Okay." The wail of the baby got louder behind her. She glanced in the house, then back at me. "You sure you're okay?"
"When you . . . " I paused, barely able to say the words that didn't seem true " . . . bought this house. Did you learn why I . . . sold it?"
"Our Realtor told us that you thought it was too big for one person."
"Right." I nodded as if I could convince myself that this was really happening, that someone named Beth Maninsky, who looked like Toni, owned my house.
"Nice to meet you," Beth Maninsky said.
My front door closed, and I heard the lock click inside.
As I walked along Bissell Street again, the fall wind felt brittle instead of crisp and the city seemed cool and gray instead of filled with warm autumn tones. I didn't notice the light on the buildings anymore or think about the photos I could take. Instead, I concentrated on figuring out what had happened. There had to be an explanation. I knew that. I hadn't gone to college or worked in the straight-lines, think-inside-the-box world of finance for nothing. There was always a reason for things.So I hoofed it all the way up to Ben's place in Wrigleyville, entertaining several possibilities. One -- this Beth Maninsky was a covert operative for the CIA who'd taken over my town house in order to set up an elaborate cover. Crazy, outlandish, I know, but I'm fond of spy novels, and it was the first potential that came to mind. Two -- Beth Maninsky really was Ben's high school girlfriend,Toni who was still crazed about him and had somehow arranged to take my place in his life. This also seemed a little outrageous, since I'd only set out for the dry cleaners that morning. She would have needed to work pretty damn fast.
But was that actually true? Had I really left for the dry cleaners just a few hours ago? Suddenly I wasn't sure. I stuck my hands in the pockets of my leather jacket and put my head down, concentrating on each step, each seam in the pavement. My sense of timing still seemed off. I couldn't remember waking up that morning or going to my mother ship, Starbucks, for a Venti Nonfat White Chocolate Mocha, my usual Saturday-morning treat. Still, that kind of memory trick happened, didn't it? It was like driving home on your normal route and suddenly discovering you're in your driveway and yet you can't recall the drive itself.
Something niggled in my brain -- a third possibility. I really had sold my town house and I really couldn't remember it. I felt even colder with the thought, and I turned my collar up against the wind. Ridiculous, I said silently. Preposterous.
Luckily, I didn't have to argue with myself much longer because I'd reached Ben's building, a squat, multi-unit place that made up for its lack of character with cheap rent and a great location, only a few blocks from Wrigley Field. I peered at the vertical list of names next to the buzzers, and, thank God, there it was. BENJAMIN THOMAS, fifth from the top, right where he should have been. I hit the buzzer.
A shot of static came over the intercom. "Who is it?" said a woman's cheery voice.
"Sorry. Wrong buzzer." Please, please, please let it have been the wrong one.
I peered at the list again, and with exaggerated slowness, I put my finger on the brown button next to Ben's name and pressed.
Same staticky burst. Same woman's voice -- not as cheery this time -- saying the same words.
I froze. Something was wrong. Really, really wrong. But somehow my eternal optimism (or maybe my eternal stupidity) kept insisting there was a logical reason for all of this -- something I would laugh about later.
I couldn't laugh now, though, couldn't even manage a smile, just a simple question laden with trepidation. "Is Ben home?"
"Kelly?" the woman said, clearly irritated.
"Jesus. Not again." A fizz of static, and then the intercom went silent.
I stood chewing on my bottom lip once more, debating what to do -- piss off this woman in Ben's apartment by hitting the buzzer again or break in and kick her ass. After about fifteen seconds, someone appeared behind the glass door. I squinted and made out Ben's small, lean frame, his rock-hard legs in blue jogging shorts. Raising my hand, I gave a half wave, then let it fall.
Ben opened the door, but he didn't invite me in or even come out on the front stoop with me. He just sighed, holding the door open with one arm, shoving his other hand through his damp brown hair. He'd obviously just come back from running. He had that pink flush to his cheeks.
"Kell, you've got to cut this out."
I tried to get my mind around his statement. I forced myself not to rush inside and hug him. "What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. Stopping by like this, calling at all hours. She wants me to get a restraining order."
A chest-heaving exhalation. "We've had this conversation. Don't make me go through it again. I love you. I always will."
Just like you'll always love Toni, I thought.
"But I'm with Therese now," he continued, "and you have to accept that."
Copyright© 2003 Laura Caldewll