This is real. The box and everything in it, the sick, queasy thing going on in my stomach. Walter knew me, on an intimate level, long before I was aware he existed.
My husband was a stalker. Is a stalker?
Today’s Wednesday. The worst day of the week for life-changing information. 9:35am and I’m ignoring the text messages from the nosiest of my coworkers.
This was supposed to be a quick pre-work project: purge the academic sludge in Walter’s college trunk while he’s in Narragansett.
A riot of laminated and bound notes from every accounting and finance class he ever took scatter the floor, unsharpened pencils, and overused, taped-up textbooks — none of it had been touched for years. It’s hardly intriguing stuff. But the box I found inside is different. It changes everything.
It’s one of those flip-lids made to look like a collection of archaic literary works. Doubles of Robinson Crusoe -- as if anyone would ever own two copies of that leather-bound monotony -- paired with Moby Dick and Hamlet. Completely unrealistic. What kind of psychopath would group Shakespeare, Melville and Defoe together on their bookshelf?
The facade of intellect and the utility of hiding unsightly charging cables and candle lighters, all for one low price of $16.99.
But Walter hates candles.
Eight years together -- though he’s apparently known me for thirteen -- and I would go down with the ship that says Walter is not the faux-book-on-the-shelf type. Then again, I hadn’t really pegged him as the five-years-a-stalker type either. But it’s all here in my lap, indisputable evidence to the contrary: discarded hair ties twisted with my own coarse, crimped brown hair sealed inside dated ziplock bags, labeled key copies for each dorm and apartment I’d occupied between 2006 and 2010. The photographs, also labeled, mirror the sneaking shots of some covert intelligence operation.
Legal pads covered with Walter’s chicken-scratch handwriting and coffee rings break down all the gritty details: class, sorority and work schedules, meal times and content, exercise, even personal hygiene like whether I had done my hair and makeup that day. Each labeled simply, “Neci’s Log.”
Was that like Picard’s Captain’s Log? Today, I stumbled upon a new and hostile civilization represented by greek symbols and perfectly teased hair….
Maybe this is a prank? But Walter’s even less of the prankster type than he is the faux book box or yes, even the stalker type. And there are so many pictures -- he had followed me to the mall, on dates, even to Rocky Point for Spring Break.
A picture of me smoking a cigarette outside Kase & Weber is stapled to a crooked photocopy of my first employee evaluation. A frowny face doodle mocks me from next to the feedback regarding a cluttered cubicle.
Walter — Dockers-wearing, no snacks in the car, floss three times a day, flip-phone-for-life Walter — has a secret. A big one.
Everybody has something to hide. But those should be little things, not by-the-way-I-watched-your-every-move-for-five-years-before-introducing-myself things. This isn’t like how I still sneak a smoke here and there without telling him or fudge the amount of times in a single week I find myself fighting temptation in the aisles of Target. Let’s face it, any woman leaving that place with only what she came for isn’t human.
There’s a cardboard coffee sleeve on the bottom of the box. Rendezvous. The shop where we met. Well, where I met him anyway. I used to go there every morning before work. They didn’t have a drive through, but it was worth tolerating human interaction so early in the morning for the strength of the coffee… and his smile.
“You’re the most fascinating part of my day.” That was his ice breaker, his conversation starter. If I’d only known then how many days I had, indeed, fascinated him….
My Southwest app shows a flight to Rhode Island leaving later today. I have points and I want answers. I call in sick to work.
My phone picks up my latest Serial Killers podcast episode as I start the car. I dig for a cigarette stashed in the glove box before hitting the road.
A phone call. It’s Letty. I hate talking on the phone and she knows it.
The chilly autumn air pulls my cigarette smoke out the rolled-down window. Letty’s call goes unanswered and the podcast resumes.
A normal person would feel something else… fear, hurt feelings. Normal’s overrated.
The only thing hurting is my pride. He betrayed me. Fool me once….
For the first time in four years, I’m glad we don’t have kids. Makes it easier to leave -- assuming I choose to leave. It would be the expected thing to do, a natural next step to finding out that your husband is, or at least was, a perverted criminal.
A text message notification pops up on my dashboard display. I take a peek at the next light. It’s Letty. She caught Craig cheating on her again. She says she’s stupid. She wants to come over tonight to talk. She’ll bring wine.
I dictate a reply with all the expected condolences and encouragements, all the right things to convey support: “You’re not stupid. Period. You could never have predicted this. Period. It’s not your fault. Period. You’re better off without him. Exclamation mark. About tonight, comma, I've got a stomach bug. Period. You don't want to be around me right now. Period.”
What kind of a woman stays with a man like that? Then again, I’m the one who married my own stalker, so I probably shouldn’t judge.
I hate planes. Not enough to have a total panic attack every time I have to fly. Just enough to say a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers until I stop feeling like the floor is about to drop out from under me… or till the booze cart comes by. I haven’t been to church since I was a kid, but at merely the passing notion of prayer, I feel like I’ll jynx myself if I don’t hit at least one decade. Catholic guilt at its finest.
“Don’t worry dear.” The woman across the aisle leans over and pats my left hand. I didn’t realize I’d clamped it to my armrest. Late sixties, maybe seventies, embrace-your-age silver and dyed purple hair. “No terrorists on this flight.”
I always pay extra for an aisle seat. Easier to get to the bathroom and less likely for people to talk to you. But it’s clearly not my day. She has that gleam in her eye that’s begging me to ask her how she knows.
I entertain her. She tells me her son is head of security for the Albuquerque airport. She thinks he can protect her from a hateful world.
Ignorance is only bliss until you get bitch-slapped by reality, lady.
She says he’s single. She’d set me up with him, but… she comments on my ring. I’m tired of this conversation. I tell her my stalker gave it to me and try not to relish too openly in the mortified look on her face.
The plane picks up on the runway and lifts into the air. A different prayer seems more fitting today.
Saint Michael the archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil….
The rest of the flight is uneventful. I order black coffee and one of those miniature bottles of red wine. The older woman keeps to herself.
There are no messages from Walter when I land. I haven’t heard from him since Monday. I’ve actually only had a few messages from him since he left last week, and those no more than two words. A preposterous period at the end of each one, almost as if his mother had sent them herself. I picture that Progressive insurance commercial where the son becomes scarily like the mother, cardigan and all.
My rental car smells like old smoke. I decide to fill it with more.
The 7/11 is quiet, empty, except for the acne-scarred kid working the register.
“Marlboro menthol smooths, 100s.”
When his back is turned I snag a couple of lighters and a pack of gum off the counter and slip them into the pocket of my coat. A tantalizing spike of adrenaline releases as he turns back around.
“Will that be all?” He asks.
I nod and hide behind a smile until the bells chime and the door shuts behind me.
I check my phone again.
It’s only 8 o’clock and still that awful middle-of-the week black hole that is Wednesday. I’m not ready to face this yet. I still haven’t even entertained the idea of what I might say to Walter when I see him.
There’s a pub across the street. Bender’s. A little dive bar where all you can order is fish n’ chips and good booze.
I ask the bartender if she can do an Old Fashioned. She eyes me suspiciously over the beer mug she’s polishing, but nods yes. I’ve just exposed myself as a fancy outsider.
My drink is in production for what seems like too long.
“You’re Neci,” she says as she sets it down. “Walter showed me a picture of you.”
“He was here?” Walter’s not really the type to strike up random conversations with bartenders.
“Couple nights ago. Seemed pretty bent out of shape about something. Asked to use the phone to call you. Said he lost his cell.”
“Did he say anything else?”
She shrugs. “Changed his mind about the phone, bummed a smoke and went outside.” She nods at the back exit. “Never came back in. Guess he went back to Deb’s.”
I sit for a while, drink my drink, pretend to be absorbed in my phone like the rest of my generation to avoid making eye contact, pay my tab, tip twenty percent, and make my way out the back exit.
It’s cold out back. The first drag of minty smoke is a warming contrast to the mist oozing its way inland from the bay.
Maybe I should write a book when I get home: How to Marry a Stalker in Three Easy Steps: be available, be ignorant, neglect the background check -- though I doubt there would have been anything to find. Maybe a fourth: fall for the cheesy pickup line that also subtly suggests he’s been watching you for at least a number of days and fail to confirm that those days have not also amounted to the better part of five years.
I’m not alone in the alley. Girls work the night here so close to the docks, and a spot such as this provides at least the guise of discretion. I noticed them before I even lit my cigarette. I know I shouldn’t be watching.
I should be ashamed, embarrassed. I am neither.
And him, just some middle aged ass-hole with low self-control. I look around to realize I’ve moved closer. I’m now only a dozen feet or so away and feel no need to stay hidden. The man discovers he’s being watched. His wedding ring catches the light from the exit of the bar.
You can never really tell what lies underneath the surface of another, what forces of morality, what values drive and sustain others… even the one you marry. To believe any of us are incapable of evil is ignorance.
He smiles at me and looks away.
It isn’t the capacity for evil that is wrong with humanity. No. It’s acting on it with neither justification nor remorse. And yet, is an act evil if justified, if regretted?
This man’s thoughts are mere figments. The action is wrong, but also not evil. The evil lies in the deception and clear lack of guilt. He likes that I know. He likes that his wife does not.
Walter is not the devil. The stalking was wrong, bizarre, extreme, but not evil. But the deception without remorse, the sick satisfaction he must have gained in the process… that was malicious.
I take a last pull on my cigarette and stomp it out before stepping closer.
“Excuse me,” my voice sounds almost sinister in my own head. A stranger.
They don’t stop, but the girl looks up at me, unphased by my presence despite being pinned up against a wall.
“What d’ya need doll?”
“I need to get to Beavertail lighthouse.”
“You can’t get there from here.”
“There isn’t a bridge?”
“Not from Narragansett.”
The man pauses, exasperated.
“Jesus, lady. You can get there from here, you just have to go up to North Kingston first, then take the 138 over into Jamestown.”
She rolls her eyes at him as he resumes.
“Well, she didn’t ask if she could get there from North Kingstown, did she?”
The woman laughs as I walk away, or was the laughter mine?
I’ve only been to this house once, shortly after we were married. It’s too small for year-round inhabitants, but the mortgage was paid off, so Deb stayed.
I knock on the door. No answer. I knock again. I try the handle, not actually expecting it to work, but find it unlocked. Deb’s sitting in a chair in the front room, lit only by a single end table lamp that throws shadows in my face. She stoops low over some knitting and I wait.
“Sandra said you were in town.” She finally says.
Her eyes scan vaguely in my direction.
“Seems like it wouldn’t take you so long to make your way here.”
I don’t respond.
“Walter’s on the boat. He went out fishing for a couple of days. Should be back tomorrow, though. I’m sure he’ll be surprised to see you. He hasn’t been in need of your companionship while here.”
“He’s with somebody else?”
“He hasn’t slept here since he arrived. You may use his room.”
I contemplate turning right back around, draining the joint account, buying a one way ticket to San Francisco and never speaking to Walter again. But I’ve come this far.
I don’t sleep.
It’s 6am and I lay in Walter’s childhood bed. My shoes are still on. The alarm on my phone went off an hour ago. I was hoping he’d come back early so I wouldn’t have to face Deb alone. But my stomach is growling.
I make my way out into the kitchen. She’s sitting at the table with her coffee.
“Your son was a stalker,” I say in my calmest voice.
She doesn’t look up from her paper.
“He was thorough, dear, nothing more.”
I snag a bagel from the bag sitting open on the counter.
“Did you help him?”
“Walter was never particularly bright when it came to girls. There were a few before you. None of them made it more than a couple months before presenting with some... glaring flaw or another. You were perfect on paper, you know... good student, good genes. Your parents did well for themselves, never divorced. You were motivated, but only moderately ambitious, which meant you would neither be a leach nor overly absorbed in your own success.
“Why do you keep referring to me in the past tense?”
“I still just don’t understand… your cycles were always normal.” Her brow furrows.
“We had no reason to believe you’d be infertile.”
“You’ve been trying for four years.”
“Did Walter always track my periods, or did that start after we married?”
“Always. He tried to track your sexual activity too, but that was more complicated. You seemed to fool around a lot”
“He’d even let you date…” she waves her hand as if to dismiss any abnormalities.
“How generous of him.”
“You’d pick up a relationship a little more seriously and he’d wait a few months before ending it.”
I need coffee. There’s some left in the pot.
“It was important for him to find the right life partner,” Deb continues.
“Well, he’s lost this life partner.”
“Oh no, dear, Walter and I... we won’t be letting that happen.”
“Do you make all his decisions for him?”
“You won't be going anywhere.”
“I thought you wanted grandchildren.”
“Of course. That’s why you’re moving here. You’ll need family around to help after the adoptions go through.”
The front door swings open and Walter walks in.
“So, I hear we’re adopting?” I spit out at him. My clenched jaw dares him to deny it. But he only sneers.
“You’ll be adopting. The babies are already mine.”
“The birth mothers have already waved their rights.” Deb adds from the table.
“Quite an efficient way to build a family.” Walter is actually being smug about this.
“By sleeping with another woman?”
“Women… other women,” he corrects.
“On purpose?” I counter, trying to resist the urge to lunge for his throat. But I imagine Deb to be just the kind of coward to have a gun hidden in her bathrobe.
“I don’t make mistakes.”
“I’m surprised to see you here, Neci.”
“Did you make them sign contracts before you took them to bed?”
“I’m not stupid.”
“I suppose you’ll say it was all business.”
He’s sick. Deluded.
“Don't you want to know who they are?” He asks, wickedness gleaming in his eyes.
“They both look quite a lot like you. Nobody will ever know the babies aren't yours.” He’s enjoying this a little too much.
“Except that I was never pregnant…”
“The mothers were induced on the same day,” Deb chimes in. Almost gleeful. “Same birth father. Same last name.”
“It really worked out perfectly,” her son adds.
“I'd almost be impressed if this wasn't so completely absurd.” I pick my bag up off the floor, first counting and then swiftly striding the six long steps to the front door. But Walter’s hands are on me before I hit four.
“I know this is a little shocking,” he breathes the words onto my neck. Too close, an all too familiar sensation from a man in monster flesh. “But you'll adjust.”
“You actually expect me to raise these other women's children?” I growl through gritted teeth.
“I expect you to raise my children.”
I push against him long enough to feel the finality of his strength. That grip that had once meant security or sensuality is now betrayal. I’m a caged animal, but there would be no clawing my way out of this one. I will myself to soften, relax slowly, bit by bit lest the act be seen for the ploy it is.
“I need to get some air.” I manage to remove a bit of the adversarial edge from my voice.
“Of course.” His own manner softens with me, diluting down to arrogant confidence mingled with subtle relief. His grip on my arms becomes an accommodating caress as he leads me out the door. “Let's go for a drive.”
His hand remains on my elbow as we walk to his car — the pressure of him just firm enough to make it clear that he would return to a heavier hand if needed.
“Where would you like to go, my love?”
“That lighthouse, the one you always told me about….”
He nods his approval.
Walter grew up taking trips out to the Beavertail lighthouse. He always said he could stay there forever.
Either he believes he’s won, or I’m just giving off a strong enough don’t-fuck-with-me vibe, because he doesn’t say a word the entire way.
Once there, he allows me to walk freely from the car, keeping pace a few yards behind me. I kill half an hour wandering aimlessly out onto the rocks that line this part of the coast. I walk until I can no longer see cars or people behind me, just the lighthouse, the rock beneath me and the ocean a mere couple of steps and a deadly drop away.
He closes the distance, grabs my arm and crushes me against him. I pull away.
“Don't you think you're being a little childish, Nec. Let's talk about this. I'm sure we can work it out.”
“Where do you want to start? The stalking or the affairs?”
“Let's start with the affairs.”
He won’t even try to deny it, will he?
He prowls closer again and I step back to the edge.
“I should have known you wouldn't make monthly trips back here just to see your mother. So who are they?”
“Women who need money.”
“Badly enough that they would sell you their children?”
“There are other perks.”
“I help take care of them, the children they already have,” he replies to my raised eyebrows.
“Is that all?”
“You see yourself as an added benefit?”
He moves toward me again, this time I allow him to close the distance, his breath warm on my face.
“Don't you?” He asks.
His haughty sneer floats just inches away from me.
“What about the other stuff… I found the box in your trunk from college. Are you going to deny stalking me?”
“I am an honest man,” he breaths, his face coming closer to mine as if he actually thinks I might allow him to kiss me.
“You lied to me for eight years,” I bite out.
“You know me.”
“I thought I did.”
“I'm the same man you married.”
“That’s the part that disgusts me the most.”
He takes another step closer, puts a hand on my arm. I step back, mere inches from the edge of the rocky cliff.
“I should turn you in,” I tell him, my voice like gravel.
“For what? Statute of limitations on stalking is only three years. And you can't go to prison for having an affair.”
“Does it matter?”
He removes his hands from my arms, upward, softly caressing the skin of my shoulder, my neck, my jaw. For a moment, I allow myself to savor that last taste of my husband’s touch.
“No... no it doesn't.”
I press lightly on his shoulders, turning us so that my heels aren’t quite so close to the edge. I pull back and smile. Walter's face shifts from arrogant to nervous.
My name is the last to leave his lips and it echoes off the rocks as he submits to the crashing waves below.
I hate planes. But a couple glasses of wine from the airport bar have my nerves better prepared for my return flight.
Walter is dead. It was self defense, justifiable, regrettable. I was his victim.
It’s chilly. I pull my windbreaker out of my bag. A half-smoked pack of cigarettes crinkles as I put it on.
Of course I couldn’t leave out Deb. She would want to be with her son wherever he went after all. Also justifiable, less regrettable. She would have been able to connect me to his death. For a drunk, frail old broad, she was surprisingly hard to kill.
“Ma’am… ma’am you can’t light that in here.” A stewardess hovers over me.
There’s a cigarette in my mouth. The lighter flickers a few inches away. I put both back into my pocket.
There was no alternative. I couldn’t turn him in. He wouldn’t let me go. Neither would she. I would have been trapped and walked all over the rest of my life. And even if I had managed to get away they would have just victimized somebody else.
It’s been a few months since I got back from Rhode Island and quit my job. I got a new gig. I’m a barista at Rendezvous. It seems a good way to keep Walter’s memory alive.
There’s a guy that comes in every morning that reminds me of Walter. I think he likes me.
Maybe he likes the ocean. I hand him a note with his coffee.
You’re the most fascinating part of my day.