A LITTLE HARMLESS FUN - JAKE HINKSON
Alyssa and I used to meet at the Metro station every Tuesday night when my wife was at her real estate certification class. I was always a little nervous, but as we walked back to her place, I would settle down. Guilt gave way to a kind of calm expectation. We would talk about this and that, but we never talked about what was going to happen. We wouldn't even flirt. We'd talk like friends, or maybe even a brother and a sister. There was no outward tension, no hint of anticipation on our faces or in our voices. Someone passing us on the street would never have suspected what was about to happen just up the narrow flight of stairs to her room.
She had a little apartment on the top floor of a big house in a nice part of town. The people who owned the house lived in Bangladesh, and the bottom floor of the house was occupied by a cute Bangladeshi girl who was taking classes at George Mason. One warm summer evening, she was sitting on the porch swing smoking a cigarette as we walked up.
The Bangladeshi girl waved and said, "Hey."
"Hey," Alyssa replied. She had never used the Bangladeshi girl's name, so I didn't know it. I just waved at her. She smiled back at me like the floors in the house were thin.
We walked around the house to the stairs, and I told Alyssa, "She's always out there."
"I know," she said. "She likes to smoke, I guess."
"She have a boyfriend or anything?"
Alyssa turned around on the first step. She looked pretty that night, with her long black hair down around her shoulders. Even on the step, she was shorter than me. "Why," she asked, poking me in the chest, "you wondering if she's free?"
I smiled and shook my head. It was odd that she had said that. It was the closest she had ever come to flirting with me. Made me think. Maybe she was beginning to like me.
She led me up the stairs, unlocked her back door and went inside. I followed her inside and felt soothed. I loved being there. The place smelled like a twenty-one year-old woman. A laptop sat opened on the kitchen table next to a pile of books. Some dishes sat drying in a green wire strainer by the sink. She must have done them just before she walked down to the Metro station to meet me.
I took out my wallet and placed my money on the counter. I hated handing her the money. It broke the mood. "How are your studies?" I said.
She had gone into the next room, maybe to slip into something more comfortable, maybe to sprawl out on the bed. I could never be sure.
I called out to her, "I said, how are your studies?"
I heard floorboards creaking in the bedroom.
I loosened my tie and followed the sound to the bedroom, but I was surprised to find Alyssa standing in the doorway with her back to me.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
She backed out of the doorway, and I saw a man sitting in the upholstered chair by the bed.
He stared at me. He was a tall guy with long, thick arms sleeved with tattoos. His hair was a military cut, and he wore a black T-shirt with some kind of military insignia over the right pectoral.
"Hi," he said. "I'm Nick."
I looked at Alyssa. Her brown eyes widened, and she held her stomach like she might be sick.
The man in the chair said, "You're the new one, I guess."
I shook my head. "I'm just a friend," I said.
"How old are you?"
"I said 'how old are you?'"
"Thirty-seven," I said.
"Really? Little old to be friends with a twenty-one year-old girl."
She stepped toward him and said, "He's telling the truth, Nick." Her voice cracked a little. It was the first time she'd spoken. I wanted her to say more. There was nothing I was going to say to this man to convince him of anything. I felt my hands moisten. I'm not a brave man. Never have been. I did not want this guy to kick the hell out of me, and I really wanted Alyssa to talk him out of it.
"He and I are just friends," she told Nick. "He's a grad student at George Mason. He's going to help me write my applications to grad school."
"What's your name, dude?" Nick asked me.
I looked at Alyssa.
"Why are you looking at her? Don't you know your own name?"
"Nick, stop it," Alyssa demanded. "Just stop it. Leave him alone."
Nick smiled, made a fist with his left hand and cupped it in his right. "Okay, he said. "Let me ask this another way. What's her name?"
Staring me in the eye, he pointed at her. "What's her name?"
She said, "Nick, look—"
"Shut your fucking mouth," he snapped at her. "Don't you say another fucking word." The way he said it, and the way she flinched at it, told me that there was history to it. He pointed at me. "You, what is her name?"
"Alyssa," I said.
Alyssa seemed to deflate at the sound of her name. She groaned a little.
Nick turned to her. He turned up his palms. "Alyssa, huh?"
She shook her head, and leaned against her doorframe.
Nick said, "Well, buddy, if her name is Alyssa, then I know for a fact you ain't just friends. Her real name is Sherry Friedman. You see? She's only Alyssa to clients. That makes you a client, her new one."
I looked at Alyssa. She stared down at the floor and pulled on her bottom lip. She wasn't going to help me.
I said, "Look…"
I looked at Alyssa again. I felt like a kid looking to his mother to help him out of a jam with a bigger kid. "Look," I said again. "I don't know what's going on between you and…between you and her, but it's got nothing to do with me."
He nodded. "Yeah, it does. If you fuck her, then it has something to do with you."
"I think I should go," I said.
He shook his head. "It has everything to do with you, man. Every thing."
"No," I said. "I just want to go."
"You're married," he said. "Your name is Brian Gilstein. You live in Georgetown. You're not thirty-seven or whatever you just said. You're forty-two. And you're not a grad student; you're a project manager. You make pretty good money, and your wife's name is Lia, spelled L-I-A."
Alyssa shook her head. She looked close to tears.
I asked Nick, "How do you know all that?"
"Cause Sherry's the kind who does research on the internet."
"Research for what?"
"For a shakedown. She also makes footage, digital footage, of you in positions your wife would probably not like to see."
Nick looked at her. "Sherry?"
Alyssa crossed her arms, walked into the room, took the digital camera off the dresser, and turned it on. Shaking a little, she held the camera out to me. I looked at the display screen and saw us on the bed, Alyssa on her knees, her face in a pillow, me behind her. It was footage from the last time we were together.
"Jesus," I said. "How do I erase this?" I demanded. I shook my head. "No, this is mine now. Buy yourself a new camera."
She didn't look at me. With her fist pressed to her mouth, she seemed to stare at the air between the three of us.
I said, "I can't believe you were going to do this to me."
She bumped her fist against her lips but didn't look up at me.
I looked at Nick. "What now?"
Nick stood up. "I guess you leave."
Alyssa, or Sherry, straightened up. "Brian, wait."
"What?" I said.
She turned to me, her hands at her sides. "Please don't go."
"Fuck you," I said.
"Please, I'm scared."
"Sherry," Nick said, "shut up." He crossed in front of her, and she disappeared behind him.
"You don't know him," her voice said. "He's going to hurt me bad once you leave."
He turned around and pointed at her. For a moment, I saw her as she slunk back deeper into the shadows of her bedroom. He turned back to me and waved me on. "Get out of here. You're getting off lucky."
I wanted to run, but my feet felt like concrete."You're not going to hurt her, right?"
"It's time for you to leave," he said. He crossed the floor between us, seemingly growing larger as he did. He stood six or seven inches taller than me, and his bicep was the size of my arm.
"I want to go," I said. "I just…"
Sherry's voice choked a little when she said, "Please, Brian. I know what I did was terrible, but please don't leave."
Nick's face was locked on mine. His jaw sat forward on his face. He needed a shave. "I saved you some trouble," he said. "Now, you turn around and go home."
I backed up to the door leading to the stairs. Once I opened that door, I could be gone, down the street.
"You got one minute," he said.
"Look," I said. "I want to go, I just want to know that you're not going to hurt her."
"Because," I said. I could barely speak. "Just because."
"Because why?" Nick said. "So, later on, you can tell yourself you're a good guy?" He shook his head. "No. You don't get that easy out. You go out that door, and you can get off the hook for what you've done. Stay here another minute and you're going to have to deal with it. I'm not going to give you reassurances of jack shit. You can leave now and live with being an adulterer and a spineless coward, or you can stay and get the shit beat out of you. Maybe get killed. Maybe just get the cops called and have your wife find out."
He stepped toward me, and, to his right, I could see Sherry still in her room. She stared at me.
Her eyes were huge. Even from a distance, I could see her mouth tremble.
I grabbed at the doorknob, but my sweaty hand slipped off.
I grabbed at it again, got it, and turned it.
I hurried down the steps so quickly I nearly fell. I told myself I was just trying to get away from a bad situation. I had done something stupid, something horrible, and now I was paying for it. I told myself that I needed to get back to Lia and the baby.
But I knew I was running away. I was running away from the sound of something I did not want to hear.
I hurried around the front of the house.
The Bangladeshi girl was still sitting on her swing. She looked surprised to see me.
I slowed down for just a second. "Bye," I said.
"See ya," she said.
I hurried down the street, leaving her sitting on the porch, hoping she might hear something from upstairs and call the police, hoping maybe there was nothing to hear after all.
BIO: Jake Hinkson is currently at work on a book on film noir. You can learn more about Jake and his projects at his own blog, The Night Editor.
ON THE FRINGES OF THE FRINGE
18 hours ago